The Danger Is Beauty: Talking with Éireann Lorsung
At the risk of sentimentality, Éireann Lorsung is one of the people who has most taught me how to live a life with poems rather than producing work for The Publishing Industry—and why the difference between those two modes is ethical. In the decade we’ve known each other, our conversations have revolved around aesthetics, art under capitalism, and the joys of domesticity. I’m grateful for her gentle insistence that our daily and domestic lives are important and worthy of deep consideration as both political and historical. As she says in our conversation, History is what happens while we’re doing the dishes. Lorsung’s writing often sets daily experiences side-by-side with historical events to look at how experiences of gender, race, and citizenship impact the stories we tell about History.
The Century is Lorsung’s latest book, following 2007’s Music for Landing Planes By and 2013’s Her book, all published by Milkweed Editions, and marks both an extension of and a departure from those first two books. As we discuss in our conversation below, Lorsung’s experience as an immigrant in Europe reshaped and clarified her thinking, leading to poems that explore the ways ordinary people commit acts of extraordinary violence, ranging from slavery in the US to the Holocaust to the use of nuclear weapons in Japan. These poems examine how we are implicated in these histories and benefit from the system those violences created and protected—especially white people and those of us in positions of dominance. Carolyn Forché is a clear influence, and the book enters into conversation with writers like Aria Aber and Solmaz Sharif. The Century is remarkable in its ethical risks and for the formal dexterity with which Lorsung navigates those risks.
We spoke in late September, just before The Century was published.
The Rumpus: I want to start with time, because time-keeping and record keeping are important to you, not just in your new book, The Century, but more broadly as an artist. What does time look like where you are right now?
Éireann Lorsung: I’m adjuncting at a college a hundred miles from where I live, commuting over public transport once a week and then teaching on Zoom. And I really feel that the academic calendar is an inhumane calendar. You are whipped so fast onto it and there’s the desire to do really well by your students both because you love them and so that they get what they’re paying for, which is a horrifying logic. And then there’s the institutional demand of quality expressed as quantity and quantity expressed as speed, so everything has to be done now.
And on top of this there’s the pervasiveness of internet time where one is both static, insofar as one is always perpetually available, and also one is moving at more and more rapid speed through more and more information. Since I came back to the US to work in academia, academic time has been really hard for me, and I find it even harder as an adjunct. Being aware of the disposability of the position I occupy and the interchangeability of the position I occupy makes academic time even less livable or less appealing for me. It feels like a big departure from the time-keeping I’ve been doing of going on walks and paying attention to seasonal change.
Rumpus: I want to note that we are speaking in the US and that we are speaking during a pandemic that is primarily impacting working-class communities and communities of color, because The Century is deeply committed to that proximity to place and history, and aware of the subject positions of both the author and speakers. I wanted to note all of that in order to ask how you landed on the “century” as a unit of time?
Lorsung: I started writing poems that have ended up in The Century in 2009; among the first poems that I wrote were the “century” poems. The century is both a kind of container and also a kind of presence that moves through spaces. 2009 was the third year of my living outside the US; the first two years I was completely overwhelmed by the differences and trying to orient myself in a really practical way. And the century poems came in part because I was trying to articulate and externalize a story I had internalized about what Europe was, as I had grown up white in the US with one parent whose family were very recent European immigrants.
One of the things that was very present to me as an immigrant was the way that in France and Belgium, to some extent in the UK, but not nearly as much, you see these plaques that say where someone was assassinated or executed or deported. So I had this sense of “the century” being a marker: not a historical phenomenon—something that happened—but the twentieth century as something that is a presence.
Rumpus: A century is a fascinating amount of time in that we can grasp it on a human scale, though it is longer than the scope of most human lifespans. And certainly within that time you start to get a sense of the impacts of historical events. That’s why I’m curious about it.
Lorsung: Well, at first, “the century” was a persona, so just a way to think about this place I was living—Europe as the space in which World Wars happened or “the century” as the site in which the Gilded Era happened and then the Weimar Republic happened. But also: my dad was born in 1943 and he is a person who’s just right there. Like, he exists, he’s still alive. And through the stories present to me growing up in history books and which now I was seeing as parts of people’s real memorial and experiential lives in Europe, I realized that the century is not a very big span of time. I can just touch my dad and be touching this other time. In the US we tend to be given a story of the past as really being past, rather than the public story being the people who survived the church bombings in Birmingham are still alive right now and not that old. The century made sense as a kind of time that includes.
Rumpus: Right. One of the arguments that the book is making is that there’s a half-life to history and memory that changes depending on where you are in the world. And also, who you are. I haven’t read a lot of other work that gets at the idea that history is kaleidoscopic in that way.
Lorsung: Yeah, that’s a great word. The kaleidoscope is such a good image. The concept that I’ve come to for understanding history is this sense that things are recombinant rather than linear. And—I was actually just writing about this this morning—not recombinant in a way where you can say, okay, I’m just going to watch for X to repeat and then I will know that Y is happening. But the textures are recombinant. So 1938 in Germany learns texture from 1860–1920 in the US and 2020 in the US learns from 1938 Germany, but also from 1970 in South Africa and the 1980s in Argentina. All these ways that the pattern is shifting and recombining.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about some of the book’s formal choices. In particular, I want to narrow in on section three—that’s “An archaeology” and “The book of splendor,” two longish sequences and two poems that have very clear formal elements. What did those formal choices do for you?
Lorsung: I mean they demanded themselves. Maybe I can talk about them separately.
Rumpus: Yes, absolutely. They are very separate. I don’t mean to smash them together.
Lorsung: But you’re right. I hadn’t thought about the way that they use the two most basic kind of randomizing forms which are the numerical sequence and the alphabet. So, okay: I read Foucault; I thought about his idea of the archeology of knowledge. I thought about, how do I know what I know? I wrote these tiny little sequences of alphabetical poems. They were like five lines per poem. They were not functional. And then I realized that that was because archaeology means sifting through a huge territory. When I realized that, it was freeing to be like, oh, everything actually has to go in here. The huge sequence gave me a place where I could acknowledge the textural similarities that I felt between 1934 to 1945 and my own experience in 2009 to 2018 (when I finished this poem). So the large form allowed for the co-presence of all of these times. And also indeterminacy; it’s not clear what happens in what time or what is attached to what experience. And that’s intentional.
The alphabet is a great form because it forces you not to be in control of all the decisions; in this poem that was important because I didn’t want to be seen to be saying, well, the refugees are “obviously” the refugees from 1939, you know, don’t worry about it. I wanted it to be less determined whether they were refugees we should feel responsible about now or whether they were people we could kind of wash our hands of historically. The alphabet is a good form for thinking about knowledge because it is this complete knowledge production technology that we neglect. And it is not neutral, like all knowledge technologies. It’s not at all. But it is random, so it removes some of my own determinism. Does that make sense?
Rumpus: It does. I’m thinking about those two poems together because “An archeology” is an abecedarian and “The book of splendor” looks like an outline for an essay. Those forms are a way of creating order even while the abecedarian is randomizing.
Lorsung: It randomized insofar as I didn’t write these fragments in the order they appear. And it also provides a really familiar order so that the chaos of the world—which is everything—gets fitted into that form. The alphabet as a form is so comforting and orderly, but it’s an order that is arbitrary. The form itself doesn’t mean anything.
On the other hand, [in] “The book of splendor,” the form is me attempting to mark out logical moves, because it is a poem about learning to undo my thinking and that can’t happen just by saying, well, believe this other thing. Every time I hit a belief that I think is harmful, I try to figure out why I have that and what is inappropriate about it. What its roots are. And this has to happen in an orderly way, because order in my thinking has been a good antidote to the way that learning to be a white person—which means learning to dominate other people—is an affective, a felt thing. You don’t talk about being white with other white people. I mean, you don’t acknowledge whiteness or like what it means to do your white being. You feel it.
Rumpus: I was reading an interview that you gave about a year ago and you have this great quote. You said, “What is beauty? I guess it’s one kind of thing that makes it hard to look away. Horror is another of those things.” The poems in The Century look directly at a lot of horrors, but the book is not interested in making beauty out of these things in the way that we tend, culturally, to think of poems as making beautiful objects out of difficult subjects. And, in fact, in one of two poems titled “Report from Nasiriyah” you address it directly: “the danger is beauty alone.” How did you navigate the inherent risks of aestheticizing these horrors? Because it’s not easy.
Lorsung: Yeah, thank you for thinking about that. First of all, I think it’s completely possible that I haven’t navigated them and I’m open to being found wanting in that. If I actually believed that wholeheartedly, I maybe wouldn’t have made a book. But also, making books is how I act, so it was going to happen. I can’t avoid either my culpability or my own aesthetic understanding of the world.
I learned this way of thinking from W. G. Sebald, who explicitly said, “Aesthetics is not a value free area.” And he goes on to say, basically, if you’re going to write about horrific things then you cannot aestheticize, you can’t make it enjoyable, you cannot make it comforting. You cannot make it pretty [or] gratuitous [or] sensational, because then you are doing something really perverse. And a lot of this book, I tried to be really careful not to use figurative language. I tried to say what there was. So in the first “Nasiriyah,” I was trying to say what there is, and of course there is an image: the wind is singing. But there is also my own fallibility to a tradition of beauty, which I’m not able to disavow either; that’s what I come from. The future will correct me.
Rumpus: I think there are a lot of white writers who are failing to address these kinds of ethical concerns in their work, but I don’t think that that is necessarily neglect always. I think that there are a lot of white writers who would like to write about whiteness and empire but they don’t really know where to begin.
Lorsung: Because the first action is not beginning to write. We need to learn to wait, cede, be-with, listen. There’s not a lot of education in waiting, for white people. You know what I mean?
Rumpus: Right, so that begins to answer my question, which is, do you have models for that kind of work? Are there thinkers who grapple with these issues that taught you a way forward? Or a way to wait before beginning?
Lorsung: First of all, Sebald was super important for my thinking, because he explicitly also acknowledges—I think it’s in A Natural History of Destruction—that his parents were Germans. He in no way allows himself to take an easy way out. He says, I was a baby when the war ended, and my parents were ordinary Germans. One habitual route out of that, in my experience, is to talk about yourself all the time and how bad you feel. Sebald doesn’t do that. His modesty and simplicity and ethical directness—admission without confession and without a demand for forgiveness or even attention; admission of involvement as one of the facts of the matter—was eye-opening for me.
Another thing was finding out about the journal Race Traitor—finding a name for something else one could be as a white person. I did not have language for race treason before that, and, therefore, it wasn’t really a thing that I could think about. Reading lots of primary source material out of the 1920’s and 1930’s, too. Particularly after 2010, I began to search out journalism from the US over the early Nazi period (1934-38): social columns about Nazi parties in the New York Times. That taught me that there’s a difference between saying, I’d be a good German, and seeing that in real time history often doesn’t look like this kind of ethical clarity.
A final strand to this answer about learning to wait: a big part of it was being on Twitter in the early days, following a lot of Black feminists and being like, Oh, there’s no need for me, ever, to talk in this space. I am a privileged overhearer right now; I get to listen to this conversation and I get to observe these thinkers, but I don’t need to say anything. I don’t have anything to say because I’ve never been taught to think the way these people are thinking.
Rumpus: That’s a fascinating thing to learn from Twitter, of all places, where the point is to be a little bit loud.
Lorsung: It was a good lesson in humility. I began to see names come up, like Katherine McKittrick or Kimberlé Crenshaw. These were not names that I had been familiar with and they showed me that there was this whole other canon—canons—of knowledge that I didn’t even know existed, and that I certainly didn’t have names for. So, I began to glean names and then of course when I did that, I realized, oh, I don’t know anything. And so there’s further no reason to talk. I just began reading everything that I would see referenced.
Rumpus: I want to ask about these lines in “Form A” which read—and I’m going to condense it a little bit—”I need a language more spacious than the language poetry can be.” Is that what you’re talking about here in reading these contemporary thinkers, in taking seriously things like social media?
Lorsung: That’s an interesting reading of it. I hadn’t thought about it that way.
Rumpus: Most people would say that poetry is about as spacious as language can get, right?
Lorsung: Ah, yes, but I was thinking that I needed a space that was not a linguistic space, but a place of action. I was thinking about, for example, the habit of writing poems in response to/as a response to things that happen. There is a difference between going to feed people or going to be in a street with people and writing a poem. You’re right, poetry is a space where lots of things are possible. And it’s also quite different to be in a room.
Photograph of Éireann Lorsung by Ann Bartges.