Sunday, April 25, 2010

"It must B": simile, rebus, and power

1

The cat was lying on the ground, watching another cat.

 Click to enlarge.

I looked at his legs and a simile occurred to me: "He looks like . . ." So I did some photoshopping in two stages,




and then I had something for the Jahrzeit of Edward Gorey (d. April 15, 2000), painter of cats and the ballet.

2

Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz of Los Angeles's Chai Center has (or had two years ago, when this article was published)

an interesting trait: after meeting an attractive woman, he changes from a human being to a Language poet. Once the woman has passed out of his field of vision, he begins translating his memory of her into words and composing what the article calls "rambling e-mails in large print, heavy with text-message shorthand punctuated with varied text colors, point sizes and fonts."

To one woman, for instance, he sent a poem which included this text.
What were U thinking when U brought a GOY 2 our Seder??? How did U dare 2 do such a reprehensible thing? It must B tht U R quite mentally unbalanced & not taking yr meds. And then U had the Chutzpa 2 try 2 pick up another Jew from our group while U were sitting there W/ a GOY (who was even of a dfrnt RACE ... )?
I call the text a poem for the simplest possible formal reason: because it is about language as such. Consider the poem's phrase "It must B," for example. Spelling out the lower-case word "be" would have cost Rabbi Schwartz no more keystrokes than the upper-case rebus "B," but the rebus's encrypted readability enforces a power relationship which the unambiguous full word can't. To be understood, "B" has to be read twice: first as a failed objective reading, then as a translation which requires its reader to submit to the letter's singularity ("In my language, 'B' means what I say it means.") That, of course, is the rebus's purpose. Like Harold Bloom's Milton or Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty, Rabbi Schwartz has fashioned language into a projection of his power as a strong poet.

3

But the cat was lying under this flower, which I had photographed this way a moment earlier.


It would be easy for a weak poet to make the flower too into a balletic simile. There once existed a whole manual of procedure for that translation: the Victorian technology called the language of flowers. But to be a strong poet would be to keep the dictionary closed and remain self-imprisoned in the wordless grammar of the plant as such -- self-imprisoned until the completing instant of metamorphosis. And in what language then would the flower deign to speak to us?

3 comments:

Susan M. Schultz said...

Jon--wouldn't a Language poet (one hopes) have greater control over his use of sentences, words, syllables, letters, numbers, than does this Rabbi? Yes, he's manipulating the language, but his hatred is using him. Or are we back to a Modernist (some, in any case) "ethics" of language?

Jonathan Morse said...

Modernist, I suppose. Think Pound, think Celine.

And then on the other hand think of Bernstein's "Some of These Daze," the suite written in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center, with each section carefully dated: "September 12, 2001," "September 13-16, 2001," etc. Those lyrics are not at all Language poems, if only because the dates inserted by the poet cry for something real beyond the language game, something wie es eigentlich gewesen. Horror shocks Bernstein into saying, seriously, "But seriously, folks" -- exactly the reverse of what happens with Schwartzie.

Susan M. Schultz said...

I wrote about Bernstein's post-9/11 emails; perhaps these are they. Quite strikingly literal, yes.

But I'm still not sure I'd consider Schwartzie's email anything more than a mind-addled rant, even if I like your blog post very much.