Erasure Poetry As Outsourcing the Lexicon with Reference to Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager and M NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!

By | 1 August 2021

3.0 Erasure poetry begins life as anything from a game to a desperate route around the blank page – Srikanth Reddy talks in an interview about his difficulties of knowing how to write in the face of Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s, before coming by chance to erasure as an unexpected generative force amidst the exhausting abyss of these forever wars. Like a composer who plays joyfully with a predecessor’s theme in new variations, this method permits the writer to imbue their work with facets of other texts pertinent to their subject or critical to their place in the world, while still creating something new for themselves. Or, whatever text the erasurist alights upon may come to stand in metonymically for the whole world, if only in recognition that no cultural artefact is ever created in a vacuum – we are always dealing with things in medias res. The platitudinous language in the memoir of Kurt Waldheim – who served as secretary general of the UN from 1972 to 1981 – is absolutely part of the lineage of impenetrable government and diplomacy world systems that played host to the actions of Bush, Cheney, and Blair. And it is from this fairly uninspiring territory that Reddy finds ground that synthesises equally the pervasive banality of the world with apparent turning points in history.

3.1 Before even lifting the cover flap of Voyager, we might remark upon the reconstruction of the dry self-mythologising of a European trans-national bureaucrat with a controversial Nazi past into deliberately scintillating poetry by a writer of colour; or the appropriation of the thoughts of a major United Nations figurehead in the wake of one of modern international diplomacy’s most complete and utter breakdowns. In the face of these powerful meta-textual conditions, the book cannot help but circle around the question of its own production, even as it becomes the shovel digging through the political morass. As allusive as it is elusive, world-historical context fuses with highly personal activity, a kind of fever dream ‘turning in the mechanics of fact …’ (82). Take the repeated invocations of the memoir’s author as a site of poetic procedure – ‘Kurt Waldheim is a formal negotiation’ (15, 32) – where experiments in new poetic forms are the double of staid ceremony; creative speculation forever squared off against the weight of bureaucracy, yet also the radical equation of a person (any person, as in life) with the very stuff of poetry. This is the material power of erasure to collapse scales and reveal ideas of any magnitude within the fabric of anything else. In the most knowing of gestures, the Reddy poem compares its own embedding with the paradigmatic case of Hamlet Act III Scene ii: ‘ – for I condone the implantation / of form / in form – / and within the play / I also put a play’ (87).

3.2 The question of what form the work is taking by these methods is never far away – the book even acquires its name from an act of inscription, namely Waldheim recording a message for the Voyager Golden Record in 1977. But Reddy remains alive to the effects on meaning that the formal acts of this kind of writing may have:

I laboured, often tempted to throw up my hands in frustration, on this form. I expunged colonial wars, the Cape Verde Islands, the dilemma of self, and a broken government thus. Within a year, the little declarations that remained seemed to me to silence any hope for a united world. (24)

3.3 Stepping inside Voyager we find not merely a single view taken through the lens of Waldheim’s memoir, but three separate efforts at erasing the book each with discrete targets in mind, producing wildly different textures. Yet as one reads the three books, we are also haunted by repetitions that we feel must have been mined from the same place on successive passes through The Eye of the Storm (the memoir’s grandiose title). The word byzantine (re-)appears with a clarity just a little too particular and crystalline to be coincidence (8, 23, 74), and are we to believe that Waldheim really had occasion ‘to complain about love in front of the famous Chagall window’ (5, 65) more than once?

A collective music circles history. (32)

3.4 ‘Book One’ is characterised heavily by philosophical propositions, formed by circling words of interest to construct a gloss of each page spread, and at times approaching Zen koans inflected with the trappings of global administration. The most-often quoted of these is ‘Waves rise and fall but the sea remains’ (6), but I am also partial to ‘For a time Finland. / Likewise Namibia’ (4), and ‘Autumn was in pieces all across America’ (9). The main technique at play here is equation – not metaphor, but something rather more geometric and less a matter of metaphysics. A particularly acute example would be the dialectical move that takes place across the first book, beginning with ‘The world is the world.’ (3), followed by ‘A world is a world is a world.’ (4), and finally ‘The world is a world.’ (16). These Wittgensteinian schema move in and out telescopically through different scales and return almost back to where they started but with a subtle yet immeasurably significant inflection of the article from definite to indefinite. Far from projecting out in grand metaphoric allusion, this equation is a kind of resemblance that eventually results in the merest declarations of ‘War is.’ (9), or even ‘Is is.’ (6); one that simply gives way to whatever is behind.

3.5 ‘Book Two’ follows with a shift to a first-person prose narrative which contains the most open and concerted (aforementioned, see 3.2) meditation upon the writing of the book itself; Reddy as author most present in the poems at the point of debating how self-effacing a technique like erasure can really be. Is this voice any less my own for using these words of another? To the extent that a boyish curiosity can be sparked by association with the Voyager probe launches (19), it is beset by waves of melancholy and futility amidst the deliberate yet absolutely arbitrary dissolution of Waldheim’s text that ‘verged on the ridiculous’ (23). This pervasive doubt may appear to us a preparation for the journey in ‘Book Three’, replete with Dantean allegory in staggering tercets, that occupies by far the majority of Voyager: ‘Lost in the middle of life / we continued … In the Middle East of life’ (52-5). We must imagine the underworld imagination to be important, for an understanding of erasure that is not excavating meaning in an extractive sense, but going deeper and more intensely into its sinews:

I thought
                              but soon found

unending region
                              of consequence
                                                  under ever image

 – fields endless
                              but visible
                                                  behind every field. (48-9)

3.6 If nothing else, Voyager’s multiple methods and results of within the category of erasure must demonstrate that, far from being merely a stylistic technique, it is a ‘technology of writing’ to borrow another interview phrase from Reddy; one that binds into the written presence of each word the way in which we read. As each of us (or even our own selves on different occasions) must necessarily land with related yet unique emphasis on divergent coordinates of the same page – with constantly fleeting movements of the eye by degrees up and down – the erasurist is able to present a perceptible shape that nonetheless buries within itself the potential of all the barely perceptible fractals in how we traverse every line.

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