diagrams III

Tupamaro flagThe following is Douglas Oliver’s own introduction to selected “Diagram Poems” in A Various Art. This book is basically, as far as I can see, an anthology of “Cambridge poets”: Prynne et. al. Many thanks to John Latta for the reference.

We used to get the Tupamaros stories on the night shift at Agence France-Presse. Reports of urgent, sometmes bloody events would be wired through in Spanish, translated on the French floor, and reach our desk to be retranslated into English. At every step the events moved away from reality. Orchestrated by the Tupamaros for maximum heroic effect, they were transformed into Spanish news rhetoric, into French, into very different English news rhetoric, and then might appear in the columns of Asahi Shimbum, in whatever rhetoric the Japanese use.

Uruguay itself, the poverty brought about by the crash of world wool and meat markets and by the exploitation of the indigenous population by Western financial interests . . . this lay somewhere behind the bravado of exploit you were reporting. Whether the guerrillas were right or wrong–and you were against extremist violence, along with the rhetoric that falsified events at their origin–you might be dreaming quite obliquely, as you tapped the stories out, of how an authentic politics could combine the mildness of a dead baby of yours, dear in memory, with the stern wisdom of elder ministers truly backed by their people.

In Pando the Tupamaros seized the police and fire stations, the telephone exchange and three banks, before trying to escape as the police closed in on them. These movements could be plotted on to paper, already with some inaccuracy. As the diagrams were plotted, they moved farther away from reality into pictures which both reflected the actual events but were also permitted an infection from personal British fantasy, such as the dead son and your worries about political judgment. Poems emerged, more distorting even than journalism. The final job of this deliberately impure art was to recreate emotional urgency out of fantasy. (214)

I like very much the idea of an “impure art” whose job is “to recreate emotional urgency out of fantasy.”

For more on the “Diagram Poems,” see here. More to come.

diagrams II

More on Douglas Oliver‘s Diagram Poems. NB that, as in the previous post, you can click on the images for larger versions.

I’m interested in the heterogeneity of these drawings. The top tends to be closer to a “pure” diagram. Moving down the page, we find representational images. Often (and we’ve seen this clearly in the first two diagrams) the same elements are reworked in different forms: a seemingly abstract tracing of movements through space becomes first an airman, then a vaccinated dog; here, a bird’s head as icon for a parrot is echoed below by fully-fledged line drawings of a stork, a goose.

Other elements hover between what Peirce would call the iconic and the symbolic. The line at the bottom right here, for instance, both continues the line of the diagrammed fire station wall above, and becomes part of a skeletal representation of a fire alarm, dotted lines symbolizing the klaxon’s sounds blaring to both sides, picking up the arrow above that indicates news permeating outside and inside.

Diagram 3
The diagrams encompass both the known and the unknown, the definite and the probable–better, the virtual and the actual. Near a semicircle containing the denotation “P.C.s hide,” presented as a record of the raid, is the word “wife” with a question mark hovering above. Is a wife located there, perhaps separated out from the crowd on the left-hand side? Is it a woman, who may or may not be somebody’s wife? Or is there nobody at all? Or not yet, for the diagram notes future as well as past: just below the line that divides upper from lower, (floor) plan from artistic (execution), is the bird symbol and the observation “Old man + parrot (to come).” When are this pair to come? How will they enter into the action?

The diagram is the record of the plan, the virtual marshalling of guerilla forces, but also the record of its actualization, and the way in which actualization entails the elimination of incompossible worlds: the virtual is a garden of forking paths that can enfold divergent outcomes, in one of which, say, all adversaries are neutralized, in another of which mistakes occur and a back-up plan has to be sought; as the plan is actualized, at all these points of divergence only one outcome can ensue, either neutralization or back-up.

The next diagram in the series depicts (or draws from) a raid on a telephone exchange. Again, the visual plane is split between a more fully diagrammatic top third, and a more representational lower two thirds. Again, however, there are echoes and resonances between the two sections. A pregnant woman appears first as symbol, then as icon: first, that is, as a conventional sign, like the images representing gender on bathroom doors; second, as a sign that seems to garner its meaning more through resemblance, as though it indicated a specific woman, rather than woman in general.

Diagram 4
The cut cables are also duplicated at top and at bottom, but again with rather different connotations: first to locate the site of sabotage; second to indicate a more fundamental communicational impasse between the woman and the bearded man with a cane. But perhaps the image now also suggests a cut umbilical cord? It’s a cut that’s at the centre of the generalized flashpoint that envelops the larger part of the diagram, echoing the flash at the top at a street corner subject to a complex network of spectatorship and surveillance.

In the accompanying poem, “Central,” Oliver entwines the story of the Tupamaro raid with a dialogue with his dead child, Tom: a strained, broken, and finally impossible communication.

[. . .] I saw the airman signal and I got it. I heard Tom’s voice as from a distant receiver and I got it. Seven guerrillas tying up the telephone exchange expertly. then Tom’s voice said, “Hallo Central,”
from the booth of death.

[. . .]

Tom, go ahead.
and I’d like to have friends on these streets, friends
who’d look for me in creations of total emergency
in or out of dreams . . . Cut . . . A guerrilla command tone:
“Place the pregnant
woman into the temporary prison with the 40
communication functionaries and consumers. Get on with this.
Cut other connections yourself but obey
the voices that come from long distance, obey sound and feeling.”

Tom, go ahead.
But my Tom’s in a frightener cell
of the night of youth
where old and young eyes shine and are grey
and the ears fold in
to the internal sounds.

diagrams I

I’ve mentioned Douglas Oliver‘s Diagram Poems (1979) before, following a discussion of Deleuze’s concept of the diagram. And I remember somewhere, sometime reading an essay about, or simply mentioning, these poems–I had thought that it was in Marshall Blonsky’s On Signs, but no. Then Oliver came up again in a conversation last year with my friend Carol Watts. So I felt I should track this book down.

And behold, thanks to Abebooks, I now have a copy (autographed, no less) of the Diagram Poems. They really are extraordinary.

The poems were inspired by accounts of the Uruguayan Tupamaro guerrillas in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Tupamaros were a pretty fun-loving, performative lot, at least at the outset. As Lawrence Weschler notes, they projected the image of a “marriage of Chaplin and Che. [. . .] Student radicals all over the world looked upon their Uruguayan counterparts with undisguised admiration. Nowhere else did young radicals seem to bring to their activism quite the brio, quite the panache, that the Tupamaros of Montevideo managed” (100-101). They engaged in a form of guerrilla theatre, showing a measure of humour and consideration for the inadvertent consequences of their action. For instance, as A J Lagguth records:

On one occasion, they burst into a gambling casino and scooped up the profits. The next day, when the croupiers complained that the haul had included their tips, the Tupamaros mailed back a percentage of the money. (qtd. 103)

They attacked symbolic targets. They performed a kind of armed situationism.

Once, in the wee hours of another morning, they ransacked an exclusive high-class nightclub, scrawling the walls with perhaps their most memorable slogan: O Bailan Todos o No Bailan Nadie–Either everybody dances or nobody dances. (104)

Gradually, however, the game became bloodier and more deadly serious, on both sides. And June 1973 saw what Weschler calls “the final culmination of a five-year-long slow-motion coup” (110) with the installation of full-blown military authoritarianism.

Oliver’s poems–and the all-important diagrams–are neither celebration nor condemnation of the Tupamaros. They are, perhaps, an attempt precisely to diagram the forcefields within which they operated, and into which they intervened. Oliver doesn’t shy away from comedy, especially in the opening sequences: note the cartoon-like qualities of the early diagrams. Nor from tragedy: the final annotation on the final diagram refers simply to the “Festival of the wild beasts” while the accompanying poem includes the lines

it all turns so really funereal for us
as brave as that and as flawed
just a final diagram almost straight
and a heart on which the diagram is scored
beside the deaths of innocences we have known
and even caused a little in the scarface heart.

Here, meanwhile, are the opening couple of diagrams in the book. The first, Oliver describes as “of a general co-ordinator’s movements as he visits the various operations by car.”

Diagram 1
The second outlines a more complex scenario, in which

one group of raiders, some disguised as airmen, arrives in three separate parties to take over a police station. (Beforehand, they have reconnoitred the station during several visits, posing as members of the public. They brought the same dog, twice, for vaccination formalities.) They begin the seizure by rounding up policemen and placing them, eventually, in cells. A police sergeant, overlooked, appears from a dormitory, fires warning shots to the outside streets, darts through corridors, and aims at the invaders from a central patio. He takes refuge, wounded, in the dormitory and finally gives himself up. Two other police officers walk into the building and are overpowered but a third escapes. These prove crucial hitches in the overall plan.

Diagram 2
And here’s a snippet of the accompanying poem, “P. C.”:

Like an adder, the sergeant
swerves to cold. From a doorsill he snakes
into the internal.
The hope of speed is stung in a home of pyjamas
or a bullet to the fancy for a long, long time.
At last, in a dreamy sweat, movement
goes peaceably to the sagpit, safety.

More on this anon. In the meantime, if anyone has any idea of the essay I half-remember reading on these poems, from at least fifteen years ago, I’d be most grateful for a reference.