Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Dream Of Language

The Spiritual Life Of Replicants, poetry by Murat Nemet-Nejat
Talisman House, 2011

“Every living language, like the perspiring bodies of living creatures, is in perpetual motion and alteration,” observed the 17th century British scholar and critic Richard Bentley. “Some words go off, and become obsolete; others are taken in, and by degrees grow into common use; or the same word is inverted to a new sense or notion, which in tract of time makes an observable change in the air and features of a language, as age makes in the lines and mien of a face.”

Mallarmé describes the same essence with opalescent felicity: “Words rise up and in ecstasy; many a facet reveals its infinite rarity and is precious to the mind. For our mind is the center of this hesitancy and oscillation; it sees the words not in their usual order, but in projection (like the walls of a cave), so long as that mobility which is their principle lives on, that part of speech which is not spoken.”

Poet Murat Nemet-Nejat uses the Turkish word Eda, meaning mien, or carriage, to describe this principle of mobility and oscillation as a quality unique to a certain species of poetry in which what is written, and how it is written, cannot be separated from the dream or desire animating the work. “Eda,” he writes, “is a poetics of Sufism embodied in the structure of the Turkish language. This linguistic quality -- thought not as statements, but thought as a linguistic tissue -- is achieved in Turkish primarily through its syntax: Turkish is an agglutinative language, that is to say, declensions occur inside the words as suffixes. Words need not be attached to either end of prepositions to spell out relationships, as in English. This quality gives Turkish total syntactical flexibility.”

The poetry in The Spiritual Life Of Replicants is not written in Turkish, but English. The reason, I believe, that Murat Nemet-Nejat makes these distinctions in the essay at the book of the book titled “A Few Thoughts On Fragments,” is to underscore how one linguistic behavior might inform another linguistic behavior. Eda is not a quantifiable phenomenon like temperature or steel, or even an identifiable style such as Japanese haiku or Elizabethan sonnets; it is an immaterial, ontological essence similar to the 12 century Islamic philosopher Suhrawardi’s Light of Lights, the divine light animating all existence, or the invisible force of Shelley’s “Hymn To Intellectual Beauty,” “the awful Shadow of some unseen Power,” consecrating human thought with its multiple hues and rapturous spells.

“If one considers The Spiritual Life an attempt to translate the flexibility of Eda, the spiritual universe of Sufism into English,” Nemet-Nejat writes, “one sees the antagonist the poet must encounter: the nearly absolute inflexibility of English syntax. English turns into a prison within which Eda must move and, more importantly, from which it must escape. The spectacle-ization of the poem in The Spiritual Life, fragments becoming basic poetic units, is the path to achieve that goal.”

The most striking feature I noticed when I first opened this book was the huge amount of empty space on the pages of much of the work. Some of the fragments, such as the three lines on page 39, aggregate in a compact image at the top, left-hand side of the page:

the yellow of the carpet
lurks in the yellow of my eye.

and waits.

The static tension of this piece charges the image of the carpet with divine significance. Why yellow? Yellow is, of course, a bright color, the color of the sun, lemons, crocus flower, yellow pages of the phone book and their allure of service and appliance, but is also unsettling. Its brightness is aggressive, unrelenting. It is associated with spirituality and enlightenment, but also cowardice and unrequited love. It is arguably the color with the most contradictions associated with it, and so makes an appealing ingredient in a poem mirroring two separate realities of uncertain relation: the object of the carpet and the consciousness of the poet.

The stillness of imagery in these three lines is deceiving. The final two words, “and waits,” give it an ominous, somewhat menacing tinge. And below it is the lush whiteness of the page. Space is of primary importance. It confers authority upon the line, makes a spectacle of the word-aggregation, multiplies possible directions and combinations, unites or destroys the union of opposites, makes the written work appear less utilitarian and hence more artistic, and makes the inert, immovably fixed print more dynamic. In some ways, space appears to be the subject of the text, not just something to be viewed, but stands as the most definite or stable element on the surface of the page. Space has body, existence, being. It has a presence that is both literal and psychological. It stands as an entity of final and unanswerable nullity: the void surrounding, imbuing, and articulating all things. In the case of the poem, it determines where the image stops, begins, and argues its course. It delays or disrupts the development or movement. It increases attention to the material fact of words. It dramatizes the Non-being of Being.

The poem on the following page is even smaller: it consists of three lines, four words. This tiny constellation occupies the far, upper left corner of the page, and is so modest in its appearance it reminds me of those strands of webs one encounters when reaching into an unused, forgotten corner for an errant movie ticket or ping pong ball. The object in this instance, however, is not a web, but a dart:

A dart’s

The use of the word ‘license’ at the end is exquisite. The sharp bright piece of metal that constitutes the dart’s essence is an immediate license - warrant, privilege, latitude - to fly and impale its target on the wall. I feel a sleekness in that word, and allowance and function. The very function of a dart is explicit, immediate in its shape, density, point. When one has thrown a dart one might also know what it means to make a point, hit the target, literal target in a basement rec room or noisy bar, and figurative target, the points we struggle to make in argument and discourse, which might also occur in a basement rec room or noisy bar.

A few of the poems and the title of the collection reference Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner, which was based on a novel by Philip K. Dick titled Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep. The central plot of the movie concerned a line of genetically engineered organic robots called replicants created to perform dangerous or menial work on off-planet colonies. Their use on planet Earth was prohibited. A world-weary expert on replicants named Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, is persuaded to track down a particularly brutal and cunning group of replicants hiding out in a rainy, dystopic Los Angeles.

One of the things I liked best about this movie were the ingenious tests used to identify a replicant masquerading as a human. It was assumed that robots would not have the same emotional response to certain situations as humans, and so the questions were designed to elicit a bizarre and revealing reaction. The replicants are made with a four-year failsafe life span to prevent them from developing emotions. Needless to say, the strategy doesn’t work. I am always deeply moved at the end of the movie (spoiler warning: skip to the next paragraph this if you have not seen the movie), when Rutger Hauer, the lead replicant named Batty, is dying after a titanic battle with Ford, stands against the dark with rain running down his face, and says: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.”

Blade Runner raised serious questions about consciousness, machinery, and emotion. Not to mention death and mortality. In the poem “Limbo,” Nemet-Nejat writes “The soul, the mechanical eye we are born with, stealing the body to tell its dream. Then it dies, its specific mode of existence, and it continues its wanderings to find another host. That’s why the classical thinkers knew the ghosts of the dead wandered in the nether land -- not searching for god, but yearning for another body.”

The dilemma of soul and body has been with us a long time. I have tried imagining a state of existence in which I was pure essence, pure energy, with no fingers or thumbs or legs or eyes. No ears to hear sounds. Not skin to feel textures. No bones and muscles to feel the gentle push and pull of gravity. It is this dilemma that goes to the heart of this collection, and reveals itself most tellingly in the word ‘replicant.’

Language is the ultimate replicant. It is the living tissue in which the soul finds another body, and begins to dream.


Bogartte said...

Ah, John, what a marvelous review! Amazing idea-collage as well.

Harald Striepe said...

Bladerunner, one of my favorite movies. That line, one of my favorite lines - ad-libed by Hauer, I might add. It should also be noted that after a brutal battle, and after Deckard has brutally killed all his comrades without compassion, Batty looks at Deckard's suffering, shows empathy, and saves him, only to die.
Nice article!

Anonymous said...

Blade Runner is one of my favorites also. It's up there with Matrix and Alien. And science fiction is not my favorite genre; I lean toward westerns. Favreau's Cowboys and Aliens has both, but I haven't seen it yet.

Thank you, Harald and Bogartte, for your comments.

-- John

Anonymous said...

Makes me want to read his beautiful poems.

Makes me ponder over-indulgently once again that anglo-americans are cursed with a pragmatism that is fundamentally anti-poetic, like when I see a good Iranian or Russian film.

A beautifully written review. You are a Sir Galahad of language. Most bastards just use it for their own ends ! They want to just fuck language whilst thinking of something else, and steal it's cigarettes and tube-pass in the morning. They don't care if language itself comes or not.

I fell for James Wright (Bly's old buddy) many years ago.
I remember:

The New York poets come to me with their mangled figures of speech.
They have no pity for the pure, clear word."


Dear reader, we had a beautiful language,
We did not use it.

David Grove said...

John, ever read an old western by Elmore Leonard called The Law at Randado? A good escape read.

Anonymous said...

Nope, only read one Elmore Leonard novel, can't remember what, it took place in Florida. I should read 3:10 To Yuma. I've seen the original once, the one with Russel Crowe & Christian Bale, four times, and will see it more, since we bought a copy. We own the Glenn Ford '57 Yuma too. I'm going to put Leonard's book on hold at the library.

-- Johnny Yuma

David Grove said...

Just saw Glenn Ford in a western with Jack Lemmon. Watched it with my parents; my dad saw it in a theater when he was young. Ford was good. Reminded me a little of Cliff Robertson.