8 August 2023
In our letter correspondence, a friend and I had a brief back-and-forth about the function of criticism, particularly about how the current economic world—in academia and book reviewing, specifically—is uncoupling the function of criticism from traditional professional careers meant to foster the art. There have been robust discussions about this in academia, as of late (once again), with provocations like Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (2017) and other publications like John Guillory’s Professing Criticism (2022).
This might not be the venue to go into the academic weeds here, but my exchange has given more traction to my ongoing conversation with Garrett Hongo’s “Figura,” which started last issue’s To Our Readers, asking, what about a work of literature that is at its root an act of criticism? Even if I concede to the deconstructive part of my intellectual lineage the proposition that all works of literature are essentially critical responses to works of literature before them, what about the poems, stories, or novels that prominently signal their mode of composition as unlocking secrets from poems, stories, or novels that preceded them? Furthermore, what about me when I read, indulge in, and learn from such a piece?
One work in this issue that has captured my attention is the stunning poem “Buick Skylark with Alcoholic,” by Patrick Donnelly, which, at its heart is criticism of life, criticism as life-writing. At the turning point of the poem is the speaker’s high appraisal of his mother’s translation, which forces us not to forget that the critical craft was inherited; his mother’s remark that “Richard Strauss is all sex and no orgasm” is critical, doubly so (and eloquently and accurately put, in my opinion). At the center of this contentious poem about one’s mother is the frank admission that one’s poetic prowess pays a large, albeit complicated, debt to this matriarch.
Translation, criticism, reading, writing, life: this poem proposes not so much that they are the same—lumping them all into one indistinguishable mass; rather, utilizing the setting of the end scene, the poem insists that these five literary acts intersect. Donnelly presses us to consider these acts as exchange—each in and of itself, but also with each other—when he shoehorns the sale of the titular car into an otherwise consistent passage about the mother’s translation and the son’s appraisal of the poetic work. The mother sells the Buick Skylark to her aide, Carmen, and the poet closes the passage with his mother’s words, “Joy is a ghost. / Hopes may hover but fail to flower.” The translation, the “transaction,” the criticism, the citation as gloss of a human moment: all lean on the prefix the first two share, emphasizing how criticism can serve to carry over meaning.
The exchange sets us up for rich irony at the end. The poem ends with the speaker stuck in the Skylark:
One Christmas I borrowed that car back,
and because of Carmen’s many DUIs had to blow
into the breathalyzer to start it, then blow again
when it died in the middle of the intersection.
Everyone in that little desert town judging me,
innocent princeling, for a poor woman’s crime.
Which woman? On the surface, it is the aide. But, in the flow of the poem, it is the mother, which is also intended, given the mother’s nightly scotch and given “princeling” is a term hereditary and “imperial,” as the mother is described at the poem’s opening. With this there is a masterful transformation of the breathalyzer to the poetic flute, or vice versa. Reminiscent of William Blake’s introduction to The Songs of Innocence, in which he transforms the reed, an age-old icon of poetry, from a musical pipe to a pen, Donnelly transfigures the pipe here to disrupt, but not entirely upend, the long-held Dionysian coupling of drink and poetry. And it is moving and profound.
As some of you here know, I am trained as a Romanticist. So, naturally, I was immediately, and am continually, struck by what this poem does with one of Romanticism’s favored birds, the skylark. The skylark is the stratospheric flier, the singer always out of sight (Keats’s nightingale is the proximate version of this), the unearthly source of pure song, which stimulates transcendent feeling and “unpremeditated art,” as Percy Shelley states in his poem “To a Skylark.” “Hail to thee, Blithe spirit!” the ode starts. Nothing in Donnelly’s poem can be further from this. Here is an earthbound Skylark, stuck, the poet literally in the belly. No triumphal, lofty spirit. This is all castigation, shame, and lost innocence.
And yet, just as the mother retained an imperial air (in all its complexity) despite her poverty, the poem too insists on a matter of transcendence despite the gravitas that brings the Skylark down to earth. “But joy is a ghost. / Hopes may hover”—amongst us, I’ll add—as the mother has taught her son through the transcendent practice of translation. In an excerpt of his current book found in the July issue of Harper’s, philosopher Alva Noë makes an argument about aesthetic experience that puts the act of criticism at its heart:
Aesthetic experience refers instead to the temporally extended practice of engaging with oneself and one’s environment, with the goal of moving from not seeing to seeing, or from seeing to seeing differently. It is the experience itself, or the labor of achieving the artwork, that is key. It unfurls in the setting of engaged thought and talk—that is, in the setting of criticism. And criticism itself—engagement with the demands of art, with the task of trying to find the words to say what we see and to articulate our aesthetic response—is for this reason creative. We make aesthetic experience. It doesn’t simply happen to us. [Emphases in the original.]
The earth gave us the Buick Skylark; life gave Donnelly the moment therein that ends his poem. (Whether this is anecdotal or imagined is undecidable now, given the poem makes the memory so powerfully lived.) It was the critical act—of reading and writing conjoined—that helped him find bountiful song, myriad songs, in all of it. And it required the aid, the medium, perhaps, of other people and other songs.
My hope is that the miscellany of a literary journal gives you ample opportunity to find the other people and other songs that can aid you in your own writing. (I’m one who ardently believes every person has the potential to create literature at every living moment.) Perhaps you find them in torrin a. greathouse’s poems, whether she engages art by British artist Damien Hirst, poetry by Mary Oliver, or a poetic form by Jericho Brown. Or, perhaps you find them in the poetry by Algerian poet Samira Negrouche, by way of Nancy Naomi Carlson’s fine translation. You might also find it worthwhile to read Nadia Davids’s bracing story “Bridling,” which dramatizes a speciously feminist stage production, in tandem with Shonni Enelow’s review of Isaac Butler’s book on Method acting.
A few notes from around the GR office:
• We would like to congratulate Xinyue Huang, winner of this year’s Loraine Williams Poetry Prize. Judge Hanif Abdurraqib says, “I love how warm and inviting the imagery of it was. Reading this poem felt like having a comfortable home built around you, to say nothing of its exit, an ending line that is stunning, heartbreaking, eternally memorable.”
• We opened for general submissions 15 August. Our prose prize will be open 1 November. Join our newsletter at thegeorgiareview.com to get updates.
• On Thursday, 2 November, we will welcome Percival Everett to Athens, Georgia, for his induction into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. Felicia Zamora will come to town Thursday 9 November for a reading.
• We welcome a new cohort for our internship program. We’d also like to welcome our new graduate editor, Zachary Anderson.
I want to end by pointing at Guncotton’s astounding feature in this issue, a mixed media piece that lays bare the networks of exploitation that have bound the American South and colonial India through the cotton trade. Comprising people from South Carolina and India—artists, thinkers, and writers of ADOS and Indian descent, the Guncotton collective gives us a way to consider the cumulative and far-reaching damage that what historian Sven Beckert calls the “empire of cotton” has enacted on cultures around the world, a sort of violence by which, in Beckert’s words, “the many worlds of cotton became a European-centered empire of cotton.” By hacking a nursery rhyme (an English one at that), collecting archival material, taking photos of various sorts (documentary, art, street; film, digital, Polaroid), and arranging the varied mess, with the help of designer Scott LaClaire’s genius touch, Guncotton gives us an aesthetic object that, following Nöe, gives us the opportunity to see when we weren’t able to, or to see differently than before. And what we see are, as Beckert states about his own project, “connections between peoples and places that would remain on the margins if we embarked upon a more traditional study bounded by national borders.”
The cover image of the fold-out haunts me, in the way writer Roland Barthes famously described by his term “punctum.” The image comes from an early twentieth-century board meant for a stereograph. The medium-specific term “punctum” describes a detail accidentally taken by the photographer that disrupts, “punctures,” what Barthes calls the “studium” of a photo, which, in short, encapsulates the entirety of the photographer’s intention. When someone sees a punctum, or, alternately, when a punctum seizes a beholder, the detail animates the photo, overwhelms the studium, and effectively transforms the photo into another photo, at least in semiotic terms. The look the boy gives out from the basket is not meant to be, given the absorptive, vicarious experience intended for the stereograph viewer turned slave master. Specifically, I am talking about a particular punctum introduced at the end of Camera Lucida (1980), when Barthes focuses on the famous 1865 portrait of death row inmate Lewis Payne. “This new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity,” Barthes says, “is Time.” Of the photo, Barthes says: “But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake.” The cover of Guncotton’s fold-out seizes me with this same horror, but I see the death in terms of what Orlando Patterson calls “social death.” As Selamawit D. Terrefe says in the review of Afropessimism (2020), by Frank B. Wilderson, she wrote for us: “madness, death, and the ‘hold of the ship’ are the here, now, and heretofore all at once, until the world we understand within this current symbolic order ceases to exist.”