[Fence Books; 2019]
Even as the unassuming familiarity of language may smooth the process of navigating quotidian life, certain encounters can nevertheless help reveal the exact aptitude, rather than the invisibility or arbitrariness, of particular linguistic patterns and conventions. By way of an example, to my mind no series of words is quite so fitting as the ostensibly stock phrase, “the reading experience,” to describe the nature of coming across Edgar Garcia’s poetry book, Skins of Columbus. For reading it is nothing short of an experience, in the most transformative sense.
Skins of Columbus is billed by its subtitle as “a dream ethnography.” Its composition revolved around an experiment: for three months’ time, Garcia read an entry from Christopher Columbus’ diary before going to bed. The next morning, he recorded his dreams, eventually reworking them into poems, experimental prose pieces, and scholarly asides (in addition to being a poet, Garcia is currently a Professor at the University of Chicago, and his scholarly and literary works investigate the overlap between the creative act and intellectual/critical analysis.) It is in this fashion that, as the poetic speaker (presumably Garcia) informs us, “The journal dreamt itself.”
This declarative opening helps demonstrate the radically de-territorialized nature of the generic forms that populate Skins of Columbus: “journaling,” a running header in the table of contents, in fact comes to title all of the sections featuring the more conventional examples of poetry. But these sections, as well as the individually titled, micro-prosaic anecdotes that follow, often also feature photographs and collages. Endnotes at the close of the collection help break down the artistic vision that determined the assembly of collages as well as provide some background on the origins of the photographs, but even these referential tools far exceed their routine function, ballooning into politically, historically and intellectually intriguing mini essays in their own right. There is, in the final analysis, not one component of Skins of Columbus, however seemingly mundane or modest, that is untouched by the radically deforming energies that initially animated the collection’s commencement. We are even given a “Oneirography”towards the end in place of a conventional “bibliography;” by replacing the prefix “biblio-” with the Greek-derived English adjective “oneiric,” meaning of or related to dreams, Garcia upends the distinction between diurnal intellection and nocturnal visions and free-association. Such a gesture deeply immerses the collection in the oceans of surrealism at the very level of strategy, as opposed to the genre merely capturing the character of poetic images. This is a welcome surprise, especially given that proximity to “surrealism” tends to be qualified more in relation to various rhetorical devices when it comes to contemporary criticism. Far rarer — perhaps out of fear of seeming passé, though the reasons are surely myriad — is a current work that is surrealist from its cellular base.
Which is not to suggest that the imagery is somehow insufficiently evocative of the texture of dreams. Consider the following “poem” — if we may use that descriptor, given the collection’s unique schematizations — from the aforementioned “Journaling” section:
Nobody to talk to I met the king
his strange body shallow water
the outer rims of his eyes
like rings which — slipped
over my fingers — the water
rippled I didn’t want it to do that
There is a striking hallucinatory quality to the imagery here, as well as a wet, supple rhythm by which the variously enumerated subjects seep and disappear into one another, leaving the reader uncertain not only as to what has transpired, but even what is what: is there — or was there — a king? Is the king’s body literally made of shallow water (bearing in mind that Garcia’s poetic style seems to greatly avail itself of anacolutha for sharpened rhythmic impact, meaning that the extra space between “body” and “shallow” in the line could house the invisible ghost of an omitted “like.”) What are we to make of the aside, “slipped over my fingers,” appearing so closely to the reference to the “outer rims” of the king’s eyes being “like rings?” Could this all have been merely the free-association of a colonial dreamer standing before a body of water? Do the subtle allusions to distension and possible disfigurement allude in turn to a kind of intimate violence that is cohered in the closing expression of regret?
But these aporias are part of the point, and our gateway to seeing (and feeling) the synchronicity between style and method, intent and execution. This review’s preoccupation with “Surrealism” as an aesthetic should not be taken as a comfortable detour from the messiness — even bloodiness — of the political entanglement so clearly conjured forth in the collection’s naming and approach. Indeed, Surrealism itself, as Garcia affirms through the aesthetics of decolonial dreamwork, is profoundly political. Not just that; it has always been inherently aligned with the ethos of decolonization. It is, after all, not for nothing that Robin D.G. Kelley would argue in his introduction to Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism that Césaire’s monumental treatise against the depredations of colonialism “should be read as a surrealist text, perhaps even an unintended synthesis of Césaire’s understanding of poetry (via Rimbaud) as revolt and his re-vision of historical materialism” (“A Poetics of Anticolonialism”). Kelley adds that the hesitation to read Césaire as a surrealist intellectual and thinker stems from contemporary tendencies to align the movement with André Bréton, and thus to see surrealism as a (white) European imposition upon non-European cultures (similar to tendencies underlying critiques of the genealogy and viability of Marxism in relation to Indigenous and non-Western cultures). But this “‘diffusionist’” interpretation, Kelley explains, is far too top-down in its presumptions to account for the inherently dynamic, i.e., multi-directional movements of influence that characterized Surrealist collectives, with Césaire also serving as an innovator and influencer upon Bréton and his immediate circle. For the purposes of this review, such a “diffusionist” rationale also certainly evades the compatibility between a movement whose innovation was to look to the logic of dreams for political and cultural inspiration and autochthonous cultures whose mythology, folklore, and art reflect that such an imperative would not have been innovative, but quotidian; the dream’s embeddedness to diurnal concerns in Mesoamerican culture can help account for the “complementary contradictions” that populate its attendant mythology and folklore, whose tropes remain contemporaneously prevalent:
It is in the blackness of night that the light of a dream shines; the visibility of its light depends on darkness, darkness that in turn depends on the light to draw out its significations from a void. Dreams and darkness hold each other in a Mesoamerican space-time like the intersecting warp and weft in a weaving.
But Garcia’s attention to dreams and the subconscious within his work also assumes a significance perpendicular to that of performatively validating the interior logic of native Mesoamerican cultural ethos — namely, it implicates the subconscious of the colonizer, and the researcher of anthropology, a discipline that initially emerged as the handmaiden to colonialist and imperialist designs. This might sound plausible enough on its surface, perhaps even unremarkably so: after all, it is not so difficult to imagine how a conventional conception of dreams as the volatile ground upon which all that has been suppressed during the day finally erupts as having ramifications for the colonial project. For all of the “rational” rhetoric that justifies conquest and genocide, can the large-scale dismemberment that drives settlement and seizure ever really be psychically blotted out? This seems to me to be what drives the attempt to probe the possibilities of oneiric resonance with Columbus’s journal, and what makes Garcia’s experiment, to my mind, so daring. The dream-space is where the violently subtended existential distinction between the colonizer and the colonized is not merely undone; it is where it was shown as never having held any kind of cohesive integrity to begin with.
But Garcia doesn’t stop there: operating as a kind of light parallel to the looming presence of Columbus’ reformulated words and legacy is the occasional interlude of Bronislaw Malinowski, the figure who revolutionized anthropological research by advocating for ethnographic study as opposed to the preceding practice of speculating upon cultures from afar. Besides the aforementioned “Journaling” section, Garcia includes other sections entitled “Diary in the Strict Sense.” These sections are in fact reworked extracts from Malinowski’s diary, published in 1968 to considerable controversy. As Garcia writes in the endnotes, Malinowski’s earliest studies “are achievements of ethnography, theory, description, and real poetry.” Malinowski
wished to be the Joseph Conrad of anthropology. But . . . the diaries revealed that he had the Kurtz of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in him too: paranoia, racism, jealousy, lust, hatred, anger, instability, violence, and obsession are the hallmark of these private writings made public . . . In the controversy that ensued from their publication, anthropology discovered its sordid subconscious. (emphasis mine)
As a would-be revolutionizer of anthropology through his attempts to advance the procedural integrity of the field’s relational knowledge production, Malinowski leaves behind a crucial transitional legacy with which Garcia grapples alongside that of Columbus. It is one thing to consider how the subconscious implicates the explicit colonist. It is quite another — more supple, and yet every bit as urgent — also to consider how it implicates the supposed innovator who takes pains to challenge some of the procedural conceits foundational to disciplinary conceptions of the “other.” In the dreaming dark, Malinowski and Columbus are shown to be more kin than foe.
And it is there, too, that Garcia’s project can be said to come full circle. On the one hand, the title of the collection alludes to the oneiric communion between the decolonial poet and colonial journal-writer; to write and re-write these journals is to share mutual “skins.” But it also means a reversal of fortune, a somnambulistic revisionism of conquest whereby Garcia, inspired by the drawing of a warrior in animal skins seen at the Museo Nacional de Anthropología in Sal Salvador, can truthfully claim: “With this book, I wear the skins of Columbus.”
Omar Zahzah is a writer and activist who holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Los Angeles. Omar’s dissertation, “Undercover and Hyper-Visible: Security Poetics and Pacification Prosaics in African American and Arab American Literature,” analyzes the structures of signification that inform both literary representations of racialized policing and surveillance praxis among dissenting subjects as well as the quotidian logics and rationales driving state-sanctioned projects of repression and pacification.