There is no distinction.
He records his name on a gold medallion.
The philosopher must say is.
The world is legion.
The self is a suffering form.
Waves rise and fall, but the sea remains.
© by Srikanth Reddy. Reprinted by permission of the author and the Denver Quarterly.
Srikanth Reddy is the author of two books of poetry—Facts for Visitors (2004) and Voyager (2011)—both published by the University of California Press, and a book-length collaboration with the poet Dan Beachy-Quick, forthcoming from 1913 Press. A critical study of digression in 20th-century American poetry, Changing Subjects, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press as well. Reddy is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago.
Arts & Academe‘s poetry editor, Lisa Russ Spaar, notes:
Srikanth Reddy’s new book of poems, Voyager, forthcoming this week from the University of California Press and from which this passage is excerpted, takes its title from the Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, just four years after the poet’s birth, which carried with it, as it explored the far reaches of the solar system and beyond, a gold-plated audio-visual disc that included, in addition to scientific data, photographs, recordings of natural earth phenomena, and spoken greetings from world leaders like Jimmy Carter and then-UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim.
For his Voyager “erasure” project, Reddy chose to engage with an extant memoir, In the Eye of the Storm, written and published in 1985 by Waldheim, who served as Secretary-General from 1972 to 1981 and whose alleged collaborations with genocidal war crimes during the Second World War (details which Waldheim suppressed and misrepresented in his autobiography and elsewhere) have made him a controversial figure.
The formal restraint Reddy gave himself for this endeavor was to read through Waldheim’s book three times, word by word, erasing language in order to unearth a poem within the original memoir. Reddy repeated the process twice more, and the resulting three “books” of Voyager are the fruits of this method (readers can read more about the making of Reddy’s Voyager here). Reddy was strict about resisting the temptation to add language of his own as he excavated; he wanted to see what various narratives the same text might yield.
Because Waldheim’s involvement with war crimes include those of omission—that is, Waldheim failed to speak out against the atrocities in his awareness—Reddy has said that working with Waldheim’s “ethical shadow” and his “autobiographical” text provided Reddy with “a way into the problem of composing a new text of our world . … I have come to feel that the world enters into awareness most fully only when its existence is doubted. As a skeptical method, erasure deletes the objects blocking our horizon so that the world may reappear, or be seen once again, rising like a strange new moon beyond that horizon.” Interestingly, according to Reddy, “just as Waldheim was a shadow haunting my imagination, I began to see my own silhouette embedded within Waldheim’s purgatorial words. So I decided to paint my own self-portrait through erasure as well,” something Reddy offers—prose meditations on autobiography, silence, and accountability—in part three of the new book.
For Reddy, as with other artists engaged in erasure work—among them Tom Phillips, Jesse Glass, and Jen Bervins—“acts of art,” as Heather McHugh puts it, “are already editorial acts. We select as soon as we say or see. The holes seem as powerful as the fillings.” Texts in which language is obscured or falls silent excite us with their missing testimony, the undeniable, almost erotic power of what is hidden, a space into which the reader irresistibly enters. We feel this not only in the material of poets and visual artists working self-consciously with erasure, but in ancient texts which have been fragmented by the ravages of time and weather (the rotted papyruses of Sappho and Archilochus, for instance, or the incomplete letter/poem correspondence of Emily Dickinson).
A few years ago, when I was team-teaching a poetry writing/printmaking workshop with a colleague, a student would sometimes produce a fantastic effect on the press or in the acid bath, by accident. My colleague, a print-maker, would pin the gorgeous mistake to the wall and say, “Now: Figure out how to do this on purpose.” Reddy’s poems in Voyager have about them, then, not only the deliberate fragmentation of modern work, but the ancient sense of unearthing or making a fragment from a whole. A new whole from a hole, so to speak. The “new text” for a new world that Reddy speaks of earlier.
The reader is struck by the force of omission in the excerpt from Voyager given here, which seems to offer, in part, an account of the recording Waldheim makes for the Voyager golden record (“He records his name on a gold medallion”). The fragment begins with “is” in an odd phrase, “Is is,” which evokes for the reader the more familiar “It is”—with “it,” in this construction, being a pronoun with no antecedent, a move Dickinson deploys to great effect in many of her poems, a reminder that what concerns her (and Reddy) is not the cause but the effect, the aftermath, of the unnamed precipitating event. Reddy’s construction creates a kind of visual static, addressing Waldheim and his own erasures of what was, what went down, what eluded and eludes testimony.
That the pronoun becomes a being verb acting as a subject is unsettling and thrilling: “Is is. / There is no distinction.” No distinction between . . . . noun and verb? antecedent and being? prior and now? Under close interrogation, “is,” a verb of being signifying existence (the “I was here,” of Waldheim’s recording), comes under intense pressure. We learn that “The philosopher must say is,” that “the world is legion,” and that the “self is a suffering form.” The movement of this small word, in Reddy’s redaction of these passages, from philosopher to world to self, and from isolated word-as-word to predicate adjective (“legion”) to predicate nominative (“suffering form”) and then back to “Is is,” highlights issues of identity that must have haunted Waldheim and that most certainly obsess Reddy as he portrays (and defaces, as Paul De Man would say) his Waldheim, while at the same time revealing/concealing himself.
Such slippage or fracturing of identity and representation, addressed by Jerome Rothenberg in 1977 (“New Models, New Visions”), is achieved by just this kind of poetry of experimentation with “open forms”: “The action hereafter is ‘between’ and ‘among,” the forms hybrid and vigorous and pushing always towards and actual and new completeness.” One also thinks of Hopkins’s notions of “inscape”—a version of Duns Scotus’s belief in the unique essence of every living entity.
Of course there is a narrative here that reaches beyond the fictions of Waldheim and Reddy. We, all of us, despite our ambitions, our wish for distinction, to be “coined” and replicated and honored, are just alike, across time, across culture, across inventions of identity, in our not lasting. The philosopher says so; the world is rife with this knowledge. We register its truth in our inner selves each day. Like waves, our public and private identities may “rise and fall.” Like the sea (and who cannot hear the echoes of Hart Crane’s “Voyages” here, with its “new thresholds, new anatomies”), however, our self, a suffering form, remains, abides, sustains, for better or worse. Read as a time capsule, Reddy’s redacted “fragment” of our humanity gets to the gist of these paradoxes: We rise, we fall, we abide, we disappear. Through Reddy’s “erasures” and the negative capabilities of his excavated text we feel, even if we cannot see, what’s missing, what’s gone—into outer space, into self-denial, into the ironies of history and of the role between the wielders of pens and of swords. We find ourselves—culpable, impressionable, alive—in the human space he has created.