Douglas Basford See Them Right: A Preface, with a Contribution on Revision by Jacob Strautmann
Children of immigrants,
please don't close the door.
sign at a solidarity rally
After the Hamburg firestorm, in the summer of 1943 when she was sixteen years old, she was on duty as a volunteer helper at Stralsund railway station when a special train came in carrying refugees, most of them still utterly beside themselves, unable to speak of what had happened, struck dumb or sobbing and weeping with despair. And several of the women on this train from Hamburg, I heard quite recently on my visit to Sheffield, actually did have dead children in their luggage, children who had suffocated in the smoke or died in some other way during the air raid.
This comes from W. G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, a passage that describes the memories of a woman who migrated to England right after the war. Sebald is struck by the last image, but mostly because it confirms what he had found in the diary of the aristocratic martyr of the Nazis, Friedrich Reck, which he had quoted in public lectures in Zurich. Sebald is getting on about the dissatisfaction he feels in eyewitness accounts of suffering, their "inherent inadequacy, notorious unreliability, and curious vacuity," how they fall into "a set routine and go over and over the same material" (40). Foreseeing in a way, a tremendous rise in interest in the effects of trauma, he makes it clear it is trauma itself that renders the accounts this way. Sebald does not hold back from labeling those poor refugees as "deranged" by what they had seen, a term that churns in me and knots me up.
In the last few days, I have been flipping through the book's pages, which have a kind of granular feel, stiff and yet oddly supple and velvety, in no small part because the book itself was damaged last month by a leak from a radiator in an upstairs apartment, which sent a cascade of water down onto a beautiful Mission-style bookcase once belonging to my wife's father. I'm still working out the full extent of the loss but let's just say there were expensive art history books there and long-out-of-print items. It was a nasty shock to come back from being out of town to find that the landlord's workmen has been in the apartment, ripping out the ceiling, throwing up some plaster, and had left the place a wreck, with wet books everywhere, on the carpet, on a wood table, and damaging both. I found all this three weeks after the event itself, I later discovered, but I knew it had been some time as books like Sebald's we already dry after having been, in its case, two-thirds waterlogged. Now that we've browbeaten our landlord into getting the job finished, mostly what remains is accounting and lawyering. But I am constantly reminded that this small corner of destruction is nothing like the totality of Hamburg or Aleppo, where there was or is no recourse, no means of recovery immediately at hand. From where I sit, I can safely note the irony of having read Elizabeth McKenzie's The Portable Veblen on the plane ride only to find at home my Dover edition of Veblen among the ruined books. I can safely joke about making a public service announcement to not put Sebald and Veblen on the same shelf lest you invite a similar minor disaster.
To return to the theme of Sebald's passage, the awful state of war refugees, I had been putting the finishing touches on these two issues6.3 and 7.1at the moment at which the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was considering the constitutionality of the Administration's ban on entry of foreign nationals of all sorts from seven Muslim-majority nations, even those possessing green cards, many with jobs, homes, families, and college educations already here in the United States. The original decree, like nearly all being issued by the Administration, being hasty, ill-considered, vetted not even by a modicum of congressional debate, mean-spirited, arbitrary, and at odds with the spirit of our nation and our constitution, is but one articulation of the xenophobia, anti-cosmopolitanism, and, yes, racism that appear to be some of the driving forces of the present government. With the news of the ICE raids now echoing across the internet, I challenge those in power to prove otherwise.
What I fear most, because it is a stepping stone to things far worse, is what I am seeing all the more of: an erosion of trust and empathy, which has already helped bring about the situation we now find ourselves in. What we have seen unfold over a decade or more can also happen very rapidlyI'm thinking of a passage from The End, by Hans Erich Nossack, whom Sebald cites but not this remarkable memoir of Hamburg. Having flown from the city, the author recounts how having reached a haven of sorts, "the good relations changed in the course of a week," as the villagers there lose patience with the refugees and their needs (18).And another passage, from Léon Werth's 33 Days, which describes the flight of Parisians from their city at the German advance. In those grim days, Werth worries that one of his accidental companions may collaborate, imagines that her irrepressible ego would lead her to turn in a Senegalese soldier that they discover hiding in the woods. Werth instead seeks to help him, asks him to tell his story twice over, and is, above all, struck by the man's smile: "What naive charm in that innocent smile! He smiles while talking to me, he's smiling under the threat of capture or death, as if his eyes were playing with the landscape, playing with me, as if despite the war there was a magic in the world that made him smile" (69).
Greed and fear exposed themselves without shame and suppressed all tender feeling. We all had to recognize during those weeks that the scales we had used for weighing were no longer accurate. Those nearest to us or those whom we called friends either kept complete silence or evaded their duty with a few shabby words about the hard times that made it impossible to help. The concept of kinship completely broke down. (19)
Although I can imagine that some might complain about the character of Werth's portrait of the Senegalese man, I'm nevertheless moved to ask: what made Werth, Nossack, and Werth so perceptive, so receptive in dark days and the years after? In a fuzzy sort of retrospect we might feel rather than outwardly say that literature was somehow responsible, as though their books now in our hands had reached backwards to shape their destinies. A bit of fancy, maybe, but perhaps it's more convincing to think of unheralded continuities, the way that literature seems know where it is going before it gets there, the "new" having been invited to exist by the "old." One doesn't have to firmly believe in literature as forging in the smithy of the poet's soul the uncreated conscience of the people to recognize how literary and linguistic tropes steer our thoughts and actions. Given the clear and present danger of mass delusion and manufactured monothought, which are to be distinguished from carefully considered and informed conviction, contact with other modes of thinking, other expressions, other languages, other perspectives becomes crucial.
As George Szirtes rightly notes in a recent article on translation and migration, literature is a clearer record of the lives of the people than any politician's pronouncement. This means more than admiring the grand names who crossed national boundaries, oceans, and continental divides to enrich our literatures, having struggled, even before leaving home, with the heterogeneous and at times fraught sociopolitical situations. The implications are also that we cannot really speak of regional or national literatures without admitting to the cross-pollination at every turn as we spin back deeper and deeper into history. Literature is the trace of all lives and populations in movement, in all senses of the word.
We at Unsplendid feel fortunate to have featured writing from around the world and from writers who have traversed boundaries to find their homes, and the same is true of countless other literary journal editors. To canvass our pageseven just to look at our contributors' namestells us of heritage and histories from all corners: Greek, Hungarian, Armenian, Italian, Native American, German, Trinidadian, Jewish, Thai, Chinese, Irish, Indian, Scottish, Spanish, Slovak, Nigerian, Dutch, Korean, French, and so on. If to embrace the diversity and transnational character of poetry is to be political, we're not sure how to be otherwise. It hardly seems radical.
Poetry, like any form of writing, like any object, in fact, implicitly makes a case for itself, its kind, that it should exist, that more like it should exist, that a world in which it exists should exist. Even if in the subtlest of ways, poetry is always political, always social, always rhetorical, always already articulating a vision of the world, whether a yearned-for ideal or an inhabitable less than. Politics is pretty much unavoidable, as Roberto Esposito puts it in Categories of the Impolitical: we face the "acquisition by politics of every ambit of life" (2). Wanting to nip "political poetry" in the bud, a colleague of mine at a previous institution was fond of quoting Robert Frost's famous dictum that poetry should concern griefnot grievance. There is some power in this line, of course, but it rings hollow at times, and even Frost himself, that great lovable self-fabulist, wrote poetry that was quite politicalat times resentful of the New Deal, at others competitively anti-Sovietthough most often in an indirect or figurative manner.
The other thing, I have to say, about the aforementioned former colleague is that he was willfully blind to, blissfully unaware of, or perfectly content to know just how much grief and grievance he ended up touching off in not a few people. Whether or not he ever felt shame I will never know, but I do know that some part of me grieves anytime that I hurt or even inordinately inconvenience another person. And so it has been as we delayed publication of our journal due to issues beyond our control. We have apologized to our contributors and to our aspirants waiting to hear back from us about their submissions, but an apology to our readers is also in order. A literary magazine is all the more a social matter than a solitary literary work, bringing together voices that have never mingled before, permitting contact between writers and readers, establishing new friendships and renewing old, inviting response and opening up new directions.
At times we may not know who to thank, as something may pass into our lives from an unknown hand, as it was the case with David Ben-Merre coming across a scrap of paper in his grandfather's things containing the Yiddish lines he has translated here. At others, there might be a name that points to effort scarcelyif at allvisible. This latter is the case, I think, with most literary journals, the mastheads a poor indication of how the inner workings play out, the dynamics of the thrill of discovery, the challenges of working out consensus, the heartache of sending out rejection letters, the lurching forward and to a halt as our schedules dictated. Through all of this, Jason and I have greatly enjoyed the company of our fellow editors Natalie Shapero, Erin Sweeten, and Ida Stewart. Owing to commitments beyond the ken of our editorial work, Ida will now be joining Natalie and Erin as an editor-at-large, weighing in in whatever way she chooses, sending new and exciting poets our direction or what have you. She will be missedher humor, keen eye, precision, generosity, and for her compassion for poets just starting out. Thank you, Ida.
For the remaining section here, I would like to invite Jacob Strautmann to the virtual podium, as it turns out that his poem in this issue, "Grapevine Ridge Proposals," underwent some pretty remarkable revision, and I thought it would be interesting to see how it all played out. I asked him if he might like to say a few words.
Jake keeps most every draft of a poem from the beginning. Looking nine drafts back, he says, there were "no large cuts or reimaginings" and so the similarity of drafts him "a sense the poem was ready to be out in the world." Between the time that the poem was submitted and accepted and the time that we readied ourselves for publishing it, Jake came to revisit the poem. I'll leave him to tell it from here:
In its earliest draft, a poem called "Cameron, An Explanation," "Grapevine Ridge Proposals" made up the first lines of the much longer poem. It didn't include stanza breaks, but wore similar line shapes. In the first Unsplendid version, the current poem was the middle of three stanzas that regularized those line shapes.
In its incarnations, "Grapevine Ridge Proposals" snakes through three ideas: 1) the men of my hometown are broken in some way (in relationships / their peace of mind) as proven by their keeping to themselves, the silentness I believed I read in so many fathers growing up. 2) Their brokenness is a result of unrequited ambitions tied directly to the land itself (read larger: the economical graveyard the Appalachian environment and her resources have helped engender) and 3) Crowbarring these points into sexual metaphor: the environment is idealized as a crone that passes on this "disease" through seduction. The teenage men disappear behind a coal shed with her, and reemerge lost. Somewhere behind this, West Virginia's opioid and heroin crises lurk.
In the first Unsplendid draft, the first line referred to the crone: "Her skin was speckled. Age bloomed from her." The first stanza followed, through seven lines, this cronish anthropomorphism to extremes: "hounds bayed in the hollows of her joints" and a pungent need becomes "pungent weeds" etc. I cringe now, three years on from this draft... I was laying it on thick. In a 2015 revision, I cut the "speckled" lines, with more cuts to follow. Today's version of the poem only includes the last two lines from the first stanza, starting at "The flick of her tongue" that says more than enough.
The entire last stanza, coal shed and all, is gone. It recapitulated the sex / loss motif with lines like: "hills dropped her gown of fog" and "they drew water from her dark center." The seduction was complete, but excuse me, as the older poem saturated everything with double entendre I ran it into the ground. Even so, I couldn't lose the final stanza right away.
I spent a frustratingly long time trying to replace the stanza, and I even considered ditching the entire poem. (I wrote an email I didn't send asking Unsplendid's editors to pull it.) Despite the blaring metaphors, the stanza included an autobiographical element. As a teenager, I knelt in a potato patch on Grapevine Ridge and proposed as the sun brought the fog burning up and out of the hollows. It was something I wanted to capture in a poem, along with something of the engagement's failing. And, while there was an intermediate draft that pulled back on the final stanza's most egregious figures, the poem seemed to be saying chip away, chip away. "Dry leaves drilled by rain until they break" the current version's final line made the same suggestion (sexually, depressively) while also letting the environment claim the men wholecloth that seemed to me more interesting than letting the allegory run its course.
Over the course of two and a half years, I cut back to the original lines I put down. I've written the above description of the poem's changes as though I were the only agent here. That's just not true. Revision needs perspective, and, for my money, perspective on my poems only arrives with time, good editors, and talented writerly friends. My friends read and reread this poem challenging my assumptions, my technique, and even the autobiographical kernel that started it all.
Many thanks to Jake for his generosity in penning these wise thoughts about revision, a term which we always are drawn to recall has its roots in the visual, re-seeing our work. In this case, as I think in all cases, the seeing again is a way of respecting the lived truth of others, whether they be those we write about or those we address. To get it right, to see them right.
Feb. 15, 2017