Correspondences: On Claire Schwartz’s Civil Service (letters 4-6)

Monday, October 31, 2022


What follows is a continuation of the ongoing series of letters Bradley Trumpfheller and I are writing on Civil Service by Claire Schwartz. The previous three letters have considered Schwartz’s treatment of the confessional, how Schwartz is using the space of poetry to raise questions of relation between the lyric I and a constellation of potential “you’s” beyond the text. We ended briefly discussing confessionalism, relationality, and interior, constellating the conversation to John Murillo’s Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry, and concluding with questions of loneliness, knowability, and Schwartz’s spectral, fugitive figure in her text: Amira.

Letters 1 through 3 can be read here. Letters 4 through 6 follow below.

* * *

Dear you,

I’m certainly hearing all the theory space rattle around in what we’re writing here. I know that’s been a really moving mode for you to be around in the last few years, and I hear it more in your work as well. This is maybe too meta of a thing to bring in here, but I feel a little called toward the full quote from “Lecture on the History of the House”:

“Theory is productive of the known.
Poetry is productive of the unknown.

                 How then, do you know 
                what is true?”

I think that’s just so good. I have a real attachment to what she’s saying here, about what kinds of things language makes, or tells itself it makes. But it’s also funny, you know, if we want to take it seriously, as people interested in thinking about Civil Service. Because what is theory about poetry? How can language produce the known about the unknown? Which then makes me wonder about the difference between criticism and theory, which I don’t know. But you know, how do we go about this? Is it all poetry, this thinking-with-poems? How to use something like theory, its traps and trappings, and how to make it do something it wasn’t supposed to do?

This is all abstract, I realize. I’m understanding it, I think, mostly in relation to my actual experience reading this book, one of propulsive difficulty that pulls me alongside it. I think the “Lecture” poems are where this really comes out most. At this particular moment of my relationship with Civil Service, those are the places I find myself returning to the most. To characterize that difficulty: the quality of voice in the Lectures is actively in tension with how the poems organize their fragments, in their staggered movements and leaps, their splay down the page. What’s coercive about the declarative sentences of the (more directly) fabulist poems, like “Apples,” doesn’t surprise me because of how I feel like that genre is often asking to be read; when I come across, though, poems where someone (who?) is saying “Someone laid the new bricks / around you while you slept,” there’s a quality of compulsion, real discomfort. Even if we aren’t readers whose impulse is to read the unnamed “you” as ourselves, we feel the You being moved about the page as if they were another of the characters, as opposed to something at the edge of language toward which the poems move and appeal—Paul Celan’s “addressable thou.” And what is a lecture? There’s an implication of a unity of voice, right? The lecturer speaks, almost like in a sermon, or a dramatic monologue where the subject is not interiority but the outer and knowable (masterable) world of things. Which is not the case at all here. It’s this form Schwartz has kind of invented, where the ground of authority—univocality, theory, positive knowledge, non-fugitivity—is at every turn stretched, interrupted, put into question, and made to do what it’s not supposed to. This makes for difficult poetry, and thank god. If what we’re doing here is criticism, and I think it is, we are tasked with responsibility to the book at hand, to bend towards the unknowing and questioning that is the domain of poetry and (to me) the most exciting kind of criticism: a production not of answers, but of responses, which return the text a little distended by having been read. “I think of writing as the form of reading where the impact of my reading is most visible,” as she says.

I’m excited by the leap I hear you making in your questions, on the consonance of reading and loneliness. I also think you’re right to want to articulate this through the figure of Amira. In the last titled poem of the collection, “Lecture on Loneliness,” Schwartz begins:

“The first woman was not burdened with firsts, only was.
Not yet bound by a name, uncalled for.
Only history makes her lonely, only after makes her first.

                        Of course this is an origin story - 
                       lonely as any birth.

Loneliness: the distance
between history and what history might have been.”

Maybe implicit in what you asked has something to do with the loneliness of unknowability; whether or not the fact that we can never fully “know” each other (thinking of Natalie Diaz’s critique of empathy) produces loneliness, and what this has to do with our seeing flashes of an otherwise that might remind us that what gets figured as “the future”—abolitionist, anti-colonial, communist, revolutionary, “what history might have been”—remains outside from where we are. The beginning of this poem kind of makes me wonder about the quality of loneliness as a function of historiography; the way that the western narration of time and causality works to sever the past from the present, one of many brutal enclosures whose social aim remains loneliness, alienation, and disentanglement. “You diminished the world with your knowing,” she writes. Is knowing something—a beloved, an account of one’s life, a map of a country—a kind of falling out of relation with it? Well, let me not say that loneliness isn’t a relation. Maybe the question I want is: what kind of relation is loneliness, that it can look so much like knowledge, that the same things which produce the one produce the other? 

“Your words are sisterless.

No, no one asks after you.

“I am             
The one who is asking.””             

Amira, who we don’t know, for whom we are asked to be responsible: the interdependency of these two facts. I love this moment in “Lecture on Loneliness” for how it enacts or pulls a reader into what I would say has been the case with Amira from her first naming in the beginning of the book. I read this as Amira speaking: she is asking us something, asking after us—which strikes me as a reversal of the situation she’s in, liminally, in the interrogation room between the lines of Civil Service’s architecture, underneath it. I could write for a long time about “asking after you”—to be obligated to respond; to be after both as a temporal verb and a spatial one, one of pursuit, of desire; to be told “come here,” which is exactly the promise of the outside that I hear Schwartz describe there at the end of that Between the Covers conversation.

I am quite deeply invested in poems, and specifically the tropes of apostrophe in poems, as a kind of testimony against loneliness in and against what I experience as a profoundly lonely century. Something I feel moved by your letter to wonder about with Civil Service is this quality of the You—so often external, unknowable, brought forth to appeal or ask forgiveness of—as inside, equally subject to the civil and civilizing cruelties of the Dictator, the Censor, and the Police. The “you,” the addressed in these poems, as I said, feels coercible by language; Amira, on the other hand, takes up the remoteness of the addressed, fully facing us. The poems are, and I’d like to think I am too, trying to get to wherever she is, trying and failing to both know her and follow her (to go after her) out past enclosure, out past the this-ness of this world. “Loneliness: the distance between history and what history might have been.” These lines might instruct that loneliness is something that enclosure produces. At the same time I think, and Civil Service helps me to think, loneliness is also one name for a desire—a drive—for an otherwise which demands, unspeakably, that those conditions end. That makes me happy, and more importantly, it makes that ending more irresistible.

Love to you, wherever you are tonight—




It’s been a lonely, lonely week, beloved. A week of “lonely, lonely living,” as Schwartz says (80). I’ve spent the end of my summer in a sort of contradictory space of un/loneliness, having the privilege of my main income source being dependent on writing critical work, and thus producing competing impulses within me to surround myself with poets, theorists, memoirists, with whose texts I’ve forged my own intimate relation, and simultaneously, to well into my self in study thereof and witness the long awaited sun of summer from behind a window. “I traveled the length of my interior, and there I wasn’t” (81). I made a winter of my self in this unending heat. “To be the wrong season” (80). The kind of knowing demanded by theory, as you say so elegantly, produces a sort of falling out of relation. Inversely, unknowing can be generative of relations. I say this neutrally, seeing the capacity for harmful relations driven by unknowing (e.g. colonial drives to know, the unknowing driving the confessional relation). Criticism, for me, has always been kind of knowing which allows me to be in continuous relation with both unknowing and the people of, the collectives behind, the potential of constellations with, a given text. Criticism, for me, is a kind of un/knowing—an eternal relation between knowing and unknowing which, while of course taking seriously the act of reading, has the capacity to become a with-ness in a constellating sense: what networks of nodes are observable from our earthly distance? Is reading not like the act of observing a light that dies, through the entanglement of space-time, to reach us? At its best, criticism can be an act of deep listening—a mode which demands me to work through my own loneliness with a text to say I Hear you. And is that not love?

I want to step back and warn that I don’t intend to center an empathetic relation with the text here. Looping back to your conversations with Diaz above, I very much align with the thinking of Solmaz Sharif, in conversation with Rickey Laurentiis, that empathy is “emotional tourism” and an “endpoint” which keeps the heart of settler nations beating still. Or, as Sharif writes in Customs,

“Empathy means

laying yourself down
in someone else’s chalklines

and snapping a photo” (13).

As a counter framing, compassion seems to be the kind of relation I am advocating for in this critical mode of constellation. Compassion says one does not need to identify with someone in order to understand them or, in social justice contexts, build and resist with someone. Maha Nassar gave a brilliant talk at Northwestern’s Middle Eastern studies colloquium this past year which applied this framing to the context of Palestine, saying a compassion framework builds space for justice, counter to the empathy framework which only makes space for peace (the kind of peace which makes room for thoughts like, “because I, settler, mythically identify with your land, it is mine too”). Peace cannot happen without justice, as Palestinian activists have been saying, and so compassion must replace empathy as a relational center. Susan Briante also writes brilliantly about centering compassion over empathy in docu-poetic contexts, in her brilliant craft book Defacing the Monument. Circling back to our earlier letters, just as confession is a relation where consent becomes a troubled question due to innate power dynamics, I wonder if readerly empathetic relation to an author, via their text, has a sort of im/possibility of consent? Whereas empathy demands knowing, compassion gives space for unknowing/unknowability; compassion demands us to reckon with our distances from each other in a constellar manner. What does it mean, then, for a text to contour the terms of potential relationality? Because, of course, people will feel how they feel, relate how they relate, so all of this is uncontrollable to an extent. And, of course, this is where criticism has its uses: criticism as love can challenge us to be more compassionate readers. I think that compassion, as a critical center, demands us to read a text on its own terms, first and foremost, after which relations can be forged.

This framing makes me wonder about Schwartz’s construction of Amira, in Civil Service, as a figure with whom the readers are asked to be in compassionate, but not empathetic, relation? There is a sort of im/possibility of empathy in the hyper-fragmented mode—one which makes a potential empathetic relation question what it means to identify with a fragment of someone’s self-hood, and what reading praxis would lead to such identifications? But if we are to take Amira on the terms articulated in Civil Service (“Do you consider yourself a part of or apart from? … Now Amira is a part of you. You are responsible for Amira” [9]), we are driven towards a mode of compassion. We are told Amira is a part of us, without any particular knowing, and thus must accept Amira on the terms of her unknowability. By entering the book, we are accepting responsibility for Amira. Does this not require some measure of compassion at the book’s entryway?

I’m intrigued, further, by a question you posed to me the other day of Amira and address. “Is Amira ever addressed?” was the question, but my question in return is, “is Amira addressable within the manuscript?” I think the answer lies, at least partially, in the book’s formal treatment of Amira: both in fragment and in contrapuntal conversation with Schwartz’s speaker. The book distinguishes between two speakers and, for the purpose of this analysis, I will call the standard typeface “the speaker” and the gray italicized typeface “Amira’s speaker,” since this speaker narrates the space around Amira and, at times, lets Amira physically speak back (e.g. the lines with quotations and grayscale + italics). In a way, we already see Amira’s speaker separating Amira from direct address by the book’s speaker, or perhaps, as an ever-elusive reminder that even Amira’s articulation within this book is filtered through a speaker and is, itself, not wholly on Amira’s own terms, which seems crucial. At times, we see Amira as the interrogated in a question-and-answer form, both haunted by the power dynamics behind confessional knowing, and haunting their very borders:  

“Does torture produce intelligence?

It produces the forms of fact.

Do you call that intelligence?” (21).

But there are other times when the dialogue between the speaker and Amira/Amira’s speaker haunt each other on the level of the line, as if each line ending is a knock on the door that separating Amira’s world from the speaker’s world, such as in “Lecture on Time:”

“We can other now, only no one wants to. No one:
the one who wants, who lives out from time. 

Amira is no one.
The proof is in the petals” (26).

This image of the petals recalls an earlier line from Amira’s speaker (“That spring, the roses went rogue” [23]), which makes me want to read Amira’s speaker’s lines in aggregate, as an individual poem made up of the aggregate fragments. Such a reading, cutting through the space-time of a book so interested in potential space-times, yields several constellations: the question of torture in fact connecting with a line from the collection’s ending (“The torturer wore pearls” [89]), the ongoing threads of touch & un/reachability of fugitive space-time (42), the ir/resolute final lines of Amira’s speaker in “Lecture on the History of the House:”

She releases the names to the wind. 
The wind churns the names to pigment, 
carries the colors off like” (45), 

which, in my reading, does not resolve until Blue (64). I would be so curious to hear your thoughts here, or on Blue in general, as the only moment in the collection where we get a complete poem entirely in Amira’s speaker’s voice. 

My short answer, then, to your question is that Amira’s speaker is addressable by the book’s speaker insofar as two columns in a contrapuntal poem are addressable: as apart from and a part of all at once. The speaker’s ability to address Amira is, therein, filtered through Amira’s speaker: Amira is not her speaker but is of her speaker. Address is im/possible.

Apostrophe, constellating back to your letter, carries a similar im/possibility: on one hand, apostrophe is an address for which a response is impossible, but on the other, the impulse towards apostrophe is driven by the possibility of speaking to and among. I wonder if “you,” in this book’s treatment, carries a similar im/possibility of address?

Of the more explicitly fabulist poems (to borrow your framing), I was so compelled by the turn to the “you” at the end of “Parable.” The first stanza stays explicitly in the parable-world, of a woman sitting “across from a head of cabbage” attempting conversation, aging until her son returns (“It’s not important from where. It’s not important how long he’s been gone… when he returns, he is no longer a boy who sings softly to the moon. The man follows orders. He wields what he’s amassed.” [48]). The stanza ends in an implied murder: “Now there is a head on the floor, smashed as if cabbage. Now there is a witnessing head, silent as cabbage” (48). The second stanza, entirely in parentheses, lists potential allegorical misreadings of the poem (“The boy is the state… No, the boy is your lover. The cabbage farmer is you”), before challenging the readers to take, in its closing breaths, “that other risk, the greater one, and what you’d have to do with it—” (48). Here, Parable challenges readers to take a risk, greater than misreading, of attempting to build an otherwise in and beyond language, critiquing the minutiae of the infinite potentials of allegorization—something the traditional methods of criticism may stop at, or something which an uncritical reader may attempt to use towards reconfiguring the poem into an empathizable object, (self-)satisfied. The poem, for me, resonates with its compassionate closing call to action, to elsewhere, to otherwise, beyond the face of the page, in the shadow of “a witnessing head, silent as cabbage” (48).

This gets me to think of a moment in Elizabeth Alexander’s blurb for Civil Service, where she says, “the reader completes the poems by engaging them.” This, I think, is among the greatest things I will take away from Schwartz’s immense collection: a model for a poetics which fosters engagement, deep listening, and compassionate-driven action. Especially through the “Lecture” poems and the spectral contrapuntals with Amira, these works unlock a new kind of epistemology which intervenes at, and makes more fluid, the permeable boundary between poetry and theory, between our world and potential post-revolutionary elsewheres. It feels, at once, so new, and yet so familiar due to the constellations with others present both within the book (especially in its expansive Bibliography—I wish more poetry collections did this!) and the gestures towards the reader external to the book.

 In this spirit, I’m so glad we’ve been able to think of a way to expand the boundaries of our own lonelinesses with this book, and collaboratively build a critical conversation which, I hope, can attempt to reciprocate this book’s generosity and energy, if even infinitesimally.

Thank you, dearest, for constellating with me—



And one more hello,

Funny to have pre-ordained a kind of last word here, even as the conversation is partial and I know we’ll talk on the phone tomorrow, which is now later today. Were it otherwise, I’d probably ask for more definitions: your feel of the contrapuntal, my own now-rigid-seeming senses of what makes theory be theory and poetry be poetry, the difference between compassion and responsibility, empathy and responsibility, and what kind of gap it is a reader experiences between Schwartz’s papery state in Civil Service and the state that you and I are living in. I guess I’m consolidating these questions like this because the thought of their going unresponded to makes me a little sad; the loneliness of a final letter! I’ve often wondered what sort of questions are in those letters of Fanny Brawne’s that Keats is buried with.

On constellations, I’m feeling grateful for the way your metaphor brings together a reading practice internal to a book (which lines reverberate, rhyme at a distance) with one which exceeds one text: the influences, bibliographies, hauntings, and so forth that make up something like the ground for speaking; correspondences, traditions, “how shit go together,” as Fred Moten says. And I’m thinking about how the shapes of lines and stanzas that Schwartz uses in the “Lecture” poems make use of that projective thing—the stellar quality that has. The pun of spatial, the star-field, and also the quality of a tradition’s forms being in the breath.

I love how you’re thinking about Amira’s addressability, apart and a part of—and, for me, the echo of C.D. Wright from One Big Self: “Art is not apart, it is a part of.” I wish you could write back to tell me about the word “im/possible” more, in the context of apostrophe here. If I’m following you, Civil Service is maybe making legible (by making us want to read it) this way that when a speaker of a poem, particularly a lyric poem, says “You,” they are pointing to something at the boiling point of language: the lack of I in you, and you in I. I’m risking repeating my last letter a little now, but this quality of rupture, which is the condition of possibility for the poem’s sense of its self as speaker, is one that thinks of an outside, right? The slashiness of im/possibility here is the way that this thought of or from outside—this critique I guess—cannot be made from anywhere but inside. And that’s the post-revolutionary thing I was trying to say, the outside(s) of capitalism. The divine, too; not for nothing did Walter Benjamin call it “messianic.” And I’m wondering now about the way that this stuff outside the self, others or the Other, has something to do, I don’t know what, both with the dream of a collective and with the libidinal material of anti-Blackness, settlement, and genocide. That’s a very real set of questions and stakes that might also live in what it is to be addressable.

Joanna Klink has this essay from years back, part of a book on Paul Celan called YOU. She makes the case for Celan as a love poet, primarily through his constant use of apostrophe in often some of the most difficult of his poems, and a line of thought from St. Augustine: “To say I love you is to say I want you to be.” I understand the social world, maybe obviously, as being a sort of variation on a theme of You: the I-Thou relationship, where love is marked as possible by that aforementioned rupture (you are there, I am not you), is the social at its most condensed, most charged with response-ability. When you ask if Amira is addressable, I also want to ask what speaking—responding—has to do with being addressed. You’re right, I think, about her intense sort of mediation, literally being “marginalized,” coming to us through another speaker’s mouth on unclear terms. And her speaker: are we sure that’s not the torturer who interrogates her between the book’s sections? Sometimes I think they are separate, but then I think about the sort of reporting that that other voice is doing, following Amira around like a camera, telling us about the things she says with the empty authority of quotation marks— “‘If you can’t perceive me, does that mean I’m not here?’” The reader’s fully implicated in this, which is the other side of what you praise in your letter; that we complete the collection with our reading it also means that we might complete it badly. The “you” in Civil Service is an assembly, but quite often is the reader, like you read in “Parable.”

With Klink’s notion of the will to address as the will to love and be loved, is it too much of a leap to think about Schwartz’s You as formalizing a desire to be completed? I think it sort of is, but it also makes me excited. Klink says that for Celan that address manifests as “a strain towards what is minimally given in the world.” The reader, in Civil Service, might be what is minimally given—in the coercible, thin world of the book’s proper nouns, the insisted-on readerly You holds the text together. The readers complete the text, assemble the state into whatever sort of reality it briefly is, with all the colors and nomenclatures of our own world. We help to move its cruelties at the same time as we move with Amira towards, hopefully, the outside.

Insofar as she is addressable, is Amira loved? Do we, returning to Augustine, want her to be? What about when the terms of that being are also fugitive, also confined, surveilled, tortured? I think she does exist more than the Old Dictator does, insofar as she has a name, a directionality about her in Civil Service. But how much more? Especially when the Old Dictator with his paintings rhymes so neatly with George Bush, who unfortunately continues to exist; not that Amira is without “real” corollaries, but that those corollaries are by definition marginal, underground. Readers do not make this world easily. The book everywhere challenges what in most books is an unwritten, I guess epistemological, contract, bringing under scrutiny the ethics of completing (reconstructing?) an account of violence.

It feels right, to me, to close this out on a consideration of that poem you mention, “Blue.” I actually have no idea how to read it. It feels like such an interruption of real lyric speech in a collection of poems that have at best a more ambivalent relationship to lyric and voice, as we’ve talked about. Unpunctuated in hard-enjambed tercets, with the shortest lines in the book, it’s printed in that grayscale color and right-aligned, so that when one flips through the book, the poem is easily lost. The scene of the poem seems to be a boat, some sort of passage being made oversea; “we were / thrashing the sea / was wine- / dark” brings to mind Homer, the refugees of climate catastrophe and imperialism in and along the Mediterranean. Beginning “late to / language,” attached to this experience of crossing or fleeing, and then this haunting question “what did / you lose / in becoming / family,” the poem moves me toward thinking language and kinship next to each other, as forms of consolidation maybe. Is coming to language a loss, too? What sort of family does this speaker mean, how does it relate to the “we” which begins the poem and then fractures out into an I? All of this is interesting, and really tangled with a lot of how I have been reading Civil Service’s desires around apostrophe and world-making. But why is this poem in this book, really amounting to its one moment of being sheerly (shearingly) lyric? I think I want it to be prayer, given that it’s followed by the interrogation scene when Amira says “G-d is what I walk toward when I walk out into my unknowing.” The poem ends, in testament to this: 


dazzling otherwise  
do I name  
when I  

address you” 

As is always the case with my favorite poems, I have no way to improve on that or explicate in such a way that could make it resound more piercingly than it already does. More than only gorgeous, it limns a book comprised of cruelty’s conscriptive dailiness with something in excess of that, that feels, when you read it, like an announcement of a new grammar, or at least a movement (see how the poem rocks and eddies) towards one, a plan, a sense of new arriving. I was reminded of another favorite poem of mine, which feels both quite far from Civil Service, and then quite close: “Alma To Her Sister,” the last poem in Linda Gregg’s book Too Bright To See. In my roommate’s copy of the book, either they or one of the book’s former readers has written “DIFFERENT” in pencil underneath it. One of those marginalia things I love. “Alone no loneliness in the dream in the quiet / in the sunrise in the sunset Louise.” I can imagine a reader like that, in their copy of Civil Service, scrawling something similar under “Blue”—different, differencing, door, door, otherwise.

Thanks for spending the last month with me here, George. I think it became a lot stranger and more winding than either of us anticipated when we were brainstorming the form of a book review in letters, but I probably shouldn’t be surprised. It’s always a gift to read with you. I’ve left off asking more than I could ask, as I’m sure you did too—about “Blue,” about all the constellations in which Civil Service flashes, all the correspondences. I really think, and I hope our conversation attests to this, that it’s one of the most exciting first books of poetry to come out in some time, daring and rigorous and moving. It’s been nice to go together with you for a little while.



Works Cited 

-       Abdurraqib and Moten, Millennials Are Killing Capitalism 
-       Brand, Ossuaries 
-       Briante, Defacing the Monument 
-       Celan, Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen
-       Foucault, A History of Sexuality vol 1 
-       Freud, “The Question of Lay Analysis”
-       Gregg, Too Bright to See 
-       Klink, “You. An Introduction to Paul Celan”
-       Murillo, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry 
-       Murillo, Choi, and Smith, John Murillo vs. The Business 
-       Schwartz, Civil Service (Graywolf Press)
-       Schwartz and Naimon, Between the Covers Interview 
-       Sharif, Customs 
-       Sharif and Laurentiis, Empathy is an Endpoint 
-       Wright, One Big Self 

Further Reading 

-       Ariella Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism
-       Dionne Brand, The Blue Clerk 
-       Kamran Javadizadeh, Institutionalized Lyric: American Poetry at the Midcentury (forthcoming)
-       Claire Schwartz, “Terms of Entry
-       Solmaz Sharif, “A Poetry of Proximity