Re- View #3: 100 Days
Juliane Okot Bitek, University of Alberta Press, 2016
No Small Effort, Joseph Dorazio, Aldrich Press, 2015
Finality of the Morning, Miki Fukuda, Baseline Press, 2016
Jami Macarty & Nicholas Hauck
Advisory Board & Editors
Jami Macarty: I’d like to start by saying, it’s been thrilling to receive books—like presents from the Muse—to read and consider for this feature. Though a sustained conversation didn’t emerge from two other books we considered, this in no way diminishes my appreciation or mutes my applause. Bravos all around.
To: Joseph Dorazio’s No Small Effort, whose poems I relish for their wit, music, and subject matter, especially what I’ll call the “animal” poems (pages 21-26), e.g. “Pterodactyl” and “Rhinoceros,” two favorites—that consider Darwinian evolution.
To: Miki Fukuda’s Finality of the Morning, a beautifully made, limited edition chapbook whose 14 poems, with highly charged line breaks, contemplate the fairy tale promise happily ever after and perpetuated misconceptions and disillusionment as inherited from matrilineal and societal lines. Through poems that evoke Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and Hansel & Gretel, Fukuda explores different versions of and choices within the tales, ones in which author, more than character, has foreground agency.
Onward to: Juliane Okot Bitek’s powerful and arresting debut collection 100 Days. The title, readers come to learn, refers to the period of time from April 6th, 1994 to July 16th, 1994 when members of the Hutu ethnic majority in the east African nation of Rwanda murdered as many as 800,000 people, mostly of the Tutsi minority—The Rwandan Genocide. I’ve been bracing myself for our conversation about this book, asking myself how we will talk about the collection of poems and their art while also honoring their subject. A tight rope. Together may we create a balancing pole, keep our heads up, and step lightly and respectfully...
Nicholas Hauck: Yes, thanks for mentioning this. There is so much I want to say about the art that when I first started reading and taking notes I sometimes let the subject slip from my attention. I feel that it would be very difficult to talk about this book in a standard review as monologue, alone… and I’m glad I don’t have to. One way to keep each other balanced, as you say, is to start by talking about how 100 Days questions time’s structure and language’s possibilities—the way we remember and talk about what happened—while addressing a matter of grave importance to all humanity, as genocide is. First, I want to talk about the ambiguousness of time within the poems and how this challenges memory and the responsibilities of witness, victim, perpetrator, and also reader. I’m unsure how time is working throughout the book. My uncertainty lead me to questions: Whose time is this? Whose memory/ies? What should (or shouldn’t) memory account for? The way the book opens these questions is one of its strengths, what makes it so compelling. The sequence of the poems—beginning with the 100th day and ending on the 1st—is a linearity in reverse, a countdown to, what—an origin? A place before memory? Maybe a desire for forgetting that can only be realized through remembering and telling? In the poem, “Day 95” time has already been betrayed, because:
Time they taught us was linear & exact
a series of beats
a line extending from the beginning of things…
Time’s structures become lived memories in the poem, “Day 84”:
moments that are sometimes piled up
on top of each other
moments that sometimes lay side by side
Here time sheds its abstractness, becomes lived, embodied, and even redeemed, artistically speaking, as mnemonic poem. 100 Days seems to be asking: as concrete testimony, can language account for what is remembered (or forgotten)? In “Day 55,” language choice artfully complicates concrete notions of embodiment:
...our lives became both
endless & immediate
one moment you were alive
& the next gone...
Then in the poem, “Day 29”:
Time is a curve
so long that it seems to be a straight line...
Okot Bitek explores the stakes of storytelling, witnessing, and claims of innocence.
As the poems work themselves back to the origin of the first day, time confuses itself, is misrecognized. I get the sense then of a stance the book takes: memory is accurate as long as it abstains from overarching claims to truth. Given the subject of 100 Days—the Rwandan Genocide—history’s unreliability questions memory’s ability, as Okot Bitek explores the stakes of storytelling, witnessing, and claims of innocence. Memory elaborates its own confusion, weaving among the personal past, the intimate present, collective recollection, and human responsibility. How do you see time, memory, language working in these poems and what do you think the poems are saying about our obligation to storytelling?
Jami: What a question! Balance check. OK, I’ll start by addressing time within the poems. The structure of the book has me thinking about some of time’s movements—backward, forward, linear, circular. The poems in 100 Days seem to start backward, in the near past, closest to what’s already happened. That is, all 100 of the poems take place after what is most feared has taken place. But, which “afterward” are we reading… I’m not sure the poems work themselves backward to an origin, but I’m intrigued that you do. What origin? Time’s? To April 7, 1994 when the Rwandan genocide began? Did it begin then or before then? As the line in “Day 76” states:
who’s to say when the first of a hundred days began
The poems are testimony to an unendingness of genocide.
I might add: who’s to say when it ended? The poems are testimony to an unendingness of genocide. Reverberations not to be silenced in our lifetimes. That’s part of the heft survivors carry, their responsibilities both involuntary and assumed. The treatment of time, the backward counting, in the poems, points to, is suggestive of, and converses with the (re)experience of trauma. Counting implies a level of compulsion and anxiety. Backward counting, at least in this work, is conscious and conscientious representation of the meaning and meaninglessness of time and memory in relation to trauma and its causes and consequences. The things that most matter can’t be undone; letters, words, poems, and feelings merely scratch the surface.
If we were to go back
to the time before these hundred days
we couldn’t return without knowing
what was to come
how could we
if we were to swear off
that we couldn’t return to these days
I don’t know that we could...
What does/can backward do? The events of life and of the poems are irreversible. What is? So, what’s the reversal attempting? To trace? To undo? Maybe some of both. Somehow, mysteriously, “backward” creates hope. Which is to say something about the future and the human condition of persistence, even hope in the face of suffering and inevitable demise.
it is now twenty years
after a hundred days
that we did not plan on living through...
The treatment of time is also about the act of telling the story/ies—and how subject, form, and content are revealed, as in “Day 16”:
...we recited these details
over & over
we marked our steps
we marked the cadences into a rhythm...
In the poems/book, time becomes a construct, something that can be willed into the reverse. This is only possible in the poems’ print. The genocide cannot, of course, be reversed. With that, the poems ask, even force, me to look in a different way. Instead of either or, the poems try to get at an in between-ness where, as in the poem, “Day 72”:
...we are squeezed in by the past & the present
everything is relative they say...
and where, as in “Day 98”:
...we were already in medias res
we are always inside one hundred days
The structure of the book gets at this tangibly. The order of the poems is contrived; poet and/or editor arrived at the “backward” concept. As the days descend, page numbers ascend. These are two streams running in opposite directions, ending up in the same place—the end. If “Day 1” is the end, then every day is the end. Every day is a day where, as in “Day 1”:
...we have run out of days
No matter what is done in time, memory, language, or art, we end in the same place—at genocide. No matter what, genocide ends in the same place. I’m teetering...
Nick: Hold on. You bring up something important—the sense of ending up in the same place. No matter what. Near the end of the collection in the poem, “Day 12,” we read:
now we must create our own world
use the right words...
I get the sense that language’s—or at least English’s—obsession with definition and precision is being confronted.
Are there any right words? I’m not sure, but rhythm and repetition are very important in these poems, and I get the sense that language’s—or at least English’s—obsession with definition and precision is being confronted. More specifically, I would say written language’s claims to truth, in its more permanent form as trace, mark, or scar, is undermined. But also undermined only because this is the only way to tell it. I sense the desire and need to express experiences and memories that cannot fit into official discourse. The almost ritualistic repetition in some of the poems offers comfort against language’s violence. In this sense, oral tradition and voice are held up against official documentation. There is a great performance of this in the poem, “Day 11” where the word “savage” phonetically transitions to the word “saved,” pointing out how linguistic morphology can betray lived and living reality. Do you see other ways that the poems both perform and point to language’s limits?
Jami: Repetition within the poems seems to move with two opposing energies. First, as you say, it creates rhythm, song, harmony; it also suggests monotony—the sameness of days that are inescapable, as in the following two poems:
...as if there was nothing different
as if nothing changed
It was sunrise every morning
the same land
Twoness and oppositional movements/directions within the poems seems to say that things remain fractured, separate—that reconciliation to oneness is a concept, and one that’s outside of the actuality of the 100 days of genocide. Your use of “limits” intrigues me. The way I’m thinking about it is that the “limits” are seen in those who remained silent, who did nothing, who revise or deny the genocide.
...this is a charge
against the witnesses
& those who cannot speak
against those who speak incompletely
& against those who speak incoherently...
If the poems are written from the point of view of the survivors, and for me they are, then more than “limit,” they “claim.”
If the poems are written from the point of view of the survivors, and for me they are, then more than “limit,” they “claim.” I feel and hear language not as a violence but as an assertion against the silence (which is a felt violence in these circumstances). The poems give words and speech where there’s been silence. The poems risk breaking the taboo of speaking. To say is to commemorate and document, but it’s not only that. To say is to grieve and join the archive of “after.” Giving words and speech is among the survivors’ responsibilities. Certainly, it’s a responsibility Otok Bitek assumes and one to which I hope we’re rising. When I speak of survivors, I refer to those who lost family and the rest of us. All of us survived genocide; all of us have to live with genocide, and all of us have to determine what that means... That is, responsibility of one sort or the other rests with all of us.
Nick: Yes! The risk runs throughout the poems. What I mean by “limit” is the way I see the poems working against any ultimate, definitive claim. Often Okot Bitek’s language choice, diction, and tone beautifully admits the impossibility of fulfilling these desires and needs:
the impossibility of knowing everything that happened
we know that true witnesses cannot speak
& that those who have words
cannot articulate the inarticulable...
Ineffability and repetition work together to tell a story about the past that is lived and relived, a warning against forgetting, forgiving, and innocence, as in “Day 58”:
...as long as we’re caught
in the neveragainness of things
we are blinded/ to the hundreddayness of then
These lines tell us not to naively hope for a future free of violence because it whitewashes the past. To me, this speaks to the interplay of personal versus universal experience. There are a few poems that address this directly. “Day 53” is a litany of genocides and ends with lines:
...ours wasn’t the first or the only one
it was merely our most personal
“Day 10” describes:
calculated & rated on a per hour basis...
...never people you know
until they are.
I find the movements between personal trauma and universal empathy in Otok Bitek’s work moving. Do you think there is a lesson here? Or maybe a recognition that wants to be shared?
I respect the poems for admitting the impossibility that exists, of existence, between the neveragainness and hundreddayness...
Jami: I hesitate to draw a moral conclusion... I respect the poems for admitting the impossibility that exists, of existence, between the neveragainness and hundreddayness, which is what survivors must do. They must somehow determine what it means to survive in haunted spaces and times. This reminds me of my initial encounter with the book. After reading the first poem in the book I had the feeling it was written by the ghosts of those killed—that this book’s raison d'être was to give the ghosts back their voice. There was a longing that arose in me for those stories... After reading and re-reading the collection, I’ve come to regard my initial reading as a misunderstanding, a misreading borne of a natural interpretation. Readers may want to learn more about the stories. While another poetry book may offer that, this poetry tries for something else. It refuses to risk dramatization and the associated objectification that comes with story, especially second- and third-hand telling. This is a book that chooses to speak of and through personal and collective survival.
Nick: Related to this is the question of addressee. Who do you think is being addressed in these poems? They seem to move fluidly between pronouns, both plural and singular. Voice and addressee aren’t easily identifiable. There’s something else going on. What’s your take? Is there one voice, one addressee or...?
Jami: My sense is that there are shifts in who’s being addressed in the poems, as well as in who’s doing the addressing. I think it’s always a survivor speaking—sometimes a singular first person, sometimes a collective first person and sometimes to a singular, intimate other and sometimes to a collective you. Witness/es to witness/es. Survivor/s to survivor/s. Third person address is rare. Why? I’d say it’s because it risks objectifying, depersonalizing, and distancing. Whereas the other points of view claim their seat and voice. Just as within the retelling of a story, questions and complications related to accuracy arise, such is true here. There’s a confusion of speakers, witnesses, of those who stayed silent and were silenced; there’s a confusion of curses and charges being leveled because as the poem, “Day 23” states: “we’re still falling through stories that don’t make sense.”
If Justice was in a race against Time
Peace would have no medal to offer
If Peace sat at table with Justice
Time would not be served
If Time wanted Justice so bad so bad
there would be nothing that Peace could offer...
Sometimes I find the poems step into the didactic. The subject makes it hard to avoid this. I’m more open to the poems when they track rage and outrage at the unfathomable than I am when they lecture. I’m not arguing with the subject. I’m talking about the art. In it, I find tonal inconsistencies. I think, in some cases, language could do more, but I intuit the author may not have wanted to risk self consciousness, pretentiousness, melodrama. The poems are against commemoration as “crafted affair.”
Nick: Yeah, the language is not one of remembrance or commemoration as you say, which is usually reactionary at best and addressed to a certain (if imagined) audience. In terms of who is being spoken to, many of the poems speak to Christ directly. How do you see these references—and related Church as institution, Eden, angels—working in the collection as a whole? These various iterations of religion and faith are often questioned and sometimes even accused. But in a few spots, I sense a kind of communion, or at least the openness to one. Do you feel that?
Jami: There is a series of poems, among them “Day 37,” “Day 35, “Day 32,” etc., occurring near and after the book’s midway point, that evoke Christ. In “Day 72,” the speaker asks:
why God why
have you forsaken us
In other poems in this series, the speaker seems to go easy on God, to not ask for an explanation, to forgive. By contrast, in the opening poem, “Day 100,” the speaker seems to address and assign blame to Earth—
It was the earth that betrayed us first...
And, in “Day 2”:
...this is a charge...
...against nature who saw everything
& did nothing...
This doesn’t comport with my worldview. I’d hold God responsible before I’d hold the Earth and nature responsible. Maybe I don’t understand the “charge”... I haven’t been able to reconcile that accusation of betrayal with “Day 45,” in which
...ours remains Eden
not even a spate of killing can change that
This brings up something fascinating. The poems do not address, in fact barely mention, who is actually responsible—the murderers. One instance of direct mention occurs in the book’s penultimate poem, “Day 2”:
...we know who the guilty are
the guilty know themselves...
For me, this choice is more evidence of the poems focus—on survivors. The poems seek to change the topic of conversation.
It’s just not black and white. Answerability is layered and blame can be byzantine.
Nick: Right. I’m with you; I’d reproach God before the Earth. I read the absence of blame in a similar way as I see time/origin playing out—to get back to your question above. There is an attempt to go back to an origin, to the first, but this countdown ultimately proves to be impossible. The beginning is unidentifiable, much like pointing out one or two or all of those responsible is a complex and perhaps even unending endeavour. I don’t mean to suggest that people should not be held responsible. It’s just not black and white. Answerability is layered and blame can be byzantine. Direct accusation is too easy and it wouldn’t bring justice anyway. This irreconcilability reminds me of what you say above: two oppositional movements that seem to end in interval(s). I didn’t see it immediately. You’re right: the irreconcilable plays out in the poems’ forms as well.
Jami: The poems often use the device of listing. “Day 53,” the poem you mentioned that lists places of genocide throughout history, is in an abecedarian, an alphabetical arrangement. Lists and the act of listing are also part of the subject matter, as in “Day 98”:
If this should be a list of betrayals where should we begin...
And, in “Day 2”:
This will not be a litany of remembrances...
These two lines frame the book. Within their frame there are lists and piles and counting. The poems, and perhaps also the poet, seem to want to resist counting, but end up doing it anyway. Counting points to time’s, language’s, and humans’ various tendencies. Also the way the poems eschew and stay clear of a pure reliance on the lyric intrigues me. There were times during my reading of the poems when I found myself craving the lyric...
Nick: I take the list/listing as document or record keeping, but it’s more than that. Like you say, the poems resist, yet can’t shake what time, language, and humans do. I see this speaking to the necessity for survivors/witnesses to be heard, but also to the difficulty of having an authentic voice and the dangers of imposing a narrative on the past. So, to forgo relying on the lyric is part of this for me. I didn’t want for it and only really noticed its absence after having read the poems a few times, not during. These poems are compelling because they give, as best they can, an understanding of the nature of violence / the violence of nature, as is stated in the poem, “Day 50”:
...neither revealing nor capable
what do we need nature for
all it does is replicate its own beauty
Beauty that is also death, murder: “writing the landscape with bones” (“Day 2”) I’m curious as to when and to what made you crave the lyric.
Jami: Sometimes I found the poems, especially toward the end, to be more resolved, having more answers than seemed authentic. That’s when I craved connection to feeling the elegiac tones lyric can strike. Then, I remembered that the poems are from the point of view of survivors. Their focus is on those left behind, their responsibilities as witness and survivor.
Nick: Right, especially in the poem “Day 2” (mentioned above), which is an indictment. Rather than being accusatory and backward looking, responsibility becomes survival, justice for the dead, hope for the hopeless which is much more demanding concept to live by, for (all) survivors and witnesses. “Day 59” is one of the few poems where I sense any intimacy. It also admits the struggle of those left behind:
So I must talk about what happened
talk that you may understand...
...you want me to talk about what happened
you want me to tell
what was never mine to tell
There is an ambiguity in the second line that engages much of what we’ve discussed. Is it: “I need to talk so that you understand what happened” or is it “I need to talk in a way that you will be able to understand what I’m saying”? Between the need to tell and the desire for someone to listen, language waits. I see the distancing from ownership of the past in the last line working to highlight what needs to be done now, for everyone. Maybe that’s one of the messages from the book: we’re back at Day 1, again.