Fuck Lectures About Sonnets: On Noor Hindi

By | 1 September 2023

Reading out: wobbles

This whole process of ‘reading in’ replicates ‘the lecture on craft’ that Hindi grates against. By considering the poem through the lens of poetic analysis, I have tried to perform the work of contradictions that the poem is anxious about. But the irony of this approach is not lost on me: Hindi’s ‘fuck you’ is directed squarely in my direction. The poem reckons with all of these conflicts and contradictions, asking how the poet might best use language, while still maintaining a hostility towards the lecturer and the critic. So how can we treat the poem as a work of craft in its own right, without ignoring this hostility? How do we read for advocacy without reducing to typecast? The tensions within the poem are directed both inward and outward, and there is a necessary challenge to understand the contradictions within the speaker’s and Hindi’s position in relation to the poem as different from the contradictions of the critic.

I suggest a ‘wobble’ offers a way of navigating these tensions. Louis Cabri coins the wobble to describe a poetic technique he recognises in poet Roy Miki’s work that generates ‘semantic slippage’ and a ‘change of state’ (xii). Described in the ‘Floward’ to Miki’s Flow (2018), the wobble relies on polysemy and formal displacements to generate richness, rather than precision. This figural excess obstructs any one way of understanding a word, a line, or an image with its multiple and at times contradicting senses (xiii). While Cabri described the wobble as a feature of Miki’s poetic language, it is perhaps more useful to think about the wobble as a moment. It is the result of an accumulation of abstractions which renders non-sense over sense.

The wobble can also be understood as a way of reading. Cabri stresses the flexibility required when reading for wobbles; the importance of adapting to the figurative richness. A reader must resist downplaying or forcing the wobble out, and instead ride its wave, go with its flow (xii). So, while a contrapuntal reading offers a way of recognising contradictions, to read these as wobbles provides a way to experience the counterpoints. Miki and Hindi’s work is formally and tonally distinct: Flow’s fragmented and at times obscure verse, interspersed with collage, is a visual far cry from Hindi’s ‘straightforward’ 14 lines. But the work of both poets engages with political-aesthetic tensions, relationships, and displacements. Miki’s elusive style swirls around the racialisation of Japanese Canadian communities while also resisting a reading in ‘representational’ terms. In the background to his poems is Miki’s vital work for the 1980s Redress Movement. This political activism centred around equity and recognition for Japanese Canadian families uprooted and interned during WWII.

To demonstrate wobble’s elasticity, I will first focus on Miki’s wobbles, as Cabri does. ‘Watch Sounds’ (261) begins with one:

place in the placebo

after five years of faithful service the watch stopped at 7.32 am

before the knot rioted it couldn’t get to the pen in time

The bus ejected a forgery that forgot its identity

(lines 1–4)

Here, space and time are located, but semantic slippages generate confusion. The where (in the placebo) and the when (7.32 am, after five years) are destabilised by the following line, where the ‘before’ ambiguously hangs. How are the knot and pen linked? How can a knot riot? The line breaks also beg questions about how to sequence this information. The pairing of ‘place’ / ‘placebo’ and ‘forgery / forgot its identity’ offers an aural mirroring, gesturing at a contractive link between the words in each pair. But at a second glance, this link is frustrated. What is the connection between place and placebo? Forgery might be tied to identity, sure; but how is it forgotten? The act of attentive reading dislocates more than it uncovers, highlighting the efficacy in Cabri’s directive to go with the wobble’s flow. These scenes of structural ambiguity, when read across Miki’s work, enact moments of productive displacement, destabilising any fixed position for the speaker or reader to settle in.

The wobble’s elasticity makes it useful for understanding and reading poetic ambiguity across different styles and forms, describing the imaginative possibilities that come with a displacement of meaning. It gives us a language for the generative and polysemic possibility in Hindi’s work, with its resistance to a single interpretation.

On the surface, ‘Fuck Your Lecture on Craft’ appears to be a more stable, ‘straightforward’ poem than ‘Watch Sounds’, but the technique Cabri applies to Miki can be extended to Hindi’s verse to read the temporal suspension embedded in lines 8-9. We experience a kind of glitch in the poem’s logic which is at odds with its matter-of-fact language: ‘I pick flowers for my dead father when I’m sad. / He watches Al Jazeera all day.’ Here, the realism of the poem buckles. How does the dead father ‘watch’ in the present tense? An initial read suggests a somewhat obvious link between the sadness and the dead father. When they are sad, the speaker picks flowers for their father’s grave. They imagine his continued, present-tense existence in the afterlife. But Al Jazeera seems out of place here – an all-day news broadcast does not immediately generate connotations of paradise. Perhaps, then, the father is not physically dead, and he is, in fact, watching TV all day. But with this reading, the link between being sad and picking flowers for the father is destabilised. What is the connection between the speaker’s emotions, and flowers for their TV-watching dad?

At least three contrasting interpretations wobble together, refusing a singular explanation of the glitch in time:

  1. That the speaker’s father is not dead in a physical sense, but has suffered a kind of spiritual death tied to the ongoing Nakba.
  2. The speaker’s father is physically deceased, his soul now existing in an afterlife where Al Jazeera is broadcasted 24/7.
  3. The speaker’s father is physically deceased, his ghost living and existing only in the present-tense of the sonnet.

Each explanation takes on a new light, however, when read in relation to line 12: ‘Metaphors about death are for poets who think ghosts care about sound.’ Metaphor is what the reader hopes to find to make sense of this line’s divergence from meaning, to construct a reason or solution for the ambiguity. But the speaker claims to reject metaphor for its role as a tool of the coloniser. Attempts to empirically stabilise the contradictions only lead to further confusion. The figural excess of the poem’s tensions mean all these interpretations, and more, can exist in tandem.

Zooming out of individual wobbles, the poem’s relationship to form, and its hostility to ‘the lecture on craft,’ can also be understood as a wider wobble site. This framing allows us to think of the craft/anti-craft dichotomy less as a battle of competing interests, and more as a conversation of pressing concerns. The poem’s speaker is envious of those other poets, who are able to think and write about the moon without reference to the horrors of settler-colonialism. At the same time, they attack this ignorance, and the privilege of those able to ignore these horrors. Both of these readings can wobble together, without one superseding the other. The poem’s resistance to craft does not take away from it being well-crafted; nor does the poem’s craft blunt the edge of its hostility. Returning to Cabri’s directive, the critic must recognise and register the hostility the poem puts forward, not try to downplay it. We must also find a way of adapting to the hostility, going with its flow. This might seem like a contradiction, but the tensions of this task echo the tensions that the poem is interested in: visibility and obscurity, seeing and unseeing. The flow is uncomfortable, and it should be.

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