“Shape & Root”
“Branches of dreams and dreams of branches.”
When I was young, in the summers, I’d visit my grandparents’ apartment in a suburb of Tel-Aviv. I’d sit on their balcony, every evening, and watch the wings of bats in a nearby tree flickering elliptically into the night: a fog of tiny bodies convulsing in a riot of black.
The weather of wings bent the tree’s silhouette into hysterical shapes: a blackened lung, a black flag of the possibility of other trees.
My grandparent’s balcony was only ten yards from the tree’s canopy. My thought and sight hurtled over this short interval, with sumptuous interest, yet without any way of accessing the underlying logic of the bats’ alien socializations
Now, at twenty eight– my memory hurtling over a eighteen year interval– I think of this tree as a symbol of the aestheticization of political history. A symbol of how one can observe the antics of an inscrutable community from afar, as if it were a choreographed sport- over an ocean, on a computer screen. A reminder that anything, no matter its “depth,” can be flattened, arranged for consumption, eviscerated of its original, constitutive meaning.
The interval between the balcony and the bats has guided my understanding of poetry- and expression in general. It serves as a talisman, a metaphor, of the experience of linguistic dislocation: the experience of a subjectivity sidelined, and inspired by, an unreadable surface.
This interval– this space between a single interpretative vision and an unresponsive, yet dynamic, interface– is the threshing floor of poetic thinking. Affixing meaning to something moving, yet mute, is the underlying gesture of any poetic act.
I agree with Emerson when he says all language is “fossil poetry.” Every word is generated by a primary encounter with something that was once unwritten, or is fundamentally unwritable. I think of the subtle onomatopoeia of the word ocean– that flawed, flowing imitation.
[It appears to me that the index of different genres of poetic thinking is the particular length of the interval between an untellable surface and what is being said about the surface. The tone of different poetic acts emerges from the degree of effort that is exerted to cross these different kinds of intervals.]
So, at ten years old, I watched each bat in its subtle, seemingly arbitrary gymnastics; each bat was a data point, aggregating into a dense cloud- a murk of opaque subjectivities- lost in another social context, far beyond my human frame of reference.
The very act of scaling, or simply dwelling in, this difficult interval is my linguistic inheritance. I don’t identify with a linguistic tradition that is housed within a specific discourse or language, be it Hebrew or English, or specific genre or idiom.
“I am the outskirts of a nonexistent town.”
As soon as I’d turn my attention inward, to the warm apartment behind me, my ears would fill with a weather, a weird whir of foreign words.
The air in the apartment was thick with conversations unknown, quickly shifting in tone and density, in relation to the language being spoken. My grandparents spoke many languages, often within a single breath: Hebrew, French, Turkish, Ladino, English.
At the time, the context of ceaseless linguistic variation formed a hypnotic epistemological limit to my daily experience. I learned little by listening to their conversations, only the pleasure of sound, the appreciation of the textured intonations of particular personalities. I’d follow the arcs of their strange sentences as they bent in surprising and inscrutable ways, always ending, at some point, in the universal emphasis, silence, which I held onto for certainty, since it was the only thing I understood.
When I was older, I would learn that the sudden shifts in tongue were caused by shifts in emotional register; they expressed nostalgia in Turkish, intimacy in French, and anger, usually at the news, in Hebrew.
Yet at the time, the sensation of strange, unexplicated music, was enough for me; I learned to be at ease as an outsider to languages that felt like “home.” I loved to wade in the unarticulated interval between my ear and the foreign air, looking for odd, perhaps un-reportable, sensations to encounter.
My aesthetic formed there as well. As I doodled and sketched in silence- listening- my preference grew for a kind of discursive complexity, that belonged, in some ways, outside of logic- or least in a kind of willed self-mystification.
“Repressive forces don’t stop people from expressing themselves, but rather, force them to express themselves.”
Later on, I’d learn that this discursive heterogeneity around me was caused by larger historical forces, rather than the simple whim of passing emotions.
Over the course of the twentieth century, my family had undergone four geographic dislocations; each dislocation was caused by the vagaries of war & nationalism, and each dislocation caused a collective linguistic shift. The past four generations were caught in a tight dialectic of linguistic annihilation and emergence.
Ladino was overtaken by Turkish. Turkish was discarded for Hebrew. Hebrew was eclipsed by English.
My great grandmother was born in 1904 under Ottoman rule, in Salonika, the capital of Ladino-speaking Jews. Ladino itself is the vestige of a harsh, but distant, passage of dislocation. Borne over the threshold of the Spanish Inquisition, it’s a hybrid tongue that dwells between Old Spanish and Biblical Hebrew.
In pursuit of new work, she and her husband sailed to Istanbul in 1925, where she gave birth to my grandmother. For a time, they spoke Ladino at home and at work, but as post-Ottoman Turkish nationalism took hold, their children were forced to learn Turkish– with its newly fabricated Latin-based character system– in primary school. This comprehensive sociolinguistic project held all ethnic dialects under siege in the commons, including Greek, Ladino, Kurdish & Armenian. As fate would have it, this historical linguistic shift coincided with the annihilation of the entire community of Ladino-speaking Jews in Salonika in the Holocaust. The interval between my grandmother’s generation and the one prior, widened, infinitely, and broke.
While my grandmother continued to speak Ladino in private with her parents, her public self became part of new political movement, with its own sociolinguistic implications: political Zionism. In 1949, she sailed with her husband, my grandfather, out of the Bosphorus into the port of Jaffa, in Palestine.
My father was born in 1956 in Jerusalem, no longer Turkish, within an overwhelmingly Eastern-European culture, and under a new linguistic regime of another freshly-invented tongue: modern Hebrew.
I was born near an air force base in Tel-Aviv; my first words were in Hebrew, but my first language was English. My mother chose to leave Israel for reasons that she once cited as “spiritual,” but now cites as “political.”
A thought travels from the terrace to the tree; the body travels from Istanbul to Tel-Aviv; a word is translated from Hebrew to English. With each new passage, a mark is made on the ground: a token, a poem.
Like the wings of bats, arranging in odd and irregular formations, the fundamental content of each passage is the tone- the hum- of survival. This can mean bodily, cultural or spiritual survival- or the survival of a song, a word, a first impression. With each crossed threshold, each generation contorted itself in order to survive the brutalities of political history, their identity fracturing, and reintegrating, in the slow riot of re-invention.
A child watches the receding linguistic wave of the previous generation, projecting his worries and confusions on its surface that tapers out of sight. A child watches a tree, convulsing in black, soon to be lost. The child, him or herself, a tree- soon to be, or already, lost.
“Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.”
Jorge Luis Borges
THE RESIDUE OF LOSS, TOKENS OF A BROKEN EXCHANGE
Let’s say the tree outside my window were chopped. Let’s say it were filled with red birds. If their center vanishes, where would these birds go? How long would the birds be able to continue this dance, this pliant architecture? Without a center, would they be able to perform these acrobatics from memory? Would they be invested in recalling these patterns of old forms of socialization? What kind of imprint had their former movements made on the given air?
“Under the stars, what then? That’s better left unsaid.
For the wanderer doesn’t bring a handful of that
unutterable earth from the mountainside down to the valley,
but only some word hard won, a pure word, the yellow
and blue gentian. Maybe we’re here only to say: house, bridge, well, jug.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke speaks of a mountain. When the “wanderer” comes down from the mountain, he does not do so with a handful of dirt, but with a “word hard won” that corresponds with a single unit of untellable experience.
In my mind, the mountain Rilke signifies “the social.” To climb the mountain is to climb the archive of the human voice. To climb the mountain is to follow the angel of history: a thing flickering, ceaselessly present, ceaselessly lost. How to harvest expression from this social limit, this invisible communities of past generations? How to retrieve the residue of the passage between one location and the next, from virtual to real, from Turkey to Israel, from the mountain to the valley?
The work of the poet is marked by the effort to excavate the untellability of private, as well as, collective experience. To retrieve lost or hidden information from the scene of linguistic dislocation, and produce effects, social and individual. The chafing of the mind and body on each threshold leaves a mark on the ground. Yet this residual truth does not belong to one language, but rather to something that is basic to the very structure of metaphor: tokens of glyphic or mythic dimension of speech.
Poetry is the romance, fetishization, of the tokens of this broken exchange between the verbal and the untellable: the “hard won word”, this handful of dirt, the pixel, the coin, the meme, the sound, the poem. To a poet, each word is a koan, representing yet concealing what it once pointed to. These koans, indissoluble, correspond with something that is readable across different discourses, something that transcends linguistic distinction, the can endure the threat of annihilation, the violence of war, or the violence of a dominant language, to pass its secrets onto the unwritten linguistic landscapes.
“I would like to make poems out of real objects. The lemon to be a lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste.”
COMPUTER SCREEN, THE SMALLEST SKY
At night, the archive is a riot of colorless things, and also the root of every color. The wings flickering are pages, videos, errata of all kinds. Each character read on this screen is a type of a bat. Letter a: a bat. Letter b: a bat, Letter c: a bat. Each pixel, writhing, incommunicable, a bat. How do we face it? As poet-thinkers, entranced, fixated, on the impossible passage of the language to and from the untellable, how do we write it?
Our discourse now dwells in the interval between the night sky and that smallest sky of our laptop. To render a new real is the goal of our work. To transfer this vision of the real into new discourses, new landscapes, new worlds.
I want to make poetry that renders “real objects” of digital speech and digital space, those new forms of speech that emerge from the collapsing interval between virtual and real.
Only by understanding the new, historically-specific, mechanisms of linguistic ordering and dispersal can we understand the principles of linguistic emergence and annihilation in the digital era. With this knowledge, we can stand near the volatile generative horizon on which avant-garde gestures cluster like lichen, blooming at sudden degrees of stress, into many other trees, of varying degrees of closeness.
In terms of annihilation, I am interested in mapping the linguistic dislocations that are occurring on a perceptual level as a result of new technologies of reading and writing, and in response to the automated “reading protocols” of surveillance and software that imitates human speech, both of which are in the process of scaling back the perimeter of lyric-poetic interiority, that space in which we conceal our perceptions, letting them ferment before their exhalation as intentional speech.
In terms of emergence, I am interested in mining meaning in the words that are being generated by new modes of social interaction in the digital commons, as well culling lyrical thought from technical languages, such as code languages that are the constitutive inner-thought of various artificial intelligences. These spaces are ripe for creative harvest: the “fossil poetry” of the digital era.
One new term, in particular, deepens this investigation of the experience of linguistic dislocation: “losslessness.” The word “lossless” refers to the degree of information lost during a transference from one type of a file to another (.pdf to .jpg). I think of it as a metaphor for a transcendent transfer, between two virtual locations, without any metempsychotic friction, without any residual loss: a pure reproduction of the old. I think of the transfer of data from one mind to another, from one language to another, from one generation to another, from one continent to another. “Losslessness” gestures towards an extreme possibility of artistic expression. An expression where a primary experience would undergo little loss in its scaling down into a poem or a personal statement. It reveals a possible closure, or healing, of the generative glitch that is linguistic dislocation: the promise that we can one day, to whatever effect, reproduce “first sight” without any residual loss.