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An Argument for Counter-Monument Poetics—Part 1

David Shannon-Lier, "Reflection of the Rising Moon Over Our Home, Mesa, Arizona. 2014." Backyard with fluorescent tube light hanging from the sky.

The monument is a bridge to and away from itself.
—Fred Moten

In 1521, after converting hundreds to Christianity and claiming the Philippines as part of Spain, Ferdinand Magellan engaged in a battle with the Mactan tribe. Its leader, Datu Lápú-Lápú, had refused conversion and Spanish rule. Magellan burned a village in response. So there was a battle called the Battle of Mactan in what is now called Magellan Bay, where Magellan underestimated the depth of the shallow waters and was shot through with arrows by Mactan warriors. Lápú-Lápú kept the colonizer’s body despite offers of copper and iron. In 1866, almost a quarter of a millennium later, the Spanish Queen Isabella erected a memorial to Magellan just feet from the place of his death. Four large stone pillars bear an obelisk called the Magellan Shrine. Seventy-five years after the pillars and obelisk were erected, another shrine went up on the sands of the bay, just feet away—to Lápú-Lápú. The statue is over 60 feet tall and made of bronze, bearing a sundang sword and a shield. His back is to the Magellan Shrine, eyes looking out on the water. A plaque reads in English: “Here on 27 April 1521, Lapulapu and his men repulsed the Spanish invaders, killing their leader Ferdinand Magellan. Thus Lapulapu became the first Filipino to have repelled European aggression.” I find this sequence of events powerful for a few reasons—of course for the explicit disdain for and rejection of colonial oppression the statue and plaque evoke, but also because Magellan’s Shrine still stands behind the statue honoring the figure responsible for his death on the beach where that violent act took place centuries ago. As Viet Thanh Nguyen writes, “inhuman things have more purchase on the collective memory of the human species.” Yet those who erected the honorific statue to Lápú-Lápú felt it important to preserve the colonial history alongside the anti-colonial past and future. The statue was placed on the sand not long before Philippine emancipation from the United States.

There is a distinct and emerging trend within the poetry world that one might traditionally call “poetry of witness,” but bears an ethics I think of as a “counter-monument poetics.” This operates in the spirit of the Filipino builders of the monument to Lápú-Lápú, in that the poets build responsive monuments and memorials through writing, attempting to address the ways in which history and the past are not the same. This often operates within the world of documentary poetics and appropriation, but that is not a requirement. The original monument to which the poet responds can be as broad as a country’s historical record and as seemingly minute as a dynamic within a nuclear family. As Fred Moten states, “Monuments are meant to put us in mind of something.” So my hope is to make and consider writing that puts us in mind of the work the original monument is doing, what its builders were “putting us in mind” of. We learn narratives through media, education, and society from a very young age that often blot out the violence, oppression, and labor that is, for each and every one of us, our legacy as thoughtful artists in our modern era. Our environment often cultivates original monuments surrounding the most oppressive and painful elements of our society in such a way as to hinder our understanding of harmful societal structures. These societal structures can be expansive or intimate, their original monuments manifesting themselves as broader social issues or on a personal scale. Yet, no matter the size, the manifestation is often a representation of the whole—an abusive father can also inform our understanding of patriarchal oppression. 

My understanding of counter-monument poetics has been shaped by the writing of Tyehimba Jess and Robin Coste Lewis, in particular, for the reasons that will become clear as I discuss their work. After recognizing a counter-monument practice in their writing, I began to notice it in the work of others I was not able to include in this essay, such as Amy Berkowitz, Bhanu Kapil, M. NourbeSe Philip, and Alice Oswald, to name a few. I will begin by considering pieces by Craig Santos Perez and Layli Long Soldier, which demonstrate the stakes in this poetic practice (in their case with regards to governmental powers and historical oppression). Tyehimba Jess, John Pluecker, and Robin Coste Lewis’s work moves into slightly more personal counter-monument building, largely through their personal responses to literature, archive, and artifacts. The second section of this essay (to be published next week) will focus entirely on the work of Diana Khoi Nguyen whose writing considers a brother’s suicide, illustrating that counter-monument poetry can also operate in highly intimate modes.

As the witnesses of World War II and the survivors of polio die, so often too does our understanding of the practices that produced or curtailed these tragedies. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha asks, “Why resurrect it all now. From the Past. History, the old wound. The past emotions all over again. To confess to relive the same folly.” While there is a loud and understandable call to burn it all to ash—most recently and notably, in the US, regarding the Confederate monuments throughout the South—doing so allows a dangerous future where Americans can forget the legacy of our impulse to honor those who glorified and fought to maintain slavery in this country. We are in a time of epic forgetting, it seems: the legacy of Nazism, the value of vaccines. Cha answers her own question: “To name it now so as not to repeat history in oblivion. To extract each fragment by each fragment from the word from the image another word another image the reply that will not repeat history in oblivion.” So, while the role “witness” and “poetics of witness” may provoke frustration, my interest lies in writing that engages with witnessing as action and intervention. As Kalí Tal writes, “Witnessing is an aggressive act.” It is an act of aggression against those who stand to gain from our forgetting or missing things entirely. Here, these poets are creating a record and pointing our attention to that which we have forgotten—or never noticed.

Beyond Witnessing—Craig Santos Perez & Layli Long Soldier

The Chamoru poet of Guåhån/Gaum Craig Santos Perez writes on issues of forgetting explicitly in his poem “Detour of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument,” addressing a monument to the American soldiers based in Hawai‘i during World War II, Pearl Harbor. The monument is what one might expect. In the poem, Perez lists conditional possibilities if the million tourists who visit the monument annually instead learned Hawai‘ian tradition, history, as well as colonial impact and oppression on the land and people. “Would they recite every name on the Kū‘ē Petition?” Perez asks—recognizing the 21,000 Hawai‘ians who petitioned against the country’s annexation to the United States in 1897. This is an acknowledgment of resistance largely ignored in the United States’s historical narrative (it was new knowledge for this reader). The poem then shifts to the curators, what the monuments show:

                                                                What if
this monument of valor instead condemned violence?
What if national and state parks didn’t simply preserve
the myth of American innocence, but actually told
the truth about American empire?

Thus, while these original monuments—physical, societal, archival—continue to endure and define the narrative, counter-monument poetics must do the work, as Perez does here, to identify the “detour” these original monuments enact, what they “put us in mind of” so that we ignore the central facts: oppression, trauma, and who benefits. Narratives of history that are honored with memorials, or told again and again, often shield us from disturbing facts that might redefine our relationship with those narratives and their involved individuals.

Layli Long Soldier’s poem “38” considers the largest sanctioned execution in US history, ordered by the beloved Abraham Lincoln within the same week of the Emancipation Proclamation’s signing. In the poem Long Soldier embraces sparseness, writing, “I do not consider this a ‘creative piece’…I feel most responsible to the orderly sentence; conveyor of thought.” The poem begins with “Here, the sentence will be respected” and, throughout the poem, she shows how, exactly, she is adhering to the restrictive rules of grammar, pointing to the quieter work language does, constantly, building up monuments of a certain kind as we read and listen. As the poet M. NourbeSe Philip notes regarding language via hegemonic powers, “I distrust its order, which hides disorder.”

Early in the poem Long Soldier mentions the film Lincoln, its inclusion of the Emancipation Proclamation, its redaction of the Dakota 38—the 38 Dakota men Lincoln ordered hanged. This word—“hanged”—is where Long Soldier’s abiding by the rules of oppressive historical language begins to crack, explaining her need to shift from “hung” to “hanged” for capital punishment. The small, single word alone telling that story. Throughout the remainder of the poem, as she chronicles the US government’s actions of purchase and treaty that, through legal acrobatics, cinched the Dakota into a situation of starvation, Long Soldier employs counter-monument gestures in her grammar and diction. Scare quotes around “purchase,” parentheticals containing actual information standing beside the official take or language to make it clear, make it legible. “[I]n 1858, the northern portion was ceded (taken) and the southern portion was (conveniently) allotted,” she writes. The definition and correct spelling of Mnisota given, it filters in. “What remained of Dakota territory in Mnisota was dissolved (stolen)”; “the Dakota people of Mnisota were relocated (forced) onto reservations.” These words (“dissolved,” “relocated,” “ceded”), for those of us who took US history, are familiar. They obfuscate. In association with the American Indigenous population, they obstruct recognition of the brutality and its enactors.

“Memorials help us focus our memory on particular people or events,” Long Soldier writes. “Often, memorials come in the forms of plaques, statues, or gravestones. / The memorial for the Dakota 38 is not an object inscribed with words, but an act.” The words of historical texts have failed the Dakota 38 since prior to their murders, in the cultivation of events that lead to their starvation, precipitating the Sioux Uprising that gave Lincoln the “right” to execute those 38 men, dissolve (steal) their land, relocate (force) them elsewhere. Long Soldier’s poem is a counter-monument to those historical “facts,” employing the same linguistic tools with similar subversions that, when noticed, undercut the US government’s narrative of events.

She highlights the memorial act of the Dakota 38 + 2 Riders who conduct a “memorial horse ride” over 325 miles and 18 days in frigid Midwestern winters to annually recognize their murders. To memorialize them each year, so they aren’t forgotten. A clear protest of the US government’s interest in that forgetting. The memory embodied. Earlier in the piece, Long Soldier describes the circuitous work of treaties made, broken, remade, muddled, muddied, and her attempt to trace the “switchback trail” of documents. “Although I often feel lost on this trail,” she writes, “I know I am not alone.” There are of course many other poets alongside her noticing innumerable monuments built to figures and historical tales, the endurance of which disturbs them into creative production.

Retouching the Archive—Tyehimba Jess, John Pluecker, & Robin Coste Lewis

Perhaps one of the most perfect counter-monument poems is Tyehimba Jess’s “Pre-Face Berryman/Brown.” And by “perfect” I mean in its precise mathematics and physical manifestation. In the poem, Jess quotes a brief preamble from John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs which explains, “The poem then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early age, sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself.” Jess states in an interview,

It’s pretty much impossible to go through an MFA in the United States without hearing John Berryman’s name or at least having read one of his poems. Such as what happened to me when I went through my MFA…upon receiving these poems and upon understanding the fact that they were in this kind of minstrelized voice, I really did not know how to process my, I guess, disappointment—or my inability to be fully moved by his invocation of this black imaginary voice in his poems.

For Jess, part of the sticking point lies in that “I sought out as much critique as I could about his racialization of his voice in the Berryman poems, and I have not really found a whole heck of a lot.”

The racism of the text and, more important, the general lack of interest in interrogating that racism—the maintaining of the monument built to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Berryman—provoked Jess to create a poem that sets Berryman’s racism beside a persona poem in the voice of Henry “Box” Brown, the enslaved man who famously shipped himself to freedom in a box in 1849. The two voices meet in the middle of the page with a caesura running down the center, looking like an inkblot. Each is preserved and legible as separate statements, yet producing a new narrative when read together. You see Berryman’s racism, Henry “Box” Brown’s feeling, and what they can “mean,” newly, together. Jess gave each voice the same number of syllables per line—each figure meted out equal measure, literally, to say what he needed to say. Like Magellan’s Shrine and the Statue of Lápú-Lápú, they rest beside each other and, like these forms, the counter-monument shapes our comprehension of that which preceded it, gives it further context, sets the terms for our interaction with the knowledge the first monument previously determined by the monument’s builders and keepers. (This poem is in Jess’s collection Olio which, ironically, considering Berryman’s highest literary honor, also won the Pulitzer Prize, in 2016.)

The explanatory note for readers to understand the conceit and character in 77 Dream Songs—Berryman’s creating a figure who Jess describes as one who “uses a kind of imaginary minstrel voice in order to voice his own anxieties about being white, male, middle-age, and dealing with the various issues that he has to encounter in his life”—has gone largely untouched in the literary world with little consideration of the implications of blackface and the infinite losses minstrelsy represents, the specters of an enslaved population behind it. And if Henry “Box” Brown is famous for taking the narrative handed him and manipulating it to make it work in his favor (gaining freedom where it was next to impossible), Jess’s Brown operates similarly in the poem. Jess states his process for the Berryman/Henry “Box” Brown poem series involved adhering to the sounds and syllables Berryman used in the original pieces:

I took the exact sound—the vowel sounds of all these poems and I structured a narrative for Henry “Box” Brown following the line breaks, following the stanza breaks. So, it’s almost like trying to be a riddle in a riddle in a riddle. Or a voice in a voice in a voice. A mask in a mask in a mask. The question becomes who is wearing the mask? Because Berryman’s voice is being incorporated to tell Henry “Box” Brown’s voice, whereas Berryman had originally meant to co-opt or use this black minstrelized voice stalked by his own pain, now we have an opportunity for someone who was in the middle of the height of the minstrel show and trying to get himself free, and exercising his freedom that he had to scheme for in order to create a kind of new vistas of expression.

The strictures of the original text act as a means for communication of an alternative view. Seeing the box as a way out, rather than a cage or a coffin.

       named Henry      “Box” Brown. Ain’t
a White American     masking my truth: one day,
          in early age,     I delivered myself.

Jess takes Berryman’s words and carves a space for his own feeling, Henry “Box” Brown’s feeling, story, loss, while also making clear, by engaging with Berryman’s words themselves, that Berryman has no right to try to tell or use Black narrative:

                       sometimes      I ache
                                  in       my
                        blackface,      love for
           who has suffered…      those left behind.
           an irreversible loss      …Berryman can’t talk for them,

and talks about himself…     can’t tell my tale at all.

He simply “talks about himself…can’t tell [Brown’s] tale at all.” A self-involved fool. Jess illustrates this while building three poems—a lineated monument to Berryman as he remembers him, a counter-monument to Brown, and the dialog between them. He does all of this in just over 70 syllables.

There are of course alternative ways of contending with literature with which you are connected—in this case the images and words in an archive that can define your place. Jean-Louis Berlandier was a 19th century French botanist who traveled through Mexico and Texas taking samples, drawing, attempting to document the languages of 40-some American Indian tribes there. In his collection Ford Over, the poet and Texas-resident John Pluecker delves into the archive of Berlandier, takes some of Berlandier’s landscape drawings with figures moving through that space. Pluecker writes in a kind of afterword to the book:

[I]t is November 19, 1828. Juan Luis Berlandier sets out from San Antonio de Béjar with a company of men, both Spaniards and Comanche, to hunt in the lands to the northwest of the mission. Berlandier keeps a diary of the experience of walking through hills and valleys and gorges. In his Spanish, “gorges” is “gargantas” which is also “throats”; the land could also be flesh; bodies could also be dirt; experiences translated into text.

One landscape drawing shows paddle cacti dotting an expanse, scraggy trees, two small hills. A man is prone under the shade while another reaches out to lift him up. The poem below, “Vista,” is an ekphrastic piece in which Pluecker is able to rewrite the archive, to queer it in the literal and figurative sense—to consider Berlandier’s encounters as homoerotic encounters. For who is telling us otherwise? Pluecker writes:

Plains colleague,
you tumbled, trundled…

I desire to seethe you.
To sea you. Get up,
plus my desires augmented,
plus obstacles accrued
into our re-encounter,
wrong countrée.

Look, the indigènes.

The touching more than mere companionship—for Berlandier’s men touch often, in almost all of Berlandier’s pieces in Pluecker’s book. Pluecker focuses in on this touching in the poems, as well as visually on one early page, each moment of physical contact magnified and cropped, arranged together, illustrating their intimacy.

5 drawings from Juan Luis Berlandier, 1828. Men in the desert walking hand in hand.

While Berlandier attempts to show a specific aspect of his travels and documentation, by creating an archive of materials there lies an invitation for further inquiry and interpretation. Just as Berlandier attempted with the landscape, the indigenous people and their languages, here Pluecker takes the colonial body and makes it what he wants, interprets it through his own identity and knowledge—as colonizers have done for centuries.  Pluecker’s counter-monument poem makes Berlandier’s drawing undeniably queer to the viewer, impossible to view it otherwise after encountering Pluecker’s text.

Where the archive bears up confusion, unknowability, anger, Pluecker brings our attention to what we cannot know, builds a monument to that which will remain obscure, gives us the music of piecemeal knowledge, underscored by erasure, block text on blurry maps—showing the eye, the scanner lens, also has a limit to comprehension and clarity. As Pluecker writes, “We have made relations with a surfeit of languages, each one giving and taking away, intruding and recessing, insisting and withdrawing.” Pluecker proffers an alternative Berlandier we may soften toward, relate to, who perhaps bore a sexuality lost in the archive and time, his life of touching in the gaps.

While Pluecker’s interest lay in the archive of the landscape, Robin Coste Lewis’s collection Voyage of the Sable Venus investigates the legacy of art and objects and how they are catalogued. The titular poem in the collection enacts clear and incisive counter-monument poetics. Lewis illustrates how for millennia Black bodies have been portrayed in art and used in domestic objects throughout the Western world—illustrating the accretive impact and oppression this invariably has on the Black population. In an explanatory note before the poem itself, Lewis writes that the poem is “comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present.” These were unmodified, simply proffered with Lewis’s order and lineation.

The epigraph to “Catalog I: Ancient Greece & Ancient Rome” from Mahmoud Darwish reads, “Here is your name / said the woman / and vanished in the corridor.” The definition of identity sure, the source ephemeral—Lewis pursues that female figure, here. The first line of the poem— “Statuette of a Woman Reduced”—guides us to understanding we will scan a list of sources that cultivated and continue to cultivate a Black female stereotype to “reduce” her. The titles and descriptions that follow are Black female bodies in pieces, parts missing or exposed, holding domestic items, or those one might associate, nebulously, with “Africa.” Lewis ends the piece with,

Damaged Black Woman

Standing on Tiptoe
on One End of a Seesaw

While a Caricatured Figure Jumps
on the Other


As a “Damaged Black Woman,” the legacy of oppressive history is weighted against those who bear that identity—the caricature a weight to balance herself with or against. What consistently tries to launch her into the air. Later in the “Voyage of the Sable Venus” section, Lewis includes,

I sent you these few lines in order

To bring you up

On what has been

Happening to me

Here is the counter-monument to that ancient monument to Black caricature and damage, what we are witness to time and again in every trip to a museum holding artifacts, or encounter with a modern image informed by what those museums contain. Lewis marshals evidence together for us to understand “what has been // Happening” for a period of time so long it is difficult for us to comprehend. She preserves the original texts, shows us what they mean for us—all of us—now.

Originally Published: August 14th, 2018

Diana Arterian is the author of Playing Monster :: Seiche (1913 Press, 2017), the chapbooks With Lightness & Darkness and Other Brief Pieces (Essay Press, 2017) and Death Centos (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013), and coeditor of Among Margins: Critical & Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet, 2016). Her creative work has been recognized with fellowships from the Banff Centre,...