A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature by Jacob Edmond
In the first chapter, in Edmond’s readings the materiality of the word leads to indeterminacies in which some of Yang Lian’s contexts (a cemetery in New Zealand and the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989) are made to relate to each other as radically different and yet sometimes mutually illuminating. The motif of “touch” takes on in these contexts an immediacy that recalls to me Levinas’ conception of the other as infinite. In any event this immediacy leads Edmonds to imagine, via the “translation style” of Chinese poetry, an intermingling of influences of Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire in Yang Lian’s experience of expatriation. This densely argued attempt to go beyond the “collapse of difference in deconstructive play” in its appreciation of Yang Lian as a flâneur is imaginative and will be informative to those who, like me, come to this discussion of Lian’s work without any previous knowledge of him.
The second chapter begins by making explicit the theoretical problem that remained mostly implicit in the first chapter. Arkadii Dragomoshchenko’s poetry “raises a question that increasingly preoccupies scholars writing after deconstruction: how can we reconcile the generalized abstractions of language, culture, society and history with a particular text and with the person who writes it?” If the first chapter looks to history to supplement deconstructive reading, the second chapter focuses on eroticism in the work of Dragomoshchenko in which he corresponds with and writes about Lyn Hejinian. But it turns out that Dragomoshchenko doesn’t have much to say about eroticism—his desire for Hejinian is obscured but legible, whereas reflection on the subject of emotion is neglected, at least in Edmond’s reading. While Hejinian emerges as an interesting figure to love, Edmond’s readings risk no discussion of the qualities of love or desire, and so being in love seems almost boring as an experience. This is probably not precisely what Edmond means by “rejecting the tendency to situate reading outside the text,” but it is how I understand the cause of Edmond’s representation of Dragomoshchenko’s postmodernism.
The third chapter also addresses Dragomoshchenko, but indirectly—it focuses on the effects that travel to Russia had on the writing of Hejinian. Edmond presents Viktor Shklovsky’s idea of estrangement as the purpose [End Page 426] of art as melding with Hejinian’s privileging of the idea of “the person” as existing on an “improvised boundary” rather than as a fixed self. The result of this melding is that “description” in Hejinian’s writing becomes more spontaneous and vital. Edmond reads passages from Oxota which describe Russian environments to emphasize a point that is crucial to this book’s attempt to rescue life-contexts from deconstructive reading—that “Hejinian…discovered in Russia a place where estrangement could merge art and life, Russian and American poetry.” Travel to Russia gave Hejinian both theoretical and experiential grounds for integrating estrangement into her engagement with subjectivity. The light of Leningrad gets especial focus in Edmond’s readings, which depend less on indeterminacy than those in the first two chapters and offer a convincing appreciation of the inventiveness of Hejinian’s improvisations.
In the fourth chapter, Edmond sustains an argument against Stephen Owen’s reading of Bei Dao as a poet of a kind of world literature in which “nothing is lost in translation.” Historicizing Owen’s charge by looking at the efforts of Dao’s early English translator Bonnie McDougall to claim “universal” rather than provincial interest for his poetry, Edmond turns to de Man’s notion of allegory to suggest that Dao’s poetry “produces forms of alienation that stress a continuous process of re-presentation and rereading. His work undoes the apparent fixity of its own allegorical relations between text and world.” In this undoing of fixity, the “tension between historically located and dislocated world-poetry readings of Bei Dao is a structurally critical part of the work.” This chapter fits the least neatly into the conceptual organization of the book—allegory displaces estrangement as the relevant technique for generating multiple, conflicting contexts and indeterminacy.
The artist and poet Dmitri Prigov is the focus of the fifth chapter. Edmond finds a term that unites the Soviet era and post-Soviet era writing of Prigov in the idea of iteration: “In reproducing existing texts, discourses, and images, Prigov adopts estranging regimes of organization, or ‘intervals,’ which ‘regulate one regime in a way that distorts others.’” In poems that repeat the phrase “the policeman” and in his Cultural Songs and The Elongated Collection, which reproduce lines of classic Russian literature, Prigov is “rearticulating clichés” about Russian literature, particularly the “trope of national consciousness” which is that Russia is “the dynamic figure of the mediator who stands between East and West.” The chapter discusses not only Prigov’s poetry but his work in visual media in the course of arguing that Prigov should be seen as something Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin claim he is not—a conceptual artist. The binary opposition Edmond seems most eager to deconstruct in this chapter is East/West, insofar as it is relevant to conceptual art.
Affect and irony are the key terms in the sixth chapter’s discussion of Charles Bernstein. Edmond sees Bernstein to belong to a poetic tradition of Pound, Olson and Rothenberg insofar as he attempts to escape from a Western ethnocentrism. He reads Bernstein’s essays on Pound and fascism and his [End Page 427] later essays on poetics of the Americas as demonstrating that Bernstein has a “global vision” in which “his writing generates singular affective encounters” that are shaped by comic irony but manage to transcend into affective substance. Edmond’s reading of “Broken English” argues that the “poem negotiates the loss of affect in the face of the global scale of comparison by thematizing the absence or failure of sensation.” Self-awareness equates to emotional reality. I want to be persuaded, but I find Bernstein’s corrosive sense of irony to be more destabilizing than Edmond does.
This book is a remarkable accomplishment. It resists the fashionable solution to the problem it sets itself—it does not seek to dismantle the genre of the poem in deference to the authority of contexts. The chapters on Chinese and Russian artists bring important news to me as a reader with a background in English Studies. One has heard so much about Bernstein and Hejinian by theoretically aware critics. I would be interested to hear what Edmond has to say about less safe poets in the future. [End Page 428]