Stacy Hardy reads the work of two itinerant poets – Johannes Göransson and Uche Nduka – who wield words to leap walls, jack us “out of the suburbs” and make us into “peeping toms”
There is a wonderful suggestive confusion between wonder and wander – as if getting lost and digression were at the root of amazement, of change, maybe even of knowledge. This confusion is at the heart of two new books of poetry, Haute Surveillance by Johannes Göransson (Tarpaulin Sky) and Uche Nduka’s Ijele (Overpass Books). Both Nduka and Göransson are wonderers and wanderers, poets who’ve built their practice on the insistence of possible and impossible transits and translations in which the refused, the expelled and the marginalised dissect and multiply the horizon.
Göransson is a Swedish poet, translator and publisher working out of America. It’s a position both inside and outside that allows him to combine, bend and dissolve genre conventions and linguistic borders as his thought demands.
In Haute Surveillance he portrays “the foreigner” as a “perverted virgin”, a maddening oxymoron, a treasonous tricker who holds the power destabilise syntax, vocabulary, meaning and vision so that the usually rapidly mediated, habitualised real can be re-imagined.
For Göransson this dehabitualisation is crucial to the experience of beauty, its disappointments, why we fail to see it, fail to understand it, fail it. “The origin of art is vandalism,” he writes, not the expression of humanity, or an underlying unity or authenticity, but is rather the release of a “migrant imagination”.
Haute Surveillance seeks to take us “out of the suburbs” and make us into “peeping toms.” As Goransson tells us: “This is what art does. It takes us, it creates maniacs out of our kitchy safe homes and then it forces us to shoot them through the head.”
The text situates itself in the technologically-saturated present, governed by “an economy of trickle-down disease” and constantly under “haute surveillance”. It both revels in and pushes against the incessant hum of media saturation:
“In the age of digital reproduction you can’t make zombie movies anymore because the film does not degenerate. Instead you have to make movies about gaps and ghosts, the failure of perception.”
Gaps and ghosts, spaces and spectres pervade Haute Surveillance. The text is littered with monsters, murders, slaves, blacks, women, homosexuals, b-grade movie stars, migrants: the excluded who speak of unexpected, hidden, things that have not been authorised. “I write this novel in praise of zombie movies because they are about the immigration imagination.”
The narrative is itinerant, slippery. It unwinds, confused by voices, rhythms, and accents, “interlingual puns”, “auto-translations” and “automutilations” that befuddle the desire for a secure semantics. It is at once a prose poem, a “novel dedicated to the homos and the awkward perfumists”, a biography of its author, an “autobiography of a foreigner”, “a fashion show dedicated to a riot”, a film script and a theoretical text.
The images we confront in its pages are fragments, “perforations and proliferation”. Outtakes from the cultural cutting room floor, they are “soundproof”, “they are skin”, “they are haute surveillance footage,” “they are stunted.”
In this state of vulnerability, the “Great Father Voice-Over”, the discourses that secure and anchor us in the world, the authorised knowledges that have disciplined and directed our understandings – from history and anthropology to literature and philosophy –find themselves challenged by the same displacement that they seek to explain:
“This is the first lesson in haute surveillance: Always write like you’re a teenage virgin. Always reach for the gun.”
A similar trickster aesthetics is at the heart of Nduka poetics. A Nigerian writer, working out of Germany and America, Nduka, like Göransson, has the unbordered tongue of an immigrant. Also like Göransson he suggests that it is only in the oblique gaze and the excessive and errant language of poetics that we manage to travel to where the rationalist analytics of the social and human sciences do not permit:
“you can be as oversubtle as you want. i’m not interested. why deny the vigor of discordant anagrams. the city-hearted will express errata. disillusionment will grow old between coitus and faux pas. take on magnetism: taste paragenesis. there is no escape from this becoming. you take a step towards a memo for lobsters. i shall mislead all these tourists asking for directions uptown.”
Nduka misleads us through complicated questions regarding multiple migrations, invasions, post-colonial freedom, and the ability to board international flights. His incessant pulsating weaving of innovative poetry with freeform prose brings us deep into the insider/outsider consciousness of the borderlands.
At its very essence, Ijele is a collection of mini-snapshots of “recollections for the tattooed ears of the wind,” a way of remembering—as if exile and recall joined to unravel an autobiography in debris. The text is saturated with references to historical and literary figures: JP Clarke, Achebe, Obafemi Awolowo (“that country? ‘mere geographical expression.’ some historied sepia. my room rejects drapes. chimera is something else.”), Yakubu Gowon (“once a year and once upon a bear. an allergy that needs to be heard. you do sugarcoat it. a solidarity abandoned. who believed that tripe: ‘no victor, no vanquished.’”). But this history never confines or closes the book.
“miles away from where snapshots are,” Ijele’s errant eye scans scenes as an outsider or camera eye to unsettle and fray familiar settings. But his surveillance is not that of the security camera. It does not support – realism, mimesis – for narration, but is rather the narrating force:
“at the soul’s Sulphur Springs, i took photographs. when i went into a darkroom to develop them, the negatives went into a coma and never woke up. say something. break out. break out from twisting your grunts around a bus stop.”
Using both hyper-focus and the long gaze, he draws the reader’s eye to the corners and seams of these spaces, slowing us down, shifting our focus to unseen details, asking us to seek possibility in a hyper-paced present tense. This is the potential dynamite that resides within the image: it both marks and explodes time. And in the perpetual movement and migration of his language, Nduka cleaves a living language open to touch, transit, the transformation and the translations of what is yet to come.
In this disruptive geography it becomes possible to rethink the limits of the world and the modernity we have inherited; it becomes necessary to “countervail rudderlessness with rootedness”; to open a vista on another world, other ways of being in the world; to “eat chocolate and play a piano.”
“must you stage an escape? Must you paint a skinscape? date blunder, not plunder. kick a habit, not a rabbit. intrude on vixens and wizards. shine on roof and briefcase. till the soil of lunatic aromatics. moving like a caterpillar. how do you handle a stressful situation? you eat chocolate and play a piano. are those actions vague and wooly? no. are they palliatives? no.”