Late Light

Tatyana in the Library; or, the Marginalia

for Kali Handelman

Fantasy, prediction, Pushkin, flats

…yes, Tatyana is still in the library, just where a glimpse of one paradise dissolves and another heaves into view, like a paper earth emerging from a pop-up book. Of course, she is still there, still tracing the marks in the margin. So, there is another world in this one. How to know that, really? Not the end of the world, but the world that won’t stop ending. And if you were going to write something real about it all instead of these asides in the gutter, if you were going to write something you could abandon at the point of abandon, it would begin with an epigraph, probably this one:

I intended to take up anything

Fantasy, prediction, Pushkin, flats.

—Lyn Hejinian1

There are so many ways of being dead to one another. For example, there is death. For example, there is the habit of contempt for another person or action or way of life, not quite the equivalent of having killed an opponent in a duel. Nonetheless, it smacks of finality.

Imagine you have taken a book out from the library and found in it, forgotten until the moment of reunion, a set of penciled annotations (guilty) in your own hand. The weight in your arms gives you another memory: years ago, when the annotations were fresh, a friend of yours had borrowed the book just after you returned it and immediately recognized the notes as yours. Call them the Rhapsodist, for the songs they stitched together and because they would have gotten the joke. “Like reading over your shoulder,” the Rhapsodist might have said to you in utter disgust, something like that. You won’t see them again on this earth, unless certain verdicts are overturned more easily than you think.

The rift over the marginalia of the fateful book might have been a harbinger. In the sequel, you and the Rhapsodist might have been divided by a debt, a petty betrayal, a lie, a callousness to some undeserving third-party, an impasse of desire or subject position or political commitment (incommensurate stances on universal healthcare, say, or the meaning of “neoliberalism”), a chronic illness, the untimely revelation of a secret, a great difference in fortune (one rising, one falling), even a matter of conscience or of God that required a definitive break from the life before. (When first they were sealed into their cells, medieval anchorites were consecrated by funeral chants, only to be reborn, like the enigmatic unicorn in the tapestry, into sacred captivity.) The cause, at any rate, is inconsolable, inconsolable and does not matter, except, perhaps, to those most intimately addressed on nights when sleep is particularly elusive.

The real version of these asides (which is to say the dream version) wouldn’t mention any of this once. The real version would be written in a language above language, like Hildegard von Bingen’s Lingua Ignota, an unheard music so exact it would cut a silhouette of negative space the precise shape of this anecdote of the Rhapsodist and the book and the break (or one very like it), and the reader would come away with as clear a picture of the exchange as if you had talked of nothing else. Such mercy is, of course, nonexistent. Unfairly eloquent, the unbearable so often expresses itself by saying nothing.

Somewhere in The Motion of Light in Water, Samuel R. Delany describes a musical piece made up of chords in which every note sounds except the ones in the melody, which the hearer discerns by listening for what’s missing. How much would I give to hear that music played? At twilight, I think, in a bandshell, late summer, for maximum sentiment—so the sound could evanesce into open air and melody’s negative emerge in hollow tracks laid down by a complementary orchestra of glow-worms. It would solve nothing, to thrum alongside the living lamps—beauty solves nothing—its thrones and dominations laugh at solution—but in beauty, sometimes, a suspension of the main burden: framing the problem ruthlessly, lucently, to the limits of the sufferable. That’s what you’re in for, anyway, if you go looking for the Rhapsodist in all this. I would advise against it.

The Rhapsodist would, too, having had an exquisite sense of musical form. No, the real thing is the dream thing. And here? No neat sonata form, exposition, development, recapitulation, resolution. There is only this—these marginal notes on marginal encounters, the kind by which paradise is lost and regained—or, no, not quite—the kind where paradise is its own understudy. It would be salutary to accept that and to stop tossing unsatisfying sweetmeats to your three-headed lust for the impossible.

Desunt nonnulla

. . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .

A query’s wandering hook

These notes will have to begin in the Romantic, though that’s not how they’ll end when they do. (I don’t know the end.) Begin with a specific kind of marginal encounter, memorial of a missed connection, in which the taste of paradise, even if only the fool’s paradise of the other. The missed connection dwells in the margins alongside paradise. They have a mighty affinity.

In a scene from Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel, Eugene Onegin, they are uneasy conspirators. Begun in exile in the 1820s after the poet’s flirtation with proto-Decembrist revolution, Onegin was completed and revised in the early 1830s. In a moment, seemingly marginal, Tatyana, Pushkin’s heroine, steals into Eugene Onegin’s library. We find her in the midst of consuming the absent hero’s books. There’s not much to choose from. Onegin has just fled the country after shooting and killing the poet Lensky in a duel of honor. (Pushkin would also die in the aftermath of a duel, though this is neither here nor there.) The selection of books is only what Onegin’s forgotten to gather up in his haste: a few fashionable novels and some Byron. Onegin is, in some ways, a long, passionate quarrel with mad, bad, dangerous-to-know Lord Byron.

Pushkin’s drafts tell a different story about the contents of Onegin’s library, which was originally meant to contain Hume, Robertson, Rousseau, Mably, Baron d’Holbach, Voltaire, Helvétius, Locke, Fontenelle, Diderot, La Motte, Horace, Cicero, Lucretius, Maturin’s Melmoth, Chateaubriand’s René, Constant’s Adolphe, and the novels of Sir Walter Scott.2 This omitted inventory might have offered Onegin and Tatyana a different kind of education, broader, perhaps, than the sparse matrix of poetry and fiction that made it into the verse novel, though not necessarily less poisonous.

Still, Onegin’s leavings, unfamiliar and fascinating, are the most contemporary literature Tatyana’s ever been exposed to, the intimation of another world that seems possible to her only through Eugene and her own newly discovered capacity for love. She goes to the margin. In Charles Johnston’s translation:

There many pages keep the impression

where a sharp nail has made a dent.

On these, with something like obsession,

the girl’s attentive eyes are bent.

Tatyana sees with trepidation

what kind of thought, what observation,
had drawn Eugene’s especial heed

and where he’d silently agreed.

Her eyes along the margin flitting

pursue his pencil. Everywhere

Onegin’s soul encountered there

declares itself in ways unwitting—

terse words or crosses in the book,

or else a query’s wandering hook.3

What really arrests Tatyana’s attention is Onegin’s marginalia. Through it, she thinks she can infer his reactions to the text, his sense of what’s important, what suspect. She can even tell, so it seems, the length of his manicure. Tatyana’s attraction to Eugene springs from what she’s been primed to believe about love from the European melodramas of the eighteenth century: Love happens at first sight, endures forever, is always ennobling and never abject—and to be intimate with a book someone has marked is like being intimate with that person, as if the trace of reading were any sure translator of interior life.

Many Romantic readers were trained in marginal annotation as the performance of taste or erudition, so it’s disingenuous to take the material signs of a reader’s presence as evidence of unmediated, spontaneous overflow of emotion, thought, interrogation, aesthetic response.4 Nonetheless, Pushkin’s heroine believes, with all the avarice of early passion, in the force of encounters on the page, in the union of souls and, though it goes unspoken, the union of bodies. What is it to become one of those sad and enviable creatures who begins to know herself capable of love?

For the young Tatyana, all knowledge is carnal knowledge. And the one for whom all knowledge is carnal, book or body, can never be out of her text. The first line of Aristotle’s Metaphysics: “All humans by nature desire to know.”5 To believe in a general appetite of nature! To believe that this appetite can remake some facet of the world, however minor. An education in realism is often confused with the process of becoming too wise to believe this. Tatyana does believe it. But maybe this unwisdom is, too, a form of accuracy. [T]his figure—loved with passion / wronged always in disgraceful fashion— / a soul of sympathy and grace, / and brains, and an attractive face.”6 She takes her desire to see as Eugene sees and to know what he knows as a natural imperative of her literary influences: predicates lifted from popular fiction but breathed into life by her meeting with Onegin.

The cast of her longing remembers the kind of troubadour poem called a blazon, which catalogues the characteristics of the beloved, and (usually) gives up eventually on the grounds that whatever is lovable in the beloved—almost always coded as a woman—exceeds any list of descriptors. Famous examples: Bembo’s “Crin d’oro crespo e d’ambra tersa e pura” and Campion’s “There Is a Garden in Her Face”:

There is a garden in her face
Where roses and white lilies grow;
A heav’nly paradise is that place
Wherein all pleasant fruits do flow.
There cherries grow which none may buy,
Till “Cherry ripe” themselves do cry.7

Contreblazons, which arose simultaneously with the first blazons, send up the conventions of the form. They exploit its allure and its obvious failures: Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “Vague Poem” (if one stretches a point), and Camille Guthrie’s “My Boyfriend”:

toes like blue glass marbles
nails like wax shavings
feet like those of an elephant   
heels like narrow escapes
soles like yellow sponges expanding in water   
legs like longitude and latitude   
knees like neon headlights
thighs like open desert in a movie   
hips like a leaping horse
a belly button like a luminescent watch   
pubic hair like frontier instances   
a penis like overnight mail
balls large as a boar-hound’s
seminal vesicles like tulip bulbs in a paper bag   
testicle muscles like rising chords8    

That’s the idea.

Tatyana can neither overcome her desire, nor divert it, yet, to other ends. Caught up in books, she composes a blazon of a kind. She writes the Eugene of her fantasies as a (verse) novel. It’s not the beloved that Tatyana’s daydreams reveal. Like a surface on which a magic lantern throws its rays, the beloved is a cipher brought to life with flickering images and literary tropes. As in the various figures of a contredanse, this light show can only move through charming, familiar figures and foregone conclusions. You see only what you have already seen, know only what you have already known, discover only what you secretly expected to find. Tautology is always a likely scenario when an unfamiliar experience outdistances your resources for describing it.

The substance of a person always exceeds the explanatory power of trope or genre. Pushkin’s poem knows this. There’s more in this marginal encounter than romantic projection, a naïve substitution of the body of the text for the body of the beloved. An odd reticence: that dream library an impalpable haunting, a vision of some other thing to which desire might have hooked its wicked, red cables. Pushkin doesn’t say exactly which of Eugene’s books Tatyana is reading—the omitted catalog of texts in his drafts hints at some deliberation in this choice. Nor does Pushkin lay out the content of Onegin’s marginalia, only Tatyana’s reaction to its existence. The form and the fact of the annotations—and Tatyana’s experience of them—matters more than any particular text or any particular observation Onegin might have made about it.

iv., v., vi.
Desunt nonnulla

. . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .

The whole sea and continent between us

When literature, when art withholds something, is that a strategy of realism? Not merely because in reality you don’t always get what you want—not merely that—but because in reality there is always the detail that refuses to correspond to a necessary, predetermined significance, the arbitrary abundance beyond the page. This world seems to go about its business out of reach of your limited sensorium, sailing calmly on, regardless of your ability to perceive it. Roland Barthes called the consequence of these “scandalous notations” the reality effect: The shimmer of description that resists absorption into functional meaning, “a kind of narrative luxury, lavish to the point of offering many “futile” details and thereby increasing the cost of narrative information.”9 The detail-in-excess blocks your ability to read extractively, chisel parsimony from proposition or utilitarian fact. This is one way of understanding how narrative information could become increasingly costly.

The scandalous notation also manufactures credulity. It says, lo! there is a whole world of men-behind-the-curtain pleading with you not to pay them any attention! Only in a plausible world—a world that seems real, vivacious, a world to which you are committed, perhaps in spite of your better judgement—only in a plausible world can there be a possibility of withholding. Only in a plausible world can there be a relation of object permanence—the sense that things exist beyond range of your sensorium. Only in a plausible world is there object permanence and so object constancy, the faculty of maintaining attachments to others across distance and troubled waters.

When the magician tells you she is hiding nothing, this statement may be the very honesty that allows the trick to work. I am hiding nothing, she says. What you see is what you get. And then we are astonished when the “what-you-get” turns out to be more or other than what we saw. This suspension of disbelief can also be produced by negative means. The magician may tell you—again, honestly—that she is hiding something only in order to reveal some other thing—plain as the cornel whorls of the Gordian knot—though the obvious mystery never gets solved. Effectively, there is no solution. We are meant to understand it as a trivial enigma.

Even that curious old bundle of perceptions, David Hume, remarked the abundance of persuasions to object permanence, the casual secrecies of open air. In A Treatise of Human Nature, he returns to his flame-lit chamber after an hour away to find the fire still burning and yet in a different condition from the one he left—more embers than raw wood, perhaps. A letter comes from a friend two-hundred leagues distant (Hume knows the handwriting) and the philosopher’s mind “spread[s] out … the whole sea and continent between us … supposing the effects and continued existence of posts and ferries, according to my Memory and observation.”10 (So We must meet apart— / You there—I—here— / With just the Door ajar…)11 In the scenarios Hume describes, the mind needs only the slimmest pretext to commit to the continuous reality of imperceptible or unrepresented objects.

For Hume, the faculty of memory is superior in vivacity to the faculty of pure imagination, so a cue from the material world is a welcome intensifier: a fire that has burned on or burned out in your absence, a letter in a hand you think you recognize. You might unfold a whole world, scandalously annotated, from the fuliginous powdered periwig of a cinder, an envelope that knows how to find you, your name written in an inimitable slant in a particular color of ink…

Redaction is its own form of witness

Onegin’s withheld marginalia is not alone among its scandalous notations. In the field of representation, it is frequently the most minimal thing on offer, sometimes a detail withheld, that sets the reality effect in motion. One of the verse novel’s most striking little scandals is its metaliterary peppering of partially and fully omitted or censored stanzas.

“Ellipsis” is a rhetorical figure whose effects recall its historical origins: It designates a zone of strategic omission. It shares its name with the orientational “dot dot dot” ( … ) that begins to catch on in the print culture of the late sixteenth century. Onegin is full of both kinds of ellipses.

Originally serialized from 1825 – 1832, the text of Onegin was shaped both by aggressive tsarist censorship and Pushkin’s editorial decisions about what to include in the codex editions of 1833 and 1837. The traces of absent things were often left to stand. (Redaction is its own form of witness.) For example, from Chapter 1:


 . . . . . . . . . . . 
. . . . . . . . . . . . 
. . . . . . . . . . . . 12

From Chapter 4:


 . . . . . . . . . . . 
. . . . . . . . . . . . 
. . . . . . . . . . . . 13

And from Chapter 8:


And with a smile the world caressed us:
what wings our first successes gave!
aged Derzhávin saw and blessed us
as he descended to the grave.
 . . . . . . . . . . . 
. . . . . . . . . . . . 
. . . . . . . . . . . . 14

Pushkin’s elisions work the trap of life under authoritarian surveillance; they also serve his own judgement. Onegin obscures or trails off when the poem threatens to become too autobiographically charged, as in the fragment above, which refers to Pushkin’s schoolboy encounter with a much-admired poet, Gavrila Derzhávin. In the poem, this ironic scene of torch-passing gutters out before it ends.15

Ellipsis, though, is also a strategy of the wider tradition of the Romantic fragment poem, which frequently resorts to the “internally finished fragment,” a work whose seeming incompletion doesn’t much get in the way of your ability (more or less) to read it.16 It’s still possible to have satisfying encounters with unconcluded works: The Canterbury Tales or The Faerie Queene, for example. And it’s possible with Onegin, too.

In the Romantic period, many works set out to be or make use of fragments. Schlegel: “Many of the works of the ancients have become fragments. Many modern works are fragments as soon as they are written.”17 Things change and don’t in the subliming, bathetic fires of history, which always places material pressure on that great abstraction, Form; Form, which usually turns out, in the final accounting, to know more of history than history knows of it. Audre Lorde: “Of all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper.”18

Although most of Onegin’s elided stanzas still exist in draft, the scars where these stanzas have been excised oblige the poem in their own way.19 Cenotaphs to a sense of the real, these ellipses mark how the story—and how the poem, a thing a little aside from story—could have been different. They are the trace of a counterfactual on which the imagination can seize. For every only, an if only…

The ellipses hide nothing. They are an incitement to fill in the blanks. They have the sly, poignant eloquence of so many nearly imperceptible things.

As the Kantian a prioris of time and space structure sensible intuition, as scattered asterisms are changed to constellations by the charming, glittering embarrassment of a pattern-finding impulse, so does the navigational apparatus of punctuation—associated of old with celestial mechanics—quietly orient written things: starry asterisk or the lunulae (little moons) of parenthesis.20 “Ellipsis,” from a Greek root, ἔλλειψις (“to come short”) is etymologically next door to “eclipse” (from ἔκλειψις, “to forsake its accustomed place, fail to appear”)…21 22

Under the umbrella of ellipsis, other figures shelter species of silence: The silence whose meaning is radically intransigent, the silence you can all too easily fill in for yourself. Just out of the rain, find pallid, passionate aposiopesis, who breaks—off—mid-sentence, trusting—rashly—to you, to meet the charge of what they will not or cannot say:

MERCUTIO: [ … ] This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes:
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage:
This is she—

ROMEO: Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
Thou talk’st of nothing.23

Thou talk’st of nothing. (To talk of nothing—comforting, Romeo[!]—is this the opposite of peace?). Aposiopesis (from ἀποσιώπησις, a keeping silent) persuades by breadcrumb.24 A blacked-out Freedom of Information Act request may contain little in the way of useful, particular information. Nonetheless, that mortal frustration tells a story.

(Redaction is its own form of witness.)

Ellipses whisper—elliptically, aposiopetically—of a distant object that is there regardless of whether it is there, a distant object to which you can extend your constancy, even if this object is merely a hypothetical course of action or thought. Pushkin’s ellipses suggest the density of Onegin’s world: rich enough, substantial enough that the version of Onegin’s story we have may not be the only possible version. Other stories might be unfolding just out of perception, stories that might have little or nothing to do with the one the verse novel actually gives.

That’s how the shadow of contingency feels when it passes over. Only in a real world is a hypothetical course of action truly possible and yet it is in the fixities of art (if not in these alone) that the hypothetical becomes imaginable. The unnecessary can be a strategy of the plausible. Is the plausible a strategy of the unnecessary? Desunt nonnulla… some things are missing…

More I had to say

… Desunt nonnulla … some things are missing … a marginal note appended by medieval scribes, early modern editors, and self-conscious eighteenth-century novelists to mark an absent original or portion of an original. Robert Herrick’s “The Apparition of His Mistresse Calling Him to Elizium. Desunt Nonnulla— —,” relates a tempting reverie of poet’s hubris. Called to Elysium—unearthly paradise—by a distant or dead or fictional inamorata, Herrick is invited to loll with his muse on fragrant slopes where, like an ornamental border on a page, “eternall May / Purfl[es] the margents” and “perpetual day / So double gilds the Aire, as that no night / Can ever rust th’Enamel of the light.”25 They listen, spell-bound in breezes of “Amber-greece and Gums,” as famous poets appear in pageant:

Homer recites the Odyssey and the Iliad for their pleasure and flattering Anacreon mouths Herrick to Herrick. Having limned these seductive visions, Herrick’s dream-lover evaporates at dawn, leaving him with the empty force of his ambition. She: “I vanish; more I had to say; But night determines here, Away.”26 The conversation and the scene of craving to belong to a poetic tradition—silly, intense— are curtailed. The poem memorializes an untimely disappearance: “more I had to say.” That is the desunt nonnulla, the rest that’s missing. The encounter inconcludes. The final rhyming couplet—“away” answers “say”—completes in the door prize of consonant sound what cannot be fulfilled in substance.

Just possible to read the real object of longing not as immortal, poetic fame—not that alone—but as the “more-I-had-to-say” itself. That kind of desire is very simple and very difficult: desire for a conversation continually renewed, one in which there is always more to say.

Imagine for example (this is irresponsible) that Herrick’s lover is real and asleep beside him as this visitation occurs, the apparition of her figment-likeness who says much but can’t stay to say it all. Remember, then, Proust’s Rachel, an actress of genius, after she and the dashing Robert Saint-Loup have fallen out of love. And yet, when he’s in Paris, she sometimes comes by in the witching hours to ask if she can lie down next to him until morning comes:

This was a great comfort to Robert, for it reminded him how intimately, after all, they had lived together, simply to see that even if he took the greater part of the bed for himself it did not in the least interfere with her sleep. He realised that she was more comfortable, lying close to his familiar body than she would have been elsewhere, that she felt herself by his side—even in an hotel—to be in a bedroom known of old in which one has one’s habits, in which one sleeps better. He felt his shoulders, his limbs, all of him, were for her, even when he was unduly restless from insomnia or thinking of the things he had to do, so entirely usual that they could not disturb her and that the perception of them added still further to her sense of repose.27

The fire is out but the bed is warm. In the all-I-had-to-say of it is an ember-blush, the kind that can still rise up, on occasion, between the living who can no longer really speak to one another except by the faint relation of familiar bodies that do not touch—as the gravitational pull of one planet influences the orbit of another across light years, viewless astronomical units. A person who sleeps in such a bed might well dream that their silent, companion planet recalled those other languages of intimacy, that there was, on both sides, a more-I-had-to-say at the end of every vanishing. As I said: irresponsible.

In ancient Rome, there were many customs of sanctioned memory, damnatio memoriae (a later coinage) among them. This practice entailed the politically motivated obliteration of all public records of a person’s existence—a name violently chiseled from a monument or rubbed into illegibility on the wax tablets used for legal documents. In the latter case, the marred wax always told that something had been changed, though not exactly what.28 A desunt nonnulla is an erasure that announces itself, a repression that might not return except as the mark of repression. (Redaction is its own form of witness.) Once, a Roman soldier in Germany dreamed of an imperial ghost who pleaded for his memory to be rescued from the injury of oblivion. Maybe there was more to say. (The nightmare of history is garrulous.) Night determines here. Later, the young man would become Pliny the Elder, yes, an historian.29

Fatrasies, babewyns, and subtil compassinges

“[L]asicvious apes, autophagic dragons, pot-bellied heads, harp-playing asses, arse-kissing priests … somersaulting jongleurs … ” or else “chimeras (fantastic forms combining human, animal and vegetable elements), comic devils, jugglers performing acrobatic tricks, masquerade figures, and parodical scenes, purely grotesque carnivalesque themes … ” otters, mice, butterflies, cats, blemyae (who bear their eyes in their chests), cynocephali (the dog-headed), sciapods (with a single large foot that grows from the body like a stalk)… Medieval marginalia’s earthy surfeits are often found in the borders of Christianity’s holy books, the sacred pressed up against the profane.

Mikhail Bakhtin: “[I]n medieval art a strict dividing line is drawn between the pious and the grotesque; they exist side by side but never merge.”30 And yet, this refusal to merge the cavorting simian with the psalm did not weigh, strictly, with medieval readers as flight into heated fantasy or sinister grotesque, even though later receivers, Romantic and modern, often classed medieval marginalia under these headings. Fatrasies (a word for trash and also for a kind of doggerel verse consisting of “communications that are impossible despite the comprehensibility of each linguistic unit”) or babewyns (loosely, “babooneries” or “monkey-business”) would have been more familiar monikers for the grinning gargoyles, simians, and hybrid beasts that so often met the eye of a fourteenth-century lady at her psalter.31 (Chaucer at the House of Fame: “many subtil compassinges, / Babewynnes and pynacles, / Ymageries and tabernacles[.]”)32 Profane marginalia in sacred texts dramatized a mode of life in which the holy and the unhallowed kept such close company that even in prayer a laughing, frightening reminder of earthly interest shaped the form of devotion: the demarcations of daily life, local boundaries between forest and habitation, body and world, human and non-human, free and unfree, women and men, the enclosure of marginal wyldernesse for grazing, tilling, mining, and other forms of extraction, mappae mundi (world maps) drawn up on the centripetal model.

Mappae mundi—Jerusalem at the center, the rest of the world unfurling in a circle around the fixed navel of the city—sometimes pictured the creatures of earth growing stranger and more deviant the further they lived from the holy city, from the pivot of oecumene, the known or inhabited lands (oecumene, descended of οἶκος, the Greek for “house”).33 The makers of these maps expressed medieval Christianity’s fears of the people, flora, and fauna of the peripheral zones of the world it was carving into its own likeness. On one hand, the self-designated center painted aberrations from the more perfect beings in the core of things, monsters in the flanges at the end of panoptic God’s implacable vision.34 On the other, the people of the oecumene often counted themselves among the monsters. This sense of marginal decline was also inward-looking. In the Middle Ages, Christian humanity did not generally understand itself as the architect of a flourishing world arranged for its own comfort and sustenance but as “the last ageing dregs of a falling-off of humanity, the dissipated end of a Golden Age eagerly awaiting the Last Judgement.”35 Fallen and falling-off, the people of this world were marginal to themselves, the antic babewyns, cavorting from verso to recto at the edges of the salvageable.

Often, the same maps, more centrifugal than centripetal, represent the earthly paradise of the Garden of Eden at some distant limit of the oecumene, in the margins of the world. The provinces of prodigies and monsters were also the territories of marvels and miracles, extremes of an imaginary. By the late fifteenth century, the more-I-had-to-say of Eden vanishes entirely from these maps.

Cartographers had other means and other ends. Theologians no longer believed in the Garden as a late survival of heaven on earth.36 (At the round earth’s imagined corners…)37 The Garden-in-the-margins of the mappa mundi is the residue of the last moment when a certain form of life was capable of locating paradise somewhere on the earth, however faraway and well-guarded, receding, always, from the habitable quarters of sea and solid ground. (Other forms of life may yet have—do have, will have—resources for placing paradise in this world rather than in another.) The margins of the codex are weakly analogous to those of the mappa mundi, where the comic indignities of the known world kiss the sacred forms and pleasure refuses to side with the devils or the angels. The name of “Eden” has long been associated with the Hebrew for “pleasure” or delight.”

A Nahuatl adaptation of one of the Franciscan tales of Mesoamerica’s colonial period relates how Saint Amaro, who could not speak of earthly paradise in any language, was moved by furious silence and, setting out across a sea like blood, voyaged to Eden in its fastness, dogged by chords of celestial harps or the beat of Amerindian drums. He passed through many walls, concentric: walls of gold, jade, turquoise, the dawn, walls of emerald, coral, cotinga, quetzal plumes, rubies, snow, rainbows, crystal. And then it was transparent there. The angel at the gate denied Amaro entry but allowed him a little time to linger at the portcullis—mercy or cruelty(?)—feast his eyes on blonde fruit illumined from within, glistering streams of the well-watered place that looked, for all the world, like Aztec lands before the conquest: eachblossom, Tree of Comfort, Tree of Sweet Love, growing things all, precious things all, the water that carries everything, forbidden fruit—a xocotl or hog plum (no apple; very bitter). To Amaro, it seemed he stayed only a little fermata—tamales in his pack still fresh and fragrant—the gaze’s appetite could not have surfeit of the garden. While he gawked, over two and a half centuries passed in the world he had known. And so he returned a stranger, then: to dust.

Was he wise enough to weep, this strange Amaro (well named)? Amaro, a name of insecure etymology, possibly from amargura: “unlucky,” “disappointed,” “bitter.”38 And it is bitter—a trial for the patience of saint—to find Eden at the ends of the earth, to find the garden locked against you, to find you must lose it, to find that a sliver of paradise has cost you the world you know. The last point at which it is possible to imagine paradise on earth, before it slides off the margins into the immaterial, is itself a marginal position. There, the margin opens onto a form of imagination, utopian desire, twisted, always, by the damage particular to the moment. To be of the margin is a historical condition tied to the problems of the map. Marginality is also a state of mind that comes of that condition: to feel yourself on the verge of resigning Eden in the here-and-now, moment of ἔκλειψις (eclipse or abandonment).

They show you what kind of corner you’ve backed yourself into, margins, there at the edge of things, in good and terrible company, staring down a fatrasie: each element sensible in itself, the whole a tissue of nonsense. Oh, don’t, please—it’s only the story that’s been telling you, after all, which is not to say it’s the only one to be told for everyone, forever. Here, have my handkerchief, wise-enough-to-weep. A fatrasie is not a fatalism.


Marginalia: word like a brass fanfare, a trrrrrill, rare species of flowering plant, undulation turning to tour en l’air, ornate echo, in the suffix, of the zones of the body Milton called “mysterious parts”: marks in the margins of a text, whether writing or drawing or the accidents of abstraction. Latin and Old French in origin, “marginalia” owes its defining sense to its root in “margin,” a noun that, by the late thirteenth century, had made its English debut as the name for a wall, the bank of a stream or any littoral region, a rim or a territorial border, the edge of a piece of cloth, the limits of the body (as in natural history), or the empty space circumscribing a writing tablet or the page of a book.39 As the production and circulation of books changes, the word “margin” seems to become more intimately linked to written things and their materials—maps, of course, and also the codex with its customs of signature and page, its play of blankness and text. Marginalia often evokes bookishness even when the margin in question is something other than a book’s. Herrick’s poem of Elysium, for instance, describes how eternal May “purfl[es]”—ornaments with an embellished border—“the margents” of the green meadows in the poets’ paradise. The poem wants the analogy of text to blossomy sward and goes to the margin to achieve it, there where the aspiring triflers crack foxy at ambition’s edge.

You know the score much better than I do: There are things we won’t be given. Not much to be done about that: The handbooks on how to kill desire, let alone necessity, are either imprecise, ineffective, and temporary—or else precise, effective, permanent, and unbearable. Eden is slithering off your mappa mundi! This may feel more true than it is. Nonetheless, I am sorry for it.

State the position clearly: ordinary, self-conscious, non-teleological longing. You know what you want. You have cathected. The object is vivid, lucent, tempting, flirtatious: a hog plum, Sappho’s apple (or the other one), a human relation, a promise of repair, a stay of execution, a state of affairs, or a whole world more justly arranged. You have just come into the full sense that there is no hope of having it, each element sensible, the whole a tissue of nonsense. You lack, as yet, a theory of detachment or recuperation. That absurd hand of yours, you notice, stupid with surprise, still stretches up, up, out, out towards the fast-vanishing glint. Dear life of the margin, you are involved, contingent with the prospect of some other existence, unready or unable to reach for the something-else, the more-to-say. Contingency comes from a word for touch.40 Paradise declines to lose you.

So: purfle the margents. If you can’t have it and you still want it, name it, at the very least; more, make of your predicament an acrobatics, a form of laughter, a sugar subtlety to set off the bitter medicine like a jewel in a rich case, not hidden but heightened by contrast. Decorate, elaborate, ironize, own up in the pale of the page where love without hope has lived a long time (not yet resigned to a life without luxury) and sometimes gets on more cheerfully than is commonly admitted. This, at least, you can have, a queerer consummation. It’s not second-rate!

Even so, for someone else, there may yet be other possibilities, a new trap to work, at least, if you can leave behind the right signposts, if you can mark with herm or cairn or arrow the place where the potentials of one form of life have been exhausted and a new one has yet to come into its peculiar legibility. “The impasse is a space of time lived without a narrative genre.”41 Caveat: A purfling is not a politics. It may make a sufficient politics imaginable, but that is another question.

In the “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the novel speeds from the antebellum to the postbellum of the First World War. Its eye is on a vacant summer house and occasionally news of the world sifts in, marked in interrupting brackets. One of those devastating sets—so often they hold in frame the news of a death—reminds you of the poet, Augustus Carmichael: “[Mr. Carmichael brought out a volume of poems that spring, which had an unexpected success. The war, people said, had revived their interest in poetry.]”42 Ghostlily, ghostlily, the fingers of the little airs rifle through the empty house, overspilling with life in the novel’s first part, and never will you read a single one of Carmichael’s poems, which Woolf declined to write for him, and so they stay ideal, abstract, almost readable, letter in a sealed envelope held up to a chancy candle, extreme of utopia, elegy to elegy, experimental treatment not yet sufficiently proved on the pulses: it might be medicine to someone, someday, but not now, and not for you, and not at any price.

Desunt nonnulla

. . . . . . . . . . . . . 
. . . . . . . . . . . . 
. . . . . . . . . . . . 

The obsolescence of oracles

For now, at least, you can still go, in some idle, despairing impasse, to the reading room at the central branch of the New York Public Library, the Rose. The Rhapsodist, whom you still miss when the wind’s in the right corner, used to come here almost every day. Nod to Patience and Fortitude, climb the marble staircase of the people’s palace to the French formal garden of gleaming, lacquered tables and sentinel lamps in the Beaux-Arts reading room, look up, up and count stalactite chandeliers (eighteen!!!), pendant from a foam of clouds, candycurd, like Jordan almonds, set in dragée coat of lacunaria.43 Why kid yourself? You know who you’re looking for. Go—and if you like—request from the patient librarians book after book they might have put their hand to—and their mark—half-hoping, half-fearing an unheard melody will drift up from the margin.

The Rhapsodist projected, romanticized, mythologized: places, persons, things, experiences. About this tendency, at least, they were honest and made no excuses. Had you understood, before, the logic of romance? Had you been, before them, capable of romance? No. This faculty remains, in you uninstinctive and unskilled but possible, nonetheless, in unexpected fits, a rudimentary memorial. Well, you could come to hate the person who taught you that lesson, as you can come to hate anyone who makes you aware of a specific way you are merely one-among-others, possessed of the full complement of ambivalent, human talents: a vulnerability to people, a dependence on them, a weapon you can’t seem to put down, a bezoar of ambition, blood, or lust (like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust). You could come to hate them; you could also come to love them. People are not books but may, sometimes, be like books, pharmakon, poison-cure. How strange. On the other hand, who was more potent in scorn than they were? You may be more interesting, they used to say, when you are capable of contempt. Still, you can go to the place now, if you want to…

…so, so, so, in honor of the Rhapsodist, a little rhapsody:

     Under that painted sky out of myth,
watch the patrons play legend to legend.
     There—two women,
breath mingling in the air
     over the volume that they share,
Francesca and Paolo
     just before the whirlwind.
And next to them, the rumpled man
     behind the lectern,
directing patrons hither-thither,
     weary Minos at his shift.
Elsewhere, it’s more
     Elysium and Olympus than Inferno—
Demeter wreathed in Marley twists
     and beads of mint reads softly
to a small Persephone
     who, overcome by great uprush of love,
bites her mother’s hand
     as if the sweetness could be tasted
          at the source.
Parched Thamyris signs for water,
     inspiration, and his cane.
Hoarding up a precious corner,
     Damon camps with Pythias,
each absorbed in his pursuit.
     Over neat affair of screens,
they catch each other’s eyes
     and can’t help laughing,
punctuate the moment
     with a gust of Mandarin.
Eurydice is working circulation
     there with Chiron and the Graeae—
the Fates and Furies somewhere down below—
     and ageing Orpheus, tenore contraltino,
weary unto death,
     an unbent paperclip in hand,
carves a furtive nothing
     on the undersurface
of a lyre-backed chair
     and thinks that no one sees.
From chandelier to chandelier,
     a starling(!) wings,
     knowing, as invasive species
sometimes do, the hour for a silent syrinx.
     If they were there, they would be Pan.
     There is no Pan,
who needs no place
     to lay his head.
Plutarch says the sailor says,
     the Great God Pan is44

A modish second-hand edition

…meanwhile, Tatyana’s in the library, stealing a glimpse of paradise in the margins. But an erotics of the margin might not be particularly satisfying. Carnal knowledge, even achieved, is not always very revealing in other respects. The genre of one life is coming to an end; the conventions of the new life are still unsure. So much depends on the marginalia. The marked books in the hero’s library bear signs of his tactile engagement with language. They anticipate how Eugene, reluctantly and later—far too late—will learn to requite Tatyana’s obsession. To forget her, he tries to lose himself in literature. Instead, he can only search, in between the lines, for traces of how Tatyana might react to his reading.

Pushkin’s narrator asks: what’s happened here?

Though his eyes were reading, 

his thoughts were on a distant goal:
 desires and dreams and griefs were breeding 

and swarming in his inmost soul.

Between the lines of text as printed,

his mind’s eye focused on the hinted purport of other lines; intense

was his absorption in their sense.

Legends and mystical traditions,

drawn from a dim, warm-hearted past,
 dreams of inconsequential cast,

rumours and threats and premonitions, 
long, lively tales from wonderland,

or letters in a young girl’s hand.45

It’s a perfect reversal of Tatyana’s reading. There in the library, her experience of Eugene’s annotations is the beginning of the end of her romantic projection. His answering vision of her hypothetical marginalia only intensifies his desire. (The emptier ever dancing in the air, /The other down, unseen and full of water)46 They are out of time to one another, run on a delay, as in an immersive theater production in which pervasive music cues the actors to a new movement in the cycle and a befuddled wanderer is left stranded in the clutch of scenes just past.

Even if people, so mysterious and inconsistent, came (as some books do) with annotations, a seductive paratext would still fall short of a transparent explanation of another mind, let alone a viable rule of engagement. This is one of the first and hardest lessons for any chump who admires and/or is apt to be ensorcelled by a certain kind of criticism.

Marginal annotations are bound to the primary text and they stand apart from it. They may be spontaneous and intimate. They are also performances of spontaneity and intimacy. They may signal, honestly, the private experience of the reader. Just as often, they may give the lie. In the margin, you can be enspelled—it is also the place, sometimes, at least, where you begin to be unspelled or prey to a different enchantment.

Eugene has begun to imagine Tatyana’s interiority, as she, in the library, imagined his. If his ultimate assessment of her is too lavish, Tatyana’s final judgment of Eugene might be too harsh. Or is it? After Onegin murders Lensky, the heroine wises up—at least, at last. She realizes how much Eugene’s self-fashioning owes to the trendy, anti-heroic posturing he’s picked up from reading Byron badly:

And so, at last, feature by feature,

Tanya begins to understand

more thoroughly, thank God, the creature for whom her passion has been planned

by fate’s decree: this freakish stranger,
who walks with sorrow, and with danger,
whether from heaven or from hell,

this angel, this proud devil, tell,

what is he? Just an apparition,

a shadow, null and meaningless,

a Muscovite in Harold’s dress,

a modish second-hand edition,

a glossary of smart argot…

a parody, an empty show? 47

She’s still thinking in the Manichaean vocabulary of melodrama and folklore (“angel”/ “proud devil”). But now she knows Onegin’s genre, which is to say the terms of his relationship to literature: he is definitionally, helplessly, irrevocably, a “modish second-hand edition,” made of books.

So many of us are made of books but not of the same books or in the same ways. Eugene is made of books and will never be more than made of books. He is made of books down to his unusual surname, which has the damp ring of the waters of the northern Onega, and his tropic given name, a rhyme for the Russian word “rainy” and a standard appellation, in Pushkin’s day, for aristocratic rascals and monks in theatrical comedies.48 Onegin is “a Muscovite in Harold’s dress.” The relevant literary specter is Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The jaded young hero of this poem is Eugene’s bad ideal. Onegin’s compulsion to conform to narrative expectation is what causes him to go through with the horridly mismanaged duel with Lensky, despite being offered multiple opportunities to escape it. Eugene kills the callow poetaster because the necessary fate of the Byronic hero—so far as Onegin understands it, which isn’t very deeply—is to accept a challenge and to execute.

Better to live a life of allegorical significance in which experience and wary cynicism kill off the sentimental modes of youth than to buck narrative convention (without which, quo vadis?). Better to become a murderer of poets (no matter how derivative) than to live with those parts of yourself that are vulnerable to uncharted feeling in that precious and extravagant way. In slow time, the significance of Eugene’s marginalia changes for Tatyana. It promises a chance to become more than her literary referents—the kind of reader who senses that the available narrative equipment need not always equate with the arc of a life, that there may be other forms of getting on—and telling how we get on.

Her options are still, of course, deeply constrained. (Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.)49 How to narrate the life you are in if not by the devices of the twice-told tale? How to understand your own life or else—questions of scale—a form of life in which you are involved as it becomes woven into history? How to decide the impossible question of other people when it is given to you to decide?

Nonetheless, a glimmer, here, of a different way of living and relating to literature and people alike. You can learn to see where genre comes unbound. This lesson is not without its tragedy. To exceed your literary referents is also to refuse the known categories, the rules of the game the others are playing, to risk illegibility.

“My Pushkin! My Pushkin!”

And if you find yourself in a game that won’t have you as you are? If you begin from the risk of the illegible? How to work the received shapes of literature, which can so often convince you that they are the exactly the same narrative possibilities for the shape of a life? Narratives of ordinary crisis exert an immense pressure: They say life must conform to these known arcs or else it is no life, unsayable in the form of a story already familiar and so unrecognizable as life. When experience exceeds narrative convention, the problem is not a lack of material but the sensitivity of genre to that material, which may burn through its case like hot mercury through an alembic. How to go on from the place where life is always promising, threatening, to bloom into an allegory that no longer suffices? This is the zone between paradises—well—between visions of paradise, between panels, in the margin, in the gutter. Are there stars? A correction or redaction in an unknown hand?

In that gutter: another motive of marginalia, which is not necessarily neutral or affirmative, which might confront the straitened possibilities for what qualifies as the text proper. Marks in the margin can be critique: Corrections, transformations, censorship, drawing over, writing through. A library book, festooned with marginalia, is changed for subsequent lenders. Who can say how?

Always, for instance, there is the matter of Pushkin’s Blackness, which sometimes lives in the margins of his myth as Fount of Russian literature—and sometimes in its very heart. Pushkin’s Blackness flickers into and out of view, accentuated or muted according to the speaker and the moment and the motive. There are times when Pushkin is white (whiteness is historical). There are times when he is neither white nor Black. There are times when he is African. There are times when he is Brown. There are times when he is Jewish. There are times when his cosmopolitan quality matters more than any particular component that goes to make it. Still, Pushkin’s Blackness—juddering question mark that flickers in between the lines of his poetry and sometimes right there on the face of things, in his portraits or the contours of his death mask, which have fed any number of insalubrious obsessions with what can be read in the bones.

Claiming Pushkin for this or that or the other is an old game, sometimes with high stakes. His poetry does not come to us unread of history. It is inextricable from the cultural myth—or the cult—of Pushkin. At times his Blackness is a strained metaphor for Russianness as a kind of supervenient aspic in which different kinds of people can be suspended, held together harmoniously without loss of distinction: a justification for empire.50

At other times, Pushkin’s Blackness is an incitement to revolutionary transformation. Then again, it is a lure to reactionary retrenchment. Or else it is a figure for utopian recuperation, utopian desire, and perhaps even the form of utopian desire called poetry. Always, it tracks fluxions of racialization, ethnicity, nationalism, the hope or the specter of transnational solidarity, and the uses of poetry. Always, it is overdetermined.

Claims about Pushkin’s Blackness usually reveal more about the claimants than they do about Pushkin himself. So, choose a strand of the web to tug: What’s unearthed if the story of Pushkin’s Blackness, whatever else it is, is also a log of loitering in the margins, where some kind of paradise, less scarred by bitter use, might still swim up to greet you?

In 1705, the Russian envoy to Istanbul transported and enslaved a young boy of African birth (the particular point of origin in Africa has been fiercely debated). They took him from the Turkish seraglio to the court of Peter the Great. He was to become the Tsar’s amanuensis and godson and soon his name was Abram Petrovich and later he called himself Gannibal to rhyme with the famous general of Carthage. He was to learn of mathematics and fireworks and military engineering in France and fight battles and be wounded in them and rise by war and pursuit of empire and outlive the Tsar and be exiled to Siberia and make an ill-fated marriage and then another, less so, and be swollen with aristocracy, and acquire estates and serfs. There were the children, too, who had their own children and these children had children, too, and one of them, born in 1799, would become the poet Alexander Pushkin, who, had he been born in the same year across the world in the United States, would have been considered, legally speaking, an “octoroon”: enslaveable and barred from literacy by law.51

Details of Gannibal’s life are obscure, partly because they come from interested parties: from court records full of social and political intrigue—and from Pushkin himself, who began and abandoned a colorful romance of his great-grandfather’s life called The Blackamoor of Peter the Great. Pushkin meditated throughout his life on the question of his Blackness and his African inheritance, albeit without really distinguishing among the multiple cultures and regions that make up the continent. Most notorious might be a passage from the first book of Eugene Onegin in the voice of Pushkin’s narrator, through the narrator is not, of course, the poet himself. It is easy to make excuses on this account. Ventriloquism is a kind of excuse:

It’s time to drop astern the shape
of the dull shores of my disfavour,
and there, beneath your noonday sky,
my Africa, where waves break high,
to mourn for Russia’s gloomy savour,
land where I learned to love and weep,
land where my heart is buried deep. 52

“My Africa.” Whose possessive is it, that “My”? Is it Pushkin’s?

He was a Russian aristocrat from a serf-holding family who allied himself, via letter, with his “brother Negroes” in slaveholding America. He was a poet. He fought duels. Once, he assembled an ambivalent lexicon of words for Black people.53 Many of his referents for Africa and Blackness were literary or legendary. He made a point of remembering Gannibal, his forebear. Also, he was not allowed to forget. His contemporaries attributed his appearance, his wild temperament, and his great intellect to his African heritage.

After Pushkin’s death, his immediate canonizers strove to forget his Africanness and his Blackness alike in order to claim him as a basis for cultural greatness, the grounds for belonging to—exceeding, even—the whiteness of Europe. “Scientific” western European theories of race had traveled east to demand purity as a condition of Romantic national belonging. And then there were the wars against dark-skinned adversaries in the Caucasus.

Later, the official Pushkin would be African enough or else Black enough (only sometimes both together) to make an ideological case for pre-Revolutionary Russian imperialism: the right to subject and absorb foreign polities because by means of this subjection, the conquered might be ennobled, as Gannibal had been, or, like his great-grandchild, ennobled to the condition of poetry. Soviet Russia, in its own imperial mode, would borrow this Pushkin for the sake of political convenience.

This is not to say that deployments of the official myth of Pushkin were always cynical (sometimes their sincerity is what terrifies) or always reactionary. In the period immediately following the Russian Revolution, Pushkin’s Blackness becomes a touchstone for a utopian impulse that might resist the structures of oppression. This dissident Pushkin, unevenly available in all the historical noise, sometimes surfaces at the most unexpected borders between one version of the world and its others.

Black presence in Russia goes back and back and back: to Gannibal, to the waves of African people transported and sold north and east, over the Red Sea or the Indian Ocean or the Sahara, to African American sailors of the nineteenth century, to the vogue among aristocratic Russians, beginning in the late seventeenth century, for Black servants as symbols of status.

A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince, Written by Herself (1856), depicts the existence of an African American domestic servant to Russian aristocracy. Prince’s optimisms are also ironies: “[T]here was no prejudice against color[,]” Prince writes of a courtly scene, “there were all castes, and the people of all nations, each in their place.” She follows this vision of social order with the observation that “[t]he number of colored men that filled this station [of service to the imperial family] was twenty; when one dies, the number is immediately made up.” It is an awful perfection. Prince, born in 1799, was an exact contemporary of Alexander Pushkin. (What, if anything, would they have had to say to one another had they met?) She survives the great flood of St. Petersburg in 1824 (Pushkin describes this rise of the Neva in The Bronze Horseman) and the quelling of the Decembrist Revolt by Nicholas I in 1825. Of the latter, Prince remarks that its “scene[s] of violence cannot be described,” though she attempts it: mangled bodies thrown into the river, crushed bones, public burnings, floggings meted out to men and women alike, and exile to Siberia, “a mode of banishment … very imposing and very heart-rending, severing [the banished] from all dear relatives and friends, for they are never permitted to take their children.” Exile and separation are among her great preoccupations. The scene of violence that cannot be described might well be that of the peculiar institution in the country of her birth.

She goes on to note of serfdom that it is a class of slaves, “very degraded … the rich own the poor, but they are not suffered to separate families or sell them off the soil.”54 Prince’s memoir—also a document of abolition—demands comparisons between serfdom and American chattel slavery, in which forced separations were an entrenched strategy of domination, though she never makes the analogy in so many words.. Withholding: A strategy of realism.

“Black Woman in Russia,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s memoir of her 1982 trip to the Soviet Union as part of the Sixth Annual Soviet-American Writer’s Conference, sometimes thinks of Pushkin and his Blackness. It certainly remembers, in general terms, the history of African Americans invited to travel to the Soviet Union—W.E.B. Du Bois (intellectual, activist); Langston Hughes and Claude McKay (poets of the Harlem Renaissance); Laurence O. Alberga, Sylvia Garner, Mildred Jones, Juanita Lewis, Thurston McNairy, Wayland Rudd, Dorothy West, and Estelle Winwood (filmmakers, agricultural workers, students, and singers, among other things); William L. Patterson (activist), Paul Robeson (singer, activist, actor).55

Although “Black Woman in Russia” evokes these precedents, its title summons up, directly, Homer Smith’s memoir, Black Man in Red Russia (1964). Smith recalls his time modernizing the Moscow Post Office in the 1930s and fulfilling his métier as a foreign correspondent for African American periodicals, Crisis and the Chicago Defender among them

Drawn by the promise of radical transnational social transformation, Smith oscillated between optimism about the Soviet experiment and despair at Stalinist purges. He grieved the austerities of daily life, many of which were spared him as a guest of the state. By October, 1946, when he left for Ethiopia with his Russian spouse, he had settled on one of the more profound varieties of ambivalence. Smith’s autobiography observes the Soviet appeal to potential African American allies through Pushkin’s Blackness, by which they painted the image (if not quite the reality) of a society that had transcended racism. Smith’s fellow travelers—Hughes, Patterson, and Robeson—also note the turn to Pushkin as a figure for the possibilities of Black accomplishment and communist solidarity throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the poet’s African lineage mobilized against the operations of white supremacy in the United States and the rise of Nazism in Europe. Later Soviet regimes would make much of this version of Pushkin in order to attract students and political sympathy from African nations.56

Meanwhile, Brooks, Chicagoan poet, recounts a carefully circumscribed tour of official life and literary culture early in the last decade of the U.S.S.R.—1982—months before the death of Leonid Brezhnev, latest in a line of disappointing leaders. (Leadership is formally disappointing). Among the other American luminaries is Susan Sontag, “statuesque dark Jewish beauty … determinedly intellectual,” as Brooks describes her, and also an appalling fellow traveler. Sontag, the indefatigable, was simultaneously a provocateur of great energy, a survivor, in the early eighties, of the ravages of a first round of cancer, and soon to offer public witness of the virulent human cost of the AIDS epidemic. She was capable both of lucid insight and also of speaking with spontaneous force and eloquence from her worst blindspots. Between the poet and the public intellectual, there would be little common ground.

Brooks’s quiet wit achieves an Augustan froideur as she skewers her companion of the road’s pretensions. She relates how “sitting behind Susan on the whizzing Intourist bus,” she listens as Sontag lists each Russian writer she’s read and in how many translations.57 They visit Babi Yar, the ravine where, in September of 1941, German soldiers massacred the Jews of Kyiv, almost thirty-four thousand in number according to more recent estimates. (Brooks’s memoir almost triples this figure.) Moved, the poet thinks of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s 1961 poem, “Babi Yar”: “Over Babi Yar, there are no memorials.”58 By 1982, Babi Yar was, unlike the Gulag, the atrocity the state-sponsored tour could acknowledge, its perpetrators not Soviet but German. Brooks does not record Sontag’s response to that “arranged green with a look of deceitful peace.”59

Later, on the threshold of a palace (chancy ground), the poet recounts how Freda Lurye, editor of the Soviet magazine Foreign Literature, renews her “relentless” question: “What Does it Mean To Be Black?” Sontag, whose “back had been listening,” swoops in to answer and Brooks rebuffs the intervention. She notes Sontag’s response:

Susan is screaming. My outrageous fancy that I know more about Being Black than she knows has pushed her to wild-eyed frenzy […] Finally she utters an unforgettable sentence—which I can report exactly, because I wrote it down immediately: “I TURN MY BACK ON YOU.” And she does. She carries out this awesome threat. She turns her back upon me, with a gr-r-eat shake of her bottom to appall me.

Brooks, l’ésprit de l’escalier, with aplomb: “I am ass—uredly impressed.”60

The writers play to packed houses all through the circuit. Brooks notes the “serious appreciation of poetry,” a more powerful public discourse in the late twentieth-century Soviet context than in the American one.61 And all the while, Lurye’s question, “What Does It Mean To Be Black?”—and Black in Russia—vibrates through Brooks’s account, revealing shapes of whiteness. “No one else here feels any reason to cite Blackness,” the poet remarks,

because on the Soviet side there is very little association with Blacks. Soviets see very few. And on the American side there is as little association with Blacks as can comfortably be managed, although there is great opportunity in the United States of America, where there are many many many many many MANY Blacks. Well, all of you must understand that the planet is swarming with dark people.

The “you” is directed at the Soviet writers and the American, who must understand that the planet is “swarming with dark people” who do not wish to be other than they are (who do not wish to be white). Over the course of the tour, they sometimes meet each other surprisingly well, these writers. It is difficult and it is awkward. More often, they fail one another in the inertia of, retrospectively, predictable arcs of power and identity.

These dramas of miscommunication, sometimes a comedy, are deeply conditioned by the tenor of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1982—dregs of the corrupt and stagnant Brezhnev era—an attenuation of utopian longing become a bitter cynicism. The writers’ tour, in Brooks’s telling, is an odd mixture of hollow propaganda and the real crusts and thorns of a dream of bread and roses. Everyone knows some essential promise has failed. No one can claim to know what, if anything, might take its place. Almost everyone (Brooks is sometimes an exception) is invested in pretending as if they aren’t high and dry in the margin, jammed between tenable visions of the other worlds in this one.

Those hungry for utopia must, of necessity, take an interest in ruins and in how the utopian impulse comes to ruin. Those obsessed by ruins ignore, at their peril, the utopia they have eaten. (Walter Benjamin: “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.”62 ) In the autopsy of the ruin of a utopian impulse, the imagination worked to the point of failure, revival may be preserved in possibility. Where but the margin, to record in faint monuments the cancelled futures?63

These are the worlds that fail to arrive, traces of earthly paradise—imperfect but possible, possible because imperfect. They will not be restricted to the margins of the map. They inhere in imaginative potential because of what is already present, already with us, because of what the material has in it, however uncertain of access, however unevenly distributed. (In paradise, will there be marginal utility?) Despite everything, the given world (your favorite tragedy). Despite everything, the given world (your favorite comedy)

The critical history of race exposes how things could have been different—and so often different and better. Does it take on a particular irony in the gaps between one paradise-desire and another? Brooks’s concluding mockery of Sontag, a lapidarian parenthesis, makes tragicomedy of the rude vibrancy of poetry in the Soviet Union at this juncture of political tension and exhausted desire for difference. Here, again, is Pushkin:

(Forgot to record that, in a Leningrad park, we saw a famous statue of the highly respected Black poet Alexander Pushkin. Susan Sontag got as close as she could, spread her arms wide and shrieked “My Pushkin! My Pushkin!” I wish I had a picture of that.)64

Brooks folds the spectacle of this encounter with Pushkin’s ghost in parentheses, as if it were incidental, marginal. Some strange power in this purfling. For one thing, it suggests Brooks’s own debts as a poet, both to Pushkin and the tradition of the verse novel, which remembers earlier forms of epic and mock epic.65

In her way, Brooks, too, claims Pushkin, though her method is more understated than Sontag’s insistent “My Pushkin, My Pushkin” (an echo of the title of Marina Tsvetaeva’s 1937 autobiographical work, My Pushkin). Parenthesis sets this anecdote apart, a mere attendant lord, the revenge of memoir and recollection’s privilege, shards of utopia, recuperation just missed. The poet does have a picture of that: her Pushkin. Mirabile dictu!

Onegin stanzas, almost

And in the library: Tatyana
lays finger to his fingerprints,
the house burns down and, flora, fauna
roam the ruins and have, long since—
the girl can’t spare a glance for them—
she’s centuries at each margin-hem,
alert for any sign of passage
of paradise’s quick embassage,
insensible to flood and famine,
the baking taiga, chronicles
of bright, indifferent aureoles
of meteor showers, shoaling salmon
distant low of caribou
Tatyana’s in the library

(And Tatyana, c’est nous.)

She knows that human suffering stays,
begins to know (slow study aches)
her part in longer works and days,
unfinished dreams, the night’s earthquakes,
unquiet sleep, whose guest she is
(but not alone), at last there’s this.
The strike succeeds, the train’s delayed,
the social fabric’s badly frayed.
They shoot them by the silver falls,
the virus claims another clade,
and moss coats our Tatyana’s braid.
Suddenly, a planet calls—
haloed in its golden chaff
look up, my dear!—Tatyana laughs!

How the garden goes

Someday, perhaps, someone will have the wit to turn it all into an opera, which is what ought to happen to all stories too true and marvelous and painful and funny to be borne when they are mere history. Mere history is made of sleepy, unhistoric acts, the less-wrongs-but-still-not-rights, the failures of imagination, the anti-anti-utopianisms, the outlandish things. A margin is always outlandish, land’s end, the chaos between genres, unstoried. It’s the pale you could be beyond, though if you say you are, my dear, you lie. Marginalia—marks in the margin—may be, then, a form of trial run, not paradise itself, but (here on earth, always here on earth) its pale hypotheses.

(Anne Boyer: “We brave our errors in thought for the possibility that to see their demonstration will allow others to get toward rightness … the collective project of being alive in the common world, that one’s own end and the end to one’s work and one’s love is not the end of what is right or good. What needs to go on will.”66 )

The Rhapsodist always loved the opera, remember, even (perversely) on rush tickets and an obstructed view, which, honestly, it always was. I let myself imagine it once a year. Everything will turn on a scene in the Amaro sequence, to be sung in Nahuatl, con tenerezza riluttante. Strange Amaro (well-named)! He’ll be cast against type—a spieltenor, so he has a touch of the sad clown about him, Pierrot at the gates of paradise, Orpheus in Hades. The angel will be a contralto. All angels are contraltos, really, and look just as Klee painted them, with parchment scrolls for hair and a lion’s muzzle and eyes on either side of their heads like horses and birds and fish. The part of Paradise will be played by your latest paradise.

You’ll have one of those moments of drawing back from the music, too aware of your critical faculties, of the person—this one—there beside you—the balcony too dark to see how it strikes them, though perhaps you’ll have heard a few telling hitches in the Rhapsodist’s breath, a suppressed sound of derision, maybe, or sensed a betraying hand clinging too tightly to a velvet armrest.

So go to work, Reason, dash together some clever remark you’ll make to them when it’s over, to show you have understood the spectacle better than it understands itself, that you haven’t yet met the art that could get the better of you, because in that moment you are the kind of idiot who can’t see that it might be more humane to be had for a song—sadder-but-wiser, wise-enough-to-weep—easy mark who should have spotted the blute or the cackle-bladder or the green-goods racket long before the close of the confidence game. Calculating body, go and dredge up a footnote to the last line of Paradise Lost, which remarks that the Garden of Paradise is in the land of Eden—but that the land of Eden exceeds the Garden of Paradise, surrounds it in vague geography of rivers as margin to text, so that to leave thee, Paradise, the flowers that never will in other climate grow, is not to be quit of Eden, not yet. Surely there’s a joke in that…

And then—oh, then—look there—the apron—the pilgrim turns his gaze from the Garden on a sostenuto cry. The angel’s contralto lays down its fiat, chorus welling up beneath, systole, diastole. This is how the Garden goes—winched up into the flies on the golden chain from the Iliad that rivets heaven to earth—all that god crammed back into the machine. Amaro—there—bare stage, ruined of all orchards, his pack of tamales half-forgotten at his side—fermata—holds that last note of paradise in such stupid ecstasy that Reason quits searching for the form of the joke. Inane vibrato fizzes downalongdownalong every nerve and you’re in it again—the long con of art—faithful, against every motion of the will, to the trailing vine of a Paradise-plant that hasn’t quite vanished above the proscenium. It will not cede the edge of the universe. It makes margins of molehills.

That’s it. You’ve forgotten yourself. Good.

A stranger passes. Strange Amaro asks a question—ragged recitative—agrodolce’s the dynamic—anything would be now—asks not where he is (he knows where he is, Amaro)—but when. Stranger answers. Only Amaro hears—centuries pass anyway—for you, too, idiot—and then he laughs, Amaro—here on earth—falls into the stranger’s arms and laughs—minor to major—FIN.

Turn to the Rhapsodist and say it—oh, did you see…?—the seat is empty (centuries pass anyway)—just a faded, velvet cup—more we had to say—but never mind—high above, the vine still quivers in the wind from Paradise.

A fermata

Do you know how it ends now? I know how it begins to end. (Life goes on.)

The popular fame of the seventeenth-century mathematician and jurist Pierre de Fermat, inasmuch as he has any, rests on his innovations in number theory, the rudiments of infinitesimal calculus, and a marginal note inscribed in his copy of Diophantus of Alexandria’s Arithmetica. Much of Diophantus has been lost to history. Fermat himself had about him a touch of the recalcitrance of time: he refused, during his life, to publish, for reasons now obscure.

Posthumously printed, Fermat’s Last Theorem, a marginal note to problem eight in Book II of the Arithmetica, remarks in Latin that “it is impossible for a cube to be written as a sum of two cubes or a fourth power to be written as a sum of two fourth powers or, in general, for any number which is a power greater than the second to be written as a sum of two like powers. I have a truly marvelous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.”67 The proof itself is considered by some mathematicians to be significant as a statement of formal symmetry. By other measures, the theorem matters more as a spur to the development of new fields and methods in mathematics, including the wilds of algebraic number theory and the eventual proof of the Modularity Theorem, which states that “all rational elliptic curves arise from modular forms.”68 Mathematicians have been attempting to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem since its initial publication by Fermat’s son Samuel, though it was the expert opinion of some, over time, that Fermat’s “marvelous demonstration” may have been delusive or nervous braggadocio (for an audience of one?) or a sphinx without a secret.

     Sophie Germain tried Fermat
       early in the nineteenth century
         and made a happy failure of a life in primes.
In the nineteenth century’s prime,
     Gabriel Lamé’s happy failure
       in his factors owed itself
         to Sophie Germain.
     Ernst Kummer sought a happy failure, too,
       and liked a prime,
         and met the ideal numbers in their youth
     and needed Germain, Lamé, both,
     for his adventure.
Louis Mordell made a happy failure
     of nontrivial conjectures;
       his faults were answered later by a Falting’s theorem,
         deep in debt to Germain, Lamé, Mordell,
     Adleman, Heath-Brown, and Fouvry
        made a happy failure of infinitely many primes.
         Happy failures, all in primes,
      to Taniyama and Shimura,
     to Frey and Serre and Ribet,
       and to Diamond, Conrad, Taylor, Breuil, in debt
     to Germain, Lamé, Kummer and Mordell,
     Falting, Adleman, Heath-Brown,
         and Fouvry and the rest.
Laurels to the happy failure, Andrew Wiles,
     whose happy failure
        could not credit what he’d done
         —at last—
and walked abroad
         and then returned to see
       if the solution was still there
     above his desk.
Tamales in his pack,
         still fresh and fragrant,
         though three centuries and more
had passed since that first marvel
     scribbled in the seam of Arithmetica, the margin still too narrow to contain—

Fermat’s last theorem, scored to a fermata—
     while she was in the library
       for what seemed like forever
         but was not—
though everything was changed
     and even time, forgotten,
       wore an unfamiliar face
         and had to teach her “Now”—
    out of Paradise (in Eden yet)—
         or in its books—
           or never—


Desunt nonnulla

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  1. 1.   From Oxota: A Short Russian Novel (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2019), 250.
  2. 2.   Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, translated by Charles Johnston, edited by Michael Basker (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003), 7.XXII, 250n.
  3. 3.   Pushkin, 7.XXIII, 157.
  4. 4.   See H. J. Jackson, Romantic Readers: The Evidence of Marginalia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).
  5. 5.   Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book I, translated by W.D. Ros, accessed September 9, 2019,
  6. 6.   Pushkin, 3.XI, 62.
  7. 7.   Thomas Campion, “There Is a Garden in Her Face,” Poetry Foundation, accessed September 9, 2019,
  8. 8.   Guthrie, “My Boyfriend,” Poetry Foundation, accessed September 9, 2019,
  9. 9.   Barthes, The Rustle of Language, translated by Richard Howard (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), 141.
  10. 10.   Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (London, 1739; Project Gutenberg, 2002), Part IV, Sect. II., “Of Scepticism with Regard to the Senses,”
  11. 11.   Emily Dickinson, “640,” The Complete Poems of Emiy Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, (New York: Little Brown and Company, 1961), 317.
  12. 12.   Pushkin, 11.
  13. 13.   Pushkin, 81.
  14. 14.   Pushkin, 175.
  15. 15.   Pushkin, 8.II, 254n.
  16. 16.   Marjorie Levinson’s phrase, The Romantic Fragment Poem: A Critique of a Form (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 19.
  17. 17.   Friedrich Schlegel, Lucinde and the Fragments, translated by Peter Firchow (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), 164.
  18. 18.   Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984), 116.
  19. 19.   Pushkin, 1.IX, 208n.
  20. 20.   Anne Toner, Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 12.
  21. 21.   Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “ellipse,” accessed October 10, 2019; OED, “ellipsis,” accessed October 10, 2019,; and OED “eclipse” accessed October 10, 2019,
  22. 22.   Toner, 25.
  23. 23.   William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene IV, accessed October 10, 2019,
  24. 24.   OED, “aposiopesis,” accessed October 10, 2019,
  25. 25.   “Robert Herrick,” The Poetry Foundation, accessed October 10, 2019,
  26. 26.   Herrick, The Poems of Robert Herrick (London: Grant Richards, 1902), 198-200.
  27. 27.   Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol. 3, The Guermantes Way, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff et al. (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 477.
  28. 28.   Harriet I. Flower, The Art of Forgetting: Disgrace and Oblivion in Roman Political Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), xxii.
  29. 29.   Pliny the Younger, The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice (London: Penguin Classics, 2003).
  30. 30.   Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, translated by Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2009), 9 and 96.
  31. 31.   Camille, 12-13.
  32. 32.   Chaucer, “The House of Fame” in The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed., edited by Larry D. Benson et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 362.
  33. 33.   Camille, 14-16.
  34. 34.   Piero Camporesi, The Incorruptible Flesh: Bodily Mutation and Mortification in Religion and Folklore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 79.
  35. 35.   Camille, 53.
  36. 36.   Alessandro Scafi, Maps of Paradise (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 104.
  37. 37.   John Donne, “At the round earth’s imagined corners (Divine Meditations 7), John Donne: The Complete English Poems, edited by A.J. Smith (London: Penguin Books, 1971/96), 311.
  38. 38.   Serge Gruzinski, The Mestizo Mind: The Intellectual Dynamics of Colonization and Globalization (New York: Routledge, 2002), 154; Louise M. Burkhart, “The Voyage of Saint Amaro: A Spanish Legend in Nahuatl Literature,” Colonial Latin American Review 4, no. 1 (1995): 29-57.
  39. 39.   OED, “margin,” accessed October 10, 2019,; and OED, “marginalia,” accessed October 10, 2019,
  40. 40.   For more on contingency’s touching qualities, especially the relationship between touch and history, see Liane Carlson’s Contingency and the Limits of History: How Touch Shapes Experience and Meaning (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).
  41. 41.   Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 199.
  42. 42.   Woolf, To the Lighthouse (Boston: Harcourt, 1990), 134.
  43. 43.   As I revised this writing, first drafted in 2019, in April of 2021, the NYPL Central Branch was closed to visitors as the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on. It drags on still—December, 2021, as I type these words. But the library is open. We make our lives livable (or not) from the stuff of the present.
  44. 44.   Plutarch, Moralia, vol. 5, “The Obsolescence of Oracles,” translated by Frank Cole Babbitt (Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1989), 402-419.
  45. 45.   Pushkin, 8.XXXVI., 194
  46. 46.   William Shakespeare, Richard II, Act IV, Scene I, accessed December 16, 2021,
  47. 47.   Pushkin 7.XXIV, 136.
  48. 48.   Pushkin, 1.II.9, 206n.
  49. 49.   Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, translated by E. F. N. Jephcott (New York: Verso, 2020), 39.
  50. 50.   As Ajay Singh Chaudhary reminds me, Western media of the Cold War often spoke of the Soviets as a faction in an “Asiatic horde” together with East Asian actors, including China, Korea, and others—an “Asiatic horde” with modern weapons.
  51. 51.   Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy and Ludmilla A. Trigos, “Was Pushkin Black and Does It Matter?,” in Under the Sky of My Africa: Alexander Pushkin and Blackness, edited by Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy et al. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2006), 3-8.
  52. 52.   Pushkin 1.L, 30.
  53. 53.   Theimer Nepomnyashchy and Trigos, 15-6.
  54. 54.   Nancy Prince, A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince, Written by Herself (self-published, 1850), 31-38.
  55. 55.   Joy Gleason Carew, Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011), 115-116. See also Alison Blakely, Russia and the Negro: Blacks in Russian History and Thought (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1986); and Kate A. Baldwin, Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters Between Black and Red, 1922-1963 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002).
  56. 56.   Theimer Nepomnyashchy and Trigos, 25-26.
  57. 57.   Gwendolyn Brooks, Report from Part Two (Chicago: Third World Press, 1996), 63.
  58. 58.   Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Selected Poems, translated by Peter Levi and Robin Milner-Gulland (London: Penguin Classics, 2008), 82-4.
  59. 59.   Brooks, 62.
  60. 60.   Brooks, 64.
  61. 61.   Although poetry is understood as a comparatively “weak” or “useless” or “marginal” discourse (not always pejoratives) in contemporary, American discourse, this model does not hold true for many cultures, in which poetry has a more prominent role in social and political life. While poetry was “waning” in the mid- to late twentieth-century Anglophone United States (or white, Anglophone, primarily academic poets and readers feared it was waning), it remained a pervasive, visible, and contentious element of mass education and public culture elsewhere, including many places in the Global South and behind the Iron Curtain. The U.S.S.R., Iran, and China are particularly pertinent here.
  62. 62.   Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, translated by John Osborne (New York: Verso, 2009), 178.
  63. 63.   Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Winchester: Zero Books, 2013).
  64. 64.   Brooks, 73.
  65. 65.   Onegin works with elements of both, as does Brooks’s poem The Anniad, which puns on The Aeneid, casting a young, Black woman—“Whom the higher gods forgot, / Whom the lower gods berate”—in the role of the epic hero. Brooks limns her heroine’s fate in units of a complex, original stanza form composed of septets and a variant of rhyme royal and, in this way, subverts a poetics strongly associated with Chaucer and Spenser. See Blacks (Chicago: Third World Press, 2001), 97 – 139.
  66. 66.   Boyer, “Tender Theory,” The Poetry Foundation, accessed December 16, 2021,
  67. 67.   Harold M. Edwards, Fermat’s Last Theorem: A Genetic Introduction to Algebraic Number Theory (New York: Springer, 2000), 1-2.
  68. 68.   Fred Diamond and Jerry Shurman, A First Course in Modular Forms (New York: Springer, 2007), xi.
Rebecca Ariel Porte (Ph.D., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) is a member of the Core Faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, where she teaches a spectrum of courses in literature, philosophy, and theory across centuries, cultures, and canons. She is currently at work on a book about paradise, Arcadia, and the Golden Age.