Articles - April 2011

In moveme/braces

Erica Baum's 'Dog Ear'

Ballets, 2010.

In 2008 I had the pleasure of working with photographer Erica Baum on an exhibition project through KWH Art, the gallery I then directed at the Kelly Writers House. In keeping with the tenor of the space and its co-function as a reading venue, I was curatorially inclined toward work with affinities to language and concrete poetry. Baum had just completed a new series — probably my favorite to date — entitled Roll Playing, comprising high-contrast, perfectly square photographic crops of player piano rolls. On the left of each image runs a graphic salvo of dashes, flecks, and various other notations, translated from voids coded for the instrument’s pneumatic mechanism (as a sort of continuous punchcard) to positive black marks in the photograph. On the right, a stuttering excerpt of often folksy, sentimental song lyrics is rendered in a sterile, stenciled font flowing up the page in tempo with the musical data opposite. In close collaboration with the artist, I curated a selection from this series into the exhibition Word Each to Cling I, which was supplemented by a small publication and opening programming.

By then Baum had already been repurposing text-based archival materials such as card catalogues and indexes for some time. Her most recent project, Dog Ear, follows in this vein, imaging pages from unidentified paperback books. Each photograph is formally consistent: a diagonal fold from upper right to lower left corner peels back the page to reveal both the text on its reverse side and that of the page underneath. This simple maneuver, conventionally functioning to mark a reader’s place, is under Baum’s lens a complex syncopation; a new text sutured from discontinuous lines torques prose toward prosody at a crude right angle.

Geometrically speaking, the new lay of the language — confounding comings and goings as it seeps from two directions into an eliding cleft — is a familiar but intriguing ravel. In beginning to grapple with the disjointed poems Baum has in effect created (and she has openly identified her text work with poetry in the past), I found a constructive byway in transcription. Hazarding to reclaim some left-right, top-bottom continuity, rewriting her lines pulls them into another particular formal disposition: right triangles, tapering from the first and longest composite line down to the murmur of the final fragment, nearly completely obscured by the fold. 

Serrated edges and typographic detritus (dismembered serifs and ascenders) are part and parcel of Baum’s images, but taking corrective liberties in their reading is by and large inevitable. Subjective inferences and skips (burrows and overpasses, if you will) make Baum’s fragmentations dynamic, opening an imaginary space where the conditions of viewing are always vacillating with those of reading.

 

 

 

 

 


threw his elegant solution into round sort of clearing. Surrounded
red tape held things up. People gigantic well. Sunlight shoots
with their successors didn’t illuminating the ground at
front, concentration can sit down in the sunlight
heavy snowfalls. Pow a chocolate bar from
Rail lines were bell over again how
of uncertainty each second of
At his [ ]sness I felt
His rec[ ] the sun’s
path

Restoring the shards is especially seductive toward the end of this piece, as quivering details of a landscape skirt some relic of personal intimacy, ebbing and faulted. At his [tenuou]sness I felt [  ]? His rec[alling] the sun’s / path? The fringe’s imprecision pushes speculative readings under Baum’s artifice, inviting a new interpolated narrative in lieu of fidelity to the source. Nevertheless the elision remains active in tantalizing us to de-flatten it, to pull the single plane of the image back into codex form, to know and claim the vestigial lines that continue under the surface.

Here the impeded voice itself consents to the pleat:

 

I’m enclosing me here, or remain
you can also do now this,
I’m turned with you if I
answering no tiniest
Yes so it is
last me

 

The first me careens into (or rather, out of) the crease, tangibly demonstrating its synthetic context, then adjusts its bearings to an alternative here, on the face of the page we see. But the visibility (read: legibility) of this location is entirely contingent on Baum’s composition; here would be recto, that is, concealed, if not for her distortion. A downward directive (do now this) literally overrides what else we can also r[ead] beneath, and again the text follows itself in turning with you as your eyes scan the line. Yes, so it is. The last me recurs as literally the final intact morpheme, reminding us that here deixis is a sweeping condition; truncated lines withhold antecedents and reconfigure the associative fields of their respective pages. I, me, you, now, this, and it operate in riddled circuits dependent on Baum’s formal intervention (which, however compelling, is notably minimal, and largely based on a refined practice of appropriation).

Indeed, one of the series’ most successful gambits is its subtle perversion of the movements coded in seeing and apprehending language; Baum’s pieces double-register as both continuous texts and collage fragments in a way that demands conscious reconsideration of our activities of viewing them. Because each of the two triangular excerpts so emphatically signify the context of a printed book, a first reading may struggle to maintain their respective autonomies, and yet the diagonal break inevitably forces false steps. At the end of each line fragment we must either jump the gap and turn the corner or, in a conservative bilateral reading, repeatedly abandon each line at its severed stump to rejoin at the left margin (or vice-versa). Either trajectory ends at the lower left corner, having agilely subverted our reading backward even as we scanned left to right.

second-floor terrace of well-being and or-
get rid of all that It had been years
into that dreadful felt good. Buying
temporary and sed. Replenish-
modern the beginning —
Mark’s sumptu-
And ensure
circuaron
in o-

to the corpse, I had worn away
the lips. In a stirred — and
a bright arousing
struggled hopeless-
had move,
grelp-

Your sister is not to wear stockings
gravely, and the the earth was
stairs, and I up starry-
uninterest not even
wheel king.
set und

Most often paucities assert themselves at both fold and enjambments, but at times joints flex gracefully: second-floor terrace / of well-being and or- / get rid of all that / It had been years / into that dreadful / felt good. Baum’s most fluent choreography occurs in lines with multivalent midsections, engendering a streamlined turn of phrase: consider, for instance, get rid of all that [i]t had or It had been years — the hinge it had can operate either in an adjective clause modifying all or as part of the subject-predicate It had been. Though the graft is visibly exposed by the spare a and capitalized I, the line morphs through its reading; the text is at once rent and teeming at the tears. (Dreadful feels good on the terrace of well-being.) Occasionally the effect produces an even more sustained lyric drift: to the corpse, I / had worn away, / the lips. In a / stirred — and / a bright / arousing / struggled / hopeless- / had / move, or, Your sister is not to wear stockings / gravely, and the the earth was / stairs, and I up starry-. In the latter, only the stuttered article in the second line and the syntactic glitch of I up starry admit the game.

 

fishes of the fifth blind fingers in
ballets which alles, asking to be
The water-sil of the flesh —
in moveme braces. We
undines us by
echoionsive
pere’s

 

From a given angle, Baum’s compositions outfit each amputated line with an aleatory prosthesis, a new limb hanging limp from the socket. The water-sil of the flesh — / in moveme[nt] braces. Poised awry in a chevronic stagger, each line of the text undulates and jerks in a lissome, still stilted, pas de deux.

that she loves you so more than I like peo-
me? Or that you love diced. Bourgeois, if
her unhappy? Or, one either. I’ve
is? Tell me, have diverting, but
you once had not talking
you have Certain
than you put it
people you
loved-
a

Dialogic subtexts pervade the series, but in this example especially, with its apprehensive twitches and dislocated pronouns. Tenterhooks strain the text internally and along its periphery, from the initial if/or disquietude through to the modal brink: Tell me, have / diverting, but betrays an abridged parley (directive and detour, plea and shirk) or, in the seamless transcript, a schizoid self-defeat — even an exhortation for understanding is derailed by agitation and doubt. In two voices you once had / not talking might be nostalgia met with withdrawal, or univocally, a protest against the communication impasse (you were once silent; now speak!). Then you have / Certain seems another strain to know the other now (or here), verging on but (literally) barred from that Certainty that you must possess. Is it you there, on the other side? Are you fixed or repeatedly oscillating with me? What is intertext and what is internal — where is our relation based? With this Baum’s text continually contends both concretely and semantically. At last, love tips into the past by way of the fold, if protested by the hyphen’s forward jut — love / diced.

***

 

as spectators moments, a pro-
artifices in the could not help
shuffled, glances of
which of the
alto was

 

 

Alto which shuffled artifices in as spectators, was of the glances of could-not-help moments, a pro. À propos of Baum’s writerly attention to spatio-semantic structuring, her shrewd framings of various species of printed artifact position her work always in the interstice of photography and poetry. This ambivalence, unlike many of the intergenre claims endemic to her peers, is substantiated by Baum’s work as neither presumptuous nor sloppy; her linguistic finesse is consistently exercised and enhanced by her function as an image collector.

Whether cross-sectioning fanning paperbacks (The Naked Eye, 2009) or extracting stage directions from playscripts (Directions, 2003), Baum collates verbal information with a photographer’s sensitivity to spatial composition. She composes not the words themselves but their field, and through careful excerpting elicits new and generative matrices from the archives. Dog Ear emerges spryly from this lineage, elegantly and methodically resuscitating caches of printed language, over and again, back into the fold.

The Small Press Traffic school of dissimulation

New Narrative, New Sentence, New Left

In October 1978, Small Press Traffic ran an announcement for New Narrative writer Bruce Boone's newly formed marxism study group. The history of the group reveals surprising alliances.

One of the great lost poetry conversations of the 1970s occurred when Bruce Boone led the formation of a marxism study group at Small Press Traffic, the literary arts center in San Francisco. Boone modeled the group in part after his previous experience at the summer institute for the Marxist Literary Group in St. Cloud, Minnesota, which he memorialized in his novel Century of Clouds. At SPT, the group was comprised not of theorists from the academy, but of emerging local writers who aligned themselves with different avant-garde groups and grassroots political movements. The chief participants were Boone, Steve Abbott, and Robert Glück, who were identified with the New Narrative movement; Steve Benson and Ron Silliman, who were identified with the San Francisco wing of Language poetry; Kathleen Fraser, who soon after cofounded HOW(ever), a magazine for innovative feminist writing; and Denise Kastan, who was then the director of Small Press Traffic. 

Their coming together occurred at a catalytic moment when writers of their generation turned to exacting theoretical critique as a means to carry forward the activism of the New Left. But while the participants shared many assumptions about the value of this theory, they differed on how best to apply it to their writing. Weekly disagreements followed, and the group called it quits after a few short months. One trace of the group is signaled on the last page of Boone’s My Walk with Bob, when Glück telephones to cancel their meeting because “no one was going to show up.”[1]   In the scene, Boone hears the news and then gazes down at the floor of his apartment. The scattering of books by Herbert Marcuse, Chairman Mao, and Bob Perelman, as well as a copy of Blueboy lying open to a nice-looking centerfold, offer a closing allegory for his present political crisis. The balance of political theory, innovative writing, and sexual identity was as fleeting, and still somehow necessary, as the study group itself had been.

No lasting project ever came from the collective efforts of the group. The participants never coauthored a collaborative text, never co-coordinated a reading or lecture series, never coedited a literary magazine, and never cofounded a small press operation. The group is today rarely mentioned, though Silliman briefly recalls that they had “some TERRIFIC arguments. In every sense of that word.”[2]  Glück, in an essay about his early writing companions, briefly alludes to the group’s troubles, adding to it a pithy insignia: “The personal demolished the political, and after a few months we disbanded. From that era I recall Ron’s epithet (which Bruce and I thought delicious) The Small Press Traffic School of Dissimulation.”[3]

Without the anchor of a print record, the conversation that took place between the group participants remains unheard. Now thirty years later, the writers are studied, if they are studied at all, in self-encapsulated schools or movements. The writers are understood by social and aesthetic contiguity within such groupings, but, at the cross community level, they are cleaved from one another and from the ground conditions in which each developed a distinctive practice. When critics today champion such schools or movements in isolation — either by idealizing the notion of collective authorship within a group or by defending the embattled writers from powerful outside interests — then histories of the Bay Area fall too easily into misleading and divisive scenarios, such as the Poetry Wars or “the violence of expulsion,” as Perelman remarks in The Grand Piano.[4]

But the print record is not a total loss, and in what follows I want to revisit a small body of poems, narratives, and essays that, when approached with the slant view of history, demonstrate visible signs of mutual interest and productive exchange among the separate coalitions of the marxism study group.[5]  The participants were, it turns out, persistently invested in one other, even if they did not always operate on the same assumptions or goals. Their unlikely alliance is important now because it occurred at a formative moment when they had yet to produce the significant works on which their reputations later came to rest.

The traces of the study group not only provide a detailed glimpse of Bay Area poetry, a glimpse that cuts across the political, social, and aesthetic categories that organize recent histories of the era, but also enrich our understanding of debates that were conducted openly in public forums though documented almost exclusively in small press publications with limited runs.[6]  The traces reveal surprising affinities in the writers’ techniques and compositional methods, and also in their use of content — the stuff of life that invariably plays second fiddle to formalist readings of the avant-garde — such as dedications, riffs, casual asides, put-downs, and gossip. Some group traces highlight their polemics, such as Silliman (in an early essay) ridiculing the notion of audience laid out by Robert Glück (also in an early essay). Other traces show warmth and affection, like when Fraser and Glück address each other directly in poems or when they read together at USF's Little Theater.[7]  When Fraser writes her poem “Re: Echo” in response to Benson’s “Narcissus” (1979) and “Echo” (1979), we cannot help but conclude that histories of this period will be lacking until they begin to triangulate the role of such relationships.

This essay concludes by examining one participant who cannot be pigeonholed in any single one of the different coalitions. Although Steve Benson is today mainly associated with Language poetry — he is after all one of ten coauthors of the “collective autobiography” The Grand Piano — several of his most important works from this era stand in closer proximity to the queer practices and politics of Boone, Glück, and Abbott. Benson’s writing deserves special attention here because it combines a profound and dedicated investigation of language with elements of personal and abject content that closely typify the “emotional moving forward” that Abbott associates with New Narrative.[8]   I want to suggest, for these reasons, that Benson can best be understood as carving out interstitial space between the precepts of each group.

“Terrific Arguments”

The Bay Area has long been home to study groups comprised of poets meeting to discuss, debate, and perform intellectual inquiry outside the halls of academia. Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan attended Kenneth Rexroth’s weekly group of “philosophical anarchists” in the 1940s. Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen bonded at the Berkeley Buddhist Church’s Friday study group in the 1950s. Paul Mariah was a member of a writing workshop called the “Society for Individual Rights” which served as the original impetus for his magazine Man-Root in the late 1960s. And an older Duncan convened the “Homer Group” for the weekly study of Greek translation in the 1980s.[9]

So there was nothing out of the ordinary when a brief notice in the October 1978 issue of the newsletter Poetry Flash announced that a study group dedicated to “Marxism and Theory of Writing” would convene its first meeting at Small Press Traffic on Thursday the 19th of the month at 8 p.m.[10]  SPT was an ambitious nonprofit organization that was rapidly expanding its community programming during these years. Founded originally in rented space inside a commercial bookstore in 1974, the organization relocated to its own retail operation in 1976 and soon boasted an inventory of more than three thousand titles.[11]  “Every available inch is crammed with books,” noted one awestruck observer.[12]  By 1978 a series of regular readings and community programs had helped to transform SPT into a hub of activity for a vibrant cross section of emerging writers. Much of the work that later became identified with New Narrative was nurtured in the weekly workshops that Glück began leading there in the spring of 1978. Prose writers met with Glück on Mondays, and poets met with him on Thursdays, but there was much intermingling and back and forth because friendship tended to take precedence over rigid genre distinctions. The regular readings at SPT (for the “Living Room Series”) featured writers ranging from Boone in January of that year to Perelman and Robert Grenier on the night before the study group held its first meeting — with Sukey Durham and Frances Jaffer on the schedule only a week later.[13]  Considering that Jaffer cofounded (HOW)ever with Fraser and Beverley Dahlen in 1983, one readily gets a sense here of the intersecting and overlapping relationships that proliferated in the local poetry scene.[14]

October 1978 was a period when the coordinators of the Grand Piano series, which is today historically identified with Language poetry, similarly reached out to poets across an array of Bay Area enclaves. The coordinators hosted Duncan on October 3, Dahlen and Tom Mandel on the 10th, Glück and Boone on the 17th (two nights before the study group first convened), and Lyn Hejinian and Grenier on the 24th. If ever two separate reading series could be likened to the student exchange programs at schools and universities, then it might look something like the crisscrossing schedules that year for SPT and Grand Piano. These few months were a surprisingly amiable time for the community, at least on the surface, and observers seemed to take notice. Tim Jacobs, for example, who tended to fill his Poetry Flash column with snarky gossip, delivered an unusually good report on the Glück and Boone event at Grand Piano: “an intelligent presentation of insights on Boone’s part and a totally fascinating selection of work by Glück — a good reading.”[15]

Such praise mattered deeply because the nascent Language poets, already committed to assailing the ideology of the isolated author, were now attempting to do the same for the isolated community — or at least the isolated enclave of their usual small press audience. A case in point: Silliman, about a month before the first meeting of the study group, conceived of a plan to expand the limits of their audience by delivering a public reading of his long poem Ketjak while standing at the corner of Powell and Market. Benson, writing in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, captured the social aspiration of the scene when he described it as “a most democratic and definitive garden party of the urban streets, with the prolifery of the situation.”[16]  Here was the wish for a new polis, one called into being not by divisive platform rhetoric, but by the nonaggressive vulnerability of a public recitation. Surely some thought Silliman was simply craving attention, but according to David Highsmith’s evocative report, he was greeted by “perhaps the most varied, abundant and liquid ‘poetry audience’ recently to be approached as such. […] Each of hundreds of unsuspecting passerby during the non-stop oratory had the opportunity to experience the reading according to his or her uninformed guess as to the nature of the reader’s pulpiteering, profiteering, or political exhortation — not that Ron was trying to pull anyone’s leg; he just read his work and let people draw their own conclusions. The performance should perhaps be remembered as an historic demonstration of the capability of spoken language as an architectural element to define a social environment and delineate space within a context of communication.”[17]

Benson likewise sought to expand the environment for his work, except in his case it meant accepting invitations to events with writers who had long and vocal commitments to gay liberation. Only one week after the SPT study group convened, he joined Glück, Abbott, Paul Mariah, and Ed Mycue for a group reading at Intersection (a long-running poetry venue in San Francisco). Mariah was the most established of the readers. During the 1970s he edited the influential journal Man-Root (or Manroot), which played an instrumental role not only in publishing a generation of new gay writers, but also in introducing Jack Spicer to a younger readership when his work was out of print. Glück was becoming known as a regular contributor to Gay Sunshine. His poems frequently appeared in its pages (including several spotlighted on the back cover), and his early book Andy received a glowing review there in 1974. Abbott’s book Wrecked Hearts was fresh off the press, and through his reviews and social commentary he was quickly making a name for himself among local writers and activists. As one of the only gay poets identified with Language poetry, Benson thus aligned himself with writers who rarely, if ever, made an appearance in the pages of Language-oriented magazines like This or Hills — or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, which first arrived from New York in February 1978.

Such was the immediate context for the establishment of the marxism study group at SPT. It convened during a moment of rare opportunity for building partnerships and coalitions, but it ultimately stood on a fragile foundation that could not support the weight of political and literary differences. The practical problem, as I’ve noted, is that the study group did not leave much of a paper trail. How can we begin to map the discussions that took place? One clue for a starting point is that the printed announcement for the group came with a reading list for Marx, Jameson, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin, Eagleton, Marcuse, Sartre, Barthes, and Althusser.[18]  Major translations of several of these theorists first appeared in the 1970s, even making it possible to pinpoint which texts were read, such as Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” which first appeared in English in 1971. The interest that the participants had in these theorists suggests a surprising degree of consensus about the intellectual legacy of the New Left, the Students for a Democratic Society, and May 1968. This convergence of rallying points and grassroots possibility occurred when many of the study group participants were activists in college. Their coming together a decade later shows that their youthful ideals never fully disappeared. Rather, they found themselves shifting to a conceptual framework in which their own writing practice would soon show itself to be fluent. This was the moment that some have called the turn to theory. One way to reimagine the conversations of the group is thus to conduct a survey of each participant’s individual response to the tradition of Western Marxism: its views of literature, language, history, power, and more. This turns out to be relatively easy because the writing output for almost all of them flourished in the discourse of theory at some point during the late 1970s.

Silliman (at left, in a photograph by Alan Bernheimer, reading at the corner of Powell and Market Streets in San Francisco) is the one participant whose reputation for dialectical analysis has never quite left him behind, and this reputation is no doubt deserved because he spent much of the late 1970s formulating a sophisticated poetics that would disrupt the communicative properties of language (a regime, as he saw it) just as a revolutionary force disrupts the productive structures of capitalism. Silliman’s most celebrated technique was the New Sentence, which has since had a major impact on contemporary poetic discourse.[19]  It is often said that the New Sentence hearkens back to a Modernist radicalism (e.g. fragmentation, parataxis, syntactical disruption) that is antithetical to the Communist demand for literary realism. The avant-garde, after all, is hardly the literature of the masses. Silliman, however, pulls off a dialectical sleight of hand by claiming to possess a deeper fidelity to materialist critique than do any of his detractors who equate experimentation with elitism. In The Chinese Notebook, a long poem composed around the time of the study group, he recalls when a “member of the Old Left” dismissed the whole idea of a poetry that does not “communicate.” Silliman answered that he wants to “experience language directly” not as a “means to an end,” which would be a kind of bourgeois utilitarian thinking, but rather as a refusal of use value in the form of an “unalienated language.”[20]  In Tjanting, a constraint-based prose poem composed in the wake of the study group, Silliman displays a growing distance from canonical figures of Marxism, and it is tempting to speculate that this distance may reflect his disillusionment with the debates that took place at SPT. He writes, “Economic difficulties have forced the Engels family to sell the textile factory that provided funds for the writing of Karl Marx’s Capital to a real estate firm, wch plans to demolish it early next year.”[21]  Here he signals that he is not simply making an academic argument when it comes to his political and literary intervention. When he writes the satiric line “Marxist Literary Group cash bar (Potrero Room, Hyatt) at the MLA” (197), he is arguably taking a shot at Boone, who was a member of the same Marxist Literary Group, even if he did not become a career academic. Despite this baulking, Silliman’s attachment to the labor-based platform of the Old Left is never entirely abandoned, and it occasionally resurfaces in a game of one-upmanship with critical models based on gender, race, or imperialism. One line in particular expresses the continued privileging of class-oriented arguments above all else: “Zimbabwe: class struggle in the guise of race war” (111).

For Fraser, the politics of gender would mean not writing in the same poetic forms handed down by a patriarchal tradition and taught in schools, but nor would it mean a politics that took anticapitalism as its privileged starting point. Fraser and the founders of HOW(ever) sought to critique the gendered division of labor through an extension of second-wave feminism, starting with the mantra that “the personal is the political” and developing its continued implications (such as body politics and revision of intellectual history and the literary canon). Fraser was dissatisfied though with the expressivist tendencies in much feminist poetry. In the first issue of HOW(ever) her coeditor — the poet Frances Jaffer — questioned the assumption that “now is the time for women to write understandable poetry about their own lives, and with feeling, with the […] undeveloped self in prominent display.”[22]  The key word here is “understandable,” for privilege and power are deemed irreducible to the question of knowledge. According to Jaffer, “the myths of a culture are embodied in its language, its lexicon, its very syntactical structure. To focus attention on language and to discover what can be written in other than traditional syntactical or prosodic structures may give an important voice to authentic female experience. Certainly one should be read side-by-side with the other.”

This fusion of profeminist content with unconventional form was, however, an anomaly that had to be vigorously defended from critics on either side. Dodie Bellamy, a New Narrative writer who studied with Fraser, recognized early on that trying to have it both ways would lead to added scrutiny: “Due to similar structural characteristics such as disruption and nonsequential phrasing, Fraser’s writing is often associated with various male avant-garde writers who, ironically, have promoted an aesthetic that devalues the emotional vulnerability to which she has always been committed.”[23]  Here the dots connect back to the study group, for Silliman was one of those very same male avant-garde writers implied by such a comparison. Fraser did not buy into the idea that formal experimentation was the exclusive domain of male writers nor that it was somehow antifeminist, and the SPT conversations surely entailed a discussion of this conundrum. In the years that followed Fraser pursued and successfully realized the possibility of expressing (to quote Bellamy) “subjective experiences through the rearrangement of syntax and meaning.”

Boone and Glück found common ground with the feminist avant-garde by promoting a libidinal critique of power relations through experiments with narrative structure. They spearheaded a movement called New Narrative that, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, embraces the oppositional politics of novels and short stories, as well as less fiction-oriented experiments in translation, cultural criticism, drama and even poetry.[24]  A key example is Boone’s Century of Clouds, the novelistic memoir about the summer meetings of the Marxism and Theory Group in St. Cloud, Minnesota, during the summer of 1977, the same year that gay activist Robert Hillsborough was murdered in San Francisco and that Anita Bryant (the orange juice spokeswoman) launched her antigay crusade “Save Our Children” in Dade County, Florida. Boone’s novel features many celebrated theorists: Stanley is Stanley Aronowitz, Terry is Terry Eagleton, and, most important for Boone, Fred is Fredric Jameson (“He’s so large, like the world”).[25]  But Boone had his own ideas about how best to achieve social justice, as he shows in one scene in which all the Marxists get together for a game of volleyball — the “politically correct choice because […] it hasn’t been ‘commercialized’ and ‘it’s never a spectator sport’” (64). At least this is the “ideology,” explains Boone. In reality, he says, “volleyball brought out hidden conflicts that had never been resolved, and often were not even discussed. Volleyball turned out to extend certain power realities based on sex.” Boone goes on to describe the celebrities of literary theory who espouse social justice but who become mean-spirited bullies on the volleyball court. Exposing these “power realities based on sex” represents one intervention among many that Boone and New Narrative writers sought to make on the political Left. (Other interventions, particularly by Boone and Glück, include the study of popular culture, the politics of pornography, the recovery of gay poetics before Stonewall and Gay Liberation, and many more.)

While the study group participants had a great deal in common, their differences were at the heart of the arguments that led to the dissolution of the group. Fraser, for example, was close enough to local Language poets that Lyn Hejinian published her Magritte Series (1977) as a Tuumba chapbook (in the same series that featured Benson’s The Busses and Silliman’s Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps). But Fraser, as she recalls later, had “ambivalent feelings” about the work, for she was “by turns, intrigued, bored, seriously engaged, wary.”[26]  “I knew Language Writing had arrived,” she says, when her students at San Francisco State University began turning in assignments that featured poetry made up of “collaged fragments or sentences or paragraphs juxtaposed in amusing unexpected ways […] a more distanced, heady relationship to the writing, cutting back on the more obvious preoccupations with Self” (65). Fraser points out that her friend Glück likewise found that his students reflected the influence, an influence that she concedes was “timely, necessary, and attractive.” Fraser worries though that the students did not understand the original political context for the techniques, a context that she knew firsthand from the marxism study group.

Fraser makes a point of emphasizing that Benson was one of the earliest Language writers to “put her on alert.”[27]  She means this in a good way: he did not strike her as entirely conforming to any close-knit or self-segregated group. Benson is, in fact, a key figure in the landscape of Fraser’s Each Next: Narratives, her 1980 publication from the Figures Press. Fraser addresses a series of journal entries and imaginary letters in response to Benson’s early transcribed improvisations “Narcissus” (1979) and “Echo” (1979).[28]  The myth of Narcissus is traditionally about self-reflection, so it is an allegory for identity or sameness. This is not the case for Fraser, however, who contends that Benson’s revision of the myth relies on the establishment of difference, or what she calls “deflection.” Gertrude Stein’s notion of repetition with difference hovers in the background here, but so too does H.D.’s idea that mythology can be appropriated and reimagined in the present. Fraser personifies Narcissus as Benson himself, the poet who “gazes with longing, trying to find himself” in the pool of language. She poses her voice as feminized Echo:

September 7
Dear Narcissus,

Is language, in fact, the pool? Looking into your words as if they represented a surface of water (Narcissus gazes with longing, trying to find himself), do I then find me, a word I know? Yes. No. Some deflection, in-flexing of where we might overlap. Sitting on your lap, a word comes back to me, as an echo. So I divest myself of the disembodied me … Echo is She, who watches Narcissus look for himself and returns to himself, slightly altered, by her very attentiveness.

Where am I?

Love,

Echo [29]

Fraser’s feminist intervention here is twofold. First she raises the question about language in a way that appears to align Echo and Narcissus with the gendered critique that, according to Fraser, operates in some Language poetry. She puts it most clearly when she writes, “Echo is She.” But Fraser also holds fast to the idea that narrative aspects of myth can create connections between individuals (“where we might overlap”). The work is neither strictly about language; nor does it reject language as a site of inquiry. Rather, it slides back and forth between these positions (“Yes. No.”).

Notice that Fraser’s response to Benson’s original commentary on his own text effectively constitutes a third level of deflection. This incremental back-and-forth, like the sound wave of an echo, can apparently keep going. Fraser’s letter dated September 10 opens by declaring, “While you were gone, I divided into two even more distinct territories” (Each Next 54). Again in the voice of Echo, Fraser writes of her “belief in mutablity.” She adds, “It was, of course, a question of language,” but then she moves back into a narrative mode:

In what appeared to be home, I was also alone. I missed our talks, which always pull me somewhere new, but in your friendly red wagon with its creaky wheels. So I began to write about my grandfather, who was out-of-order, displaced from his known function and terrain. These stories were written within a solid and digested tradition of linked sentences. Achieving their life gave me a kind of satisfaction I’d not known. (54)

Is “home” in fact language, as in Heidegger’s idea that language is the “house of being”? Rather than move into conceptual or philosophical territory, Fraser refers to a sentimental story about her grandfather that appears earlier in the book. Not only is it autobiographical and narrative, as she says, but it also relies on “linked sentences” that fly in the face of the paratactic and “torqued” structures that Silliman promoted under the banner of the New Sentence. Fraser finds power in the ability of a story to reflect on its own construction. And on this point Benson may have held greater appeal for Fraser because he did not reject narrative entirely, as we’ll see below.

The ties between Fraser and New Narrative are even more extensive. Fraser wrote an appreciative review of Boone’s My Walk with Bob and Glück’s Family Poems in the pages of Poetry Flash. She praises their use of intimacy (“like a piece of journal writing or a letter to a trusted friend”) to discuss theoretical precepts that would be more likely expected in a formal essay.[30]  Fraser also contends that Boone and Glück extend feminist questions to the analysis of masculinity. In the days before feminism evolved into the academic field of gender studies, Fraser praises New Narrative for investigating the idea that gender is a determining factor in literary structure. Her support of New Narrative has a playful side as well. In Each Next, Fraser writes a prose piece about Glück’s dog Lily, who appears in his own books Elements of a Coffee Service and Jack the Modernist. (That is three cameos for one dog. A hat trick!) Fraser’s poem “Fried. lily” establishes an affectionate double entendre, first to the dog’s name, and second to Benson, who inspired the title of her poem when he made a typo on the word “friendly” in a personal letter. Fraser’s other poem “Lily, Lois, & Flaubert: the site of loss” appears in the first issue of Soup, as does Benson’s poem “To Myself”).[31]  Consider, too, that Glück writes a poem for Fraser in his book Reader and provides blurbs for a few of her books. These connections demonstrate mutual support that lasted well beyond the short-lived study group.

Not everyone was on congenial terms. New Narrative writers came together around the view that the avant-garde had gone stagnant in the 1970s. Boone objected that writers, and here he implied Language poets, were turning inward to an “increasing refinement of technique and available forms, without yet being able to profit greatly from the vigor, energy and accessibility that mark so much of the new Movement writing of gays, women and Third World writers, among others.”[32]  Or take Abbott’s review of the work of another Language poet, Barrett Watten’s 1–10, in Poetry Flash. Having read the book “six times or more,” he says, he finds the “work is incredibly dense and continues to fascinate […], more in irritation than in pleasure.”[33]

Abbott finds two intractable faults. First, he dislikes the diction that is so “heavy with scientific bureaucratic and abstract terminology”: words like oscillate, semantic, microstructure, parabola, electrostatic, and so on. Modern poets have appropriated scientific jargon at least since Eliot characterized poetic feelings as a “catalyst” or since Zukofsky, more closely aligned with Watten, used the second law of thermodynamics to trace a line between Shakespeare and the present. But Abbott will have none of it. He laments, “Those who get a charge out of such terminology (or who don’t like to be ‘charged’ by poetry, if that’s the point), may be pleased. I’m not, at least not beyond the tantalizing shock of seeing such a highly specialized vocabulary leaping to life (??) in a realm where I would least expect it.”

Second, Abbott faults the over-riding paranoia of the poem’s landscape. It’s not that Abbott expects poetry to embrace joyous optimism, but the opposite extreme leaves him at a loss: “I cannot read far without feeling a terrible solipsistic claustrophobia.” These are harsh words indeed. Abbott qualifies his remarks by conceding that “on its own terms, the terms of form, the work excels in inventiveness.” Boone elsewhere makes a virtually identical point about Silliman’s poetry, so we can’t simply say that the theoretical precepts of Language poetry were lost upon their New Narrative detractors. Abbott understands the precepts; he just doesn’t agree with them. Worse, he links the erasure of subjectivity in the work to a desire to “flee the guilt and complicity of being-in-society.” So the no-self of formally disruptive poetry is in fact an abdication of responsibility. Abbott writes: “The virtue of Barrett Watten’s writing is that he so relentlessly focuses on language as a map, or to be more precise, an overlapping of maps. The problem of it, for me, is that it does so little else.”

While Watten was not actually in the study group, these objections to his writing were inevitably the fallout of conflicting positions that never resolved themselves after the study group disbanded. Shortly after members went their separate ways, Boone wrote in Poetry Flash “that language poetry is unquestionably the hegemony movement of the day and that, on the other hand, it lacks a developed social sense. Poetic practice in the future might well involve getting these aspects together.”[34]  Boone’s alternative was to deploy narrative in a way that would “create the need for an audience.” This is reminiscent of Althusser’s notion that ideology operates by interpolating or hailing a subject, except in the case of New Narrative, the ideology would not be state power, but the transformational queer politics that the writers welcomed in their roles as social activists. Remember, too, that Althusser was on the study group reading list, so it is not far fetched to see an influence on Boone’s thinking here. Boone also invokes almost messianic terms, which may have stemmed from the Walter Benjamin on the list. “In a poetry such as this,” writes Boone, “we can see both possibilities for present literary concern as well as signals for a future. A future that is certainly on the other side of our present writing, but one that may nonetheless reflect back to us some idea of what poetry and society might be in a place still to come.”[35]

Recall, by way of contrast, that the most vociferous practitioners of Language poetry alleged that narrative was a politically regressive form of writing. Silliman, at approximately the same time that the study group was meeting, asserted that his own goal was to “search out the preconditions of a liberated language within the existing social fact.”[36]  Such poetry would be not the product of the marketplace, not the reification of social forces, but a “philosophy of practice in language.” At its most rudimentary this poetry was intended to explore the materialism of language by disrupting signification, syntax, and grammatical structure, thus resurrecting a space for agency outside the contractual powers of normative communication. Although New Narrative writers were invested in a queer future that can hardly be called normative, their reliance on narrative techniques identified with realism resulted in an impasse with language-centered poetics. That the study group foundered on this impasse is not difficult to imagine.

Six Degrees of Steve Benson

But wait a minute, we might say: aren’t such group categories just overgeneralized caricatures that don’t really apply to the individual writers, at least not without simplification or distortion? When Boone accused Language poetry of being the “hegemony movement” of the day, Silliman replied in Poetry Flash by denying that any “such identity exists.”[37]  Silliman writes, “At best that group noun refers to a wide body of overlapping concerns and family resemblances. There exists no substantial agreement.” Silliman is right to point to exceptions that complicate the shorthand of group designations. But what best gives his statement credibility is Benson, and — here’s the really ironic part — what makes Benson the exception is his proximity to New Narrative.

This might seem a curious assertion because Benson is in many ways a key figure of Bay Area Language poetry. He was a one-time coordinator of the Grand Piano reading series. He was integral to Poets Theater, where he wrote and performed in plays with Carla Harryman and many others. He gave an early presentation for the talk series held in Bob Perelman’s apartment that was published in the first volume of those talks. (He gave other presentations as well.) Benson’s work appeared in This, Hills, Tottels, Miam, and Poetics Journal, and he was a frequent contributor to the East Coast organs for Language poetry including L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Roof, Dog City, and A Hundred Posters. He also read at the Ear Inn in 1979. His early publishers included The Figures, Tuumba, Whale Cloth, and Potes and Poets — and again, all of these outlets are closely aligned with Language poetry. The scholarly neglect of Benson’s work, however, means that few have ever appreciated the degree to which his work overlaps with other collectives in the Bay Area.

Recall again that aside from David Melnik, Benson was the only openly gay poet associated with Language poetry in the Bay Area scene. Benson’s sexual identity would not necessarily make him in a more likely participant in New Narrative, but the fact is that his early track record for writing and publishing does not conform to any exclusive group or movement. Not only did he read with New Narrative writers (as noted above), but his work also appeared in the first issue of Abbott’s magazine Soup, which was virtually ground zero for New Narrative writing. Or consider the reception of his work. When Boone criticizes Language poets (especially Silliman, Watten, and Perelman) in a long essay in the second issue of Soup, he makes a notable exception for Benson’s “Views of Communist China.”[38]  (To summarize briefly: Benson re-creates his bedroom in the talk space of Bob Perelman and Francie Shaw’s apartment and leads the audience through a tour of individual object and memories. The performance arguably seeks to invert the norms of coming out, for Benson invites the audience into his private space rather than taking himself out into the public world.) On the one hand, Boone suggests that Benson’s talk, despite its title, is too dissociated from any real-world politics in China. On the other hand, a queer dimension of the work intrigues Boone because Benson displays “truly intimate feelings with what appears […] as a sometimes alarming openness.”[39]  Boone finds Benson’s openness uncharacteristic of other talks in the volume, so he becomes irritated when a second poet interrupts and “takes advantage of [Benson’s] vulnerability” (9). For his part, Boone much prefers the end of the piece when Bob Perelman joins Benson to perform the role of a young girl in a scripted interview. Boone remarks, “Well, I like the gay aspects of this scene. But it makes an odd ending” (9).

At other times Benson’s association with Language poets caused difficulties for his relationship with other writers, including Abbott, who was coeditor of Poetry Flash in the years following the study group at Small Press Traffic. When Benson reviewed Harryman’s Percentage for Poetry Flash, Abbott publicly criticized him for “amorphous weaving about a site and not wanting to clarify your stand.”[40]  Another staff member at the magazine accused Benson of “spinning into his own word game instead of explaining the book.” Benson defended himself in a series of letters with Abbott that accompanied the publication of the review, writing: “I prefer to find my gyroscope within myself rather than in deference to terms and opinions and traditions handed down to me.”[41]

Yet this inner gyroscope often tilted in the direction of New Narrative. Early works like Steel Idea (Miam Magazine, 1978) and As Is (Figures, 1978), published around the time of the study group, are best described as hybrid constructs that stretch the divide between paratactic and non-narrative sentences (a defining feature of Language poetry) and journal-like entries that describe sexual escapades in a way characteristic of New Narrative. Consider this narrative passage in Benson’s first major collection As Is:

I had asked Paul to let me roll a joint before he left. My plan was to smoke it and go see a double bill at a gay porno theater. I figured I’d take my contacts out at Larry’s before going to the beach. I had only gotten my contacts the day before, my first pair, and I wasn’t sure how I’d like seeing a movie with them. However, I thought I’d prefer to have everything new. The movie idea was new to me too.

It’s cheaper if you go before noon. I was surprised that there were some boys on the screen I really liked. Not all muscle men or tough guys. I became lost in certain sequences.

When I came into the theater I was amazed at how dark it was. Maybe I couldn’t see anybody, couldn’t see the rows of seats because the image on the screen was all black and red. After watching for a couple minutes I realized I still had my sunglasses on. I was rarely aware that I was stoned.

After about an hour I realized that I was coming a little bit in my pants. I had a nylon swimsuit on under my pants and I didn’t want lots of stains when I showed up at the beach. I became aware of my penis and started to stroke it a little bit. I opened up my pants in the dark and let the head of my penis out of the swimsuit.

[…]

The contacts sort of made the images on the screen swirl around. For a long time they had vague circular edges but after a while I began to focus more completely, and the blacks and whites contrasted more remarkably and the image was terrifically present.[42]

When we read this passage in light of the study group’s conflicting views toward erotic content, Benson’s liminal position with respect to libidinal politics becomes clear. In an early essay, “Caricature,” Glück argues that gay porn is politically subversive because class stratification does not define what makes an appropriate or inappropriate sexual partner.[43]  Silliman adopts a diametrically opposite view in Tjanting: “Porn is the presentation of an unequal power relation between partners in the act of sex for purposes of commerce” (197, emphasis added). In Ketjak Silliman suggests that sexual content usefully refocuses the reader’s attention, but he neglects to acknowledge any other use for oppositional politics: “Insert opaque erotic data, stimulate focus.”[44]  In “Sunset Debris,” he goes even further: “Isn’t it that certain forms of language, for example of erotic content, focus perception away from the words and the syntagmemic chain, a world suppressed in reference to another?”[45]  Silliman might be paraphrased as saying that more sex means less language. Benson’s poem, though, is closer to Glück’s notion, for he finds himself attracted to men across a range of class positions. When he loses his contact lens on the floor of the theater (a scenario that is both abject and rarified), he finds the blurred image of orgies on the screen even more enticing — as if to suggest that queer relations can leap across social differences better than any other form of critique.

Benson may have appealed to those not affiliated with Language poetry because he gave off a strong sense of independence, never writing according to a particular playbook or groupthink. In any event, he is best thought of as a poet who stands between groups, meandering back and forth and troubling the very binaries that govern much of my discussion above. Benson ultimately presents a limit case for the applicability of those group alignments. I’ll close with a passage from his 1981 poem The Bussess, in which Benson can be heard thinking through this in-between space, or what he here calls the “interstitial and intermittent”:

    To change the subject I
want to become more actively historical.
This is typical of my age? I have been accused by
    those of my not really friends who would in effect
  consider themselves active that I’m not, that is, that I
compromise myself by doubting my convictions or most
powerful bonding, shall we call them, impulses — that I
        don’t follow through on what they would like to see
    center for the whole, generate unity — instead, …
 but knowing requires a self-assurance that’s untrue to me.
I accept the validity of bonding, the necessity of community
 value for meaning, but see my life and context as solitary,
    interstitial and intermittent, and don’t yet understand
        what activity I can undertake without compromising
     that knowledge of my value — which I take to be positive! [46]

 



An earlier version of this essay was delivered at the National Poetry Foundation’s “Poetry of the 1970s” conference, University of Maine, Orono, in June 2008, as part of a panel entitled “New Narrative — New Sentence — New Left,” together with Rob Halpern and Robin Tremblay-McGaw. For research assistance with small press publications cited here, I wish to thank Michael Basinski, curator, James Maynard, assistant curator, and staff members at the Poetry Collection, the University at Buffalo. I also wish to thank Stephanie Young for her provocations in response to a penultimate draft of the essay.


 

1.  Bruce Boone, My Walk with Bob (San Francisco: Black Star Press, 1979), 33.

2.  Ron Silliman, email to Poetics Listserv, November 11, 1984. Previously published in poetics@, ed. Joel Kuszai (New York: Roof Books, 1999), 62.

3.  Robert Glück, “Long Note on New Narrative,” in Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative, ed. Mary Burger, Robert Glück, Camille Roy, and Gail Scott (Toronto: Coach House, 2004), 32–33.

4.  Perelman writes, “But the more interesting moments of judgment are not built around the violence of expulsion. There’s the writing I love, admire, envy.” Bob Perelman, The Grand Piano 2:87. See De Villo Sloan, “‘Crude Mechanical Access’ or ‘Crude Personism’: A Chronicle of One San Francisco Bay Area Poetry War,” Sagetrieb 4, nos. 2–3 (Fall–Winter 1985): 241–54.

5.  Note that I mainly use the lower case “marxism” throughout this essay in order to suggest the flexibility that the participants hoped to locate in the tradition of Marxist critique. I take the term “coalition” from Eleana Kim, “Language Poetry: Dissident Practices and the Makings of a Movement,” Readme 4 (Spring–Summer 2001). Although I am mainly focusing on participants in the Marxist study group, Kim points to a large number of coalitions in the Bay Area and notes how often these groups came into conflict:

The poetry scenes of San Francisco in the mid-to late 1970s were varied, with “coalitions” forming at different venues — “Third World” writers such as those associated with Ishmael Reed’s journal Yardbird, and women’s collectives — asserting their positions through networks of presses, readings and publications. New Americans of the New York School, the Beats and the San Francisco Renaissance were still important figures, as indexed by their frequent appearances at benefits and special events. The First and Second Annual San Francisco Poetry Festivals in 1976 and 1977 featured, among others, Kenneth Rexroth, Michael McClure, Robert Duncan, Miriam Patchen, Ishmael Reed, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Thom Gunn, Diane DiPrima, Gary Snyder, Andrei Codrescu, and Robert Bly. Next to readings by gay, women, and Third World poets, and the highly visible and well-established Beats and New Americans, the names of Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, Rae Armantrout, Lyn Hejinian, Carla Harryman, Steve Benson, and Kit Robinson began to appear with increasing frequency in the calendar of readings in San Francisco’s monthly poetry newsletter, Poetry Flash.

6.  In The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), Bob Perelman exemplifies this position when he writes, “language writing is best understood as a group phenomenon, and that it is one whose primary tendency is to do away with the reader as a separable category” (31). At the heart of the group phenomenon, he notes, were collaborations and “parallel projects” undertaken in the 70s and 80s (33). According to Perelman, such cooperation is a mark of progress because it explodes the ideology of the heroic genius who scribbles away in isolation. A communal or collaborative model is further said to facilitate a reading practice that is less hierarchical (or consumer-oriented) and more participatory (or activist).  

7.  Glück and Fraser read at the Little Theater reading series on March 13, 1979. The reading is announced in Poetry Flash 72 (March 1979): 8.

8.  Steve Abbott, “Notes on Boundaries, New Narrative,” Soup 4 (1985): 81.

9.  See Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), 10; Gary Snyder, “Foreword, Highest and Driest: For Philip Zenshin’s Poetic/Dharma, Gary Snyder,” in The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, ed. Michael Rothenberg (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2007), xxvii; and Paul Mariah and Richard Tagett, prefatory acknowledgments in Man-Root 1 (1969): ii.

10.  Poetry Flash 67 (October 1978): 2.  

11.  Robert Glück, “Trafficking in San Francisco,” Contact II, nos. 8–9 (Summer 1978): 5–6.

12.  The observer continues, “A new bookstore has opened in San Francisco. Small Press Traffic is the name and every available inch is crammed with books. The poetry selection is excellent.” Poetry Flash 47 (January 1977): 2.

13.  I discuss Durkheim’s role in the Left/Write conference in “New Narrative and the Making of Language Poetry,” American Literature 81, no. 4 (December 2009): 805–832. Other notable readers for SPT in 1978 include Leslie Scalapino, Gloria Anzaldúa, Beverly Dahlen, Jerry Ratch, and Steve Benson.

14.  A case in point: on Tuesday, June 27, SPT held a benefit reading at Intersection (another popular site for poetry series) that featured a lineup of Mary Oppen, Leslie Scalapino, Boone, Tom Mandel, and Michael Palmer. Tuesday, however, was the regular night for Grand Piano readings, so the original event for that night had to be moved to Thursday in order to avoid a conflict. The Grand Piano event was no less than the much-celebrated performance of Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-24 with voices by Steve Benson, Barrett Watten, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian, and Carla Harryman, and with piano by Bob Perelman. Normally such snafus could be avoided because the many different series laid claim to different nights of the week, but not when a third party like Intersection was involved.

15.  Tim Jacob, “Rambles,” Poetry Flash 68 (November 1978): 4.

16.  Steven Benson, “Ketjak in San Francisco,” L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 8 (June 1979): 23.

17.  Quoted in Tim Jacobs, “Rambles,” Poetry Flash 67 (October 1978): 2.

18.  Advertisement for Small Press Traffic (with readings, workshop, and study group schedules), Poetry Flash 67 (October 1978): 2. For the Althusserian Marxism of Language Poetry, see Andrew Ross, “The New Sentence and the Commodity Form,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (New York: Routledge, 1988), 361–380, and Geoffrey Hartley, Textual Politics and the Language Poets (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

19.  Ron Silliman, The New Sentence (New York: Roof Books, 1987).

20.  Silliman, The Chinese Notebook (New York: Ubu Editions, 2004), 173–74.

21.  Silliman, Tjanting (Berkeley: The Figures, 1981), 165.

22.  Frances Jaffer and Kathleen Fraser, “Why HOW(ever)?” HOW(ever) 1, no. 1 (May 1983): 1.

23.  Dodie Bellamy, review of Something (even human voices) in the foreground, a lake, by Kathleen Fraser, Poetry Flash 134 (May 1984): 10.

24.  Harris, “New Narrative and the Making of Language Poetry.”

25.  Bruce Boone, Century of Clouds (San Francisco: Hoddypoll Press, 1980), 7.

26.  Kathleen Fraser, Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000), 63–65.

27.  Fraser, Translating the Unspeakable, 67.

28.  Benson’s two poems appear in his book Blindspots (Iowa City: Whale Cloth, 1981). He describes the poems as “a transcript” that he “slightly edited” (5) from a taped, improvised performance in Baltimore in 1979. Benson explains:

It opens with a reading of the poem “Echo” and a spontaneous monologue, and it goes on through increasingly improvisationally-derived readings of things I had written and consecutive reworkings of that monologue listened to through earphones or speakers from tape, moving between the brick wall and the audience (this time in tiers) among my tape recorders, the things I’d written, and the ladders. (5)

In improvisation, the goal is often to distance the self or the controlling ego and foreground the materiality of language. But an estranged self does not dominate in Blindspots. Benson turns again to his inner gyroscope when he performs an interpretive activity during the composition itself. The work literally folds back in on itself. The multiple voices of the transcription are organized on the page much like Hannah Weiner’s Clairvoyant Journal, a work that was published not long before Blindspots. Note that Weiner is also cited several times in Benson’s text.

29.  Kathleen Fraser, Each Next: Narratives (Berkeley: The Figures, 1980), 51.

30.  Kathleen Fraser, “My Walk with Bob and Family Poems; A Letter of Review,” Poetry Flash 88 (July 1980): 8.

31.  Rob Halpern writes, “Soup is significant because it was able — among other things — to stimulate and contain community differences, while registering the social and aesthetic antagonisms that traversed the avant-garde literary scene in the San Francisco Bay Area circa 1980. Soup does the invaluable work of making the dynamic conversations and fault lines between divergent literary tendencies and their related constituencies audible, without indulging in hostile positioning, or ad hominem bickering.” See Rob Halpern, “Restoring ‘China,’” Jacket 39 (2010). Benson’s “To Myself,” also published in Blue Book (New York: The Figures/Roof: 1988), 32, reads:

What happens when you don’t have enough time to be alone?
What is the hidden assumption of that question?
What if I don’t come out to enough other people?
What if I don’t tell them how I feel?
I get angry.
What is the answer
hidden in that unanswered question, that
statement?

32.  Bruce Boone, “Remarks on Narrative,” afterword to Family Poems, by Robert Glück (San Francisco: Black Star Series, 1979), 29.

33.  Steve Abbott, review of 1–10, by Barrett Watten, Poetry Flash 103 (October 1981): 8.

34.  Bruce Boone, “A Few Remarks on the Perelman/Soldofsky Dispute,” Poetry Flash 76 (July 1979): 5.

35.  Boone, “Remarks on Narrative,” 32.

36.  Silliman, The New Sentence, 17.

37.  Silliman, “Flashback,” Poetry Flash 77 (August 1979): 6.

38.  Steve Benson, “Views of Communist China,” in “Talks” special issue of Bob Perelman’s magazine Hills 6–7 (1980): 74–103. 

39.  Bruce Boone, “Language Writing: The Pluses and Minuses of the New Formalism,” Soup 2 (1981): 9.

40.  Steve Benson, review of Percentage, by Carla Harryman, Poetry Flash 86 (May 1980): 8. Steve Abbott and Steve Benson, “Letter Exchange on the Above Review,” Poetry Flash 86 (May 1980): 8–9.

41.  Steve Abbott and Steve Benson, “Letter Exchange on the Above Review”: 9.

42.  Steve Benson, As Is (Berkeley: Figures, 1978), 3–4.

43.  Glück, “Caricature,” Soup 4 (1985): 18–28.

44.  Silliman, Ketjack (San Francisco: This, 1978), 23.

45.  Silliman, The Age of Huts (New York: Roof, 1986), 26.

46.  Steve Benson, Blue Book (New York: The Figures/Roof, 1988), 130.

A grave in exchange for the commons

Fred Moten and the resistance of the object

Photo courtesy Adam Pendleton.

I am standing in front of contemporary artist Adam Pendleton’s installation at MoMA PS1’s Greater New York show, in the heart of cultural (if not actual) capital, as it were. The work before and around me, The Abolition of Alienated Labor, takes its title from a 1963 work by the French Situationist Guy Debord, in which Debord painted the words “The Abolition of Alienated Labor” over an industrial painting by fellow Situationist Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio. Directly in front of me is a large (five- by seven-foot?), boxy, black-framed object in which I can see the image of a man. The man is black and wears a headdress of some sort, with a feather protruding from it sticking straight up.

The image has an archival quality, as many of the images Pendleton uses in his Systems of Display series do. Pendleton seems to be attempting to evoke a feeling for history in his viewer, without necessarily telling you what any particular image is, or where it originates. The image of the man with the headdress is actually a silkscreen that has been printed upon a mirror set inside the boxlike frame. One can look at the image of the man with the headdress or at the mirror, but can not grasp both simultaneously. This sensation — the sensation of trying to hold two discrete images in one’s cognized perception at the same time — evokes Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous example of “aspect blindness,” the drawing of a “duck/rabbit.”

It also evokes a concept from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s posthumous book The Visible and the Invisible, which is that of chiasmus. [1] In chiasmus one has not only a sensation of an object, but a cognition of sensing the object and a consciousness of having consciousness of this sensation. Chiasmus is a radical concept because it conflates being in and being for, both subject and object. In chiasmus one sees and is touched by the fact that one sees. Through chiasmus, we overcome our alienation as beings of sensation and beings of thought. In Pendleton’s System of Display series one may also feel the senses becoming theoreticians, to recall a well-known passage from Marx. To what extent, I wonder, does the situation of the viewer, faced with Pendleton’s boxes, evoke organs of perception and cognition in which sense and being, seeing and knowing, are one and the same activity, coextensive with the production of the viewer’s sociality and humanity?

There is another feature of the image before me. I see letters printed in Arial font, the generic font of modernism. These letters don’t form words, but are anagrammatic — without beginning or end. I think they are meant to produce a “vocabulary” or lexicon in addition to the images, so that one is seeing one’s self in a mirror, seeing an image from history (or with a feeling of history), and reading (or tempted to produce lexical meaning) in tandem (or, at times, simultaneously). As the name System of Display suggests, we are in the midst of a kind of archival or museum machine. What would it mean for me (the viewing-sensing subject) to actively produce history (or myself in relation to historical indices), confronted by these objects? What would it mean to grasp in my consciousness an (iconic) image of the past and the present at once? What future might appear out of this act of perception?

1. Commons sense and the resistance of the object

The transcendence of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities, but it is this emancipation precisely because these senses and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human. The eye has become a human eye, just as itsobject has become a social, human object — an object made by man for man. The senses have therefore become directly in their practicetheoreticians. They relate themselves to the thing for the sake of the thing, but the thing itself is an objective human relation to itself and to man, and vice versa. Need or enjoyment have consequently lost their egotistical nature, and nature has lost its mere utility by use becominghuman use.

— Karl Marx, “Private Property and Communism” [2

In his “Black Dada Manifesto,” Pendleton writes that his works are “a way to talk about the future, while talking about the past. That is to say they are our present moment.” [3]  They are also, I believe, a way of talking about a future commons, a commons that may appear through the senses becoming theoreticians and vice versa.

where the theoreticians will become senses in their practice

where the theoreticians will not be seeing, hearing
where the theoreticians will sear, the theoretician is a seer
where the theoreticians will be seen and heard in their practice

where the theoreticians will touch themselves
where the theoreticians will become sensual in their practice

where the reverse will always be in excess
where the sequence is for nono and maxine
where reading and recite this scene to John Gwin, my daddy

where they go plot paradise, blue bolivar, boll and marvel
where mask and boll and cut and fry and groove

where the senses will become theoreticians in their practice

— Fred Moten, “where the blues began,” in Hughson’s Tavern [4]


There is yet another aspect of Pendleton’s installation I have failed to mention. An audio recording plays on speakers positioned above the installation space. The audio recording is of a collaboration between Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, “Triptych,” in which one initially hears Lincoln humming, her voice faintly audible, and eventually this low humming turning to screams, cries, moans, and screeches. As Moten notes, “Triptych” appears on the 1963 album We Insist!, and is one of the first compositions made by a black avant-garde ensemble in response to the Civil Rights movement. Uncannily, the recording looks forward to the suffering of the Civil Rights era while also looking back upon a long history of black “moaning.” A tradition of blues in which talking voice and talking instruments become interchangeable, where communicability and expression are thus uniquely coextensive. A tradition in which Marx’s “organs of [man’s] individual being,” [5] “seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, observing, experiencing, wanting, acting, loving,” [6] infuse one another, making common cause against the alienation of their common property.

One of the great ironies of the European notion of the commons is the extent to which it cannot account for the African American slave, whose very subjectivity was defined in terms of being a commodity. As poet and theorist Fred Moten points out, one of the tasks of the radical black aesthetic tradition has been to account for the subjection of the slave in conjunction with the history of primitive accumulation. Moten draws out the irony of a collective desire for a commons when he cites the well-known passage from Capital in which Marx identifies the commodity as that which is silent, passive, and worldless: “If commodities could speak they would say this: our use-value may interest men, but it does not belong to us as objects.” [7]  Against Marx’s formulation, Moten insists that it is through the blues that the slave does talk (back), if only through the ambivalence of the slave’s subjective origins and erstwhile commodity status: “this space being the impossible material substance of the commodity’s impossible speech.” [8] The body, radically objectified through slavery, becomes subject in equally radical fashion through the modes of performance born through and after the condition of slavery.

What can the black radical aesthetic issuing from the tradition of slavery teach us about the activity of commoning? How does a commons emerge through the freedom drive of slave subjectivity, a subjectivity divided by status as an object of private property (commodity) and the fact of being an human-animal species?

In its engagement with blues forms (among which we may count jazz, bebop, hiphop, and other African American musics), Moten’s In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition suggests how the collective labor of the ensemble and the improvisatory nature of blues performance can both lead to models of collective organization and production that oppose expropriation, the reproduction of private property, enclosure, and other forms of subjection. The ensembles of Duke Ellington and Cecil Taylor represent this alternative for Moten, inasmuch as they evoke a parallel discourse of commons, one in which the would-be author-composer becomes a producer among other producers, and property is redistributed, constituted through music. In the improvisational techniques of Taylor, likewise, scoring becomes unforeclosed — it resists being authored — by the fact that it is written and performed, live and recorded. In Taylor’s improv, and Moten’s writing with Taylor’s music in a chapter of his book, Moten locates a space anterior to property relations, a space resistant to capture by the property relations presupposed by alienated cultural production.

Yet there is another economic principle at work in Moten’s book that is of equal if not greater importance, and this principle has to do with what he refers to as the “resistance of the object.” By “talking back,” but also through antagonism, the object produces itself as a subject: slave subjectivity flickers with both human-animal and commodity status. In Moten’s book, the resistance of the object is related through certain ways of reading (and seeing, and hearing) it without reducing its materiality, or reducing this materiality through the object’s representation. This materiality is related phonically through Lincoln’s composition with Roach by way of protest: Lincoln’s voice as a site of protest, objection, nonassimilability, antiappropriation. To scream, in Lincoln’s case, is to explore the limits of her voice, thus the principal site where the subject appears and is subjected. But it is also to evoke the primal origins of why she sings: the cries and moans and screams of slaves under the whip and of erstwhile slaves under segregation. Moten writes:

Not the reduction of but the reduction to phonic materiality where re-en-gendering prefaces and works itself. No originary configuration of attributes but an ongoing shiftiness, a living labor of engendering to be organized in relation to politico-aesthetics. It’s always going on and has been. Abbey Lincoln starts in classic (anti-/ante-[slave]) narrative fashion. [9]

The majority of Moten’s examples are taken from black music, yet his notion of phonic irreducibility also has to do with the visual assaults enacted by black visual artists. Here he locates a quality of black visual performance that causes the viewer’s gaze to avert or glance away. Moten examines the visual combativeness of the black aesthetic object through the poignant late 1960s performance of Adrian Piper, in which she boarded municipal buses with a pocketbook full of ketchup and proceeded to wade for her bus fare in the pocketbook. In the same performance, Piper sat on the bus and had herself photographed with a towel stuffed in her mouth. In her Catalysis performances, Piper enters Max’s Kansas City in New York wearing a blindfold. This Kantian exercise, in which Piper intends to experience a “transcendental ego” — one of the principal desiderata of the artist’s early photographic and performance works — backfires, as she is forced to deal with an audience who takes her performance to be antisocial and combative. She is thus not able to shed her subjection, her interpellation. In her efforts to become a transcendental subject, Piper is consistently reminded that she is black (albeit light-skinned) and that to be a black woman artist means that one will encounter racism and racial identification in any attempt to deal with the “pure” aesthetic problems confronted by Piper’s white male peers in the early conceptual art movement.

Through his extensive discussion of Piper, Moten is able to extend his notion of the “resistance of the object” from a sonic-musical context to one involving an equally material, however visual, aesthetic content. Moten defines the “freedom drive” as one that resists the commodity form and the reduction of materiality (the materiality of the body, of one’s immanence) to a proprietary logic of value. That is how I am reading Moten’s very dense theoretical contribution, anyways: as an elaborate treatise on how the body of the black performer/person/subject/singularity becomes the principal site of a commons that is always imminent, but rarely recognized. It is the commons of the commodity form itself, the commodity form if it could speak, if Marx could have subjunctively anticipated its talking back. To produce the commons in Moten’s work involves what he calls a “poetics of political form,” in which the resistance of the object (that is, the body of the erstwhile slave seeking its freedom in spirit, what cannot be possessed and which yet possesses that body in privileged moments of expression) models a form of organization, responsibility, discourse, and political and social economy.

Moten’s poetry, written out of and besides and after and before his theoretical contributions, involves a political economy of noise: illegibility, noncollaboration, obscurity, phonic nominalism. In phonetic noise, or what Bruce Andrews refers to as a composition through “informalism,” one encounters a substance nonassimilable, not reducible to a representation or theme, nor to a form of property or proprietary logic of valuation. [10]  And it is this nonpropertied object that constitutes a commons insofar as it can be heard and made visible (seen) and sharable in its being heard — through its phonic materiality. This commons is formed around a set of differences, what Moten in In the Break calls the “cut” and the “break.”

Enacted in the poems — in the prosody itself, as well as the grammar — is a poetics that embodies cut, break, assemblage, montage: qualities we find reflected/refracted in an ostensibly white avant-garde tradition. However, given the particular historical force of Moten’s clear evocation, his holding forth, we can locate this poetics in traditionally black aesthetic forms, the cultural production of a particular multitude. Poetry becomes the site where the resistance of the object is performed; poetry is also an extension of this object. It is, in other words, prosthetic. Poetry is the rupture, it is the break, recircuiting and inscribing a genealogy of sound forms. The libidinal sites of this genealogy are shored up by sonic materialism and the processural documenting of dialect. The fact that all post-blues poetics is a document, as Lorenzo Thomas’s scholarship insists. [11]

An internal differentiating principle distinguishes Moten’s commons of ensemble and noise from traditional, European images of commons — shared land use, for instance, or public spaces designated for common use and enjoyment. How does one own spirit? How does one possess sound and breath and song as an emanation of the commons that resides within spirit — a pneumatic principle, a sexual and affective one describing the structure of feeling of the erstwhile enslaved?

The word commons appears throughout Hughson’s Tavern, written after the 1714 revolt in colonial New York City in which free and indentured whites and black slaves wagered their freedom together and died trying. The word commons also appears curiously in a poem called “five points, ten points,” which has haunted my attention since I first read Hughson’s Tavern. The poem begins, “whiteness ain’t the same as them / a grave in exchange for the commons. // blackness / is a range of deviations from the commons […] you gave up the commons for a grave but / black migrates for what it is.” [12]  Moten reminds us that there is not one conception of commons, but that the structure of feeling necessitated by the experience of slavery has also necessitated a different conception of commons, one based as much on what isn’t shared as on what is, on obscurity and combativeness as much as on collaboration and conatus (combativeness as a form of conatus?).

Evoking work by Derrida and others, Moten’s commons, his black commons or commons of black subjectivity, is founded on a “gift of death,” the radical negativity of death as a munis given to the community by the body of each social member, upon which that community is founded and periodically revivified. Throughout the book looms the specter of 1714 New York, where slaves and nonslaves, whites, blacks, and people of color did indeed give up their lives for a “paradise” not so much yet-to-come, but immanent to the conditions of possibility born through a particular social formation that should undertake insurrection.

The many poems of Hughson’s Tavern and Moten’s subsequent collection, B Jenkins, seem to pivot around this central utopian placeholder. Through the carnivalesque image of Hughson’s Tavern specifically, Moten suggests a notion of commons that is irreducible to ethnic identity, however it may be founded on an experience of resilience, oppositionality, and resistance. What is the universal subject of such a commons but the object talking back, even when, as in Moten’s poem “Rock the party, fuck the smackdown,” their throats are figurally and literally cut?

thing object. matter ain’t the same
as one another. things don’t represent
they must be broke. they cannot pay attention
to objects like objects so they stay mad
all the goddamn time, broken glasses
everywhere. but I sound better since you
cut my throat, the checkerboard is also a
chess board. It’s also a cutting board and a

sound board. it’s also a winding sheet and a
sound booth. [13]

 

2. “The right to love refusal”

As Moten says in his 2010 collection of poems, B Jenkins, “The right to love refusal is black music.” [14]  This has everything to do with the economy of commons I have been trying to discuss here.

Reading B Jenkins, one is immediately struck by the peculiar titling Moten uses. I like to think of his titles as shoutouts, in the tradition of hip hop performance and blues and jazz performance before that. Before reading any particular “poem,” one encounters a proper name, and, with few exceptions, one also encounters a proper name at the close of the poem. This pattern highlights the fact of address — where a dedication or epigraph might have done the trick — but also foregrounds the network of proper names with whom Moten’s work is in relation, making legible the condition of sociality out of which the work is produced. These names come from visual art history, African American history, black performance traditions, critical theory, cultural studies. Among others, they include iconic musicians James Brown, Sun Ra, and Billie Holiday; poets June Jordan, Renee Gladman, and Nathaniel Mackey; visual artists Lygia Clark, Adrian Piper, and Jean-Michel Basquiat; as well as critical theorists Walter Benjamin, Kathleen Stewart, and Michael Fried. The names also indicate the individuals Moten counts as his contemporaries, lovers, and friends, including his mother, B Jenkins, after whom the book is named.

Toward the end of B Jenkins, Moten alludes to this community — or commons — as an open secret. “Poetry investigates new ways for people to get together and do stuff in the open, in secret”: a secret which, purloined-letter-style, becomes that much more hermetic, withdrawn, obscure, or simply particular by being placed in the open, put in public. [15]  If a subject of (black) resistance, which is to say blackness (Moten equates a black subjectivity with resistance throughout his theoretical and poetic work), should form a commons, it will do so only through its radical singularity. Recalling Derrida’s claim that “what is happily and tragically universal is absolute singularity,” Moten suggests that if a universal subject should emerge at any point historically, it shall emerge through the radically particular. [16]  The many names of B Jenkins — both the book’s title and the titles given to the “body” of the poems themselves — mark a nonexclusive, however radically particular, community of beings who through their distributed proper names aneconomically mark an ongoing commons. That commons is founded not on communication per se, but rather on obscurity: on the right, if you will, to be obscure. So Moten quotes Saidiya Hartman: “the right to obscurity must be respected.” [17]

One’s objectivity in this case — the resistance of this objectivity — grounds a commons because it is resistant to forms of political and social activity that would seek to codify and thus deradicalize a poetics of political form. Moten’s phrase inverts the title of a groundbreaking anthology of poet’s essays edited by Charles Bernstein, The Politics of Poetic Form. This inversion seems crucial in a period in which the political and social efficacy of Language writing has been exhaustively studied and archived, if not circumscribed through its institutionalization. What, I wonder, would it mean to preserve the commons as an event of resistance within a discourse about sociopolitics?

Whereas Hughson’s Tavern imagines the commons after an early colonial American insurrection among poor whites and free and enslaved blacks, and whereas through the insurrectional event on which Hughson’s Tavern is based whites and blacks could be figured through a shared resistant subject position, in B Jenkins black subjectivity is sited as eventual through any number of openly secret locations. The club, for instance: a favorite utopia of the rap song. Or the rent party: an old-school utopia. Can we think about Moten’s book in particular — as well as the (poetry) book in general — as a means to posit counterpublics, forms of public in which what Moten calls an “ante-politics” — a politics of anteriority or exteriority in which political motivations and formation are not subsumed by their representation — should emerge eventually? Through a force of events, of immanent circumstances, in which a general intellect holds sway, the seizure of creative forces immanent to bodies being together, living, laboring, loving?

I have been referring here mainly to the form of B Jenkins, and the ways Moten conceives of proper names allegorically. But the subtlety of Moten’s concept is most embodied through the expressive aspects of his poetry, which embrace an opacity by which a new distribution of the senses (or of common sense) can become recognizable. The risk of this approach, as Moten discusses in the interview with Charles Henry Rowell that concludes B Jenkins, is that the open secret — the thing binding an ostensible community of beings — can be shared only in secret, which is to say, through a sense of withdrawal. Perhaps then it is the withdrawal of meaning/communication that forms this commons, the materiality of that noise called black music being what the would-be commoner gets around.

Through tremendous lyrical acrobatics, Moten’s B Jenkins brings his readers to a primal place where language performance wagers our freedom. And this freedom — different than that afforded by liberal democracy or by the legislations of our currently administered world — is exceptional. In this work I hear the haunting echo of Abbey Lincoln, with whom I began this essay:

When Bird was around he knew he wasn’t playing jazz. He was playing his spirit. And I think that’s the problem for a lot of musicians on the scene right now. They think that they’re playing jazz. But there’s no such thing really / I’m possessed of my own spirit / This is the music of the African muse / I just want to be of use to my ancestors. It’s holy work and it’s dangerous not to know that ’cause you could die like an animal down here. [18]

This freedom — the “freedom drive” that embodies Moten’s work — has to do with language use. How language edges the fact that life has happened, is happening. I am alluding here finally to another quotation that serves as a refrain throughout B Jenkins, one Moten cites from Michel Foucault: “life constantly escapes, it steals away.” Poetry as a form of life, or a life-force, coextensive with our lived sociality, a sociality in which official and unofficial politics is practiced, or in which one elects not to legislate but to remain abandoned or in exodus: “the utopian jew of voice.” [19]  Lyrical excess, expressive “black noise,” evading its would-be captors. In Moten’s work, we are witness to a life of contest, participation, and interrogation: “when was the assertion of blackness anything other than interrogation?” [20]  It is here, in his poems, where we realize what a poem can do, its use value. That the open secrets of our lives become tangible, if not communicable. That this open secret gives us worlds to model a future governance. Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” but also Oppen’s “legislators of an unacknowledged world.” Moten’s “Somewhere between being one of the elected, the unacknowledged legislator operates on the edge of things, resisting that desire for inclusion that eviscerates politics-as-the-politics of escape.” [21]

 


 

1.  Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1968).

2.  Karl Marx, “Private Property and Communism,” in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1884, ed. Dirk Struik, trans. Martin Milligan (New York: International Publishers, 1969), 139.

3.  Quoted in Kevin McGarry, “Greater New Yorkers: Adam Pendleton,” New York Times Style Magazine, May 27, 2010. Also see Adam Pendleton, “Black Dada Manifesto,” in Manifesto Marathon, ed. Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist (Serpentine Gallery, 2009).

4.  Fred Moten, Hughson’s Tavern (Providence: Leon Works, 2008), 77.

5.  Marx, “Private Property and Communism,” 139.

6.  Ibid., 138–139.

7.  Moten quotes Marx in In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 8–9.

8.  Ibid., 9.

9.  Ibid., 24; see also 22–24.

10.  See Bruce Andrews, “Praxis: A Political Economy of Noise and Informalism,” in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 73–85.

11.  Lorenzo Thomas, Don’t Deny My Name: Words and Music and the Black Intellectual Tradition (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008). One of the many attractive arguments recurrent throughout Thomas’s collection is his argument that all blues music/lyric forms a document of African American experience, inasmuch as the music/literature/text is a vessel for African American cultural practices, history, and experience otherwise unrecorded by “official” historiography.

12.  Moten, Hughson’s Tavern, 28.

13.  Ibid., 23.

14.  Moten, B Jenkins (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 48.

15.  Ibid., 84.

16.  Ibid., 106.

17.  Ibid., 105.

18.  Moten, In the Break, 23.

19.  Moten, B Jenkins, 66.

20.  Ibid., 76.

21.  Ibid., 86.

The landscape of Hannah Weiner's late work

'The Book of Revelations'

 


“translate even into untold”

Hannah Weiner knew that thoughts are not our own. She knew this, but she still tried — harder than any other poet of her brief day save, perhaps, Jack Spicer — to enter into those thoughts that came to her from outside for as long as she could. In this condition, we might imagine Weiner alone and vigilant at her desk, open to the relentless flow of the manifold data of the world and recording words as they appeared on bodies before her and in the air thickened by them. Her inevitable failure to stay with all of the thoughts that come to thinking in a given moment in time is the essence of her style: a passage of intensities, a discontinuous series of enjambments. For despite first appearances, The Book Of Revelations is not prose. It is a poem which “appears inside prose, breaking it down into fragments around which text proliferates.”[1] Its final value arises from its simultaneous abandonment of textual authorities and its embrace of language in the midst of its long shattering: “letting everything go was at last.”[2]


Cover of The Book Of Revelations. By permission of Charles Bernstein for Hannah Weiner in trust.

 

*

 


“the lead comes from the heart”

The notebook containing the text of Weiner’s The Book Of Revelations is housed with the extensive collection of her papers in the Archive for New Poetry, Mandeville Special Collections, at the University of California, San Diego. Although materially it is clearly a holograph “notebook,” it is not included in the primary sequences of Weiner’s notebooks (1971–1975, 1976–1979, and 1990–1992), but classified instead as a “Manuscript” (box 10, folder 6), following Weiner’s own practice of keeping her working notebooks separate from her completed manuscript drafts.

The provenance and textual history of the notebook is partially recoverable. A commercially produced blank book, 6" x 9", with a heavy black cover and a sewn binding, it contains 110 pages. The pages, however, were ripped against a straight edge at different lengths and angles by the artist and writer Barbara Rosenthal, Weiner’s friend and occasional video and book collaborator, who gave the notebook to Weiner as a 1989 New Year’s present and a spur to writing. Weiner composed her texts on the turnable segments Rosenthal calls “pagels,” but the texts may also be read full-size by continuing down onto the longer pagels (what Rosenthal calls “slabs”) revealed underneath.[3] The Book Of Revelations may be classified as an asynchronous collaboration composed by two authors and existing in two distinct incarnations — both an artist’s book, an ill-defined but important genre, and a notebook of written passages.

The blank, cut notebook in which Weiner composed Revelations is a syncopal object. One might see it and think of the old children’s game of writing sentences on a piece of paper, and then folding the paper so only the last line appears as a prompt for the next passage. Or, one might imagine it as an opening and closing fan, at once a container for Weiner’s words in motion as well as an instrument for winnowing them. As we turn the unnumbered pages of the notebook, the pattern of cuts and, later, of words, changes: while some lines are suddenly visible, others disappear momentarily or forever from sight. If we did not know for sure that Rosenthal had cut the pages before giving the notebook to Weiner to fill with writing, we might imagine that Weiner had made the cuts herself after composing the text, excising parts of the original. Yet the fragmented words and stray letters that appear at the far edges of the pages are not made victims by the straight edge. They become, rather, signs of another kind of syncope, of Weiner’s commitment to the principles of interruption and suspension. Later readings of the notebook will surely take up the critical question of the relationship between the text’s material divisions and textual limits — the way, at times, a physical section seems organized around a cluster of repeating themes or images, or the way a change startling shift in mood or scene by Weiner appears suddenly on an angle shift in Rosenthal’s tearing pattern. In the end, however, even as future readers perceive these correspondences, so too will they discover the need for a mode of reading that does not presume to know a priori where a text’s border is traced or what happens at that threshold. For far from being discrete, clearly bounded units, the different sections of the notebook function like waves, whose peripheries, blent with what precedes and follows them, cannot be measured accurately.

 


The Book Of Revelations,
opened. By permission of Charles Bernstein for Hannah Weiner in trust.

The syncopal nature of the notebook reminds us, too, of another of its conditions. The Book Of Revelations is a limit case of translation — a translation without an original, a text transmitted from an unnameable source that can never be recovered. All texts, of course, may make this claim, but generally they make it against the counterclaims of their authors, who imagine themselves as the texts’ only sources. In the case of The Book Of Revelations, however, Weiner has left us not a singly-authored work, but a collaboration with the outside that continually foregrounds the tension between its documentation and its disappearance. What is most fugitive of all is the self. In the end, “Hannah Weiner” vanishes into what she unveils: “a future destined to be blue” (39).

Except for the title, which Weiner typed on a small white label and later affixed to the notebook’s front cover, she composed the text entirely in pencil. There are no margins on the blank leaves, and none imposed. Upon opening the notebook, we enter an all-consuming space of inscription. Here the handwriting varies only slightly across the notebook, giving the impression of a resistanceless pencil gliding over the paper. Even the light erasures and overwriting that appear on many pages, evidence of Weiner’s persistent need to revise her translation, seem part of the flow of script. There is no sign of the “tyrannical prehension” that sometimes grips the writer and refuses to let her release the pencil; rather, Weiner exhibits that rare power to stop writing, to, as Blanchot writes in “The Solitude of the Work,” to “interrupt what is being written, thereby restoring the present instant its rights, its decisive trenchancy” (25). When she came to the penultimate leaf of the notebook, she stopped in seeming mid-sentence, as if suddenly called away from her Revelations to other projects.

Between 1989 and the time of her death, Weiner readied other books for publication, including Weeks, an earlier collaboration with Rosenthal finished in 1986 but not printed until 1990; The Fast, the composition of which dates from the 1970s but which was not published in full until 1992; Silent Teachers Remembered, published in 1994; and And We Speak Silent, published in 1996. And while Weiner subjected each of these texts to an intense revisionary process — The Fast, for example, existed initially in more than 100 notebooks that she reduced and concentrated into a slim volume of forty pages — she seems never to have returned to The Book Of Revelations at all. Nor did she share the completed notebook, either with its first author and potential addressee, or with other readers near or far; rather, it remains buried, strangely preserved among her papers.

The idea of the minor work, already resonant with Weiner’s oeuvre, is especially resonant in thinking about The Book Of Revelations. If, as Gail Gilliland has proposed, “resistance to categorization is what makes a work minor,”[4] then this solitary notebook, unaccompanied by companions, avowing itself as the site of a nomadic poetics where in place of an “at home-ness” there is “only an ever more displaced drifting,”[5] embodies the very conditions of the minor work. And since, as Hans-Jost Frey reminds us, “Literary scholarship concerns itself with works as finished products, as texts that nothing and in which nothing is superfluous,” so Weiner’s Revelations cannot be the object even of a certain analytical gaze.[6] “[U]nanimously undone […] / formality […] / abandoned / surplus / power” (21) could be Weiner’s description of a work accessible only via “varieties of wild concentration” (19) or by “just let[ting] the voices drift over” us (90).

 

*

 


“forthcoming and absolutely”

And so with these words the notebook begins. In the space of a few pages, however, it will show a strong tendency towards silence: “speak so no one will listen” (6). Written in the final decade of Hannah Weiner’s life and on the verge of the last decade of the twentieth century, there is a certain calendrical fatality to the notebook. It is a late work, not simply or primarily because it belongs to a far moment in the trajectory of her career or the century’s, or because it was composed during a period of ill health, which, after all, had plagued Weiner much of her life, but, rather, because its deepest concern is lateness: the end of the world, the irreversible conclusion of history at the conjuncture of heaven and earth. It belongs, if it can be classified at all, to an apocalyptic tradition in poetry at once ancient and postmodern. Yet in place of the illumination of ultimate mysteries, in place of the Parousia that lies at time’s end, Weiner instead reveals the way in which the world comes into being — or rather, into hiding — as an unseeable totality. Here, what is affirmed is the work of what Michel Serres has called “the multiple”; here, what is forfeited is the “harmonious synthesis” of all the world’s — and writing’s — “moments of breaking away.”[7] The strange commandment closing the notebook’s opening section, “speak so no one will listen,” may now be better understood. Like the Kabbalah or the Gnostic gospels, Weiner’s Revelations may only be fully accessed by “insiders,” by an elect readership — and by no one in the present. The secret message of the work, if there is one, will declare itself only, as Frank Kermode writes of the oracular, “after a long delay and in circumstances not originally foreseeable.”[8] Outside, for we are always outside, we can only take a measure of the work’s darknesses, move through it, “going by every possible path” (70).

It is difficult to follow the one who has given up all ideas of beginnings and endings, whose writing is an erring. It seems to make of our reading, too, an aimless wandering. And yet, by taking up the question of the path, of “every possible path,” in our reading of Weiner’s notebook, we discover that we have not only created our own system of orientation within it, but that we have been composing our own texts in the act of passing through hers. As such, our virtual itineraries may be nothing less than new poems.

 

*

 


“melody informant of cue”

A close reading of Weiner’s works reveals both the vast range of formal and expressive problems presented by her writings and the ways in which conflicting and simultaneous styles are in a constant and dynamic process of evolution. No stage or period, no matter how narrowly defined, is wholly given over to a single style or set of stylistic concerns. In Weiner’s case, the most obvious division may be between the works composed before she began to “see” words — for example, her early World Works and Street Works, The Magritte Poems, The Code Poems, and the remarkable transitional work The Fast — and those composed after her engagement of the gift — for example, the Clairvoyant Journal, generally considered the work in which Weiner’s clair-style finds its furthest expression, and the many works that followed, including the unpublished Book Of Revelations. Yet while the works including and following the Clairvoyant Journal exhibit many stylistic similarities, it is also possible to conceive significant differences, to see and hear moments when the prevailing clair-style reaches its outermost limits and a new style comes forward.

 


Photo © Tom Ahern 1978.

The clair-style itself developed slowly and adjacently to Weiner’s experience of “schizophrenia.”[9] The limits her illness threatens to impose on our understanding of her work can properly be countered by her complex poetics, the alien quality of which cannot be ascribed to schizophrenia but, rather, to something “objective” within language itself in a way that she could grasp and manipulate. By Weiner’s own accounts, she “became extremely psychic” in 1970, first feeling and seeing auras, and then, in 1972, seeing words, initially one by one, later as short phrases.[10] The unforeseen appearance of the words —“I SEE words on my forehead IN THE AIR on other people on the typewriter on the page” — was experienced ecstatically by Weiner: “DELIGHTFUL. I never expected to SEE WORDS.”[11] Yet this gift would also prove to be elusive at times, the “secret seeing” arising not in contractual periods but only ever according to its own unknown laws. Thus, in her “Working Notes” to Weeks, composed around 1984, Weiner confessed: “Not seeing words anymore, I looked for another source.” The notebook in which she composed the text — an extended account of the television news — was a “page-a-day diary” given to her by “my friend […] Barbara Rosenthal, to encourage me to write.”

The notebook containing The Book Of Revelations was also given to Weiner, Rosenthal recalls, during such a period of worrisome blocked or diminished creativity.[12] In this case, however, Weiner’s estrangement from the conditions under which words would appear, her dislocation, was transient. The secret seeing returned: “all the letters are in different colors” (48). There is no question that The Book Of Revelations is clairvoyantly composed, that the words, with their “rhymes and their reasons […] their histories and longings,”[13] were once more visible to Weiner. But there is also no question that their salutary reappearance signaled a turn into a new topography, a luminous space of departure from which there would be no return. This change of scene — or perhaps only the scene’s falling away — is registered in the writing’s music, in its exorbitant measure, open to that which never reaches it: “listen unconsolably / the measure to” (22).

 

*

 

The many incisive and compelling accounts of Hannah Weiner’s clair-style as it first manifested itself in the Clairvoyant Journal and other works of her middle period all point to a crisis or conversion in Weiner’s relationship to the labor of writing. Suddenly, and without knowingly summoning them, Hannah Weiner was involved with distant collaborators. Upon first receiving the gift of second sight, she seems to have functioned much like a cryptanalyst, intercepting the fragmentary messages as they flashed by her but not yet unacquainted with the applicable transformation rules that might make them legible. At last, to translate these messages, Weiner relied on another collaborator — her electric typewriter, that object-muse known to so many of her modern predecessors and so long associated with “écriture automatique.” Eyewitnesses to Hannah Weiner’s writing have not come forward, yet in “A Short Interlude to Discuss Voices,” a subsection of her essay “Mostly About the Sentence,” Weiner reveals something about the compositional method of the Clairvoyant Journal and its dependence on the technology:

I bought a new electric typewriter in January 74 and said quite clearly, perhaps aloud, to the words (I talked to them as if they were separate from me, as indeed the part of my mind they come from is not known to me) I have this new typewriter and can only type lower case, capitals, or underlines (somehow I forgot, ignored, or couldn’t cope with in the speed I was seeing things, a fourth voice, underlined capitals) so you will have to settle yourself into three different prints. Thereafter I typed the large printed words I saw in CAPITALS, the words that appeared on the typewriter or the paper I was typing on in underlines (italics) and wrote the part of the journal that was unseen, my own words, in regular upper case. It turned out that the regular upper and lower case words described what I was doing, the CAPITALS gave me orders, and the underlines or italics made comments. This was not 100% true, but mostly so.[14]

The sheer speed of the words as they appeared to Weiner in the 1970s led in the Clairvoyant Journal to a style in extremis. Cast in the present tense, writing here is less a system of signs than a current transmitted, an energy liberated in the replication of the brain’s incessant processing of sights and sounds. In place of a narrative thread long ago lost or continually interrupted we find line after paratactic line of non-syntactic statements, thoughts cathected and decathected in different directions, a streaming of citational shards, polyvocal phrasings, distress signals. Like the definition of the schizophrenic offered by Baudrillard, Weiner’s writings of this period seem “open to everything,” overexposed to the “transparency of the world”; they are “promiscuous,” at once “beleaguered” and “penetrated” by “the perpetual interconnection of all information and communication networks.”[15] Even when in the very drive of writing the particles, bits, and flashes seem to fuse into a continuity that might be readable, the text exhibits an alienating opacity, simultaneously drawing in and then repelling the reader. Filled with noise, aired on too many frequencies at once, there may no longer be any clear distinction between work and debris.

 


Page 6 (unnumbered), detail, the Clairvoyant Journal. By permission of Charles Bernstein for Hannah Weiner in trust.

 

*

 


“does she speak backwards to you”

When someone as sui generis as “Hannah Weiner” appears, we go in search of her predecessors. Who, in the long history of communication, could have foretold Weiner? A backward search may lead us to Anna Winsor, whose remarkable case is reported by William James in his “Notes on Automatic Writing,” published in 1889, exactly one century before Weiner’s composition of The Book Of Revelations. The record, beginning in the nineteenth year of Winsor’s life and continuing for several more years, reveals the peculiar conditions under which the co-consciousness experienced by the automatic writer manifests. Miss Anna Winsor believes her right arm is not her own. The series of entries below, made by her first physician, Dr. C. W. Fillmore, of Providence, and published by James, offer further insight into the nature and progress of her “disorder”:

[Sept.] 29th [1860]. — Complains of great pain in right arm, more and more intense, when suddenly it falls down by her side. She looks at it in amazement. Thinks it belongs to someone else; positive it is not hers […]

Nov. 12th [1860]. — From eleven to twelve at night sits up, apparently asleep, and writes, with her paper against the wall. After she awakes, seems to be unconscious of what she has written […]

February 1 to 11. — Under the influence of magnetism writes poetry; personates different persons, mostly those who have long since passed away […]

March, 1861. — She became blind […]

January 4, 1862. — Is still blind; sees as well with eyes closed as open; keeps them closed much of the time; reads and draws with them closed. Draws in the dark as well as in the light; is clairvoyant […]

January 1863. — Her right arm and hand are not hers […]. This arm appears to have a separate intelligence. When she sleeps or writes, it converses by signs […][16]

Just as fin de siècle new ideas of empire, the rise of psychology and psychoanalysis, and the advent of telephenomena encouraged the emergence of the planchette-writer of a century ago, so the conditions of Weiner’s own uncanny historical moment seem to have prepared for the appearance of a new form of medium in contact with a new invisible.

 


The Wireless Messenger. WM. W. Wheeler Company. Design on paper-wood, 1898. By permission of the Museum of Talking Boards.

 

*

 

Initially, Weiner sought to translate the private, coded vision of the voices she and only she saw into the public, readable language of type. Those who have read her work know how far she succeeded. Yet it was also through the agency of Weiner’s typewriter that the essentially dialectical and destructive order of the world was revealed. “The ‘total typewriter,’” Friedrich Kittler writes, is associated with “trenches / blitz / stars.”[17] While the Clairvoyant Journal seems to exist utterly disconnected from all capitalized or mainstream modes of production, its lawless and anarchic typography paradoxically reminds us of the ways in which even our writing tools may move violently against us, seeking to strike out difference, to homogenize and normalize the most alien of our thoughts. The very first word Hannah Weiner claims to have seen was the word “WRONG,”[18] and as Charles Bernstein writes, “In her work [of this period] Weiner has explored — come upon — the language that fills, and often enough, controls our lives. That these elements are seen in the work, and hence physicalized, palpable, gives us a new view of what is given, what has been handed down: & by seeing language operate, we can start to free ourselves from a compulsive obedience to it. The darker other side of the coin is equally evident in Weiner’s work. When we begin to see words we may find ourselves tyrannized by them if we cannot at the same time question their authority.”[19] Connected not only to the typewriter, but also to the wires and circuitry of the postmodern condition, the writer experiences a sense of her own endangerment: “GET OUT OF HERE see half the letters crazy […] SEE DANGER.”[20]

 

*

 


“not if better I if say in ink”

The Book Of Revelations transports us into a different space than that of the Clairvoyant Journal — a space not so much before typography as apparently beyond it. In The Fast, Weiner offered the following beautiful description of her hands: “I began to see little green and blue and yellow candles come out of my fingertips.”[21] In Revelations, her return to script seems to signal a newly intimate relationship to the work or to the voices, which no longer need to be differentiated from her own interior voice but are at last fused with it into a single flame. Here, Weiner’s immersion, even engulfment, in the material resistances of language registered in the Clairvoyant Journal, both in its essentially fugal structure and its disruptions of the uniplanar surface of the page, finds a final release in a flowing script that, page after page, engenders a feeling of continuous motion and unearthly tranquility. “The inscriptive process,” writes Serge Tisseron, “is above all the hand exploring a given space.”[22] In The Book Of Revelations, each separate string of words appears to be en route; each line “fix[es] us in a direction of thought that comes from afar and stretches beyond” us. And even the handwriting, while still legible, seems on its way to becoming something else — a calligraphic pulse, a liberated stroke or scribble. Although it does not seem possible given the notebook’s 109 pages of writing, the uniformity of the streaming script gives the impression of a text composed in a single sitting, across a day and night.

The long crisis that inaugurated Weiner’s late clair-style did not in the end lead to a total rejection of its earlier characteristics. In The Book Of Revelations the economy, compression, and tendency towards ellipsis emblematic of the high clair-style endure. What is discarded in the late clair-style is, rather, the trial of writing, the grappling and tension enacted by the dialectical method that governed Weiner’s works of the 1970s and early 1980s even as they sought an escape from it. In the wake of dialectical polarities, the “interferences,” as Weiner names them, are present in The Book Of Revelations only as a hushed undercurrent in its flow of “infinite passages” (9) and “alternating waves of fluency” (13) “leaving […] contest ” (33) behind. Vestiges of an earlier, more purely lyric style reappear suddenly, as if Weiner found a transient asylum in the old, incandescent melodies of The Code Poems while reaching out in search of a style as yet unknown. From the metrical experimentation that marks all of Weiner’s writings at last issues a “measure of useless words unmeaning” (22), an imagination of language’s ultimate latening and annihilation: “unto language alls my tired (94) / there’s nothing to write about” (64). Finally, there is only glossolalia, enjambment with the outside, with a “future withheld indifferently” (43).

 

*

 


“an exterior melody listens”

The notebook embodies what Adorno and Said have called an “exilic realm,” a work that “turns its emptiness outward.”[23] Like Wiener’s scene of writing, the exilic realm in The Book Of Revelations is alternately figured as “isolation chamber,” “desert,” “night” — vacant yet dilated and visionary topographies. Here, as if the notebook’s clairvoyance divests it of both future and present by conflating them, few temporal markers remain. Instead, we come to a radically atopic space of pure transit, of journeying “inbetween.” In this transverse, where “all words travel” (34), there can be no fixed point of departure and no final point of termination. What appears in the late work is perhaps something akin to what Levinas called the il y a, the “there is,” an elusive and “anonymous current of being,”[24] an “atmospheric density” that may be plenitude “or the murmur of silence.”[25] In The Book Of Revelations, the crossing “I,” “bonded to a neutrality calm” (22) and “subject to exchange forever” (43), lets go the thread between origin and destination and severs its moorings:

 

SI        Where are you from?
EQS                Anywhere else
SH       Where are you bound?
LVS                Elsewhere

(Weiner, The Code Poems)

 

*

 


“underneath it all shone”

The Book Of Revelations bears witness to the decreation of the world: “the late irreducible formality / brilliantly without system / cancel every reminder of it” (21). Yet what ends here is not the earth itself, but the mind’s tyrannizing compulsion to classify and unify, to make of the fragile spinning planet’s disparate things a totality: “cross-reference impulses uninhabitable now” (16). Unhoused and immersed in a “luminous absence” (15), there is nothing but space to oppose the mind. The region we have entered in Weiner’s late work is undefined by elements or boundaries. Having come to the “end to craving” (54) we “discover [the world] without desire” (54). Here we are committed irretrievably to the fullness of chance: “we make variable shapes / there is no predictability” (59).

“[O]bliterations are enjoyable,” Weiner joyfully writes, and among the first things obliterated we must name not only orientation — a sense of direction in and through the world — but also the “I” and its aggregated memories: “she doesn’t live here any” (68). In the trajectory of self-abandonment, several moments seem to succeed one another: first revealed as homeless, “undone and solely alone” (42), the singular self recognizes its ecstatic condition — “yourself beside yourself” (67) — then undergoes a chemical transformation — “obliteration of molecules” (27) that results initially in “the elimination of subject” (27) but ends in the emptied subject’s assumption of a “dreaming body” animate with “silent knowing” (68). A new form of drifting attention attends this change in form, an “ability to concentrate lightly / some distance from the whole / forgiven for not holding on” (28). In the sweep of language the “I” exists only as exscribed transitivity: leaving not only “contest” but “diary” behind, “she cannot write in the first” (82) — person.

Unlike narrative, whose nature is linked to a deep impulse to remember and recount, to conjure up long gone but specific events in our lives, Weiner’s late writings issue from an “indefinite” — that is to say, unlimited — “resolution to forget” (19). The side effects of memory loss, a condition generally feared, prove liberating from Weiner’s perspective: “without memory,” she writes, “surprises occur” (37). No longer embedded in time, the measuring system used to sequence events and the intervals dividing them and to calculate the motions of objects, the “I” knows neither beginning nor ending, but only the “inevitability of propulsion” (26) through “infinite passages” (9). Time, wrote Raymond Cummings, “is what keeps everything from happening at once,”[26] or, to use Weiner’s words, “from one time to another we / consequently there is medium” (23). Thus the radically disjunctive and nonsequential quality of The Book Of Revelations is related to its expulsion from time; to its syncopal coming into being in the “inbetween.” Paradoxically, in this space where the “future is withheld indifferently” (43), “the invisible is more powerful” (38) and, perhaps, nearer.

It is tempting to think of Weiner’s writing as foreseeing its readers. Yet having discarded its powers of recollection in favor of immediacy, Weiner’s writing can no longer be addressed to anyone in particular and must “give up sending messages” (47) forever. Instead of seeking to establish contact with us, Weiner turns in this late work ever more fully towards the voices outside: “listen to remote sensations” (47). Once appearing essentially as a form of quotation within her printed works, an “other” within her typescripts — “you can’t tell what they’re saying” (60) — Weiner’s very script is now a kind of whispering and sussuration. Like the mystical voices de Certeau writes of, Weiner’s “uttering occurs outside the places in which systems of statements are composed. One no longer knows where speaking comes from, and one understands less and less how writing, which articulates power, could speak.”[27] Here, as Weiner writes, only “mastery of non-mastery [is] certain” (76), “letting go without trembling” (48).

 

*

 


“close your eyes and the hidden”

In the time loop of Weiner’s apocalyptic writing we seem to be in two times/places at once: transported beyond earth’s end and returned to its chaotic origins. Scattered premonitions — or lost memories — of disaster on an unimaginable scale enter Weiner’s language, itself at times sharing semiotic space with the languages of subatomic physics and revelation: “what if the universe dissolved” (69), “somewhere the end is coming” (107), “as a rule waves cause trouble” (59), “temperatures rise above normal” (18), “things form and split apart” (60), “the disappearance of meaning / the images of the dead appear” (71). The disaster’s vibrations are registered by the minutest beings — “only a moth can perceive it / integrated storms rise” (22), but projected into the furthest reaches of space — “the great attractor galaxies” (109), “matter / force / star […] / orb […] / light” (70). The universe’s entropic impulse, once released, may return all to disorder or emptiness: “the result will vanish” (30).

The plangent, almost keening strain of the notebook made audible in writing’s “unstable singing low” (28) signals its lamentation for losses, for the loss — seemingly — of the world. Yet the losses are offset by the notebook’s still deeper intimations of what the disaster has spared or set aside: “[T]he desert,” Weiner writes, “has plenty to offer” (62). The evacuation of the world’s phenomena, “the removal of all objects” (20), opens a space of interior vision, or what Gaston Bachelard calls a “phenomenality without phenomenon”:[28] “close your eyes and the hidden” (56) will appear. The “wheel” turns and “scenes of nature pass by” (55, 43). What is perceived when “the transfer [of] images to the brain” (45) is complete is not cosmic ruin, not a black hole, but a secret plenitude, a landscape of vectors and moving energies perceived by means of a rapid zooming in and out of focus. “[S]omeday you will see it clearly” (45): a world unfinished yet suffused with beauty, pierced by unexpected instants of grace.

everlasting pine trees on a calm day / suddenly everything went blue (11)
the unwavering fondness of sea / solely to perform one instant (22)
too many birds have flown here (30)
charm the equations out of stars (60)
chokecherries pale cedar fire (72)
summach carob walnut trees / ownerless property (84)
craggy rocks with grass too steep (90)
escape from night (43)
no one can eliminate a particle (60)
the dawn everything when the (63)
beyond belief is the sun (64)
whatever befalls the earth befalls the (89)
suddenly everything went blue (11)

In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin proposed that “every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.”[29] Similarly, in The Book Of Revelations, each incomplete passage harbors this same perilous hope of radical conclusion; each fragment and part-word, “every detail,” is en route “into infinity” (67).

 

*

 


“renunciation and something else”

In the opening sections of the notebook, we are caught up in a whirlwind of repeating motifs and leitmotifs: anonymity, chance, forgetfulness, chaos, time, belief, solitude, surplus, world. In the later and still more profoundly enigmatic sections, a fragmentary narrative seems to break through in constellations of images before being abandoned for the last time. Although impossible to pinpoint the exact moment of the notebook’s turn, the commandment “go into an isolation chamber” (61) may inaugurate a change of scene, a transition to the outside where “the reversal of everything” (67) restores access momentarily to the unbroken “feeling of presence” (91). Most importantly for this late work, what Weiner passes outside of is history and the assertions and abstractions that drive it; and this passage outside is synonymous with deliverance: “the elimination of god is historical […] / cease believing in history / step aside and save your life” (69–71). In the fragmentary lines that follow, the world, or language, is evoked as a space of wonder, a holy site: “His light image moved to the […] / disappearance of meaning […]  / images of the dead appear […] / He can cause it to rain […] / filling in the blank spaces […] / she picked a rose by the […] / let each be burnt by itself […] / the burning spices ever” (69–83).

Then suddenly, we are swept back to a still more primordial time, to a time before the institution of the law of sacrifice, burnt offerings, and possibly to the non-time of the original division of nothingness into creation: “mountains hills seas rivers / at intervals of time they begin / there is but one world it says […] / dividing the structure […] / sometimes the memory comes […] / so he says its revealed what” (84–87). At the end of The Book Of Revelations, the strangest — which is to say the most estranged — of all voices enters the text: “Ah said the God, I can see a point of / in my if not finished work I’m […] / felt very and thought pleased oh” (89). The voice comes from very far, very near. The language of God is ungrammatical: the language of exclamation, words in an unknown order, break up as they hit the air. Here, random and ultimately mysterious allusions to books, first to a theft — “I stole a book today guess if” (88) — and then to an incomplete set — “three books instead of the four” (109) — suggest an oblique link between the secret, missing texts of the Gnostic tradition and the notebook we’re reading. The Book Of Revelations, Hannah Weiner’s “stolen book,” is also a work of negative theology through which she transmits an unexpected message of hope.

Like the language of absolute otherness, the language of love is also ungrammatical. Towards the beginning of the notebook, Weiner affirms, “the lead comes from the heart / the suddenness of capitulation” (27); in its final pages, she again connects writing with “the right ventricle” (82): “now when there is the last place […] / go toward the bum at the corner / the unthought speaking other […] / when it rains the trees wave / love come to a” (108–109).

 

*

 


“night late at read write watch”

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau describes the reader’s essentially peripatetic impulse: “Far from being writers, founders of their own place, […] readers are travelers. They move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads […]”[30] “To read,” de Certeau continues, “is to be elsewhere, where they are not, in another world; it is to constitute a secret scene, a place one can enter and leave when one wishes.”[31] In the last pages of The Book Of Revelations, Weiner seems to turn to the reader reading late at night, “all alone in a quieting time” (63). The exercise of reading, Weiner knew, is “business without bond” (27): it neither takes “measures against the erosion of time” nor “keep[s]what it acquires,” so that “each of the places through which it passes is a lost paradise.”[32]

In de Certeau’s description of the reader as the figure who always “deterritorializes” herself, and whose untraceable path enables her to “escape the law of each text in particular” (The Practice of Everyday Life, 174) in order to enjoy an extraordinary freedom, we also discover a portrait of the writer “Hannah Weiner”: she who SAW words and was carried away by them. Like all readers, she is “elsewhere,” perhaps lost. And we, who have been trying to track her across the notebook, noting the directions she takes and the velocities at which she travels, must ultimately submit to her disappearance at the extreme limit of the text. All at once, The Book Of Revelations is at once a holy site and a site abandoned. When we turn the page she is gone, having exited work and world apparently in the same second.

Yet it is not the back cover board of the notebook that we turn into at this crucial threshold, but, rather, the single unwritten page at its end: “why the white space” (95). By breaking off writing before the leaves of the notebook run out, Weiner seems to summon — or, to use her more familiar word,” signal” — to the reader, “telepathic knowing we are connected” (106), and then to trade places with her: “I let ___ deal with it last page / the order of the reader beyond the” (109) — book? Writer? The writer may be the reader in “reverse substantive” (93). For even when “there is nothing to write about” (64), “there is no ending to this” (66) text; the exchange of minds between the writer and reader continues, along with the bewildering of the boundaries between writing and reading.

Finally, at the very end of The Book Of Revelations, Weiner affirms the randomness and sovereignty of both these acts — how at any moment we may lift our eyes or our pencil from the page and fall out of relation to the text forever: “my life is granted / upon a page / listener / silence” (92). The ending suggests the experience of syncope, cerebral eclipse. Scanning words in the air, Weiner misses a beat, and the earth sinks back. The Book Of Revelations is the work she falls out of. Yet paradoxically, in falling out of relation to the work, Weiner reveals its — and all her writings’ — deepest origins in the same region of syncope. Indeed, The Book Of Revelations exists between two moments of eclipse — the moment of sinking into reading and the moment of departing from writing. It is “when one returns from syncope,” Catherine Clément tells us, that “the real world suddenly looks strange.”[33] The Book Of Revelations is Weiner’s report on what she saw in the interval where time falters and spins.

 


Hannah Weiner, still from Semaphore Poems, video by Barbara Rosenthal from concept and book of Weiner by same title. Photo reproduced with the permission of eMediaLoft.

 


 

Works Cited and Consulted

Adorno, Theodor W. “Late Style in Beethoven.” In Essays on Music. Edited by Richard Leppert. Translated by Susan H. Gillespie. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 564–68.

Bachelard, Gaston. Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement. Translated by Edith R. Farrell and C. Frederick Farrell. Dallas: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1988.

Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication. Edited by Sylvère Lotringer. Translated by Bernard Schutze and Caroline Schutze. New York: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series, 1988.

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 253–64.

Bergvall, Caroline. “Body & Sign: Some Thoughts Around the Work of Aaron Williamson, Hannah Weiner, and Henri Michaux.” Jacket 22 (May 2003).

Bernstein, Charles. “Hannah Weiner.” Poetry Project Newsletter, 1997.

———. “Making Words Visible/Hannah Weiner.” In Content’s Dream: Essays 1975–1984. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001. 266–70.

Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Translated by Ann Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Clément, Catherine. Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture. Translated by Sally O’Driscoll and Deirdre M. Mahoney. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Cummings, Raymond King. The Girl in the Golden Atom. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Damon, Maria. “Hannah Weiner Beside Herself: Clairvoyance Aftershock or The Nice Jewish Girl Who Knew Too Much.” The East Village 8.

de Certeau, Michel. Heterologies: Discourse on the Other. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

———, The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Translated by Dana Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Donovan, Thom. “Silent Teacher Remembered: Hannah Weiner’s Open House.” Fanzine, December 20, 2007.

Durgin, Patrick F. “Introduction: Avant-Garde Journalism: Hannah Weiner’s Early and Clairvoyant Journals.” http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/weiner/.

———. “Psychosocial Disability and Post-Ableist Poetics: The ‘Case’ of Hannah Weiner’s Clairvoyant Journals.Contemporary Women’s Writing 2, no. 2 (2008): 131–154.

Frey, Hans-Jost. Interruptions. Translated by Georgia Albert. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Gilliland, Gail. Being a Minor Writer. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994.

Goldman, Judith. “Hannah=hannaH: Politics, Ethics, and Clairvoyance in the Work of Hannah Weiner.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12, no. 2 (2001): 121–168.

James, William. The Works of William James: Essays in Psychical Research. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt and Fredson Bowers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Joris, Pierre. A Nomad Poetics: Essays. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.

Kermode, Frank. The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Kimball, Jack. “Mad in Craft: Hannah Weiner and Alan Sondheim.” Jacket 12 (2000).

Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wultz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Koeneke, Rodney. “Hannah Weiner and Basic English.” Paper presented at the National Poetry Conference: Poetry of the 1970s,  Orono, ME, June 2008.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Existence and Existents. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2001.

———. Time and the Other. Translated by Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1990.

McSweeney, Joyelle. “Disabled Texts and the Threat of Hannah Weiner.” Boundary 2 36, no. 3 (2009): 123–132.

Peters, John Durham. “Information: Notes Toward a Critical History.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 12, no. 2 (1988): 9–23.

Said, Edward. On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. New York: Pantheon Books, 2006.

Rosenthal, Barbara. Homo Futurus. Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1986.

———. Homo Futurus blank book. New York: eMedia Loft, 1984.

———. Soul & Psyche. Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1998.

Serres, Michel. Genesis. Translated by Geneviève James and James Nielson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. 

Thurschwell, Pamela. Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880–1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Tisseron, Serge. “All Writing is Drawing: The Spatial Development of the Manuscript.” Yale French Studies 84 (1994): 29–42.

Weiner, Hannah. Clairvoyant Journal. Lenox, MA: Angel Hair Books, 1978.

———. The Code Poems. Barrytown, NY: Open Book, 1982.

———. The Fast. New York: United Artists, 1992.

———. Hannah Weiner’s Open House. Edited by Patrick F. Durgin. Berkeley: Kenning Editions, 2007.

———. Nijole’s House. Needham, MA: Potes and Poets Press, 1981.

———. Page. New York: Roof Books, 2002.

———. Silent Teachers/Remembered Sequel. Providence: Tender Buttons, 1994.

———. Sixteen. Windsor, VT: Awede, 1983.

———. Spoke. Washington DC: Sun and Moon, 1984.

———.We Speak Silent. New York: Roof Books, 1996.

———. Weeks. Madison, WI: Xexoxial Editions, 1990.

———. Written In / The Zero One. Mooroolbark, Australia: Post Neo Productions, 1985.

Weiner, Hannah, and Andrew Schelling. “Mostly About the Sentence.” Jimmy & Lucy’s House of “K” 7 (1986): 54–70.

 


 

1.  Michel de Certeau, Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 98.

2.  Hannah Weiner, The Book Of Revelations, 30. Hereafter cited in text.

3.  Unpublished correspondence with Rosenthal, November 2010.

4.  Gail Gilliland, Being a Minor Writer (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994), 12.

5.  Pierre Joris, A Nomad Poetics: Essays (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2003), 26.

6.  Hans-Jost Frey, Interruptions, trans. Georgia Alpert (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 32.

 7.  Michael Serres, Genesis, trans. Geneviève James and James Nielson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 101, and Theodor Adorno, “Late Style in Beethoven,” in Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert, trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 567.

8.  Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 1.

9.  For a deeply nuanced discussion of Weiner’s psychological condition and its relation to her poetics, see Patrick F. Durgin, “Psychosocial Disability and Post-Ableist Poetics: The ‘Case’ of Hannah Weiner’s Clairvoyant Journals,” Contemporary Women’s Writing 2, no. 2 (2008): 131–154.

10.  See Weiner, Silent Teachers/Remembered Sequel, qtd. in Thom Donovan, “Silent Teacher Remembered: Hannah Weiner’s Open House,” Fanzine, December 20, 2007, 6, and Weiner, “Pictures and Early Words,” qtd. in Donovan, 9.

11.  Weiner, Silent Teachers/Remembered Sequel, qtd. in Donovan, 7.

12.  Unpublished correspondence, October 2010.

13.  John Durham Peters, “Information: Notes Toward a Critical History,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 12, no. 2 (1988): 9.

14.  Weiner, Hannah Weiner’s Open House, ed. Patrick F. Durgin (Berkeley: Kenning Editions, 2007), 127.

15.  Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Bernard Schutze and Caroline Schutze (New York: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series, 1988), 27.

16.  William James, “Notes on Automatic Writing,” in The Works of William James: Essays in Psychical Research, ed. Frederick Burkhardt and Fredson Bowers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 41–43.

17.  Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wultz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 249.

18.  Weiner, “Pictures and Early Words,” qtd. in Donovan, 9.

19.  Charles Bernstein, “Making Words Visible/Hannah Weiner,” in Content’s Dream: Essays 1975–1984 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 269.

20.  Weiner, Clairvoyant Journal (Lenox: Angel Hair Books, 1978), page 12 (unnumbered).

21.  Weiner, The Fast (New York: United Artists, 1992), 18.

22.  Serge Tisseron, “All Writing Is Drawing: The Spatial Development of the Manuscript,” Yale French Studies 84 (1994): 41–42.

23.  Adorno, “Late Style in Beethoven,” 567.

24.  Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Existents, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2001), 52.

25.  Levinas, Time and the Other, trans. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1990), 20.

26.  Raymond King Cummings, The Girl in the Golden Atom (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 46.

27.  de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 158.

28.  Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement, trans. Edith R. Farrell and C. Frederick Farrell (Dallas: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1988), 194.

29.  Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 264.

30.  de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 174, 173.

31.  Ibid., 173.

32.  Ibid., 174.

33.  Catherine Clément, Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture, trans. Sally O’Driscoll and Dierdre M. Mahoney (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 1.

Pacific poets imagine the future

David Buuck's pre-enactments, Craig Santos Perez's truncun nunu, and Jen Coleman's vivifying prophesies

Photo by Chris Rohrer.

“Even the reappearance of the sun over the horizon tomorrow morning can be reduced to a question of probability,” writes James Hogan in Climate Cover-Up, arguing that global warming deniers exploit scientific uncertainty.[1] While a future that includes a sun over the horizon is not difficult to imagine, other yet-to-be-experienced future conditions tax our social imagination.

Sentences that predict the future are structured along particular grammars. Words like could, may, and might, tacked before other verbs, are “modals of probability” (or possibility, or speculation) and indicate a possible but always uncertain future: “some studies suggest that sea-level rise could lead to a reduction in island size, particularly in the Pacific.”[2] The report from which this sentence is taken, issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, also qualifies its prediction of future conditions with phrases such as “are likely” and the more definitive “are virtually certain”:

“There is strong evidence that under most climate change scenarios, water resources in small islands are likely to be seriously compromised.”[3

“Mid- and high-latitude islands are virtually certain to be colonised by non-indigenous invasive species, previously limited by unfavourable temperature conditions.”[4]

We already know what the sun looks like over the horizon, but we need more imagination to know what happens when that sun overheats the ocean until it swells above Pacific shores. The conditions of the future will remain uncertain until it is our present, too late to change. This uncertainty has grammatical forms, but what other forms, what poetic forms might reconfigure thinking and action, our relation to this future? I corresponded with poets Craig Santos Perez and Jen Coleman with this question in mind.

My conversations with Perez and Coleman were informed by the work of Oakland-based poet and performance artist David Buuck. Buuck envisions concertedly convoluted verb constructions to express present actions from a vantage point of imagined futures: “strange verb tenses must be enacted: these are those things that will have had to have been, that will have had to yet occur in order for such performatives to be able to imagine themselves into being today.”[5] As an example, he offers this grammatical construction by Ursula K. Le Guin: “The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now.” The vantage point twists around, at once in the present looking to the future, and in the future looking back to the past that leads up to it.

Buuck coins the term “pre-enactments” to conjure a grammar for ardently wishful — not hopelessly wistful — micro-utopias: “rather than merely rehearse or recycle the past, as a repetition compulsion aimed towards somehow salvaging previous hopes,” Buuck writes in his Buried Treasure Island guidebook, “pre-enactments propose historical actions that have yet to occur. The knight’s move here is to imagine the future-past from its own vantage point, as if reenacting the battles yet to come.”

In addition to thinking about pre-enactments grammatically, Buuck works through the body as “vessel for acts of conceptual theater, site-specific performances that aim to have had liberated other futures from the husks of the present.” In his tour of the degraded Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay, artists emerge in hazardous materials outfits, pre-enacting environmental cleanup at sites where naval testing compromised the soil to the extent that residents in nearby low-income housing are warned not to grow vegetable gardens.

While Buuck offers a grammar and a performance strategy for configuring thought toward the future, Craig Santos Perez does so through a formal arrangement that exceeds the book into a series that he says he’ll stop writing when “Guam is free from U.S. colonialism.” Santos Perez, who resides in Hawaii but recently lived in Berkeley and is native to Guam, has completed two books, from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish) and from unincorporated territory [saina] (Omnidawn), and arranges poems as excerpts so that they always have the possibility of a future: these are poems in a state of becoming. The books are part of a larger conceptualized form, i truncun nunu, the banyan tree. Reading his arrangements of these excerpts I confront limits in my own thinking: I default to the verb “weave,” tightly woven as I am to the “textile” in text. I am challenged to figure out a way to speak of poems arranged as a banyan tree: this poetic form shifts my patterns of thought.

Portland, Oregon-based poet Jen Coleman’s recent poems are concerned with the deep ocean, affected by but unknowable to humans. As with Buuck’s pre-enactments and Santos Perez’s i truncun nunu, these poems reconfigure thoughts about uncertain conditions. Coleman describes “trying not only to imagine, but also, to vivify” such spaces, coaxing both empirical details and imaginative ideas through various forms, often recasting prophecy: blending oil bigwig recklessness with Greek myth, fanciful policy requests with biblical anaphora, Coleman constructs whimsical, robust thought experiments.

These conversations — and the poems that appear elsewhere in this feature — demonstrate Craig Santos Perez’s and Jen Coleman’s imaginations of the future and grapplings with uncertainty. Santos Perez writes poems that are at once becoming new poems, books becoming new books. Coleman rallies whimsy, myth, and authoritative discourses to structure uncertainties into poems. If people will have had to have been living toward this, to borrow from David Buuck’s performative grammars, these poets help us see what “this” is, and how it is that we will have had to have been living to arrive there. 

 

Email interview with Craig Santos Perez (May–August 2010)

Kaia Sand: Craig, I am interested in the form of i truncun nunu, the banyan tree. I wonder if you could describe the form?

Craig Santos Perez: I truncun nunu, or banyan tree, is an important tree in Chamoru culture because we believe that i taotaomona (the spirits of our ancestors) dwell within the space of the banyan. The tree itself creates a haunting form: seeds drop upon other trees and “strangle” the host tree (banyans are also referred to as “strangler figs”). The banyan envelops the host and grows around it, its roots taking root. Furthermore, the banyan produces “aerial roots” (or “prop roots”) that fall from the branches, weave, and root in the ground. Over time, these braided roots will form their own trunk — often indistinguishable from the main trunk. As a result, banyan trees can cover wide areas of land.

I imagine my own work as a space for the voices and presences of my ancestors to dwell. The form of my work thus reflects the form of truncun nunu. Each book is composed of a number of poems that weave together to form a trunk of the overall project of “unincorporated territory” (the place in which my people dwell). My first book is connected to my second book because some poems that appear in the first continue and take root in the second, braiding with the new poems to create a second trunk. At the same time, the second book refers back to and directly quotes from the first book, creating an aerial root between the books.

Sand: I am struck, Craig, by how this way of conceptualizing the book builds a future into it while coaxing its past forward. While I am reading any aerial root, I am reading its potential, its future. It’s almost as if, in addition to creating a space for your ancestors, you are also creating a space for the future. The future is so difficult to think about — so immaterial, unknowable. And yet it is urgent that we do relate to the future in how we act and live. I’m intrigued by poetic forms that think through the immateriality of the future, and take seriously our relation to it. I wonder how you think about all of this?

Santos Perez: I agree, the future is so difficult to think about in its immateriality; for the Chamoru people and for many indigenous peoples, the future is also difficult to think about because it’s always under threat. While there is no “fatal impact” — we will continue our survivance — there have been many fatalities, cultural, linguistic, geographic, and political. And in the case of Guahan and Chamorus, our future is not entirely in our hands as we are continually denied our right to self-determination, allowing our future to be controlled by the United States. That said, we continue to build possible futures for ourselves within this colonized space — ground roots that must navigate the occupied soil, aerial roots that must navigate the changing winds. From this excerpted space and this excerpted present, the past is summoned and haunts, and a self-determined future is always a possibility.

I hope the form itself embodies this idea: the word and the poem and the book and the project, all separate roots intertwined, create a vibrant tide where the past, present, and future spiral and braid, circle and root into the always moving “from.” I love what Patricia Grace says about this kind of storytelling in her novel Baby No Eyes: “a way where the beginning is not the beginning, the end is not the end. It starts from a centre and moves away from there in such widening circles that you don’t know how you will finally arrive at the point of understanding, which becomes itself another core, a new centre.” This is the form of i truncun nunu.

Sand: I am reading Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, and I just came across this passage: “in being, everything is circuitous, roundabout, recurrent, so much talk; a chaplet of sojournings, a refrain with endless verses.”[6] The forms he lists, though, don’t have the new trees, the aerial roots, which seem to me to be less predictable than a circle, and which create a kind of exciting expectancy. I wonder if you might talk about one or two examples in the larger unincorporated territories project that in some way touch upon that which has not yet happened.

Santos Perez: I never know how or when another excerpt from a poem will appear. For example, I am currently working on the third booklength excerpt of “unincorporated territory,” and there are new excerpts of “aerial roots” that continue from [hacha] and [saina].“All with ocean views” continues from [saina] and “talaya” continues from [hacha]. Unsurprisingly, the new excerpts of these poems are thematically connected to their previous excerpts; however, their different forms will make them seem new, or be seen anew. One thing that shocked me is that the fifty-page poem “organic acts” from [saina] continues in my third book as a single sonnet. Strange. The poem “preterrain” becomes “postterrain” in the third book. Then, of course, there are new poems, new strands, new aerial roots reaching towards new poetic ground. I’m working on a series of monologues that are more humorous than my previous work. Also, I'm working on a long poem titled “sounding lines” that explores my childhood memories. I hope, overall, that the third book will feel both familiar and surprising.

Sand: Since these poems are always excerpts, always “from” something else, the selections we’ve chosen for this feature are in fact excerpts of excerpts. I am curious about your response to removing parts of this work from its truncun nunu form. I’m intrigued by how “aerial roots” appears in all three books. It coiled around the excerpt “tidelands” in [hacha] — the excerpts appeared in quick secession, back and forth. But then in [saina], “aerial roots” is less of a tight coil and appears in small patterns with other poems. What happens to excerpts such as these when they are simply grouped together?

Santos Perez: If the various excerpts were simply grouped together it would give the pieces more weight, more tightening. One thing I enjoy about weaving different poems together is that it gives the poems a more airy feel, more wind in their paper sails. Conversely, I believe it allows the narratives of the poems to unfold more slowly, giving the reader a sense of time passing.

 

Email interview with Jen Coleman (July–August 2010)

Kaia Sand: I’m intrigued by how you are dealing with a relationship that is, in many ways, impossible. We can’t know the undersea world, so how do we care about it? Or, maybe we can know about it? What kind of knowledge is that? How are you working with this in your poetry?

Jen Coleman: There’s no doubt that humans have a relationship with the undersea world — it’s all over our literature, myths, our children’s stories, religion, our national identity, from Moby Dick to The Little Mermaid to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It feeds the world a big chunk of our protein. There are a lot of reasons to care about it, and people do. But that care barely scratches the surface of our relationship to the ocean. We get 99 percent of our food from ocean waters within 200 miles of the coast, but even in that tiny span, there are vast, lively areas we know very little about. For example, until the last couple of decades we didn’t really know the full extent of the beauty and diversity of the deepwater coral wilderness off the Atlantic coast. Now that we have the technology to get there, every dive returns with new stories of species that no human has ever seen before.

So we care about the ocean we know and we care about the vast deep we don’t know (the sea monsters, giant squid, and unfathomable fathoms), but we have limited imagination for the ocean that knows we’re here even if we don't know it’s there. The ocean temperatures and currents, microscopic life, long-distance sea commuters, baby albatross on a tiny speck of an island — they can feel us. But we don’t have much occasion to feel them, so when the news reports that “the vast majority of oil has either evaporated or been burned, skimmed, recovered […] or dispersed,” people stop reading and breathe a sigh of relief. It’s much harder to imagine an ongoing life of “dispersed” oil, everywhere and nowhere.

How does it come out in poetry? I try to not only imagine, but to vivify, the relationship we have with the life and places that experience us, but that we don't experience.

Sand: Vivify! Can you describe the work of imagining and vivifying that takes place in your poems?

Coleman: “The Time is Ripe” and “Psalm” are insisting on a presence for sea creatures and, by conjuring them, reveal their very strangeness and vastness. “Psalm” asks for a relationship between creatures, even as it calls up the absurdity of such a relationship. Playful, but a bit mournful too.

“Plan D: Hot Tap” takes another tack, first calling up the lacunae between human life and ocean life, and then absurdly suggesting encounters between them. In my mind these encounters are an imagination or vivification of the unseen, unspoken relationships. There’s whimsy in these poems, and playfulness. Ultimately, I am not at all sure they “work” to help people imagine human impact on ocean life, but they are born out of this interest and desire.

Sand: These poems are delightful in their words and sounds and swerves. Each becomes a thought experiment in what happens if you import forms — whether the repetition of a psalm or the tallying of a census — and set certain conditions into motion. These poems help me think anew and speculate in ways that are pleasurable and challenging. Just as Craig Santos Perez’s i truncun nunu (banyan tree) reconfigures my expectations, your poems reconfigure my relationship to information and its limits.

“Plan D” instructs, provides information, serves up facts: I learn that, at a time when Deepwater Horizon is the oil rig name I know, that Thunderhorse is another deepwater rig. I learn that the oarfish is an animal that lives in those deep waters. And then, the poem announces that this is the realm of imagination because Poseidon enters. When you read this poem at Portland’s Spare Room reading series in the spring I was wooed by Poseidon, happy to be told myth, bits of story; I relaxed. While bureaucratic decisions might be easy to ignore, I pay more attention when you ask, “Did Poseidon have a cozy relationship with the minerals management service?” This writing — speculative, cutting, and playful — foregrounds the uncertainty that exists around deepwater drilling expeditions, and the ways in which powerful and fanciful decisions are made and defended.

“Census of the Fishes” asserts presente! for various species, familiar to unfamiliar, reminding me there are plenty of animals I don't recognize. I’m struck by how, in this poem and in “Plan D,” you bring in language that might come from policy, science, or bureaucracy. In this case, the poem calls for a “serious census of the fishes,” and charms me with its softly melancholic closure, “whether the wish exists.” This poem seems both lament and policy request!

With “Psalm,” you playfully create conditions for acceptance — the reader is beseeched to “let” the animals enjoy what they may. The play on “kind” at the end of the poem is striking; actually, this poem is very kind, it relishes life and insists on relishing what one might not understand. Any thoughts on the form of the psalm? Is there “work” that the bible does that is helpful to these themes?

Coleman: My dad was a Catholic priest as a young man. He’s also an artist and a poet. We talk together about the literary devices in the bible (including the Gnostic texts) and about how symbolism, double meanings, parallel construction, and incantation allow for a kind of meditative reinterpretation of what’s being said.

I love the meditation on the phrase “let there be.” God says let there be. The devotee in prayer asks god to let there be. The poet asks — who? — to let there be. It’s a meditation on the forces of the universe and the power to “let,” as if it were a call to something with a will. The psalm poem is also in defiance of the church using “accordance with nature” as the guiding principle for condemning sexuality. I’m reconfiguring that thought fer sure! I like to reuse literary constructions from other “instructions for life” texts such as Tao and Confucian sayings, because I like to play with this tone of authority, both to question it and to borrow it, and to conjure what the current moment has in common with other historical moments from which prophets emerge.

As for Poseidon, there’s a lot of Greek myth mixed in with Christianity in the stories that make up a culture of authority. In the case of “Plan D” I was thinking about how this oil spill is a moment that will accumulate myths, how it will be told in a way that simplifies complicated things. I was also thinking about how, at the very same time as the oil spilled, the space shuttle Atlantis was making its final flight. Atlantis, Poseidon, disaster, naming things, authority: Poseidon became the hero that embodies human folly, the folly of authority, of BP, of the fossil fuel economy, of government. So my reconfiguring plan here is to do that mythmaking work that will inevitably happen, but to do it my way, in a story that doesn’t have anybody coming out shining or stinking.

 


 

1.  James Hogan, Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming (Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2009), 16.

2.  N. Mimura et al., “Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” in Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M. L. Parry et al., eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 689. Italics mine.

3.  Ibid., italics mine.

4.  Ibid., italics mine.

5.  David Buuck, Buried Treasure Island: A Detour of the Future (San Francisco: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2008), 8.

6.  Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon, 1964), 214.