How to Read a Prophecy

By Jennifer ChangJuly 14, 2012

How to Read a Prophecy

Address by Elizabeth Willis
Voyager by Srikanth Reddy

  1. Prophecies

            On September 11, 1912, Franz Kafka recounted a dream in his diary:

At first I did not really know where I was, only when once I accidentally stood up did I see on my left and behind me on my right the distant, clearly outlined sea with many battleships lined up in rows and at anchor. On the right New York could be seen, we were in New York Harbour. The sky was grey, but of a constant brightness. I moved back and forth in my seat, freely exposed to the air on all sides, in order to be able to see everything. In the direction of New York my glance slanted downwards a little, in the direction of the sea it slanted upwards. I now noticed the water rise up near us in high waves on which was borne a great cosmopolitan traffic.

It’s hard not to suspect Kafka of a kind of prophecy. Disoriented, his perspective nonetheless scans panoramically, offering a view of the harbor and the city so familiar that Kafka could accurately dream it without ever having been there in person. Before him stands not only the rising tides of the East River, but also the familiar view of New York’s “great cosmopolitan traffic.” Today we recognize that traffic, though situated in the United States, as the world’s population — multicultural, transnational, divergently diasporic — embodying a grief that continues to be remembered as a September morning lit in “constant brightness.” How can we not read Kafka’s dream as anything but a portent of future loss? The desire to read prophecy in literature is as much a desire to give meaning to a senseless present as it is an exhortation to read more deeply and more searchingly into the past. Literature isn’t prophecy, but it presents us with one of the healthier consolation practices in an age too meager with solace and recompense.

The potential for literature as prophecy emerges quietly, and quite powerfully, in Jen Bervin’s 2004 artist’s book or, depending how you read it, book of poems, Nets, which makes a stunning argument for paying more attention to both literary history and the materiality of writing. Bervin took The Complete Sonnets of William Shakespeare and proceeded to erase the text, emboldening a few selected words in each sonnet. (The title itself is an excision of The Complete Sonnets of William Shakespeare.) What remains is the new poem standing over the bleached-out text of the original, the pale gray words of which haunt the pages like the very ghost of Shakespeare. Bervin presents us with the uncovered augury of Sonnet 64: beginning with the lines “When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced / The rich proud cost of outworn buried age,” the poem is then erased and crystallized into a devastating shard:

I have seen

            towers                         down-razed

            loss            loss

The quotation here does no justice to the work. Nets is an exquisite object that formally bolsters Bervin’s poetics of erasure. But what’s erased is never wholly gone, as she explains in her process note at the back of the book: “When we write poems, the history of poetry is with us, pre-inscribed in the white of the page; when we read or write poems, we do it with or against this palimpsest.” Uncovering Sonnet 64’s twinned losses, spotlighted as they are on the page, the New York-based poet-artist echoes the “Tribute in Light,” an installation featuring twin beams of light shining from the towers’ emptied places in the months after their collapse and on subsequent anniversaries. Both “Tribute in Light” and Bervin’s Sonnet 64 are memorials that also deftly enact prayer: one aches our gazes upward to the sky; the other commands our gazes downward to the page.

On the next page, the erasure of Sonnet 68 suggests what is gained in depicting, or unveiling, such losses.                      



                                                            shorn away

                        what beauty was

Bervin’s textual effacement is a direct descendent of Ronald Johnson’s 1979 Radi Os, an erasure of Book One of Paradise Lost and a postmodern push against literary tradition. But Johnson’s erasures are complete, brazenly relegating Milton to white space; what’s so affecting about Nets is that, in never entirely erasing Shakespeare’s sonnets, Bervin also never fails to show what’s lost. The “shorn away” persists as an acknowledgment that experiences of war, trauma, and violence — the psychic and historical counterparts to Bervin’s particular poetics of erasure — become part of our cultural topography. Who of us can look at today’s New York skyline and not see the missing towers? Perhaps the past is always lost, privy to “what beauty was,” the missing. Yet, by scouring Shakespeare’s sonnets Bervin surmises where past and future collide: “shorn away” thus describes that process and what’s prophesied, the mortally erased and the divine revelation: “loss            loss.” It’s a tantalizing possibility for what literature, if read well and expansively, can do.

2.  “I was given an office and a globe”

Jen Bervin’s Nets paves the way for Srikanth Reddy’s ambitious second collection, Voyager, a book-length poem that applies a comparable poetics of erasure to an extended meditation on war and political agency. Unlike Bervin’s and Johnson’s turns to classic literature, Reddy’s source material is the 1985 memoir In the Eye of the Storm, written by Kurt Waldheim, a former UN Secretary-General and president of Austria. From 2003 to 2009, Reddy read and erased the text three times. At the end of Voyager, the poet directs readers to a website with notes and examples from his process. Here, we find entire pages of words crossed out with a thick, dark pen; occasional annotations ghost the margins, but most pages with only a word or two untouched look at once monolithic and ravaged. While not requisite for appreciating Voyager, these curious artifacts announce an obsessiveness that comes across more subtly in the final product.

Waldheim’s validity as global politician and poetic subject matter is one of the questions haunting the peculiar project of Voyager. Throughout his postwar career, Waldheim was dogged by suspicions that his wartime activities were more extensive than he claimed; and, in addition to narrating a life devoted to the goal of world peace, his memoir re-affirms his innocence. Even when documents emerged indicating otherwise, he insisted on his guiltlessness as one of many ordinary citizens forced by a terrifying regime to participate in an unfortunate war. Reddy expresses little ostensible interest in this history. Instead, he scrutinizes the text for “unruly emotional forces,” his own and Waldheim’s; the poems bear a voice too dispassionate to be read as exactly contemplative, though the book is both woven together and complicated by thought. One could read in this voice Reddy’s training as a literary scholar, and it certainly expresses a resistance to reading (or judging) Waldheim’s biography with a New Critic’s austerity.

Form, natural and constructed, is of paramount concern and serves as a recurring trope:
“The self is a suffering form,” “Kurt Waldheim is a formal negotiation,” and “War is a failure of form.” Even when we can identify form (the self, Waldheim, war, prose, or verse), what’s contained within form pushes us toward interpretation, and thus the experience of uncertainty. An impressively dexterous poet, Reddy subscribes to no one school or art, and his talents are interdisciplinary and vast. Inquiry coaxes his poems into their necessary existence, and he rightly recognizes that the routes of any inquiry demand the use of all one’s resources.

To this extent, Voyager can be a difficult book to read, especially in finding the emotional impetus behind such inquiry; it’s a concession the poet readily makes: “Now I realize in the theatres of neutrality, the heart freezes.” He mediates this difficulty by incorporating the process of reading as writing — and erasure as writing — into the book’s dramatic narrative:

Even if he had intelligence of disquieting matters, I do not wish to judge here the person of Dr. Waldheim. The dead do not cease in the grave. The world is water falling on a stone. True, I began to cross out words from his book on world peace. But I had mixed emotions about this new development in my life. As a child, spelling out world was to open a world in myself, private and byzantine, with mountains by a pale, fragile sea, the coast stretching southwards in the curtained evening hours. Now, to cross line after line out of his work seemed to me a slow and difficult process that verged on the ridiculous.

“The world is the world,” Reddy announces in the book’s first line, but here, a poem in the prose narrative of Book Two, we see that form — the “world” — proliferates variously: from the world of the dead to the world of “water falling on a stone,” from the world of the self to the world of the other, and from the word “world” spelled out by a child to the world remade by an adult crossing out words to make this very poem. Although the poet neither absolves nor condemns the politician, Waldheim’s words make Reddy’s world, which reinforces the inescapable burdens of history. And, in his desire to cross the distances between times, cultures, and languages, as beautifully embodied by the childhood reflection, Reddy replays troubling ambiguities between not only sign and signification, but also feeling one’s responsibility and acting responsibly.

Reddy’s thorough engagement with the text often seems in dialogue with Waldheim, and this suggests one form of ethical action: claiming a history that would be easier to disinherit or simply ignore. After all, despite Waldheim’s commitments to the international community after the war, the memoir is duplicitous. It is particularly disturbing, then, when the poet finds himself in harmony with the politician. “I was given an office and a globe,” Reddy echoes Waldheim, and these material trappings of Reddy’s life as an English professor alert us to what he shares with Waldheim, everyday duties that are both immediate and far-reaching. Indeed, it is what both men, across history, share with all of us in the pursuit of a humane global citizenry, however insignificant the offices and worlds we’ve each been given might seem. Reddy’s bravery as a poet lies in his humbling acquiescence to a process that leads to such uncomfortable truths — how can we judge the dead, who “do not cease in the grave” and whose lives cannot help but serve as the material for shaping our world? How do we make the world different when we are faced with the dilemma of our essential sameness?

By making a poem that is a new world out of an old text, Reddy invites us to imagine how we might remake the world out of our grievous histories. Unsurprisingly, he describes Book Three as an “allegorical journey,” but it might be best to read the entirety of Voyager as an allegory of human responsibility, as a text that in conducting its own making models the “promise of form.” Eighty-odd pages in length, Book Three is Voyager’s formidable core. Reddy shifts to tercets gently staggered across the page, a gentle nod to Dante, in order to chart the experiences of a stranger, a speaker who is neither the poet nor Waldheim, in a strange land. Accompanying him is the aged Minister, whose equanimity belies the faceless crowds agitating around them. Reddy’s speaker is a descendant of the Explorer in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, another outsider who resists judging a morally suspect political regime until he must finally act. For the speaker of Book Three, action comes first in the form of observation, when his initial detachment gives way to abstract understanding, and then later in the form of rejection, when he wanders away from the Minister and into the diffuse world of histories: “I listened with increasing doubt / to this elaborate script. / It was extremely complicated / —full of traps I could not see—”. If the speaker cannot see the exact nature of the Minister’s “elaborate script,” he does learn to read its “traps” as context — phantom, historical, and otherwise — that serve above all to inform his (and our) response to the various texts in play: “I became a disciple of despair / for I had a long good look at that world.”

Another line from the same section speaks to Reddy’s strategy in Voyager: “I wondered what lay behind the words.” To read with wonder opens us to myriad unpredictable experiences of text, and Reddy reaches beyond mere exegesis, sifting through words for hidden truths in order to steer us toward Waldheim’s own erasure, a sort of erroneous poetics that manifested itself as historical amnesia and an utter lack of remorse. Waldheim repeatedly denied his Nazi past and then, rather than admit the truth, ended his political career. Voyager, though, is not finally about Waldheim, but about the kinds of erasures that get written into history, culture, and our individual struggles to be who we must be. It is also about the power of the political imagination.

What’s remarkable about Reddy’s poetics of erasure is how neatly he refashions his source material into elegant lyricism and, at the same time, an effective critique of war and the kinds of erasures (of public and private memory) that sustain war:

I stood before the remains of the war,
                                                until a door opened

within my life.
                              My                         my,
                                                what guided me through?

No answer
                        can be given.
                                                However, I feel my study of conscience


engendered in me that dream
                        which showed me           
                                                            a small tempered globe.

Nowhere have I found another
                        of that material.

                                                            There is nothing stronger.

Determining whether “that material” refers to the “study of conscience,” the “dream,” or “a small tempered globe” is one of the ways in which Reddy constellates meaning and invites his reader to experience her own wonder at what might lie behind his words. Another is the use of repetition, refrains grand and fleeting echo throughout the text, radiating lyric meaning through a chorus of voices. “My my” occurs most tenaciously, a quaint interjection that alternately stutters like a conversational pause and forces an imperiousness into the text. But the phrase also betrays the coupled ownership of these words, Reddy’s and Waldheim’s fraught partnering. “My my,” to this extent, is a miniature world ensconced within the terrible specificities of larger worlds both within Voyager and without, worlds that invariably include all of us. To meet across history and cultures through literature describes yet another wonder of reading; the power of Reddy’s extraordinary book is revealing to readers the urgency of this wonder.

3.  “the world seems always waiting for its poet”

More people should be reading Elizabeth Willis, one of our most gifted and historically attuned poets. Her fourth book, Address, suggests that a larger audience may be forthcoming soon. Recently recognized with a 2012 L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award, Address features the sensual lyricism and rapt intelligence of her earlier volumes with a new accessibility that sacrifices none of the poet’s trademark erudition.

Meteoric Flowers, her brilliant third book, arose from the botanical writings of Erasmus Darwin, grandfather to Charles, and while the wondrous acrobatics of Willis’s language and thought in this book-length sequence of prose poems captivated, the obscurity of her references occasionally cast a veil of privacy over the poems. Rather than understanding the poems at a semantic level, readers had to find sense in Meteoric Flowers through associations, provocations, guesswork, and the pleasures of sight and sound. In “Departure of the Nymphs like Northern Nations Skating” — the jubilantly odd title is from Darwin — Willis explains: “Even if I don’t write it down, I’m just a form of tuning[…] I do this work to word you.” A form of tuning, her poetry catches the frequency of a moment, which from book to book has included not only the music of consciousness and natural observations but also traces of the past.

Willis’s work, full of literary and cultural allusions, thus stresses the impossibility of erasure, shining a light on the ghosts that haunt every word and lyric margin. These ghosts sparked the ingenuity of Meteoric Flowers, as well as her first and second books, The Human Abstract and Turneresque, which emerged from inspired engagements with, respectively, J. M. W. Turner and William Blake. But the ghosts in Address perform a confrontation between the past and present that powerfully invokes the ethical responsibilities of reading well — of reading attentively and critically.

While the allusiveness of her poems has long been a source of difficulty, the allusions in Address sing a sort of rigorous nonsense. What we mistake for random wordplay turns out to be lyric sampling; in other words, she disguises literary history as mere noise. Nonsense, as Willis pointed out in a 2002 essay, often responds to “the philosophical quandary of not knowing.” The quandary of not knowing demands an impassioned effort toward knowing, an effort that depends as much on the writer as the reader and underscores the political imperatives of her work. Address includes a few overtly political poems – a hilarious 5-page riff on former Republican member of the House of Representatives from Florida Katherine Harris, and two lengthy poems compiling “witches” like Arthur Miller and Sappho into a mischievous blacklist of sorts. But these are outnumbered by the subtle difficulties of her shorter lyrics that, like Reddy’s poems, transform the act of reading into a profoundly affecting and potentially ethical engagement.

Encouraged to excavate allusions and reassemble fragmentary language, readers work alongside the poet to make meaning. To this extent, the work Willis does to “word” you — to give language to and thus acknowledge the other (person, experience, and perspective) — has always invited collaboration. In Address, Willis trains her attention on public experience, illuminating reading as not only an engagement with literature and history but also an engagement with community. The book’s title occupies two parts of speech and, essentially, two meanings: the verb speaks to us and locates us; the noun is a speech and a location. Regardless of usage, the word “address” is always contingent on language, either as speech or notation, and, further, always contingent on public experience. You give an address to connect to other people; you have an address to mark your place in the world.

In the title poem, the book’s first, a series of analogies propels “I” to give way to “you,” reaching beyond the solipsism of the self and into the vaster world of others. Here is “Address” in its entirety:

I is to they
as river is to barge
as convert to picket line
sinker to steamer
The sun belongs to I
once, for an instant
The window belongs to you
leaning on the afternoon
They are to you
as the suffocating dis-
appointment of the mall
is to the magic rustle
of the word “come”
Turn left toward the mountain
Go straight until you see
the boat in the driveway
A little warmer, a little stickier
a little more like spring

“Address” sets the stage for critical inquiry and its rewards. While analogies identify relationships between objects and individuals that might otherwise seem unrelated, by the third line, how “convert to picket line” is analogous to “sinker and steamer” is unclear. The poet’s willingness to lose her reader so early in Address challenges expectations for coherence and alights on what’s dubious about easy connections.

Why should it be clear? Indeed, analogies might be a mere trick of language, which Willis subsequently exploits in lines 5-8 when she repurposes the syntactic pattern of analogy to show how swiftly language can vacillate and divide: the desire for connection must constantly grapple with the fact of fragmentation. Thus, the preposition “to” alternately facilitates movement — “I is to they” proceeds into “They is to you” — and limits collectivity — “The sun belongs to I” but “The window belongs to you.” Such slipperiness is enhanced by the scarcity of punctuation, which requires the reader to make decisions about how to read and arrange sentences. The line “once, for an instant” creates temporal tension depending on whether it completes “The sun belong to I / once for an instant” or begins “once for an instant / The window belongs to you.” The “magic rustle” of words suggests that meaning is as fleeting as ownership. However, words are also seductive and Willis’s twists and turns provoke readers to pay more attention, thereby disguising a complex engagement with the poem as interactive play — and, really, what’s the difference?

Willis advances a more immediate form of connection: sound. (In “Incidental Knowledge,” she intones, “A poem ends / when the sound of it is finished.”) There is the consonant growl of /r/ recurring in river, barge, sinker, and steamer and there is the small, sharp wall of /k/ in picket line and sinker; together they suggest the currents against which the poet writes. Antagonism, after all, is often embedded in analogy, and our job as readers is to mediate, to make connections where disruptions reign.

Willis, too, wants to make connections, between language and the world, between herself and the reader, and so she concludes “Address” with directives — “come,” “Turn left,” and “Go straight” — welcoming the reader to a more visceral place, a place that is “A little warmer, a little stickier, / a little more like spring.” The work of warding off the collapse of sense, to affirm connection, finally leads us into the world, of warmer and stickier experience, and this results above all from the poet’s collaboration with her readers. It’s unsurprising, then, that Willis reconsiders her earlier statement of poetic purpose as “a form of tuning” to include the “you.” She writes in “Flow Chart” that “Words sail over / your finest antennae / Even the warmth of a poem / suggests a proximate danger.” These lines speak to the process by which language reverberates as sound, sailing over all of us with democratic indiscrimination, assembling from fragments the music of everyday life.

That numerous poems in Address resound with the echoes of literary predecessors, rather than flaunt the poet’s knowledge, serves to embrace the recombinant nature of language, both uncannily familiar and in constant revision. This, too, produces an interaction through a conscious engagement with the past. In other poems, scraps of Dickinson (“Because I couldn’t stop / for breath”) and William Carlos Williams (“a wheelbarrow for an end to all that”) give pause, urging the reader to do a double take — first to recognize, and then to correct what’s misheard. Not only does this kind of reading affect the poem’s rhythm, creating something like a caesura of thought, it also directs the reader to reach beyond the poem. Poems radiate the warmth of other voices, an intimacy with history that could be dangerous to overlook. Recycled phrases, the refrain of the past, seep onto the page, and intimate that poems don’t end because their sounds resonate in perpetuity. Willis’s allusiveness might be understood as an act of artistic humility: no poem is written by one person alone, no poem stands alone in silence. (Aren’t we all forms of tuning?)

Mishearing, as Willis practices, alludes to the process of time. The alterations that mishearing assigns to old language — “What bitter landscape / the better to hear you with?” and “Love’s office is devotion / to the ungoverned,” respectively echoing The Brothers Grimm and Robert Hayden — crystallize the simultaneity of past and present. The mishearing reveals how stubbornly the poet sets her language in the present, where the errors (or revisions) indicate how wildly we’ve misread the past. So she directs us to read “the poem that is America / America the prophecy,” to understand the present as, if not a fulfillment, then a consequence of the past.

Of course, before Willis, Ralph Waldo Emerson announced, “America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination.” In his essay “The Poet,” Emerson lamented that despite “its ample geography” America had yet to produce a great poetic voice: “the world seems always awaiting for its poet.” That poet would turn out to be Walt Whitman; however, Willis has little interest in the poet as prophet, in one voice galvanizing a culture, and elsewhere in “The Poet” we stumble upon an origin to her politically-minded, culturally-preoccupied poetics. On the craft of poetry, Emerson describes: “we hear those primal warblings and attempt to write them down, but we lose ever and anon a word or a verse and substitute something of our own, and thus miswrite the poem[…] Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.”

Writing on the edge of error, Willis aspires to voice the “primal warblings” of our culture. But how can we read her miswritings so that her words can become actions? How much more attentively and dynamically can we engage with texts? If America is a poem, how are we to read its prophecy? These questions apply equally to Reddy’s Voyager and reflect, more broadly, the poet’s dilemma when confronted with the seeming stasis of writing poems in the midst of ubiquitous political, cultural, and military conflict. Willis’s assertion in “Friday” that “A word is a symptom of what can’t be described” repositions the reader as diagnostician, a task laden with grave responsibilities. We’re left to ask: what is the illness and what is the cure?

For Reddy and Willis, politics in poetry need not be rooted in declamation nor inspired rhetoric, but in cultivating practices that better attune us to both the ordinary and tragic calamities of our lives and to the sheer strangeness of being. Both poets share a sense that hidden within poetry — and, indeed, language — is a window into the future, be it a prophecy or simply a pattern of history. Perhaps what’s most daring, and most transcendent, about Elizabeth Willis’s Address is that she leaves readers with prophecy’s burden, an unsettling union of knowing and not knowing. It’s a terrible beauty, but it’s not unlike the burden of history, to which the poet returns, just as Reddy and Bervin do, with clear-eyed grief:

But that was another war
before we knew what we now know
and before we forgot what we knew then:
the appearance of another flag.
                           (“You’ve Lost Your Card.”)


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LARB Contributor

Jennifer Chang is the author of The History of Anonymity and Some Say the Lark, winner of the 2018 William Carlos Williams Award. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, A Public Space, Poetry, Georgia Review, The Believer, The New York Times, and Yale Review, and she has published essays on poetry and culture in New Literary History, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Asian American Literature and Culture, The Volta, Blackwell’s Companion to the Harlem Renaissance, New England Review, and Los Angeles Review of Books. She serves as the poetry editor of New England Review and since 2003 has been on the staff of Kundiman.


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