SM: When I see that shoe diagram under the epigram by Paul Celan at the opening of The Elem:ents, I think of Celan’s wonderful phrase ‘vagrancies of syntax’ – as if language’s structures sleep outside on a bench and get shooed on by police. But where did the single shoe come from?
EM: The shoe and its parts had to do with a statement by Martin Heidegger that I took it out of the final book, but I left the shoe itself, the shoe-within-itself, as a talisman. We walk in shoes, our feet bend and wear out shoes, we touch the earth with our shoes, or get as close as possible to the earth (if we are in a wheelchair, say). Heidegger said this about the shoe:
The shoe is marked by the silent call of the field, its tacit offer of ripening grain and its quiet refusal of self in the dry fallow of winter fields. It is creased by mute panic over securing bread, quiet joy at surviving need, anguish at the new birth, trembling at the proximity of death. It is an entity of earth, harboured by the labourer in her earthy world. Held in world, the shoe is-within-itself1
The shoe is thus, a being-within-itself. And marks as well the loss of names (that quiet refusal of self, as it is an entity of earth). The shoe is also a woman’s shoe, in Heidegger’s text, a peasant woman’s shoe.
Also, we walk in shoes. They are technological and works of artifice (as poems are) but they also touch or nearly brush the earth. They take on the shape of our feet. The shoe has a set of interrelationships that are humble but telling in human life and in human relation to the earth. A shoe too could be a symbol of goodness.
SM: As you say, for Celan, ‘the poem would then be the place where all tropes and metaphors are developed ad absurdum’2 Throughout The Elem:ents, you connect your father and the linguistic aspects of his dementia to the literary figure of the outsider magician Merlin. The poem ‘Vestimentary’, ends by making this connection explicit:
Me Daughter In the trees amid a tremble of leaf-light (aspen, birches) blue anorak over my shoulders I am my mother’s daughter watching, 2013 Merlín vanquish fin all y his ever y [sidestep] war
I could read the line ‘fin all y’ as ‘the end to all whys [answers]’ or the assent of absurdity. A second proper name in the collection, Benito, runs through paternal generations. ‘Benito’ links the concept of The Good to patrilineal first names and – starting with the cover image of the allegorical figure of Bonitas – you tease these conceptual and familial threads out throughout this book. They become links on a chain: Merlín, myelin (a protective sheath around the nerves that may play a role in dementia, which is a core alternate thinking in the book), Benito, goodness. There seems to be a movement here between the ‘proper’ names of Merlín and Benito and the abstract concept of goodness and the physiological mechanisms of altered thought. The transformative relationships between a new form of understanding (or not understanding) and the person is suggested in the morphology of the words themselves. Yet we still live in times where the role of naming seems to have been appropriated by the state and the police.
EM: I think we all name. We all bear names. What is truly absurd is that the state attempts to control names, genders, etc. Gender, which can be described as binary in general, yes, is a fluid concept in individuals, can’t be predicted or even adequately described by proclaiming a newborn one or another. But the state does this and then we are tracked by it all our lives. States have long controlled acceptable names and altered names of both Indigenous peoples and newcomers in efforts to control and ‘integrate’, another word for ‘abolish’. So these things are societal ‘dispositifs de contrôle’, as Foucault would say. Yet we still name people with names of those who have already passed. The ancestors live on in us. We name the smallest places we walk through, too, as if we walk often where we live, these places are intimate and alive to us. And when we walk, there is more to name; when we go more slowly, there is more to name (if you fly past in a vehicle, there is not much to name). There’s a magic in naming, even if names are uncertain and not always in our control. At times, things tell us their names; places tell us their name; people tell us their names. The magic is that of ‘address’. Of the ability to call someone, by their name, even if their name is Ninguén.
SM: I had to look that up: ‘Nobody’ (in Galician). In the book you’ve Galicianised the name Merlin by adding the acute accent on the ‘í’, which makes me think of Paul Celan’s ‘estranged I’ and his comment ‘one can insert different accents: the acute of the present, the gravis of the historical (including the literary historical), the circumflex – a mark indicating length – of the eternal… I insert the acute’. And you’ve given to Merlín what you yourself have been signing (Erín) since O Cidadán, the acute, estranged I. For as Celan explains: ‘This as-always of the poem can, to be sure, only be found in the poem of that person who does not forget that he speaks from under the angle of the inclination of his existence, the angle of inclination of his position among all living creatures’.
EM: That makes so much sense, Shannon, it really fits.
- Martin Heidegger’s ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ (1935) from Chemins qui mènent nulle part, translated by François Fédier from German, Gallimard, Paris, 1962. Quote translated by Erín Moure from French. ↩
- From Jerry Glenn’s translation of Paul Celan’s ‘The Meridian’ found in Jacques Derrida’s Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan. Fordham University Press, New York, 2005. ↩