If there's anything more worthless than a poetry magazine from 10-15 years ago, it's a book review from 10-15 years ago. But I recently came across this old review of mine and wondered if anything of it might be salvageable with some editing of sense if not of original context.
Hannah Weiner's silent teachers/remembered sequel teaches that history—by which I mean not the past itself, but accounts of people's lives and interactions—always involves the struggle between contrasting and conflicting voices. The book continues Weiner's concern with poetic representations of multiple voices that has been central to her work at least since Clairvoyant Journal (1974). The book provides a broad and sweeping, but also tense, historical context for understanding the significance of those voices that have been of particular importance to her.
silent teachers/remembered sequel documents the continued poetic power of Weiner's psychic state in which words and voices reveal themselves to her in often unexpected apparitions of language that she then tries to write down. Although the facts of her schizophrenia should never be downplayed, Weiner's claim that she literally sees words stand out on people's foreheads, or other surfaces, finally shouldn’t seem strange to anyone who recognizes that the fact that language is material means that we live our lives among the physical manifestations of words. Weiner's relation to language might therefore be considered no more than an intensification of an ordinary condition. She understands that language, literally, is almost everywhere. silent teachers/remembered sequel pushes that recognition deeply into the past, and stretches it along the surface of contemporary social relations, in order to reveal a history of how words have come to her.
At the heart of the book are two long poems, "silent teacher," and "remembered sequel," which are bridged by a set of discontinuous historical struggles under the name "we must integrate into the next generation" and framed by two opening pieces that introduce us to many of the key voices of the book. The history revealed in the book is, to a significant extent, Weiner's own. This point is established immediately by the picture of her as a student at Radcliffe in the late 1940's that opens the book, and by the voice of her grandfather that in "dedicatio" insists on the importance of the family history that’s caught up in Weiner's desire to become a poet. If the book concerns her own autobiography, it’s an autobiography composed of the other voices that have shaped her.
In a note that appeared in Situation #4, Weiner writes that silent teachers/remembered sequel "explains teaching, and names those poets who were teaching during the period I wrote it." Weiner's teachers write their voices into her words--"who is writing/ this goddamn manuscript anyway ron hints." Voices suggest, argue, crash, and careen throughout these poems—voices of contemporary (frequently male) poets like Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Peter Inman, and Andrew Levy (and, in one case, the son of a male poet), voices of Weiner's mother, sister, and other (frequently female) relatives, other voices rising haphazardly from the street. These voices all struggle to be heard; they don’t emerge cleanly or clearly or necessarily on friendly terms, but often fight with each other, sometimes desperately. Weiner has no sentimentality about multiplicity. The many voices of her text are frequently framed by conditions of power and their desire for it.
In such a context, language becomes a hesitant, embattled, sometimes obscure and always resistant medium. The magnificent poem "remembered sequel" particularly highlights that the issues she is exploring are political. Paradigmatic of these struggling voices are the immigrant, black and Native American voices that throughout the poem insist on defining experience in their own terms.
What the book finally shows is that the need to be heard cannot be separated from the need to hear. Speaking at the complexities of experience doesn’t do enough. Instead, Weiner suggests, we must speak with others by letting them speak back and through us. But by letting that happen, or being unable to stop it from happening, Weiner pays a high cost. To hear so much at such high velocity and intensity is overwhelming to her and clearly has often caused her pain.
The autobiography of silent teachers/remembered sequel is not a story of triumph, of social conditions overcome by living the life of the poet, or casting that life into words, or finding a political position in which all contradictions can be resolved. There is no saving mastery of language here, in which one's life can finally be recollected in tranquility. The success of silent teachers/remembered sequel is that it returns its readers to the condition of their own lives and languages, not that it offers any way beyond them. It is one possible story of one possible life. Its power, in speaking of that life, always includes the refusal to say more than can be said.
Kevin Varrone's BOX SCORE: An Autobiography of Zeroes - [I'll be delivering this talk in Ottawa, Kansas on Friday. In the meantime, I highly recommend Kevin's book; I've read it a dozen times now, and it has rew...
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