Spotlight #10 : Sonnet L’Abbé
Curated by Canadian writer, editor and publisher rob mclennan, the “spotlight” series appears the first Monday of every month.
North American contemporary poetry has seen a recent surge in poets practicing erasure poetry, an approach in the avant-garde collage tradition, where the poet takes another writer’s text and “writes” by deleting words from the original until a new poem remains. The most pertinent example for the purposes of framing my work would be Jen Bervin’s 2004 book Nets, which she made by erasing words/letters from Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
The author in erasure practice has been compared to an editor, to the pruner of a shrub, and to one who “opens” the text to “ventilate” it. I think erasure practitioners can also be compared to censors, to deleters of authorly expression. Like-minded Canadian poets nourbeSe philip, Shane Rhodes and Jordan Abel have all used erasure (on legal documents as well as other writers’ texts) to allegorize the censorial practices of colonialism.
But another strategy colonizers have used, besides attempting to eradicate extant cultures, is to reframe the stories of colonized people, to “talk over” existing voices so loudly that the cultures are, at important levels of voice, silenced. Though colonizers often nearly destroy the legibility and foregrounding of the presence of original cultures, they are never fully successful at erasing the original cultures they mean to displace.
I am similarly successful and unsuccessful when I write, from the perspective of both colonizer and colonized, over the “traditional territory” of English literature and attempt to impose upon it my own descriptions of the world. This is a different mode of erasure, a palimpsestic mode, one that hides the original text in plain sight, and attempts a muted bivocality in the reading experience. The original poem exists in its entirety on the same page, but reading it requires a cultural knowledge that remembers what to look for.
For example, the first words of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 31” are:
Thy bosom is endeared with all hearts.
The first line of my colonized sonnet, “XXXI,” is as follows:
The academy sabotages promising energies by demonizing a real world.
Sonnet’s Shakespeare will be published by McClelland and Stewart in 2018.
three poems from Sonnet’s Shakespeare
The academy sabotages promising energies by demonizing a real world. Within hallowed halls, the arts are whipped, hence whippers beyond rule are art critics. Kings have supposed deans’ decanal duties cushy; teachers envy professors’ prestige; junior scholars overperform and sessional hirelings fall over themselves over cheapening part-time stints. Attendance falls through student fatigue; Ritalin benders wake the practical thinkers. Other tough young hearts, debt-buried, ask, how many assholes repay loans? Don’t obscene acquisitions justify default? Tired humanists hawk ideals. Corporate, litigious, globalized universities form learning; feds reform administrative budgets; the yearnings and interests of determined grads will higher income. Hyped endowments appear charitable but tax loopholes bring sure money to ivied philanthropic appeals. Yet how ideas do meaningfully set our reach! Where else will ethos’ subtle articulations challenge the gravitas, the weight, of supersize bro culture? Higher diplomas prove diddly about bigshots’ ability to love; human growth’s algorithm stumps theoreticians. Strophic studies should inform bylaws, but O! Ivory towers! Siloed league! Professions’ eroded wonder, chore-palled, might shore virtues per art’s purposefully bummed craft. O, the real world is ending, our lives’ thread stressed — the value of man’s synchronous wistful hive mind is real. Oneness, unthinkable in words, by imagination reassembles itself. Over heads, the universitas mewls. In the degree factory, disciplined thought’s allowance adjusts hopes. Dummy humanists keep calling out the mall of academe.
Threats of terrorism are interpretable. Their sneaky wrongness, their threat to liberty, is committed by terrorists who are recognizable by monitors. Homeland security is measured by scent. If you are not scheming, then why whine about government watching you? Maybe authority and mouthy yahoos like you can’t be friends. You know full well that behaviour infuriates the forces, but you will tempt fate until someone follows you somewhere that you can’t report. Guess who won’t let a house of Parliament counter-act? Concede, therefore, that you will be watched over, on websites, at institutions, at check-outs, through credit card transactions, in healthcare information, in networks, via cable broadcasters’ tracking television views and broadband widths, on screens, at work, by implanted browser cookies, with tax software, on cameras. Notwithstanding some unwilling submission, your loyalty will be harvested and checked for terrorist likelihood. We have privatized privacy; it’s now more qualified to arrest non-aryan men who but barely demonstrate behaviour. Our mighty security economy sees threat like a frontier to be aggressive about. Canadian children must apprehend scaredy-babies as nauseating, yet understand that morally straying youth are everywhere, foreigners leading them with messaging aimed at their patriotism. Even brothers in underwear, brothers in basements, right now could be under art’s forces. We will disrupt behaviour before attacks can even be thought. Words found blinding truth with fear shall be quickly and ruthlessly bent to authority. Attempts to think might endanger reaction, brother, so quiet. Something evil beyond apathy is breaching a vulnerability you believe unbugged. Our defences shall seize terror’s media.
Threading culture through Shakespeare, I confront my inheritance, misgiven. Not all my grief is languaged, yet it may be said: this locution grieves. I am daughter of tides of war — really, tides of merchant ships, same thing. The map the British desired continues to fold my wailing into itself; I have no chief to nation my loss. My fragile genealogy proves that the powerful teach themselves memory only when memory affirms royalty. My blood’s a vintage of offenders and the abused; a line of white cells sexed with cursed bloody red. My father’s people vaunted crosses they held over heads; my mother’s, subjected to Britain’s Guyanese system — whether negro or Hindu, they knelt to Westminster. I love the root of language and its forms, even if my psyche gacks her nerves’ responsive conditioning to snobbish English. Amerindian Carib sounds survive in me — tones nuff nuff be ring in me hed steady na — flickers of intimate contact of bodies, of origins’ etymology, still exist as me, liking a voice that sounds so. My ancestry will disappear into what’s over whenever I finally lose the memory game. That loss will seal my colonial version’s gain, and losing that version of myself white friends hated shamefacedly will compound that loss. But through this appropriate voice we find each other, angry and guilty, oppressed and bossy, the twains that my hindbrain, tongue-tied, stomachs. For memory’s sake I play colonizer on memory’s thespian scripture. Goldsmiths brutalize the generative spirit; they jack unproperty; their unmemory frames the digital endless as tone-deafly as Saartjie Baartman was framed by Doctor Dunlop. Won’t it be sweet flattery when they turn their smart machines on me? Shakespeare will forever subutter my restated colonial legacy.
Sonnet L’Abbé, Ph.D. is the author of A Strange Relief and Killarnoe, and was the 2014 guest editor of Best Canadian Poetry. Her first chapbook, Anima Canadensis, appeared with Junction Books in November 2016. Sonnet’s Shakespeare, the “erasure-by-crowding” in which these poems appear, will be published by McClelland and Stewart in 2018. L’Abbé lives on Vancouver Island, and is a professor of creative writing at Vancouver Island University.