Tag Archives: “City of Men”

‘what history teaches,’ part 5

If City of Men takes citation to a provocative extreme, audaciously rewriting Whitman in his own words (Whitman was of course continually rewriting himself, for example in his ongoing revisions to Leaves of Grass), the citational gesture and its allegorical structure are also crucial to reading Unbound as a poetics and a historiography of AIDS.  In Shurin’s formulation of his project in “Inscribing AIDS:  A Reflexive Poetics” (1995), he proposes to

estrange and reconstitute Whitman’s Civil War vocabulary, pushing images of battle and comradely witness to a newly disoriented wailing point.  In “Human Immune” [1993], the speaking subject inhabits experience from simultaneous locations as if all persons of voice (first, second, and third) are equally at risk.  The poem proceeds formally via an epidemiological model:  each “stanza” inexorably increases in length by one line, an expanding vortex.  Hell is round, the motif…may bear Dante’s centripetal impasse, but also dimensionalizes AIDS from the personal to the historical:  the curve one rounds is also around one, surrounding, a world.  For the gay community, this circumnavigate descent can be read as the process of history itself disappearing.  [74]

In these terms, the history summoned in the culling and grafting, the estranging and reconstituting of citation is itself in the process of disappearing, prematurely, perhaps irrevocably.  “Inscribing AIDS” thus recalls the threat to historiography identified in Walter Benjamin’s fifth thesis On the Concept of History:  “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again…. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”  If the witness who reads the process of history itself disappearing is haunted by images of the past (and ghosts abound in Unbound), the text of his testimony is likewise haunted by prior texts that are themselves commemorated even as they are enlisted in a work of commemoration.

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‘what history teaches,’ part 4

 

The importance of Whitman, and particularly of Leaves of Grass, for Shurin’s poetics and historiography is difficult to overestimate, and may be gauged for example by the latter’s earlier volume of poetry City of Men, whose postscript of 1988 appears in Unbound under the title “Full Circle”:

The poem uses only Whitman’s language, culled from the poems in the Children of Adam and Calamus groupings from Leaves of Grass.  As most careful readers of Whitman know, Calamus is his collection of homoerotic love poems, emotional, tender, idealistic, radically political, prophetic, obliquely erotic, but – alas – not sexual.  If you want sex, go to the grouping Children of Adam, Whitman’s putative heterosexual songs.  They are filled with body and body parts, physical material catalogues, paeans to the sex act – but – alas – not love.  The body is electric but it is not affectionate.  [11]

Or again:

In composing “City of Men” I chose to graft – by interspersing them – poems from Whitman’s Calamus with those from his Children of Adam.  While the body in Calamus is incessantly hidden, metaphorized as leaves, roots, blossoms, scented herbage, live oak, moss, vines and buds, now it can be revealed in its polymorphous glory as arms, shoulders, lips, fingers, loins, elbows and necks.  No more will we hear – as in Calamus – “I dare not tell it in words” or “Here I shall shade and hide my thoughts“; rather, as in Children of Adam:  “Be not afraid of my body.”

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