On an Innovative Poet’s Book, Never Published – Asked to write an introduction to a new book of poetry by Scott-Patrick Mitchell that never appeared, I wondered about the life of such texts (the book itself, the intro apropos of a ‘hidden text’). Within this book, this short chapter is an example of the evasiveness of critical text-making, where its referent is ‘lost’ or changes into something else (Scott-Patrick Mitchell’s poems would find different lives in different contexts). So the book itself becomes ambiguous, as all physical manifestations of texts are vulnerable to deletion, erasure, to loss in some form. In the first volume of this trilogy, I discussed the erasure of digital files of record I called ‘Net Death’, and in some ways this echoes that. But it’s different – the loss is only partial in the immediate, and the text written remains a moment of engagement that says something, I think, about textual practice. The direct relevance to the argument of this book resides in the following quote: ‘Love and desire, lust and consummation, are not about imposition. Again and again, these are poems of rights, poems of language’s possibility to extend outside the status quo, to particularise and universalise at once, over and over, but to know respect and intactness of self and community.’ Scott-Patrick Mitchell identifies as ‘non-binary’, and it should be said clearly here that this does not necessarily accord with ‘ambiguity’. The defining of ‘non-binary’ as ‘ambiguous’ is completely at odds with the affirming decision-making behind identity. Such ‘definitions’ are beyond ambiguity, and only those who see a binary in gender will construct a discourse. In their poetry, Mitchell deals with ambiguity of language and even situations and interfaces with world, but this is not via an ambiguity of identity. Sexuality and desire are central to the poet’s poetics, but they are not fixed by even the language they use.
The Inherent Reciprocities of Memoir-making: On the Memoirs of Evelyn Shakir and George Ellenbogen. This section was written to accompany the co-publication of earlier memoirs of Shakir and Ellenbogen in French- and German-language editions (this ‘introduction’ is unpublished prior to this in English), but also in the context of this work as whole (I discussed the context with George Ellenbogen). Sharing a life, as Shakir and Ellenbogen did, is focalised through a ‘disparity’ of heritages and histories that would seem in discourse to be in opposition, but are reconciled in their compassion, empathy and willingness to retain their own identities while respecting and in fact sharing each other’s, and also the communities they come out of. In some ways, this is the pivotal section of the book, as it moves towards a giving peace, searching for mutuality in ‘difference’, while always tracing the complexities. As I say in the introduction to Beyond Ambiguity: ‘The section of the “conversations” between Evelyn Shakir and George Ellenbogen in their respective memoirs is pivotal in this attempt. I have long been interested in spaces where, say, Hebrew and Arabic writers can share textuality, and how this reflects on a non-state issue of sharing and co-existence ... I try to consider divisions as acting as points de repère rather than separations, and I find such traces in these wonderful memoirs written in English.’ Jewish Montreal (with a reaching back into the journey from Europe of the Holocaust), Arab Boston (come out of Lebanon), and the crossing pathways of migration, and an articulating in the world of their ‘nows’, is generative and resilient, and I attempt to trace this.
The relationship between issues of ambiguity in creating and reading literary texts, and making use of those texts in environmental and ‘rights’ activism, can seem incongruous, and frequently even adversarial, but in this section I try to reconcile matters of clarity in commitment with evasiveness in textual slippage. The chapter begins with a poem of unambiguous pro-environment activist intent that, nonetheless, carries its own ‘internal’ ambiguities. This section considers the nature and implications of such apparent contradictions. From considerations of ambiguities which refuse ‘definition’ and lead us to ‘push beyond ambiguity’ in an attempt to maintain clarity of purpose and the generative slippages of understanding/misreading, we read text outside the investments of institutions (academic / schooling / government etc.); we encounter the question of how we use these texts for activist purposes. Considering the making of adaptations and versions out of Hölderlin’s poetry, and inflecting through Ivan Illich’s ‘Deschooling Society’, I write, ‘I want textual analysis to lead to an articulation of defiance against forces of exclusion and oppression. The university might well have an official policy of supporting cultural, gender, ethnic, and even political diversity, but it will never support a position that resists the administrative bedrock upon which it is based.’ Concluding the section is ‘The truth should be in blurbs’, in which I argue that documents of support (blurbs, encomiums, reference letters etc.) should operate as an extension of textual activism and be documents of responsibility. I say: ‘All of the documents-of-support I have written over the last twenty-five years for others actually fit into a narrative of justice, environmentalism, and anti-aesthetics even when the work itself might seem far from these concerns.’ In this, one exchanges/interacts with the text – a sharing rather than a comment from an often (mis)perceived position of ‘authority’.
This final section is divided into three sub-sections and is concerned with collaboration in activism, writing, community and common purpose. I have worked with Swiss sociologist, novelist, poet, sculptor and artist Urs Jaeggi since the mid-1990s, and here are parts of collaborations with discussions around their making and enactment. There is also a consideration of ambiguity (‘textural ambiguity’ – with its text/texture ‘plays’) in the making of poems on photographs, and in photographs themselves in ‘On Textures of Ambiguity – a collaborative exhibition of poems and photographs [of Will Yeoman]’, in which the subtexts of this book come into relief: ‘I am fascinated by the way apparent ambiguities come about from not being able to position an ‘object’ in relation to other ‘objects’, to set something seen in the broader context of seeing – to show the other co-ordinates around a single point; the inability to show the GPS co-ordinates, so to speak, might actually tell us more about the locally specific than the vista image, the points of reference, the photograph of the broader landscape’. The act of displaying and exhibiting has been a theme across this Poetics Trilogy, with the curatorial act always in question. From collaborating with another writer/artist, the section moves into more personal poetic considerations regarding activism. Throughout the trilogy, I have used my own poems as ongoing ‘windows’ into practice, with specific usage in tension with the ambiguities of the language arrangement, the prosody, of the texts. And we ‘resolve’ into the contradiction of supporting a cause while objecting to some of its methods (as failing, to my mind, to take in some of the contradictions in a specific ‘protest’ action). This section, and the book (other than the conclusion which address all three volumes of the Poetics), concludes with communal statements of participatory activist poetics.
This section considers a number of poets’ works and lives. From celebrations to obituaries, from investigations to elegies, the common theme is the tension (the condition of being ‘fraught’) between how a text is read and what the intent was behind its making, and also its publication. The key to reading the ambiguous relationship between belief (vegan anarchist pacifist) and reading a text justly and in its own terms is focalised, especially in the discussion of Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork, in which a number of poems are set around an abattoir where family worked. I write of Blakwork that it is: ‘this decentering book of centres ... this word of mouth book of occasional computer gambits... of paddy melon paddocks (been writing a lot about those lately!) ... of shredding the warped contrivances of racism ... of powerful blakwomen ... of growing up and observing the journey ... of family and belonging and country’. Much of this section is concerned with identity and belonging, and how such things are defined or refuse definition (depending who is doing the defining), as well as notions of community. The crisis of colonialism is said and unsaid in the crisis of textuality. Across these pieces I am ultimately arguing for respect for difference, for cultural diversity, for mutual co-existence, a primacy of Indigenous rights, and respect for the paths of knowledge. Poetry becomes an enactment of presence and its contradictions.
This section is about encounters with non-human life and an articulation of vegan animal-rights activism and mode of living. The ‘nature’ model of literary making that often comes (to my mind) at the expense of animals is considered, refuted and criticised. Starting with a ‘letter to an editor’ that is as much critique of a mode of talking about ‘nature’ texts as it is about a book being reviewed, I write: ‘Written with that oozing, sickly fluidity of so much neo-colonial cross-referential “nature writing”, which seeks to historicise experience as knowledge from which definite conclusions about the right and wrong of human interaction with nature might be drawn, the article leaves us with the “experience” of encountering the author’s encounters and epiphanies.’ I then seek to justify other approaches through a vegan animal-rights environmentalism, and consider how important conversation and exchange of information are around this (and, yes, accommodating different approaches!). The topic of loving animals and yet not wanting to ‘keep animals’ is explored in detail; the section finishes by reconsidering my long-term ‘anti-pastoral’ poetics with a look at the fraughtness between pastoral constructs of a rural ‘nation’ and the brute reality of such impositions – a consideration of the ongoing colonial exploitation that is supported by literary tropes. We are brought back to the point of ambiguity and its ‘consequences’ and movements: ‘The pastoral is inherently connected with an agriculturalism of progress. The mechanisation of the means of producing food. As such, in text, it becomes as if a “magic roundabout” that sends spokes and tracks out into ambiguities of literary expression’
This chapter discusses how by the end of the nineteenth century Victorian dantismo began to be practised and understood as a form of public outreach and engagement as well as of political and cultural exchange on a national and international level. It retraces the dynamics of disciplinary specialisation of Dante studies from the perspective of the scholarly activities of the Oxford, London and Manchester Dante Societies established between 1876 and 1906, and the creation of Dante Collections at University College London and at the John Rylands Library. It illustrates how these professional institutions were responsible for catalysing the methodological turn from dantophilia to dantismo, and the institutionalisation of the teaching of Dante in academic (established and extramural) courses. This reconstruction rests on the perusal of archival holdings including the Societies’ records, minute books, teaching syllabi and transcriptions of lectures as witnesses of the diverse political, aesthetic, and ideological make-ups of the Societies as well as of the cultural exchange nationally and internationally. The chapter pays particular attention to figures such as Henry Clark Barlow, Edward Moore, Paget Toynbee, Charles Tomlinson and Azeglio Valgimigli for the way their personal trajectories exemplified the historical and socio-cultural evolution of the Dante enthusiast into a Dante scholar: a turn that fostered the conditions for the creation of one of the most eminent scholarly Dante traditions outside Italy.
From grande amore to lungo studio - rethinking the hermeneutic turn in Dante reception history
The conclusion revisits the key-claims of the study, drawing the central implications of having expounded the greater intellectual and material complexity of the mechanism of Dante’s Victorian reception. It emphasises how the mapping of the Victorian hermeneutical turn raises crucial questions on the importance of historical practices of reading, annotating and book-collecting for providing a comprehensive representation of the phenomenon and its manifold ramifications in nineteenth- and twentieth-century periodical and print culture.
Christina and Maria Francesca Rossetti’s Dante sisterhood
Chapter three argues that by the mid-1870s, the rising field of Dante Studies had become one of the new territories of endeavour claimed by a growing public of women of letters, actively negotiating their critical identity and scholarly authority as professional mediators of Dantean knowledge. Through an initial bibliographical survey, the chapter illustrates how a socially varied community of established and of lesser-known women writers played a pivotal part in launching the process of production, promotion and dissemination of Dantean literature among in late Victorian Britain, through a wide-ranging body of literary and pedagogic works. The chapter focuses on the paradigmatic case of Christina and Maria Francesca Rossetti for the way they negotiated with the forces of patriarchal authority represented by their male-centric “family dantismo”, to achieve authority as public and professional mediators of Dantean knowledge. The chapter first discusses on Christina’s periodical articles - ‘Dante, an English Classic’ for the Churchman’s Shilling Magazine and Family Treasury (1867) and ‘Dante, the Poet illustrated out of the Poem’ for the Century Magazine (1884) – and her work as editor Cayley’s translation of the Commedia: an activity documented in her personal edition of the work, now at the Houghton Library. It then moves onto the textual and book-historical analysis of Maria Francesca’s handbook A Shadow of Dante (1871) to elucidate the biographical dynamics through which she constructed her critical expertise and scholarly knowledge, gaining cultural power and public recognition as a pioneer Dante scholar on the Victorian literary market.