This is my third time blogging for Harriet, which partially brings to mind the phrase, “Welcome home.” And yet I’ve always been perplexed by what actually constitutes home. To remain on the verge of arrival is just a different way of saying liminal. I was having a conversation this morning with a yoga teacher friend who said she best imagines the sequences of poses for her classes when she’s in a state between waking and dreaming. I told her that for thousands of years this is how poetic inspiration has been defined.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a poetics that would also serve as an ethics of exile. What does it mean to become a stranger in the land in which one was born? What are the political implications of this? Progressive ones, I mean. Although this is an idea I’ve mulled over for years, it was piqued again recently by Judith Butler’s terrific essay, “Who Owns Kafka?” in the 3 March 2011 issue of the London Review of Books. In it she discusses the legal and ideological battle between the Israeli and German governments over a valuable collection of Franz Kafka manuscripts as a way of framing Kafka’s work in terms of a “poetics of non-arrival:" “many of Kafka’s works are about messages written and sent where the arrival is uncertain or impossible, about commands given and misunderstood and so obeyed in the breach or not obeyed at all.” (The entire article is available for free on the LRB website. Nice going, LRB!)

Over the course of this month on Harriet, I’m sure there will be many different poetics espoused, decried, and cited. So I’m adding this one to the mix: “commands given and misunderstood.” Except a poetics of exile, a poetics of non-arrival can never form an ontology. That’s the beauty of it. To embrace it is to lose it, and to lose it is to come closer to a non-existent home. Listening to public radio this past Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I had forgotten that King gave his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the night before he was assassinated, and in it more or less predicts his own death. (Here’s the relevant section on YouTube.) Yet I know the speech, I know that King was assassinated, and I know why he was in Memphis more than four decades before the latest assault on public sector unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, Maine, etc., which Mark Nowak has already so forcefully and articulately addressed in his initial Harriet post.

King understood an ethics of exile (and his language was among the most significant poetry of the twentieth-century) even if his goal was to lead enslaved people out of exile. That’s the onto-political dilemma, really.

Originally Published: April 4th, 2011

Alan Gilbert is the author of the poetry collections The Treatment of Monuments (2012) and Late in the Antenna Fields (2011). He has earned praise for his ability to move between personal, national, and global scales and experiences in his wide-ranging, politically and ethically astute poetry. He is the author...