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Issue 151


Journals, poems, biography and ‘direct implication’– the year in books

BY Quinn Latimer in Critic's Guides | 01 NOV 12

Photograph: Edward Park

‘So much is spent on passions that do not demand one’s direct implication,’ Etel Adnan notes – sadly, fiercely, wonderfully – in her small book The Cost for Love We Are Not Willing to Pay (Hatje Cantz, 2012). I read this essay aloud at dOCUMENTA (13) this summer, as part of the reading series for the ‘100 Notes – 100 Thoughts’ project, for which the piece was published. Thus, on a wet Kassel day, as I spoke the writer’s elegant, lucid sentences linking Friedrich Nietzsche and the tenth-century Persian mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj via their ‘radical commitments’ (which Adnan calls a ‘generosity’ that is a ‘form of love’), I began to think about the way that direct implication is increasingly a state that we seem frantically to want to move away from – technologically, emotionally, physically, politically, intellectually. In the year of the foretold Mayan apocalypse (among other dystopian prophesies), international political turmoil and economic stasis and collapse, how does one not simply ventriloquize the words and sentences, enact the motions or actions, but rather become directly implicated by them?

Adnan’s essay elliptically elucidates the ardent, activist heart and the way it presses on both the mind and the body, infusing one’s thoughts and actions with virtuosity, meaning and necessity. As a writer and a reader, my first thought was how her implication impacts the written word. Her term, ‘direct implication’, implies a lessening of distance, a loosening of remove between the author and the object of her ardent attention and so shifted my attention backwards, to the other books I read this year that manifested that implication in ways myriad, contradictory and kaleidoscopic.

‘Not only must I summon the courage to be a bad writer – I must dare to be truly unhappy. Desperate. And not save myself, short-circuit the despair. By refusing to be as unhappy as I truly am, I deprive myself of subjects. I’ve nothing to write about. Every topic burns.’ So Susan Sontag wrote in her journal in June 1976, excerpts of which are collected in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals & Notebooks 1964–1980 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), the second extraordinarily rich volume in a trilogy edited by her son, David Rieff. Sontag wrote these words as she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, the experience that would eventually fuel her 1978 book Illness as Metaphor. Nevertheless, I don’t take her entry as a direct linkage of autobiography and art. If Sontag barely mentions her own health crisis in Illness as Metaphor, her larger critical oeuvre is also notable for its lack of personal revelation. Instead, Sontag’s note-to-self seems to imply that the ability to truly implicate yourself in both your own life and the world will leave the fields of your experience ever more fruitful and fiercer for the gleaning.

Such direct implication can be autobiographical, though, as well as biological, geographical and historical. Such is the case with 2 Fevrier, 1861: Phung Võ (Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2012), Danh Võ’s gorgeously strange ‘catalogue raisonné’ of his father’s ongoing work: handwritten calligraphic copies of a letter by Jean-Théophane Vénard, in which the 19th-century French missionary says farewell to his own father before being beheaded for heresy in Vietnam – the country that the Võ family fled in a handmade boat in 1979. In 2009, Danh Võ asked his Catholic father to begin copying and re-copying Vénard’s letter in French, a language the elder Võ does not know, until his own death. ‘Dearest, honoured and beloved Father, since my sentence is yet to come, I wish to address you a new farewell […] From the great Mandarin to the last soldier, all regret that the law of the kingdom condemns me […] A slight strike of a sword will behead me, like a spring flower picked by the garden Master for pleasure […] Father and son will meet again in heaven.’ Despite the beauty of the writing, Võ’s copied letters remain indecipherable – as language, anyway – to him. Thus Vénard’s words, brimming with an ardent belief and a sense of direct implication in a world not one’s own, become an exercise in decorousness, seriality and labour. For Võ to make these letters stand as a catalogue raisonné of his father’s life’s work is both enormously affecting and troubling, as is the volume’s perfect storm of language, patrimony, place and the patriarchal relationships (biological, religious and political) borne out of it.

If contemporary poetry is often noted for its intimacy, it is just as often derided for its lack of engagement in the less lyrical and more quotidian world. Yet two recent books of poetry take the task of implication seriously, and in quite different directions. Though Cynthia Cruz begins The Glimmering Room (Four Way Books, 2012) with a quote from the Gospel of Thomas that thunders, quietly, ‘If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you,’ the poet’s second book is mostly concerned with the things without – particularly those that damage and destroy. She marries the tropes of lyric poetry (nocturnals, gospels) to an American underclass populated by truckers, laundromats, Seconal and desert. Recalling the glittering, impoverished milieu of Denis Johnson’s early poems and the noun-awed theatrics of Lucie Brock-Broido, Cruz’s ‘traveling minstrel show / called girlhood’ is articulated by the relics delineating its emotional and material deprivation: ‘an old black motorcycle and crutches / Someone left leaning / Against the limb of an oak tree’.

Karl Holmqvist is a different kind of poet, in that most of his work is received in the art world, where he performs his poems in a witty, trance-like drone. ’K (JRP | Ringier, 2012), an inimitable source of pleasure, collects his recent poems and is published on the occasion of his 2011/12 solstice readings at Kunsthalle Zurich. Unsurprisingly, both the art and literary worlds are directly implicated in Holmqvist’s practice. Printed entirely in upper-case letters, the poems cascade down the pages in waterfall- or skyscraper-like columns or make circular or diamond shapes. A favourite poem goes, in part: ‘CHRIS KRAUS / KITTY KRAUS / CHRIS KRAUS / KITTY KRAUS / ROSALIND KRAUS / FITNESS FIRST / THEN WHAT? / THE DURUTTI COLUNM.’ If Holmqvist’s ardency for repetition can conjure the famous John Cage quote about boredom, his weird virtuosity keeps his audience in thrall. Maybe that’s his implication.

Perhaps David Foster Wallace’s most notable virtuosity (in a genius bag of them) was his prescience: his books often seem to prophesy the future, even as they limn the near past or present. See his posthumous novel-cum-American-tax-treatise The Pale King (Little, Brown and Company, 2011), which alarmingly appeared to predict this year’s us presidential campaign and a certain theme and candidate in particular. (‘Attitudes about paying taxes seem like one of the places where a man’s civic sense gets revealed in the starkest sorts of terms.’) So it goes with d.t. Max’s new biography of Wallace. In Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (Viking, 2012), the New Yorker writer notes: ‘He had read Paul De Man’s essay “The Rhetoric of Temporality” and wrote “brilliant” when he came upon the following disquisition on authorship: “The mere falling of others does not suffice; he has to go down himself. The ironic, twofold self that the writer or philosopher constitutes by his language seems able to come into being only at the expense of his empirical self, falling (or rising) from a stage of mystified adjustment into the knowledge of his mystification.”’ Likewise, and echoing Adnan’s own prophesy, a character in Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) warns that we are not choosing ‘carefully enough what to love’. In writing, as in life, the implications of that – direct or indirect – would seem to be clear.

Quinn Latimer is a writer. Her most recent book is Like a Woman: Essays, Readings, Poems (Sternberg Press, 2017).