When we began reading Ed Pavlić’s Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno, my professor, Dr. Zurawski, said, “high school messes up poetry.” I immediately knew that I was going to enjoy the next 75 minutes of class. She continued: “we think that if we’re smart enough, we can unlock the mystery every word holds, but that’s not how poetry works, especially not contemporary poetry.” I scribbled her words down quickly, thinking about how true they were. For me, poetry had always been a puzzle; if I could find the right meaning behind the allusions, the symbolism, the meter and rhyme scheme, and the literary devices, I would be granted access to the greater meaning of the poem. I did this time and time again during high school, and with each poem, I mentally congratulated myself for being “smart” enough to grasp what the author had intended. But Dr. Zurawski changed that, and so did Dr. Pavlić. Together, these two professors presented me with a book that digressed from conventional genres and understanding. Pavlić’s book is a synthesis of personal essays and poetry–the two forms overlap and melt into one another frequently during their 144-page lifespan. His piece is not one where a reader can put together clues to reach a greater meaning; it is one where feeling yields understanding, rather than the other way around.
In Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno, Pavlić begins by describing his own stream-of-consciousness. He starts with an NCAA Tournament game between Ohio State and the University of Kentucky. While watching this game with his son, Pavlić’s television cuts to breaking news: Jamie Hood surrenders to Athens police after holding eight hostages. From here, Pavlić jumps back to the game—as does his television—and to the advertisements featured during it. Then, he moves to Alphabet City, Manhattan, and talks about leaving his car unlocked, then back to his house in Athens where he has taken to leaving his windows open during the night, and once more back to the Jamie Hood hostage situation. It is clear from the first seven pages that quick movement is the device through which Pavlić chooses to tell his story. Each episode may seem unrelated to those flanking it, but in sewing together these snapshots of consciousness, Pavlić reveals how his own mind connects one subject to another.
While many today choose to write off realities such as de-facto segregation or white privilege–despite the overwhelming experiences we watch daily on the news and in our own lives–Pavlić places his reader into the mind of a social critic for 144 laborious pages.
For instance, the Jamie Hood situation sparked in 2001 when police killed Hood’s brother, which eventually ties back to Hood’s motivations in having his surrender be televised. Pavlić, however, begins by simply showing what he sees on TV, which is a young man holding hostages, ready to surrender to police. As Pavlić continues, we learn of Hood’s request for a televised surrender; Pavlić clearly implies to us that Hood’s safety is contingent upon a public surrender, thus revealing one of the many prejudices circling the scene. Still, this episode is not shared in one, concise chapter; rather, it is explained in pieces and intertwined with analogous circumstances. In the piece, the Jamie Hood’s situation links to Greg Velasquez in Madison, which links to Troy Davis, which links to John Coltrane, and all of it connects to Milan, Pavlić’s son, listening to his new principal say that “we send them to Yale and we send them to jail” in reference to the students of the local high school (Pavlić 23). Pavlić later reveals that Velasquez brought a knife to a daycare center and was fired upon and killed by police, Davis was charged and eventually executed for killing a police officer despite maintaining his innocence, and Coltrane provides the jazz rhythm that weaves each story together. Milan, on the other hand, is the UGA professor’s son and has a mixed racial background. He is, arguably, one of the main inspirations behind Pavlić’s writing, as the book is dedicated solely to him. Pavlić sees each of these situations and worries—agonizes—over how each will affect his own child.
As Pavlić switches from person to person and place to place, at times it can be a lot to take in. His quick movement between anecdotes reads like a fast-paced montage, complete with a number of scenes tied together to reveal the same message. For me, what makes Pavlić’s style readable is that he always aims to show the person rather than the crime or the stereotype. So long as I kept that in mind, I did not need to read these stories chronologically in order to interpret the injustices ringing through each. Pavlić’s zigzagging from one thing to the next is what convinces me of his point. The rapid-fire evidence is overwhelming, and Pavlić weaves it all together in a way that readers cannot ignore. While many today choose to write off realities such as de-facto segregation or white privilege–despite the overwhelming experiences we watch daily on the news and in our own lives–Pavlić places his reader into the mind of a social critic for 144 laborious pages. Beautiful diction illuminates his immense frustration and his determined plea, and with each word, you feel the weight of Pavlić’s burden in noticing that which most do not.
By honing in on different incidents, Pavlić brings us through his own “space.” He has created this book in order to share what he thinks because such an opportunity does not exist anywhere else. Pavlić says, “I can see that my world, then, also had no space for me to write about what was happening in my world,” meaning that the world he lives in—the one we all live in—prohibits him from the staunch honesty we find in this book. Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno is the only space where Pavlić can speak about what he witnesses and experiences, and yet, even that can be untrustworthy. He continues to say; “Now something in me looks back and wonders. Is the space of this page in me? And is that the same space as the idea to call the police? I suspect it is and so it’s hard for me to trust this page in me, now, that didn’t exist then,” (5). In reading this book, you dedicate yourself to attempting to understand this type of contradiction. Pavlić’s only sanctuary is still imperfect, which leads me to believe that the only true place for honesty is his mind, and in only the exact moment that a thought occurs—before it is tainted or swayed. I mention all of this because I want to make one thing clear; this is not an easy book to read. You’ll read passages many times before gaining any trace of understanding, but that is what Pavlić wants you to do. It is frustrating and time-consuming, but I am going to tell you why it is worth it.
The shape he reveals to us in Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno slowly develops, like a snapshot in a dark room, into a view of race—how much of it we all see, how much the media wants us to see, and how much Pavlić himself sees on a minute by minute basis.
This book is a living thing. This has been said of many literary works of the past, but the statement takes on a special meaning with Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno because Dr. Ed Pavlić is one of UGA, my alma mater’s, very own English professors, and many of the experiences he speaks of occur in and around Athens, GA. For me, this is what makes the book have a heartbeat, and a strong one at that. Although I have never taken a class with Pavlić—a fact I am very sorry to accept now that I’ve met him—he did come and speak to our class to discuss this book. The discussion was shaped around not only his experiences, but our own; we all had something to say or a feeling to share about how we’ve perceived racial tensions and de facto segregation in our shared home. Pavlić was alight with stories, information, and outlooks; he spoke to us with passion and his voice saturated our ears with wisdom. Suddenly, the line “…you’ll realize again, how one’s vision of home, of life, impels one’s vision of everywhere else,” made complete sense (Pavlić 72); how we comprehend the things around us is based off of our experiences, but what we comprehend it is based off of will. Pavlić made it clear that he believes people will see only what they can “bear” to see. He provides examples, such as a Confederate flag once hanging outside of General’s bar in downtown Athens with passersby saying the flag is just “noise.” Or of his colleagues sending their children to Athens Academy so they can “thrive,” even though Athens Academy was founded to prolong segregation. In each of these situations and many more, no one seems to say or do anything because perhaps we do not want to see reality. Both of these examples demonstrate the human tendency to ignore what is too burdensome to carry with you constantly. When he explained this to us, there was a moment where I just looked at him, amazed at how much sense it all made. And then, after shedding such intense light on things that had been dimmed to me, he just said: “but you can’t get a book published if you say that, you gotta write this,” motioning to his book.
Pavlić’s narrative becomes a lyrical insight, and his writing undulates between prose and poetry, sometimes not even revealing any change between the two forms at all. He sprinkles his personal experiences in between those he’s witnessed and insists that everything included is irrevocably connected. This is why it is so important not to apply the high school adage of symbol plus allusion plus metaphor equals “x” meaning. When you read this book, you have to listen intently to your own internal dialogue in order to elicit any meaning at all; consider how things affect you and which moments make you think. Switching back and forth between narrative structure and poetry can be difficult to keep up with, but on this subject, Pavlić offers two pieces of insight.
First, in regards to his essayistic pieces, Pavlić says: “I suspect I am not capable of prose.” In other words, just because it looks like prose and sounds like prose, does not mean that Pavlić is not still employing elements of poetry. When I see words on a page, I automatically register those words as prose or poetry based on how they appear; paragraphs mean prose and verses mean poetry. But this maxim does not apply for Pavlić’s book, as he himself points out— Pavlić does not want his readers to see his paragraphs and think “narrative structure,” he wants them to think “poem,” and read them as such. So in this regard, it may be best to treat the entire book as a free verse, fragmented poem. Furthermore, Pavlić says that a “poem is a sculpture for the voice.” To Pavlić, everything is poetry because each word he writes represents the twisting of his voice into a certain shape. The shape he reveals to us in Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno slowly develops, like a snapshot in a dark room, into a view of race—how much of it we all see, how much the media wants us to see, and how much Pavlić himself sees on a minute by minute basis.
During my time as a student in Athens, my own picture of this city has changed immensely. I stepped onto UGA’s campus as a somewhat reluctant, somewhat excited freshman, and I left it as an eager senior with an increasing awareness for those around me. My education extended beyond the classroom, and it thrived during my experiences outside of UGA and in the Athens community. Of course I was told many times that Athens-Clarke County is one of the poorest counties in the nation and that because of this there are many opportunities to give back. But that statement leaves a void where all that isn’t said eats away at those who see the situation clearly. In that space I have seen that multi-million dollar dining and residence halls gaze down upon the government housing on the other side of the street. I have seen that there are places where we are told not to go to at night or day because they are “never safe.” I have seen that we have a building named after the first two African-American students to integrate the university, but we have a bar named after a Confederate general and drinks labeled with racial slurs. I have seen that our student body is not a representative sample of the demographics of the state of Georgia, and many of us walk our sidewalks and go to our football games hardly noticing because maybe we don’t know any different. Meanwhile, as Pavlić points out, we name a brand new facility after a white supremacist and no one seems to say anything about it…do they not notice or do they not know?
Pavlić shapes his answer for us when he says:
“There are places, spectrums of experience, human geographies, invisible to the human eye; you see them with your life. Failing that, you fall blind. In both cases, with an invisible, physical velocity, these places become every place which becomes the nature of—a threshold for—human sight.”
Again, Pavlić believes that it is not only our experiences—our “lives”—that shape how we see things, but the things we do see are shaped by what we can bear to comprehend. In other words, we see what we want to see. So, I began to ask myself, as UGA students, what do we see? Do we see Jamie Hood arrested and think nothing? Go back to the NCAA Tournament without a second thought of what is happening in our city? What about when we see the Confederate flag outside of General’s? It’s just the way it is—right? But did we arbitrarily determine these “facts of life” because we are too timid to speak out against the injustice that seems so obvious when you just look?
Pavlić says, “poems are windows with an intense reflective quality;” we have to see ourselves in the world that the speaker sculpts and “recast poems in [our] own image.” This book makes it particularly simple to see that reflection because although Pavlić and I are looking out different windows, those windows reveal the same city. Rather than imagine the locations he focuses on, I see them vividly, and this yields a type of understanding that I’m not sure I would fully grasp were this book about a different town.
Still, this message reveals a greater tension within the context of the book. In fact, one of the main questions our class asked after Pavlić left was this: given that the message of the book is so important, and that it clearly means so much to Dr. Pavlić, why make it so hard to understand for the common reader? I think the answer lies within Pavlić’s very last line: “And, I think, maybe that might matter, to someone,” (Pavlić 144). Pavlić did not write this book to be simple; he wrote it to express himself and his frustration in the hope that someone might pay attention. We, as readers, must labor to understand what he means when he expresses these frustrations, and by comparison, we must labor to see everything that he does, to accept it, and to move to change it. Pavlić shows us Chicago, Palestine, Croatia, and Athens; it is now our responsibility to take these places and the insights gained there, and apply them to our own backgrounds. For me, I must think on Marietta, New Orleans, Winterville, Gainesville, Paris, and Athens. I promise you, the burden of accepting just how many problems we have yet to fix in all of these places and so many more is far greater than the burden of reading this book.