Farid Matuk               (page 5)
To Claim Great Things for Such a Practice, or, Getting Over


The poet Robert Duncan, in his correspondence with Denise Levertov, famously said, “[t]he poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it,” and he asked, “[i]s it a disease of our generation that we offer symptoms and diagnoses of what we are in the place of imaginations and creations of what we are?” (669).5 I guess I’m with Duncan on this. I see poetry and the lyric in particular less as a way of expressing a meaning than as a series of provocations that invite readers toward what we can imagine and create. Those of us in a privileged position relative to power, that is, those of us left outside the jail, those of us left inside the green zone, those of us protected by the police, those of us with some cultural capital can choose to craft poetics as various as we are and that attend to the indeterminacy of authorship, language, and categories while also attending to a social order that projects the manners and shapes of its dominance onto our bodies. Duncan called Levertov to a similar attention: “as workers in words, it is our business to keep alive in the language definitions as well as forces, to create crises in meaning, yes—but this is to create meaning in which we are the more aware of the crisis involved, of what is at issue” (661).6

Toward such awareness Martinez’s text asks us to inhabit a remarkable double gesture, that is to oscillate between the policing agent of Standard American English and whatever minstrel performance might be proper to our particular, local set of fantasies about racial and ethnic otherness. But, if this were all the text offered, it would be little more than a piece of agitprop carefully constructed to indict as it incites. The American Studies scholar, Eric Lott, has described the complex relations nineteenth-century blackface shows engendered among performers, working-class white audiences, and blacks (urban and rural) as a dialectic between love and theft. Even in these most disparaging performances, participants on either side of the stage could not escape the fact of their desire for and pleasure in the performance of blackness, however much such performances were in fact based on racial fantasy and bizarre hybridizations that included immigrant Irish and German stories and songs, slave culture’s oral and performance traditions, and white working class antipathy for high-brow culture. Martinez’s text does not spring from nor produce any such complex alchemy of diverse folk referents. Nonetheless, Martinez holds up a mirror in which we see, like nineteenth-century minstrel show participants, our own desire and interest in the other. In this we are shown for something that holds in itself as much good as bad. The fact of our reaching for otherness is the starting place of an ethic, even if our only means for approaching that otherness is clumsy and indecorous.

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