Completed this week at the Vermont Studio Center, my new novel, an elegiac thriller about a floating island designed to survive the end of the world and the attendant misgivings and regrets of its architect. Writing it was a dream and I hope reading it will be like one too.
A work in progress that has maybe hit a wall and is maybe finished. The image above shows its seven sections over my desk at the Vermont Studio Center, where I'm supposed to be doing something entirely different (finishing a novel).
What is Hannah? A philosophical screenplay? A science-fiction poem? A hallucinatory biography of Hannah Arendt as representative political thinker of the 20th and 21st centuries? Yes, yes, and yes. Martin Heidegger is the Master. Paul Celan, Simone Weil, and George Oppen guest star.
A chunk of the first major section, Clockwise / The Wave can be read at The Offending Adam: http://theoffendingadam.com/2015/10/05/from-hannah-and-the-master/
A smaller piece appeared in a recent issue of SRPR: http://www.srpr.org/files/40.2/from_Hannah_and_the_master.pdf
Looking for interested readers.
Elegy and Arcadia: the two poles of my imagination, united by the poetic trope of apostrophe: the address to someone or something not there.
The void in the vocative O!
Arcadia is the past, the lost paradise whose imaginary function is inseparable from its pastness, its lostness. But Arcadia, ironized, can also be of the future. And when I think of the future, I think of elegy: seeking after consolation for what has been irretrievably lost.
Francis Ponge, whose collection of prose poems Le parti pris des choses will be published in September in a new translation by myself and Jean-Luc Garneau, accomplished an Arcadia of the present in a series of near-apostrophes to common everyday objects. The oyster, the orange, the cigarette, they may very well have been, probably were, there. But were they, are they, capable of reciprocating the poet's attention, his address? Here's our version of "L'huître":
The oyster, though the size of an average pebble, has a more rugged appearance, with less uniformity to its brilliant whitishness. It is a world obstinately closed. All the same it can be opened: grip it with a rag, use a serrated knife that’s not too sharp, and work at it doggedly. Curious fingers will cut themselves and break their nails; it’s dirty work. The blows administered to the shell sheath it in white circles, sort of like halos.
Inside one finds an entire world to be eaten and drunk, underneath a firmament (to speak precisely) of mother-of-pearl. The heavens above collapse into the heavens below, forming a pond, a viscous little green bag, ebbing and flowing in our smell and sight, fringed with a blackish lace.
On very rare occasions a little phrase pearls in its nacreous throat, which we immediately seize for a decoration.
The oyster is not so much addressed as described, and yet that description contains a kind of deification, a spiritualization achieved paradoxically through Ponge's dry, pseudo-scientific attention to such physical details as the ruggedness of the shell's exterior and the pearliness of its interior. The oyster takes on a spiritual life as it becomes unstable in the poet's eye, shifting unpredictably from object to metaphor and back again. All of Ponge's things are constantly changing into language and back again, and our attitude toward them, as toward language, can be affected by our humanism or merely rapacious, as when we "seize for a decoration" the "little phrase [that] pearls in its nacreous throat."
Ponge's original for "phrase" is "une formule"; my translation as "the little phrase" alludes to the little phrase of Vinteuil's sonata in Swann's Way by Proust, a snatch of music that becomes, for Swann, the metonymic emblem of his passion for Odette. As Proust writes, the phrase changes as Swann listens to it; at first he appreciates "only the material quality of the sounds which those instruments secreted"; then the notes of the phrase "substituted (for his mind's convenience) for the mysterious entity" he began to perceive after hearing it repeatedly; finally it is played, again and again, inexpertly, by the fingers of Odette for Swann's pleasure; it becomes symbolic and debased, just as Odette herself is the debased and inadquate vessel for the finest and strongest emotions that Swann will ever be capable of feeling. She is there; he even marries her; but the marriage itself is a kind of apostrophe or elegy to the dead feelings the real Odette has come to represent.
Everything I write seems to take this form--of course writing itself represents what is not there, presents nothing other than itself. It's been fascinating to write fiction, to tell stories, because it throws into sharper relief language's poetic function. When I write a poem, the language is primary; when I write a story, representation of an imaginary world takes precedence, though the most vivid representations, or images, are those that pull some participatory impulse out of the reader to make them real. Poetry, by comparison, is weirdly self-sufficient, or so it can seem. The reader's encounter with it doesn't complete the poem; if anything, poems are repellent, experiences on the page that fling the reader back out into the moment. They are the absolute opposite of stories, or social media posts; they don't absorb the reader but confront him in vivid strangeness, like Ponge's oyster.
Most readers are impervious to the poem's all-but-mute appeal; it requires a certain perversity (pun intended) to have a taste for language being itself. The rest must be lured by the sop of story, the bones of meaning, as in T.S. Eliot's famous analogy: "The chief use of the 'meaning' of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for here again I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a nice piece of meat for the house-dog."
The words, the apostrophe, are really there: on the page, in your ear. The lost person, or yet-to-be place, cannot be. These are the rules of the game, but they are played differently in poetry, in translation, and in fiction. I am learning these rules. In the new novel that I have just finished, an artificial Arcadia is the scene of elegy: the survivor of a disaster, living in relative comfort, mourns the woman who did not, chose not, to survive with him. He apostrophizes her, addresses her, throughout: she is the muse of the story that he tells of his survival and his community. But unlike Beautiful Soul, Concord is not a poem. It is, I hope, a bit more canny about the poetic difference, even as it exists within the continuum that has so long defined what I write.
His sister's name was Mary and his wife's name was Mary and his mother's name had also been Mary, and in the long slow days of his decline he often blamed on this trifecta of Marys the feelings of manifest humiliation that had dogged him from the first moment he'd looked across the table at the woman he'd made his bride and saw not love, nor even contempt, but only a shade of Maryness paler and more washed out than the face of the dark Mary that had given birth to him or the Mary mouldering in the grave, Morphine Mary, who from her hospital bed had told him to fuck off and from whom until that moment with his wife he thought he had forever turned his face.
"The odd thing is that you're Jewish, and Mary's not a Jewish name," he said to her.
"Not lately, anyway," Mary answered.
Every time I think I'm out, they pull me back in. Last year it was William S. Burroughs' hundredth birthday celebrated by a European Beat Studies Network conference in Tangier. This year it's the sixtieth anniversary of Allen Ginsberg's first reading of Howl in San Francisco. I'll be in Brussels for the ESBN conference commemorating that event, performing a Ginsberg-themed piece as part of The Muttering Sickness. I don't even like the Beats, I keep telling myself. I'm not an angst-ridden teenager any more. I'm old enough to see through their genius for self-promotion, the easy recuperation by the culture of their attack on the forces of patriarchy, conformity, and capitalism. (Spontaneous Bop Capitalism, we ought to call it.) Kerouac wore khakis, Burroughs was a lowlife, Ginsberg wrote three or four indelible poems and was otherwise a bearded self-referential embarrassment. What keeps me coming back?
It's personal. When I posted that photo on Facebook, someone commented that it looked a lot like me. And while I don't have the genes to become bald or grow a beard, that simple fact--that as a young poet I could find so easily an image for myself reflected in the world--meant something.
Just look at the guy. You can see the charisma, but in spite of the black and white and the cigarette or roach he's smoking, there' s nothing cool about those glasses, the intensity of the gaze, the shockingly sensuous mouth. If Ginsberg embarrasses he embarrasses by his warmth and vulnerability and nervous joy in living. His words and image made it possible for my younger self to imagine that my inability to be cool, to live indifferent and defended, might not mean my automatic and inevitable destruction.
Or rather, that it might be possible to live with the knowledge of destruction. For Ginsberg is one of the most-death haunted poets I know. It's all over Howl and of course it's the reason for being of Kaddish, an unbearably personal poem, not least for me because my own mother, although far from mad, exhibited qualities of depression and narcissism that marked me for life, and then of course she died young, as it happens less than a mile from the "The mental hospital--state Greystone," one of the several grim palaces where Naomi Ginsberg was treated for her mental illness. (It's also where Woody Guthrie spent his last years losing the battle with Huntington's; Bob Dylan famously visited him there.)
When Ginsberg addresses Carl Solomon in Howl, when he says, "I'm with you in Rockland," he's really talking to his mother. She is the muse he cannot deny, who terrifies and threatens him, the possessor, in Allen Grossman's formulation, of "an insane idealism of which her son is heir" (Long Schoolroom 154), and for whom he musters a truly astonishing compassion. In one of the most uncanny passages of Kaddish he embraces, almost literally, the stench of mortality and sadness that has come to surround her flesh, as it surrounds all flesh, though we pretend not to smell it:
One time I thought she was trying to make me come lay her—flirting to herself at sink—lay back on huge bed that filled most of the room, dress up round her hips, big slash of hair, scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers—ragged long lips between her legs—What, even, smell of asshole? I was cold—later revolted a little, not much—seemed perhaps a good idea to try—know the Monster of the Beginning Womb—Perhaps—that way. Would she care? She needs a lover.
Yisborach, v’yistabach, v’yispoar, v’yisroman, v’yisnaseh, v’yishador, v’yishalleh, v’yishallol, sh’meh d’kudsho, b’rich hu.
Birthdeath, "the Monster of the Beginning Womb," revolted only "a little, not much," followed by the Hebrew that only comparatively late in life am I beginning to get a feel for, if not comprehension of: Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He. Something I say, or ought to say, every December 21, on the anniversary of my own mother's death.
As with Ginsberg, my mother represents a portal to the incomprehensible cruelty of the past. In Naomi's case, she is haunted, sometimes comically, by the specter of Adolf Hitler--"she saw his mustache in the sink." My own mother was herself a Holocaust survivor, born in Budapest in 1942, hidden with her grandparents in the ghetto while her own parents, my grandparents, Ernest and Eva Montag, were sent to Auschwitz. Miraculously, both survived, and returned to Hungary to collect their little girl, and spent a few years in the British DP camp in Bergen Belsen before emigrating to this country, where she grew up in the long shadow of her parents' trauma, in Queens.
Fifty years ago, in the summer of '65, incessant traveler Ginsberg managed to get himself kicked out of two socialist countries in succession (Cuba and Czechoslovakia), as he writes in a long and entertaining letter to the legendary antipoet Nicanor Parra. He also, in passing and by the way, paid a visit to Auschwitz, a visit summed up in one peculiar sentence in his letter to Parra: "Then a week in Krakow which hath a beauteous cathedral with giant polychrome altarpiece by medieval woodcarver genius Wit Stoltz, and car ride to Auschwitz with some boy scout leaders who were trying to pick up schoolboys hanging around the barbed wire gazing at tourists." This borders on bad taste: is the perpetually horny Ginsberg unable to notice anything at the camp other than the vaguely predatory behavior of the "boy scout leaders" he is inexplicably traveling with? And who the hell was Wit Stoltz? Google turns up only Ginsberg's letters and, if you don't use quotation marks, footage of Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly in unused footage from Back to the Future.
On Sunday, October 25, sixty years after Howl and fifty-six years after Kaddish and fifty years after Ginsberg made nothing, at least nothing obvious, of standing on the ashen ground of Auschwitz, and eighteen years after Ginsberg's death in New York, I will visit Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time. Although Ginsberg had already written the poems on which his reputation stands by the time of his own visit, there is a case to be made that those poems are saturated by the experience of the Shoah, as processed through the ambiguous relation of an American Jewish poet to that experience. Allen Grossman puts it this way:
The characteristic literary posture of the postwar poet in America is that of the survivor—a man who is not quite certain that he is not in fact dead…. ’Since so many like me died, and since my survival is an unaccountable accident, how can I be certain that I did not myself die and that America is not in fact Hell, as indeed all of the social critics say it is?’ Ginsberg’s poetry is the poetry of a terminal cultural situation. It is a Jewish poetry because the Jew is a symbolic representative of man overthrown by history. (153)
Grossman goes on to claim that "Ginsberg's chief artistic contribution in Kaddish is a virtually psychotic candor that affects the mind less like poetry than like some real experience that is so terrible that it cannot be understood. In America, which did not experience the Second World War on its own soil, the Jew indeed may be the proper interpreter of horror" (157). That "virtually" is interesting because what we have here are paired and opposed virtualities: the virtuality of "the bitter logic of the poetic principle" (poetry's effacement or erasure of the actual in its pursuit of representation) versus "virtually psychotic candor," a break not with representation but with reality itself. Kaddish, in other words, comes as close as any (American) poet can to presenting something like the unrepresentable horror of the war, something which can otherwise only be given in the testimony of survivors, the only discourse unbarred by the Adornian dictum "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."
Implicitly or maybe explicitly, Grossman criticizes Ginsberg and other American poets for reducing the disasters of the twentieth century to the personal. But what other ground does a fundamentally lyric poetry (and I believe that Ginsberg is a lyric poet, in spite of the length of his most famous poems) have to work from? Put another way, I feel myself as a poet and writer forever trying to reconstitute the conditions that ground my imagination and its powers, however limited. I've dedicated at least one novel to trying to reimagine, from a skewed perspective, the mental life of my mother; in another novel I'm imagining the moment my parents met; in yet another project I use the Heidegger-Arendt affair as a kind of ground zero moment of the twentieth century but project it into the twenty-first, so as to make the resources we've developed around the problem of the unimaginable (in history) available for imagining the future.
For me there's no getting away from Allen Ginsberg; poetically speaking he's my gay grandfather, mon hypocrite semblable, whose drolly encompassing prosody seems to promise, as Grossman suggests, not a description of experience but experience itself. A kind of wit matched with the darkest recesses of experience, intended not to aggrandize the self but which makes the lyric I into the imperiled traveler (a drunken boat) we all are.
Standing on that bare ground, in Poland, my head bathed by the smokeless air, I will encounter neither Allen nor my grandparents nor the angel of history but sheer contingency, fragility, the monster of beginning, that which enables fate.
In the very near future, when the virtual blogs and the discussion boards will have collapsed, a book will be printed in the tradition of 17th century layered epistles, as if it were part of a “manuscript culture where names were highly unstable texts and where alternative, often discrete modes of authorship and text presentation thrived” to reveal the relation between the person, literature and the social. (Marci North). The text will ask how can an escaped band of heteronyms inform a culture policed by "Identity Politics Poetics," or as the jailbirds like to sing and name it:
The book will be called:
The Letters of Carla, the letter b.
A Mystery in Poetry
with a foreword by
The Future Guardian of the Letters
Afterword by Benjamin Hollander
(and it will be described, thusly):
Before others got involved, The Letters of Carla, the letter b.: A Mystery in Poetry was the modest attempt of one disciple to speak about and save her hero, Heriberto Yépez, from the controversies surrounding his critique of the poetic empire shaped by the North American poet, Charles Olson.
However, Carla was really not Carla but Carlo(s)--her letters falling like leaves from the trans- gendered Q’abala Lemon Tree--which is why the others' letters had to arrive: to explain her transformations, her personae and her disappearance.
They came with the words of The Future Guardian of the Letters, who first cited real poets--Amiri Baraka, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, George Oppen--as who they were in fact and imagination and then who they gave themselves up to be, breathing, through their poetry.
But the real poets gave way to avatars. They came in the form of the Forsworn Author; the Savior Editor of The Shadowy Review of Chicago; the Critic as the Bloom off the Rose dead man wandering among the NY poets of the Tribe of John, who returned us to Carla, the letter b., the anagram of the silent Hollywood-sexed film star, Clara Bow, and kneeling before her, subject to blowback, the fake Mexican scholar, Carlos b. Carlos Suares (discoverer of the wine-dark Sephardic poet, Señor al-Quala).
In order to counter the crazed polemics of the fixed identity politics of the time, these more equally craving heteronymns came in peace to have their say. Like James Baldwin, who spoke of Identity as “the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self”, they also thought “itbest that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one's nakedness can always be felt….”
Through it all, the real names of Olson and Yépez (or any other poet gang-lander who defended them), miraculously vanished under the multiple imaginations and vulnerabilities of the others, who wanted to talk only about multiplying the possibilities for poetry or about a future era reminiscent of certain Arabic verse traditions when the signature of a poet was how well the measured sounds of her poetry could contest the authority of the tribe rather than bow to it.
So under the shadows of multiple names, and on the trail of an era obsessed with the really tribal, these others came as a dust-clouded troupe of vagrants acting out a midsummer night’s dream of the present poetic polis where poets who were once enemies might soon take the stage as comrades.
From the top of
my inverted bucket
I’m falling—good news!—
into water too shallow to reflect
this poem or the face
of its author who’s been eating
something sticky like pussy or cotton
candy I do declare
it’s cooler in water languidly
to spread one’s fingers and toes
and float like a cloud or
Samuel Taylor Coleridge pretending
in his head to be Wordsworth
on a soft autumn day
assisted by laudanum
climbing into a daffodil cup
and snoozing away the day late for dinner
who cares it’s the dream of STC
meanwhile Dorothy Wordsworth’s
a better writer than anybody as everybody
knows she’s too smart to confine
herself to flowers or buckets
the sky is maybe big enough for her
fleecing over Grasmere
same sky with a difference over me
in Chicago Lincoln Park on a bicycle
did the Romantics have bicycles and if not why not
can you picture Keats yes Shelley yes
Mary and Percy both but Byron not so much
Southey sold bicycles
the Lambs rode a tandem
in later years Mary rode a Dutch model with a bucket up front
in which to tumble hearts of lovers
like Percy and myself and also
her MFA we’re back to buckets
comedians call that a callback
but I’m not being funny when I ride with my head in a sky
discolored for once by ardor I can’t say ardor
when what I really wrote was carbon
if we could see how we’re cooking up the earth
the way my dad grilled burgers how mesmerizing
to watch him the yard growing up in New Jersey
the charcoal heat rippling
the very air the air that makes things visible
that makes possible speaking or laughing
when you don’t have air you can’t smoke opium
or one of my mom’s Salems
she’s dead now so’s
the 20th century of poems that look like this
poems of the future will be for sharing
poetry will be truly free like
water or money
because the alternative is truly terrible
and people have better sense
than to go soak their heads in buckets
individual pails of supercooled air
just because other people told us to
oh well good night New York School
good night Chicago
good night Christine
this is my self-portrait wearing a bucket
smiling mysterious as Mona Lisa
and if the sky resembles human skin
of the face maybe above the cheekbone
that registers trauma most easily feeling
it too well what can I do
Two lyric traditions: direct expression of subjectivity (Romanticism) vs. the persona (Modernism). The first is cosmological because it presents the self in passionate negotiation with a universe it takes to be natural. As Nature withers away as a source of meaning, the fundamentally mimetic and narratological persona lyric takes over: wearing a mask it seeks to expose the masks of social meaning. After 1989 the postmodern lyric goes even farther into the capitalist abandonment of political subjectivity, leaving us with a pure consumerist poetics in which the absence of value is no longer a scandal, but the void we swim in, untouched and untouchable by others.
To resuscitate the subjective lyric cannot mean yielding to a regressive dream of a unified Nature. Instead, subjectivity must be pluralized: the speaking self of the poet encounters and responds to other speaking selves, not all of them human, none of them "primitive" (there can be no more leech-gatherers seen as "closer" to the universal Nature and subjected to the social poet's interrogations). The practicioner of subjective lyric may borrow techniques from ethnography, as Charles Olson does, but must operate less as anthropologist than "archaeologist of morning": that is, as co-active and cooperative with the more-than-human socius he poetically encounters, and not writing as the bearer of an imperial universalizing "scientific" objectivity.
What is most valuable and unique to the lyric, I believe--a value coextensive with capitalist propaganda about lyric's valuelessness--is its built-in refusal of anything resembling an "objective" stance. Lyric offers a form of diplomacy: it presents a speaking self in productive tension with the real and potential subjectivities of others. The lyric speaker has a passion for the other, in every sense of that word: suffering, ecstasy, eroticism, sacrifice.
In the present postmodern environment the self as bearer of value has been almost obliterated. People of color, LGBTQ folk, disabled people, and women are at best tolerated by the regime, largely if not exclusively for their value as consumers and as markets (capitalism trumps, barely, the white supremacist patriarchy that predates it, and this is the true meaning of "liberalism"). But the selves of white males are also empty, non-sites of the vast privilege accumulated on their behalf, lashing out reflexively whenever that privilege are challenged, treating every presentation of subjectivity--perhaps even their own, since subjectivity is inherently messy, contradictory, and emergent from relations with others--as an existential threat.
The value of the self, as more than a counter in the lyric game, is yet to be (re)discovered. Even more deeply suppressed is the possibility of collective subjectivities. And there is, after all, a real danger that outside the regime of tolerance, without developing the passion for otherness that is intrinsic to lyric, we will find ourselves in a state of total war. (As opposed to the war that, to paraphrase William Gibson, is already here, but unevenly distributed.)
I return to the poetry of Olson and Duncan because in their passion for cosmos and polis as emergent territories (as opposed to what's supposedly simply stable and already there) they have kept the flame of subjectivity--as something to be ventured, tested, and risked--alive. Contemporary poets who come out of that tradition often come armed with the experience of a passionate collectivity behind them: I think of Lisa Robertson's feminism or Peter O'Leary's Catholicism or Nathaniel Mackey's deep engagements with jazz and the Black Arts Movement. It may be much harder for those of us who do not have such backgrounds to wager everything on the subjective lyric, rather than hiding behind masks of irony or dictate faux-objective political critiques. Well, begin from that ground where you are already most engaged, most implicated. It might be the workplace, or the family, or the university, or the military. We are none of us isolatos when we speak from the "I."
In the Iliad Achilles’ mother Thetis appeals to "the artist-god" Hesphaetus to forge new weapons and armor for her son after the death of Patroclus, who was wearing his lover’s armor when Hector killed him. The new armor includes a marvelous shield, and the extensive description that Homer provides for it is generally cited as the first example of ekphrasis (literally “to describe out”) in the Western literary tradition. But even as it inaugurates the tradition of poems that describe or interact with works of art (Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” being one of the most famous), it swerves from that tradition, as a poem within a poem describing a work of art that never existed and never will exist.
The Shield of Achilles renders in impossible detail every dimension of the civilization that the Greeks and Trojans are battling for. It includes images of the country and the city, sowing and harvest, peace and war, and even a court of law, adjudicating "a townsman slain" in Alexander Pope's translation. It is a dialectical image of what the warriors on the field destroy by defending, or defend by destroying. When Thetis brings it to Achilles' camp the assembled rank and file are awed and terrified by it: "Cold tremblings took the Myrmidons; none durst sustain, all fear'd / T'oppose their eyes." But the sight of it rouses Achilles to intenser fury: "Stern Anger enter'd. From his eyes (as if the day-star rose) / A radiance, terrifying men, did all the state enclose." He puts on the armor and goes out to extract his revenge from Hector.
Police officers are the bearers of that "radiance"; it is their task to "all the state enclose." They commonly refer to the badges they wear as "shields," and very often those shields are designed with emblems of the municipality they have sworn to serve and protect. When an officer dies in the line of duty others will commonly put a black band across the shield, symbolically marking the mourning not just of the police, but of the city that has lost one of its defenders.
When I saw the video of Walter Scott running from the man who killed him, Officer Michael Slager of the North Charleston, South Carolina police department, I thought of Hector's flight from Achilles, and the explanation Hector offers for this on the point of death. He has just begged Achilles to restore his, Hector's body, to his family, and Achilles has sneeringly replied that he intends to deface Hector's corpse. Here's how George Chapman renders Hector's last words:
He (dying) said: “I (knowing thee well) foresaw
Thy now tried tyrannie, nor hop’t for any other law,
Of nature, or of nations: and that feare forc’t much more
Than death my flight, which never toucht at Hector’s foote before.
A soule of iron informes thee. Marke, what vengeance th’ equall fates
Will give me of thee for this rage, when in the Scaen gates
Phoebus and Paris meete with thee.”
There is no "law, / Of nature, or of nations" that can defend Hector's body from Achilles' desecration of it, and it was this desecration--the most extreme possibility of social death--not Achilles himself, that Hector fled. The bearer of the shield of civilization stands utterly outside civilization and makes a mockery of its laws. The Shield of Achilles becomes obscene, an emblem of the Iliad itself as "poem of force," which as Simone Weill remarked, is terrible because it turns human bodies and human beings into things.
It is easy to condemn the actions of the police officers who have murdered unarmed black men and children. These murders have been made visible, and so condemnable, not by any new insight into the racist structures of our society, but by technology. The very thing that some hope will bring about a new access of justice--through police body cameras, for instance--is the thing that holds us separate from the actions of the cops and makes it possible to cling to the narrative of "a few bad apples."
It is harder to look into the mirror that is the Shield of Achilles, the shield of civilization that every sworn police officer wears on his or her uniform, his or her armor. It is harder still to recognize that the makers of art, we who fancy ourselves somehow outside the civilization that we routinely criticize, have had a hand in forging that shield.
There is widespread condemnation today of the actions of Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, leaders of the conceptual poetry movement in this country, for the reproductions of racism in some of their recent artworks. Conceptual poetry in my view has never moved far from Duchamp's readymade, and Goldsmith and Place have brought the stinking urinal of racism into the realm of art. In my view they have shown terrible insensitivity to the people of color that are implicitly excluded from the elite white audiences that both poets routinely address themselves to. It is the exclusion of that audience--that inability to recognize the faces of people of color as reflected in the shield of our civilization--that is I suspect more hurtful than anything they've actually done or said. They haven't actually desecrated black bodies. But they've rendered them invisible, and I am afraid that continued focus on these two poets only reinforces that invisiblity.
Place and Goldsmith have reforged the shield, represented its mirror to us in the name of critique. They say: white supremacy exists, look at it. But the manner in which they present their work, and the manner in which they defend it, runs the risk of not simply representing white supremacy, but reproducing it.
Why should any of us be shocked to discover that the racist structures that condition American society are reproduced, down to the finest detail, in the hothouse world of poetry? What makes poets so special? Why wouldn't poets, like police, in their zealous defense of civilized values, injure and exclude?
It would be easy to get Biblical again here and say to all the poets I know, "why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" Well, that shield is certainly dazzling. And to recognize, as the Myrmidons must have recognized, that war (and not just any act of war, but a surprise attack), and justice (but is it justice, or only procedure) are intrinsic to our civilization as we've constructed it--well, those are terrible things to face. Here is Pope's rendition of the scene of law as depicted on Achilles' shield:
There in the forum swarm a numerous train; The subject of debate, a townsman slain: One pleads the fine discharged, which one denied, And bade the public and the laws decide: The witness is produced on either hand: For this, or that, the partial people stand: The appointed heralds still the noisy bands, And form a ring, with sceptres in their hands: On seats of stone, within the sacred place, The reverend elders nodded o’er the case; Alternate, each the attesting sceptre took, And rising solemn, each his sentence spoke Two golden talents lay amidst, in sight, The prize of him who best adjudged the right.
It's an ambiguous scene. On the one hand it's a form of civic peace: instead of Orestean revenge, an eye for an eye, a court of "reverend elders" will decide on the killer's culpability. On the other hand, these elders don't seem particularly alert ("nodded o'er the case"), even as their "appointed heralds still the noisy bands" of people that might otherwise start a riot--or an uprising--in response to the townsman's death. Ultimately it's money--"golden talents"--that will decide "who best adjudged the right" of the case. We have law, we have order--heralds, police. But not justice.
When I think of the task we face, as people of conscience trying to imagine justice in an unjust, corrupt, and racist society, in which every value is subject to the "creative destructions" of rampant capitalism--I think we could do worse than start from the place the Myrmidons begin, in fear and trembling. That doesn't mean we run away, or hide, or don't make art, even risky art. It simply means we act in full recognition of our responsibilities. That we keep "the ability to respond," as Robert Duncan put it. That we don't just dump our work into the public sphere--we defend it. Or recognize and acknowledge when it's indefensible.
The Shield of Achilles cannot defend Achilles' heel.
The instinct for thought before it finds expression. (Gillian Conoley on her recent translation of Henri Michaux.) Why privilege this? For the sake of the poem inside the poem. If I don't detect its presence the poem seems trifling, "lite," an enraging waste of time.
What can Judith Balso possibly mean by "figures of thought"?
Perhaps no connection between what one writes and the activities of one's so-called "inner life."
So, first, do no harm. (To the ineffable).
In awe of the simplicity and purity of Lisa Robertson's Cinema of the Present--its form, that is. The content as usual is philosophically sophisticated, playful, and complex. Her great subject continues to be the attempt to harmonize, or maybe lyricize, politics and aesthetics, the individual (woman) and the collective (women?).
Clear plastic bag of wind like a bubble of light tumbles by.
An image for this poetry: a sparkling jellyfish cloud in thin mental air with stinging tentacles dropping and trailing their tips on the ground. (William James, with stingers.)
It is enough, maybe, to keep company with sentences.
Balso: "a thought capable of holding together the contingency of the universe and the possibility of a collective and projected figure of humanity."
We can't seem to imagine the earth, only heaven and hell. (Stevens: "The great poems of heaven and hell have been written and the great poem of the earth remains to be written.") Easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, etc.
False tranquility of the corpse--the extrinsic life of microbes and maggots reanimates it. Finally the false peace of bone, beginning its slow irretrievable movement into soil and rock. Writing this in the understanding that when this happens to my body, it will no longer be mine. The life of consciousness shunts onto a new track at the moment of physical death. Where that track leads no one knows, but one thing is certain: it leaves the body as we knew it behind.
Afterlife of consciousness almost irrelevant and a matter of karma. As I collapse into the isolation of the brain, I take with me all the good and evil of my life--that which I lived in the world.
Lisa Robertson: "Within the concept of the present, the figure-ground relationship effaced itself."
f a t e
prisoner of passion
contraint predicates freedom (image of thought)
From that into a definition: the present, or the experience of presence, is prior to figure-ground distinctions.
Hell as city in Dante, a parody of Florence. Heaven is also Florence.
LR: "Do these experiences of thought and reading persist and accumulate? Or is most of it lost, only to be circled back to and rediscovered?"
(Ambivalence of intellect. The arbitrary.)
(Back and forth between poetry and Walking Dead recaps.)
(A phrase that comes from nowhere: impaled flesh-plug.)
LR: "And what is the subject but a stitching?" To the object, to context.
Perpetual warring imaginations: the French conceptual with its seductive hypostases; the Anglo-Saxon embedded particulars. Verticality v. horizontality.
Latinate conceptual authority / Anglo-Saxon popular particulars
No commons of the concept. The people can never enter authority without ceasing to be themselves.
Syntax is no ontology but it functions like one. Cases of mistaken identity are common.
Always midst and muddle. I long to step out of things, to step into the sacred pause between finishing and beginning.
LR: "What's natural, what's social, what's intuitive?"
(Another phrase: fur of transience)
What you love is the white space islanding each of LR's statements, inviting the reader to fill in the significance, ramifications, and possible contexts of each.
LR's figure for lyric: "ancient ego nectar."
"the noticed friction between thinking and perceiving"
(eros of a sincere mind)
LR: "form requires of you a reticence." My contrary urges toward purity, the stripped (verse) and the prolix overthrow of prose fiction (or the fictionesque).
Libidinal investment in forms and genres--strategic.
LR: "the prosody of being misapprehended"
Philosophical difficulty, referential difficulty. My hyperliteracy and compulsion to recycle and elude. LR mostly free of that--impressive reticence. The difficulty is literally in my mind.
LR: "You think with plants and rags, with prepositional inadequacy, with improvised throat of sorrow."
(Confidence ebbs and flows. In the ebbs it's best to read. Translate a little.)
Desire to bring French into English. Stevens: "French and English constitute a single language."
Romantic isolation of a cottage or a cabin. But instead of long walks, a logpile, brilliant insights by firelight. I envision: depression, dirt in the sheets, chronic masturbation, a poor diet.
Religion inscribes the divine in dailiness. Keeping kosher keeps G-d before the mind at every meal, in every detail of the menu. It's practical. There's an intrinsic Protestant quality to secularism since the secularist deprives himself of ritual and is left with the emptiness the Protestant fills purely by faith. Empty pews, clapboard churches.
LR: "You carried the great discovery of poetry as freedom, not form."
Place in the sun. Piece of the pie. Sunny side of the street.
"Soul" is generally used in a unitary way, to indicate the state of the self at its least divided. But I hear pain of division in it--"soul music"--the longing for unity that can only be achieved by opening to otherness. The soul is tragic or openness to tragedy, to a fundamental human homelessness.
I envy the achieved simplicity of form in Cinema of the Present. But it's the achievement that makes it look simple. Surely, in composition, in the middle, she must have felt moments of muddle, in spite of the perfect simplicity of the book's visible constraints--roman type alternating with italic type, the italic type proceeding more or less in alphabetical order, so that sentences recur, sometimes close to each other and sometimes at a great distance, creating a multivoiced and fugal effect. I look at my own works in progress and wish for a hill to climb high enough to catch a glimpse of their final forms. But this is impossible, as it must have been for LR: I'm in the middle and the only way out (or up, or down) is through.
LR: "You would like thought to release something other than laboratory conditions." Thought, as abstraction, reduces too much, seems all but incapable of grasping the blooming confusion of particulars in which our bodies, as opposed to our habitually Cartesian minds, are very much at home.
tragitopia - the place of goats
A strong sense of theater in LR. Poetry as mental theater in which to try out little dramas of language and thought. "You use speech to decorate duration for somebody. You stop just before it becomes a shape."
Cafe: Tall striding high-headed white pompadoured Malcolm MacDowell-ish man reading a volume of Wittgenstein's lectures, standing up at the counter.
Cafe: Young woman in a low-cut peach lacy blouse sitting erect before a textbook on organic chemistry listening to whatever's on her earbuds with great concentration.
What is "lyric obscentiy," Lisa? The unspeakability of the ipsus? "The I-speaker on your silken rupture spills into history."
Lyric research. Laboratory of the speaking I.
LR: "You're bent to a book as the uprising unfurls."
Shadows and terrors. Misdirected rage. Jews the scapegoats of modernity. When it's capitalism and unjust systems of distribution that need to be attacked.
Rilke: "Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."
Desire to withdraw, vita contemplativa. History knocking, trying to pretend I don't hear. Europe is fading. Israel withdraws from democracy. Anti-semitism is real.
Hoffnung, wo ist?
At the Art Institute I rest for a moment in the eternal gilded age of the Sargent portraits, where human graces for a while rise to the surface of memory and all costs are hidden.
There are historical moments, anchors in time, achieved through aesthetic perception, that are my only chance at perspective, for grasping the crisis of the present. The turn of the twentieth century, the first decade after WWII, the Seventies. Romanticizing the great risk. Pasolini: Harsh / climate, sweet history. Mandelstam: "the most dangerous, intricate, and criminal century."
Needing more diverse means of registering citation in my poems. I don't like quotatio marks. But I can't use italics for everything. Small caps?
Balso asking "in what manner the past can return within the present" of Mandelstam and Dante.
As a woman LR invests in appearing, wrestles with her inability to separate from the spectacle of femininity in order to speak. "You wore the dress as payment for entrance to the symbolic order."
Getting in on the ground floor of the Logos as factory of value. Not value in itself but the means of production. Content.
LR: "To think in a bed in a hotel in an unfamiliar city is your dream."
Running out the clock of this notebook.
The Dante Sonata. When did the classical concert become infected by pain and dread? Light of unresolution.
Cafe: Man with a Slavic accent telling another about William S. Burroughs and how addiction leads to long life, struggle with the self, replacing the self--"it's like leeches." I think of Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts. "I only like nonfiction," the other guy says.
Man seeks spiritual compensation for social deficits. And the reverse.
Meant that to sound like a want ad.
A man alone makes no nomos.
Poetry as I have it from Stevens, from Ashbery, accepting nostalgia but not resting in nostalgia; resorting less to historical myths than the poet's own rough-and-ready ironized frangible myth-making--Crispin, the new spirit, et al--which are like chess pieces made of glass, acceptable for play but not in themselves final or monumental. The game has the goal of restoring the earth to the player and the player to the earth.
LR: "This is where thinking could become nature, where both are only incomplete."
Cafe: A man with a Bible behaves as I do with this copy of the Collected Poems: he doesn't read, he rereads, scrutinizes, writes in notebook, feels himself observed. He is in pursuit of his own soul. I likewise? I, forgetful of my task, face lit by sunlight on decayed piles of snow?
Mom, I’m still in space, rocking imperceptibly, systole and diastole of persisting beyond you and your death, toward my own death, toward my daughter-your-grandaughter’s frail horizon. The day she came into language remembers you.
"Even the dead will not be safe--"
Last night I went down to the majestic Music Box Theatre for a Chicago Film Critics Festival screening of James Ponsoldt's new film The End of the Tour, a film based on David Lipsky's book about the five days he spent interviewing David Foster Wallace for a Rolling Stone profile that was never published. It's a subdued and plotless film, anchored for this viewer by its deadly accurate portrayal of the neuroses and egos of two writers, one of whom is wildly successful (but profoundly fragile), the other overflowing with a toxic blend of reverence and envy, wielding a handheld tape recorder sometimes like a shield, sometimes like a dagger.
Films about writers are notoriously hard to pull off: there's nothing visually interesting about watching someone sit at a keyboard or scribble in a notebook or stare thoughtfully out of windows. Ponsoldt's way around this is first of all not to have made a conventional cradle-to-grave biopic, though the film is framed by the news of Wallace's suicide and Lipsky's response to it, which results in his book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. Ponsoldt takes his cue from Lipsky and gives us a kind of buddy movie in which the buddies can't erase a mutual suspicion of each other's motives, even though as nerdy white guys with a literary bent they are more similar to each other than not. The film is devoid of literary content as such, but the glimpses we get of a writer's life on and off the road--the room full of his own books, the cheerfully indifferent local publicist (mischievously performed by Joan Cusack), the readings whose attendance or lack thereof is precisely indexed to the author's fame--are instantly recognizable to anyone who's ever published a book.
The only other film I can think of that's as successful at portraying what it's like to be a writer in America (which is very different from portraying writing) is Barton Fink. The Coen brothers, of course, are scabrous and satirical where Ponsoldt is more gently rueful, but both films do a remarkable job of conveying the peculiar mix of grandiosity and self-loathing that afflicts most of the writers I've known. The two Davids of Ponsoldt's film curiously parallel the roles played by the two Johns (Turturro and Goodman) of Barton Fink: it's as though they take turns revealing to each other their most fragile aspirations and the terrible obstacles to realizing them. I'll show YOU the life of the mind!
I have never been a member of the DFW cult, though I love some of his essays, but the film confirms in me mingled feelings of affection, protectiveness, and sadness for the man. Jason Segel's performance is marvelously subtle, completely recognizable without being an impersonation, and he conveys a tremendous amount of mental activity between and to one side of the stream of words he spills (mostly taken, Ponsoldt says, word for word from Lipsky's tapes). Jesse Eisenberg is more typically Jesse Eisenberg-ian--in the Q&A Ponsoldt said he reminded him of Ratso Rizzo--which makes him all the more painful to identify with, as I inevitably did, in his desperation to have something of Wallace's genius and success somehow rub off on him.
There's an amazing scene toward the end when Lipsky, left alone for a moment in Wallace's shambling one-story ranch house, runs around with his tape recorder to his lips itemizing the objects and furnishings ("a bookish frathouse" is his accurate summary). It's a creepy, stalkerish move, but in the film it resonates with love and poignance, particularly for we the viewers who also wish we could capture the man, now lost to us forever. Loss is woven into the texture of the film--there's an early shot of 1998 New York with the Twin Towers in it, and this is paired with a scene later on in which Wallace muses presciently to Lipsky about what would be terrible enough to make someone want to jump from a burning building. I was reminded somehow of Man on Wire, a film for which 9/11 provides a ghostly frame, though the event itself is never mentioned.
There's something undeniably ghoulish about the film's Lipsky: at the end of the film we see him reading from his book about Wallace to a much fuller room than the one to which he read from his own novel at the beginning. He has elbowed his way into the DFW story and become inseparable from it: reality hunger, indeed! I can't help but read this as a comment on how the literary stakes have shifted in the past twenty years: prestige no longer lies with the postmodern phantasmagoria of long novels like Infinite Jest but with the postmodern transparencies of books that blur the line between fiction and nonfiction (I think inevitably of Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose six-volume My Struggle could not only beat up Infinite Jest in the playground but surround it, the way the Sinister Six surrounds Spider-Man). Is this the zombification of fiction? Or just an honest account of how anyone becomes a writer: by seeking to absorb the spirit of whatever other writer first began to make writing seem like a living possibility?
In a way, you're much luckier to cathect upon a dead giant like Joyce or Woolf than if you fall for a living writer: you will never catch up with the great dead until--maybe--you are dead yourself. (I think of Jack Spicer's famous last words to Robin Blaser: "My vocabulary did this to me--your love will let you go on.") Lipsky is done for the moment he reads Infinite Jest (there's a sharp early scene where we see him reading it, wanting to dismiss it, and then resigning himself to its brilliance with a simple sudden "Shit!"); is it maybe the case that he can only become himself as a writer once Wallace is dead? I will probably have to read his book to find out.
Poetry is nation-building by other means, a shadow government that arises wherever a people is denied access to its own institutions, cut off from its own powers, its very language de-authorized. Yeats and his compatriots in Ireland before (and perhaps even more crucially, after) independence; Akhmatova in the Soviet Union quietly defying Stalin; the vast and complex tradition of poetry and anti-poetry in Latin America that has led to the murder and disappearance of poets who dared to represent the people against the power of the state. In this country poetry on the page hasn't often played this role, but rap and spoken word has. Chuck D called rap "CNN for black people" and an album like Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly lives up beautifully and painfully to this charge. Look at the cover, in which one of the most marginal and vulnerable groups in America--young black men--have taken over the White House lawn with fistfuls of Franklins, while a John Roberts-type lies cartoonishly KO'ed in the foreground and the White House--whose black occupant just owned his "anger translator" in front of the largely white audience that can't or won't hear that anger, that reduces the burning of Baltimore to the action of "thugs" and not the predictable response to the slow violence that has been grinding Baltimore's poor black population down for the past fifty years.
The album itself is angrily, emphatically, gloriously baroque: excessive, combinatory, enfolding layer upon layer of black musical history in every groove, talking back to it, culminating in a quasi-imaginary interview between Lamar and his hero Tupac. And it meats the Yeatsian standard for poetry: "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." Lamar's album has hit me hard, as few albums do, because of that dialogic, self-confronting quality that I associate with the strongest lyric poetry, going back at least as far as the English Metaphysicals--that is to say, poets of the Baroque period as it expressed itself in England: Herbert, Marvell, Donne. It rewards re-listening. I'm listening to it right now.
The Baroque is in the air. Eight years ago I wrote a little essay called "Notes Toward the Postmodern Baroque" in which I explored the Baroque's art-historical origins as a kind of propaganda effort of the Counter-Reformation that, by its excess, tends to subvert the very ideology that sponsors it, the ideology that the art is supposed to legitimate. I go on to say that, now that the legitimation function has been detached from poetry, we have gone beyond a Habermasian "legitimation crisis" into a crisis of legitimation itself. Here's the central paragraph:
Today we are living through another legitimation crisis, or to speak more accurately, a crisis of legitimation. The right-wing reaction to the liberation movements of the 1960s has pulsed like a shockwave through our society, opening an unprecedented rift between politics and culture that continues to widen. As Andrew Joron has remarked, “Here in America... ‘culture’ has been reduced to a simple play of intensities, to the simultaneously brutal and sentimental pulsions of mass media. Any ‘legitimation function’ would be superfluous: the American machine, with its proudly exposed components of Accumulation and Repression, has no need for such a carapace” (Fathom 18). Increasingly, it seems that the forces of capitalism no longer even need the carapace of politics, let alone culture. For confirmation of this we need only glance at the Riefenstahlian spectacle of George W. Bush’s famous “Mission Accomplished” speech, which the speed of events transformed almost overnight into a dialectical image of the man’s hubris and haplessness. And yet the war machine marches on unfazed, sustained as it is by a subtly self-distributed myth of accumulation and enclosure that retains all the mystification of myth while discarding its traditional forms.
Look at that album cover again: a "riot" or should I say a mattering of black male bodies (#BlackLivesMatter) almost obscuring the symbol of legitimate democratic government, a symbol (and a government) that has been badly undermined by relentless racist opposition to its lawfully elected occupant, Barack Obama. It's a dialectical image, representing the greatest fears of white supremacists but also calling into question the adequacy of our existing institutions when confronted with the structural violence and rapacity of our society. Can poetry--written poetry, poetry on the page--ever top this? Should it even try?
Last year, Steve Burt wrote a review-essay in Boston Review called "Nearly Baroque," which was then critiqued by various posters on the Montevidayo blog, partly for its provincialism (Lucas de Lima takes Burt to task for participating in "the dislocating flows of neoliberal global capital and its digitalized erosion of nationhood and national literature") and partly for his vaguely Protestant emphasis on the values of rigor and restraint (Johannes Göransson asks bluntly, "Is the 'Baroque' Tasteless?"). The constellation of neo-Baroque poets invoked by the Montevidayans is certainly more diverse and cosmopolitan than the American-only list of poets that Burt treats in his essay, and I think they are also right to question how Burt's "nearly baroque" evades the role of kitsch and camp in this poetry. But I do love how he applies the label "femme" to this poetry in remarking its ornamental qualities, its celebration of artifice, and some of the poets he mentions, especially Geoffrey Nutter and Robyn Schiff, are among my favorites working today. Probably the last paragraph of his piece is most relevant to what I'm trying to feel out here, and I'm going to go ahead and quote it:
I have been trying to recommend these poets: I admire them very much. Yet I have also been laying out, almost despite myself, a way to read them skeptically, as symptoms of a literary culture that has lasted too long, stayed too late. Engagé readers might say that the nearly Baroque celebrates, and invites us to critique, a kind of last-gasp, absurdist humanism. We value what has no immediate use in order to avoid becoming machine parts, or illustrations for radical arguments, or pawns for something larger, whether it is existing institutions or a notional revolution. And we must keep moving, keep making discoveries, as the scenes and lines and similes of the nearly Baroque poem keep moving, because if we stop we will see how bad—how intellectually untenable, how selfish, or how pointless—our position really is. The same suspicious readers might say that these nearly Baroque poems bring to the surface questions about all elite or non-commercial or extravagant art: Is it a waste? What does it waste? Can it ever get away from the violence required, if not to produce it, then to produce the society—yours and mine—prepared to enjoy it? The rococo is the art of an ancien régime: it may be that the nearly Baroque poetry of our own day calls our regime ancien as well. It does not pretend to predict what could replace it.
Burt's argument for--and here, against--the "nearly Baroque" or "almost rococo" hinges on a conception of this elaborate and ornamental poetry as a conquest of the useless that paradoxically evades poetry's uselessness, or any notions of the useful, so we won't discover "how bad... our position really is." I'm not sure that's an adequate description of either Schiff's or Nutter's poetry: Schiff is not only formally inventive but concerned with the deep histories of objects in an at-least Benjaminian way, while the elegiac qualities of the Nutter poem that Burt quotes, "Purple Martin," are to my ear sharply and self-accusingly ironic, and smartly engaged with both the liberatory and fascist dimensions of Heidegger's philosophy.
But this may matter less than Burt's incisive question about "the violence required, if not to produce [this poetry], then to produce the society--yours and mine--prepared to enjoy it?" There is, first of all, a kind of violence done in postmodern Baroque poetry (I prefer this term, as hackneyed as it is, to Burt's overcute coinages "nearly Baroque" or "Baroque Baroque"), directed at the anti-eloquent plain speaking English that dogs and cats can read that in its hegemony over our culture wipes out nuance, difference, and the sites in which either historical memory or the genuinely new are most likely to emerge. That violence can be directed inside the poem, at the lyric self itself, as in the work of Finnish poet Tytti Heikkinen that Burt discusses in a more recent review-essay, "Poems About Poems," or in the work of poets associated with the Gurlesque--the violent femmes of the postmodern Baroque. It might also be a prophylactic violence, the both-ways violence Burt describes in the same essay when discussing Daniel Borzutzky's The Book of Interfering Bodies. But more disturbing is the implication that our enjoyment of the postmodern Baroque is an enjoyment of the very structural violence that this poetry seeks to take refuge from. The unappetizing alternatives appear to be a Baroque that renders violence spectacular and consumable (Caravaggio-style) or a Baroque conditioned by the violence it conceals and evades.
Discussing Borzutzky's work Burt soberly remarks that "We may want poetry to do what it cannot do, to perform a magic in which we no longer believe or a political efficacy that no longer makes sense," before going on to remark that in his poems, "we are brought up short and discover that poetry is the despised Other of more consequential textual forms such as the PowerPoint slideshow." More consequential, not more legitimate--PowerPoint is the language of power (I am reminded of articles in the New York Times a few years back about how the limitations of PowerPoint as a medium may have led to some of the costlier decisions made by the American military--I imagine each and every proposed drone strike is PowerPointed, so as to pre-empt every consideration of what might otherwise escape such euphemisms as "civilian casualties"). It seems to me that culture is not, in the end, separable from its legitimation function--for how else except through culture do we come to recognize or critique our own values?--and the crisis is indeed centered on the assumption that our institutions can somehow run on autopilot, no matter how obstructed (on the legislative level), or detached from everyday life (as in the farce of our presidential politics, parodied by non-events like Hillary Clinton's Chipotle visit), or deeply structured by repression (how can we "reform" the police when their actions merely express the consequences of the white majority's refusal to recognize the humanity of dark-skinned people?).
In its excesses the postmodern Baroque can theatricalize poetry's abjection, and help us to recognize our own abjection--as citizens, as marginalized bodies. It can also, in spite of everything, make a place for beauty--not a resigned, detached, or decadent beauty but a complex beauty that never says or celebrates anything without putting that thing, and the self's relation to it, into question. It is the other of power, but not of politics, because politics happens when people organize--on any level, including the level of language--and direct that organization--call it Blake's organized innocence--against the hollowness of power. If revealing the nakedness of the emperor does not, in this historical moment, diminish one whit the emperor's control of the war machine--and that is a terrifying and deeply uncomfortable truth--it is nevertheless necessary to the imagination of alternatives. Including, most simply and radically, the imagination of alternative relations to our own selves, as more complex, more thoughtful, more diverse, more perverse, more impoverished, and more capable of forging connections than we might otherwise ever have realized.
A much-bandied quote of the moment is Martin Luther King Jr.'s "A riot is the language of the unheard." We condemn riots for their violence, especially their violence to property, and yet a riot--or an uprising--has the potential, the barest potential to be heard (as opposed to processed as spectacle, which is what the mainstream networks have been busily doing, putting the riot's historical rootedness on mute). And that capacity to be heard is rooted in excess, in moments of beauty as in the image above, as well as in the more distasteful and horrifying moments that are inseparable from the beauty. The postmodern Baroque, in poetry and out of it, has the capacity for making these connections, rendering them legible, if not legitimate.
by Giacomo Leopardi
This hill has always been precious to me
and this hedge, that cuts off and conceals
from me the finality of horizons.
But as I sit and stare, boundless
spaces beyond that and superhuman
silences, and deepest quiet
counterfeits my thought, where for a bit
the heart is overwhelmed. I hear
wind rustling through these trees and compare
infinite silence to its voice. So
I'm reminded of the imperishable, and the dead seasons,
and the present, and the life of sound.
So in immensity my thought is drowned
and shipwreck is sweet in such a sea.
Sempre caro mi fu quest'ermo colle,
E questa siepe, che da tanta parte
Dell'ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.
Ma sedendo e mirando, interminati
Spazi di là quella, e sovrumani
Silenzi, e profondissima quiete
Io nel pensier mi fingo; ove per poco
Il cor non si spaura. E come il vento
Odo stormir tra queste piante, io quello
Infinito silenzio a questa voce
Vo comparando: e mi sovvien l'eterno,
E le morte stagioni, e la presente
E viva, e il suon di lei. Così tra questa
Immensità s'annega il pensier mio:
E il naufragar m'è dolce in questo mare.
So we're watching the much-lauded Amazon Streaming show Transparent and we've hit the flashback episode and debating whether the show has jumped the shark. After all, in spite of clever writing and astonishingly subtle and empathetic performances by the cast (chiefly of course Jeffrey Tambor, who secured national treasure status back in the days of The Larry Sanders Show and now approaches deityhood), the show was already testing my tolerance for the clueless misbehavior of extraordinarily entitled well-heeled white Angelenos who lack the last name of Bluth. What is going on with Ali, anyway, as she watches her thirteen year-old self flirt dangerously with a grown man, or maybe it's the other way around? Then I find myself saying out loud, "The weirder it gets, the better it gets." And then I'm listening to the echo.
Inadvertently, while binge-watching an example of what everyone too strenuously agrees to be the dominant art form of our time, I have stumbled across an aesthetic truth, or my truth of the aesthetic. Weirdness, strangeness, risking the alienation of audiences: only by trangressing whatever it is you have to transgress can one deliver genuinely valuable, genuinely powerful shocks of recognition. And recognition is the name of the game--something akin to, yet far from, the authenticity that older models of art hold up as the supreme value (something Transparent, with its sometimes sly, sometimes dopey challenges to gender normativity, is delighted to discard. And let me take advantage of this parenthetical to note that the show's depictions of academia--from the wealth of Mort/Maura's retired political science prof to the broad and unfunny satire of a women's studies classroom--is the weakest dimension of this show, precisely because it deprives this viewer, at any rate, of that salutary shock.)
We're long past shock value for its own sake, I hope--shock in that old-school epater-les-bourgeois Johnny-Rotten-spitting-on-the-audience sort of way. Shock meant to transmit one's alienation, or ressentiment, to the class of straights or parents or flatlanders, well that's just the desire for recognition turned on its head. I'm talking about the classical shock, the sublime comedy of the separated and reunited twins of Twelfth Night or the miraculous rescue from tragedy at the end of The Winter's Tale when Leontes, who's very far from deserving it, has the wife he harrowed to death out of jealousy restored to him. I'm talking about the uncanny, encountering the self in the other, but without reducing the other's otherness--if anything, increasing it. The other is inside, unassimilable.
Ali, the lost daughter of Transparent played brilliantly and unreservedly by Gaby Hoffmann, keeps looking into the mirrors of her best friend, her brother, her father, her lovers, and her younger self, and what she sees shocks and disturbs her every time and moves her closer, maybe, to action--to what her father calls "landing." Being a woman--or a man--is not an identity, if by "identity" we mean something stable and same-same. Womanliness and manliness are means, not ends. Though to be an artist--to have a certain kind of relation to the self--always means to have passionate feeling for one's materials.
The root material for any artist being of course one's own body, one's constantly mutating, translating, betraying body, with its frighteningly permeable boundaries, never entirely separable from the room or town or landscape or gene pool or pollution or--most dizzying of all--the stream of time it finds itself in. The single greatest challenge being to live in the body, on its own terms. Reckoning with desire, deformity, death. Farewell to the ideal unreflectively reflecting back at us from every too-smooth surface.
I go to the gym and larger-than-life images of fit people under thirty look out at me. I look around at the people actually using the equipment and I see men and women of all ages, some packed with muscle but most of them ordinary, even frail, pushing against the weight of their own bodies, spending time with those bodies, hoping to slow the process of decay. Why can't they see themselves? Why did I spend so much of my life comparing myself to the men I'd never be like?
Writing is eccentric or else it's just another stitch in the predetermined hallucination. I spent my twenties and thirties seeking the approval of elders; now in my forties it's no longer satisfying to submit the products of my imagination to whatever other. I must first of all shock myself with what I do, to make it worth doing. To be somehow of service. How many times have I found myself, from a previously unimaginable angle, in books? In characters but more often in voices, in certain slants of language. How often have I, flatlined and flailing, been resuscitated by the cardiac rhythm of someone else's sentences? And the stranger they were, the more unfamiliar, the more sustaining the shock they administered. It seemed I breathed anew.
The strangest things I've written in the past few years involve a kind of cross-dressing. There's "Mrs. God" and a newer poem, "St. Joan," populated by sex-switching protagonists. My novel features a female protagonist, Ruth, and much of it is written from her point of view, though there are male points of view as well. A poem from The Barons, "It's Its," includes these lines: "A woman / in me lodged is my Ecclesiastes. For / there is, never, any, 'they.'"
The woman in me lodged is my mother, or so I've always thought. But what if it's, simply, me? I don't have, I don't think, any desire to cross dress "in real life," but there's no question that my imagination seems to come alive in a kind of ambisexuality. That I feel the shock of recognition when I read Jane Austen, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf. A sense that it's the woman in me lodged who can "feel it all."
Maybe all this is simply how the vocation to write can feel for a boy, this boy.
Écriture, literally "writing," more closely, the inscription of the body and difference in language and text. This body, this difference.
The pun of the title Transparent is pretty dumb: Morty/Maura is a trans parent, get it? But the show's uncanniness, which is the root of its success, which for me comes close to the roots of success for art in general, is that in showing us a thing, a thing that mirrors, the self-image gradually fades out into something rich and strange. Maybe that's why art, books, can feel like company. We cozy up to our own multitudes. But it's crucial, I think, that this new intimacy not cross over into appropriation. The other stays other. Whitman did not become the wounded soldiers he cared for; he cared for them. Watched with them. Bought them ice cream in heroic quantities. Wrote letters for them. And became, a little more, himself.
When intensely felt historical experience intersects with language under extreme pressure, you might wind up with something like the poetry of Philip Jenks, which to my mind represents a kind of Appalachian écriture, the inscription of political, social, economic, and sexual difference onto and inside of the lyric. The title suggests the ongoing apocalypse that has penetrated to the fingers-ends of our culture, while also insisting--hopefully?--on its status as metaphor, a means of bringing the otherwise unsayable into contact with a reader's experience. The downright oddness, the gleeful perversity of Jenks's saying, keeps it local, keeps it, I dare to say, accessible. A shorter poem:
seroquel, ardent neural raid.
"you are incorrigible, simply incorrigible."
reflections of a dying paper route.
or was it boy. that was my intention
when he was bested at the helm,
when he was blankets by daylight
and mouthing sections of biblic'
portion, oozing at mandible.
Take a certain someone, add gun
and some radiation. "treat street."
the Hatchers had one under couch
for special haunts. He grips dripping
without days without number, just
without sail, without border, dead
time circling, circling (ah) del'very!
The poem hovers between storytelling ("reflections of a dying paper route") and metaphor so extravagant it almost ceases to be metaphor ("mouthing sections of biblic' / portion, oozing at mandible"), in this case evocative of Kafka's Metamorphosis, so as to capture the essential loneliness of the poem's two figures, the boy and the titular armed and irascible tenant, perpetually "circling" one another as the boy's failed attempt to deliver the newspaper results in "del'very," a neologism that encompasses religious deliverance, delving into the depths, and devilry. These maneuvers are entirely typical of the book's antic, anguished energy, and yet no two poems are much alike, particularly given the breadth of subject matter, which ranges from medico-theological parables ("you cannot leave the subject blank") to the ravages of history as it gets (mis)taught ("Seventh"), to homages and addresses to the likes of Hart Crane and Neil Young, to a tour-de-force and timely examination of state-sponsored violence ("Eichmann thanks Madeleine"), to what reads as autobiography ("Morgantown, West Virginia").
Jenks's intellectual and poetic touchstones are varied, but I find myself especially drawn to the almost Benjaminian mixture of politics and theology. The book's dedication thanks a number of rabbis, and the beautiful elegy "Mysterium Tremendum" is dedicated in particular to a Rabbi Berger of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, North Carolina. According to his Poetry Foundation biography, Jenks is the son of an Episcopalian minister, and perhaps that's what put him in possession of something quite rare: a restless religious imagination at once skeptical and speculative in its consideration of the varieties of religious experience. I am reminded a little of the work of his friend Peter O'Leary and how his unabashedly mystical Catholicism insistently anchors itself to the things of this world, particularly the natural world, as in O'Leary's magnificent Phosphoresence of Thought. Jenks's work is grittier, performative in a different register. Here's an excerpt from (what a title) "Kill You Power Plant, Begins at Acts 2:1-13":
Gritty Decker's Creek overpass that Mistah Bee jumped from
exiled on his bicycle. I would skip a thousand kickball
Games for one phrase of his mad beautiful Black Jesus sentence
That trailed off the bridgely artifice
Spright and buggy, smeary glasses, his old school bike
Punctuated by the now bloody brown crik.
Before the time of the screen or even built bridge,
Bonehead crept across the lower beam, "protect nature."
The collage of registers here is unsurprising, even normative for a postmodern poem, but it's beautifully executed: look how each line maintains its integrity, the better to rub sparks against its closely cadenced neighbors: "Games for one phrase of his mad beautiful Black Jesus sentence / That trailed off the bridgely artifice / Spright and buggy..." But unlike so many postmodern collages there's nothing weightless here: the monads of lived local experience, of closely heard speech, slam into our "time of the screen" and, maybe, shatter it. It's rare for any poet--I will go on a limb here and say, any white poet--to combine the demotic and intellectual registers so effectively.
Back in 2002, Ben Friedlander published an essay about Jenks's first book, On the Cave You Live In (Flood Editions), titled "Philip Jenks and the Poetry of Experience" in Chicago Review. It was and is a provocative piece of criticism, using Jenks's work to argue a distinction between poetry as "a treasury of memorable statements" and poetry as "a particular experience we have of language." In some ways this is just a restatement of the old cooked-raw distinction, or of Charles Altieri's more magisterial distinction between "symbolist" and "immanentist" poetics, which in turn owes a debt to Schiller's dialectic of the naive and sentimental, Nietzsche's Apollo-Dionysus, and Jung's extravert/introvert. It all goes back to Wordsworth, for whom "poetic creation is conceived more as the discovery and disclosure of numinous relationships within nature that as the creation of containing and structuring forms" (Enlarging the Temple 17).
A poetic like Jenks's points, maybe, toward the discovery and disclosure of relationships within nature-culture, that hybridic zone in which we are all object-subjects and subject-objects, as conditioned by the "containing and structuring forms" that we create as by the rawer dimensions of creation that we struggle to structure and contain. It's a struggle that happens in and with language, a struggle that signifies aliveness, against the innumerable forces that conspire to confine us to the deadness of consumer choices disguised as freedom.
This is the first in what I hope will be a series of occasional reviews of books (mostly poetry but not exclusively so), by Chicago-area authors whose work is in my view underseen and undervalued. If you or someone you know is the author of such a work, let me know.
after Stephen Vincent
Brilliant chilled Monday
Curving down the Purple Line to French class
Il y a le Hancock Building
Il y a les arbes avec leurs feuilles vertes et rouges
Reading Walking Theory thinking air and light
So like San Francisco if light were elevation
Climbing sun towers glass a massive body of water
Feeling the edge of things land's end or muddy middle
Why I like this train is in the S's it describes
The black man in the pinstripe suit who is also reading poetry
The middle-aged white men in glasses looking at notebooks or screens or the window
The woman with tight curly hair bent listening to her red phone
The way we pass impossibly close to the bricked edges of buildings
I decide to get off at Merchandise Mart and wander out through the food court
Following an Exit sign through a succession of blank white doors
Industrial stairway down and a last door bearing a label
THIS DOOR IS UNLOCKED so we take for granted small freedoms
Then down another blind corridor to double doors also unlocked
And into the blinding sunshine slip on my shades and go look at the river
In time to see the architecture tour boat paddling past
Then following the river eastward under the heavy Argos-eyed Mart
Passing the heads of capitalists arranged on pylons like pikes
AARON MONTGOMERY WARD 1844-1913
EDWARD A. FILENE 1860-1937
GEORGE HUNTINGTON HARTFORD 1833-1917
(George with his pointed beard looks a little like Lenin seen from below)
JOHN WANAMAKER 1838-1922
THE MERCHANDISE MART HALL OF FAME
MARSHALL FIELD 1834-1906
(Marshall has a stiff mustache and wings combed into his hair)
FRANK WINFIELD WOOLWORTH 1852-1919
JULIUS ROSENWALD 1862-1932
GENERAL ROBERT E. WOOD 1879-1969
One thing we can say for sure of these men is they aren't alive
Train thundering stately now over the Wells Street Bridge
Let's pause and study the water skinned with floating trash
A plastic bottle with cleaner water in it bobs drunkenly just at the surface
Green Starbucks straws, potato chip bag, sticks and what looks like a frisbee
Another tourist boat passes its vision calibrated upward
Is what I write here predictable calculable from the influences of my past
Am I predetermined to see through soft Marxism that demonumentalizes my city
Vaguely tropical floral arrangements studding the bridge lurid dark pinks and oranges
May be a trick of my sunglasses which shade everything gray and green
I am not too interested in the history but I do enjoy walking across bridges
One thing this Chicago is in this moment is scarcely populous
There's a panhandler crouched on the south end with scarcely any passersby to panhandle
A very small person in sunglasses could be of any sex
I don't have any change I say to myself and linger with small irony
In and out of cold shade more people a firetruck wails across Clark Street
Closer to Marina City a place the Jetsons might have lived
Maybe they will someday weren't they from our future?
People on their smoke breaks in a kind of terraced garden
Overviewing a gravel barge and an angled crane pointing to "55"
Black-eyed Susans eye me and these little violet cups
Even smaller I think that's heather a profusion of tiny trumpets
What I don't know about flowers would fill a much much longer poem
Paper cup in the flower bed of you I know the species
Sun feels good the sky had only trace elements of cloud
Is this my place my time to shine my element my mind?
The river lumping with barges one has detached metal scoopers gigantic
Yellow and red like mustard and ketchup like blind mouths biting the surface
Under the corncobs now an impression of whiteness but they're really not white
Just open to the sky and curved like cellular biology
Suddenly under a tent they're setting for lunch at Smith & Wollensky
Where the Cajun Marinated Bone-In Rib Eye goes for 49 and the Butcher Burger for 13
Think I'm getting hungry and it's State Street so time to swing north
Curious inscription on the bridge house PRESENT BRIDGE BUILT IN 1949
"Present" is something persistent apparently capable of linking worlds
Now I'll see more foot traffic still thinking about that woman
I decided that she was a woman and I should have given her a buck
Since change has apparently no value the climate march in New York topped 400,000
That's a lot of pennies but still it seems like change for chumps
Given the stakes how can air still be crisp and delightful if impure
Bus kiosk Queen Latifah who is "Up Close and Personable"
Passing the Museum of Broadcast Communications pictures of Agnes Moorhead and Ira Glass
The rest have faces for radio the sun hasn't penetrated here
Passed by a bald man in his sixties in orange jeans blue sweater round sunglasses and white tufts of hair above his ears
I look like any asshole walking around tapping on his phone
Alley full of dumpsters young kerchiefed guy pacing with a cigarette
Two identical cubes across the street except one's a garage and one's made of brick
It seems like no one comes to the sidewalk anymore except as an excuse to smoke
Except for that woman in a black hijab crossing the street looking at her phone
White guy in a Bears shirt and madras shorts is really rocking his look
Better the young Asian man in a slim-cut suit and no necktie
There's the Hancock again its rabbit ears tuning in to the sky
Under onion domes of Bloomingdales like a deconsecrated Orthodox church
I think that after class I'll hike back down Michigan to the Art Institute
Visit my Sargent paintings and say farewell to Magritte
The REDHEAD Piano Bar Chili's Quartino Self Park Michael Anthony
Cop sauntering toward me wearing a backpack like a grade schooler
A couple in neutral colors holding hands as they cross Ontario
Here's a place with those woven chairs that make you think of a Paris cafe
But to return to inequality it seems these streets are pretty well scrubbed
Under towers of Erie a plumbing truck sticks its nose down into the sewers
Autocorrect wanted "seers" but I'm only skating on the surfaces
Of this Monday morning in Chicago September 22nd 2014
I think I know that guy no he's up and moved to New York
Put it on the blog where it has a chance of keeping company
Cadence of my eyes following State Street for mes devoirs
Holy Name Cathedral's receiving a touch-up on this day
From another reaching crane all of us two hands up harmlessly reaching
Now in wild overcompensation I give five bucks to a man in a wheelchair
Because how can I give him nothing when he asks while I'm writing a poem?
What any of us can do. This day is given to walking
Speaking French badly looking at paintings going home to my wife and daughter
As if what I love will remain, as if
"Your love will let you go on." No one here remembers California,
What Jack Spicer said.
(first part of an essay in progress)
Geeks today rule the world. But to be a nerd or a geek twenty years ago was to be a marginal figure, as demonstrated by such period pieces as Revenge of the Nerds. Disappointed or frustrated by the limited social options presented to us, my fellow gaming nerds sought participation in a social world that from the outside seemed limited to ourselves, though it was in fact one of many coterie subcultures thriving and sometimes overlapping at that time. Such a coterie was, and remains, a society in search of transcendence. Gaming was an open door to experiences that the real world had seemingly foreclosed, either out of sheer mundanity (life in a cubicle) or because its experiential rewards (sex, money, power) seemed to have been reserved for the jocks and cheerleaders who were best adapted to that world. Role-playing games were for me, for us, our "systematic derangement of the senses"; they cleansed the doors of perception the way drugs did for our parents.
From adolescence on I was addicted to Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games (I still play occasionally). Most fantasy RPGs are a form of pastoral. Not only is the pseudo-medieval setting deeply conservative and feudal in its structure, but the rules themselves offer the players a kind of refuge from the real world's bewildering complexities. As William Empson observed, pastoral is always a simplification, and there's a clean and elemental quality to the rules and tables and dice rolls that compose a gamer's environment. Social interactions, in real life so complex and unpredictable (and generally unsatisfactory, particularly when it came to girls), were here quantified: if you had a Charisma score of 18 you were eminently likeable and you had the die-roll bonuses to prove it. The world of the game is highly coherent, not to say overdetermined: good and evil are clearly defined, and you can always kill monsters with a clean conscience (your friends too: if your character was "Chaotic Evil," say, you could backstab your buddies and then point to your alignment, as in the fable of the scorpion and the frog: "It's my nature!").
Most often my role was that of the Dungeon Master: the referee and chief storyteller of the game. Each player has a single role to play, as warrior or wizard, etc., while the DM plays everyone else: innkeepers, wenches, orcs, dragons, etc. I loved planning and prepping for games almost more than I enjoyed playing them, and spent countless hours in my room drawing maps on graph paper or writing up descriptions of the political systems of imaginary nations. When I got the chance to run a game, I usually ended up frustrated by my few players' inability to take the game world as seriously as I wanted them to; to try and hold their attention I'd shower their characters with gold and magic items in classic "Monty Haul" fashion. The actual games never lived up to the games in my imagination, but I persisted in playing them, because once in a while there would come a glimmer of that intensity, that heightened sense of life, that I craved, and that my everyday existence as a shy, pimply, unathletic, bookish beta male almost never provided.
Things changed dramatically in college, where I met a group of gamers as passionate as I was, brought together by our addiction to a new game called "Breakout." It was a homebrew ruleset and campaign created by my friend Josh Wright, who was probably the closest to an actual adventurer that I had met up to that time (the son of a well-known archeologist he had already done time at digs in Egypt and India; nowadays he himself is a landscape archeologist who specializes in Outer Mongolia). Breakout was more fluid and unusual in its concept and playing style than any game I'd encountered before. Not only could the player characters come from any setting, but the settings in which our adventures took place were constantly shifting, often without warning, from one moment to the next. Some of the player characters were of familiar D&D stock--fighters, magic-users, thieves, etc.--but we also had in our party 1940's-style private detectives and mystical gunslingers and a Catholic farmgirl from turn-of-the-century Texas and a Japanese anime character and the economist Paul Volcker (played by a prospective econ major with wild enthusiasm for Volcker’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Reserve—as I recall, his version of Volcker wielded a quarterstaff with surprising effectiveness). Sometimes we operated in a typically pseudo-medieval fantasy world, but there were other times we found ourselves on a spaceship on the fringe of a dying galaxy or in a Middle American supermarket that was under attack by zombies. It all seemed to make sense at the time, for we felt ourselves to be advancing along the lines of a classic good vs. evil plot that was also about--not just about, it was--the creation of the game universe itself. Terry Gilliam's 1981 film Time Bandits does the best job of any film I can think of conveying what it felt like to play.
One of Josh Wright's mantras, frequently on the lips of the various non-player characters we encountered, was Free your mind and your ass will follow. Sometimes, having passed various tests within the game--sometimes tests we didn't realize we were taking--our adventurers would find ourselves translated from one world to the next, just as the dwarfs in Time Bandits find themselves tumbling from one cosmic locale to another with the aid of their mystical Map. Sometimes transcendence of a given locale took the form of rescue and escape. Sometimes we were catapulted into greater peril, even insanity and horror (H.P Lovecraft and Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu made up a significant portion of Breakout's DNA). As in life our choices mattered, but the results were unpredictable and sometimes we felt ourselves to be caught up in a pattern that we could never fully comprehend. It was a game of riddles and hints and enigmas--every session Josh handed out a "quote sheet" of cryptic sayings collated from pop culture and past sessions that suggested the theme or arc that we would try to follow or bend for that day. Sometimes we tried to force things, translating the level of confrontation from characters in the gaming world to player versus game master. The results were generally disastrous results; as Alfred North Whitehead notes in Process and Reality, "Insistence on birth in the wrong season is the trick of evil." But birth is still birth, and it was possible to suffer death and defeat within the context of the game and yet believe, as one could not quite believe of mundane actuality, that such suffering would be redeemed by the ongoingness of the story. (Besides, one could always roll up another character.)
Breakout was, in short, different from Dungeons and Dragons and the other role-playing games I'd played. The rules, cobbled together from half-a-dozen different sources and from Josh Wright's own mind, were always evolving. There were no alignments and the morality of our actions and those of our foes were often murky. If you wanted to charm the snake priestess into releasing you from bondage, you couldn't just make a Charisma roll, you had to act it out. And the world itself was constantly shifting under our feet: our adventures were enjambed, a collage of whatever struck us as cool that week (some of the predominant influences of that time and place: Japanese anime, especially Akira; Highlander; Stephen King's Gunslinger novels; John Carpenter films, especially those starring Kurt Russell; William Gibson; The Terminator and Conan the Barbarian; Terry Gilliam movies; Alan Moore; etc, etc.). As game master, Josh Wright was the ultimate arbiter of the rules and the world, but we as players had considerable influence on how the game was played and on the evolution of its world. It was a story we told together that was sometimes more compelling than real life. (Okay, it was almost always more compelling than real life. My college transcript will attest to this.)
For a few decisive years, Breakout was life: life lived with intensity, vividness, transcendence. Not the brute transcendence of the adolescent power fantasy, or not completely so, but the transcendence of adventure. The root of the word is the Latin advenire (to arrive) and adventurus (about to happen), and it is very close to the idea of becoming. I began playing with a lot of resistance to this idea, actually. I spent hour upon hour creating characters in Josh Wright's dorm room, dreaming up idealized and magical personae for myself, with complex backstories that I typed up on my Mac SE and presented to Josh, who would receive them with an ironically lifted eyebrow. He understood, as I did not yet, that I was thinking like a D&D player, or a writer of fantasy fiction. Breakout was something else. The game world did not exist to ratify my fantasies; in fact, my elaborately designed heroes more often than not met absurd or humiliating ends.
Gradually I came to understand that Breakout wasn't like fiction, and that the most interesting characters were formed not by my mind working on its own but in the course of their adventures, which were after all as real as any of my other experiences in the sense that they were shared, the warp and woof of our little misfit society. Which was more meaningful: the backstory in my own mind or the actual adventure shared with comrades which we could then discuss and argue over in the days and weeks that followed? The spirit of adventure, of letting things come, ruled Breakout. As with the ancient alchemists, the acquisition of gold was not the true point: the gold was a virtuality. The success of the character or alter-ego that I used was not an end in itself, but a vehicle for transformation. The quest of the player had the same object as all Romantic questing, whether that looks like Percival seeking the Grail, Dante seeking Beatrice, or Scott Pilgrim taking on the world: more life.
What did Josh Wright get out of it all? I suppose I could just ask him, but I suspect the satisfaction he took in Breakout was not dissimilar to the satisfaction of any creative artist. But there was something particularly poetic, I think, more than fictive, in his style of gamemastering, in which language--the language of the rules, the language that accrued between us, with its many layers of reference--took on the form of action rather than representation, and which changed constantly, ramifying rather than linear. A kind of telling that in-formed us and our characters, that converted experience into selfdom; what Whitehead calls "the superject": the subject who is created by his experiences. Josh, who ran the game for two different groups (he called us "the Right Hand"; the Left Hand were his high school friends), got to be something like Whitehead's conception of God, created as Game Master by the collective prehension of the diverse elements of the game world, the only one with a complete view of everything it had become. As a poet becomes a poet by writing, by opening himself to the adventure of the poem.
I wanted to find an outside to poetry. Not an escape, exactly, though there are times I wish that I could escape from poetry, which exerts its gravity on culture invisibly, like dark matter. Call it dark culture, which can be referenced by the grid but must be experienced off of it. (The grid can refer to poetry, etc., but when you experience poetry on the grid, what you really experience is: the grid.) Reading is a vanishing experience and the weight of all those books, more of them every year, is something perceived ever more lightly, something in-experienced. And yet it is possible to set the grid aside, or to use the grid still as reference or double to life rather than life itself, though we are fast forgetting how.
Poetry is off the grid and as dark culture its existence is untimely, precisely because of the ways in which it marks time. In writing a novel I could hardly expect to transcend these things. Instead I wrote myself more deeply into poetry, into my own line. The line simply expanded and extenuated, trembling on the brink of the sentence stretched to its limit. The sentence would not stay put. Its only satisfaction was the next sentence.
“Limits / are what any of us / are inside of” -- Charles Olson
Poetry is tasked for its irrelevance, its refusal to operate as an amplifier of tendencies already adequately represented by and on the grid. The grid, that endless surface the first world skates on--that this text skates upon--claims to offer us an adequate representation. The grid claims to be Borges’s “Map of the Empire whose size [is] that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” In fact the grid is the Empire itself. We feed it our existence and so feed its existence, compulsively and continually. Ungridded experience, itself merely a reference point, is “Useless, and without without some pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters.” IRL.
Culture is a multiphasic field in which we negotiate personhood: our appearances to each other, as individuals and as members of collectives. If you are a laborer in the fields of dark culture your work stands in an uncertain relation to your appearance or invisibility on the grid. The valuelessness of poetry is a commonplace, but so also is the ineradicable minimal value of being a poet. The grid is haunted by the specter of being-a-poet, which is a claim to personhood without authorization.
“I am unbaptized, uninitated, ungraduated, unanalyzed. I had in mind that my worship belonged to no church, that my mysteries belonged to no cult, that my learning belonged to no institution, that my imagination of my self belonged to no philosophical system. My thought must be without sanction.” -- Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book
We are back in Shelley’s territory of the unacknoweldged legislator. But my desire to find the outside of poetry, the skin of its dark matter, is not entirely Romantic. It’s an intutition that poetry does not represent experience but is an imitation of the action of experiencing. Poetry presents an image of what Alfred North Whitehead calls “prehension” in action.
I wrote a novel because I wanted a large prose field for prehension, which is both positive and negative. Positive in its selection of details or data in pursuit of a vector of cumulative experience--the past that composes me. Negative in its vast unselection, everything I don’t write about, whose pressure poetry can make felt. I don’t know if prose can. There is a horror at the center of my novel that to my horror has become part of the grid. What ought to bend or break the grid and put its thoughtless apparatus of representation has become integral to that representation.
Prose and poetry fall into dark culture when they are too insistently evental. The grid can only reproduce objects; it objectizes events. History vanishes into the twilight of my timeline; in the meantime, I can respond to it only affectively: I like it, I favorite it. Without analysis, almost without meaning, it passes by.
They say you should write the kind of book you yourself would want to read. But what I wanted to write was: reading.
Reading is in the dark. I see your shadow there.
"In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars...."
The grid tears easily when stressed. It is ill-equipped to represent without rupture or distortion the personhood of the non-normative, "Animals and Beggars," the feminine, the queer, the non-white, the poor.
Dark culture pours through tears in the grid for moments surrounded by incessant and ceaseless repairs. Converting time back into space, history into Empire.
Minions of the grid, bent and badly mirrored, only recognizable as human in the anamorphosis of dark culture.
The outside to poetry is time as it is lived. Poetry, like life--
Is mortal. In the line. I feel, enjambed--
"...in all the Land there is no Relic of the Disciplines of Geography."
man color or
where the words
In academic halls, one writes for one's peers, and to satisfy their expectations--to win friends, to keep sponsors. Articles come first, small projects, research, translation--delicate nibbles at the hand that feeds. But an article is not an essay. Articles lie about the lay of their land. An article pretends to be clear about its objective and then must pretend to reach it. That objective will be minuscule though recondite. Moreover, the article does not halt at any point along the way to confess that its author is lost, or that its exposition has grown confused, or that there are attractive alternatives here and there, that its conclusions are uncertain or unimportant, that the author has lost interest; rather, the article insists on its proofs; it will hammer home even a bent nail; however, it does not end on a howl of triumph but on a note of humility, as if being right about something was quite a customary state of affairs. Polite applause will be the proper response. And a promotion.
- William H. Gass, "Nietzsche: In Illness and in Health"