How Could “We” Forget: Thinking through Heriberto Yépez’s The Empire of Neomemory

The Empire of Neomemory


*** It’s (Neo)Memorial Day, a perfect day to think about the dangers of imperial memory and the potential power of forgetting. This is a continuation of my month-long musings on literary community, forgetting, trans & genderqueer poetics & more on [Outward from Nothingness]. Enjoy! ***


Up until a few years ago, I’d only read bits of Charles Olson’s writing, but I’d never really fallen for him. He’d always been one of those dead white men who I knew was important, a classic with whom I thought I should spend time. Since I first fell in love with James Baldwin as a teen or Gloria Anzaldúa as a college student, something about these older, straight, white male writers just didn’t register for me. I couldn’t get access to them, and they felt removed, irrevocably of the past. And yet in the last few years, I’ve come back around to a number of them, now including Olson. To spend time with him, and his lifelong projective poetic project based in and around Gloucester, Massachusetts.


El imperio de la neomemoria by Heriberto Yépez brought me back to Olson: first when it came out in 2007  in Spanish from Almadía, an indie press based in Oaxaca, México. Yépez—a writer from the border city of Tijuana—has a long list of books published in Spanish that includes poetry, fiction and critical prose, as well as a a few books of experimental poetry in English. I’ve read Yépez for years, but recently I’ve had the pleasure of (re)reading him in English, as The Empire of Neomemory has been released in English from ChainLinks: the result of a careful, painstaking translation by Jen Hofer, Christian Nagler, Brian Whitener (and partially by Yépez himself as a vital conversant for the translation project.)
El Imperio de la neomemoria


Yépez’s book made me want to delve deeper into Olson’s magnum opus, The Maximus Poems; he made the book feel incredibly relevant.  In his book, Yépez pulls Olson off his pedestal, making his poetics and his mission more human, no longer the project of some god on the literary hill. In The Empire of Neomemory, Olson becomes a young, fallible striver, a man-boy who wants more and more and sometimes in a wheedling kind of way. He’s not powerful or mighty; he’s a bit base, a little prone to overstatement, needy and defensive. Yépez psychoanalyzes Olson, investigating his Oedipal complex and his relationship with his father, thus bringing him back down to earth. Like any complicated, prickly personality, his vulnerability made me want to get to know him better.


Yépez also concentrates much of his analysis on Olson’s travels in Mexico, his search for Mayan authenticity and Quetzalcóatl, the plumed serpant god of the Aztec. Yépez argues that, unlike Pound, Olson wants to let in “the indigenous and the oral contemporary.” It is an investigation into what Yépez calls variously the “co-Oxident” and “kinh time,” “pantopia” and “neomemory.” As a USAmerican* who has spent a lot of time in Mexico, I’m obsessed with the transnational relationships between our two countries; I’ve been fascinated with Yépez’s critique of Olson’s relationship with Mexico, stealing from the country while simultaneously rejecting and undervaluing it and its people, this complicated brew of rejection, prejudice and longing for the Other.


In all of Yépez’s writing, he is always contradictory and complicated, yet also wont to use grand, polemical statements. It’s a strange mix, often uncomfortable and frustrating, yet revelatory and stimulating at his best. As usual, Yépez delights in hyperbole in this book: “What Romanticism was for Modernity, the 50s will be for the North American Empire. And they will be its Middle Ages—its Middle Ages express, fast food classics!” and “Fascism is remix.” He’s a master of the pointed turn of phrase.


In The Empire of Neomemory (as opposed to some of his other, older critical work), Yépez achieves a writing that multiplicates and renegotiates its own relationship with itself. At every turn, it appears to be a critical text that doesn’t want to be just criticism or critique, but something different, something bigger. This book starts off as a biographical exploration of Charles Olson, his life in Gloucester, his biography and his work, but it is also effort to grapple with imperialist logic itself. As Yépez says, “Olson in and of himself does not interest me; I am interested in his character as a microanalogy for decoding the psychopoetics of Empire.”


What Yépez posits is: an indictment of an imperial sense of time that converts itself into space, into landscape. An indictment of the self as the foundation for conceptions of that time. A series of postulations that desnap. Desnapping. An evisceration of the idea of remixing and appropriation and fragmentation as resistant poetics. Yépez wants us, as experimental readers and writers, to think more deeply about our own complicity and our incapacity to free ourselves from a damaging loop of colonialism and empire. He uses grand, polemical statements to force us to rethink the grand, polemical statement. Yépez (and experimental writing more generally) incarnates the very contradictions he sets out to untangle.


Maximus PoemsAnd for Yépez, the roots of these contradictions can be traced back to Olson, not as the foundational moment, but rather as a particularly transparent distillation of the links between imperialism and USAmerican avant-garde poetics. If we go back to Olson’s ideas on Projective Verse, perhaps his most well known poetic statement: “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. It means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all points (even, I should say, of our management of daily reality as of the daily work) get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen. And if you also set up as a poet, USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!”


In this quote, we see how Olson’s sense of speed (and time) becomes spatial. It’s interesting that he makes this poetic “call to arms” at this particular moment in 1950. 1950 being the year that the Cold War (and the nuclear arms race) begins to gather steam as Truman orders the development of the hydrogen bomb. Also the year that the Korean War begins as North Korean troops march South. Olson lauds a poetics based on the “projectile” and the “percussive” just as bombs begin to drop on the Korean peninsula. As Yépez points out, these terms and others like “prospective” are instantly and inherantly suspicious, linked to Cold War politics.


As I worked on this short essay, I listened to recordings of Charles Olson and a 2010 Poem Talk on Pennsound with Charles Bernstein, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Bob Perelman. As the best of the Poem Talks do, this discussion helped me to think about how Olson is regarded within the world of contemporary, experimental USAmerican poetics. I love the coversation and I am happy it is online, yet it also reminded me why I have often kept my distance from poets like Charles Olson; each one of the interlocutors mentioned a field of references that often felt foreign or overly expansive; the depth of their knowledge made Olson seem unapproachable and difficult, the realm of those with advanced degrees and books already written on the subject. For example, Bernstein refers to his first books on Olson and his thinking then as opposed to his thinking now. There is a sense of the history of thinking about Olson, his importance within the field that makes me hesitate to opine.


And yet, the discussion was also helpful to think about how Yépez’s project is so necessary at this particular moment. Bob Perelman says, “I’d love to desacralize our heroes. Olson is a heroic figure. Sacralization is always a problem: a lessoning as opposed to a lesson.” Perelman helped me to understand one of the joys of Yépez’s project: he pulls Olson out of the stratosphere, he trounces him, psychoanalyzes him and sends him off on a sad, lonely trip to the Yucatán, putting him on a grimy, fallible level. Like the kids say, he becomes relatable.


Rachel Blau du Plessis talks about how Olson’s epistolary poems in Maximus link zones: the body, the city, the world-historical, and she argues that there are no impediments to the linking of those zones. She notes that while Olson clearly pursues a mission connected to ideas of rootedness, place and geography, he also falls for the tropes of American exceptionalism and westward conquest, and yet she limits herself, saying: “I don’t want to be too reductive.” Yépez is not scared to be seen as reductive; polemicism is at the core of this project.


I also think Yépez undercuts analyses of Olson that would posit him as a counter-hegemonic hero. For example, in the Poem Talk, Al Filreas sees Olson as arguing against American mercantilism. Charles Bernstein sees Olson arguing that we are not beholden to the past and to tradition, that it does not define us entirely, though our words come from that past. Quoting Olson “I no longer am, yet am, / the slow westward motion.” Bernstein argues that we need Olson, that we need his assertion that: “An American / is a complex of occasions, / themselves a geometry / of spatial nature.” He sees this line as an argument against USAmerican fundamentalisms, a radical attack and critique on the idea of an American as one thing or an essential Americanness.


Yépez’s Empire takes apart this counter-hegemonic grandeur, not only of Olson but of USAmerican literary experimentalism more generally. It forces us to recognize the Olson in all of “us,” even to question that very “us.” Olson pushes for a radical new poetics and at the same time embodies empire in a new appropriative, totalizing poetics of the new. As Yépez says, “[Olson’s] U.S. readers flagrantly ignore the relationship between USAmerican canonical writing and imperialism, a reflex typical of USAmerican hegemonical intellectuals, but in this case one that includes the USAmerican experimental literary left, in need of a radical re-reading of the ideological foundations of its current poetics.”


Yépez continues: “From the work of Olson to the parody (a la Woody Allen) that Charles Bernstein makes of “projective verse,” from the investigative poetry of Ed Sanders constructed with monads of information to the cut ups of Burroughs that sampler of the body-of-reorgans, from the “plagiarisms” of Kathy Acker and her intense prose made of blocks to the techniques of the post-Language poets, USAmerican poetry, in its dream of a symposium of the Whole, as in the “new sentence,” has been a critical poetry, a pantopic poetry, based in displacement and parataxis, based in neomemory.” But this indictment is not just for the U.S. experimental poets, but it extends out to critique everyone, everyone whose culture is based on memory. All of us are conservative, Yépez argues, and he includes himself.


At the end of the ChainLinks volume, there is a fascinating translators’ note written in the first-person plural, a “we” that includes the three translators and Yépez. The note does amazing work thinking through the perils of translation at this particular historical moment, delving into the complicated array of issues that emerge out of attempting to translate this resolutely anti-imperial book into the imperial tongue that it is rallying to undermine. The translators also remind the reader to continue to resist (and riot) and yet to also “allow the moment of complicity back in again and again” as Empire of Neomemory does so often: “what I have said of Charles Olson is the method by which I recognize myself.”


As I think most experimental writers would, I found myself identifying and dis-identifying with Yépez’s critique of Charles Olson throughout the text. Moments where I felt my own work and my own aims as a writer were made manifest and then shred to pieces. Moments when Yépez seemed to be tearing into my own practice as a writer. And I think this is an incredible gift (if we want to talk about poetry or criticism as gift).


In the book, Yépez attacks the concept of the post-anything, positing it as another progress-oriented mistake that recreates a linear, spatial sense of time. As he says, “the idea of the post attempts to persuade us that there has been a confrontation, a collision of forces, in which either a parricide or overcoming occurred, a moving beyond this conflict, a resolution or a passage to another site.”


The book is not saying that there is another world beyond this one, a better way of doing things (for which Yépez could become the master). Rather, it embodies the complicities and failures of experimental literature, while pushing the reader (especially the USAmerican reader) to recognize her own inextricability from these webs. Perhaps, the book signals, it is time to think about forgetting the grand, totalizing dream of neomemory.


* Thanks to Jen Hofer for working to popularize this term USAmerican, which so clearly resists the erroneous definition of America as the U.S. of A.

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