Askold Melnyczuk’s “Shadowboxing: Eyeless in Gaza and Ukraine” was published in 2014.
Who has power enough to proclaim that the defenders are doing the attacking, that the sentinels sleep, the trusted plunder, and those who watch over us are killers? —Cervantes
The Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi blames the financial crisis of 2008 on the poet Arthur Rimbaud. Not in so many words—but that’s the implication of his recent book The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. Briefly, Berardi translates Rimbaud’s celebrated expression “deregelment de tous les sens” not as it’s traditionally rendered in English, “derangement of all the senses,” but as their “deregulation.” Once common sense has been overthrown and the familiar relationship between word and object severed, all hell breaks loose too—first in the mind, and subsequently in the realm of the senses. All kinds of financial shenanigans become possible. Financial instruments such as derivatives, whose ostensible worth derives from the valuation of objects already de- and re-contextualized from their natural states, grow ever more powerful even as they become more ethereal and abstract.
I’ll let others whistle Ockham’s razor through the argument. What intrigues me in Bifo’s theory is his corollary: just as poets helped destabilize our world, so too can they contribute to its transfiguration. Poetry, in Bifo’s view, is “the sensuous body of language,” with resources capable of compelling a linguistic realignment until word and object recover a more direct relationship. “A lemon is not an oboe / because I say so,” wrote poet James Galvin. Yet we are invited to believe that the slaughter of children is somehow leading us toward peace.
Like Bifo, I have hopes that poetry might help set the world back on its axis. But can we really fault poetry if it fails to find a vocabulary adequate to our bewildering moment? Is it possible that our language, and all the work it does, not merely in aesthetics, but in the fields of law, policy, and human rights, has spun too far out of control ever to recover? Can words possibly reclaim their purchase on the real, and thereby restore us to our senses? Or have we been deranged too long? Have the torture memos issued by members of the Bush administration and the relentless lies streaming out of this White House—about the NSA, the CIA, drones, the economy, the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, about Syria, about Israel—forced on us such radical doubt that we will never again trust a word spoken by anyone in authority? Earlier this month, the world briefly achieved a fearful symmetry when the number of casualties in both Gaza and Ukraine topped 1,000, with 800 of these presumed to be civilian dead. Since then, the numbers have risen. As I write this, Palestinians are digging mass graves for the nearly 2,000 dead in Gaza. They’re unable to offer proper burials because cement isn’t allowed across the border. Children’s bodies are being stored in ice cream freezers. According to The Huffington Post, one in four of the dead are children. Nearly half a million people—a quarter of the population of Gaza—have been displaced. Imagine a quarter of the U.S. population rendered homeless. Israelis shelled U.N. schools sheltering refugees. Human Rights Watch notes that civilians in the village of Khuza, near the Israeli border, were not only shelled: they were shot trying to escape the fighting. The numbers suggest a point I’ve made here before: these days, in a war, the safest place to be is in uniform. Why anyone would want to thank people for such service beggars the imagination.
The murder of children by Israeli forces is as dumbfounding as the image of Russian separatists on Ukrainian territory robbing the corpses of the passengers of the downed Malaysian plane right in Gogol’s back yard. The Russian leader of the separatists speculated on social media that the plane was in fact carrying only corpses—that the separatists had been set up. Never mind that they consistently claimed they didn’t do it. Chichikov, the protagonist of Dead Souls, traveled across the countryside buying up dead serfs in a get-rich-quick scheme that made better sense than many of our current policies. Chichikov, purveyor of dead souls, may be the prototype for politicians worldwide. The war crimes committed by both the previous U.S. administration and this one go unpunished. The criminal conduct of our bankers and the suits on Wall Street goes unpunished. If, by the old definitions, money laundering, fraud, and cheating were once regarded as crimes—and, as Matt Taibbi and others have demonstrated, countless bankers and Wall Street operators indulged in such behaviors yet have never been punished for them—then maybe we need to change the definition of the word crime. Maybe the crimes of the past should be reclassified as the business practices of the future. Like Bifo I believe in the power of poetry. But let’s admit, the task before it is daunting.
Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.
In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York Times, The Nation, The Partisan Review, Grand Street, Ploughshares, AGNI, Poetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry, Literature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.
He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.
Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College and Arrowsmith Press in 2006. (updated 10/2022)
See him interviewed on New England Authors.