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I Was Ostensibly Searching for My Father, But.

In Ken Chen’s extraordinary essay, to enter the underworld is to enter catastrophe across spatial boundaries and temporal gaps. To enter the underworld, in fact, is to re-inscribe the site of humanism, where the sacred is no longer delineated from the profane, and this thing Chen calls “fact” mutates into what cannot be said, but must be said, to echo M. NourbeSe Philip in Zong!.

There was a moment for me when reading this essay—somewhere between the father’s appearance in dreams and the narrator’s walking the underworld alone—where I experienced an emotional quaking—very jarring, like suddenly becoming tuned in to some new knowing about the relationship between personal loss and the monumental grief empire has produced. There is a tension in this piece about the bigger picture and then a pulling back to the detail, to the naming of the particular, so that the big picture is always tempered or troubled by what resists universality. Yet, this work necessarily has a global reach as it transcends the artifice of borders and nations; it also transgresses the temporal and the line between life and death.

Where, asks Chen, in the catastrophic is knowledge located? What can be known and where can it be known? How can poetry know differently and what conditions do we need in order to manifest that access? When we are in the underworld, when we have finally granted ourselves access, what new sight does this perspective lend when one might not legitimately be a resident? Life as the displacement, not death. Underworld as archive for the self, a slot to slide into, a comfort. What can we possibly say of what Chen calls, “sublime trauma”?

--Dawn Lundy Martin


In the beginning, in 2012, my father passed away and I began making regular visits to the underworld, which seemed polite. Like most people, I had not previously traveled to the underworld and hadn’t really intended to visit more than once. What had happened, what had gone wrong, was my consciousness. In the beginning, in those early days of death, when my memories of my father saturated itself through my body like a toxic tranquilizer, I found myself thinking about him even when I slept. I do not really remember the dreams, if they were dreams, but I believe that the initial dreams simply replayed past experiences that my father and I shared. For example: my father and I eating lunch together, indoors but alongside a wall of windows in a sunny restaurant near the California coast. I told this to a novelist friend, who said that he had experienced similar dreams. In the beginning, he was devastated to see the one who he had lost. When time passed and the beginning had ended, these dreams would occasionally return and strike him out of nowhere and he found himself gladdened. This was the only way he could see again the one who had died, a thwarting of death. I mentioned this in my eulogy for my father. Time poured by. Death became a fact. Death infiltrated my dreams with fact. My dreams would proceed as they had previously, but halfway through, my father would need to leave, would begin to move out of his apartment (he has never lived in an apartment), would disappear around the corner, would forget about me, would have never have been there at all. The narrative distorted itself to represent the abrupt rupture of grief. My consciousness (which seemed obviously something separate from myself) had scrutinized what was happening and decided to correct it with the fact. In the beginning of this next chapter of dreams, I found myself inside a windowless gray room deep inside a large state building stationed across from my father, who sat on the opposite side of a visitation booth, an unbreakable window and telephone apparatus between us, and he must have been in jail, interned at the border between my nation and his nation, he was in immigration prison, he was a migrant held captive at the border of death. This was my first visit to the underworld.

In the beginning, when I visited the underworld, I was ostensibly searching for my father, but I could rarely see his body. And so in the beginning, I decided to look. I made my way across the highway and walked into the city to explore the necropolis, ostensibly searching, obviously failing my impossible quest. I found myself in a large stone building. The ground felt moist. You could smell urine. There were horses shitting within this temple. Some bodies on the floor. In the beginning, I had come to Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. I had come not in a dream, but in a time machine did I come to Al-Azhar Mosque when Napoleon shelled it and occupied it with his soldiers, Al-Azhar where he executed a few sheikhs, married an Egyptian Muslim wife as proof of his new and supposed faith (a woman he killed after he fled Egypt), and where the French army and its horses pissed and shat in its sanctified halls.

This was not a dream, since it really happened. This did not happen since I had not been there two hundred years ago. This did not happen, since I had imagined the architecture based on the Death Zone tower in Doctor Who. I walked into another room in this museum/mausoleum and saw growing from the stone floors, a luscious grove, the oranges illuminating the room like lanterns. These were Jaffa oranges. They were here because the trees themselves had been cut down in the nation above. The nation above had been cut down in the nation above. Everything dies, land and places. Was the beginning over? I was now alone and did not know where in this space my father existed. Maybe this meant I was an adult, because I was alone. But adults are not alone, they have families and friends and a community and we call this citizenship. And I was here in a land where I did not belong, a place that I could be sent back from at any moment for existing without authorization, I was not authorized to be dead.

And so in the beginning, I crept back and forth on all fours across the overpass of Styx. As in Bangkok, the Tartarus municipal authorities have paved asphalt over the rivers so the city can modernize and gentrify and sprawl. I wandered around the hutongs and favelas of the capital, a necropolis whose space I could navigate but whose temporality I found glitched. Think about when you experience a glitched image: the error interrupts the visual plane of the image like an instantaneous motion, but the glitch is what stops the video from continuing in time. Glitch as motion, glitch as stasis. Death as migration, death as time travel. To put this another way, I have always wondered why ghosts look like the person they were when they died. (Does my father’s ghost look like him?) To me, this implies that when you immigrate to the afterlife, you hold onto whatever temporality you possess when you die. What then is the underworld? The underworld is where you are archived. If Dante wrote of meeting Aristotle and Avicenna, Judas and Brutus, then did that mean I could meet C.L.R. James and Lakshmi Sahgal, Liang Qichao and Michael Jackson?

When I stroll around the underworld, I see everything that ever was—or at least everything that ever died. I saw the beginning, the true beginning, the beginning of modern  capitalism and the way of life of probably anyone reading this essay. I saw that the beginning had twin poles: in the New World, where the indigenous people fled the conquering hordes, strange men who would casually behead the people they encountered and set their hounds to tear the flesh of infants, and in the west coast of Africa, where there came a story that these traders of strange cargo must be cannibals, piling up as they did colossal mounds of bones, whitening in the sun. I saw men in India strapping the bodies of insurrectionary sepoys to the mouths of cannons. And there was the Congo, where I saw the West come carrying bags of hands. They had taken the hands from the people who lived there. In My Lai, was it ears? What was it in Malaya? Perhaps I am beginning to digress. If I sound as if I am angry, this is not quite the case, as I do not possess emotions commensurate to this scale. I would think it would be more damning to say that, rather than sounding angry, I sound self-righteous in a clueless key. Listing these horrors in such a casual way—it shames one to write it, shames one to read it. How then to represent what I have come to call sublime trauma, the absolute terror of colonialism that is too gargantuan to be represented, words whose monument deforms our mouths as we speak them, events too much almost to even bear glimpsing? And what right or relationship do I possess to these horrors that happened to other people in another time?

I could say that I have not solved these questions, but this would imply that such problems possess a solution. Rather, these questions beat in the dark like pulsars, celestial questions we see surveilling us in the night sky. If they possess a solution, it is a solution in which you suspend yourself, slowly allowing its impossibility to saturate your body. In the beginning, I met and interviewed some of those who died in cafes, outside cornershops, in obelisks, airports, elevators, taxicabs, libraries, mausoleums, alleyways, and the Airbnbs of the afterlife. I had begun writing down what they said and kept a diary about my trips to death and back, my futile search which I found myself forgetting as I awakened. Sleeping, dreaming, passing away, passing, waking, missing. Resurrection, insurrection, the revolutions of the dream. In the beginning, I wrote this as a traveler’s guide to hell, my Hades Baedeker. Nowadays I am thinking of other titles, like The Death Star, since I sometimes travel to the underworld by star. But I find myself always met with troubles as to how to fit something infinite (death energy of grief and empires) within a box that is finite (poem book).

Language, the impasse. Infinity suggests a kind of universality, an endlessness of quantity, but there is no such thing as universal suffering, no such thing as universal history. Poets sometime assume the particular and the factual are the opposite of the universal and the lyrical. Many poets—even when writing “political” poetry—work to levitate away from the factual as quickly as possible. But in the beginning when I saw the layered alleyways and overpasses of hell, I realized that you can accrete particulars, stacking each on top of the other, until you have summoned from the ashes and the dust all manner of cosmos, planets, stars, comets, satellites, the sun and the moon themselves. The sun and the moon are totemic symbols, luminous icons from the Tarot deck, but they are also material objects, astral places. Like the sun and the moon, an archive can also vibrate between the physical and the metaphysical. The archive that baits my obsessions is called the Migrated Archive: it collects many files deemed too incriminating by the former British empire, many files destroyed, some preserved: 1.3 million documents over fifteen miles of floor-to-ceiling shelving, located in Hansford Park, an office complex which I am informed is not located in the underworld. And yet these papers hardly seem real to me. Last night, I read the index online again and it looked to me like the programming code to the last two hundreds years of global history. Suppression of the slave trade. Palestine question. Pension plan for the East India Company. I find myself staring at this catalog of empire through the night, the csv file gleaming in the dark. Subhas Chandra Bose. Repatriation of Cossacks. Rhodesia secret negotiations. Penguin egg collection. I see in the Migrated Archive’s index a poem whose greatness is an authority beyond what can be authored—a poem of facts and particulars larger than that small bracelet that the ancients called the One and that we call infinity. But what do these entries mean?

When I write what I see in hell, I want to understand what happened that brought these migrants to death. I am writing away from America and Western Europe, rowing into the waters of supposed unhistory. (What is it they say about ontology and rowing your boat?) I am rowing through Acheron, the last river here, river of fire, preserved as a picturesque canal bordering waterfront condos for software developers and private equity managers. I row the oars. Still the flames remain. The waters burn. My skin crackles black from the red and scorching fire. What fed Acheron are the flames from the British incinerators that spoliated the evidence of its rule. I remind myself: stay obsessed with the facts that you see still here. Remember the surprise and strangeness of the facts you are amassing. Observe the fact as its own fantasy. Riots in Alexandria. Fall of Khartoum. Kashmir Dispute. This is not the fact as a lyric, but an absolute moral repulsion to the lyric’s promise of the universal, which serves only to expunge time and place, people and politics. Kenya: detainees and detention camps. Cyprus: disturbances; importation of troops. Malaya: general review of emergency.

In the beginning, I sometimes imagine myself as an astronaut floating towards the grand vacuum of the factual, the political. I tug my tether, I pull myself fist by fist back towards poetry, which seems both beautiful and irrelevant. I look at my hands. They still hold the questions. One can consider this a question of foundationalism. From what basis can one create? In community organizing, one works from the authorization of “the people.” In poetry of witness, the foundation is the poet’s authentic relationship to suffering and dissidence. In documentary poetics, a primary source. If one wants for an ethical or political basis for poetic decision-making, then arguing for merely aesthetic approaches (the preference, say, for this literary lineage or aesthetic effect rather than that) can end up sounding akin to arguing for one pattern of wallpaper over another. While I am sympathetic to these approaches, I am finding that my underworld guidebook is growing sentient and slowly becoming a book of spells. The Mexica prophesized the end of the world and they were right. The Europeans searched for Prester John’s Christian kingdom in Africa. In the foreign legations of Bejing, the Boxer rebels found themselves struck down by bullets they thought magic would repel. As I scan the graffiti written on the walls of hell, I take a glance at colonialism and see a system held together by a desperate magic.

In one alley in Hades, I spoke with a rebel from West Asia who when the British airdropped pamphlets, claimed that these were actually bombs he had transmuted into paper. I have not been able to find his name again.

Waking, forgetting, walking, walking the History Planet, searching the Death Star, I find myself trying to recuperate my right to hallucinate.

Originally Published: April 14th, 2016

Poet and attorney Ken Chen earned his BA from the University of California, Berkeley and JD from Yale Law School. His debut collection of poetry, Juvenilia (2010), won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. The book traces the development of a poet from child to adulthood and is marked...