Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, edited by Carolyn Forché. 816 pgs. W.W. Norton, 1993. $16.95.
The thing about surveillance is that it’s a dirty business—it almost always involves some form of subterfuge or camouflage: that which sees strives itself not be seen. So surveillance is an act of power, and here we have the political premise of these poems: they should, we think, be a form of protest; they should decry the surveillance state, big brother, to borrow an anachronism. But as we read the poems in this collection, we realize that’s not entirely the case, which is a real beauty and strength in this anthology. Poets themselves are also surveilling. Protest, after all, begins with witness. It’s a crucial inversion, a duality that underlies all the poems in this volume. Ridker closes his introduction with this line: “this is poetry as it looks in the twenty-first century, and it is looking right back.” And of course, as the Publisher’s Weekly review points out, “this anthology becomes as much a surveillance of a certain type of contemporary poetry as it is contemporary poetry about surveillance.” So let’s set this as our ground right away: everyone is spying on everyone else.
The first way into any thematic anthology is, I think, through its lexicon. The topical stuff of our surveillance discourse—Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, WikiLeaks, “watchman” George Zimmerman, drones, browser cookies, cameras, personal data, hackers—all represent a new kind of ecology in which we live and interact. It is a new field of concern, a fact of our social existence that our poets are charged with engaging. This anthology makes that charge explicit—to the point that it even includes an index of terms, which is maybe something of an inside joke for the publisher (see Zachary Schomburg’s collections)—and no doubt any reasonably informed reader will open its pages simply to see what the poets have to say, to see how they do it.
It’s also a challenge, and not all the poems here feel totally confident with the new terrain. But how could they? Isn’t it like sitting down at a new instrument and plucking out something listenable? When the charge is explicit—when you are on the spot—the work of assimilating a new concern, a new lexicon, can feel more palpable. Richard Greenfield is an intense poet with an acute vision and angular ear and sense of image. These qualities lend themselves to sharp witness and are exhibited here in his poem “This Under Glass Structure”:
I have seen the black triangular bird glinting behind the sun, the black balloon
budding out of a cloud, I have tasted the black in the water—of sensors. Early in
the millennium the spookbox on the wet wall in the abasement wanted its
anonymous onyx to be leaked, to tell of the gyre of the web and the remorseless
listening ear scanning its keywords. Not god, not idiot savant, but box.
His is a poem of symbolic reduction—not an aircraft but a “black triangular bird”—and the tactic here is to assimilate some of this new lexicon—words like “sensor,” “web,” and “keywords”—into his disassembled landscape. But there is a hesitation: that first em dash seems so much to come out of an anxiety that the subject will not be sufficiently clear. It’s a flag to ensure that we understand that this poem is about surveillance. Once the terms are set his project can get more robustly underway, and we get exciting lines such as “the lambent screen of the world with the burden of their yammer and erect disclosures.”
I single out this poem because the sightline on this lexicon as a new object of inquiry is clear, but throughout we see similar kinds of direct engagement with the lexicon. Sometimes it’s direct complaint, sometimes irreverent or clever reconceptions, sometimes more pedestrian repetitions of a somewhat canned political discourse—I, for one, cringe every time I read the word “government” in a poem. But some of this is, again, the result of the anthology’s explicit design: some of the lines here feel commissioned, but they might feel more authentic in a different setting.
Many of the poems in the collection operate at a much greater distance from the surveillance lexicon, and in some cases the theme seems only faintly present. It’s certainly clear that it’s a broad assignment, and some of the results are surprising. John Kinsella’s domestic poem, “Sealed In / Blocked Out,” seems at first out of place in this anthology. It’s about mice trapped in his walls, a perfectly mid-century poetic topic that is a far cry from the “erect disclosures” of surveillance. But as we listen with him and his family to the mice scurrying and scratching around, the connection becomes apparent. We are listing in on the mice, who are, in a way, prisoners. There is an embarrassment almost—the speaker is the unwilling surveiller; it’s his burden. “How far into our heads have the mice burrowed? / Do we carry them inside out with us, everywhere?” he asks. It’s a precise uncertainty compelled by an unwanted breach, something we all experience as both agents and objects. To use a crasser example: who hasn’t heard their neighbor’s having sex, or feared they themselves were being heard? Are we all in fact walking around inside out?
The poems that succeed best, however, at actually adopting the new lexicon, which I do think is crucial, are those that sustain their attention with it. Andrew Durbin’s “Prism,” a short story about dinner with Katy Perry—one of the most surveilled celebrities of our time—works because of his commitment, over several pages, to the premise. It’s also the only piece of fiction here, and that privileges it with greater liberties—I think fiction can always engage contemporary elements more quickly. It’s a dystopian piece (or maybe not!) set over a dinner conversation about a corporate surveillance program that keeps tabs on celebrity’s private lives to ensure that they stay “on brand.” It includes an impressive analysis of Perry’s album Prism:
I can’t stop. It begins a thing flittering behind the system at present, idiotically
beautiful in its neon glow, the revolutionary agent of a social life made to bloom
at gunpoint into something-ness, dizzying, embers left of the Members Only
jacket burned at the bonfire.
This phenomenological record of the effects of Perry’s commercial art is precisely the sort of privation that is at stake in the surveillance state—the narrator’s account, his testimonial, is like focus-group gold: this is how this product is a drug to me; I can’t stop.
The poetry—which is everything else here—can’t setup such elaborate premises and must develop different techniques to make something artful out of the new territory. Max Hjortsberg’s “Drone Poems” succeed because they make deliberate gestures toward dismantling our now-established concept of the drone. They do so through a number of techniques, most immediately through “droning” repetition—drone does this, drone does that—which results in a semantic satiation (i.e. the word begins to lose its meaning). This is a cycle of short poems that is surely a riff on Wallace Stevens’s famous “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and like that poem assumes the meditative, stilled, and spare sketching of the classic Asian short forms (like haiku). Two examples—the titles here, I assume, are the drones’ respective serial numbers:
in the pale winter sky
drone glints in the air
an ice crystal
at the movies soul music
playing over the closing credits
you tap your foot
drone hears only
wind and propeller
waiting for you to emerge
from the multiplex
This is an astute form by which to render the drone into something new, and yet, true. A subtle but important detail is the lack of article—just “drone,” not “a drone” or “the drone.” It’s rather as though this were the name of a pet—indeed the drone is almost cute. Moreover, the slight gesture toward anthropomorphism places the drone in an intermediary category between living thing and machine, and that’s exactly what it is. On one hand it is consciously devoid—just wind and propeller, just an ice crystal—but on the other it is the unseen person sitting at their console looking secretly at whatever they choose.
There is a great deal to this point of the intermediary category—for surely the anxiety of surveillance is not simply an anxiety over being seen but over what has enabled it, namely, technology. Ridker calls surveillance a “techno-political crisis” in his introduction. The drone is a sensory prosthetic, the operator a kind of cyborg. Our photos, our Twitter and Facebook interactions, our credit card numbers, even the number of physical steps we have taken today—these are all likewise kinds of digital prosthetics, extensions of ourselves into digital space. Where the drone has flown into our world, our selfie has flown into the cyber one. There is a certain pact-with-the-devil quality to this. Technology has made us superhuman, but not without undermining our humanity. The boundaries are necessarily blurred; we might lose what we are.
As such, erasure is a prevalent theme in these poems. The above erasure, through a kind of categorical confusion, is one of the more sophisticated forms, but there are simpler and more direct ones. In Mark Bibbins’s “Witness” he enacts actual erasure via blackened redactions in a long catalog of descriptive nouns: “explicitness expressiveness exquisiteness extraneousness extraordinariness eye faintness fairness faithfulness,” and so on. The concept of information overload, of bit-blinding, is also heavily dealt with. This is present in Bibbins’s catalog, or in something like Joyelle McSweeney’s “Swat Cycle,” which feels like a live wire tapped directly into. It is written in a kind of Joycean half-gibberish whose sonic speed haunts with tracers of images:
before the idk gross grotto the polaroid in
Ridyahjacuqard loom pomegranate preprograms
the future slots for
furniture ads star carnivals nude treif nylons tiara circus act.
The sense of image feels under extreme threat here, like trying to remember a crucial communiqué delivered quickly beneath heavy interference. All this information, these bits, wear away at us like a salt wind. In “Reverse Surveillance,” Dara Weir offers this deft line: “the more you see me the less I’m there.”
At the same time, with information comes knowledge, and there is an overwhelming sense of it in these poems, and the questions, or assertions, of what to do with it. In “Surveillance,” Nikki Giovanni asks “Who saw what I heard / Who knows how to make sense of it / And we want to save the world?” In “Visages,” Graham Foust uses a basic scientific knowledge of how mirrors work, that “my reflection’s / defective—I’m reversed there, / permanently so,” as evidence for this exquisite aphorism: “Quietly at times, or else / as loudly as possible, existence / outwits its particulars.” In one of the most beautifully balanced poems here, many of these elements of knowledge come together in a highly meditative series of images that direct the reader’s gaze across different epistemological categories. Jessica Baran’s “Life During Wartime” begins in a taxi cab, with the now ubiquitous car TV blaring its messages. It ends with this:
A torn out page from a chemistry textbook falling from a window and directing your line of sight from one neighbor’s bedroom to another’s porch. This is the new surveillance proposal: to sing you a song for you to sing along with. Sing it. I feel close to what I witness. I love an ocean breeze. I love to shut my eyes and be touched.
The tone here is far from protest—it might even be celebratory, if that celebration can’t entirely be trusted. It’s a puzzling assortment partly because these disparate elements are aligned in such close proximity. Chemistry is a form of surveillance—the gaze into matter itself—and here a page of it catches our eye and leads us from the bedroom to the porch, from the private to the public. And it’s a surveillance of our neighbor—with whom we are supposed to be neighborly, as it were, respecting socially defined boundaries of privacy at the same time we respect socially defined duties of engagement—chatting, perhaps, on that porch. She even uses the magic word, the lexically direct “surveillance,” forcing it into her own new definition: “to sing you a song for you to sing along with.” Here we arrive at something we haven’t considered before, but which feels deeply correct: surveillance is a kind of ceremony, a kind of participation. It’s a gregarious act, in a twisted sort of way.
It’s spring outside, my dear wife, spring.
Outside on the plain, suddenly the smell
of fresh earth, birds singing, etc.
It’s spring, my dear wife,
the plain outside sparkles. . .
And inside the bed comes alive with bugs,
the water jug no longer freezes.
None of the poets here descend, as Bruce Weigl does in “Burning Shit at An Khe,” into the latrine to “lay down in it / and fingerpaint the words of who I am / across my chest / until I’m covered and there’s only one smell, / one word.” Whether hauntingly matter-of-fact, like Hikmet, or more dramatic, like Weigl, the same kind of attention and motivation is there: to provide evidence, to write it down—to testify.
But that given also hints at a kind of resignation. The labor of poets of witness toward producing a record, in an environment hostile to it, has an almost ontological stake, that an experience won’t have existed without one to witness it, without one to safeguard its evidence. But in surveillance poetics, the record is always assumed, and ontology is no longer a germane question, at least with regard to history—if it won’t be remembered, it will at least be filed.
Ryo Yamaguchi is the author of The Refusal of Suitors (Noemi Press, 2015). His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Tin House, American Letters & Commentary, AGNI Online, Barrow Street, and elsewhere. He lives in Chicago, where he works at the University of Chicago Press. You can visit him at plotsandoaths.com. (updated 4/2015)