Maria Damon


"The work itself" is dizzying.  Pages of words splattered carefully
in the order or pattern in which Weiner experienced them make a linear
reading (left to right, top to bottom, line by line, word by word) or a
holistic gestalt  (apprehending the whole page with one open regard) the
two most logical ways to proceed.   However, reading the work linearly does
not indicate a linear narrative, just as a whole-picture gaze does not
vitiate the significance of individual words, phrases, or constellations of
words that through their adjacency convey some urgency of story: this is
not visual poetry in the sense of concrete poetry or "illustrated" poetry
in the manner of Reps, a poet who made visual poetry a commercial
commonplace in the American 1970s.    Sometimes, as in WEEKS or The Zero
One, a relatively straightforward juxtapositional device gives the work a
purposefully excessive and obsessive quality.  WEEKS, as mentioned earlier,
cobbles together clauses and phrases of media news coverage.  The Zero One
disrupts fragmented but somewhat decipherable bits of news about American
Indians and other oppressed indigenous Americans, as well as philosophical
and aesthetic notes, with series of numbers:

	The 0I survi of the prairie dog is proof
	posit that0 both Hegel and Kant were wrong
	in0I2 their understanding of the "New World"
	My0I2 peopl thank you for your help
	All0I of0I2 the nouns write
	The0I gover began relocation to Campeche
	Howev I0I23 stay home and save money
	Leona Pelti was one of some forty young
	India who0I came to the defense of the
	Sis0I there has to be a stop to your sentences
	Six0I hundr of the 3,I00 refugees at Las Delicias
	My0I2 famous accent.  How I would love to get rid
	No0I2 one0I knows who shot the agents... (The Zero One, np)

Discernible herein is the story of Leonard Peltier, a Native American
(Oglala Lakota) activist accused of shooting some FBI agents on the Pine
Ridge Indian reservation in the 1970s and imprisoned for life despite
strong evidence that he was not involved, weak evidence presented by the
prosecution, and much worldwide protest.  Discernible also are thematically
related fragments about refugees and forced relocation, a critique of
Western philosophy's complicity with the oppression of indigenous people of
the "New World," and self-conscious, somewhat humorous reprimands about her
own writing and speech, both of which she acknowledges as highly
idiosyncratic.  The final two pages of the poem achieve a remarkable effect
in which words and numbers, the former even more fragmentary but still
recognizable, are arranged in vertical columns that give the impression
that the book is a ledger in which a series of entries has been made.  This
is a literal consequence of the writing practice, which spews out words and
numbers with a compulsivity that is simultaneously out of control and
regimentary.  Thematically, it is also a performance of the "balancing" act
involved in seeking justice, herein envisioned in its classical guise:
blind Hannah (in the sense of being under a spell, blindered by compulsive
graphesis, and blind like Tiresias, the assbackwards hermaphrodite who
could foresee the future) weighing the scales of justice and holding a
pen/(s)word.  Moreover, the interchangeability of letters and numbers
resonate with several cultural cognates, notably the Kabala and other
metaphysical systems which give letters numerical and spiritual value, the
I Ching in which divinatory hexagrams are arrived at through numerical
chance procedures, and, more pertinent to her subject matter, the
interchangeability of names and numbers, and the "disappearance" (and
exaggerated presence) of both, in oppressive systems like prisons or the
death camps of World War II: numbers are substituted for names (prison
writers usually sign their works with their assigned prisoner
identification numbers, not because they are compelled by law to do so, but
to underscore their status as prisoners and the effect that enforced
anonymity has on their sense of themselves as "authors"); names are
forgotten or suppressed when prisoners are killed; and the Third Reich, for
example, kept obsessive records about numbers of people transported,
imprisoned and killed, though at various points their targets were forced
to adopt "generic" names that indicated their ethnic status (all Jewish men
were forced to use the name Israel, and women Sarah).   And of course, as
Jacques Debrot has pointed out, the tattooing of prisoners' numbers on their
forearms has become a familiarly shocking index of the degree to which
people were "dehumanized" by being reduced to surfaces for writing as part
of the concentration camp experience.   One is tempted to attribute to
Weiner an heroic tactic to "transhumanize" the experience of being written
on, to link that phenomenon to a transhistorical (or ahistorical) higher
state of consciousness rather than to an historical instance of abjection
--metaphysical stigmata rather than physical torture.

Particularly compelling for our purposes is the concept of the
"sentence" as both independent syntactical unit and a legal judgment
involving numerical formulae: i.e. "Leonard Peltier was given a life
sentence;" Hannah Weiner's work attacks the integrity of the grammatical
"sentence," and so forth.    In an interview published in 1986 she explains
her dedication to "showing the complete mind," which entails relentless
interruption of sentences as conventionally construed:

Others of Weiner's texts, though, like Spoke (1984), Clairvoyant
Journal (1978) or Sixteen (1983) are more difficult to read, and one can
alternately point to the effect of entire pages (see appendix for examples)
or single out word-clusters or repeating fragments saturated with meaning.
The words "Oh Hannah," "sis," and other forms of address to herself and
invocations of recognizable others ("Charles" [Bernstein], "Douglas"
[Messerli], "Charlemagne" [Palestine], "Rosemary"  and "Bernadette"
[Mayer], Barrett Watten, Ron Silliman and others) litter the texts, as well
as admonitions or reminders:

	...LIVE POOR for the Indians
	who are not by me forgotten   write her a great big
	goddam line in this and settle mother is pleased
	                        S A T C H I D A N A N D A  (Sixteen, np),

startling phrases like "HEAL ME"  (Clairvoyant Journal np), and writing in
a variety of type formats and sizes that give the impression of moving
around on the page.  One can continue to piece together a picture of
someone immersed in concerns over American Indians and who is also a
student of East Indian religion, a member of an elite avant-garde circle, a
mentally ill clairvoyant who has nonetheless found a way to participate in
a creative community.  But it is difficult to see any "progression" in the
works --difficult to sustain the concentration it takes to find out if
there is "progression" or not.

Nonetheless, though one would be hard pressed to identify
"progression" in a conventional narratological sense, in her last two
books, Silent Teachers/Remembered Sequel (1994) and We Speak Silent (1996)
there is a fair bit of humor as well as a coherent project emerging, as if
she really had passed through something and was turning it to good account.
Weiner believed she was in training to become a "silent teacher," that is,
someone who could heal others with psychic energy.  And her trainers were
themselves healers who spoke to her silently; one was a no longer living
American Indian medicine man who took the form of "Paw," the white bear who
lived in her forehead and flirted with her, and who "is the funniest person
I know" (line/break, 199?).  The phenomenon of seeing words gives way to
apprehending them silently, without needing to hear or see.  These books
are less vertiginously wordy than the earlier ones, but equally charming:

	barrett:     for some reason the MLA is having a conference on the word
	humph     i of course have several variations
	p 10 line 7     p 21 line 4     p 30 line 5 from the bottom       i am of
	course not going but i can send a brief analysis
	barrett:    ahem see the doves fly from the computer
	paw: maw please everyone is getting slightly ridiculous in his or her own way
	bob dylan [who elsewhere is renamed boobela]:      now for a pronouncement
	in the barrett watten column      let me apply  (We Speak Silent, "watten,"
	p. 11)

Weiner's clairvoyance does not consist in her being able to see the
future, nor in communing with the ancestors.  Nor can she win the lottery
with her psychic tricks or be used by the CIA to find terrorists or the FBI
to find serial killers.  Her gift is non-exploitable, monstrous in that it
reduces people, herself included, into surfaces for writing --someone
else's writing.  And what they write is not grand prophecy, nor even in the
Yeatsian sense, "metaphors for poetry," though it is poetic; it's the
fragmented detritus of everyday conversation, memory, news reports, fantasy
scenes involving friends --the banal rendered transcendently important thru
elevation to clairvoyant material, the unconscious revealed as an
unstoppable torrent of hyper-real badinage.  So the nice Jewish girl of my
paper title, the nice little girl who knew too much, is actually the nice
Jewish-American girl who knows nothing (like the bumbling prison guard
Sergeant Schultz of Hogan's Heroes, a 1960s American tv sitcom set in a
German World War II prisoner of war camp, in which an international team of
Allied prankster-inmates consistently sabotages the German war effort).
This nothing, Karyn Ball has suggested, is exactly the "too much" that
Weiner knows, the kernel of what makes these texts traumatic.  Since the
voices/printed words come from elsewhere (hovering in the corner, a
surveillance camera that's also a projector playing word-films on our
victim-poet), there can be no authorial ownership of the material that
emanates from Weiner and appears under her name in micro-press publications
and limited editions; rather, as earth-advocates say, she's the "steward"
of the words, word-protector --though she protects not by hoarding but by
spending, by participating in the current of verbal energy eddying about
her.  For when it comes to language, preservation is related to
proliferative rather than restrictive or prohibited use: as in the case of
many indigenous American languages, or, for that matter, Yiddish, when a
population of users is killed off, or forbidden to use its language, that
language's chance of survival is endangered.  If, as Walter Benjamin
entreats us, our job is to see that no scrap of history goes unsalvaged
(Benjamin, 25?), Weiner is the historian specializing in the words of
everyday life; no phoneme or letter is too insignificant to record as
poetic.  Her avant-gardism could be construed as the foresight (sight in to
the avenir, voir avant la lettre) to preserve (garde) words for a future in
which they are endangered.  For words are not only phonemes and letters but
bear inscribed in them, and function as, traces of history.

And it could be argued that the poetic and the traumatic are deeply
correspondent in the Baudelairean sense.  Here I want to refer not only to
Baudelaire's poem but to Benjamin's essay on Baudelaire, which posits the
traumatic effect of simply living in industrial modernity; without
characterizing it in these terms, Benjamin was writing not only of
Baudelaire's hysterical-automaton style but of his own position on the
brink of the postmodern.  I want also to pull in here (invoke) the rhythm
of Fredric Jameson's elegant essay on Baudelaire as modernist and
postmodernist which is also, of course, about Jameson himself and his
perpetually elegiac yearnings.  The urge toward preservation that Weiner
enacts is captured also in her image, in the recent work "Paw," of a
magical, bear-like creature who has followed her from Mexico to NYC, who
houses itself in a small velvet-lined drawer inside her forehead.  This
rich image of a shelf inside one's forehead that functions as host for a
"silent teacher" or otherworldly visitation sets off multiple associations.
It is reminiscent of a coffin: the "third eye" (or sixth chakra as Weiner
might put it--center of psychic activity) functioning as a repository for
the dead is also a literalization of the metaphors used for memory: "they
live --take up residence --in our hearts and minds."  It reminds us of
tfillin, the small case containing scripture that orthodox Jewish men bind
on their foreheads.  And it refers the ark that houses the Torah in
synagogues, only this Word of God is embodied in a cutely anthropomorphized
mammal/fantasy companion.   This strange blend of necro-mechanization (body
turned into gravesite) and whimsy (Bernstein describes the passage as "kind
of a cross between Beatrix Potter and Magical Realism"), again a
literalization of metaphor (keeping [God's] word in mind) resonates with
the strange depersonalization that trauma survivors or hysterics experience
with regard to their bodies (fantasies of limbs detaching, of the body as
inert casing for a consciousness, or as a living casing for an inert
interior, of the body without organs); and also with the uses the Third
Reich made of Jewish body parts.

Weiner's inability or unwillingness to screen out any stimulus or
to exclude anything from her writing has the effect on readers (my students
at least) of a kind of numbing reading process; since Weiner refuses to
create a hierarchy of meaning (foreground/background etc), the demands on
the reader's attention are enormous, and the experience is often
articulated (to me by students) as frustration, boredom, or alienation ("I
couldn't relate").  Claude Lanzmann's nine-hour film, Shoah,  has much the
same effect on some viewers: one friend's husband mistook her weeping for
emotion when they saw the film together; on the contrary, she insisted, it
was boredom at the monotony of the action and speech.  The complexity
and/or disingenuousness of such a response captures, I think, some of the
bafflement-as-displaced-horror (or, alternately, relief that such
representation is possible) that accompanies texts generated by a
relentlessly scrupulous -- one might say compulsive --documentarian
impulse.  While common sense might dictate that the subject matter of the
two oeuvres differs so dramatically as to make the comparison sacrilegious,
we could at least concede the possibility of their relatedness
historically, culturally, aesthetically.  We could posit, at the least,
tentatively, that the "outsider" sensibility that Weiner tracks so minutely
has context and worldly kinship.  We could at least concede that both texts
enact what Felman and Laub call a "performance" rather than a
"representation" of traumatic fallout whose matrix is postmodern Jewish
experience (xx).

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