The Unmemntioable by Erin Moure
The recent work of the prolific and highly decorated Canadian poet and translator Erin Mouré -- identified as Erín Moure in the book presently under consideration -- partakes of and participates in the flowering of critical theory that occurred following the adoption of deconstruction by North American intellectuals; its methods and textures often recall the writings of the "Language" poets, though it tends to evince a pronounced interest in seeking potential for personal and political expressiveness among its own disruptions and discontinuities. Doubts about the capacity of language to communicate experience and acute suspicion about the authority of poets to speak for silenced victims of repression have been central to Mouré's writing over the past couple of decades -- a turn signaled with admirable clarity in what is probably her best known poem, "Seebe" from 1989: "In all claims to the story, there is muteness. The writer as / witness, speaking the stories, is a lie, a liberal bourgeois lie."
In her thirteenth book, the macaronic and genre-bending book-length poem The Unmemntioable, Mouré employs text in English, French, Ukrainian, Romanian, Galician, Spanish, and other languages to evoke Ukraine's uneasy history, as well as broader instances of displacement and erasure that result from conquest and occupation. Intermingled with this focus on the geopolitical "unmemntioable" -- the limitations of language when it comes to representing experience, particularly experience involving genocide and forced emigration -- is a related focus on the personal "unmemntioable," as exemplified primarily by her own displaced Galician-Canadian mother's death from a brain tumor: the shortcomings of language when expressing the experiences of embodiment, illness, death, and grief. In all instances, Mouré seeks to interrogate, as she puts it, "the profound correspondence between the being and the thought." In other words, The Unmemntioable sets itself the task of exploring the relationship between how what people can know (history, familial bonds, love, humanity) connects to the way or ways in which they know it (experience, embodiment, language).
Early in the book, Mouré writes:
Relationships written down instead of remembered, cuts the tie. When the register burns so does memory as this was passed to writing and the content of a writing burned can no longer be handed back to memory, for writing abolishes memory and as what was written can no longer be passed down, it has no Author in the old sense: no ability to act as proxy to, to verify on behalf of.
The idea that ancestral language and the trauma of one's forebears is, or perhaps is not, embodied or embodiable is fascinating; so is the notion that poetry might be a means of processing and preserving individual and cultural memory (or lack thereof). Yet the language in which these concepts are expressed -- here in a poem called "Fasti," attributed to Mouré's heteronym Elisa Sampedrin -- are typically either so perplexing:
so it has touched we, that neuralgic point of extinction <wreck>
we will not hear ten voices
we will scrap history
what ordinary translator <translate> outlasts human fear?
completely incinerate my _________
or so rote:
Without experience, is there an "I"? How to speak of the experience of the "eu," the "je," the "Я," the "I"? Can we speak of them at once? If, in translation, there is a difficulty with "je," isn't there even more so with the "I"? Je pense, donc je suis. Is this also the unmemntioable?
that the reader is left either discouraged at having no point of entry or disappointed at the familiarity of standard poststructuralist concerns that have been recycled with regularity since the 1970s.
In fairness, regarding her deliberate efforts at alienating the reader, Mouré has semi-jokingly referred to her own work as "hi-toned obscurantist lesbo smut." The Unmemntioable is not particularly smutty, but absolutely is high-toned and obscurantist. When writers are being obscurantist, of course, implicit in that term's definition is that their abstruse style and general recondite vagueness are deliberate. But the fact that one is doing something intentionally does not mean that that something is effective. While the premise of The Unmemntioable is exhilarating, its execution is off-putting at best, anesthetizing at worst. If the reader experiences the former reaction, then she simply stops reading; if she experiences the latter, then she soldiers on magnanimously trying to figure out what she is supposed to be gathering from the book and ends up intellectually and emotionally bored by subjects -- genocidal destruction, maternal cancer, epistemology -- that should be far from boring.
The Unmemntioable contains no explicit declaration of or argument for the assumptions or tactics that govern its treatment of personal and historical narrative; Mouré's apologists might reasonably suggest that her omission of such explication safeguards the capacity of the text to disrupt and problematize. Coincidentally, however, it also gives those who would criticize the work very few lines of attack that don't expose them to the accusation that they have simply failed to meet Mouré's difficulty on its own terms -- whatever those terms may be. A frustrated reader seeking critical purchase might be tempted to view the book's snarl of anxieties over the possibility and validity of representation as congruent with, maybe even proceeding from, an assertion made in "Seebe": "each word of the writer robs the witnessed of their own voice, muting them." In 1989 this qualified as a significant indictment of the position of privilege from which poets always write, and a valuable corrective to the self-congratulatory sanctimony of much contemporary verse. When looked back upon from 2012, however, it reads like a jaw-dropping overstatement of the coercive power to which poets might conceivably lay claim, one from which Mouré's current work seems not to have retreated.
In our present era of constant instantaneous communication, institutional coercion almost never bothers to rise to the level of rhetoric; power has adopted the dictates of postmodernism as its own, and blithely advances instability and flux as policy goals. The rhetorical space of poetry is always distinct from that of power in that poetry's authority over its reader must be granted, and cannot be imposed. The mechanisms employed by The Unmemntioable to forestall intelligibility and problematize received modes of discourse can only be effective if the reader is willing to be subjected to them, and the option always exists to put the book, any book, aside. Readers who are willing to navigate the text's difficulties -- and who have sufficient linguistic and theoretical competence to do so -- are almost certainly already aware of and receptive to the critiques and concerns that Mouré seeks to evoke and advance. So what has been accomplished here?
This lack of rhetorical efficacy might be easier to forgive were the book not given to dramatizing its own project, as when Mouré writes, "Why ignite the core of human singularity? The old growth is burnt, they say. Why speak of it here?" This "they" feels like a classic straw man: who -- aside, perhaps, from the narrator of "Seebe" -- would deny the value or validity of an attempt to navigate the failures and betrayals of language to engage the past and speak of "persons who can speak no more"? The book would stand to be more effective if Mouré would hazard the ethical indictments that comes with authorship and speak more clearly of the old growth -- if she would make more effort to mention the purportedly "unmemntioable."
Fighting fire with fire is a tactic well-known enough to merit its own cliché, but using encryption to address something that is already painfully and unjustly cryptic -- the oppression suffered by the West Ukrainian people at the hands of a notoriously mystifying Stalin-led government -- here proves unproductive. Or rather, it produces a book-length poem, and little else. The triumphant conclusion of The Unmemntioable arrives with Mouré's pronouncement that "I can write again with my own right hand," which must be exciting for the author. Yet this writing doesn't move or challenge the reader.
One satisfying component of this book is its bibliography, which appears in its final pages between a description of the sensorium of the rainbow trout and an image from an unnamed person's passport. In it, Mouré lists the books to which she considers herself "indebted," including Patrick Desbois's Holocaust by Bullets and Orest Subtelny's Ukraine, A History, as well as Shimon Redlich's Together and Apart in Brzezany: Poles, Jews, Ukranians, 1919-1945. The author's recourse to these works serves as a clear acknowledgement of the value of the kind of conventional narrative history that her book sets out to problematize; all of these titles sound likely to be more illuminating and engaging than The Unmemntioable itself.
The Unmemntioable by Erín Moure
House of Anansi Press