Translingual Poetics: Writing Personhood Under Settler Colonialism / Collier Nogues

An Inca quipu from the Larco Museum in Lima via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Sarah Dowling. Translingual Poetics: Writing Personhood Under Settler Colonialism. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2018.

What is a person? And how does an individual or population speak if they are excluded from the protections of the category of personhood? Sarah Dowling’s Translingual Poetics: Writing Personhood Under Settler Colonialism takes up Barbara Johnson’s suggestion that discourses of law and lyric have much to say to each other on these questions. Dowling observes that, while recent scholarship by Dorothy Wang, Joseph Jonghyun Jeon, and others has brought critical race studies and poetics discourses into closer dialogue, and while the new lyric studies has questioned the construction of lyric personhood, there is still work to be done concerning how lyric personhood is raced and how poetic forms can reveal and challenge the exclusionary nature of the category of legal personhood.1

The specific terrain of Translingual Poetics is North American poetry that foregrounds, through staging confrontations between multiple languages, the linguistic and bodily violences wrought by historical and ongoing colonization. Nodding to Jodi Melamed’s account of neoliberal multiculturalism, Dowling introduces the term “neoliberal multilingualism” to describe the way liberal democracies such as the US and Canada frame language diversity as aesthetic, individual, and new, rather than as a precursor to and survivor of settler colonialism’s deliberate extinguishment of precontact languages. Monolingualism, Dowling argues after Yasemin Yildiz, is an ideology, and she suggests that the term “settler monolingualism” be used to describe how “everyday linguistic and discursive practices present settlement and dispossession as a ‘done deal’” (19). Her aim is to show how what she calls translingual poetic strategies can frame such ideological monolingualism as a “particular form and vector of racial and colonial violence” and as an intermediary between settler colonialism and the neoliberal multiculturalism that ratifies it (21, italics in original).

Dowling marks translingual poetry as crucially distinct from multilingual poetry. While multilingual poetries juxtapose languages, she argues, they fail to attend critically to those languages’ differential power; even recent critical attention to multilingual poetries, such as Marjorie Perloff’s discussion of “exophonic” poetry, tend to reaffirm, rather than challenge, a monolingual paradigm. Perloff suggests that exophonic poems mix languages in order to respond to a globally connected world in nonstop flux, which, Dowling points out, locates exophonic poetics as always current, of the “now,” in keeping with neoliberal multilingualism’s presentist insistence that language diversity is “new.” In contrast, Dowling delimits a set of critical and oppositional practices that she identifies as “translingual” and which apprehend the long scale of historical power relations. Translingual poems, she asserts, produce “effects of opacity” that impede the promise of transparent access to the lyric speaker (7). As such, these practices foreground the gap between neoliberal democracy’s promise of access to an abstract equality and the racialized dehumanization experienced by subjects who find themselves outside the category of “person.”

Importantly, Dowling distinguishes translingual poetics also from the poetics of witness, which has sought to do the “reparative work of translating nonpersons into persons,” but which relies upon and props up the category of personhood, rather than challenging the terms of access to it (7). Dowling offers a trenchant critique of the way discourses of precarity have been deployed in the context of poetics of witness, observing that these discourses, exemplified by Judith Butler’s account in Precarious Life, tend to presuppose the existence of a whole self who, in response to realizing the suffering of an other, experiences and then voices the pain of fragmentation. While I take her point that the poetics of witness relies on such a presupposition, Dowling’s reading gives short shrift to Butler’s now decades-long engagement with precarity and interdependence. When Dowling suggests that translingual poems “call for a rethinking of the ethical relationship that would conceive of relation as something more substantial than the encounter between two privatized selves” (55), it seems an oversight not to acknowledge that Butler, among other theorists, has been rethinking that relationship for some time.2 But Dowling is right to point out that the most visible discourses of precarity in the American academy have not typically considered violences of longue durée, nor have they attended adequately to artists’ articulations of it, especially those of Latin American artists who have since the 1960s engaged the precursors of contemporary neoliberal strategies of management and suppression. Accordingly, Dowling identifies Cecilia Vicuña’s sense of “lo precario” as an alternative, particularly in its attention to the fragile interrelationships of human and nonhuman elements. Such a model of precarity, she argues, can address long-standing conditions of violence, particularly ongoing colonial violences that threaten Indigenous futures.

What Dowling constructs on this foundational revision of precarity is a compelling argument for “translingual” as a cohesive and fruitful category of critical evaluation. Chapter 1 examines two works, Vicuña’s Instan and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s Codex Espangliensis, that adapt Indigenous communication technologies: the Andean khipu and the Mesoamerican codex, respectively.3 These engagements with the materiality of the book, Dowling suggests, recall the body and disrupt linear time, and their interplay of languages calls attention to the relationships both between languages and between the bodies that speak, write, wield, erase, and recover them. Chapter 2 turns to works by M. NourbeSe Philip and James Thomas Stevens that also seek a physical relationship to an inaccessible past, not through the materiality of the book, but rather through voice and desire. Considering how apostrophe and prosopopeoia enable Carolyn Dinshaw’s “touch across time,” Dowling argues that the poems by Philip and Stevens seek possession through affective investment, troubling liberal notions of personhood as individual property. Chapter 3 examines works by Myung Mi Kim and Anne Tardos which offer instances of Asian-American and Jewish immigrant narratives, respectively, both of which Dowling suggests are commonly seen as model minorities “inheriting” the settler colonial “sovereign territorial right” (92). But Kim and Tardos dramatize the failure to access the personhood promised by that inheritance; the interrupted rhythms Dowling calls “immigrant prosodies” ensure that these works’ poetic speakers “remain stuck, formally equal but socially illegible” (93). Chapter 4 treats Rachel Zolf’s 2014 Janey’s Arcadia, mapping its critique of Canada’s failed politics of recognition. Zolf’s “translation” of nineteenth-century English and Indigenous texts using OCR technology deforms words and their speakers, “depict[ing] indigeneity as something that cannot be read—let alone grasped and appropriated—by the settler state” (24). Translingual Poetics concludes by reading Layli Long Soldier’s and Jordan Abel’s poetic responses to recent US and Canadian government apologies for violences against their Indigenous populations. Dowling argues that when neoliberal multicultural democracies turn to empty rhetorical gestures as a substitute for material restorative justice, translingual poetry’s sensitivity to power differentials and command of rhetoric make it uniquely effective as a rebuttal.

Dowling’s methodology is conscientiously and satisfyingly influenced by her pedagogy. The trouble with the poetics of witness she describes in Chapter 1 will likely remind teachers of literature of a familiar problem: the act of reading minority voices does not necessarily lead majority students to sympathize or identify with those voices (14). Dowling explains that she approaches translingual poems with the same three options her students have when they encounter unfamiliar languages in a text: skip over, find a translation, or translate themselves using the tools they can find. Because translingual poems shift attention from a reader’s relative fluency in different languages to the power differentials between languages, and because translingual poems refuse transparent access to a lyric speaker speaking “for” or “from” a minority viewpoint, they make for particularly effective teaching material. Grounded as they may be in such a leveling approach, Dowling’s close readings here are supple and sharp; each chapter’s juxtaposition of poetic works and critical resources is gratifyingly persuasive. The book’s broad reach does risk some less potent moments; while Chapter 2’s engagement with queer theory and African-American studies is mostly incisive, the application of “queer nostalgia” (23) to Philip’s work alongside Stevens’s feels a little tenuous. And in the discussion of Vicuña’s and Gómez-Peña’s works, a more thorough connection between the poets’ own appropriation of Indigenous communication technologies and the critique of settler colonial practices would have been welcome.

Translingual Poetics is an exciting argument for how poetry can interrogate the contrast between abstract conceptions of personhood and the concrete experiences of those who are excluded from personhood’s protections. While anchored in poetics, the book has the generous capacity to further conversations in a range of disciplines—including critical race studies, transpacific and transnational diaspora studies, and critical refugee and militarism studies—that are concerned with the intersections of colonialism, neoliberalism, and racialized capitalism. As Dowling notes, poetry may not solve the problems under discussion here, but poetry is where we may imagine an “otherwise” we can work toward together (xi). In Dowling’s hands, so, too, is criticism.


  1. Dowling points particularly to recent work by Virginia Jackson, Yopie Prins, Gillian White, Jonathan Culler, and Stephanie Burt.
  2. See, particularly, Butler’s discussion of an “ethics of cohabitation” in Chapter 3 of Notes Toward a Theory of Performative Assembly (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), and of responsibility in Chapter 1 of Frames of War (London: Verso, 2009).
  3. “Indigenous communication technologies” is one example of Dowling’s apt incorporation of terms from other disciplines; this one comes from Matt Cohen’s The Networked Wilderness: Communicating in Early New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).