Online Edition: Fall 2004

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War and Peace

edited by Leslie Scalapino

O Books ($14)

by Michael Cross

"This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress." —Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin's conception of progress still cogently applies to the wreckage piling high on our sullied political doorstep. War and Peace, the second in a series of anti-war anthologies published by Leslie Scalapino's O Books, attempts to turn toward the wreckage, taking as its impetus the living in war of Tolstoy's novel: "everything can go on—everything goes on—in war and peace. To see being a form of action" (from the anthology's back cover). Featuring a wide range of established writers and visual artists, Jackson Mac Low, Norma Cole, and Kiki Smith among the more recognizable, along with relatively fresh names such as Taylor Brady and Judith Goldman, the anthology seeks to offer modes of being in times of war—methods of articulating the wide range of affections that work upon the thinking subject in devastating political climes. As opposed to the vast majority of wartime prose and poetry, the writers here avoid trite sloganeering and off-hand rebuttals. Instead, they articulate frustration, anger, guilt, humor, and impotence in the face of all too real human tragedy. The result is an engaging document that incorporates the disaster of war into the mundanity of the every day.

Juliana Spahr writes in her epistolary "March 27 and 30, 2003,"

During the bombing, beloveds, our life goes on as usual.

Oh the gentle pressing of our bodies together upon waking.

Oh the parrots and their squawking.

Oh the soft breeze at five to ten miles per hour.

Oh the harsh sun and the cool shade.

Oh the papaya and yogurt with just a little salt for breakfast.

Oh the cool shower that we take together.

This makes us feel more guilty and more unsure of what to do than ever.

And further,

Today, as this war begins, every word we say is indicted, ironic or not,
articulate or not and we feel it all in the room all day long.

When we speak of Lisa Marie Presley having sex with Michael Jackson we speak of JDAM and JSOW air-to-surface precision bombs.

Spahr's long poem is a perfect metonymy for the work of the anthology in general: here, the necessarily tautological investigation attempts to make sense of our diurnal lives, our superficial desires, in the face of international tragedy. The poems in War and Peace serve as a fine memento mori of the Other, as the absence of constant warfare on our soil is absolutely present in the anxiety of the speakers.

Etal Adnan's contribution animates the cathexis of the diurnal in her daybook "To Keep a Diary in a Time of War":

...read WAR again, to look at the word as if it were a spider, to feel paralyzed, to look for help within oneself, to know helplessness, to pick up the phone, to give up, to get dressed, to look through the windows, to suffer from the day's beauty, to hate to death the authors of such crimes, to realize that it's useless to think, to pick up the purse, to go down the stairs, to see people smashed to a pulp, to say yes indeed the day is beautiful, not to know anything, to go on walking, to take notice of people's indifference towards each other.

The anthology makes seamless transitions through a multiplicity of representations of being with grief, from Fanny Howe's elegant prose lines in "Vigilance" to the absurd alliteration, malapropistic "mishearings," and relentless puns of Alan Davies "Bad Dad:"

Sheer seersucker sadists
stand wiltingly
over all grave matter.
(I wake at night a hardon
in my hand.)
Terror dactyles mute
where nothing mates

What is perhaps most interesting about this anthology is Scalapino's editorial privilege of serial work and long poems. Judith Goldman's "case senSitive," a poem literally breaking through the static of war, is represented by nineteen pages, while Davies series clocks in just over 30 independent stanzas, easily a chapbook length project in another forum.

Overall, there are very few drawbacks to this fabulous anthology. Rob Holloway and Taylor Brady, both of whom contribute two of the most important meditations in War and Peace, are also represented by two of the shortest pieces in the volume. Holloway's "Capa Trapped sur la plage" generally left me gasping for more: "Eyeing him, America's broadcast excites that image of soldiers into pig / skulls endlessly bucking. And ducking, his coat for cover, / he done scramble to a barge. Counting its closed exit doors." And while I applaud Scalapino for taking a stab at printing Robert Grenier's "scrawl" poems (a work that has long posed problems to printers, as to include these four-color prints as the author intended would cost a small fortune), I'm not sure her solution translates. Printing the poems in black and white with "translation and color key" does little justice to the work itself. For that matter, I would have liked to see all of the artwork in the anthology printed in color, although printing in black and white has kept the cost of the anthology to a reasonable $14.

Theodor Adorno writes, in his stunning collection of wartime aphorisms, Minima Moralia, "The violence that expelled me thereby denied me full knowledge of it. I did not yet admit to myself that complicity that enfolds those who, in face of unspeakable collective events, speak of individual matters at all." War and Peace directly engages Adorno's dialectic, at once problematizing the relationship between Western thinkers and Middle Eastern warfare, while sublimating our ethical and intellectual responsibilities from the television screen, from multiple fronts of remote and desultory feedback, to our littered porch of piling rubble. In effect, the anthology cathects our solipsistic American lifestyles with the question of responsibility itself.

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Fall 2004 Table of Contents