Beyond Autonomy

  • Sarah Dowling
    Translingual Poetics: Writing Personhood Under Settler Colonialism. University of Iowa Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Gregory Betts

The idea of autonomy, of individual or national independence and the freedom to live by one’s own law, that has dominated so much of Western literature and thought (and especially the imagined personal freedom of lyric poetry) contradicts many of the lived realities of interconnected citizens in the twenty-first century. Indeed, in response to global, transnational crises like climate change, colonialism, and (related to both) neoliberalism, Sarah Dowling’s Translingual Poetics: Writing Personhood Under Settler Colonialism proposes a turn to polymodal and translingual frames to denaturalize the poisonous legacy of such autonomous ideologies. She hones in on a very limited number of texts by American, Canadian, and Indigenous authors as representative exemplars of a new way of encoding multiplicity into texts that challenge North American monolingual settler-colonial culture.

Translingual Poetics sets the coordinates for a shift in thinking and analyzing poetry, extending the discussion of translation beyond the binary mode of movement between two languages. By looking closely at specific multilingual texts, and connecting them to broader debates about colonialism, personhood, and neoliberalism, Dowling offers a convincing case for textual polyvalence and linguistic multiplicity. She identifies her antagonistic forces clearly: “one of the most important effects of colonial violence is its dramatic narrowing of the scope of knowledge and of the possible forms of communication.” Against this limitation, she presents texts that foreground collective experiences of loss or violence. These experiences accumulate and establish the complexity of forces acting against marginalized communities. The lyric, she argues, in its traditional mode of self-expression and its habitual monolingualism, is insufficient in addressing systemic oppressions. Too often, the lyric mode has had the unintended effect of re-inscribing autonomous and coherent individuals at the expense of her preferred cacophony of difference. As the band of options narrows by the twinned juggernauts of colonialism and neoliberalism, the lyric voice reinforces the narrowing.

As she drills down into the rotten husk of the Western canon, Dowling addresses the thorny problem of personhood—a question of legal encoding and cultural admittance—by asking who gets in, who is left out, and, more importantly, by what terms (and in what language) are they permitted entry. This frame advances her critiques of lyric singularity, and helps to explain the recent preponderance of experimental, avant-garde writing by authors from marginalized communities. Over the course of the book, she chooses just four poems and seven books of poetry (by Garry Thomas Morse, Paul Martínez Pompa, Cecilia Vicuña, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, James Thomas Stevens, M. NourbeSe Philip, Myung Mi Kim, Anne Tardos, Rachel Zolf, Jordan Abel, Layli Long Soldier, and a collaboration between Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Enrique Chagoya, and Felicia Rice) to bear the weight of her analysis. In the close readings, these texts are put forth as exemplars of complex theories and intricate philosophies. It is a lot to ask of such a limited range of texts. Zolf’s Janey’s Arcadia, for instance, becomes emblematic of a correction to philosophical misinterpretations of Hegelian notions of subject formation. Though Zolf is not an Indigenous author herself, Dowling uses Zolf’s text to exemplify Indigenous critiques of misinterpretations of Hegel’s model.

The poetic examples are, overall, well-chosen and effectively interrogated, but I found myself wanting more—wanting the book to delve into so many more examples of complex translingual poetics, if only to elaborate on the nuances of this field, and to consider the significant volume of work already being done. Erín Moure’s work on polylingual citizenship, for instance, or Nathalie Stephens/Nathanaël’s work on translation and entre-genre, or Natasha Kanapé Fontaine’s prize-winning Franco-Innu poetry that unpacks the overlapping colonialisms in Quebec, amongst the work of many other practitioners, each adds density to a portrait of the field. Dowling’s discussion of “monolingual settler states” is certainly more responsive to the American context, and somewhat dismissive of Canadian bilingualism (let alone official trilingualism in Nunavut) and the negotiation of overlapping colonialisms navigated through language history. Dowling’s book, though, is not a history of intersections between language policy and poetry, and prefers broad transhistorical frames—the five hundred years of settler colonialism, for instance—to situate the complexity of single books, poems, and lines of verse. There is a delightful whiplash in shifting between such scales of apperception.

Let me be clear: Dowling’s book makes it easier to begin to investigate the nuances of such vast colonial enterprises as Canada and the US and their linguistic landscapes. In these contexts, Dowling’s discussion of the apostrophe as an exercise in reclaiming personhood (or resisting objectification) or her attention to Elizabeth Povinelli’s “formal meconnaissance” both help to elaborate strategies of resistance and self-assertion, defiance and ambivalence. If we ground the self in mutual recognition and intersubjectivity (without the mediation of the state), as Hegel once proposed, then the poetic object shifts from being a medium for self-expression. Instead, poetry becomes a nexus point for re-remembering and experiencing the difference already encoded in language, especially as that difference is reflective of vast histories. Translingual poetry, furthermore, becomes the embodiment of living in an ongoing world of difference, lush
with the “colonial cacophony of linguistic collision.”

This review “Beyond Autonomy” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 151-153.

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