Reviewed by Maged Zaher
The moment one enters Leonard Schwartz's new collection, one becomes a witness and an accomplice to his dialogue with the Other. Schwartz does not assume Rimbaud's “I is an other” stance; instead he starts from a realization that the other exists outside the self's boundaries--hence the need for dialogue. Conducting this dialogue seems to be the imperative under which Schwartz writes. Or, as he states in the poem “Six Ways Two Places At Once”: “The very being of language / Implies an other with whom to speak.” As the title of the poem suggests, this dialogue is not selfless: the other triggers the self's desire to explore, to be in two places at once, to experience life six different ways. The Other, then, is both an independent interlocutor, to be respected, and a channel allowing the self to expand.
Schwartz's poems embody this very idea of an expanding self through the multiplicity of forms they take: prose poems (“The Eden Exhibit”), short, jazzy poems (“Sheep's Head”), long-lined lyrics (“Occupational Hazards”), and sonnets (“Apple Anyone”). Just as Schwartz uses myriad forms, he also adopts a variety of voices, from the playful and witty--“I want to eat every mango / There ever was like a small / Unemployed carpenter / Not Christ, just a small unemployed carpenter” (“Method”)--to the soft yet constrained--“Sometimes I must seem hard to you, the starts gathering and glittering in your eyes bursting with focus. Wash your hands, eat your noodles, pick up the clip, and so on. And all the while the bomb continues its downtown countdown. One, two, three, four, five, all gone. What is the name again of the city we live in?” (“The Eden Exhibit”)--to the philosophical, essay-like--“Because its material substratum remains transcendental / the freedom of the subject, which the transcendental is designed to rejuvenate, / allows us to inhale and exhale refreshing drafts just as we approach the summit” (“The Library of Seven Readings”).
Schwartz's openness toward otherness manifests itself in the spectrum of others he addresses--political, cultural, poetical. At the heart of this task, he confronts modern-day colonialism and “Orientalism”: in his “Apple Anyone” sonnets, he collages English words of Arabic origin with lines from Shakespeare's sonnets, in an attempt to demonstrate that the Islamic East and the West are not two radically different cultures; they can mix. Dialogue with the East becomes an alternative to the conservative dehumanization of Arabs:
. . . a whole system
And acting on that precept
Having pursued in tanks
Right into their ruined hives?
(“Six Ways Two Places At Once”)
2. Poetry and poetics: the gap and the opportunity
In his 1990 essay “A Flicker At The End Of Things,” Schwartz made a Hegelian move, positioning the “Transcendental Lyric”--his brand of poetics--as a synthesis of largely content-based poetry, with its reliance on “immediacy of the self,” and some of the radically formal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, characterized by what Schwartz called “negation of the immediate” via insistence on the “exclusivity of the material, social, and linguistic nexus from which the poem arises.” Schwartz defined the Transcendental lyric as that which “involves an art in which language is used in such a way as to produce at least the illusion of the presence of regions of being outside personal experience, an art in which subjectivity is again given access to visions.”
Although some of the poems in Ear and Ethos, such as “The Eden Exhibit” and “Six Ways Two Places At Once,” operate under this banner, others are less faithful. In some of the strongest poems of the collection, Schwartz deals with immediate and timely political issues. In “Occupational Hazards,” his subject is the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. He builds his poem from a collage of news reports, reflections, fragments, and commentaries:
It was while the army demolished a neighboring house, belonging to the family of a militant from Islamic Jihad, that the wall fell on the Makadamah family.
Opposition came swiftly from the 36 hidden justices.
. . .
With ambulances blocked from reaching the scene, Mrs. Makadamah, 41, died while neighbors were carrying her to a clinic.
. . .
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. . .
Not genocide, not ethnic cleansing: a name has yet to be conceived for what is undergone in these curfewed quarters.
Penelope transfers her strength to the medium of her subjective expression, in order to then subordinate herself to that medium, more than subjective, in the act of destructive defiance.
And in the brilliant poem “Invitation,” Schwartz's weaving of the names of different Palestinian cities into this text becomes an investigation of love, hate, occupation, and language:
Yes, your visa will expire at the end of this poem.
Yes, you will need a new passport to exit
This nightmare, a new genre of passport.
If every veteran of reality rose up and protested
Every single case of war mongering
In this set of poems, Schwartz lets go of dialogue and comes as close as possible to identifying himself with the other, as he rewrites Marina Tsvetaeva's line, “All poets are Jews” as “All poets are Palestinians.”
Also in these poems, Schwartz works outside of the Transcendental lyric insofar as he exhibits more visceral reaction, anger, and immediacy. This recalls Donald Hall's observation, in the article “Theory X Theory,” that a poet whose poetry exactly matches his or her poetics can end up being very boring: it is in the space between poetics as project and actual poetry that good poetry is created. In a way, true negative capability puts the poet in tension with her or his poetics, and in Ear and Ethos Schwartz sidesteps--or perhaps expands--his poetics. The transcendental is no longer universal but grounded in the immediate. This sideways or expansive act is negative capability at its best, the work of a mature and important poet.