JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
In the House Un-American by Benjamin Hollander
(Clockroot Books, Northhampton, MA, 2013)
THIS IS AN ACUPUNCTURE BOOK. Like any great medical text, it contains a selected "case” where someone presents to a great doctor a discomfort, a situation of malaise. The exact contours of the discomfort may or not be exactly clear to the sufferer, their family or friends, but they feel hindered, confined, a little choked. … And so naturally they explain. … The great doctor merely takes it all in — listen, senses, watches, waits, perceives — bringing no previous judgment of the situation to the situation. The words are, to him, only partially instructive. Rather he sits there in the flow of explanation. — blank-faced, unmoving, empty as an old black stone —
Seung Sahn, Only Don’t Know
Unfortunately, in this world, Carlos ben Carlos Rossman’s world, my world, your world, our world, there is no such thing as an acupuncture for our malaise. And, as for a doctor, are you kidding? There is no doctor. There has never been a doctor. Tho, somewhere, on some beach or other, there may be an old black stone …
… so the furthest I’ve ever been able to get in Kafka’s Amerika is the scene where Karl Rossman leaves his luggage in the care of a total stranger and plunges back below deck because it’s just too painfully obvious what’s going to happen next even if it doesn’t, but I know from Benjamin Hollander’s In the House Un-American that Karl does indeed manage to leave the ship more or less, less probably, un-intact because on the first page I am introduced to the offspring of the mystic marriage between Karl and William Carlos Williams, Carlos ben Carlos Rossman, who grows up in Queens, eventually moves to San Francisco (neither of which seem anywhere near The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma), and mind instantly brings to itself two poems, Jerome Rothenberg’s “Cokboy”,
saddlesore I came
a jew among
vot em I doink in dis strange place
mit deez pipple mit strange eyes
could be it’s trouble
could be could be
etc, tho here it is not “the indians” who could be trouble, and Kenneth Koch’s “This is Just to Say”, especially part 2,
We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing
who does?, but I don’t think it’s that version mind is really trying to think, it’s one in which the plums are injected with strychnine, or cyanide, or Round-Up, which I may or may not have dreamt (or maybe it is this one, because it has lye in it), but in any case, and in a manner of speaking, and we can’t make too little about a manner of speaking, because a manner of speaking is what there is, because what is not a (sometimes spoken) text (which I first typed as test)? the real concern here is: can one actually enter into “America’s pastime” with a green baseball bat?
America, Amerika, the great melting pot, in which all differences are melted away, so goeth the myth, which is useful to the ruling class but is only painful for everyone who actually has or is a difference, because this is an unforgiving and unaccepting place, really, if the difference is perceived to make a difference, because then it is information in the Gregory Bateson sense, and we all loves us our information, because that tells us how to respond to others, and we all loves us our stand your ground laws, which allows us to kill that difference, and yes of course this is hyperbole, but maybe not to an immigrant, which means every one of us besides the indigenes who is not amnesiac. And I wonder: difference, “could be it’s trouble / could be could be” … identity, “could be it’s trouble / could be could be”, coincidence when you’re a stranger in a strange land, “could be it’s trouble / could be could be” …, what does it mean that Bateson shares a first name with Samsa? (“could be it’s trouble / could be could be”) In any case, if the ground melts away, it melts into what, exactly? into an American. But what the hell is that? NB, this is a timely book, because, as the ubiquitous news tells us, in early May 2014
Alabama’s chief justice offered an unusual interpretation of the U.S. Constitution in a newly-released video, telling a religious organization that the First Amendment only protects Christianity. “They didn’t bring the Koran over on the pilgrim ship” Chief Justice Roy Moore announced at the Pastor for Life Luncheon, an event hosted in January by Pro-Life Mississippi. … Moore told his audience that religion in the First Amendment only applied to the God in the Bible. “Let’s get real. Let’s learn our history. Let’s stop playing games. Everybody, to include the U.S. Supreme Court, has been deceived as to one little word in the First Amendment called ‘religion.’ They can’t define it,” the state’s chief justice said. “They can’t define it the way Mason, Madison and even the United State Supreme Court defined it, ‘the duties we owe to the creator and the manner of discharging it.’ They don’t want to do that, because that acknowledges a creator god.” “Buddha didn’t create us. Mohammed didn’t create us. It’s the god of the Holy Scriptures,” said Moore. (MSNBC, http://www.msnbc.com/the-last-word/judge-first-amendment-only-christians)
but since millions of other “Americans” instantly cried bullshit, it doesn’t tell us what an American is, only that no one knows, not even “the pure products of America” (about whose craziness more in a minute). But one thing we do discover in In the House Un-American: real Americans do not come to the park with green baseball bats.
What we have is a genre-bending series of meditations by Carlos ben Carlos Rossman on what his (trans)migration might signify, and by the end we are no nearer understanding – or are we? – than Karl Rossman was, when he saw the Statue of Liberty looming and either confusedly or correctly or … saw its torch as a sword … this is not a book for those looking for answers, I don’t think, it’s a book for those in search of uncertainties. Among the uncertainties are linguistic ones, and In the House is written in such a way as to foreground them, to hint that language just might be the key to the mystery, not that there really is a key, because there might not really be a mystery, tho on the other hand …. and pace all you theorists and philosophers and poets and leftists and … who bemoan the “linguistic turn”, by the end of this book I am pretty well convinced that, to quote Pound, “you who think you will / get through hell in a hurry”, are shit out of luck, as my mom liked to say, and language (which of course doesn’t stand alone, which of course makes and is made of history) will remain the ground of all thinking.
Here’s a beautiful (necessarily a bit lengthy) example of what I’m mumbling about:
Anyone in America could be Ron Paul.
So when his teachers claimed Berri was just right in English, and thus in his head from the moment he said “yes” in it at the age of six after arriving at the Harbor of the New York of the New Land, he seized a particular kind of invisible ownership of the language – somewhat like Xerox did with the copy, advertising itself out behind the scenes in the land of plenty – an ironic kind of Americanness he never felt but projected, without anyone noticing what of this language belonged to who of his person, as silent and screened, at the time, as the name “Carlos” in the iconic three-folded name of the American poet William Carlos Williams – who today would be framed as the white American male poet William Carlos Williams.
Strange. At the time, no one knew or even asked about this Carlos, who or why his middle name was Carlos, his name later discovered to have come into being after brother of his Puerto Rican mother, yet who knew, at this time, of a Puerto Rican mother, at the heart of this white American poet’s calling, certainly not Carlos ben Carlos Rossman or his friend Berri, for example, naturalized Americans in Queens, both of whose mothers were born in the city of Leipzig, Germany, at the turn of the last century, although their families went deeper in time into the Eastern past, into what was then called Posen, the future Poland, which they had left Leipzig for just before the war to escape the Nazis – you know who they are, the mothers used to whisper to their children in America about anyone they either thought was following them or going the other way, it didn’t matter, if they thought they looked like Nazis, you know who they are, they whispered to their children, who were born after the war and never knew any Nazis. A mistake, in hindsight, more menacing, to be sure, to be invisible, a rumor, for the children to have never known Nazis yet live with them as if their names and faces were just coming into being in their bedroom closets, to be sure, the family could escape, quietly to Warsaw because they thought it was safer than Leipzig, so that they went there not to be shot in the ghetto but the Nazis followed them into the future, at least this is what was rumored, what they told their children, but Carlos and Berri, naturalized Americans in Queens, got to wondering why an American poet would say he wanted his poems to sound an authentic American speech, the same as that which could, he emphasized, come out of the mouths of Polish mothers, which would have been fine with Carlos and Berri, though a bit curious, to be sure, since they wondered, looking back, why could he not have made the speech coming out of these mothers’ mouths his own, Puerto Rican. The fact that he didn’t, threw them.
OK. The ground keeps shifting, the old world ground, the new world ground, nothing retains its name or identity, for reasons that can only remain mysterious, even if we can explain them. Even if they can be explained, they still remain mysterious. And, to my ear, the language in this passage is masterfully controlled, and at the same time a little bit … off … and by off I mean not quite American.
And yet. And yet. Aren’t these boys pure products of America? I mean, not only can anyone in America be Ron Paul, that’s been proven, unfortunately, anyone in America could have a Puerto Rican mother AND assume that the authentic American speech must flow from another mother, maybe a Polish one. And anyone in America can have a mother from Leipzig who lived briefly in Poland. Who then lived in Queens. Etc. And make the same speech assumptions. That wherever the language is, that wherever Americanness is, it’s not quite here. So we are all left looking for something that supposedly exists, that indubitably exists, but which can never be quite found. Who could be crazier than Ron Paul? Even if he doesn’t know it? Just listen to him. Who could be crazier than a real American? Who isn’t a stranger in America [ which I could be spelling Amerika, as Kafka and sometimes Hollander does]? The indigenes of course are not from America / Amerika. They are from a place with other names, a much older land.
John Bloomberg-Rissman has about a year and a half to go on In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam. The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making (Leafe Press, 2007), and Flux, Clot & Froth (Meritage Press 2010). In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, the main other thing on his plate right now is an anthology which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg, titled Barbaric Vast & Wild: An Anthology of Outside & Subterranean Poetry, due out from Black Widow Press, Autumn 014. He's also learning to play the viola and he blogs at www.johnbr.com (Zeitgeist Spam).