Friday, February 21, 2014

"Poems Exploding Like Bombs: Casagrande and Poetry's Public Spheres" / A Guest Posting by Marsha Bryant

Editor's Note: In the following guest posting, one of P&PC's all-time heroes—Marsha Bryant, Professor of English at the University of Florida and author of Women's Poetry and Popular Culture—shines a spotlight on the Chilean art collective Casagrande, which, for more than a decade now, has been dropping millions of poems on cities around the world. In a stark reversal of the World War II practice of bombing soldiers with propaganda poems, Casagrande's helicopters and "poem clouds" reclaim the air as a site and source of cross-cultural communication, wonder, and cultural memory—simultaneous acts, Bryant argues, of remembrance, intervention, and reinvention. Read on, dear reader, to discover what happens when poems fall from the sky.

W. H. Auden's birthday is a fitting day to mark how one of our most compelling occasional poets can be occasionally prophetic. Indeed, the most notorious line from Auden's "Spain"—"To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs"—uncannily predicted what is now the largest-scale poetry event in the world. Written in 1937 to raise money for Medical Aid for Spain, this poetry for populist culture remains the most famous poem in English on the Spanish Civil War.

Like most artists involved in what some called "a poet’s war," Auden supported the Republic. He submitted his page proofs two days before the bombing of Guernica (Gernika), and Faber published "Spain" in pamphlet form in May. [NB: Auden would later rename the poem "Spain 1937."] The image of exploding poets strikes some as insensitive (even gratuitous) given the deaths of Federico Garcia Lorca (by execution) and John Cornford (in battle) during the conflict. And in a post-Hiroshima as well as post-Guernica world, Auden's fusion of poetry and bombardment proves even more unsettling. Yet the poet's posted-forward scenes of youthful energies, crowds, and public spaces find new meanings in Chilean art collective Casagrande's "Bombing of Poems" project. In 2004, Casagrande dropped 100,000 poems by Basque and Chilean poets over Guernica. 

I was fortunate to meet Casagrande member Cristobal Bianchi when he visited the University of Florida this year. (The other members are Joaquin Prieto, Santiago Barcaza, and Julio Carrasco.) Bianchi's comments reflected poetry's vital role in reorienting art's space in the public sphere—including the atmosphere. The Bombing of Poems began at Santiago's La Moneda Palace, which Pinochet destroyed in 1973. Triggering and transforming this cultural memory, Casagrande dropped poems by 40 Chileans over the site in 2001. 

The collective chooses traditional and experi- mental poems with a direct style, giving contem- porary poets an aerial space and mass audience. Using a helicopter, Casagrande has flown over five other cities that endured aerial bombardment: Dubrovnik (2002), Guernica (2004), Warsaw (2009), Berlin (2010), and London (2012). For these locations Casagrande printed bookmarks with the work of poets from Chile and the host city, translating each into the other's language. 

Evoking and recoding cultural memories of war leafleting as they fall from the sky, these fluttering objects take on a freighted and transient form of terrible beauty. As Bianchi describes it, "the poems compose an image—a bright cloud—in the sky" (Los poemas component una imagen—una nube brillante—en el cielo). Casagrande is well aware that the spectacular nature of these events is rife with contradictions. There is a "provocation in the event that is symbolic, and not just peace. There is ambiguity, ambivalence," Bianchi explains. "For example," he says, "there is a conflict of the Bombing of Poems as a space of remembrance of aerial bombardment as such, but it also relates to the more convoluted controversies and questions lying behind the destruction of those urban spaces from sky." (La provocación del evento is simbólica, no is un proyecto sobre la paz. Hay una ambiguedad y ambivalencia. Por ejemplo, existe un conflicto entre el Bombardeo de Poemas como un espacio de recuerdo del bombardeo aéreo, pero también sobre las controversias y preguntan que descansan detrás de la destrucción de esos espacios urbanos desde el cielo.

Floodlights on the ground heighten this effect, illumi- nating the arriving helicopter and falling poems. The event takes about half an hour. In London, the event's official name was "Rain of Poems," reactivating memories of Blitz poetry such as Edith Sitwell'sStill Falls the Rain” (1941), which entangles deathly stasis and prophetic momentum. For H.D., another scanner of London's aerial bombardment, poetry was "indelibly stamped on the atmosphere somewhere"—and poetic words could "hatch butterflies" (The Walls Do Not Fall, 1942). In the atmosphere, Casagrande's poem-clouds sometimes seem like spectral butterflies as they rain on crowds of people gazing up in wonder and remembrance, with smiles and tears. 

Disrupting the economy of war by offering poems as gifts, Casagrande designs bookmarks with a graphic for the event on one side, and a poem paired with its translation on the other. Here (to the left) is a bookmark from the Berlin Bombing of Poems, and two from London's Rain of Poems (the third has a poem by Chilean Marcela Parra). These bookmarks are artworks, not commercial spaces; they are free from advertising and other forms of publicity. The bookmarks are also spaces that bridge linguistic, cultural, and generational divisions. I find that Rodrigo Rojas's poem from the Warsaw Bombing of Poems beautifully distills these dynamics: 
Dickinson ordena: Split the lark 
and you'll find the music. Abran 
a los pájaros y encontrarán su música. 
Pelen las alondras con agua caliente. 
Con navaja trocen, abran sus carozos, 
descascaren, calen a los mirlos, con cuchillo 
zapallero saquen una a una las pepas al zorzal, 
hiervan, muelan a los tordos, abran, 
partan a los pájaros y encontrarán la música. 

Dickinson orders: Split the lark
and you'll find the music. Open 
the birds and you will find their music. 
Peel the larks with hot water. 
With a razor cut them up, open their cobs. 
Peel, soak the blackbirds, with a pumpkin 
knife draw one by one the seeds from the robin, 
boil, grind the thrushes, open, 
split the birds and you will find the music. 

—translated by Carolyn Bradley 
Split across its Warsaw bookmark in Spanish and Polish forms, Rojas's poem widens across North and South America by generating from Emily Dickinson. In splitting these differences, "Dickinson ordena" re-fuses individual and communal meaning of lyric utterance through songbirds, bridging the reputedly private world of a poet-recluse with a large-scale public event. Moreover, the violent images of creative cooking explode safely-sealed containments of domestic space—and of writing and reading spaces. This poem means to be opened wide. For in its explosion over Poland, Rojas's poem becomes an act of fusion, fission, and frisson

Each recent Bombing of Poems leaves Spanish behind in places that have forgotten or never learned it. But no bookmarks are left behind. As you can see in CNN’s London footage, spectators gather all they can—sometimes stopping to exchange bookmarks or to read their poems aloud. Casagrande's Bombing of Poems project is an act of war remembrance; it is an act of intervention; and it is an act of reinvention. Bianchi points out that this kind of poetry explosion "triggers a resignification of the place, which is bombed in a different way" (gatilla una re-significación del lugar, el cual es bombardeado de un modo diferente). In my book Auden and Documentary in the 1930s, I discuss how Auden's "Spain" is a transportable text that brings future readers into its historical event—bridging the Spanish Civil War with crises of our own time. Casagrande shares Auden's sense of a troubled present and uncertain future, gathering us into our violent pasts and making us partners in renewing cultural memory. 

1. Auden's "Spain" pamphlet from Marsha Bryant's collection.
2. Bombing of Poems photographs and bookmarks courtesy of Casagrande
3. Rodrigo Rojas's "Dickinson ordena" reprinted courtesy of Rodrigo Rojas; translated by Carolyn Bradley.
4. English and Spanish versions of Cristobal Bianchi's remarks by Cristobal Bianchi.

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