Giscome Road by C.S. Giscombe
Normal, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 1998
Midway through his Tristes Tropiques journey to the middle of Brazil near the middle of the century, Claude Levi-Strauss has his first encounter with a nomadic tribe known as the Nambikwara. Things are not going well, so the father of structural anthropology fast-forwards to the traditional exchange of gifts, producing on his part paper and pencils. The Nambikwara, who neither write nor draw, ignore these gifts at first. But after a few days of observing Levi-Strauss observe them, they begin to scratch marks on paper. The chief especially makes a great show of “writing,” including a list of items he methodically checks off during the next gift exchange. This “piece of humbug,” Levi-Strauss decides, is probably meant “to astonish [the chief’s] companions, to convince them that he [is] acting as an intermediary agent for the exchange of goods, that he [is] in alliance with the white man and [shares] his secrets.” Disturbed by his own participation in a “farce” aimed only at “increasing the authority and prestige of one individual–or function–at the expense of others,” Levi-Strauss begins to question the relationship of writing to civilization. “The only phenomenon with which writing has always been concomitant,” he concludes, “is the creation of cities and empires, that is the integration of large numbers of individuals into a political system, and their grading into castes or classes.” The goal of writing, simply put, is enslavement.
Levi-Strauss calls this chapter in his anthropological Bildungsroman “The Writing Lesson.” The lesson that writing is political amounts to an intellectual cliche in the second half of the twentieth century. Power, commerce, oppression, and more insidious, entitlement are part of the lesson. Levi-Straus’s exasperation at the chief reflects his own sense of entitlement. The chief doesn’t really know “how to use” writing. But how are the oppressed to use the tool of oppression? The answer, of course, is political. It is also various and usually impassioned. For Roland Barthes, it was Writing Degree Zero. For the Soviets, socialist realism. Thomas McGrath, American poet and “card-carrying” member of the Communist Party, called this tactical writing, writing that directs our attention to something. McGrath gave up a lot for his political convictions; he was blacklisted in the fifties. But he couldn’t give up a “kind of poetry which [is] much, much richer” than the purely tactical because it takes “in as many contradictions as possible” and because it has as “its purpose the expansion of consciousness not simply the focusing of it” (65). What he achieved by a devotion to style was brilliant poetry and blacklisting on both sides of the fence, a good way not to be heard by anyone.
“Women don’t know what they are saying, that’s the whole difference between them and me,” says Jacques Lacan. If you don’t get it, maybe you can’t hear “what is in such close touch with itself that it confounds your discretion,” counters Luce Irigaray in This Sex Which Is Not One. The problem of not being heard is a serious one, and only the very brave, and the very committed, risk it. C.S. Giscombe is both. His latest book, a long poem titled Giscome Road, handsomely produced by Dalkey Archive Press, is “about the constellation of places in northern British Columbia that were named, directly or indirectly, for John Robert Giscome,” a nineteenth-century miner and explorer. Giscome the explorer may have been an ancestor of Giscombe the poet, in spite of a slight orthographic difference in their names. The book “documents music, racial dichotomies, sexuality, and the ways in which landscape itself is described,” says the blurb on the back, music to the ears of many poetry readers. But anyone expecting these popular concerns to materialize lyrically or contentiously on the surface of the poem will be disappointed and confused.
For Giscombe, like McGrath, makes it a practice to “take in as many contradictions as possible.” Like Charles Olson, John Matthias, James Wright, Wendell Berryóand McGrath himself, he is a poet of place, but one who largely eschews the saturated particularization of proper names in favor of more enigmatic, less ostentatious parts of speech, especially adverbs and prepositions. Like Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, and Michael Anania, he is a poet of rivers, but one with a “bad attitude toward the pastoral,” as he says in an earlier volume titled adverbially Here. He writes of journeys but subverts narration (“No story gets elucidated in the song”) and description (with its “presumption of lyrical content”) in favor of a “riverine” fluidity that privileges abstract over concrete. He is an African American poet absent the race rage of Amiri Baraka or June Jordan, though race invades even his dreams, which are often more politicized and particularized than his waking meditations.
In Giscome Road, he dreams of a black man who lost his leg, “pleasuring 2 women, / one black & one white … the blood / to the leg having ‘herniated.’” The man, “in shorts / which showed the muscle of the one ‘good’ leg / which flapped empty from the other,” is followed by white men in suits, “their neckties flapping [like his empty pant leg] over their rounded shoulders.” It is the old black-and-white nightmare of sexual versus social potency. Giscombe dreams as well of “the empire of no tenses,” not Levi-Straus’s empire of slaves, but the rewritten empire of what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., calls “cultural retrieval.” “Our social identities,” Gates says, “represent the way we participate in historical narrative.” Giscombe’s way is enacted in Giscome Road, but it had already been defined in Here, published in 1994 by the always-adventurous Dalkey. “All stories [are] non sequiturs” when they perpetuate enslavement. “Pure descriptive prowess” courts a trivializing sentimentality, the merely “picturesque,” and mystification of landscape into “the great soul,” all unnecessary for “the heart’s past description.”
One of the central metaphors of Giscome Road is drawn from Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”–”older than the flow of human / blood in human veins.” But for Giscombe the soul is not merely “like the rivers” he has known. Rather, the bloodstream is the body’s river. Out of blood and river rises song. “The metaphor comes from water” and drives the poem, impelling the narrator-poet north in search of “the oldest ancestor” (a “blood” relative), personal and perhaps racial identity, and “the empire of no tenses”–”an endless invisible present” that is not burdened by essentialist visions of the past. Giscombe quotes the “descriptions,” as he calls them, of the naming of Giscome Portage by a white man: “To further his trade w/ the natives he established a number of outposts, one of which was at Giscome Portage, a place which was named for a negro cook in Dunlevy’s employ.” The Afro-Caribbean explorer who actually discovered the portage is thus reduced to a minor, expedient role, feeding the white man who feeds on him. No wonder Giscombe pursues the “mutest edge out there” where place is “unincorporated,” not part of the body politic, not subject to “euphemism”:
“Spanish” was always a euphemism, the word used
among planter families down in the Islands,
now among their descendents in Canada
There are no euphemisms in Giscome Road. It is a river of language events, registers, dictions, dialects, and quotations from disparate times, places, and voices flowing into each other seamlessly. To quote from Giscome Road is to cheat the reader of its richness. Giscombe is not concerned with quotability but with an “expansion of consciousness” achievable only by reading the whole poem. Much of this expansion occurs unconsciously, a result of new ways of experiencing language, new ways of reading writing. The metaphor that ties river to bloodstream to song is not metaphor at all but metonymy arrived at via the slippage of connotation. “The song’s a commotion rising in the current … / … obvious, river-like–in the blood.” “Centerless water but with an edge, / that trill to it.” “The long song’s wordless & necessarily rolling” because it follows the river as nomenclature, carrying the sound of its name wherever the river goes, past even the portage: “The arrival at the edge of water … a hiatus in the travel by water, … the edge of a story … almost intestinal from all maps of it, …the edge in the voice … (the endless description).” As terminology from one phenomenon is applied to another, the edges blur and river bleeds into song; palaver, “a real word for the talk between Europeans … and … Africans”; and a “creolized” style, “welcoming” and “pragmatic,” that rises naturally out of the river it follows and “finds you on the road out … overtakes you effortlessly.” It is a style shaped by keen intelligence, perfect pitch, and absolute integrity “in such close touch with itself” and its source, it touches us even as it continuously belies our expectations.