- “The Shuffle of the City Finally Becomes Us”:The Corporality of Place in the Poetry of Urayoán Noel
In his recent study A Transnational Poetics, Jahan Ramazani argues that much twentieth-and twenty-first century poetry is inherently transnational in nature, to the extent that even the work of the most canonical English language poets (Eliot, Bishop, Stein) cannot be contained within the confines of the nation.1 If this is the case, however—if modern poetry, and poets, can be seen as on the move—then surely Puerto Rican poets offer a particular exploration of transnational and translingual poetic flows, due not only to the movements of people between the island and the United States but also to the particular political relationship between the two.2 The Puerto Rican poet and literary critic URAYOÁN NOEL, a San Juan native-turned Bronx resident, protagonizes—and sometimes agonizes—this condition in a conscious, knowing, and often humorous way. The home page of his website begins by identifying Noel himself as “a stateless poet.” It then offers up the author’s own definition of statelessness: “The moniker ‘stateless’ refers to the poet’s [End Page 161] flux between island and mainland, and between textual forms (print, body, web). Of course, it also alludes to the ultimate ‘statelessness’ of identity, and to a poetics of unstatement by turns deterritorialized and (dys/ut/opian) in its damaged/unmanageable bodies.”3 In Noel’s work, “stateless” is a legal condition, a reference to Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory of the United States, as well as a declaration that identity is not forever tied to one’s place of origin. But his conception of “statelessness” also returns to poetry as an embodied enunciation, an act of errantry that in its plurality and diversity becomes seen as “damaged” or “unmanageable.” Through the intertextual dialogue he establishes with Puerto Rican poets on and off the island, as well as with U.S. and Latin American literary figures as diverse as John Ashbery, César Vallejo, Décio Pignatari, and Osvaldo Lamborghini, Noel locates his work in a trans-American, cross-continental corpus informed by multiple aesthetic impulses. The deterritorialization he identifies in his poetry also extends to language itself; occupying an interzone beyond Spanish and English, his texts employ relentless code switching, punning, and translation to produce a language linked to multiple linguistic traditions and yet centered in none of them.
Noel’s own characterization of his “statelessness” suggests a fluidity—an identity in movement—that might lead one to think that his writing steps away from a connection to place. In fact, the opposite is true: against the backdrop of its linguistic and literary transnationalism, Noel’s poetry is firmly rooted (or is it rhizomed?) in the concreteness of physical geography. His poems in Las flores del Mall (2003), Kool Logic/La lógica kool (2005), Boringkén (2008), and, most recently, Buzzing Hemispheres/Rumor Hemisférico (2015) mine the particular [End Page 162] character and contradictions of places, with a special attention to and affection for the localities and contradictions of Puerto Rico, as Boringkén’s playful title indicates, and New York City. Edgemere Letters (2013), a multimedia collaboration with the artist Martha Clippinger, delves even more deeply into the nature of place, offering a photo-meditation on a suburban development in the Rockaways. In what follows, I examine the presence and role of the city in Noel’s 2010 book, Hi-Density Politics, to show how the poetic voice in this collection uses the cityscape as an anchor for his errantry. Tapping into the rhythms of a space of being that is more than/other than a state of belonging, Noel’s poems suggest an experience of the city as lived (performed) experience, of place as repertoire, produced through an interaction between body, site, and text.
Hi-Density Politics introduces the idea of an interaction between urban space and the human body even in its structural conceit. After an introductory poem (“HI-THEN (salutation)”), the book is divided into three discrete sections: “CITY (erode movie),” “POLIS (pop lists, oulipolips),” and “TICS (tongues).” These sections are...