Jason Guriel talks to David Biespiel about his new book
WELCOME TO THE Pitch, a series on Partisan in which writers come clean about their works-in-progress—and share an exclusive excerpt. This week, Jason Guriel trades email with David Biespiel, poetry critic for The Rumpus, who offers a look at his new project, Republic Cafe.
Pitch away, David!
I’m finishing a love poem, a book-length meditation—a single sequence in 45 numbered sections that runs about 100+ pages—about lovers in the American West, in Portland, on the eve and day of September 11, 2001 figuratively, and during the period following especially.
The book is called Republic Cafe. How I see it is, I'm wrestling with the slipperiness of public and private memory and also attempting to make an argument that to fall in love, even just to touch a lover’s bare skin and even in the midst of violent tragedy (and even with the burden of historic violent tragedies, such as genocides, world wars, and natural disasters) is to perform a simultaneous act of remembering and forgetting—that to be in the moments of the fullness of love is to be both free and comprised of time and history and memory and what mustn’t be remembered.
The sequence is prefaced by this poem I published in Poetry a few years ago—and in some ways I see Republic Cafe as a detail or a journal of that poem. And: for what it’s worth, the book begins with the following epigraphs:
The empire is nothing but a zodiac of the mind’s phantasms.
To live your life is not as simple as to cross a field.
The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains of hell are with me.
I should add, too, that another source for the book is an oddity. At the beginning of my writing, I studied and tracked, shot by shot, frame by frame, the film French film Hiroshima Mon Amour, and using that framework, I devised the Republic Cafe’s arc.
Well, I don't know if it's a book people can get something out of, but I’ve done what I can so far to advocate for love in a time—and a history—of disasters and wars.
I'm fascinated by the "oddity." What drew you to Hiroshima Mon Amour?
I thought you might ask about that. Well, during my gathering wool period prior to composing the poem, when I was rounding up my materials and language and metaphors that I thought might be of use in the poem—and then going about for months mulling and sketching parts of lines and fragments of stanzas, and brewing up lists of words and memories, and studying historical events and natural disasters, and the like, as well as chawing and mooning and stewing over and hammering away, phrase by phrase, at what might be inside the poem prior even to writing it out, I had been using the title Nine 11 Mon Amour as a place keeper, a keepsake, a token or totem, something toward which I might orient my imagination. That title was highly evocative to me. It gave me an occasion as well as an emotion that sat atop my sketchbook. The title became my horizon.
At the time, though, I hadn't watched Hiroshima Mon Amour in probably twenty or more years. It's a 1959 film of the French new wave period, directed by Alain Resnais, and it stars Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada. The screenplay was written by the novelist Marguerite Duras, and the haunting score was composed by Giovanni Fusco and George Delerue. Like the theme of my book, the theme of Hiroshima Mon Amour is memory and forgetting and the burden of history in relation to the burden of living after great pain.
As part of my research during this deliberation period, I wondered if the film itself, and not just the allusion to its title, might be helpful to know better. And once I watched the film again, I realized how closely the narrative's trajectory coincided with what I was feeling my way into in my own book. What I’ve learned, I think, is that both the film and my manuscript share an interest in insistent streams of repetition and interconnections and an operatic range. Kind of uncanny. And so I went about overlaying the film's order across my poem as a map or designed topography. In this sense, my new book is an ekphrastic poem to a degree.
The story in Hiroshima Mon Amour concerns a Japanese man and French woman who meet in the 1950s in Hiroshima. She's in Japan as an extra in a documentary in support of what was then called the peace movement to recreate the events on the day the city of Hiroshima was attacked. The two of them have a love affair for two nights. That's the entire timeline of the movie, about 36 hours, plus a long memory sequence. They both have families, his in Japan, hers in Paris. She is returning to Paris in a day, when the film begins. And so the relationship is erotically fraught and impossible, as the tension between the body and memory coincide and get corrupted. Behind that storyline are his experiences during the war as a soldier who was not in Hiroshima during the war because he was fighting elsewhere (and so he's a survivor of sorts), and hers during the war in a small town outside Paris where she took a German occupying soldier as a lover (and she, too, like the Japanese, is a damaged survivor). Some 20,000 French women, we know from history, had their heads shaved as punishment for being lovers of German soldiers during the occupation—accused as collaborationists. I guess, to conclude, the understory of lovers who have pasts that are archetypal, both privately archetypal and publicly archetypal, seemed to me to dovetail with the poem I want to write.
Excerpt from Republic Cafe:
I am writing this all down meagerly and nothing is as true as I think it is—
The words I write are common as the day,
The words I don’t write swell and stand away from the other words.
This is a journal about a glare of grass in the afternoon,
About light splotching back and forth,
Quivering after rain, of a past that lights the lamps and, in the shine of the old songs,
Are the words that rattle and stop and bare their teeth,
Where there is no screaming in the beginning but only calling the name of the years softly,
Calling the years by many names so the forgotten, like stars, can at last nod to sleep.
This is a journal that alphabetizes
The weary ones and the orphans buzzing outside it all,
The crushed ones dissolving against the night,
And the undressed body, like a deaf person, screaming
A single name out an open window.
This is a journal of bondage and love that is candescent and heavy as a heap of stones.
This is a journal about corpses from the war
And the only memory left of the unexpungable love that is now in the high grass
Where a crow swallows a ball of fire and hisses,
And the black brushstrokes of blossoms come down out of the blue with the shadows that are burned into them.
If the unseen is to be seen,
I want it to fly over the moments but not stop for long, to take the stones away and keep them there.
I want it to back out and whistle at me through the air.
Here and now, I want to be the one place in creation that is spiraling languidly and working itself out.
But what’s missing subtracts its cuttings of white marks and peels away like the moss of the world.
And what’s here is a turnstile to iron-colored illuminations and low fires
And the end of the road where a few faces come into view, one by one, out of the heap.
And tomorrow, at daybreak, all the light will be deposited in the throng of my book.
JASON GURIEL is the co-editor of Partisan. His work appears most recently in The New Republic.
DAVID BIESPIEL's writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Slate, The New Republic, Poetry, American Poetry Review, and The New York Times. His latest book is A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns (2015).