Friday, August 17, 2007

Beyond that border

is Corpse Watching by Sarith Peou, from Tinfish Press, a beautiful but terrible book.

It begins:

No religious rituals.
No religious symbols.
No fortune tellers.
No traditional healers.
No paying respect to elders.
No social status. No titles.

from “The New Regime”

Sarith Peou survived the Cambodian holocaust of 1975-1979. These poems were written in the prison in Minnesota where he now lives. They are introduced and were translated by Ed Bok Lee who worked with Sarith Peou in the prison. Peou’s work is strong and very direct. It suggests that the writer turned himself over to death many times but somehow didn’t die. The poems are plain and strangely calm. They make one think of Walter Benjamin and of what can happen if you don’t die in time. The imagined utopia of a madman catches up with you and everyone around you.

“Our wounds are sprinkled with human ashes.”

from “Scars”

Corpse Watching – it is not a metaphor – is a small chapbook held together with screws. On one side of the screws are the poems, on the other are pictures of the dead. The photos have the haunting quality of a Boltanksi archive but, in relation to the text, more-so. There seems to be nothing to say about this book and about the terrible time it invokes except that this happened and the book was written. And that such events are still happening. Sarith Peou was – is – a witness, as are we. The poems suggest the presence of incredible strength in the writer and ask nothing of the reader but a sort of infinite attention. Maybe that is not nothing.

She gives him a notepad and a pen.
He is a Khmer Rouge boy;
He doesn’t know what to do with paper and pen.
I just interpret.
I am the interpreter.

from “The Unfitted”

Thursday, August 02, 2007


Travelling from the south of France to Barcelona by train last month, we found ourselves -- thanks to various inefficiences & breakdowns on the part of both the SNCF (French rail) and Renfe (Spanish rail)-- stranded at Port Bou, a Spanish border town perched on the Mediterranean. The town is famous, at least among literati, as the place where Walter Benjamin, fleeing from the Nazis, committed suicide in 1940. Having missed our connection & with hours to wait until the next, we decided to leave the train station and wander through the town. Walking downhill from the station to the small harbor (whose beach was lively and loud with swimmers & sunbathers), we passed a number of plaques commemorating Benjamin's final days, each one describing his actions at a particular spot (like stations of the cross, as Joshua Clover put it when I recounted the experience to him). The plaques, with text in four languages (Spanish, French, English, and Catalan), look rather new but, overwritten with graffiti and ignored by passersby, are already sinking into the background noise of the town's life. No doubt the plaques represent in some way an attempt (by establishment culture) to "rescue" Benjamin; yet I couldn't help feeling that he, or his mechanically reproduced image, is suffering a new order of demise in Port Bou. Far from being rescued, our Angelus Novus is being overtaken all the more by the detritus of history. Still, Benjamin himself taught that the storm of history is shot through with Messianic light. I began seeking some "dialectical image," some material hieroglyph situated in Port Bou, capable of holding this redemptive light. I didn't find it until after finally boarding the next train heading south. As we left, I glimpsed the town's main church, which adjoins the station. Its facade, replete with sculptures of several saints, has been blackened by years of soot from passing locomotives. Only the faces of the saints, high above the church door, have been washed clean -- presumably by workers unwilling or unable to undertake the job of cleaning the entire facade. The bright visages seemed to float in air, disjoined from dark mass of stone. "Ambiguity is the imagistic appearance of dialectics, the law of dialectics at a standstill," Benjamin wrote in his Passages project. "This standstill is utopia and the dialectical image therefore a dream image."