Who are you and whom do you love?
by Jacqueline Jones LaMon
The woman you were when you left them. The silhouette
sorting through your garbage, in search of aluminum
cans and credit cards. The man who jumped
in front of your car and the man who thought
he had pushed him. The jealous husband. Clarence Thomas’s
first wife. The minister who built harpsichords
and molested you, again and again. The mother who cannot
taste her milk. Your grandmother’s image of herself.
Sammy Davis Jr. Your children. The children you knew
would die as sacrifice. The man who wears headphones
and operates the ride. The child running into the fire,
for protection. The reprieved. The stoic who embraces
his weakness. The woman you swear you have become.
2. WHO ARE YOU AND WHOM DO YOU LOVE?
by Bhanu Kapil
A month from now. A week from now. Tomorrow. When he goes.
The going. I’ll make crepes, walk by the river with the dog, float can-
dles in a pudding basin; the usual. He’s gone. Between our bodies:
the sun at 5 a.m.; fifty-seven Herefords, and a Brahma bull that
broke the river fence; four and a half thousand hummingbirds; a
dying man; a man who is about to knock on the door of a woman
with black eyes, to tell her that he loves her; the woman herself, who
is drawing a bath. She can’t hear the door above the water. And her
eyes aren’t really black. They’re brown. She lights a match.
Floating candles. The incommensurable distance. I forgot to mem-
orize his face.
Something interesting happens in the relationship between Jacqueline Jones LaMon’s Last Seen (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2011) and Bhanu Kapil Rider’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey St. Press, 2001). I want to call what happens a turn.
In structuring Last Seen, her collection of poems “inspired by actual case histories of long-term missing African American children,” LaMon opens with a section called “Polygraph: The Control Questions,” and ends with a section called “Polygraph: The Guilty Knowledge Test.” The two sections contain six poems each, and each of those twelve poems bears as its title a question (e.g., “Who are you and whom do you love?”). The questions, though, do not come from the case histories that give the book its subject, nor from the protocol for polygraph testing in law enforcement. Nor did LaMon make up the questions herself. Instead, they come from The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers.
The questions are identified in The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers simply as “Twelve Questions,” and they are listed on their own page (9) after the “Introduction” and before the first poem. The questions are:
1. Who are you and whom do you love?
2. Where did you come from / how did you arrive?
3. How will you begin?
4. How will you live now?
5. What is the shape of your body?
6. Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?
7. What do you remember about the earth?
8. What are the consequences of silence?
9. Tell me what you know about dismemberment.
10. Describe a morning you woke without fear.
11. How will you / have you prepare(d) for your death?
12. And what would you say if you could?
In The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, each question is posed repeatedly: each of the 98 sections in the book employs one of the questions as its title.
Kapil herself (she now publishes under the name Bhanu Kapil) says nothing of her reasons for posing the questions. She only gives the circumstances (“From January 12, 1992, to June 4, 1996, I traveled in India, England, and the United States, interviewing women of diverse ages and backgrounds”), and contrasts her expectations (“— The project as I thought it would be: / an anthology of the voices of Indian women”) to the results (“— The project as I wrote it: a tilted plane”). LaMon, though, in her “Note” acknowledging her appropriation of the questions, imputes to Kapil a purpose that Kapil herself did not state; LaMon asserts that Kapil “posed her questions to women of Indian descent to find a way to freedom and peace” (67). LaMon affirms that purpose by adapting and extending it: “I believe these questions should be answered in truth by every woman at least once during the course of her life.” I suggest that, by thus re-presenting and adapting the questions in Last Seen, LaMon gives a turn to The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers.
My making the suggestion is not primarily an evaluative gesture but an interrogative one. It happens that I appreciate the quality in Kapil’s work that invites a reader to take the questions as posed to her/him, and that I also appreciate the kind of active reading/writing merger that LaMon practices through this appropriation, but I’m not out to persuade others toward my esteem for these books. I am out to raise questions about the turn. Others may not make the same assumption, but in reflection toward this essay, I found that my own “prototype” of the turn had the feature that the turn takes place within a single poem. I wonder, though, if taking that feature for granted narrows one’s understanding of the turn, and therefore, to some meaningful degree, distorts one’s understanding of poetry. By citing an example that does not have that feature, I hope to draw attention to it, and to the implications of taking it for granted. No doubt there are many questions to be asked, and I don’t claim to have thought of them all, much less to have thought them all through. As a respectful bow, though, toward Kapil’s twelve questions and LaMon’s appropriation of them, it seems fitting to make the following list twelve questions long.
1. Does a turn always and only happen in a poem, or can a turn happen to a poem?
2. What is turned by a turn? Is the turning effected by a turn transitive or intransitive?
3. Who may effect a turn? Only the “original” poet?
4. Is the turn an element of the poem’s structure, or can it (also) be an event in the relationship between poet and poem and reader? Is the turn an architectural feature, or an ecological feature?
5. Where does the turn happen? Within the poem? Within the reader? Among the community of readers? Across a poem’s history?
6. Does using “turn” to apply to a case such as this extend the concept of turn, or merely pervert it?
7. How must the roles of writer and reader shift in order to accommodate this as an example of a turn?
8. If the possibility that a turn may occur after a poem is published bears analogy to Aristotle’s claim that a person seemingly happy in life may become unhappy after death, what is the concept analogous to Aristotle’s eudaimonia that is being modified?
9. Would an understanding of the turn that accommodated this example make our understanding of poetry more performative (place the “poem itself” in the reading of it as the “song itself” is, we might say, in the performance more than in the score), or would it give the text even more emphasis than we place on it already?
10. Would we consider it relevant if we learned that Kapil and LaMon also thought of this example as a turn? If we learned that either or both of them rejected thinking of it in this way?
11. If a turn can be given to one poet’s work by another poet ten years later, have the boundaries of the individual poem been breached or blurred (as, say, the boundaries of the individual organism are blurred by symbiotic understandings in biology)?
12. How must we think of a poem if we accept this example as an example of the turn?
In thinking about and speaking of the turn in poetry, it is easy to forget that the term is a metaphor, and that its vehicle (directionality) is not its tenor (change). The turn enacts or marks a change, though that change is only metaphorically a change of direction. I take it that Last Seen, by such differences as recontextualizing the questions, dividing them into two groups, and orienting them toward a stated purpose, has created change to The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. By applying to that change the metaphor of the turn, I have hoped to occasion inquiry in two directions: toward illuminating the poems by thinking of their relationship as realizing a turn, and toward illuminating the turn by considering as one example the “something interesting” that happens between Last Seen and The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers.
H. L. Hix’s recent books include a “selected poems,” First Fire, Then Birds: Obsessionals 1985-2010 (Etruscan Press, 2010); a translation, made with the author, of Eugenijus Ališanka’s from unwritten histories (Host Publications, 2011); an essay collection, Lines of Inquiry (Etruscan Press, 2011); and an anthology, Made Priceless (Serving House Books, 2012). More information is available at his website: www.hlhix.com.
Bhanu Kapil, “2. Who Are You and Whom Do You Love?” from The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. Copyright 2001. Reprinted by permission of Kelsey St. Press. An audio reading by the author is on the press website,www.kelseyst.com.
LaMon, Jacqueline Jones. LAST SEEN. © 2011 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.