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Karmic Traces
Eliot Weinberger
New Directions, $15.95 (paper)

by John Palattella

Eliot Weinberger wanted to grow up to be an archaeologist, one who specialized in Mesoamerica. But moving to Mexico City and hunting for the ruins of Tenochtitlan was not the easiest thing for a thirteen-year-old kid from Manhattan to do, so Weinberger apprenticed himself to books about the Aztecs and Mayas. During one afternoon in the library he stumbled across an artifact that would change his life. "I came across a little pamphlet that had been mistakenly stuck inside a thick book," Weinberger recalls, "Prescott or Bernal Díaz on the Conquest: it was Sunstone by Octavio Paz, translated by Muriel Rukeyser and published by New Directions.… I had barely read the first page when I knew I wanted to become a writer." Soon Weinberger was translating poems by Paz and others as a way to learn how to write, and by his early twenties he was working as Paz’s translator, at the poet’s behest. The collaboration, of course, continues.

As for being an archaeologist, Weinberger’s career has allowed for that too. He is an eloquent and intelligent essayist whose prose charts various literary channels of cultural migration, like translation. "Translation is not a means of allowing the foreign to speak," Weinberger explains in "Mislaid in Translation," from an earlier essay collection, Written Reaction. "The foreign has already spoken, they don’t need us. But we need them if we are not to end up repeating the same things to ourselves. Translation is one of the ways that lets us listen." Translation is transformation, and not surprisingly it is often a central element in another of Weinberger’s recurring archaeological interests–exploring the myths of origin that no culture is without. Indeed, the stories that stir his attention have elements very much like the tale of his own literary origins. Weinberger found himself by losing himself in Sunstone, in which Paz uses the Aztec calendar to interpret contemporary history and his own life, and which in Weinberger’s case was a mix made all the more mongrel by being a translation. Sunstone blends ancient and modern, Indian and Mexican, Spanish and English; it is a place where the myths of the past become present.

Not everyone shares Weinberger’s deep appreciation of such encounters, and measuring the difficulties of sustaining them and the costs of ignoring them is the aim of Karmic Traces. The book’s 24 essays are organized into four sections, and three out of the four are cut from the same pattern: they start with an essay about an ideal–a place where the East mingles with the West, a poem in which the archaic melds with the contemporary–and conclude with an essay that dramatizes the ideal as it is compromised or corrupted. (The odd-out section is a miscellany of reviews.)

Weinberger opens one section with a discussion of Sanskrit poetry’s theory of karmic traces–how in a poem one hears one’s dead selves speak–and compares it to how Western and Chinese notions of literary tradition account for the relationship between the living and the dead. The section ends by describing a more poisonous tradition. In "The Falls," Weinberger charts how, thanks to the proselytizing of nineteenth- and twentieth-century German and French philologists and ethnologists, the Sanskrit word for "noble," arya, became the now notorious word aryan. Another section opens with a meditation on the zócalo, a plaza or main square, "a place for doing nothing, sitting at the center of the universe." The section closes with a prose poem, and its concluding image is of acres of fields in Angola infested with land mines from colonial and civil wars. "In Angola, much of the arable land is unapproachable. There are villages that have been trapped in total isolation for more than a decade; their stories still unknown." The land is a place for doing nothing, but hardly a zócalo.

The book’s most fascinating section is the first, which opens with "Paradice," an encomium to Iceland, which Weinberger says is "the most perfect society on earth, one from which the rest of the world has nothing to learn. For its unlikely Utopia is the happy accident of a history and a geography that cannot be duplicated, or even emulated, elsewhere." In fact, as Weinberger makes clear in the section’s final segment, it’s Iceland that has something to learn from the world beyond its borders. Weinberger chronicles the life of a man named Jon, Olaf’s son, whose travels to India in the seventeenth century as a minion of the Danish East India Company Weinberger reinvents from historical sources, using blocky paragraphs that seem modeled on those from "The Destruction of Tenochtitlan" in William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain. Whereas Williams’s Cortez plunders Tenochtitlan and crushes what little remains, Weinberger’s Jon, despite the colonial schemes of the company, respects the India he encounters. Weinberger conveys that perspective through a letter Jon writes to his brother. It is a mix of tourist hyperbole–"The King had 900 concubines, but he gave 300 of them to his son"–and genuine appreciation of a culture different from his own–"They burn their corpses face down on a pile of dung. Then they pick the bones out, snow-white among the ashes, and make a four-cornered pyramid out of them for the ghost to live in." The letter’s most notable feature, besides such beautiful imagistic descriptions, is its absence of shock or horror, let alone repulsion.

Jon’s letter is imbued with a sympathetic vision, the same vision that makes Karmic Traces a vortex for the entire universe. Weinberger writes about Iceland and India, Hong Kong and Oaxaca, Angola and the Amazon; James Laughlin and Hugh MacDiarmid, J. R. Ackerley and R. I. Page; naked mole-rats and vomiting pop-stars; laughing fish and immortal hummingbirds. He is a great synthesizer, one who works by counterpoint and juxtaposition between and within his books. Karmic Traces, for instance, reprints several of his essays–"In the Zócalo," "Naked Mole Rats," "Genuine Fakes," "Teeth," and "MacDiarmid." These pieces are not filler; I think Weinberger includes them to create new connections between old ideas plunged into a different context. (It is a way to extend their shelf life, too; their first home, Written Reaction, published in 1996, is hard to find.) Weinberger also likes to build paragraphs with sentences studded with contrasting details. One of his favorite devices is the catalogue. James Laughlin, he writes, "had the self-deprecation of the unusually tall; he would disappear for months to go skiing at Alta, the resort he founded; he was obsessed with döppelgangers, though few mortals were his size; his mannerisms were oddly reminiscent of George Bush; his personal library was unparalleled, and he had read it all; he used to golf with James J. Angleton," and so on. One imagines that Weinberger has tacked above his desk a file card on which he has penned a favorite adage of Ezra Pound, George Oppen, and Charles Olson: the universal is the particular.

What’s particular about Weinberger’s writing is that he has cultivated a modernist sensibility without falling prey to the prejudice and elitism that plagues the work of Pound, Olson, and others. His work as a translator and his interest in culturally hybrid poems and essays have bred in him a rare equanimity. His travels abroad and investigations of other cultures have made him not an indigenist or a regionalist well-versed in the modernist cult of the primitive, but a cosmopolitan. There’s also the matter of rhetoric. "The battle between an elite of ‘makers’ and the ‘destroyers’ (or the indifferent) is the central myth of American modernism," Weinberger writes in "The Modernists in the Basement and the Stars Above," in another previous collection, Works on Paper. "The Americans exalted the Artist while simultaneously making generalizations about those they considered to be obstacles to Art"–women, Jews, and pretty much anyone who wasn’t white. If anything, Weinberger’s literary world is populated by makers–Paz, Borges, Oppen, the ethnographic filmmaker Robert Gardner–and muddlers–Robert Bly, Carolyn Forché, and Language poets among them. Weinberger doesn’t mince his words when criticizing muddlers ("Robert Bly is a windbag, a sentimentalist, a slob in the language," is the first sentence of Written Reaction ), but he never writes as though muddlers are Enemies of the People, which was often how Pound treated writers who were not part of his tribe of unacknowledged legislators. Weinberger cultivates the rare flower and spares the venom.

If Weinberger has a weakness, it’s his fondness for the ash heap, the place where poets and critics start muttering about things like the pure products of America going crazy. Weinberger’s experience there is no different from that of other writers: his gnashing of teeth and pulling out of hair ends up clouding his judgment. In "Vomit," for instance, he complains that "in the general population, the feeling of helplessness amidst the multiplication of humanity and its products has, among other things, led to the creation of group identities, which are not only assertions of community and self in the collapsing of traditional societal units, but also a way, however inadvertent, to keep one’s consumerism on a human scale." This statement is so sweeping as to be confusing (How does he know what the general population thinks? What exactly does he mean by "group identities"?), and so confusing as to be useless.

But Weinberger spends most of his time away from the ash heap, and so his brand of modernism is strikingly rational, borne not only from a profound understanding of his predecessors’ weaknesses but also from a deep despair over the lack of a shared knowledge of poetry in the United States. "The first edition of The Waste Land was only five hundred copies," Weinberger reminds us in "Vomit," "but it transformed poetry in various languages, and was known, whether adulated or rejected, by all readers of modern poetry. This has become unimaginable." The causes of the void are many, he explains: the proliferation of books by poets (more than 1,200 last year, according to Poet’s House in New York City); a slackening off of interest in translation among younger poets ("There are now more American poets and poetry readers than in all the previous eras combined, but almost none of them translate," he told the Nobel Symposium in Stockholm several years ago); and the retreat of poetry into the university, where transgression is part of the theoretical decor and, if an avant-garde does exist, it usually preaches to the choir. In other words, circumstances have conspired to make a poetry world where it is impossible for a true avant-garde to exist. The battle is lost before the first fusillade is launched, regardless of the pungency of its venom. So why bother?

Not everyone will accept this diagnosis. After all, the university, for all of its ills, has had a hand in the global spread of important poems like The Waste Land, and the current poetry glut is due in part to the rise of small presses, surely a good thing at a time when most trade houses won’t even spit on a poet’s manuscript, let alone publish it. Still, everyone should be grateful that Weinberger makes and believes in this diagnosis, for it has driven him to write another collection of idiosyncratic and passionate essays about works that he believes should remain vital as they persist through the ages and travel from language to language. Karmic Traces is very much like those works, a book that all readers of poetry need even if it is one that some of them will ignore.

John Palattella’s reviews and essays have appeared in Dissent, Lingua Franca, and other publications.

Originally published in the December 2000/January 2001 issue of Boston Review



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