Thursday, 19 December 2013

Meta- Meta-:
On Guri on Guriel

I think Jason Guriel’s review of Alice Oswald’s Memorial is mostly very good, and this is why. First, he gives those of us who haven’t read the book a good sense of its structure. He describes, for example, how the seven pages of columnar names that begin the book “accrete to form a kind of concrete poem and war memorial” (which actually serves as both description and deft critical interpretation), and goes on to detail how “following the opening roll call, Memorial alternates between what Oswald calls ‘short biographies of soldiers’, which tend to be violent, and Homer’s nature similes, which the translator tends to repeat” (which again nicely combines description and analysis). Crucially, he quotes examples of both the biographies and the similes, thus allowing readers to directly sample Oswald’s work. Second, he explains the revisionist impulse behind Memorial, acknowledging that “while Homer's poem dwells on the parrying of patriarchs – heroes packing spears – Oswald's zeroes in on many of the wasted lives: the grunts on the receiving end of the spears; the small print on the slab in the park.” Is his reference to our contemporary understanding of The Iliad as being about “a scapegoat and her oppressive patriarchy” a “snide” one, as Helen Guri suggests in her compelling essay “Processing Negatives: A Big Picture of Poetry Reviewing”? Perhaps, but it may also be just a sly nod from someone who holds a PhD in English towards a postmodern theoretical climate with which he no doubt has considerable familiarity (and a climate with which Oswald herself seems to be engaging). Finally – and not without telling his readers that “You should certainly give Memorial a chance” and citing examples of some of its “memorable formulations” – Guriel gives us a thorough sense of what he sees as the book’s shortcomings, beginning with a subtle jab at its ready consumability: “you can read it in an hour” and it might even convince a “young ward” ignorant of poetry to temporarily leave aside his World of Warcraft and Game of Thrones. In other words, Guriel implies, this revisionist exercise is also conveniently crafted, in its brevity and extreme violence, to appeal to short attention spans. He communicates his other problems with the book with similar economy: “the aura contrived by unused space”; the effect of “willed breathlessness” produced as Oswald “proceeds to drop commas, run sentences together, go for the gross-out”; and the way “the run-ons and lack of punctuation” seem like “the sort of easy, go-to solutions a poet will grab for when she's after some violent spontaneity” – all substantial analytical gestures to the book’s formal properties that both further our sense of what the book is like and communicate the critic’s opinion on it. 

I’ve provided this selective recapitulation of Guriel’s review in order to highlight how much critical substance in the form of description, analysis, and yes, evaluation (and I certainly haven’t covered it all) is contained within its 1200 words. This is very difficult to achieve, as anyone who has attempted it well knows. While Guriel does often choose to communicate his insights sardonically or even sarcastically in a way that no doubt chafes at some readers (and has chafed at me on occasion, especially when I didn’t agree with him), one would be hard pressed to find many reviews that combine description, analysis, and insight with such economy as this one does.

I’ve written the above because although I can agree with much of what Guri says in her essay before her analysis of Guriel’s review, I find the analysis itself almost violently distorting in a way that leaves me wary. I don’t want to get into rebutting Guri’s feminist reading point-by-point, but I’ll take for example Guriel’s reference to Memorial as “Anne Carson-lite,” which Guri uses to spin off into an ingenious but problematic meditation on the cultural politics of female body mass. Guriel follows his characterization with half a paragraph on “how Memorial updates the classical world with but a touch of the weirdness that is often attributed to the not-very-weird poetry of Carson.” Is his reminder here of his well documented disdain for Carson’s poetry a bit gratuitous? Perhaps – but by offering examples of Oswald’s seeming borrowings from Carson’s aesthetic universe, he makes sure that I as a reader am left knowing exactly what he means by “Carson-lite”: anachronistic references to “parachutes,” “god’s headlights,” “astronauts,” Hector’s motorbike left running, etc., all doubtless tinkle little bells for anyone who has read Carson, and so with the marketing word “lite,” Guriel is suggesting that in our post-Carson-enshadowed poetic landscape, Oswald’s use of these anachronisms smacks of influence verging on imitation (and perhaps for market-driven as much as aesthetic reasons).

Overall, the crux of Guri’s criticisms of Guriel can be found in her claim that his review embodies a “seeming lack of interest in presenting the poet as a coherent actor with credible motivations.” Here Guri strikes me as just wrong, as (and this is what I’ve tried to show above) Guriel’s criticisms of Memorial are quite firmly rooted in his distaste for the choices Oswald has made in constructing it. Tellingly, Guri’s meta-review declines to tackle this passage of Guriel’s, which quite explicitly casts Oswald as “a coherent actor”:

The problem is not just that Hector was a convertible man; it's that there's something predictable, even calculated, about Oswald's choices. Of course the book is subtitled “An Excavation of the Iliad”; archaeology would be the appropriate metaphor for a post-Foucauldian project that seeks to recover a subjugated narrative – that “bright unbearable reality.” Of course Oswald describes her “approach to translation” as “fairly irreverent” and that she's “aiming for translucence rather than translation”; what translator today is declaring her goal a stuffy, cautious fidelity? We're supposed to be irreverent now, aren't we?  

This is sarcastic, yes, but it also demonstrates a sophisticated theoretical understanding of what Guriel sees as Oswald’s motives (i.e., her reasons as a conscious actor) for constructing Memorial the way she did. What seems to bother Guri (despite her protestations to the contrary) is that Guriel expresses disdain for these motives – that he finds them clichéd – but rather than simply admitting this, and constructing a counter-argument in praise of a book she admires, she instead undertakes the (rather easier) task of deconstructing the rhetorical situation of Guriel’s review, citing the details that fit her ideologically motivated argument and distorting or discarding those that don’t. That actual writers have characterized Guri’s essay as a “close reading” boggles my mind, and leaves me frankly reluctant to write further criticism myself.

As a fellow critic I find Guri’s penultimate paragraph especially troubling:

Memorial and reviews of it are involved in a dance I’ll call Getting Past the Gate (allusion to Troy only partly intended). The presence of even the shortest clip of music from this dance, the sound of even a few of its steps, should signal to a reviewer, especially a white male one, to tread carefully, acknowledge aesthetic affiliations and biases, substantiate criticisms concretely and without whimsical or sarcastic flourishes (though at other times such flourishes can be nice), spell out, not imply, any perceived lack of worth, and err on the side of caution when using language that has sexual or racial implications.

This paragraph could only have been written by someone who doesn’t write very many reviews, so eager does it seem to further circumscribe an already delicate, difficult, unlucrative, and mostly thankless occupation. First, let’s acknowledge that if there is a “Gate,” Oswald is much more firmly embowered beyond it than Guriel is – which is why Guri’s implication that Guriel ought to have better contextualized Memorial within Oswald’s career strikes me as absurd. Most readers of the PN Review will know full well who Alice Oswald is, and if they don’t, that’s not Guriel’s problem. One could readily argue that his choice to focus strictly on the book in question (i.e., rather than wasting a couple hundred words paying homage to Oswald’s eminence) is a gesture of respect, not dismissal. Second, I don’t understand how Guriel’s aesthetic affiliations and biases aren’t perfectly obvious to anyone who reads his review (at least as those affiliations and biases relate to Memorial), as they will be in any review of substance. To demand that they be more explicitly articulated seems like blind dogmatism. Third (and as I’ve pointed out at some length above), his criticisms are more concretely substantiated than in the vast majority of similar-length reviews. Fourth, no whimsy or sarcasm? Perhaps we should set up a Panel of – oh, I don’t know, let’s call them “censors” – to whom will be entrusted the task of ensuring that all such “flourishes” remain firmly on the side of “nice.” And finally, regarding “language that has sexual and racial implications,” Guri has not shown convincingly that the implications she highlights in Guriel’s review are anything more than emanations of her own ingenuity.[1] Those who want to bask in those emanations will presumably continue to do so, meanwhile ignoring and/or misrepresenting (as Guri does) the considerable descriptive and analytical work performed by reviews like Guriel’s. This is not to deny that the literary world in Canada and everywhere is fundamentally patriarchal (as our societies are) and that this fact should be railed against. I think it’s entirely probable that Guriel derives his pose of authority (and I mine in writing this) from a sense of white male privilege to which we are so firmly acculturated as to be almost oblivious. But I do not think it at all helpful to misrepresent his or anyone’s critical efforts so (and yes I do stand behind this) violently. Most basically, I would rather have seen the poet-critic Helen Guri use her evident talents to actually review one of the “too-large proportion” of books she loves that “don’t get their due in the public sphere.” But again, this comes from me thinking that the biggest problem in Canadian poetry culture is lack of discourse – especially lack of discourse on more than a handful of books per season – not the tenor of it. On the other hand, I’m utterly glad that Guri wrote what she did; as much I’ve found to disagree with in it, there’s no denying that it set me thinking (and writing!) unlike anything I’ve encountered in recent months.    

There will no doubt be those who choose to interpret this as ‘closing ranks’ – as another white male rising up indignantly to guard the entryway to the ‘boys club’ of the critical ‘brotherhood’. Many of those people will do this no matter what I say, but I’ll take a stab at pre-exonerating myself anyway. I’ve never met Jason Guriel; we’ve exchanged two brief cordial emails in the past, and that is the extent of our acquaintance. We are not friends. By contrast, I do know Helen Guri personally; I admire her work and like her as a person. I’d say we’re at least friendly acquaintances, and I have no desire to wound or alienate her. Nor is this an attempt to silence or intimidate her (on the contrary, I’d love to read more reviews from her). Put simply, this isn’t personal. And yet in writing that last sentence, it occurs to me that part of what disturbs Guri about Guriel’s review is the note of the personal – or at least the paternal – that creeps in, for example, in a male reviewer’s smug characterization of a female poet’s “willed breathlessness” – which conjures a whole misogynist tradition of men dismissing women’s concerns as ‘hysterical’. I see this, and I can see how Guriel should have “tread” more “carefully” here. Amid her hyperbole in evoking Fabio, Guri makes a good point, and this causes me to interrogate my own work. Could the sexualized language I deployed in my review of Nyla Matuk’s Sumptuary Laws, for example (including the potential innuendo of my title, “Hot Button”), be construed as an enactment of gendered oppression? I used such language very consciously in response to Sumptuary Laws’s strange air of luxuriance – a compelling facet of a book I greatly admire – but is it possible that in doing so I could have made Matuk herself (i.e., rather than her book) feel sexualized or objectified? I certainly hope not: but the fact that I’m asking myself such questions points to an important success of Guri’s essay.

And yet as a critic I feel it my responsibility to maintain a primary fidelity to the text – a fidelity from which Guri’s essay too often strays. Of course, perhaps the major insight of the theoretical revolution in literary analysis is the inseparability of text from context (whether social, racial, sexual, or whatever), and this forms a part of my fidelity. Guriel’s and Guri’s critical texts both distort, but at different degrees of magnitude. One might mount a valid argument against Guriel’s sarcastic tone, characterizing it along with a few of his word choices as reflective of a certain white male privilege (but in doing so one would best acknowledge that he employs a similar tone in discussing male poets as well – a review of Seamus Heaney jumps to mind). One might.[2] But Guri hasn’t done this successfully because her essay relies too heavily on evasions, omissions, and ingenuity over honest analysis. If Guriel’s review is like a warped mirror held up to Oswald’s Memorial, Guri’s critique of Guriel is like a magnifying glass so riddled with cracks that it can hardly be seen through, yet retains its power to incinerate. It is context from which the ‘text’ has gone too much missing, leaving mostly ‘con’.[3]

-Stewart Cole

[1] Notches (for arrows) and spears appear everywhere in The Iliad, for example, and so Guriel’s recourse to such imagery is more illustrative of the rigour of his engagement with Oswald’s project than of a pervasive phallogocentrism – though of course the works of Homer do stand rather like a huge oppressive dong at the centre of Western literary culture.
[2] Though one would be hard-pressed to show that his sex or gender identity played a greater role in determining his pose of critical empowerment than, say, his social class or ethnic identity (neither of which, incidentally, I know anything about).
[3] On a lighter note, I couldn’t help wishing while writing this piece that my last name was Gu, so that I could title it “Gu on Guri on Guriel.” Then if someone wrote a response to me, they’d have to have no name at all – a reflection perhaps of the many online Anonymouses who creep in from the margins to offer their faceless insights amid such debates.