There’s nothing like an ambitious anthology for redistricting your inner map of poetic possibility. They don’t come along every day, but we’ve had more than our usual share over the last few years. Such books operate on different scales, of course: There’s the kind of anthology that crystallizes a hitherto undescribed tendency in the present, like Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg’s Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics (Saturnalia Books, 2010); or the kind that takes a somewhat longer view, pointing out a continuing or recurrent thread of practice that suddenly seems to amount to a kind of tradition, as in Jeff Hilson’s Reality Street Book of Sonnets (Reality Street, 2008) or Kevin Killian and David Brazil’s Kenning Anthology of Poets’ Theater 1945-1985 (Kenning Editions, 2010). And then there’s the kind of book that can turn your historical perspective upside-down, remaking the past in contemporary terms and thereby rearticulating the present historically — in this case I’m thinking of the most recent of Jerome Rothenberg’s monumental efforts, Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three: The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, edited with Jeffrey C. Robinson (University of California Press, 2009).
Burning City: Poems of Metropolitan Modernity is yet another kind of anthology again — far more historically contained and thematically focused than Rothenberg and Robinson’s efforts (its time frame is approximately 1910–39) yet nearly as massive, therefore representing, perhaps, an even more assiduously revisionist literary archaeology. But as with the Rothenberg/Robinson re-examination of 19th-century poetry, in Burning City Jed Rasula and Tom Conley have given us a historical anthology with clear implications for our present sense of what literary modernity might be and of how we could still be implicated in it. The implicit argument is against what Ron Silliman has tendentiously dubbed the “school of quietude” and in favor of the view (to borrow Silliman’s labeling system again) that today’s “post-avant” poetry derives essentially from what Marjorie Perloff calls “the Futurist moment” in modernist writing. “We still inhabit metropolitan configurations pioneered under the auspices of Modernism,” as the editors remark, and implicitly, we still write in ways conditioned by such habitation.
The spadework these editors have done is remarkable. Whereas most historically-oriented anthologies give the impression of having been culled mainly from earlier collections, this one has clearly been fed on untold hours leafing through half- or entirely forgotten magazines in seemingly every European language (there are a few Asian writers included as well) in order to convey a “sense of poetry as cooperative and historically contingent” and thereby construct “a multi-sensory Baedeker to the complex traffic of aesthetic impulses.” This is, in other words — as Rasula once described his earlier anthology project, Imagining Language (2001) — “an artichoke of eclecticism held together mainly by sheer profusion.” All the more astonishing, then, that this big, complex piece of publishing has been undertaken by a small press like Action Books. One would have thought this kind of project to be the preserve of the university presses—Imagining Language was an MIT product, for instance — but apparently these days such things depend less on institutions than on the heroic efforts of a few individuals. Action Books had long since won my admiration for its publications by contemporaries like Aase Berg, Lara Glenum, and Kim Hyesoon, but Burning City puts the press on another level altogether.
Given the book’s sense of noisy surfeit, of polyphonic simultaneity, it might seem arbitrary of me to have chosen Futurism as the essential reference point for all the material Rasula and Conley have gathered when they themselves more broadly cite “such avant-garde labels as Paroxysm, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, Simultaneism, Dada, Surrealism, and Constructivism.” But Perloff’s citation of a “Futurist moment” (rather than the Futurist movement) to indicate, in a “larger sense,” as she says, “the arena of agitation and projected revolution that characterizes the avant guerre” seems useful: Futurism, as shown by Rasula and Conley’s selection of works produced up through the eve of World War II, continues to resonate loud and clear through the decades following the Great War as these became another avant guerre in turn. More than any of the other avant-garde movements of its time, it seems to offer the template for all the rest, at least insofar as they affect a public profile (rather than, in that hermetic spirit which is also part of the same complex, turning away from the public altogether); it is Futurism that simultaneously manifests those qualities of activism, nihilism, agonism, alienation, experimentalism and so on that will be familiar to readers of Renato Poggioli’s 1962 Theory of the Avant-Garde (translated into English in 1968) and which characterize the “ideograms of modernity” on offer here. The editors prefer to speak of “the Apollinaire frequency,” and there are good reasons for that too.
The anthology is cogently divided into thematic sections which may be based on places (Paris, New York), forms of entertainment (“Parade of the Eccentric,” which refers to music halls, cafes, and the like; “Cineland: Matinee” and “Cineland: Evening Show”), and modes of transportation (“Aviograms,” “Ports of Call”). Other telling headings include “Poetic Circulation,” “Electric Man,” and “Lunar Baedeker.” Many of the names you’ll find nested under these rubrics will be familiar: Walter Benjamin, Louis Aragon, F.T. Marinetti, Velimir Khlebnikov, Ezra Pound, Attila József, Francis Picabia, César Vallejo, Vladimir Mayakovsky … And some of the familiar names will seem surprising — momentarily out of place — in this context: more restrained figures such as Virginia Woolf, for instance, or Rainer Maria Rilke, whom one hardly thinks of rubbing shoulders with the plebs, those “Millions of human vermin” who “Swarm sweating / Along the night-arched cavernous roads,” as Richard Aldington has it, or exclaiming, with Valery Larbaud, “I rush into the wind with a wild wahoo!” It’s good to have them defamiliarized this way. But more interesting than the defamiliarized—and far more numerous—are the absolutely unfamiliar names. There’s something absolutely thrilling about being given a first peek at all these new/old figures: Dragan Aleksić, Humberto Rivas, Marcel Sauvage, Oliviero Girondo, Julian Pryzboś, Xavier Bóveda, and so many others—to cite just the first few names in the section titled “Multiple City.”
If my choice of names seems suspiciously long on males, that’s no accident: Women writers are in short supply here, despite the welcome occurrence of works by Claire Goll, Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and very few others. While Rasula and Conley have clearly done their research diligently enough for me to assume that this is a realistic representation of the gendering of published avant-garde authorship in the period under consideration, the absence of a section on the conflicting views of women in this new “metropolitan modernity” is puzzling. To the extent that traces of the authors’ understanding of gender can be found in their texts on other subjects, the implications can be dire; in the new poetry, as Imaginist poet Vadim Shershenevich insisted, for example, “the images should not lie down next to each other tidily, like convent schoolgirls retiring to bed in the dormitory of the reader’s mind.” Thanks for the advice, Vadim. Was there really no “Electric Woman” to rival the “Electric Man” dreamed of by these bards of the century’s new urban realities? Or are the aggressiveness and agonism of the Futurist moment essentially the rejection of a supposedly feminine inwardness misperceived as mere somnolence?
A curious thing is how this wide-eyed discovery of a new world in the making inspired so many poets to proclaim the death of poetry, of art, of imagination, even finally of subjectivity itself. “The true modern poem is life without poems,” wrote Fernando Pessoa’s heteronym Álvaro de Campos, “It’s the train itself and not verses that sing of it.” Jaroslav Seifert, too, considered that “Art is dead, the world exists without it.” Bruno Jasieński — about whom more in a moment — joyfully exclaims, “Poets you are superfluous!” This self-erasing side of modernist poetry seems a bit pathetic in retrospect—as if the poetry of trains, boulevards, and skyscrapers were anything but the projection of poets. I’ll admit that my sympathy extends rather more to a contrary strain of modernism, one that never aimed to efface its own subjectivity — that of Henry Miller who knew that his was “a Paris that has never existed except by virtue of my loneliness,” of Giorgio de Chirico when he recognized that in New York “you will discover the eternal sadness of the plaster Antinous and the immense solitude of Pantheon on summer nights.” And I am stunned by Xavier Villaurrutia’s hallucinatory vision of an urban scene unacknowledged elsewhere in these pages, a nocturnal phantasmagoria of gay pick-ups in which “the six letters of DESIRE would form an enormous luminous scar, / a constellation more ancient, more dazzling than any other.” For such writers, metropolitan modernity is an emanation of immemorial human longings, and can conjure “such a vision of the street / As the street hardly understands,” in T.S. Eliot’s words. The “burning city” of the book’s title is an apocalyptic metaphor, and therefore inextricably tied to a visionary and indeed religious viewpoint. By the same token it can be linked to a different scriptural figure, that of the burning bush that is never consumed. The city seems to be constantly in the process of destroying itself but — through (or as) that very destruction — it persists.
Curiously, this same metaphor features in an odd, recently translated book from the era Rasula and Conley have anthologized, and by an author who figures more than once in their selection. Bruno Jasieński was born in Poland in 1901 but moved to France in 1925. Apparently the publication three years later of his novel I Burn Paris was sufficient to merit his deportation. He then found his way to the Soviet Union, where I Burn Paris was a bestseller — “the first edition of 140,000 sold out in a couple of days,” according to the book’s translators, Soren A. Gauger and Marcin Piekoszewski, “prompting second edition of 220,000 copies.” Jasieński kept writing but was caught up in the Yezhovshchina, the great purge of 1937-38, and executed in 1938. I Burn Paris is brought to us by one of my favorite presses, Twisted Spoon, which from its base in Prague has for several years been bringing out English-language translations of first-rate modernist and contemporary literature from central and eastern Europe (works by Gherasim Luca, Vitezslav Nezval, Tomaz Salumun, to name a few) in remarkably handsome editions.
I Burn Paris is a strange sort of hybrid, mixing avant-garde strategies with the hoariest clichés of pulp adventure stories and large doses of heavy-handed Communist sloganeering. These various strains are hardly synthesized but simply exist in juxtaposition; likewise, as the translators point out, “there is a strange and unresolvable contradiction in the fact that a novel which culminates in celebrating the triumph of socialism and its potential to spread across Europe is also a novel whose central motif is the spread of a deadly and unstoppable plague.” Arguably, it can be imagined, the novel’s structural and conceptual contradictions reflect a radical insistence on the form in which it was first published — as a serial (in the Communist Party daily L’Humanité): It’s as if Jasieński had determined that each episode should be as independent from all the others as possible while still maintaining a minimal narrative continuity. In any case, it is a story full of surprises — I won’t attempt to summarize it, though suffice it to say that, with many digressions, it chronicles the break-up of the City of Lights into warring ethnically-based, neighborhood-sized mini-states under the pressure of an outbreak of the Black Death—but before plunging into it, you’ll have to leave any desire for plausibility at the door.
Still, I Burn Paris shows intensively what Burning City shows in breadth: that the avant-garde literature of the period before the outbreak of the Second World War is still mostly unknown territory, and that we’d better not imagine that whatever poor excuse for a canon we’ve cobbled together out of it is not still to be revised. Whether the implicit implications for the present in a book like Burning City will play out, however, one may doubt. That the anthology closes with a section of “Twentieth Century Blues” suggests that the plunge into the city’s “sticky, cloying, stinking thickness” (Lawrence Harris) always carried its own disillusion within it, and as Blaise Cendrars once said, “Well, one may adore fire, but not indefinitely respect the ashes.”
Burning City: Poems of Metropolitan Modernity, edited by Jed Rasula and Tim Conley (Notre Dame, Indiana: Action Books), is available through actionbooks.org.
Bruno Jasieński, I Burn Paris, translated by Soren A. Gauger and Marcin Piekoszewski (Prague: Twisted Spoon Press), is available through twistedspoon.com.