(Omnidawn Publishing, 2012) 

 

Structurally, Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem) is unique, a masterful interplay of complex layers that questions the poetic essentials of form, image, and language. In particular, how the image becomes (and whether the image can become) form underlies this inquiry. The image that inspired the book is a photograph taken by Augustin Casasola in 1916, during the Mexican Revolution, that shows one of Zapata’s lieutenants, Fortino Sámano, just seconds before he was executed. In their introduction, translators Hogue and Gallais give the background and context of the photo, and thus of the entire work, information that greatly opens up the possible readings of the book. As a photo recording a politically-motivated execution, it is marked by resistance—the resistance of a large part of the Mexican population between 1910 and 1920, emblematized by Sámano, and, more privately one individual’s resistance to, even refusal of, death. Here are portions of one of Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy’s poetry-and-prose duets on the subject: 

 

 

Unblindfolded / I’ve silenced everything / 

cigar in mouth / it’s in the silencing / I’ve 

found a defense mechanism / so that they 

can never introduce their genetic code / 

into my chromosomes / a rictus / instead 

I do not smile / I hold myself / until a 

glacial cold / penetrates me / penetrates 

you / to the heart / . . . 

 

Freeze frame on image. The condemned whose eyes are not blindfolded has faced the coming death. And the silence it brings. He makes this verb, to silence, and this gerund in English silencing that operates in a sate of suspension between verb and noun which we also know from dancing or thinking as well as from tossing. Silencing might be the poem performing itself. . . . a glacial cold that reaches the heart of language as well as the language of the heart (will such facility be forgiven because of necessity?) . . . The bite of this frost is like holding myself, like a grip inside me that grips you until it takes meaning away with your breath. (p. 133) 

 

The layers of resistance implicit in the photo overflow into all the other layers of the project. Most importantly perhaps, the project as a whole marks the resistance of poetry to other discourses and their insidious pressure to participate in their normalizing tendencies. This overriding and overdetermined matrix of resistance creates an internal conflict in that, as such, Lalucq’s poetic text resists Nancy’s commentary, a commentary that she has both invited and embraced. The result is the mutual destabilization of supposedly conflicting discourses. It displays how such destabilization can create such complications for conflict that some new register of uneasy, yet enabling, engagement is reached. It also registers the resistance of photography to the presumption of veracity, on the one hand, and its resistance to absorption by other media, such as language, on the other. Layering is the book’s main mode of negotiating these intersections and contradictions, and is its key structural principle. The whole is based on absence, the absence of the photograph to which the entire text points, a photograph that is, we know, in turn based upon another absence, that of death. And on the base of this double absence is built a double text, creating a mirror structure in which presence and absence reflect each other and whose hinge is a third term, that of overflow, which is itself overdetermined, enacted as it is at every possible level and instance. The notion of overflow is announced at the outset and is immediately operative on several levels—in the overflow of the photograph into the poem, but even before that, in the photograph’s uncanny ability to indicate the overflow of life into death, and the concomitant inverse; in Sámano’s expression we see death overflowing back into life. It is this instance of the uncanny that Lalucq tries to capture, in part to prove that it can’t be done, and in part to prove that it can. Nancy’s commentary follows this multi-directional contradiction through a series of close readings that display the impact of form upon content while simultaneously exploring language as the subject of this image—how is the line itself executed? How does the poem suspend and support time? “The poem, like a photograph, language captured in the illumined moment.” Not explicitly addressed, but reverberating throughout is the question of whether a visual image can simultaneously be a poetic one without destabilizing itself in a way that violates its integrity. If an image’s content is itself, if it is to remain congruent with itself, can it simultaneously be the content of a series of utterances? There’s a double de-stabilization here that threatens both poem and photo and that thus makes the absence of the photo not only a logical move, but the only move that could allow these two modes of imagining to co-exist. Both Lalucq and Nancy, in very different ways, address the issue of ekphrasis in unusually demanding terms, circumventing the familiar issues of translation to address more fundamental anxieties about the (im)possibility of representation and the slippery nature of all imagery. Hogue and Gallais have done a masterful job of translating this difficult text, catching the nuances that give the original a radiant ambiguity, and making the English radiate in turn. 

                                                                                                 

 

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