The question of the archive is not a question of the past. It is not the question of a concept dealing with the past that might already be at our disposal. An archivable concept of the archive. It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise, and of a responsibility for tomorrow.
—Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever
It’s a kind of reaching out, when the little hand, hand-shaped cursor, grips the page of the PDF in order to read on. But what are we looking for, poking around in the online archive of a literary magazine more than three decades old? Two simple things, of course: Hidden Treasure and Greatest Hits.
The former offers the thrill of discovery—the chance to be the fortunate scion who hits the jackpot with grandma’s old china on the Antiques Roadshow , the pirate who outfoxes all the others to arrive at dawn where X marks the spot, the archaeologist unearthing a tablet that tells how to read all the other tablets. The grave robber with his bonanza.
Attendant on the latter can be all the unseemliness surrounding the record producer who flips through old catalogs, hoping to repackage tried-and-true material for a quick buck. But also the delight of the curator who, from the small but comprehensive collection of a wealthy and discerning benefactor, selects and hangs and recombines the Rembrandt, the Cezanne, the Hopper.
It’s that curatorial delight that lets you know where you stand and who you are. Sure, PBQ is one journal among many, but finding the names of great poets woven through its contents reminds us that it claims some small part in the making of those poets, and they of it. And it seems only right to reprint our Ashbery—we’ve reprinted it before—or to take another look at our excellent trio of Heather McHughs.
Searching for treasure, on the other hand, is a risky and disorienting business, since sometimes grandma’s old china turns out to be just ordinary worthless shit, and the pirates arriving late to the empty hole where the X once hovered tend to be pissed. Reading through so much published work, one cannot help but sense beneath it the sheer force of desire that fueled the enterprise. The immortality of poems is one of the first and most enduring subjects of poetry, and if poets tend to be touchy on the subject it is because they want their words to live and go on living. But for every name in PBQ’s past that produces a jolt of recognition in us, there are many more that one has never heard before and may never come across again, since archives are, in one sense, a place to put things for forgetting. Even in spite of oneself one may imagine the scene of a poet being accepted, in 1976 or 1989, for publication, the wife or husband hearing the news and saying, “You did it, honey, you broke through.” Yes, the poet thinks, I just may have. Of course, one only imagines this scene.
A better thought: in Cavafy’s poem “The First Step,” young Evmenis laments to Theocritus that in two years of working he has only produced a single poem, and he despairs at having scaled only the first step of what appears to him the impossibly tall ladder of poetry. But wise Theocritus replies:
To have reached this point is no small achievement:
what you’ve done already is a wonderful thing.
Even this first step
is a long way above the ordinary world.
To stand on this step
you must be in your own right
a member of the city of ideas.
And it’s a hard, unusual thing
to be enrolled as a citizen of that city.
We hope you enjoy the achievements of these citizens, the citizens of our city.