What the erasure is is hard to pin down. In one sense, it is a new poem but the kind of poem that renders the reader hyper aware that language is a cultural hand-me-down. In another, it is a medium that unlocks the subtextual—a system of thought that displays “what is real” in some Lucania sense of the word. In another sense, it’s both; in another it’s neither. The nature of erasure as a medium lends itself to sense, rather than “meaning,” but to say it is without the latter would be to say that the task is absent of any goal.
This snake-and-tail reasoning leads me to William James: “On pragmatistic principles, if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true.”1 James’ suggestion is that, if the God hypothesis fills a set of evidential and experiential roles adequately, then the subject(s) may regard God’s existence as true. What “truth” or rather function the erasure serves is obviously multifaceted; however, what can be stated with authority is that the erasure lets the poet, and the reader, explore what they see as the bare essentials of what functional language is—it allows the building of a satisfactory hypothesis.
In this way, the erasure is not so different from the work of Stein or Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Consider Guy Davenport’s afterword in Ronald Johnson’s Radi os:
Art is man’s teacher, but art is art’s teacher…The word invention which once meant finding rather than starting from scratch, now means finding again…The most original writer of our time, Gertrude Stein, still begins The Making of Americans with a passage from the Nicomachean Ethics, and conceals eros in “A rose is a rose is a rose.”2
Davenport is taking his own advice. Eros appears once in Stein’s line. What remains, though, is an aesthetic sense: “A rose is a rose is a rose” plays on the associative act of romance and desire being tied to that thorny flower. “A rose is a rose is a rose” is grammatically incorrect but still implies the flushing feeling we experience during an erotic event. What Davenport is telling us, in an idiosyncratic way, is that the telos (the goal) of a poem operates below the obvious levels of diction—part of the reason Stein’s strange line has staying power 100 years later is its sense penetrates even to the abstract levels of the language; it’s satisfactorily true at its deepest parts, teaching us and itself.
Johnson was keenly aware of language’s latent power. With Milton’s Paradise Lost as his source, Johnson reveals with his Radi os that beneath the Puritanical, the Philosophical, the Divine, Milton has laid the groundwork for a deeply humanist text. From its outset, Johnson’s approach is at once indented to the classical and in the present: “O/ tree/ into the World,/ Man/the chosen/ Rose out of Chaos:/song/ outspread/ on the vast/ Illumine.”3 God is still lurking – “tree into the world” is active and relational to Genesis. Johnson capitalizes this with “Man the chosen Rose out of Chaos” while we may think of Adam, we should also, as Davenport notes in his afterword, be thinking of Blake. It’s as a descendant of Blake that humanism arrives in this opening passage: The howling storm of chaos, the crimson joy of Man is outspread. It is man’s capability to organize, to create, that frames Johnson’s narrative. It’s with this ordering that Johnson echo’s Milton calling to the muses as he sings out “Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.”
Johnson writes in Radi os’ penultimate section “Man,/ His journey’s end,/ his proper shape,/ his radiant visage turned/ by ear/ to the Earth.”4 The voice here is still singing with the past: capitalization of Man and Earth, the philosophical nature of man’s life having a true telos. But the message is materialistic: the radiance of man is a return to the body, it is not only a listening, but a resting of the head—the cycle from birth, creation, and ultimately death, is one that is grounded in physical being. In this sense, Johnson reveals a Whitmanian current latent in the old masters.
Explorations of erasure are not limited to the unveiling of poetic lineage. Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager finds its source in the memoir of Nazi and former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, and is an examination of cause and effect that is epic in its proportions. The book’s third poem reads in its entirety as follows:
There is no distinction between ideology and image.
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.5
The variation between line length is one thing, that the longer lines and the shorter lines have content that varies in idea and complexity is another. My disbelief was that this was something found and not crafted from air. But that’s what adds to the marvel: It’s both. Found because of its origins, crafted because of its message.
The message is dense. The closed syntax is reminiscent of the atomism of early Wittgenstein, and the clipped grammar in the short lines heightens that feeling: Is is. One. Two. Is is. This is in service to the more complex lines; the reason we can take “There is no distinction between ideology and image” is because it follows from “Is is” within the poem’s logic—the collapse of distinction is because being is tautologous to itself. “Waves rise and fall, but the sea remains” is as much a statement about ontology as a statement about ideology, or, to quote Wittgenstein “1. The world is all that is the case.”
Consider how Reddy capitalizes on these ideas from one of the final poems from “Book Two” of Voyager:
…Elsewhere in the darkness, a messianic
little devil was screaming The world is constraint
as the words that I wrote were taken apart
and put together again, this time as a study of
John 2:1. This subconscious vision has shaken my
view of the world as singular. So I silence myself
in a book of the a. Kurt Waldheim is a formal
negotiation. A collective music circles history.6
The text’s form moves from the turgid clipped poetry of Book One, to the personal (and partly autobiographical) prose poems of Book Two, yet the message is resonant and stranger. Resonant because of the source text, because of the images, because of Waldheim’s ghost, but stranger because of how localized the experience becomes. In studying these texts, the speaker becomes more entrenched in the music circling history. They begin with alpha and move us quickly to a figure of “Western” disintegration in the form of Waldheim. The Secretary-General is “a formal negotiation” not only because his past is shrouded in his rise to power, but he is a formal result of cause and effect, the real music of history. In this sense, the speaker has no choice but to be silenced and constrained: they are a forced note that “Is is”.
What happens when erasure is turned towards Is-ing? That is: What is the result of erasing aspects of Being? One attempt to answer this question is Margaret Yocom’s All Kinds of Fur. Yocom render’s The Brothers Grimm’s Allerleirauh into dialectic: First, as a new translation from the German that makes up the initial text, then a “ghosting”7 of the translation. The result is two voices, that of the grey language of the initial text, and that of Allerleirauh herself in the form of the dark font.
Allerleirauh falls into the category of a Cinderella story. Here, a young girl flees to the wood to escape the lusting-grief of her widowed father. She brings with her extra items, most notably for this paper she brings three dresses “one as golden as the sun,/ one as silver as the moon, and/ one as brilliant as the stars” as well as “ a mantle of pieced together from/ a thousand kinds of pelts and fur”.8 What should be clear thus far is how for Yocom text is a doubling. There is the translation and the erasure; there is the narrator and the girl, but also present is the process of perception and action—Allerleirauh is found sleeping in the wood by a neighboring king while she is wearing the mantel. Because of the mantel, the girl is mistaken for a beast and dragged to the king’s palace on the top of a wagon.9 Within the bounds of the mantel the girl is not seen as a girl but as something different. Often, when donning the fur, Allerleirauh is referred to as “it” or as “Little Hairy Animal,”10 yet the mantel also serves as her disguise when doing scullery tasks (see: traditionally ascribed female labor)—thus the role is queered via neutering.
While Yocom makes it clear in the afterword (and elsewhere11) that this is a poem that in large part deals with queerness, it also deals with a mode of being. The girl dons a “man piece” and is othered—it is in this othering that she returns to her “lair.” This is not to say that Allerleirauh is what we may now label transgendered, or agendered, or that the primordial self is male, but rather it’s to say that Yocom’s ghosting method highlights the ebb and flow of gender roles, the ongoing mutation of selfhood, and the complexity of relationships.
On a more abstract level, though, we should also note that the text does something that Reddy and Johnson do not make use of in their own texts. By maintaining both levels of the text Yocom addresses how poets form the “truth” of the erasure. The past calls to the present, and the old language is revealed to have a function yet unseen; it’s doubtful that the Grimms were interested in establishing and critiquing hegemony as Allerleirauh still ends with the king being entranced by the girl’s radiant beauty shining along with her many dresses and weds her, and she is still seen as a sexual object when not mantled—that is, she is viewed as a woman in the cultural world of The Brothers Grimm.12 But within the hands of Yocom, the hauntology of the old ways is identified as a vehicle for understanding our ongoing projects of selfhood.
With any text we are engaged in seeking, challenging, responding, and (hopefully) discussing—that is how we organize our inner lives. What makes the erasure a unique and motivating genre is that what is hidden becomes the main function. In doing so we are not only saying “This could be a lyric poem!” But rather we are saying “My body is telling me that there is something important occurring inside itself because of what is inside of these words.” We are saying that there is something we need to think about, a hypothesis that needs to be formed, that cannot be said outside of the seeming negation of something else. When we pull away the gauze of the front-facing text, no matter what it is, it allows us to reconfigure what we understand to be true; to erase is to give sense and refine function.
- James, William. 1907. “Pragmatism and Religion”. Lecture 8 in Pragmatism: A new name for some old ways of thinking. New York: Longman Green and Co. 116.
- Davenport, Guy. An Afterword by Guy Davenport. In R. Johnson (Author), Radi os. Chicago: Flood Editions. (2005). 93.
- Johnson, Ronald. 2005. Radi os. Chicago: Flood Editions. 3-4.
- Ibid: 63
- Reddy, Srikanth. 2005. Voyager. Los Angles: University of California Press. 6.
- Ibid: 32.
- Yocom, Margaret. 2018. Kins Fur : All Kinds of Fur : Erasure Poems & New Translation of a Tale from the Brothers Grimm. Cumberland: Deerbrook Editions. 82.
- Ibid 9/10.
- Ibid 21/22.
- Ibid 25/26.
- For a more in-depth version of the tale’s history, and the tension of gender pronouns within the Grimm version see Yocom, Margaret R. 2012. “But Who Are You, Really?”: Abigous Bodies and Ambiguous Pronouns in “Allerleirauh.” In Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms, 90-118. Edited by Kay Turner and Pauline Greenhill. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
- Yocom (2012) notes that the German word for woman “sei” is used within the Grimm story to denote someone sexually mature or as an object of sexual desire.