The effort to “brush history against the grain” requires excavations at the margins of monumental history in order that the ruins of the dismembered past be retrieved, turning to forms of knowledge and practice not generally considered legitimate objects of historical inquiry or appropriate or adequate sources for history making and attending to the cultivated silence, exclusions, relations of violence and domination that engender the official accounts.
— Saidya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America
I am at the beginning of a new, massive project. I can feel, roughly, the shape of the project; I can feel its scale and density. But beyond that, it exists only as a set of promises. At this stage, it feels like I’ve taken out a debt against myself, pledging what I don’t know yet to a future that doesn’t quite exist.
As a result, all of the reading I have been doing has been towards this project, contributing in various ways to further figuring its shape and weight. I’m going to try to use this little slice of writing to set out some of the texts that have acted most urgently and intimately on me.
What I am interested in is poetry that takes legal documents as its source material. I’m not so much interested in poems that restage or otherwise narrativise legal histories or cases—I am interested in poems that abstract the law in a manner that renders the law legible in a new way: the law as an archive of speculative, fraudulent and ad hoc speech acts.
I’m especially interested in the law as the foundational language of the nation state—the vernacular of sovereignty. Poetry offers one way to read this language critically, to read it, as it were, as ‘artificial’ language (in the way that Veronica Forrest-Thomson means, that is, as language that draws attention to its own becoming). So the poems I am reading, the poems that turn the language of law and nation as material for transformative critique, are a kind a ‘re-membering’. As David Scott calls it: the ‘putting back together aspects of our common life so as to make visible what has been obscured, what has been excluded, what has been forgotten.’
Poetry as a critical re-membering of how the law comes to be and what history comes to obscure, exclude and forget, is a counter-archival practice, a rereading of official archives and received histories as ‘art, fiction, and fabrication’ (Motha and van Rijswijk). In other words, by reading the law and history from the position of the poet, we might perceive more fully the fictionality of the archive, and in what may feel like a counter-intuitive move, stake a truth claim about the operations of both law and history.
An example—in Layli Long Soldier’s incredible book of poems Whereas, she tells the story of the Dakota 38 (‘38’), a group of thirty-eight men who were executed by public hanging on the order of Abraham Lincoln and following the Sioux Uprising. The poem is composed in a series of sentences, each separated by a paragraph break. It begins: ‘Here, the sentence will be respected.’ In what follows, Long Soldier makes it clear that this poem is not a ‘creative’ work as much as a the treatment of history in the form of a poem. The sentences build on each other, bearing witness to both the history they ‘re-member’ as well as the formation of that history as its own collection of sentences:
The hanging took place on December 26, 1862—the day after Christmas.
This was the same week that President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the preceding sentence, I italicize “same week” for emphasis. (49)
Long Soldier goes on to describe, sentence by sentence, the way the settler-colonial state used the flexible, violent law to seize the land, starve its inhabitants and then sanction the mass execution of those implicated in the Uprising: ‘As treaties were abrogated (broken) and new treaties were drafted, one after another, the new treaties often referenced old defunct treaties, and it is a muddy, switchback trail to follow. // Although I often feel lost on this trial, I know I am not alone’ (50). The poem’s reflexive sentences show how the retelling of history relies on the reading and rereading of history’s incomplete and volatile texts. They also show how the act of writing a poem can both re-member this history and reveal the impossibility of such a task. The poem is then also a poem about how we can tell stories ‘that cannot be told, yet must be told’, to cite M NourbeSe Philip.
At the end of the poem, Long Soldier describes a different, embedded history in the story of the uprising. A settler trader, who refused to give the starving Dakota people credit, was famous for having said something like, ‘If they are hungry, let them eat grass’ (a refrain with an echo of a different history). When the Uprising killed the trader, they stuffed his mouth with grass:
I’m inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem.
There’s irony in their poem.
“Real” poems do not “really” require words.
I have italicized the previous sentence to indicate inner dialogue, a revealing moment.
But, on second thought, the words “Let them eat grass” click the gears of the poem into place.
So, we could also say, language and word choice are crucial to the poem’s work. (53)
The poem ends by suggesting that, if we are to read history and law in terms of the self-styled myths that protect and fetishise foundational violences, we must read them ‘as’ a poet, that is, with an ear and eye for how the language has come to mean and act. And if we are to re-member the histories of resistance, survival and care, we must read them ‘as’ poems, that is, as critical, vital gestures that reveal the truths otherwise unseen or displaced.
Dr Astrid Lorange is a writer, editor and teacher who lives and works in unceded Eora Nation territory. She lectures in contemporary art and writing at UNSW Art and Design. How Reading is Written: A Brief Index to Gertrude Stein was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2014. Poetry books include Ex and Eating and Speaking. Critical and creative writing has been published internationally and locally. Along with Andrew Brooks, she is one-half of Snack Syndicate, a critical art collective.