Leonard Schwartz’s The New Babel: Toward a Poetics of the Mid-East Crises (The University of Arkansas Press 2016) is a timely book, emerging at a historical moment that its own capacious political vision lets us find internally related to the crises in question. Much of it was written in the context of post-9/11 New York, in a US then newly embroiled in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and under the second President Bush, but its point de capiton is Gaza. Revised and published under a decidedly different era, domestically, it was then born into the time of Trump. A few short days after the election, I attended an Elliott Bay Bookstore (Seattle) reading Schwartz coordinated with poet and scholar Jeanne Heuving, who read from her own new Transmutation of Love and Avant-Garde Poetics. Transmutation traces a lineage (including H.D., Robert Duncan, Kathleen Fraser, and Nathaniel Mackey) that Heuving sees as giving rise to new possibilities in lyric love poetry. If the traditional love lyric sees its love object overwhelmed by the lover/poetic speaker, offering metaphor where the love object once was, this new form generates horizontality, working by metonymies that sustain its speaking and spoken subjects in a libizinized field. That possibility felt nearly utopian in the face of a newly-elected president before whom all the varieties of subjectivity, save his own, seem threatened with disappearance.
The New Babel can be productively read as both tracing and contributing to a related lineage, one where both field and relations, still libidinized (according to Freud, there is no relationality without libidinal investment) are also constituted by aggression and constantly threatened by violence. Perhaps following Hölderlin in the thought that “Where the danger grows, grows that which can save us,” Schwartz is interested in danger also as the only site of possible growth. If our capacity for evil and aggression arise from, as Freud claims, the death drive turned outward, so too do our capacities for metonymy, attachment, friendship, and love: in short, the same thing which makes aggression possible also allows us to unbind from our empirical selves, to turn to others, to make a field or a world in the first place. The attempt to write, say, a war poetry that claims for itself the moral high ground requires us to pass over the energized abyss that separates any empirical version of ourselves from it, and to do so without acknowledging that gulf. Schwartz’s name for our capacity to make that turn successfully is “transcendental mobility,” and The New Babel begins to show us how it is done. (43)
The New Babel includes essays, poems, and dialogues, suggesting that a multiplicity of players and forms are needed to build any new high ground. The essays convene the living and the dead, the interviews the living, and the poems, perhaps, the living and what survives its own death as unconscious sediment. The volume is not, indeed, presumptuously titled “Toward a New Babel,” and in her back cover commendation, Fanny Howe suggests that the text is instead “like a map of roads all leading to this day today.” If not precisely toward a new Babel, the central reference to that mythical tower, with its roots in shared language, marks an interest in some form of moral or epistemological high ground, even if what it lets us look at are roads littered with the explosive devices that either mark the most overwhelming human relation or, properly defused, converted perhaps from the order of the real into that of the symbolic, can again serve as nodes of communication. “I’m talking about something like that, that day they began the bombing. But you know, I’m also here with you.” (106)
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