Saturday, December 10, 2016

CANCER: POEMS AFTER KATERINA GOGOU by SEAN BONNEY

JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN reviews:

Cancer: Poems after Katerina Gogou, by Sean Bonney
(A Firm Nigh Holistic Press, Berlin, 2016)

1.

When I downloaded Demetra Demetriou’s ‘I Defend Anarchism.’ Deconstructing Authority Or Mythicizing Terrorism In Greece’s Metapolitefsi: The Poetry Of Katerina Gogou” from Academia.com, I mentioned how much I admired Gogou’s poetry, at least the little of it I’d been able to read, Demetriu wrote back and said, “I am glad that a Greek poet, long-held at the margins of poetry and being, meets with such an enthusiasm on the part of foreign readers.” It is of course impossible for me to know how marginal Gogou’s status really is, but it does appear that she is not nearly as well known to Anglophone readers as I believe she should be, so little of her work has been englished, and therefore this review has two purposese: First, to introduce her to those who don’t know her life and work, because I believe that she and her poems are well worth knowing, and that tho she is a poet of a place, and a time, that time has resonances for us here now, or at least to some of us. I think that Sean Bonney’s Cancer will be evidence of that. I don’t believe my second purpose, which is to briefly (or, perhaps better, suggestively) review Bonney’s reworkings of Gogou, would be possible without my introducing the more or less “straight” Gogou.

Speaking of what’s been englished, besides the Bonney, here’s what I found

Anonymous, “These are my two favourite poems by Katerina Gogou ...”, retrieved from Google Docs trash Https://Docs.Google.Com/Document/D/1nn79-4fvplifj4rbdgdoyhqs4zklf8j4xzzfundi7vo/Edit?Hl=En# 16 Sept 016

Cancer: Poems after Katerina Gogou, by Sean Bonney. Berlin: A Firm Nigh Holistic Press, 2016

G. Chalkiadakis, “Greek Poetry – Katerina Gogou (1940-1993)”, at http://www.cs.toronto.edu/~gehalk/gogou_transl_poem_2.html) Computer Science Dept, University of Toronto, n.d.

Demetra Demetriou ,‘I Defend Anarchism.’ Deconstructing Authority Or Mythicizing Terrorism In Greece’s Metapolitefsi: The Poetry Of Katerina Gogou” by (Forum for Modern Language Studies, vol. 51, no. 1, 2015, at https://www.academia.edu/10790807/I_Defend_Anarchism._Deconstructing_Authority_or_Mythicizing_Terrorism_in_Greeces_Metapolitefsi_The_Poetry_of_Katerina_Gogou Academia.edu

Katerina Gogou: Black Birds (eds. Dimitris Askitis, Erica Minuz & James Day; tr. Dimitris Askitis). Copenhagen: Forlaget Nemo, 2016

Katerina Gogou, Three Clicks Left (tr. Jack Hirschman). San Francisco: Night Horn Books, 1983

Katerina Gogou, “Our life is jackknifings”, which Gogou recites in the film Special Request, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnUACiB5WlA YouTube (tr. collettivo neri pennuti) [this is the first poem in Three Clicks Left]

Taxikipali, Gogou, Katerina: Athens’ anarchist poetess, 1940-1993”, at https://libcom.org/history/katerina-gogou-athens-anarchist-poetess-1940-1993 Libcom, April 2010

I list these becaue a) I will be referring to at least some of them, and b) because if any of you are taken with Gogou’s work and wants to read more, this will jump start you. I should also mention that she was an actor, and that there are a number of other clips on YouTube in which you can see her in films. 


2.

First, I want to place Gogou:

Gogou belongs both thematically and stylistically to the so-called ‘generation of the 1970s’, a generation of poets born between 1940 and 1955 [Gogou was born in 1940-JBR] They reached adulthood in the crucial years following the Greek civil war (1946-1949) and experienced both the Greek military junta (1967-1974) and the bloody events of the Athens Polytechnic (1973) which were followed by the collapse of the Colonels’ regime and then by a transitional period towards democratization referred to as ‘the Metapolitefsi’. Within their broader post-1968 trajectory and grafted onto the historical specificity of the Greek case, central elements of this generation include a rejection of ‘civilized’ society, which they considered degraded and degrading; a general questioning of Authority; and a sharp criticism of US consumer culture. These defining features were notably due to the Greek dictatorship and the Cyprus disaster which, according to the historian Richard Clogg, caused a generalized distrust of the USA and of NATO policies in those years. Some of these poets echo, to some extent, the American Beat generation, even though, as Van Dyck points out, ‘the language of Beat had a more marked political impact in Greece than it had in America’. Most of them appear anti-industrial, anti-institutional, even anti-rational, use crude or vulgar language, and employ stylistic devices such as irony and parody. A poetics of digression follows that of allusion formed under the conditions of military rule, and leads to an innovation in style. Gogou undoubtedly participates in this literary upheaval. However, her life and work, dedicated to the struggle alongside the anarchists, take resistance further than protest, and violence further than language.

She lived thru terrible, alienating, violent times. The first poem in her first book, Three Clicks Left, describes them:

Our life is jack-knifings
in dirty dead-ends
rotten teeth, faded slogans
backstage basements
smell of piss, antiseptics
and rotten sperm. Ripped-off posters.
Up and down. Up and down Patission Ave.
Our life is Patission Ave.
The powdered detergent which does not pollute the sea
And Mitropanos sang his way into our life
but Dexameni has swallowed him
as have those high ass ladies.
But we are still here.
A craven life we travel
the same road.
Humiliation-loneliness-despair. And vice versa.
OK. We do not cry. We’ve grown up.
Only when it rains
we secretly suck our thumbs. And we smoke.
Our life is
pointless panting
in programmed strikes
snitches and patrols.
That’s why I tell you.
Next time they shoot at us
we won’t run. “To the barricades, etc.”
Let’s not sell our skin so cheap, damn it!
No. It’s raining. Gimme a smoke.
(Translation by collettivo neri pennuti, modified by me – I replaced some of their phrases with Jack Hirschman’s, and with some of my own.)

In this poem, clearly, anger and cynicism triumph over hope. For example, according to the notes to the Taxikipali piece and the Hirschman book, “Mitropanos [was] a popular singer of working class origin identified with chain-smoking male proletarian culture”, who “married the daughter of the Secretary of State”; “Dexameni [was] the ‘arty square’ of Kolonaki, the ruling class neighbourhood next to the Parliament [...] a metonym for the bourgeois left.” Dare I think of ... Brooklyn? I know anger and cynicism well. I mean, at what moment during, say, the protests against going to war in Iraq, at what point during Occupy, at what point in the struggle against global warming, did I not know we were going to lose? Perhaps that’s why it seems to me that the key phrase here, the one that allows this poem to resonate not only now but into many imaginable future nows, is “Let’s not sell our skin so cheap ...” OK. How?

There are a few lines in Bonney which seem to me to be, at least potentially, a rewrite of the last few lines of this poem (it’s not always clear from the Gogou I have when he’s reworking her or when striking out on his own, not that those two possibilities are opposed, since one of the conceits of the book is that he is Gogou): “Fuck it. Do it tomorrow. No escape from the massacre.”


3.

The third poem in Three Clicks Left will give us a sense of both Gogou, and of what Bonney has done with her:

To me my friends are blackbirds
playing see-saw on roofs of crumbling houses
Exarchia Patisia Metaxurgio Metz.
They do whatever comes along.
Peddlers of cookbooks and encyclopedias
they build roads and connect deserts
barkers for Zinonos St. dives
professional rebels
cornered in the old days and forced to
                        pull down their pants
now they swallow pills and alcohol to sleep
but they see dreams so they don’t sleep.
To me my friends are taut wires
on the roofs of old houses
Exarchia Victoria Kookaki Geazy.
With a million steel pegs you pinned them with
your guilt party-meeting decisions borrowed
                                                            dresses
burn marks strange headaches
threatening silences vaginitis
they fall in love with gays
triconoma late-periods
the telephone the telephone the telephone
broken glasses and no one an ambulance.
They do whatever comes along.
My friends always are on the move
because you haven’t given them an inch.
All my friends paint with black
because you’ve debased the red for them
they write in a symbolic tongue
because your own’s only for asslicking.
My friends are blackbirds and wires
in your hands. At your throat.
My friends.
                        (Translation by Jack Hirschman)

I want to note here that in this poem her anger is not only directed at those who have impoverished her and her friends, and closed down their horizons, but also at the communists, whom she now rejects because of their “guilt party-meeting decisions”, “because you haven’t given [my friends] an inch”, “because you’ve debased the red for them”, “because your tongue’s only for asslicking.” I instantly think about the debacle a few years back within the Socialist Workers Party (UK), in which the party destroyed its integrity by trying to bury a rape accusation against one of the leadership, and followed that by denouncing those who objected. Which brings up a question that, since it can’t be anwered, haunts everything the left does: are parties viable? Are parties intrinsically hierarchical in the bad sense? Within the party format, is the notion of “power to the people [aka “All Power to the Soviets!” (in the original sense of soviets)] nothing more than a sad sad joke? If yes, how do we organize now in order to continue the struggle? (And if you say “via Facebook” or “Twitter” ...) I also want to note that most indications are that her friends are female.

OK. This is all well and good (or bad). Now what has Bonney done with this poem? A number of things. I have found three versions of his version of this poem. No, that’s wrong. I have found three variations he has rung on it. First, the one at his blog http://abandonedbuildings.blogspot.com/2015/09/poems-after-katerina-gogou.html   Abandoned Buildings, published 24 September 2015:

I think of my friends as blackbirds
screeching from rooftops
murdered by rising rents . we survive
at random. pissed out of our heads
in songs in squatted bars
with pills and needles. to get some sleep
to stop dreaming
interpreters. commies. thieves.
we wake in the same bed. with bedbugs
with trackmarks I love my friends
we dream and never sleep
cocaine into Marx
plague into Bakunin
murdered by rising rents. we screech
from broken rooftops
I think of my friends as blackbirds
as wires stretched from city to city
nailed to the front of the houses
in borrowed dresses and migraines
in silence. lines of speed. of wires
of STDs and bedbugs and microscopes
we fall in love with killers
we survive at random
no ambulance
broken glass. telephone. silence
I think of my friends as blackbirds
Marx and Bakunin. always on the move
the city has been stolen
always on the move
murdered by rising rents
all of my friends. dressed in black
in silence. antibiotics and broken roofs
speaking in code. always in code
plain speech is only for lying
my friends are blackbirds. are wires
tight around your hands. your necks
you capitalist shits. your necks
my friends are wires. are blackbirds

This is more or or less a straight translation, tho I believe he misses the rancor at the communists and the assertion of anarchism. I can’t be sure since all I have is the Hirschman version to work from. But no, that’s wrong. It’s a rewrite. He changes the poem so that the speaker can encompass both communism and anarchism: “Marx and Bakunin” (emphasis mine). He also eliminates the gendered emphases I find in Hirschman’s version. But the anger, poverty, despair, etc are all still there.

The second version I found is much more radical. I think it could be better considered Bonney’s own poem. I found this at http://coyotedialectic.tumblr.com/post/128624196323/from-three-poems-after-katerina-gogou-by-sean Coyote Dialectic, where it was posted 3:47am 8th September 2015. I don’t know when the version at Abandoned Buildings was written, so I don’t know which of these two versions was “first”. It seems entirely possible to me that this version was written in direct response to Gogou’s poem, but it doesn’t seem very likely that he would have followed it up with the “straighter” version. At least, I’m not feeling things happening in that order. In any case.  

I don’t really think of my friends as blackbirds
screeching from the rooftops of Exarchia, of
whatever’s left of Hackney, how could I,
a target, with a tourist map in my hand and
in my mouth, of the places where cocaine leaks
into Marx, and plague works inside Bakunin.
The streets are so narrow here, its almost like
we’re all asleep in the same bed, trackmarks,
bedbugs, love and I love my friends. I think
of them as wires, strung from the rooftops of
Exarchia, of Hackney, of KobanĂ® and Oakland,
of where we awaken together, screeching choirs
of wires, dressed in black because history made
our red so foul, talking only in code because
plain speech is fit only for asslicking. I haven’t
taken anything for five days. The kids round here
don’t give a shit, but it freaks out the cops like
hell yes I think of my friends as blackbirds, as screeches,
as wires stretched from city to city, as tightening songs
and your throats, you capitalist pigs, your pale throats.

In this version, he seems to see what I see, the applicability of Gogou to now. We find Hackney, we find Oakland (we could have found Ferguson). We also find a greater level of anger and despair here than in her poem. Communism? Feh. Anarchism? Feh. “History made our red so foul”, yes, but Bakunin is plague-filled. There is apparently nothing left but despair (“I haven’t taken anything for five days”) and an impotent anger: “your throats, you capitalist pigs, your pale throats.”

Now, to the third version, which is the one that actually appears in Cancer:

I think of my friends as blackbirds
screeching from rooftops
murdered by rising rents . we survive
at random. pissed out of our heads
in songs in squatted bars
with pills and needles. to get some sleep
interpreters. commies. thieves.
we wake in the same bed. with bedbugs
with trackmarks I love my friends
they are wires stretched from city to city
in borrowed dresses and migraines
in silence. lines of speed. of wires
tight around your hands. your necks
you capitalist shits. your necks
my friends are wires are blackbirds

This is a stripped-down version of the one on Abandoned Buildings, with all mention of Marx and Bakunin removed. As if there is no possibility of any sort of meaningful political activity anymore. Tho there are “commies”. But they are equated with interpreters (poets?) and thieves. Who may also be poets, needless to say. All that is left is useless screeching and dulling drugs. There is the slight threat of random murder in the wires tight around hands in (at least verbal) proximity to capitalist necks, but the wires soon transform from actual garottes into friends ...

Cancer is s short book. There are nine pages of “Gogou” poems, which are either variations on her work or poems by him while he is posessed by her. The last several pages of the book consist of Bonney’s “Letter Against the Language”, which begins “So I moved to a new country, a new city” and which ends “We have not yet been consumed in fire.” But I think I will leave the last word to Gogou herself, because, in this poem especially, she speaks so eloquently to me:

What I fear most
is becoming “a poet”...
Locking myself in the room
gazing at the sea
and forgetting...
I fear that the stitches over my veins might heal
and, instead of having blur memories about TV news,
I take to scribbling papers and selling “my views”...
I fear that those who stepped over us might accept me
so that they can use me.
I fear that my screams might become a murmur
so that to serve putting my people to sleep.
I fear that I might learn to use meter and rhythm
and thus I will be trapped within them
longing for my verses to become popular songs.
I fear that I might buy binoculars in order to bring closer
the sabotage actions in which I won't be participating.
I fear getting tired - an easy prey for priests and academics -
and so turn into a “poet” ...
They have their ways ...
They can utilize the routine in which you get used to,
they have turned us into dogs:
they see to us being ashamed for not working...
they see to us being proud for being unemployed...
That’s how it is.
Keen psychiatrists and lousy policemen
are waiting for us in the corner.
Marx...
I am afraid of him...
My mind walks past him as well...
Those bastards...they are to blame...
I cannot -fuck it- even finish this writing...
Maybe...eh?...maybe some other day...
(Translated by G. Chalkiadakis, very slightly modified by me)


*****

John Bloomberg-Rissman has spent the last dozen years or so working on a long project called Zeitgeist Spam. Parts published so far: No Sounds of My Own Making (Leafe Press, 2007),Flux, Clot & Froth (Meritage Press, 2010), the text in A Picture of Everyone I Love Passes Through Me (Lunar Chandelier Press, 2016), and In the House of the Hangman (forthcoming, 2017), which has turned into a 2,000,000-word metatext and which will be published in 9 volumes. Additionally, he “authored” the “conceptual” work 2nd Notice of Modifications to Text of Proposed regulations: Regulation and Policy Branch, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (Leafe Press & Laughing Ouch Cube Publications, 2010). He is also the editor or co-editor of several volumes: 1000 Views of “Girl Singing” (Leafe Press, 2009), The Chained Haynaku (Meritage Press & xPress(ed), 2010, co-edited with Eileen R Tabios, Ivy Alvarez and Ernesto Priego), and Poems for the Millennium 5: Barbaric, Vast & Wild (Black Widow Press, 2015, co-edited with Jerome Rothenberg). His reviews appear regularly at Galatea Resurrects, and he blogs at Zeitgeist Spam (www.johnbr.com).



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