Archive for the ‘Adaptations’ Category

Justine knows this wrought iron bridge well enough.  As she looks up at it from the riverbank, she can see the full length of it. She knows the exact place where her name was carved on its bowstring truss one night a hundred years ago by someone who thought he loved her. A car passes across it, jostling its iron body, and stops her from thinking about how she watched his hand etch the letters deeply into the layers of thick green paint.  Something moves below the bridge and catches her attention.  A young boy crouches beside the dark river on the other side.  He’s not looking at her as he touches the surface of the water with his open hands. Testing the temperature, she guesses. Trying to see his reflection, maybe. Justine considers the slow way the river moves between them.  The skin of a beast flashing a thousand brilliant points of breaking light. Further along an overturned shopping cart is caught in flowing brown-green reeds of river-hair. A Dominion grocery store artifact stuck fast. A rusting discard. Its edges glinting as if new in the morning sun after a midnight joy ride down Blackfriar’s Hill.  On this side of the river, her two children have fallen under the shoreline spell of finding green bits of seaglass.

“Not too close to the water, okay.” Her two young girls in oversized black rain boots and unzipped spring jackets, take one, then two steps back before sitting on the pebbled shore, racking grey gravel for colour with tiny pink fingers.  Small handfuls at a time.

“Mommy, look at this!”

“That’s pretty, honey. See if you can find ten pieces each.”

Her children’s heads bow without question into the task. Justine’s attention wades back across the river. “He can’t be more than fifteen,” she whispers to herself.  The boy stretches his frame and peels off his torn parka.

She watches the boy disappear inside an oversized refrigerator box and re-emerge with a large green knapsack.

“Mommy, we’re hungry!”

From across the river the boy looks up at her, as if the words came from him.  She sees his eyes squint from the white path of sunlight that unfurls across the water.  Reaching.

“Yes, I know.  I can see that,” she says quietly, not taking her eyes away from the boy.

She watches as he turns away, as if he saw her but didn’t see her. He begins to climb using his hands and feet a-quarter-of-the-way-up the breakwater’s inclined grey cement wall.

“Elizabeth, watch your sister.  I’ll be right back.”

“Okay,” her daughter says quietly as she peers up briefly before resuming her search, examines her kneecap where a small pile of sea glass has been sorted – three green one brown one pink stone

Justine makes her way up the embankment carrying a white plastic grocery bag.  The bridge reverberates with the thump-thump of passing cars, crossing from road to bridge to road.  From here, in the middle of the bridge, she can see a long way:  her girls on one side of the river looking for shiny broken pieces and on the other side, a boy.

“Hey!” Justine shouts, a bit surprised to hear her own voice.

Butch looks up.

“I’ve left something for you.”  She holds the bag up against the blue sky like a flag.  And without knowing it, her fingertips briefly touch letters from another time.

The lady who was across the river a minute ago is now on the bridge – waving like she knew him. A white bag hangs from an iron post in the middle of the crossing. Butch dusts some dirt off his shirt and makes his way, slow but not, to the iron-mouth-opening of the bridge.  He instantly catches a waft from the ancient black oil soaked into the bridge’s long wooden planks.  Its wetness, from last night’s rain, gives off a languid layer of steam under the heat of the morning sun. He feels the warmth on his face. Butch sees the lady as she stands on the other side, directly across from him. For a moment they both hold each other’s gaze. He thinks that maybe her lips try to make a smile. Her eyes shine like small stars. Then she’s gone.  Butch leans his body over the iron railing of the bridge to catch one more glimpse.  The lady collects her children. Seaglass clasped tight in small fists. Butch waits for her to look back over her shoulder so he can tell her that her eyes are like stars. But she doesn’t look back.

On the breakwater’s inclined cement wall Butch opens the bag under warm sun. Three sandwiches, three juice boxes, three small clementines, three chocolate chip cookies. He studies the way the sandwiches are wrapped.  Wax paper carefully folded in the middle, and the triangles of extra paper are tucked under, like a gift.  It dawns on Butch that some people make an effort to wrap a sandwich.  It was probably still dark when she made them.  Bare feet on the cold kitchen floor.  A cutting board ready.  She opens her refrigerator.  Full.  She has to move the carton of milk and leftovers out of the way to reach packages of cheese, liverwurst, turkey. Butch thinks about opening his fridge.  The light inside doesn’t work.  Doesn’t matter cause there’s nothin’ to see.  He closes his fridge and thinks about how soft the bread is from the cupboard above her head.  She probably has to stand on her toes to reach it.  How her hands move.  A hard calm. Tearing. Placing. Folding. Tucking in. She probably smoothed her full hand across her kid’s forehead just before they woke. Butch’s stomach grumbles. He opens the folds carefully (sandwich balancing on his knees), picks up one half, eyes the filling, and takes a bite.

The river is deep.  He tries to see the bottom.  “Standing at the bottom of a deep dark well you can see the stars in a daylight sky,” he says to himself with his cheek full of liverwurst and Wonder bread. He looks to where the lady stood and imagines her.  Imagines her hand on his forehead.  He takes another bite.  A ball forms in his cheek.  His eyes close with the weight of the sun and absently he reaches into his knapsack for his book. Instead, his fingers feel the edges of the metal pipe.

Image

Image

PROJECTION fills a white wall. Text image:

A pattern, precedent, and lively warrant
A pattern, precedent, and lively warrant

NURSE exits first.
JULIET, LADY CAPULET move to speak; their backs are turned toward each other, almost touching, but not.

JULIET:   Is there no pity sitting in the clouds //
LADY CAPULET:   My arms, full of rain, shall answer.
JULIET:   … that sees into the bottom of my grief?
LADY CAPULET:   My hands, a bowl for thee.
JULIET:   O mother, cast me not away.
LADY CAPULET:   Your voice is a match. //
JULIET:   I can love enough to die.
LADY CAPULET:   Strike it!
JULIET:   My tomb, my open mouth is but sand beneath my feet.
LADY CAPULET:   You are not soft.
JULIET:   My fingers bleed from endings that never do.
O, Hear me, with patience but to speak a word.
Let it end, now!
LADY CAPULET:   And then to ash.
(beat)
JULIET:   I am not soft.

from, girlswork

Image: Still from production (right to left), Anuta Skrypnychenko, Sandy Lai, Kate Abrams, Claudia Wit, and Blair Kay,

The students – Megan Reback, Élan Stahl, and Hannah Levinson – used ‘the word’
during a public reading at John Jay High school
in a New York city suburb.

School principal Richard Leprine said the girls
were being punished because they disobeyed
an order not to use ‘the word.’

They used the word

Hang thee, young baggage!
Disobedient wretch.
I tell thee what – get thee to church Thursday
Or never after look me in the face
Speak not, reply not, do not answer me!
My fingers itch …
Out on her.             [Capulet in Romeo and Juliet]

The three girls
were a bit older than Juliet would have been
when she disobeyed

When a student chooses not to follow that directive, consequences follow.
[Leprine in NYTimes, Mar 8, 2007]

The girls said they never made such agreement.   [NYTimes, Mar 8,2007]

Megan, Élan, and Hannah took turns reading an excerpt
from the play; then they read the
offending passage together:

My short skirt is a liberation flag in the
women’s army – they read – I declare
these streets, any streets, my vagina’s
country.   [from Monologues, “My Short Skirt”]

Readings of the play [The Vagina Monologues]
are a common fund-raiser for sexual assault
and battered women’s centres
because [Eve] Ensler
suspends royalty payments for groups combating
violence against women

Plate 1. Francesca Woodman: From Angel series, Rome, 1977. George and Betty Woodman.

Plate 2. Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978. George and Betty Woodman.

On August 9, 2011 the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) aired an interview with West Indian writer, broadcaster, and  civil liberties campaigner Darcus Howe concerning the London riots. The “on the street” interview positioned Howe in the foreground with a burnt out building and fire truck in the background. Howe, when attempting to give context to the riots specifically about the treatment of West Indian youth, was continually interrupted and the BBC interviewer who, through her questioning, not only mispronounced his name but also represented Howe as being an active agent in the violence associated with the riots. To follow is an excerpt from the interview:

Interviewer: “Marcus Dowe (sic) are you shocked about what you seen there last night?”

Howe: “No, not at all … I have been living in London for 50 years … but what I am certain about is that something very serious was going to happen in this country … the political leaders had no idea, the police had no idea but if you look at young blacks and the whites with a discerning eye and the careful hearing they would tell us what is happening in this country…”

Interviewer: “If I can stop you Mr. Howe … You say you are not shocked so does this mean you condone what was happening in your community last night?”

Howe: “Of course not … what I am concerned about more than anything else … is a young man Mark Duggan … and a few yards away from where he lives a police officer blew his head off, blew his face off … [over talking by interviewer] … let me finish … “

Interviewer: “Mr. Howe we have to wait for the official inquiry before we can say things like that … we are going to wait for the police report on it …

Howe: (continuing) “They have been stopping and searching young blacks for no reason at all …”

Interviewer: Mr. Howe … that may well have happened but that is not an excuse to go out rioting …

Howe: “… I don’t call it rioting. I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people … “

Interviewer: “Mr. Howe, you are not a stranger to riots yourself I understand? You have taken part in them yourself … ?

Howe: “I have never taken part in a single riot. I have been in demonstrations that ended up in a conflict and have some respect for an old West Indian negro instead of accusing me of being a rioter … Have some respect … you sound like an idiot.

Interview cut off.

The BBC interview excerpt crystallizes what Michel Foucault describes as a “historical irruption,” (2002, 31) a discontinuity in the “fixed” continuity of a colonial narrative that classifies and demarcates the civilized and the savage. It also reveals the media as an agent of the law in its sanctioning the authority to the interviewer to reprimand Howe’s criminal accusations against the police as unauthorized without “official inquiry,” yet simultaneously privileges the interviewer to accuse Howe as a rioter. Norman Fairclough would describe the interviewer as a “gatekeeper” (45) and the framework within which the interview takes place presents how, as Stuart Hall explains, “meaning floats” and that it cannot be finally fixed. However, attempting to ‘fix’ it is the work of a representational practice, which intervenes in the many potential meanings of an image in an attempt to privilege one” (228). The “meaning” of images, in this interview, is mobilized by sovereign forces (government owned media) to create “the civilized.” Howe’s speaking against the master narrative by demanding respect, invalidating the law, undermining the sovereign authority of a British media force, and revealing state ignorance of West Indian youth resistance provides a catalyst from which to question, as Foucault suggests “those divisions or groupings with which we have become so familiar” (2002, 24). The BBC interview exemplifies Ericson, Baranek, and Chan’s argument that “the news media and law also share an affinity in claiming that their policing is in the public interest. The basis of this claim is the appearance of neutrality. The consequence of this claim is that the news media and law are able to accomplish a degree of legitimacy and authority for their own institutions, while also selectively underpinning or undercutting legitimacy and authority of other social institutions” (7). The dividing line is thus established, to maintain order, between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” and is reflected in the “Eurocentric binarism” (Hall 160) of the civilized and savage. What is particular about news is that it is “fundamentally a discourse of morality, procedure, and hierarchy, providing symbolic representations of order in these terms” (Ericson et al 5). From fifteenth-century European contact onward a wide spectrum of media continues to work in tandem with legal frameworks to disseminate the discourse of the savage-other in order to reinforce an apparatus of the civilized or as Robert A. Williams describes as the “will of Empire.”

Amber-Dawn Bear Robe reflects upon how this “will” is countered in the work of Rebecca Belmore:

Kaja Silverman used the term suturing in reference to cinematography. In films narratives are stitched together, but in a structure that hides the suturing process to give the illusion a clean, un-spliced story. These narratives have been sutured to naturalize and support myths that are ingrained in the North American psyche. Silverman argues that in order to expose the illusion of truths and power relations in western society, the sutures must be made visible” (Silverman 1983).

Bear Robe describes Belmore’s work as revealing “The spaces between the stitches, the blank moments that create the dominant moments (binary opposites) are also valuable signifiers. The moments in between are not usually witnessed by the audience. Exposing the suture marks results in exposing the construction of the story, the myth and lies behind the image.”

Howe’s explicit counter conduct against government propaganda runs parallel to Belmore’s desire to “release the figure from a suffocating ideology” (Bear Robe 1).

“Through powerful images that implicate the body, performances that address history and memory, and gestures that evoke a sense of place, Rebecca Belmore is known for creating multi-disciplinary works that reveal a long-standing commitment to the politics of identity and representation.”

Bear Robe, Amber-Dawn. “Rebecca Belmore’s Performance of Photography.” Aboriginal Curatorial Collective. Web. 2012. http://www.aboriginalcuratorialcollective.org/features/bearrobe.html.

Ericson, Richard Victor, Patricia M. Baranek, Janet B. L. Chan.  Representing Order: Crime, Law, and Justice in the News Media.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Fairclough, Norman. Language and Power. Second Edition. London: Longman, 2001.

Foucault, Michel Archeology of Knowledge. Oxon: Routledge, 2002.

Hall, Stuart, ed. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London:  Open University, 1997.

Silverman, Kaja. The Subject of Semiotics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Williams, Robert A. The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of  Conquest. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

“How does meaning get into the image?”  Roland Barthes‘ question remains an important one when considering the December 2011 FOX News images of riots that were reported to be taking place in Moscow and how the network was caught out by the public in their use of footage from riots occurring in Greece. The public’s critique of the news and its demand for  “authenticity” is, however, not new.  Nor is the displacement of particular landscapes for particular political purposes.  This is seen in nineteenth century Canadian landscapes, among other spaces, as being artistically represented as an English countryside. Here, Benjamin West’s 1770 painting, The Death of General Wolfe, comes to mind.  Wolfe did not die on the battlefield, nor was he surrounded by military personnel, nor was there a Native American kneeling at his feet (Wolfe, in fact, held an acute disdain for Aboriginal peoples).

The image was constructed to create a national fantasy of unification and to establish a collective mass memory around a military event.   The mechanical reproduction of an “image” at the point of its very operation, as Walter Benjamin argues, is no longer “real.” “Real” can never be reproduced and therefore declarations of its rendered authenticity are impossible. With this said, the suspension of belief in its many creative imaginings remains a compelling device and therefore a lucrative commodity and political strategy to instigate mass consent.  The nineteenth century, for instance, is seen as a social site where there was a massive increase in Western readership of the paper press.  Wilkie Collins called this elusive and temporal demographic  “The Unknown Public.” Wilkie’s foundational (yet problematic) essay was first published in Charles Dickens’ periodical Household Words in 1858.  The great subtext of “The Unknown Public” is the political and capital desire and simultaneous fear of the power of individual subjects and their sovereign and unleashed opinions.  The public bodies, particularly during times of conflict, wanted to know and were discerning enough to also know the power of political rhetoric and the methods of propaganda.  One reason for the rise of the institutionalization of the library in the nineteenth century was to take the public out of the coffee houses where lively debates would take place over The Sunday Times and marginalized Penny Presses and move them into libraries where silence was demanded.

C. Wright Mills, in The Power Elite, (1956) asks a question that underpins Barthes’ rhetorical conundrum:  “but who is this public?”  Mills sees the nineteenth century not only as a transformative period in a social visual ontology (the Victorian demand “to see” and “to know”) but as a site where the public was discursively separated into the mass: a shift determined by the power elite.

Mills explains the shift:

Public:

– many people express opinions and receive them.

– small and unauthorized venues of communications.

– outlets for effective action.

– authoritative institutions do not penetrate.

Mass:

– fewer people express opinions and received them.

– venues for communications difficult for individuals to effect.

– opinions controlled by authorities.

– mass has no autonomy from authorities.

Management, control, and surveillance of the elusive and potentially transgressive “public” functioned through and through the nineteenth century industrialized media apparatus and its freshly awakened bedfellow:  illustration.  The co-opting of text and image was and is a shape-shifting technology that continues to morph in its digital manifestations on the internet to accrue the mass.  What remains significant to note is that both media,  illustration and the internet, originate in the military along with its ideologies.  Rather than disqualify a comparison of the technologies as disparate because of their analogue and digital mechanics both rely on their relative cybernetic realities to enable production and reception.  Donna Haraway explains, “Cyborgs are not reverent. … They are wary of holism, but needy for connection– they seem to have a natural feel for united front politics, but without the vanguard party. The trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism. … But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential” (“Manifesto” 151).

The critique of the FOX falsification of time and space reveals the power elites attempt to homogenize the public demonstrations as an amorphous “mass” that lacks singularity, identification, or agency; moreover, it is, in the case of FOX, the resistance from “the public” that reveals the heterogeneity of the ubiquitous power bases that remain vigilant, uncontrollable, and always demanding to see the ever elusive real.

Are we witnessing in the twenty-first century Occupation of Space a sixteenth-century counter conduct palimpsest?

The opening line in Jean Bodin’s “On Sovereignty,” in his Six books of the Commonwealth, describes sovereignty as “that absolute and perpetual power vested in a commonwealth” (25). Bodin’s book was published in 1576, and similar to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651), his tract was in response to the outbreak of civil war that plagued his country. Hobbes and Bodin, though their respective experiences occurred less than a century apart, had a distinct fear of anarchy and social division, both were resolute in their call for an absolute sovereign who under which all subjects would be controlled by the state through their complete submission to the sovereign’s authority. Bodin’s tract is comparable to Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince published in 1532 as a how-to manual, or a political pedagogy of sorts, for sovereign figures to effectively control the state. In circulation during Bodin’s writing, The Prince is considered to have had an influence in Bodin’s political notions of sovereignty.  Bodin, however, differs from Machiavelli’s manifesto in his insistence that even though the commonwealth must follow the sovereign’s ordering of natural and divine law, the sovereign’s power was not arbitrary and the sovereign should strive for amenity; in contrast, Machiavelli’s project was in the art of war and tailored for a more autonomous sovereign body. As Foucault points out, during “the sixteenth century we enter the age of forms of conducting, directing and government” (231).  This is reflected in the penchant of philosophers to write strategic tracts on how to conduct a subject: “the sovereign who rules and exercises his sovereignty now finds himself responsible for, entrusted with, and assigned new tasks of conducting [men]” (Foucault “Security,” 231). Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is a beast, a mythical figure originating in the Hebrew Bible and with a lengthy description in the King James version, Job 41: “Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook? (Norton).

Shakespeare also utilized the figure of the Leviathan in A Mid Summer Night’s Dream, yet in a benevolent context reflecting upon its monstrosity, its remarkable speed and suggests that a subject might overtake it:

Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.
I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes (2.1.174).

“The Leviathan” is captured in a particular performativity, a fable, and in a contained literary and visual state marks a division of bodies in the manufacturing of the sovereign while simultaneously making known the singularity of the beast – a prototype that continues to have significant impact.

The Hobbesian model is based on the urgency to avoid civil war and chaos within the state.  Hobbes believed, as Ian Shapiro points out in his Introduction to the Leviathan “Reading Hobbes Today,” that the state of nature “is terrible – depicted in perhaps the most frequently quoted of his memorable lines as a world in which life is ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’” (xix).  Hobbes believes that all subjects in the commonwealth must cede their judgment and submit to the prescribed conduct of the sovereign who is infused with divine law and judgment. If this conduct is countered, the Leviathan will return to the state of nature leaving individuals as singular subjects with no protection and security.  The images are significant here because in the seventeenth century frontispiece, for example (Plate 1), the body of the monster Leviathan, an automat, is constructed with the docile bodies, as a unity, creating a commonwealth.  Faces turned inward – individuality subsumed, and subjectified, in order to maintain the polis, and the good life.  As Derrida remarks when considering Hobbes:  “Sovereignty causes fear, and fear makes the sovereign” (40).  Something, however, is absent in this image; or, rather veiled: la bête (148). The beast, as Derrida argues, is impossible to translate but the wolf, a beast, in French is loup which also means a black velvet mask worn by women during masked balls (Derrida, “Beast,” 6).  It could also be a visor, similar to that worn by Hamlet’s ghost, or the veil that possibly cloaks the truth. Wolf as loup. The image of the beast. The beast for Hobbes is internalized in the sovereign, a unifying sensibility that requires all the power forces of the commonwealth to sustain it.  Significant, is what this fable is teaching.  The Leviathan, as beast, is unregistered.  Erased. The sovereign is coded divine; the state of nature is subtracted from the new ideology. What becomes apparent in the Hobbesian discourse is the need for an enemy in order for the sovereign body to be sustained, not unlike an Aristotelian tragedy, or a fable. For the sovereign every subject is a potential enemy and the potential enemy is the beast.

The biblical reference would be understood by the seventeenth century audience, this is crucial in order for the state to ensure obedience and instill the elements of fear of the beast that haunts the sovereign’s body: “the element of fabulation, in which the analogies between the beast and the sovereign, find their resources and their schema” (Derrida, “Beast,” 80).  A change takes place in the nineteenth-century in the image of the Leviathan created by Gustave Doré. In Plate 2, the Leviathan returns to its biblical origins seemingly drowning in the chaotic state of nature. Gustave Doré was a prolific nineteenth-century illustrator who produced among his many works Milton’s Paradise LostThe Bible (1866), as well the figure of the Leviathan, and Perrault’s Fairy Tales that include “Little Red Riding Hood.[1]

Here, Derrida’s comment on fables is apt:  “The fables themselves show that the essence of political force and power where that power makes the law” (“Beast,” 217).  Derrida delineates the lengthy lineage of the beast who is often portrayed as the “wolf” and how it walks across the stage for Hobbes, Rousseau as a self-proclaimed werewolf, Plato’s wolf-tyrant, as well, among others, La Fountaine’s Fables, fables illustrated, incidentally, by Gustave Doré (another wolf crosses the stage).

The sovereign in this space is represented explicitly as the enlightened divine law in the act of disciplining the beast that has turned rogue (a word created by Shakespeare).  The moral of the fable, recounted in wolves and sea monsters, is that obedience is a necessity;  the United States military and global sovereign forces in 2011 calls any counter conduct by alternative sovereign states, specifically the civil occupation of space as rogue, or perhaps Hobbes might have call it the contemporary Leviathan, unleashed.

Bodin, Jean. On Sovereignty.  Ed. Julian H. Franklin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Derrida, Jacques. The Beast & the Sovereign. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Foucault, Michel. Society must be Defended: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1975-76. New York: Picador, 2003.

…, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1977-78. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

–, History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random House, 1990.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan; or The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Shapiro, Ian. “Reading Hobbes Today.” Leviathan; or The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill by Thomas Hobbes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.


 [1] It is noted that Dore also illustrated The Tempest by William Shakespeare in 1860.

making for the woods “then the river”
our august skin hears its coolness before we ever did
unlooked-for-band skipping rogue stones on curbless pavement
eight in all swearing loud for the hell of it, loose
and highly flammable

kerosene sloshes as kerosene sloshes
on the move “enough to make a jet engine …”
boasts shushed as porch lights catch hems
of shirtless backs running uncapped lapping
to ignite something anything out of breath
to show them to show them how our hands can

unmake

river mouth at our street’s very end
always unlocked and if it was a noon-time-water we’d see puddle-like-rainbows
float ’n swirl like on jenny’s asphalt black wet driveway just laid
searing leaning into her ’76 firebird.  and jenny’s shining hair

her shining hair …

row of bare foot beasts pour on past midnight
mouth to mouth filling the river full of unlit chemical giddy
shaking wooden matches shake shakeshake percussive pieces
striking one by one under johnny’s front tooth “only takes one, dumb ass”
to set it fine never thought just us could, i mean, burn up a river like that, “damn fine”
sky burnt whiteorange bare feet stomping hair caught faster than fast stomping
crinkling brows melting her two hands away (and she never did come back)

our awed bodies too hot to blink, burst skin doused in standing light baptized
small gods our dry lips
couldn’t pronounce

There may be solemn duty; and if it come we must not shrink from it…I shall be prepared. I shall get my typewriter this very hour and begin transcribing – Mina Harker, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

“Diskursmaschinegewehr,” a word from Dracula’s Legacy (DraculasVermächtnis: Technische Schriften) by Friedrich Kittler, is Kittler’s 1993 wordplay to signal the late nineteenth-century social anxiety related to modernity, machines, and media – a triumvirate of consumption generated by the ink fabric carriage return of the typewriter or Kittler’s “discourseweaponmachine.”  Kittler’s critical appropriation is addressing Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic novel and Stoker’s object of choice, the typewriter, for his radical protagonist/stenographer, Mina Harker.  Embracing the vampiric technology and her role as the New Woman, Harker totally takes down (in not a few key strokes) not only the figure of Dracula but the epistolary framework of Stoker’s narrative.  Mina was, indeed, a post-Gutenberg proto-cyborg.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - featuring Mina Harker

Harker’s ontological hybridity of machine and organism is explained, in part, by Donna Haraway in “A Cyborg Manifesto“:

Cyborgs are  not reverent; they do not re-member the cosmos. They are wary of holism, but needy for connection — they seem to have a natural feel for united front politics, but without the vanguard party.  The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and partriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism.  But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their father, after all, are inessential. (151)

The Remington typewriter (1873), developed by the company that manufactured guns for the Civil War, is, in its very infrastructure, a discursive weapon of war, and was utilized as a frontline industrialized device in the proliferation of military communications and its handmaiden:  nineteenth-century media.  In April 2011, Godrej and Boyce, the last typewriter factory in the world announced that it would be closing its doors but the “discourseweaponmachine” does not falter:  during the nineteenth-century another data communication system, the telegraph, ran parallel to the typewriter and established the foundational apparatus for the twentieth-century world:  the internet. The inter-networking systems expanded in the 1950s with cyber gateways and bridges leading to mainframes held in the United States Department of Defense and its “Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network.

I feel not unconnected to Mina Harker, as a fellow cyborg, as I enter data into the machine and wonder if the twenty-first century’s pop cult fanaticism for Twilight, True Blood, Vampire Diaries et. al. is perhaps a continuum of the anxieties/fears/desires that were prevalent in the nineteenth-century: social, ecological, and economic cannibalism, the virtual fangs of Ebay consumerism, and the ever firing neo-engine discourse of the Military Industrial Complex?  As McLuhan explains in The Gutenberg Galaxy: “That every generation poised on the edge of massive change should later seem oblivious of the issues and the imminent event would seem to be natural enough.  But it is necessary to understand the power and thrust of technologies to isolate the sense and thus to hypnotize society (272).

If you’ve read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, read it again.  If you have not:  Read it; the film versions unfortunately do not include Harker’s cyborg intervention and also exclude significant layers of cultural, social, and economic symbolism that remain ever-present in the contemporary discourseweaponmachine.  To follow:  Nosferatu (1922); Dracula with Bela Lugosi (1931).

Imagine it’s two a.m. Eirin Moure sits in front of a second storey window in an empty house on Toronto’s Winnett Avenue.  It’s mid winter. The air is cold, the wind colder.  She opens the window a crack, to let in some air.   She sips from her glass as she sifts through Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s manuscript.  Translations into transelations into transcreations.

Maybe a little tipsy, maybe a little tired, absolutely a little cheeky, she begins to see, without thinking,  “What, me, guard sheep?” (3). Read further.  Pessoa’s long-ago pastoral countryside is transformed by an urban grid, as Moure makes accessible histories that were paved over.  When I finished reading Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person, pen marked up the pages, dog-ears bent the corners, and I realized that Moure’s transelation is a process of unlearning – an allegory for poetic seeing.

Turning the pages, I’m reminded of a time when l peeled away layers of wallpaper in a room I rented in an old Toronto semi.  With history, patterns and poetry at my feet, I had to begin at the beginning to answer the question:  What is this?  Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person is a translation from the Portuguese book of poetry O Guardador de Rebanhos (1914) by Fernando Pessoa written through one of his heteronyms, Alberto Caeiro.  Moure translated each of Pessoa’s poem-lines in a chant-like response.  Several themes, including metapoetics, emerge in Moure’s translation/mediation/deflection.

Initially, I questioned Moure’s motives in translating another author’s work and then claiming an ownership.  Although, Moure has altered voice, as well as phrasing, the original meaning of Pessoa’s poetry remains.  However, Moure’s work is more than a translation – it’s her twenty-first century response to Pessoa’s twentieth century work; she had become a pupil of seeing, an apprentice of unlearning under Pessoa’s tutelage (viii).  For Moure, history and memory are bound to language and translation; for example, the Galician language, which refers to “a lost chunk of the Portuguese nation,” became Moure’s (125).

Moure insists that “I want this book to be judged not just as my poetry but as translations of Pessoa” (ix), translations that are whimsical with an urban, sharp-witted snap that contrasts Pessoa’s pastoral earnestness.  For example, Moure refers to Christ as “too urbane to fake out” (25); she twists nature “because sunlight is fab” (15), and she kicks-a-can at not-seeing because “thinking bugs me” (3). Moure’s transcreation urbanizes Pessoa; his lines become a grid guiding Moure to see outside her Winnett Avenue window.

While Moure does deflect from a direct translation, she is faithful to Pessoa’s vision in her refusal to translate the word choses (thing), which is central to Pessoa’s objectivism.  Sheep are like Pessoa’s thoughts; he doesn’t keep them, he sees them ¹.  In translating, Moure’s thoughts connect to Pessoa’s, and textually in the very object of the book, the poets live side by side, neighbours who call out to each other, across an alley, in a poetic banter.

“Rhymes get on my nerves, Rarely” is Moure’s transcreation of Pessoa’s metapoetics, questioning the methods, ethics, and aesthetics of the genre: “what do you think of those two trees rhymes?” (47). Moure recalls that “when they filled in the ravine, they buried the bridge too.  I unburied it with Pessoa” (ix).  Moure unburies the poetry’s infrastructure, as well as a poet’s “learning to unlearn” (67).  Pessoa sees things as concrete: “they have colour and form // and existence, barely” (71).  In response, Moure conveys the poet’s intimate struggle with the contours before them when writing concrete poetry: “how hard it is to shake off, and see only the visible!” (71), a struggle that keeps me wanting to know the buried bridges I cross over.

Some of Pessoa’s lines are translated verbatim, others are Moure’s deflection of what she sees and does not see; for instance, a manhole cover is not just a manhole cover, a foundry stamp gives it history and below it flow time and politics (vii).   Although Moure uses concrete imagism, she rattles Pessoa’s argument that “what we see of things are the things” (67).  Moure’s translation interrogates the geographical tensions that problematize what we see in historical and global narratives, such as “missiles // fired over high seas by satellite into Iraq” (33).

Urbanity for Moure and modernity for Pessoa distort the divinity in internal rhythms:  paving over its nature (23).  Poetic elation reached Pessoa and Moure in a divine form of ecstasy.  Moure observes how “it set my heart murmur going” (viii), and Pessoa wrote thirty of the forty-nine poems in a possessed fervor (vii).  For Moure, urban sprawl translates into non-seeing: “Downtown, huge mansions lock sight away // Obscure the horizon, flatten sight and wrench us far from the sky” (23).  But as Moure sees a neighbour throw lasagna to the crows (79), I wonder if a poet’s poetry would (be)come without the tension between traffic and pastures?

While reading Moure’s work, I was taken with the desire to see. I decided to use Moure’s “Rhymes get on my nerves” (47) as my guide.  I opened my winter window to let in some air:

What do I think of those two trees rhymes?
Like my two hands, rarely
equal, one beside the other
snow on branches has no colour but all colour
my way of writing is imperfect like trees, I am
just here, seeing two rhymes
two hands, that are mine

I realize that “the hard bit is to know how to see” (67); how to translate life’s details that get buried or wallpapered.  Sheep’s Vigil is a lesson in poetics to get over the “hard bit,” learning that “plunging into thought” (67) can confine poetry instead of opening a window to let in a bit of snow.   Moure’s final poem sits alone:  “everywhere I learned to see again” (123), illustrating a writer’s reawakening.  No longer with her guide, Moure is seeing, “sure of all, sure of nothing” (123).

¹ Jonathan Griffin, Selected Poems: Fernando Pessoa.  (Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1974) 75.

Erín Moure (Eirin Moure) is one of Canada’s most eminent and respected poets, and a translator from French, Spanish, Galician, and Portuguese. Winner of the Governor General’s Award for Furious, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for Domestic Fuel, and the AM Klein Poetry Prize for Little Theatres(which has also been published in Spain in Galician translation as Teatriños), Moure has published twelve books of poetry, including A Frame of the Book, co-published in the U.S. by Sun and Moon Press, and five books of poetry in translation, including Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person by Fernando Pessoa, shortlisted for the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize and the 2002 City of Toronto Book Prize. Moure lives in Montreal.


It’s as simple as this: I found your letter in a bread box, a paper folded lengthwise three times. A missing page, Oma, with your voice pressed on tissue blue writing paper – the same colour as the sea it crossed over.  A paper folded in between love letters, divorce papers, and a pencil sketch of a ship’s graphite lines fading into fog. The letter is a story, a mother’s mother’s story.

I always see you standing right there: your back to me in your small kitchen on Havenstraat in Holland. Your waist is wrapped with your long white tea towel. Stained with the colour of meals. You lean into the counter, feet slippered. You’re chopping something (but I can’t quite see what) and a pan simmers smoky the smell of cooking onions and garlic and trassie memorized on my tongue. The back screen door is open and the hanging green blue copper batik fabric is tied back to let in a cool summer breeze and your five, no six dogs, in. Misha, your old black lab, pushes heavy into your leg, that’s all, just a push and walks nails across floor into another room.

You don’t know I’m here, do you? How could you know that I am here, now, with all these things on my lap, listening to something written, something that comes in from the outside and waits

for your back to turn, our mouths to speak.