Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

Hard things to look at, the poet as mystic, and Sachiko Murakami’s the Invisibility Exhibit

Last week for Influency we read Sachiko Murakami’s Governor General Award-shortlisted book The Invisibility Exhibit. The book is, as described by Jon Paul Fiorentino…

…one woman’s fiercely intelligent response to one of society’s most tragic and pressing dilemmas. Murakami reveals and dismantles the rhetoric of the all-too-familiar missing woman narrative. The Invisibility Exhibit is an articulate and expertly rendered protest against the violence of erasure.

It made me think of another writer who chose to engage the topic of the women caught in the path of, and mangled by the underside of the global economic system (the side of urban poverty and the worst blight of drug dependency linked to prostitution and criminalization): Roberto Bolaño in 2666—epigraphed “an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” and whose English translation was published, like the Invisibility Exhibit, in 2008. The fourth part of Bolaño’s book begins with the sentence, “The girl’s body turned up in a vacant lot in Colonia Las Flores,” and from there is less a narrative, more a machine-gun assault on the reader with disappearance or rape or death after disappearance or rape or death, each clinically described and accompanied by personal background (all drawn from actual police records of disappearances and murders in Ciudad Juárez, “where more than 400 women [had] similarly disappeared in the [previous] 15 years“) rapid-fired at the reader for almost three hundred pages, interrupted only intermittently by accounts of the everyday lives of people in and around the fictional Mexican border city of Santa Theresa. The only person who both grasps what’s happening and seems to respond appropriately, is a mystic on a daytime talk show on state TV, who, late in the segment, goes into a trance and begins wailing:  “It’s Santa Teresa! It’s Santa Theresa! I see it clearly now. Women are being killed there. They’re killing my daughters. My daughters! My daughters! She screamed as she threw an imaginary shawl over her head and Reinaldo felt a shiver descend his spine like an elevator, or maybe rise, or both at once. The police do nothing, she said after a few seconds, in a different voice, deeper and more masculine, the fucking police do nothing, they just watch, but what are they watching? What are they watching?” (436-7 of the English hardcover).

I wondered if Murakami might be playing, in real, Canadian life, the role that that mystic plays in the universe of 2666. A woman of esoteric craft articulating in human terms what has needed to be articulated in human terms, what we as readers—alert (bullet-ridden) observers with our hands tied—have been thirsting to have articulated in human terms, but that hasn’t been because of systemic cynicism and/or numbness and/or belief that everyone would rather talk about other things and wouldn’t it be an imposition not to comply with their presumed wishes?

To me the analogy of poet as mystic is useful in the sense that both contemporary poet and contemporary mystic speak from a position of eroded power, but are in some sense strengthened in their commentary for that marginality. They’re less corruptible for being less attractive to those people and things that tempt, more able to empathize with, for being closer to, those so marginalized that they can’t really speak on their own behalf at all—the invisible women Murakami is prodding both herself and us to empathize with by entering the Invisibility Exhibition ourselves: “you can actually feel like you aren’t even there” (76).

Poets and mystics also might share a kinship in their distrustful relationship with economic rationality as an externally imposed, ordering force. Their antagonism to the compartmentalizing and reducing power of the system’s instrumental rationality pushes them to pick up objects that are difficult for the system’s instrumental rationality to categorize and systemically reify; things, for example, that are hard to call large or small—the phenomenon of the disappearing women of the downtown east side / Santa Theresa. From a certain vantage point (that of the women and the people who actively empathize with them), nothing could be bigger. But from the vantage point of the mainstream discourse, it’s the tragic but regrettable crime of a crazy dude with a pig farm out in the suburbs, and aren’t we glad to have solved the problem of him!

The one-foot-in and one-foot-out quality of Murakami’s position seems to me to be highly analogous to the position of the mystic as public actor. We may be uncomfortable with the mystic analogy for its association with booga booga, because the women Murakami is writing about aren’t disappearing because of booga booga, and it’s offensive to even suggest as much. But doesn’t part of us wish that the terrifying significance of Murakami’s object was just booga booga? That it could all just be explained away in terms of an inhuman monster (Pickton) now safely declawed and locked away? Murakami was insistent throughout the night that while Pickton is a part of the story, he certainly isn’t the story. Women continue to disappear.


YouTube recently took down a number of Hitler parodies made by remixing the subtitles on a scene from the film “Downfall.” They were taken down in response to DMCA claims by the film’s production company. This was met with glee from the ADL’s Abraham Foxman, who saw the parodies as a trivialization of Hitler. Contra Foxman, on this week’s “On the Media,” Ron Rosenbaum argued that, in fact, the parodies were picking up something already “cartoonish and trivializing” in the film itself. He makes the case that the original film served as “an exculpation of the German people by making Hitler into a kind of comic psycho monster and thus blaming all the evil of the Holocaust on Hitler and the other people in the bunker.” The relevance of this is that just like Pickton is imprisoned, Hitler is dead, and yet genocide and antisemitism as phenomena persist. And as is illustrated by the parallel rise of Fascism in Italy, Vichy France, and in movements throughout the West, it’s foolish to think that irrational (from the standpoint of any universal concept of justice) nationalism was really just a Hitler problem. But that doesn’t stop us. Our wrapping of the injustice Murakami is responding to into a tidy conceptual box and burying it with Pickton is why screams of protest against this artificial-blindness (effective invisibility) are so important, and so painful for us. We’re implicated.


To step back for a second, one of the first things I wondered, opening the book was what could motivate someone to take the crucial step through the unspoken social sanctions and into this universe? Murakami isn’t a super woman. As is clear in this interview, the catalyzing elements that propelled her into this issue were circumstantial and human. Not the least of which was…

…my mother has lived down there for some years.

The book is dedicated to her mother “with fierce love.”

Finding out about this direct personal connection left me feeling a bit disappointed. Part of me hoped that she was a super woman, and didn’t need the motive / sanction of having an a priori personal connection motivating / licensing her to engage this issue and bring it into the public square. If she could do it, from the same disassociated position as the rest of us, then couldn’t her example embolden us all to drop the taboos, to muster the motivation to engage this reality? But that person would have been as false as all-causing comic-psycho-monster Hitler; comic-psycho-monster Pickton.


But to tie it all back to the original thread, the universe that Murakami has put her foot into scares us exactly because at some level we know that it’s not just booga booga. Laid out for us on the page, we see that it’s too big to encapsulate and dismiss as booga booga, and we’re implicated in it. And isn’t the sense that they have their foot in something real and huge and powerful and unconceptualizeable and incriminating exactly what gives mystics their authority? We want to dismiss them as frauds (and many of them are), but I think that the limits we run up against as speakers in the public discourse, and their artificiality, make us all potential believers in some mystics’ claims to privileged knowledge of something hidden. I guess what I’m saying is that while a mystic might have their foot in booga booga, what interests me is the suggestion that they also might not.  Many poets, like mystics, are frauds. But the possibility that some aren’t is too important to ignore. Approved public discourse is too unsatisfying for something to not be of interest if it makes a claim to having access to something unspoken, hidden behind the curtain of liberal-bourgeois norms of politeness. Murakami makes such a claim, and its promise bears out, but I’ll get back to that. But, to stay in the realm of the general, it’s exactly this foot in what might be booga booga but what might also be real and particular and invisible-to-me-as-6-foot-6-white-male-graduate-school-educated-member-of-the-privileged-class-but-maybe-visible-to-her that gives the poet the standing to be potent in the roles, mentioned in discussion, of “embattled warrior, war resistor, … guerrilla, … terrorist, … agitator, … critic, … shit-disturber… spy, magician, trickster, acrobat.”

At the other extreme, it’s Christian Bök’s eschewing of this claim (see in particular 3:35 – 7:15ish1) to having a foot in the less quantifiable, more particular, present and subjective, might-be-booga-booga-but-might-not-be universe that accounts for why, while I share in the initial ooh and aah at the spectacle of Eunoia (that is until it occurred to me that going adequately “hard at that task, what cat can’t rant adamant, a la Bäk?”… I cheated a bit at the end there), why, the initial shock wearing off, I lost interest pretty quickly, plowed through each successive chapter / vowel with an increasing feeling of labouriousness, and have no desire to return to it ever again. Bök to me is poet as battle-scarred warrior without the mystical claim / legitimation that would stand him up as potentially anything more than just another Don Quixote, crusading so energetically (how many times did he read the dictionary?) but so fucking ineffectually against exactly those windmills the system has set up for us to rage at, goading us to the point that, like Bök seems to, we forget to care about the particular and the human; for example, the experience of witnessing the systemic creation of invisibility with as little distancing abstraction as can be managed. This is why it seems absurd to me that Bök holds himself up as Avant Garde. How can one who’s work proudly represents an exceptionally pure distillation of every means-dominating-ends, abstract-dominating-particular thing that’s Iron Cage2-entrapping in our culture, lay any credible claim to being Avant Garde? It’s a powerful critique of feudal traditionalism-for-the-sake-of-traditionalism, but in that sense, it’s maybe Arrière Garde (?)—still important if we accept what Habermas highlighted in the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere as the creeping “refeudalization” of public discourse in late capitalist society (which I, to a point, do)3—but certainly not Avant. Or maybe it’s all meant ironically, in which case, I still think my reaction is legitimate in that it would be exactly the one he’d be trying to provoke.

By contrast, Murakami’s book is powerful and provocative and mercilessly immediate in exactly the ways it should be: in its reflections on the compromised, discomfiting, and only quasi-legitimate experience of being witness, and through that, with the world that she’s witnessing, not as a crime or public health statistician or as a technocrat of some other sort, but as a poet and present human being. So buy that shit and read it. Here’s the link again.



1 Parenthetically, check out the comments below the video for a great example of the bourgeois sadism discussed a couple of posts ago. Two of the three commenters, placing themselves firmly on the side of the Bök—not coincidentally, by far the dominant commercial actor among Canadian, if not North American, poets this side of Atwood, Cohen, or Ondaatje (am I wrong?)—revel in using Starnino’s “”….um,..uh, um,..er….um'””s as grounds to dismiss the validity of what he’s saying… so much easier than revealing themselves enough to argue substance (not that I think his idea of his poetry in history is particularly more robust than Bök’s, but that’s a whole different thing).

2 From Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (pages 181-2 in the edition I linked to):

For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic condtions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment”. But Fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

…To-day the spirit of religious asceticism—whether finally, who knows?—has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer… Where the fulfillment of the calling cannot directly be related to the highest spiritual and cultural values, or when, on the other hand, it need not be felt simply as economic compulsion, the individual generally abandons the attempt to justify it at all…. the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport.

No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”

3 Also parenthetically, in response to Bök’s cri de coeur in the “cage match” that we don’t contemplate microwaves adequately, in general he’s probably right, we probably don’t do a good enough job incorporating into our vocabularies the most current technological words, but it struck a chord of personal irony for me, having written a quasi-parodic meditation on the microwave a solid half-decade ago (originally for a cultural studies elective). Generally though, this sentiment about the lack of poems about the moon landing or the microwave seem very Arriere Garde to me, critiquing the resurgence of feudal, un-self-reflexive, passified being from the standpoint of our powerful tools. It seems to me that there weren’t great epics about the moon landing precisely because the post-war 20th century was an era of a consolidated mass culture; when the refeudalizing forces Habermas was writing about were truly at their shameless peak (he wrote the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in ’62, which was really before the fragmenting culture war hit its stride with the student, civil rights, anti-war, and women’s movements in the late decade).


One Response to “Hard things to look at, the poet as mystic, and Sachiko Murakami’s the Invisibility Exhibit”

  1. You must must must read Anne Carson, starting with the Glass Essay if you want to read about the poet as mystic. Just the most incredible poem in Canadian history.

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