I just re-read and re-re-read C.S. Giscombe’s Giscome Road, trying, once again, to come to terms with what it’s doing. As someone writing a biographical/historical “poem” (or whatever you want to call it), I thought it would be good to re-acquaint myself with this one. It is “about the constellation of places in northern British Columbia that were named, directly or indirectly, for John Robert Giscome” (n.p.), an Afro-Caribbean prospector who came to that country in 1858. But in what sense is it “about” Giscome or about the places that bear his name? Or maybe the question should be what does it mean to be “about” history – not to mention to “include” (subsume?) it.
In most of this book-length poem, history as narrative only appears within brief interludes of (gorgeous) lyrical meditation. There are certainly Olsonian moments:
“’To further his ends,’ Fr. Morice sd, of Dunlevy, ‘he established a post at Giscome Portage, a section of land named after a man he had for some time in his employ as cook.’
“But Rev. Runnalls gets to the point: ‘To further his trade w/the natives he established a number of outposts, one of wch was at Giscome Portage, a place wch was named for a negro cook in Dunlevy’s employ.’” (33)
However, the next page/section, “(Northern Road)” departs from that mold, and dives back into the stream:
“The arrival at the edge of water
some little end of the water come to & breached
(in a stretch forward or as though in a gesture
from, typically, one of so many edges),
a hiatus in the travel by water, the build
of negatives and switchbacks along the same old bank
the edge of a story” (34)
This passage seems to me more typical of the book as a whole: it is really an extended reflection on the process/nature of hi/story than a history. If it is “about” anything, it’s about fluid doublings-back, traces [in a decidedly Derridean sense], centers and peripheries (“You never know what name the periphery’s going to start with,” the poem ends). Moreover, the geographically and historically specific landscape invariably ends up becoming a metaphorical landscape; nouns like source, mouth, head, interior sit uneasily (and unreferentially) next to pieces (one a “centerfold”) of detailed topo maps. All space ends up being centerless, if you’re always on a periphery.
One suspects that, on a practical level, this may be a response to the apparent lack of information about Giscombe’s Giscome forebear (“the name’s the last thing to disappear”). But more than that, or perhaps because of that, G. seems to have a profound mistrust of “description” – the presumption that one can picture or represent anything at all. He also mistrusts narrative, which is probably not hard to do if you are African-American:
“or a staged show –
the endless old story footlit, the same old story
endlessly leaping from river to river but just ahead of the words
& without narration to give itself quantity -,” (49)
Giscombe manages to pull off that most difficult of poetic feats, the long lyric poem. But it left me feeling nostalgic for the de Man affair. That is, I don’t think G. would say that he has given up on history; in fact, he’d probably say that this is the only narrative that works – at least for his book. And that’s probably right – it’s definitely more complex than I know.
I have to wonder, though, if one can grapple with history via abstractions or even via trope. There’s something obdurate, even Special, about specificity; about physicality; maybe we need a special language for it – or need to give language “about” history an epistemological “pass.”
But, no – that just surrenders historical narrative to those who don’t wonder about such things. That’s the strength of Giscome Road – the wondering as it wanders. I certainly don’t think I’ve ever conceived of history as in any meaningful sense “knowable” (there are too many people doing too many things at the same time – each of which is meaningful in multiple ways). But I still feel a need to jump into the current and name the bubbles as I sink in it. Or some such trope.
Does skepticism about representation mean giving up on history (even as we gesture towards it – whatever it is)? And if so, is that a surrender? Or are these questions hopelessly late 80s?
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