A Prelude to What Is Possible

Stu Watson

          I have been seen snatching,

          with a grand gesture of the brain,
          a cloud that is too red

          or a caress of rain,

          or a prelude of wind,

          yet do not be unduly reassured:

          I break open the yolk-bag
          that separates me from myself

          I force the great waters that gird me with blood.

          —Aimé Césaire, “Return to my Native Land” 

Part of our inspiration in starting Prelude was our interest in the long afterlife of Romanticism, the artistic movement concerned with a new conception of individual consciousness that sprung to life at the end of 18th century, approximately contemporaneous with the American, French, and Haitian political revolutions. Initially situated in Germany, the movement spread to England and across seas to colonies and former colonies, sprouting off-shoots over a wide diaspora, and influencing the developments of progressive social movements during the 19th and 20th centuries including abolitionism, women’s suffrage, temperance, and socialism.

Along with these movements there also came what can be seen as a negative or overly egoistic conception of the “heroic individual,” most famously embodied by Napoleon. While for many across Europe, Napoleon was a positive figure, a “self-made man” who had ascended to political power through his intelligence and not his family connections, in him we can also recognize the origins of the strongman, the dictator, the person for whom power is its own end. In his reliance upon constant warfare to sustain his empire, we can see in Napoleon something of the origin of our own state of incessant, industrially sanctioned and supported global conflict.

The subtlest Romantic and post-Romantic poetry is acutely aware of this danger inherent in individualism, that the individual must always turn back to the community and not become enthralled and isolated from the world. In this way Lukács could write, “[I]n Shelley the new usurper gods are vanquished, and his hymns celebrate the liberation of mankind. Shelley has already glimpsed the rising new sun of the proletarian revolution.” This is an explicit linking of Shelley’s revolutionary poetics with the rise of Marxist theory, that is, of a leveling philosophy that looks beyond the exaltation of the individual and back towards the elevation of the community.

A poet who embodies this branch of the Romantic tradition is Aimé Césaire, theorizer of négritude and politician and reformer in his country of Martinique. In 1939, having returned to the Caribbean after a period of study in France, Césaire published “Return to My Native Land,” a work reflecting the complex nature of the cultural and personal identities that develop in a person of color living under a colonial regime. Perhaps describing the nature of his poetic process, Césaire writes that:

             I break open the yolk-bag
             that separates me from myself

Here Césaire reminds us that the goal of self-realization is not in and of itself selfish; this “breaking” is both an emergence out of a previous state of incubation, a realization of the self, but it is also the self confronting, for the first time, the world, the environment, the social context. And this is achieved through an immersion in language, by breaking down banalities and striking at new ways of qualifying, of characterizing truth as it can be perceived, as it can be mapped.

There is a strain of Romanticism that embraces the irreducible indigenous and identity-based elements of existence while looking to cross boundaries and borders, one that while not falsely universalizing, looks to recover and establish connections across cultures, languages, nationalities. No culture exists in a vacuum, one person can inhabit many identities at once, and poetry can bring to light these areas of contact and overlap while retaining an awareness of the specificity of cultures and individuals. To introduce the poems in this issue I will consider a few hints from these pages on the ways in which contemporary poems continue to realize such an aesthetic synthesis.

Rohan Chhetri’s “Elegy to the Year of the Wood Sheep” draws an analogy between the poem’s speaker and the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, referenced above, who drowned in Italy’s Bay of Spezia in 1822. The circumstances surrounding the poet’s death become a metaphor for periods of transition in general, for periods in which our lives are transformed and changed by a kind of recognition:                 

                                                                 And how he’d dragged
             himself on all fours in the squall towards the stern to see it clearly,
             and whispered to no one, There it is, there it is again!
             before an enormous wave came down like a giant guillotine
             & ripped the boat through hull and rudder, drowning it full sail.
                                     As I was saying, I had turned twenty-eight,
             & outside the tall house that evening, I lit a cigarette and watched
             the dark vein of the sky bruising the clouds, then dusk settling
             like an eye dimming on a just-severed head. I must’ve been
             waiting for something to happen, and as the light left the trees,
             I thought of the grains of blue mud trapped in the dial
             of Shelley's watch drenched in seawater.

The “dark veins of sky bruising the clouds” and “dusk settling / like an eye dimming on a just-severed head” remind Chhetri of Shelley’s demise, and his use of images relating to the body creates a metaphorical link between his present state of reflection as he envisions Shelley at the moment that “an enormous wave came down like a giant guillotine.” Earlier in the poem, Chhetri couches his visionary imaginings by saying “I remember feeling the first, / cold stirring of an unmirrored sentience that lasted me / the rest of that year.” This “unmirrored sentience” suggests an awareness that is somehow fully itself, not subject to the second-guessing of reflection and consideration; that such a determination is “cold” would also imply a kind of certainty.

But this notion is immediately called into question by the act of reflection that makes the poem, the oscillation between the initial scene of the poet and his imaginings of Shelley dragging himself “on all fours in the squall towards the stern to see it clearly,” the “it” here referring to an “apparition of his stillborn daughter / crawling out of the leaden face of the sea.” There is a kind of reflective chain at play here, with the poet imagining Shelley imagining his daughter, and this indicates what is so powerful and striking in Chhetri’s work: even as levels, as layers of reality are acknowledged and made visible through the poem by a kind of “unmirrored sentience”, there is also the falling into doubt, the Keatsian negative capability that blossoms in shadows, that finds inside a dream of a poet’s death the poet dreaming an earlier death.

A visionary poetry may occur in that space where the author “must’ve / been waiting for something to happen”—what this “happening” entails is the activity of reflection and comparison, the movement between present and past, perceived and imagined, and the creation of a kind of rhythm, a kind of order, in the shuttling between the different realms. “Elegy to the Year of the Wood Sheep” accomplishes exactly this in its drawing of analogies across time and culture, seeing in “the grains of blue mud trapped in the dial / of Shelley’s watch drenched in seawater,” an image for our own consciousness of time, forever caught in its flow but also arrested, halted, by the need to take stock, to make connections between the layers of connection, and through this process, to perhaps construct a “self.”

Similarly postulating on the possibilities of forming an identity out of the various destroyed cultural artifacts surrounding us in a miasmic and superabundant media milieu, Charity Coleman’s poems engage with the themes of apocalypse and destruction through the lens of a decidedly casual, already-having-accepted-our-doom affect:

             so much rattling on about end times lalalalala
             who can even get out of bed at this point
             I wonder what there is to hunger for
             because it’s obviously not happening
             and if our hunger was for love
             then we’d be more electric
             not less for better or worse

The idea of being “electric” conjures up Whitman’s “body electric” as a point of absent reference, as an emblem for what we have somehow lost. Every few years some new supposedly ancient prophecy is uncovered, some number of young people take to the streets with signs proclaiming the end of days, collecting money, spreading a message of our imminent destruction while in reality, that is, in the environment, actual apocalypses are unfolding daily as species are pushed to the brink of extinction by the relentless drive of commercial expansion, despoilment of land, and voracious human appetites. But Coleman’s poem wonders what this drive is really all about, what its object might possibly be, when all around us are there are indicators that we have become “less for better or worse.”

The poet conjures a character for this darkened age, naming him “Mass Extinction,” a kind of belated Maldoror, a figure of embodied malice, “the superhero / who is always alone by the way.” This character rises out of the background of the poem (and recurs in other of Coleman’s poems featured elsewhere), drawing his traits from the poet’s observations of death and destruction all around her:

             buckets of water on a beached shark, yaaaay
             baby dolphin in a novice paparazzi mob, booooo
             expired but eternal in apple products

The image of the “beached shark” is reminiscent of the surrealistic flourish of Lautréamont, whose protagonist Maldoror plunges into the sea to confront and finally make love to an enormous female shark, a shark that symbolizes all the viciousness and brutality of society that Lautréamont hopes, by a curious process, to absorb and purge through the action of his poem. Here the animals aren’t sexualized so much as they are transformed into commodities, elements to be featured in a documentary, perhaps, or a local news broadcast about an attempt to save a stranded animal. Coleman’s poetry draws on observation, constellating the disparate figures of joy, disease, and menace into a visionary admixture, a veritable witch’s brew of language into which we as readers might plunge, aware, however, as we do so, that in the process we may encounter some fearsome yet lovable animalian other mirroring us as we dive.

Hailing from England, Verity Spott is also a poet of the banality of bureaucratic evil, or the evil banality of bureaucracy. Her poems pull us through a network of metaphorical and associative gears; acutely attuned to processes, to the workings of capital and the unspooling of the psyche under the barrage of forces active in the contemporary world, this is a writing that lifts us up through its relentless Beckettian drive to document and reflect. Coming out of a tradition that perhaps commences with Charles Olson and which includes British writers like JH Prynne and Andrew Crozier, Spott’s poem “We Make Things Possible” charts her daily routine, drawing us into an awareness of the primal energies deployed within mundane structures:

The snow is very deep today. But most days you get up you go out in the dark and you walk in the dark till the light comes up and you leave the light behind you in a jar that lives in a long trail of flotsam and ahead of you flowing over the air or in the flotsam which is all around from all the other people and signing a line and managing to cope without the daylight in your little wooden precinct you think perhaps it was only earlier when the light was coming up when there was something like a triangle under ground as a foundation and every time you move or are still it is there just like your nice face. It is there, and each sleep takes you closer to every movement you make that takes your sleep and makes sleep a moving thing.

Spott’s poetry exhibits strategies of absorption, which is to say this is work that draws everything into itself, that pulls the data of the quotidian into the working of its language and presents us with that quotidian not so much altered as infused with a new level of awareness; thus the pre-dawn trek of a morning commute, the navigation between the private and the public, between the worlds of labor and leisure, becomes a matter of reckoning with natural forces, whereby “you leave the light behind you in a jar that lives in a long trail of flotsam and ahead of you flowing over the air or in the flotsam which is all around from all the other people and signing a line and managing to cope without the daylight in your little wooden precinct”—the “wooden precinct” stands in for a windowless office, the trapped light boxed out as the activity of “signing a line” and “managing to cope” goes on because it must, because of the will to exist pulsing through Spott’s poetic cataloguing.

The poem hints at an ordering power within the sunrise that, while perhaps alienated through the demands of labor, remains a source of power for the speaker. In the recognition that “it was only earlier when the light was coming up when there was something like a triangle under ground as a foundation” she posits a kind of grounding, a “foundation” that is connected with the sunrise and simultaneously “like a triangle.” This geometric shape leaps out at one from the poem, as at various earlier moments Spott’s use of diverse typographical choices within a single line calls our attention to the text as object. Though cascading through a variety of shapes and forms, there is an underlying geometry beneath the surface providing a foundation for the discursive expanse of the subject and subject matter. Like a fractal structure, Spott’s openness and empathy extend through the adversity and brutality of the working world, keeping the memory of this “triangle” present to mind as one wears one’s “nice face.” This phrase suggests an element of pose, that this is a “face to meet the faces that you meet,” and one adopted out of necessity rather than desire. Verity Spott’s “We Make Things Possible” is a dense and poetically rich charting that achieves a sublimity through a rigorous imaginative mapping of everyday life.

Los Angeles-based writer Mike Crossley’s project “o’ to be young black & gifted” is a sequence of poems built out of bits of seemingly overheard dialogue, replete with references historical and contemporary, blended together with a surrealistic edge. These are poems also informed by the history of the black protest song, as the title, an inversion of Nina Simone’s Civil Rights-era anthem “To Be Young Gifted and Black,” suggests. Thus in one of the pieces we find a catalog of affirmations that swerves across the face of historical time:

             Big ups to the microbial
             Big ups to the low blow

             Big ups to the bottom
             where we started

             & the now we’re here
             Big ups to the ones who didn’t make it

             Big ups to the ones who did
             Big ups to the Pompeii dog

             Big ups to the minor inconvenience
             Big ups to the Roots

             California Love plays
             Big ups to the truth

             Big ups to no one in particular
             Big ups to You

By offering all of these various items “Big ups,” Crossley creates a mood of generosity, a mood that admits everything into its movement of affirmation. But this positivity is not without an ironic edge; the breadth and near universality of such affirmations may work to undercut the very idea of affirmation. Meanwhile, to confer “Big ups to the Pompeii dog”—one of the plaster casts of a household pet left over in the ruined Roman city—carries with it a certain acknowledgement of mortality, along with the humorously deft implication that some trace of our physical life might remain, might linger as the empty canine-shaped space deep under the piles of pumice and ash, filled centuries later by plaster and thus reembodied, if only spectrally, if only as a phantom of what it was in life. So too, these poems suggest that our lives and bodies, our physical form as well as our mental activity, might persist after we have inevitably joined the ranks of “the ones who didn’t make it.”

The poem concludes with a hint of rhyme in the vowel sounds of “truth” and “you,” a move especially noteworthy as it follows references to the foundational hip-hop band The Roots and Dr. Dre’s epic “California Love.” He also chimes off of Drake in the passage, “Big ups to the bottom / where we started / & the now we’re here.” Whereas Drake clearly equates “here” with “the top,” seeing the passage re-contextualized in a poem opens the possibility of alternate readings. In addition to the positive narrative—a variant of the “American dream”—“here” could be read as not necessarily a “better” place per se, just a different one. This leaves open the possibility that we might somehow be beneath the bottom, though the poem leaves the question of directionality open.

In presenting the poems we’ve collected for this issue we may note that these and all poems are only a prelude, a prologue, a prophecy of other poems and of a better world that has yet to arrive: a world of more awareness, more openness, and more acceptance, one in which we might discover a greater capacity to reckon with ourselves and our orientation to the world. In keeping with the Romantic tradition, it is our belief that poetry can and must play an integral role in developing a fuller and deeper picture of our shared reality.