A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature, by Jacob Edmond (Fordham University Press, 2012), 272 pp., $NZ 96.76.
Jacob Edmond’s refreshing book focuses on concerns common to avant-garde poetry and comparative literature, specifically poetic material produced primarily in the 1980s and 1990s by six writers from China, Russia, and the United States and comparative literature’s interest in negotiating dialectics between self and other. Edmond’s introduction indicates his interest in sighting a ‘third alternative’ to Maurice Blanchot’s 1971 concept of ‘common strangeness’: Edmond wants to write within zones ‘between the common and the co-man, between speaking of others—of exile literature, modernism, or world literature—and speaking to them: responding to how we can know or write about each other in the first place’ (10). I might wish the book had been titled something like Estranging Poetries: Avant-Garde Dialectics in a Transnational Era, especially given the distancing Edmond wants to achieve from the uses to which Blanchot’s phrase ‘common strangeness’ can be put. We can imagine more dynamism in dialectics than the advice to speak to rather than speak of, so I am certainly sympathetic to Edmond’s resistance to Blanchot’s cited stance. Such a stance arguably encourages identitarian siloing, and Edmond’s book is invested in building bridges across those silos, in this case avant-garde poetry and comparative literature on one hand and U.S. Russian, and Sinophone literatures on the other. Edmond proposes ‘encounter and superimposition’ (197) as ways to imagine what it means when something transcultural and translingual happens, especially when it happens self-consciously. This course of the particular—one writer going across to another culture and language—over-mapped with palimpsestual revisiting is figured as an alternative to historical repetition and so-called progress narratives, with all their damaging social and critical consequences.