Newcomer Can't Swim by Renee Gladman and Killing Kanoko by Hiromi Ito, translated by Jeffrey Angles
“This conversation is one of a nomadic contemporariness.”
-Danielle Vogel, in an intro to an essay discussing Renee Gladman
“No sooner had the puppet satisfied his hunger than he began grousing and crying, because he wanted a pair of new feet.”
-from Geoffrey Brock’s 2009 translation of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio
It follows, then, that we must revolt. I suggest that we can do so by reading and writing and thinking in new ways, by entering the conversation fully informed and intellectually available but hotly ready to stutter and make elliptic.
Start with Renee Gladman’s new book, Newcomer Can’t Swim.
Above the head, a mouth. Body flat against the ground, except the small of the back curved, the legs pulling away. Surrounded by other bodies stranger with her eyes closed. I’m awake because I’m not sleeping next to you ever. The mouth is blue. It is as though the sky. Opened like so and waiting. She recognizes what it is -- the sky.
Although this excerpt is by no means representative of all that Gladman does in this book, it does suggest the kind of world into which she lures the reader: violence to and of the body, split worlds/places, syntactical double-ness and time travel, dissociation, voice, terror, calm. At The Collagist, Danielle Vogel argues that Gladman’s “anti-narratives help the reader into a dislocated and liminal state of encounter. These borders include all edges of the page, the word, the reader, and the writer: each acts as a portal, as a door.” This makes tremendous sense when the book is considered as aligned with the alienating and stylish films of Andrei Tarkovsky, about whom (so says Wikipedia), Bergman said “[He] is... the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.” Gladman’s book is a certainly of the same matter, and she directly references his films (especially Stalker) throughout. Vogel again: “[T]ransfusion occurs... passage becomes possible.” What we get out of Newcomer Can’t Swim is a gift; Gladman returns power to the reader. She offers entry into a deliciously unsettling “narrative,” really, a sort of adventure. She reassembles art she likes and makes new art -- all in service of creating a new art “experience,” suggesting a chain-letter of creation. One particularly heart-wrenching piece, “Louie Between Cities,” creates the projection effect, by which a viewer/reader/listener can project any number of possibilities onto a text; more than metaphorical openness, such an effect also allows a “user” to imagine multiple possibilities for the textual reality. “Louie” can be related to Tarkovsky’s scary “zone,” a locale of terror and dream in Stalker; can be about the experience of an alienated individual returning “home” (there might be issues of class/race/ethnicity “betrayal” or of the aftermath of coming out or even immigrant experiences); can be about the “after” of a trauma; can be about grief; can even be, quite simply, about the nightmare of adventure and return.
Everybody howled when I walked through the front door. They missed me; I deserted them. That combination of sound. I could hardly recognize them -- all drenched in brown. “Where are your things?” my mother asked me. I had lost my few possessions in the mud. “So come in, come in,” she said. I sat there, trying to contain my horror, straining for the past: the room where I’d slept as a child, the window whose generous light I’d sworn to die in, the balls I played with stored beneath the couch, the old wide couch. Nothing was the same. She said she wasn’t “Mother” anymore; they called her “Dagwright.”
Step two: consider text as adventure. If the work isn’t suggesting multiplicity, then it seems to me that the writer (or some other force) is exerting too much control over the reader. I don’t mean to suggest that poets can’t strive for “mastery” of language’s tools, but poets should be offering more than their own writing; the work should offer an experience, right? To this end, it might be useful to think of good poetry (good art) as something that allows the user to have an adventure. Collodi’s Pinocchio reveals something about the potential for adventure (especially as it is created in “projection effect” and as it implies alienation). In her lovely analyses at the end of the Brock translation, Rebecca West notes “the mysterious preexistence of Pinocchio, a sheer potentiality hidden in a piece of wood and waiting to be liberated into form”; what could be more suggestive of the act of creating (as writer and as reader)? Of the act of submitting a body to an adventure? “Geppetto’s home is just... right... for such a birth to occur, since it is a humble abode with real, broken down, meager furnishings but embellished with a painted fire and a painted kettle steaming away on the back wall. It is a liminal space...” It seems just right, to me, that textual adventures emerge in these liminal spaces, lovingly framed, of course, by generous writers, but also juxtaposed against our domestic lives.
This brings me to Hiromi Ito, a Japanese poet and author of Killing Kanoko, who, according to translator Jeffrey Angles, represents something “strikingly original in both style and content” and reveals perspectives of Japanese women and Japanese feminists. “Her poems so skillfully capture the idiosyncrasies of spoken language that they often give the illusion that they are pouring directly from the mouth of some narrator onto the page.” When I read the “narrative” piece, “I Am Anjuhimeko,” I thought immediately of Pinocchio. A horrific adventure takes place. A baby is buried. “[W]hen she was buried, the last thing I saw was her ear, a big, big, big ear, I could see the sand pouring into it so I took the hollow stalk of a reed and stuck it in the hole in her ear, and that was the last I saw of her, the hole was all filled in.” The baby survives, escapes. The baby stands in for women and families and patriarchy and despair and culture. The baby becomes a slave for a man. “Then the man saunters nonchalantly over and torments me, telling me, Anjuhimeko, suck on this, so I suck on it hating it the whole time [.]” The lines between points-of-view are blurry. Anjuhimeko receives a “Leech-Child.” The moments of her journey and her mother’s perspective suck on the body.
[T]he leech-child has no language so the meanings of all the words I say just slide over the slippery surface of intention of what I am trying to convey, or perhaps they are absorbed directly into the intention, I don’t know what to say, but the leech-child’s desire to know conveys itself to me, and I respond with language, the only way I have to respond is language, all I have is language, I respond with language, I respond, and as I respond, I sense the desire of the leech-child I carry on my back slowly being satisfied
I want to note that I was reading this “journey” while on the bus, in motion, sometimes stopped; I think there’s more here than just the transgressive nature of the imagery and content (and the book is packed with sexuality and infanticide and the splitting open of women to give birth to death). There’s the invitation. The reader enters the text as if with her own body. The reading experience is an adventure. It’s like not wanting to awaken from a nightmare -- because the “world” of the experience is both yours and not yours. What better response can there be to the terror of living in this world?
Newcomer Can’t Swim by Renee Gladman
Kelsey Street Press
Killing Kanoko by Hiromi Ito, translated by Jeffrey Angles