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What a Waste, Mistah Kurtz

***

Richard Rathwell, Rules of the River (DaDaBaBy & Blue Orange Publishing, 2007, 20 pp. no price given)

 

 

A few days ago a manila envelope arrived in the mail from Vancouver. Inside was an 20 page book of poetry decently printed on 8 ½ x11 paper that made it seem more a magazine than a book, notwithstanding the collographs included with the text.

It’s a book that makes me feel uneasy in several ways, not
the least of which is that it points to the fact that I’m getting
fairly ancient. The sender was Jamie Reid, a poet I’ve known for 40
years. The author of the book is Richard Rathwell, a man with whom I
went to university briefly, and whom I have not seen or heard from
since about 1970. The collographs accompanying the text were provided
by Pierre Coupey, who I first met in about 1972 or 1973, and with whom
I still enjoy a warm social and artistic friendship.

Unfortunately, Coupey’s collographs, which aren’t
reproduced well or described clearly enough in the introduction to
allow anyone to make heads or tails of them or the compositional method
by which they were constructed, end up as disconnected decorations, and
thus the book renders a small disservice to a very good visual artist.
I should note that several of his paintings hang in my house, including
a very large one that overlooks the dining room table. It is the same
painting that nearly ended our friendship twenty years ago when I hung
it from the ceiling in the living room of another house. Painters get
touchy about that sort of thing, I learned.

My relationships with Reid and Rathwell have been quite
different from my relationship with Coupey, and on the whole, much more
chilly. Both are men whose lives have moved from poetry to radical
leftist politics and back—if one can return from years spent under the
crushing intellectual and emotional discipline of radical Marxism.
Reid, who I knew well enough in the late 1960s to share a house with
him for a few months, was a gifted poet with a demagogic streak that
landed him with Hardial Bains and the Communist Party of Canada-Marxist
Leninist, which was, in its day,
Canada’s
most doctrinaire and disciplined Maoist splinter faction. Reid worked
for the Maoists as an obscure operative-organizer until sometime in the
mid-1980s, when the Party found him, as he put it, “unreliable”.

Yes, of course I asked what in hell that meant, and also
requested information on exactly what it was he had done for the
CPC-ML, and why. Reid offered no answers except to hint, darkly, that
he remained subject to party discipline, so don’t ask.
I’d
pretty much decided that “party discipline” and poetry were
fundamentally at odds at the time Jamie and I parted social and
intellectual company in the late 1960s, so I didn’t pursue the issue
with him. Instead, I wondered aloud without thrusting it in his face
whether it was possible to successfully return to art after close to
two decades buried under ideology. I’d admired Reid’s vitality while we
were young poets and not just because I couldn’t quite match it. But
when he returned in the 1980s, most of that vitality seemed gone, and I
mostly just felt shamed by what he’d done, and a little sorry for him
for having wasted all those years inside the Marxist nightmare.

Richard Rathwell was not, in my recollection, a poet, but a
student who liked to hang around poets and subject them to a peculiar
sort of rhapsodizing that continually crossed back and forth over the
boundaries of the erotic and the philosophical in ways that I had
difficulty making sense of. I confess he wasn’t a person
I felt comfortable around. When I was in aggression mode—most of the
time then—he struck me as a mixer, one of those people who always
seemed to be trying to pry his way inside the intimacies between those
around him. That he seemed to do this without a detectable program of
his own made him a little frightening. I was then reading Dostoyevsky’s
The Possessed, and Rathwell reminded me of the character Peter
Verkovensky, who was the quasi-revolutionary who contracts with another
character—the suicidal, delusional and somehow wonderful Kirilov—to
carry out some killings on behalf of Verkovensky’s revolutionary
movement.

Then I lost track of Rathwell, and I have the impression
that he’d joined a Maoist splinter group called the Partisans, who
were, ridiculously, trying to eek out a niche to the left of the
CPC-ML. I knew and liked several of the members of this faction even
though I thought their political goals were totally crazy, and I even
shared a house with them for a few weeks while my first marriage was
breaking up in 1972. I don’t recall Rathwell being present during this
period, so I assume he’d either left the city by then, or had learned
to steer clear of me.
The entry on him in Wikipedia, likely written by Rathwell himself, reveals that he is now living in London, England. It also confirms his membership in the Partisans, describes him as an award-winning fiction writer and poet in Ireland and both the first Canadian to visit Albania
under Enver Hoxha and the first one in after Hoxha’s death. From there,
according to Wikipedia, he went on to become an aid worker and
literature teacher in
Nigeria, Lesotho and Zimbabwe.
He’s also noted for having a street named after him somewhere in
Uganda, a tree named after him in India, and appears to have more or
less been running the local United Nations aid programs. In all,
Richard Rathwell sounds a little like Mr. Kurtz from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—without, I guess, the fatal moral implosion in the jungle, and with more than a faint whiff of Arthur Rimbaud.

How much of this blah-blah is worth the powder to blow it
to hell is open to debate, and even Wikipedia troubles itself to note
that the biography lacks citation and footnotes–code for “we have no
idea whether this is bullshit.” My first question is why, after so
illustrious a career, has he come back to his post-adolescent and
pre-politics roots in poetry? My second question is why hasn’t he
learned anything? Or maybe what I’m really asking is this: why is this
man annoying me in exactly the same way he did 35 years ago?

The first I heard of Richard Rathwell’s return to poetry
was in a puzzled enquiry about six months ago from my first wife,
Sharon Thesen. Apparently Rathwell tried to make contact with her, and
in trying to be witty, mysterious, and seductive, he managed to merely
turn on her creep alert. Her memory of him, once we got a collective
bead on who he was, was similar to mine, and I’m pretty sure she wasn’t
very receptive to his overtures. But I didn’t hear any more from her
about it, and I assumed that Rathwell had redissolved
into the murk from which he’d emerged. When I opened the envelope a few
days ago and saw it was a book by him, I must admit my response wasn’t
delight. But I decided to read the poems anyway, and to write something about them.

The Rules of the River begins with a “Notes from the
Editor”, which is confusing because the book lists two editors, one a
“Daniel Rathwell” and the other, Jamie Reid. These “notes” begin with a
quote from Rathwell’s Internet blog that helped me recall why I hadn’t
liked Richard Rathwell 35 years ago. “I never chose a spot or a
context.” Rathwell blogs, “I just went promiscuously from one landscape
to another, one discourse to another. I have origins but no place.
Therefore no network, no magnifiers, no social capital, no machine.”

The simultaneously aggrieved and superior tone of this
firmed my recollection of Rathwell as one of those people who are
perpetually and frantically trying to crowd their way into whatever
inner circle or sanctum they imagine exists, all the while whining
about not being adequately appreciated or looked up to, or whatever
response they want in the moment and aren’t getting. In the part of my
life Rathwell crowded his way into, it was into a group of young,
moderately talented poets who were themselves crowding uncritically
around Robin Blaser, the American poet who’d arrived at
Simon Fraser University in 1966. It
really wasn’t much of a circle, and it certainly had no sanctum or
exclusivity, which seemed to infuriate Rathwell. Blaser, to his credit, believed that art and ideology were
mortal enemies, and that one’s personal agenda, whether neurotic or
demagogic, was as destructive to poetry as it was difficult to locate
and jettison. He practiced his pedagogy with those notions firmly in
the forefront, too.

Not surprisingly, Rathwell didn’t hang out long. I suspect
that like Jamie Reid, he was already in search of a parental ideology,
one that took care of all contingencies, emotional, intellectual and
otherwise. Reid found his in the addled dialectics of the CPC-ML, and
Rathwell found the same thing among the Partisans, more temporarily, I
think, although I think it’s fair to say that the emotional and
intellectual proclivities that lead people to submit to radical
discipline of any sort—Marxist, Baptist or Islamic seem little
different from one another—leave behind scar tissue that can’t be
eradicated. Both the CPC-ML and the Partisans, incidentally, worshipped
the completely crazy Maoist regime of Enver Hoxha in
Albania, which I’ve written about elsewhere on this site: https://dooneyscafe.com/wp2/content/view/283/2/.

My specific recollection of Rathwell is of interest here,
because what he says about himself in 2007 is what he said 35 years
ago. If case you didn’t get it, I’ll translate: he is superior to but
misunderstood by the people whose attention he desires, and he resents
those who are comfortable homers and insiders. Never mind that 35 years
ago he wandered off and spent years among the Maoists, who were the
ultimate insiders and intellectual homers (and never mind that the home
they built was based on a series of murderous illusions and delusions
that glorified a country that spent more than 20 years as humanity’s
best approximation of hell outside of sub-Saharan Africa). Rathwell is
therefore a man who doesn’t appear to have altered his intellectual
procedures or his attitudes towards others in three and a half decades.
So why is he publishing a book of poetry and sending it around to
people he alienated with his arrogance all those years ago?

Richard Rathwell, not very surprisingly, has an eponymous
website you can check out. On it are roughly a hundred blogs, along
with a revealing set of links to other websites. The blogs are, well,
mostly impenetrable self-aggrandizement or cognitive contraptions:
taken together, they’re a self-serving record of a conversation he’s
likely now been conducting with himself in front of an imaginary
audience, after years of what appears to be self-imposed or
institutionally imposed silence. For Jamie Reid, the imposed silence
was inflicted by his Maoists colleagues—or captors. What silenced
Rathwell for three decades isn’t clear, The most simple explanation is
that he was busy having a life, or that he was locked up in some
institution for 30 years, either figuratively or literally. I
hope it’s the former, but the website links he offers reflect an
intellectual cosmology that derives primarily from the late 1960s at
Simon Fraser University: William Blake, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Albania
and a host of other Maoist-derived interests. Some later influences
appear, like the Government of Zimbabwe’s website, and a number of
experimental blogsites, along with some NGO websites add up to a man
who’s lived a life of artificially narrow dedications.

A note on blogging before I get to what's in Rathwell’s book:
blogging is a composition form that most people think was invented on
the Internet. Essentially, it is composition without intellectual
responsibility, discipline or research: egomaniacal monologuing.
Blogging has lots of relatives, and all of them tend to turn out badly
or have destructive consequences. Among the near relatives are bad
poetry, which our civilization is drowning in, and political
dictatorship—Stalin and Mao, for instance, ran the
Soviet Union and China
as physical blogs. People who think they ought to be able to operate
outside the conventional rules of discourse and social interaction find
blogging a natural format.

As far as I can penetrate it, The Rules of the River appears to consist of just two poems. One is the title poem. The river, I think, is the Nile River,
although who can really say, because the poem is obscure and
insinuative rather than articulative, and it comes with no accompanying
contextualizations. My reasons for supposing that the poem concerns the
Nile River are a.) that a satellite photo of the Nile
is on the book’s title page, and b.) that the quasi-mystical tone of
the poem implies that the poet has some special experiential knowledge of the river that permits him to explain its
intentions, (the poem's rhetorical stance implies that the poet has been conducting espionage
for some Maoist NGO in Egypt or Somalia, or wherever, which is distractingly irrelevant). The river has
eleven rules, none of which I can parse because they come in evocative
rather than disclosive statements unlocated in a delineated physical or cognitive landscape.
No, I have no idea why anyone would be interested in any of it. But
then, I’m the poet who stopped publishing because I couldn’t make
poetry come out from underneath the dung-heap of self-referential
obscurity, remember?

The second poem in the book is a little more interesting,
even though it is also obscurely insinuative in tone, and
intellectually hermetic. Rathwell, typically, tells us that it is
“translated” from something titled, “The Beak”, but offers no clue as
to what “The Beak” might be or who wrote it.
What’s
sort-of interesting about the poem is that Rathwell then subjects it,
as a “base” text, to one of those Internet-based translation programs:
he’s input his poem into the translation program, which then renders
the poem in various different languages: Japanese, “Chinese” (sic),
French, German, etc., and then, presumably by a separate operation,
he’s had the same program translate the text from the designated
language version back into English.

That's an arid but moderately interesting
exercise in the comparative distortions built into different languages,
in other words, because each version of the poem offered is
recognizable but different, occasionally profoundly so. Had the original
poem  been comprehensible, it would have been really interesting,
and if we had any assurance that the translational process was
clean—that is, that Rathwell hasn’t been screwing with the computer
translations to smooth them out or make himself look smarter, it would
border on the profound. But we don’t have that assurance, because the
poet–surprise!–doesn’t make his methods and his prejudices transparent. It's fair to say that few poets
do, and probably fair if not very kind to point out that Richard Rathwell, having sat behind the corrupting wheel of the
tractor of dialectical materialism is even less characteristically
disposed than most poets to give up any rhetorical advantage.

I did try to input Shelley’s “Ozymandias” to the same
program to see what it would do with a poem that is widely understood,
but I think the system wanted money to do the work, and I wasn’t about
to indulge it with my visa card number. That left me high and dry and
vaguely annoyed, because I have irresolvable questions about what
Richard Rathwell was trying to accomplish, and why. And as usual, I’m
also left with a whole lot of other uncertainties that makes me a
sitting duck if I were to engage Rathwell on the book. But of course,
that’s it, right? That’s how it has been done for decades (or is it
centuries?): You publish poetry that doesn’t offer readers any context
other than the aesthetic ones, and if you aren’t treated like a genius,
it’s the reader’s fault, because they’re philistine, or intellectually
or spiritually indolent, and the poet wanders off into the warm and
fuzzy feelings he or she wants to have about him or herself, with his
or her head firmly stuck up his or her own behind.

Thirty five years in the wilderness and he’s settling for that? What a waste, Mistah Kurtz.

'

Toronto, March 2, 2007, 2707 w.

 

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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