Inheritance: Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene and Cyrus Console’s The Odicy
Monday, October 24th, 2011
The space where authorial subjectivity and issues of social consciousness collide continues to be fraught—particularly when this space occupies the experimental sector of the poetic landscape. Take two of the strongest contemporary trends, documentary poetics and Conceptual Writing, both of which occupy strong positions on this issue. Documentary poets like Mark Nowak cultivate a form of curatorial subjectivity, back-stepping the author to third-person objectivity. For example, his project Coal Mountain Elementary uses solely the language of its subject matter, mixing miner testimony, newspaper reports, and educational materials. Conceptual Writers, on the other hand, famously express disinterest in authorial subjectivity and issues of social consciousness altogether provoking, with this rejection, conversation about the topic. A deep uneasiness over the representational properties of language underlies both positions, speaking to a post-modern legacy that requires one to wonder if it is ever possible to create an ethical representation of the “other” residing at the heart of most social and political issues. Even if one doesn’t write or read in these particular doc-po/con-po veins, it would be nearly impossible not to feel the pull of this uneasiness. It is our inheritance.
Because I’m not totally satisfied by most attempts to deal with this stressed space I have been particularly taken with Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene (Nightboat) and Cyrus Console’s The Odicy (Omnidawn). Here we have not only strong, engaging experimental texts, but also projects that openly confront subjectivity, writing, and social issues, providing us with two very different models of contending. While the reading experience of each book could not be more dissimilar, both projects ask the same question: in a world of collapsed and collapsing borders, what relation can the individual have to society, and how might a writer ethically—and effectively—render this relationality in language?
Kapil overtly frames her book—which is constituted by eight sequences (or chapters) of narrative poetic prose—as an undertaking driven by social consciousness and personal investment. As her introduction, titled “Passive Notes,” tells us, Schizophrene centers on issues of the self in a sate of extremity brought on by abusive structures of power. The book explores the effects of the partition of South Asia on the individual, addressing “the high incidence of schizophrenia in diasporic Indian and Pakistani communities; the parallel social history of domestic violence, relational disorders, and so on” (i). While the book contains substantial research, Kapil thoroughly penetrates the text with a first-person sensibility, providing us with a model of authorship that uses the self as experiential and empathetic instrument.
From “Passive Notes” through to the three-page “Acknowledgements and Quick Notes” that conclude the book, she makes no distinction between herself as writer and the “I” of the text, making clear that the author is, herself, one of the displaced. And, as much as the book is about mental illness and domestic violence it is also about the self as “other,” the self as a subjectivity deeply informed by never being “at home in one’s home.” Take, for example, this passage from the seventh sequence “Partition”:
I keep going back to what we ate, what we were fed. It is my way of communicating with you, the other children in your houses. Orbit the house as an adult but right now the spaces at the back of it and to the side are dense with neighbors. There are perhaps eleven faces pressed to the blood-specked window, banging on the glass with their foreheads. Being white, with the delicate skin that accompanies race, they bruise easily. They are looking at the unfolding scene with a boo and a hiss and a You fucking Paki, what do you think you’re doing? This is England, you bleeding animal. Later, they make a low roar when we, the two of us, back away from the table until our spines are pressed against the wallpaper, which is velvet and cream with a bumpy motif of paisley swirls as per the era.
These moments have the authority of first-person experience and work as a bridge to the “other children in your houses,” who are, if the accusers are to be “trusted,” from the “other side of the line” of partition than Kapil who nevertheless identifies with them. Such moments, in virtue of their fracturing trauma, also bridge to the radically Other: the schizophrenic or the victim of domestic abuse, subjects who have been largely undocumented and rendered essentially voiceless by extreme circumstance. This proposes a metonymic logic: the first-person experiences, as articulated in the above passage, allow Kapil to convey this Other-order fracture. Furthermore, these fractures speak to the larger psychosis of partition and displacement: “It is psychotic to draw a line between two places…Psychotic to live in a different country forever…It is psychotic to submit to violence in a time of great violence and yet it is psychotic to leave that home or country, the place where you submitted again and again, forever.”
Along with such empathetic movements from first-person experience to Other-order fracture, Kapil weaves the book through with passages about process, thereby bringing to the surface difficulties involved in representation of extreme circumstance. Some of these passages detail her primary research surrounding schizophrenia and domestic violence in London’s South Asian diasporic communities. Kapil tells us of visiting hospitals, interviewing doctors, and following police maps tracking calls of domestic incidents. Interwoven with these fragments of inquiry and search are notes and meditations on the writing process itself. We learn that Kapil initially tried to write the book as an “epic on Partition,” but that when this project failed, she “threw it—in the form of a notebook, a hand-written final draft—into the garden of [her] house in Colorado” (i). Again and again the motif returns: throwing the book into the garden, and later, after the ravaging of seasons, salvaging its fragments into the form of Schizophrene. As such, the book documents the fragmentation of self and society and is itself a fragmented document. This deep stitching of form and process, author and subject, narrative and performativity, not only has informational power, but also creates a compelling ethics of representation.
As with Kapil’s Schizophrene, Cyrus Console began The Odicy with the concept of creating a unified text, but abandoned this concept of unity for fragmentation. Consol remarks in an interview that the process of writing The Odicy “began with the goal of writing a coherent narrative poem, a poem that told the story of [a character named] Tony—it was going to deal with sugar and sugar substitutes, pollution, extinction, and Tony’s ‘personal odyssey’ through a collapsing world.” The finished text doesn’t discard all of these concepts: while not a “coherent narrative poem,” the book works more or less as a long poem built of tonally similar six or seven pentameter-line stanzas. This cascade of formal regularity is divided into five sections by prose passages sampled from Arthur Schopenhauer, Jack London, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, E.T. Jaynes, and William Cowper. The book also makes good on Console’s thematic concerns. Various forms of artificiality, pollution, and extinction appear throughout the book along with a consistent character named Tony. However, instead of narrating Tony’s odyssey, Console uses language to enact the texture and veer of collapse and Tony is limited to a motif—one type of proper name among many others. Consider the first four stanzas of the book:
I returned, and saw that the garden
Had not moved from me but that some illness
Of the garden carried it away
From me regardless. I saw its Mountain
Run to dissolution, whose bright garment
Flown from it in shame, whose hillsides lay
Uncovered, sodden. Drawn and beaten irons
Pestering and humbling the soil
Did recreate their brutal education.
All Nevada wept ill-colored water.
From the earth’s midsection, giant engines
Dull compacted slugs of gold removed.
Offering no resistance random night
Come at this odd hour, out of nowhere
One by one the lesser cattle took
Their knees amid contaminated forage
Depressed their breathing, and put out their eyes.
I have this against you, Westerners
Gladly, hurriedly, for sums now seeming
Insignificant (her liability)
To second thought a tiny skeleton
My love for the technician clothed in flesh)
The water component of my blood
I cast from me. Second thought, in fact
In these beginning stanzas we see themes of artificiality, pollution, and extinction. The garden, which of course we cannot help but read as Paradise, has become ill. We find nature and culture confused: Nevada weeps, cattle put out their eyes. And while the first three stanzas set up the scenario of an epic return, the fourth stanza swerves from the garden to develop, in the next stanza, into what seems to be a plasma donation (“This is my plasma, I remember asking / And this the money of which the less spoken”).
Not only do content and theme register collapse, but the work’s form itself also plays a large role in creating fracture. By using capital letters at the beginning of each line we are asked to read lines as discreet units, but rarely do the lines finish coherently. Instead we get fragments such as “Of the garden carried it away” and “Their knees amid contaminated forage”. Furthermore, this fragmentation is not always smoothed away by the sentence’s larger syntax. In moving us, for example, from “One by one the lesser cattle took” to the next line “Their knees amid contaminated forage” Console excises the expected “to,” leaving us with jostling elements that almost—but do not quite—add up.
This alignment of the “almost-but-not-quite,” a consequence of fracture well-known by anyone who has ever broken, and had reset, a bone, becomes a motif that holds the book together. In terms of content, Console works with the “almost-but-not-quite” in his critique of substitutes. For example, he writes of sugar substitutes: “NutraSweet’s another of Monsanto’s / Bright ideas like putting caffeine / Or vanillin in the soft drink Coke.” We also see the “almost-but-not-quite” in the book’s title. The Odicy is almost Theodicy is almost The Odyssey. Further, “The Odyssey Console” produced by Magnavox was the world’s first home video game console (just google The Odicy along with the author’s last name and see what you get). Among other such play in the text, the book’s five sections are similarly titled: “The Opathy” “The Omachy” “The Ophany” “The Oktony” “The Olepsy” and one can perform similar squint-of-the-eye tricks here. And as we break such words into various clusters of sounds, trying them out against possible meanings, we access the texture of breakdown and the attempt to nevertheless construct sense in the very fabric of the book’s language. “The Oktony”: Oak-tone-y, Octane-y, O.K. Tony.
Such language-use hi-lights the artifice of written representation, performing what the poetry articulates in subject matter and style (the tone of “I saw its Mountain / Run to dissolution, whose bright garment / Flown from it in shame” could hardly be more stylized). In the present poetic landscape, which often equates simplicity and the colloquial with the text of social consciousness, this form-content ethics runs the risk of seeming too difficult to do any “real” good. To my mind, however, the willingness to run such a risk speaks to a courage and integrity of thought and artistry that demonstrates the kind of inventiveness our time requires. Reading this text puts us face to face with fracture and it is well worth the thinking readers’ work to spend our time there.
In a 1996 interview with Kiki Smith in Bomb magazine, visual artist Barbara Bloom discusses, in the context of a serious accident she was recovering from, her “Broken” work, fragile objects she has broken and repaired with gold using kintsugi, a Japanese form of mending that foregrounds, rather than masks, fracture:
Rather than hiding something that’s broken, it aggrandizes it, saying that something that has a history, that is not perfect anymore, is more beautiful and more valuable than something which has no history. It’s the opposite of our culture. When I was in Japan and saw these for the first time, they were so beautiful that they made me cry. And then with this accident that I had recently where I—got so broken. This is the perfect metaphor: to think about objects that are repaired with gold. These objects are stand-ins.