Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Joan Retallack, Bosch’d: Fables, Moral Tales & Other Awkward Constructions
Litmus Press, 2020, $20.00

Review by Rachel Blau DuPlessis

How does one ever review Joan Retallack’s Bosch’d?

There are several ways to begin this review and here are some of them.

Beginning 1. This book is a back-to-basics liberal education in a radical university by a poet holding a named chair in Humor and Gravitas. As such it is a whole curriculum—a unified book rich with the foci and the disparities of everyone’s education. Under all that trivium or quadrivium, Bosch’d covers history of ideas (“intellectual heritage”), sciences and math, the language requirement, ancient literature with a particular interest in Sappho, art history, rhetoric, philosophy, history-ethnography, and political “science,” and have I forgotten anything? Yes, translation studies. And gender studies. And others—but read the book. It is a dazzling and elegant plus a very cunning and humane performance of a book.

Beginning 2. In 2016, Hieronymus Bosch was celebrated in Den Bosch, his hometown in The Netherlands for 500 years of mystery and relevance with his detailed, magical and funny-creepy triptychs of things like paradise and heaven and hell, and temptation of St. Antony’s and St. Jerome’s. Bosch offers a fairy-tale (gothic variety) Dantesque comprehensiveness in his scope, creating teeming and detailed zones of pleasure and pain on jewel-like painted wooden panels, altarpieces that leave one cross-eyed with wonder. You might say “surrealist avant la lettre” but that barely begins to understand what he is after. Some of his most important works are held, often one per museum, in significant collections across Europe: Venice, Berlin, Lisbon, Rotterdam, Frankfurt and Vienna, and a few in the US (Kansas City, Yale University, New York City, with workshop pieces in Boston and Philadelphia). The Prado in Madrid is the crown of Bosch holdings. [see boschproject.org] What is it to be Bosch’d in this book?

Beginning 3. Joan Retallack is a philosophical-poet and /or a poetic philosopher which means a thinker with, in, and around deploying the leaps, quirks, nuances, traditions and modes of poetry efficiently to make forensic and speculative investigations of all those liberal-education “fields” of knowledge and how they teach us. This book shows that --separate “fields,” they are not. As a poetic text, I’d say it is a “universe-ity” operating as a mini-Gesamtkunstwerk—and achieves its sense of “everything” but a range of genres, tones, and dictions that are in the mode of “writing.” It is an engaging and witty work, an example of Retallack’s particular and exemplary combination: “poethics.”

Beginning 4. The philosophic-political-ethical-spiritual-and practical problems that the world has faced since the invention of people (or their emergence) are the topics of this book. These include the problem of evil in the world, misogyny, slayings in war and other times, attacks based on differences of race, religion, tribe, and condition of benefits (and advantages/disadvantages and self-interests) for any thing presented. So “Studies have shown we don’t have to think in /binaries. Studies have shown we do.” (24) How to achieve, say, “trans-/ national empathy” (23) or any other kind that would be desirable is perpetually on the agenda. This book actually studies how to think differently into “new social spaces,” and overcomes disappointment that “now they appear to be only archives” (54). This matters, but there is a jaunty and patient realism in Retallack whose last section contains the Beckett-ian observation: “The exhaustion of truth in language was so/ great there was no way to know what one/ had to go on as one had to go on going on” (113). Paradox allows the going on. And intelligence. This book is filled with wit and charm.

Beginning 5. Joan Retallack has several comrades and colleagues in her university. Among them are Genre Tallique and S.M. Quant. Unlike some colleagues in actual universities, these people are collegial, bringing interesting observations in from the side. Each could have written this book slightly differently. Actually, I think they did.

Beginning 6. Joan Retallack is female, generally more or less. That fact of life has various impacts on a person. In that historical and definitional and physical and social situation, it turns out there are many interesting threads to follow to what might be called “the center,” which is also the “off-center,” of that labyrinth. The finding of femaleness matters deeply and continuously. The finding of femaleness matters intermittently and sometimes does not matter. Can we explain how this could possibly be true, often all at once?

Middle and endlessly transitional passage. Given all this, I’d like to make two observations, in response to beginnings 2 and 6. One is the focus of the cover. A slice of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, held in the Prado, Madrid, specifically the lower left corner of the central panel shows a white and black couple, male and female, amid a joyous plenitude of erotic and loving confrontations. The black female figure has a cherry or some berry on her head. She and her fond companion stand in one corner; another black figure is in the matching corner of the altarpiece. The intermixing of many humans, humans and flowers, and bubbles, and odd shaped monsters, of curious animals, fish, and “ethereal figures, wily demons” creates a multiplex, emphatically anti-binarist vision, “illuminated by humor that blindsides despair” (5). Even before the book begins, in one of the many paratexts, it is noted, in 1950’s language: “In [Bosch’s] enchanted garden no color line is drawn.” Being Bosch’d might be having one’s social vision shifted by the visionary. And by the sheer pleasures of curiosity and Being.

The sections most relevant to my 6th beginning are next to each other. One is entitled In Loco Malum et Alteritas / Evil & Others, which seems to imply that all kinds of “othering” are the place where evil and misguided judgment begin and are sustained. The second is REINVENTIONOFTRUTHOFGENDER as if in a no-space classical inscription and illustrated by two profiles of gender-ambiguous faces from Diderot’s Encyclopédie. We are not slow to understand that this inscription is a paradox. “Re: invention” or “reinvention” and is gender truth or invention? This is a double-section examination of prejudices—including orientalism, intellectual women, motherhood, and a study of HE and SCHE in many manifestations, including fusions, junctures, separations.

The section that I’d like to point to is that part of a liberal education involving translation studies. This field appears at least twice in the book. The first is in a round robin presentation of Google translations of the same passage, in all the languages in which a contemporary refugee from let’s say “Turkey” trying to get to “Germany” might pass through on the trek. There is confusion, slippage, alterations of meaning, and other events in language. There is clarity about slippage, and a poignancy—have I said this yet? Both are great properties of this book. The work is called “Transmigration.” The other work of “translation studies,” another performance on page space, is called “The Confession.” It attends to more than one hundred world languages translating the one key work blood from a great number of Western, Indigenous, Asian and African cultures. This implacable list is intercut with a long and well-articulated list of logical fallacies such as are around us every day.

Conclusion and Peroration. This is a significant book, one of Retallack’s lucid and welcoming interventions in the work of understanding the human facts of all of us, accomplished here via her inimitable sense of playful poetic thinking.

Post by Rachel Blau DuPlessis on 10/10/2020 at 12:00 PM

After the multivolume long poem Drafts (written between 1986 and 2012), Rachel Blau DuPlessis began another long work, now in process, called Traces, with Days. This multi-book series includes Days and Works (2017); Late Work (2020) from Black Square Editions; Around the Day in 80 Worlds (2018) from BlazeVOX; and the forthcoming Poetic Realism (2021), also from BlazeVOX. A Selected Poems 1980-2020 will be published in 2022 from CHAX.