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Revenants
Mark Nowak
Coffee House Press, $14.95 (paper)


by Alan Gilbert

If I want to take a bus from my apartment in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn to downtown Brooklyn, a few miles away, I catch the B61 at the corner of Greenpoint Avenue and McGuinness Boulevard. Greenpoint has been a predominantly Polish neighborhood since World War II, when Polish immigrants began arriving by the thousands, displacing the Germans and Irish, who previously had helped make Greenpoint into a major shipyard (the fabled iron-clad Monitor of Civil War fame was built in Greenpoint). On the streets of Greenpoint, you hear more Polish spoken than English, and Polish signs line the main shopping street, Manhattan Avenue—although, if you look closely, you'll see a scattering of retail signs partially in Arabic, and many of the small corner grocery stores are owned by Arabs.

After the bus picks me up, it passes out of Greenpoint and into an Italian neighborhood (birthplace of Henry Miller), then a Puerto Rican neighborhood, then a neighborhood with one of the largest concentrations of Hasidic Jews in the United States, then an African-American neighborhood dominated by public housing tenements fronted by a police station, and finally a middle-class African-American neighborhood (where Spike Lee grew up and his father still lives) before reaching downtown Brooklyn. This, of course, is only a small cross-section of Brooklyn as it radiates out from downtown like a crooked spoke traced along a single bus route. (In reality, downtown Brooklyn—like downtown Los Angeles—is more of a non-center.) None of the neighborhoods the B61 travels through are completely distinct, and they all seep into and directly connect with one another.

Brooklyn and New York City make immediately visible what is true throughout the United States and the rest of the world—that demographics and sociology need to be a kind of poetics if they hope to more fully account for quickly shifting populations and complex interactions between cultures. Similarly, if poetics isn't going to retreat into a universalist aestheticism and implicit or explicit ethnocentrism, then it needs to be in at least partial dialogue with contemporary sociology and ethnography. All too often, postmodernism is implicit ethnocentrism by another name, just as explicit ethnocentrism is what cultural conservatives want to preserve in the name of traditional canons, national literatures, and English-only initiatives.

Mark Nowak's book Revenants is one of the best recent examples of a poetry engaged with issues of context, ethnography, and cultural history. Likewise, the journal he edits, Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics, is among the most intellectually substantive and progressive literary magazines published today. Xcp includes poetry and fiction, essays and book reviews, all with an interest in the relations between different cultures within and outside of the United States. Scholarly, multicultural in a dialogical way, and smartly mixing various aesthetic forms and styles (with an emphasis on the avant-garde), Xcp creates an inclusive terrain for rethinking contemporary poetics and its relation to historiography, anthropology, and ethnography—and vice versa.

The idea of relation cannot be raised without an accompanying understanding of place. Similarly, to begin to know the place in which one lives—no matter how local and apparently homogeneous—is to begin to form an awareness of relations with other places. This is one of the starting points for Revenants, the title of which refers to someone returning after a long absence. Nowak isn't afraid to investigate concepts that have fallen into disrepute in the postmodern era: notably tradition, custom, and, to a certain extent, history. But the opening series of poems, "The Pain-Dance Begins," immediately signals that this return isn't one of nostalgia, nor is it a quest for a lost or pure origin. Tradition is not addressed in these poems with the sole hope of reviving the past. Instead, the poems reveal that many important customs within local communities have been forgotten, or altered by contemporary culture. At the same time, while the transmission of traditions has the potential to create alternatives to a standardizing Western consumer culture, they can never be isolated from it.

In "The Pain-Dance Begins," Nowak outlines a kind of metaphysical ethnography. Each of the poems is partially oriented around a single Polish word (sometimes it serves as the title of the poem), which are frequently abstract in nature, even when referring to concrete objects: "oczekiwanie—anticipation, expectation"; "skutek—consequence"; zboze—corn, grain of all types" (an alphabetized glossary of Polish words is included in the back of the book). The poems, too, are frequently abstract and metaphysical in their approach, while they weave in references to the everyday world. All myths, it turns out, have social and historical roots. In fact, the best poems in "The Pain-Dance Begins" create a balance between mythmaking and historiography. Take, for instance, the first half of an untitled poem:

Zdarzenie [incident, occurrence], what if the breath anyone is about
to breathe is
not here?
A child bell-caster, in from the provinces,
watches a man in blue swim trunks he might have been
many years from now, in a specific location,


some distance south of the waters of Hudson Bay.


By the same token that Adam is not a man (in Hebrew …


the moon shines
     half-way around the world,
a walleye hits a Red Devil spoon in the waters of Lake Mille Lacs.

In lines that are semantically and rhythmically dense and layered while also expansive, Nowak combines his interest in symbol and metaphor (the "child bell-caster" here and elsewhere in the book seems to allude to Andrei Tarkovski's representation of the artist as a young bell-maker in his film Andrei Rublev); allegory (the unfolding of meaning in time, as in "a man … he might have been many years from now"); specific location (the Hudson Bay and Lake Mille Lacs); and everyday objects, with their corporate inflection (the "Red Devil spoon" fishing lure).

As the above passage hints at, the poems in the first section of Revenants are suffused with a religious sensibility that is combined with Nowak's aim to precisely record the subject's immersion in time and place. This recording becomes much more specific in the second and third sections of Revenants. Here, Nowak utilizes contemporary ethnographic methods to document particular customs and locations within Polish communities. Nowak makes clear that these are specific ethnic groups by focusing on their internal and external representations. There's an effort to move away from ethnic essentialisms—"We speak of identity w/ split tongues"—while also addressing these essentialisms from both within and outside of the Polish communities he describes. For instance, the poem "Zwyczaj [Custom]" focuses on Polish cooking:

Someone asks:
How many pierogi
to re-roof
    a heritage?


"I heard that [my matka (mother) says]
        once before."

A note to the poem reveals that it's almost entirely collaged from three different sources. The first consists of an interview conducted by Nowak and printed in bold. The second is an article published in the journal New York Folklore and written by two researchers studying baking practices in a small Polish community in western New York. The third is a theoretical text on ethnographic method. While the poem commences with the language of ethnic essentialism quoted above, the perspectives and conceptual framework set up by the three sources instead document "social life // as constituted by ongoing, fluid processes." And while the cooking of pierogi is depicted in the poem as the practice of a particular ethnic group, the threat this social, economic, and spiritual activity faces from pre-packaged commercial products connects it with a broader sense of diversity that counteracts the homogenizing tendencies of globalized Western culture.

The final section of the book is in many ways its best. Building on the poetic ethnography of the previous poem, "Zwyczaj," "'Back Me Up'" reproduces photographs Nowak took mostly of bars—but also restaurants and a bowling alley—on the Polish East Side of Buffalo, N.Y., and juxtaposes them on facing pages with poems incorporating snippets of another interview conducted by the author as well as published diary excerpts from 1917-18. Here, all the elements in Nowak's book come together. The various documentary methods and materials presented throughout Revenants are further multiplied as immediacy and distance, past and present, oral and written texts, photographs and memories mix together, separate, and then mix again. In "'Back Me Up,'" local and microhistories seek to find their own voices within a consumer culture that drowns out what it can't appropriate and cash in on. Many of the bars in the photos are boarded up or clearly barely getting by. But one of the points of the interview woven into the poem—and one of the points of the book as a whole—is that local communities have their own economies of survival and generosity. "'alternate // 'social // 'representations" quotes Nowak in "'Back Me Up.'" This work is much needed at this particular historical moment. In contributing its small, carefully documented part, Revenants deserves to be read large. •

Alan Gilbert's reviews and essays have appeared in artbyte, Publishers Weekly, and Rain Taxi.

Originally published in the Summer 2001 issue of Boston Review



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