Commentaries - February 2014
A good example of the future that poetry once imagined for itself can be found in the first act (sometimes prologue) of Brecht’s great play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Brecht is an outstanding lyric poet, but his most poignant reflections on poetry and poetics might be found within the plays, which famously employ lyric elements to disrupt the mimetic anesthesia of conventional theater. In the framing prologue to TCCC , a government official, an “expert” (or in some translations, “delegate”), possessor of a certain technical and scientific knowledge, mediates a dispute between two Soviet agricultural collectives who want to use the same valley. But in contrast to the justice on display in the rest of the play – even the justice of the holy-fool Azdak — the “expert” does not autocratically decide the fate of two collectives, but rather facilitates their reconciliation.Through reasonable deliberation and debate, the goat-herding “Galinsk” commune decides, despite its misgivinsg, to renounce the valley from which it was displaced during WWII and to let the “Rosa Luxemburg” fruit-growing commune use the landfor its irrigation project. The needs of the whole society are put first, we are shown, and the result will be that, in addition to the Galinsk goat cheese both communes will benefit from Rosa Luxemburg’s wine.
This is not simply a celebration of a free people freely planning its future. It is also a celebration of the role that art, and particularly poetry, plays in that freedom. Alongside the figure of the expert who helps facilitate the decision, there is the essentially homologous “Singer,” Arkadi Cheize, who “knows 21,000 verses by heart.” The main action of The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a play within the play, adaptated from the ancient Chinese and rehearsed by the Luxemburg commune under the supervision of the Singer. The commune performs the adapted play as an allegorical reflection upon the wisdom of leaving the valley to its irrigated orchards. Though the finished play can’t itself be a vehicle for the working-out of the disagreement, already concluded, one is lead to believe that it could have been, had no agreement been reached. The Singer and Expert therefore play structurally similar roles as facilitators. The technical knowledge of the Expert is matched by the vast mnemonic recall of the Singer. Brecht’s play contains a typically lucid affirmation of the fundamentally necessary role that art – here metonymized by poetry and “song” – must play in the planning of the new society:
The Old Man left: We rehearsed the play under his direction. It is very difficult to get him, by the way. You and the Planning Commission should see to it that he comes north more often, comrade.
The Expert: We are more concerned with economy.
The Old Man left, smiling: You arrange the new distribution of grapevines and tractors. Why not of songs, too?
Tout se résume dans l'esthétique et l'économie politique! Indeed, there is a hint, in the structure of the play, that “song” is fundamentally a mechanism for the redistribution of material necessities. When we spoke in a preceding post, about modernism as a project for the “realization of poetry,” this is what we meant. Poetry in Brecht’s play has become a resource of the collective, an entirely functional mechanism by which a community comes to understand itself and its place in the world. Of course, Brecht’s vision is not entirely distinguishable from what we have described as the alternative project for poetry, the“abolition” of all the specific instances of poet and poem and dissolution of poetry into the field of everyday life. We note a return to the oral tradition, here, in the figure of the Singer, who, although he has a name, and a renown commensurate with his virtuosity, seems famous not for the originality of his creations but the extent and versatility of his repertoire. His “play with songs, in which the whole kolkhoz takes part” blends together the lyric and the dramatic in ways that break sharply with the type of author-reader relations of current poetic practice. It is a production both individual and collective, traditional and modern, in which “wearing the old masks,” the new, modernizing collective and its audience find that “the voice of the old poet. . . sounds well in the shadow of Soviet tractors.”
Needless to say, nothing like this ever existed in the Soviet Union of the 1940s. Disputes of the sort treated in the prologue would have certainly been decided through the autocratic decision of experts and party cadre. Haunting the prologue is the fact that these communes were created through a process of forced collectivization – socialist “primitive accumulation” – in which millions died from famine or direct state violence. Brecht’s prologue is, in this regard, Stalinist smokescreen. While there might have been some excuse for this kind of rosy view of the Soviet Union in the 20s or 30s, by this point, there really wasn’t. If you didn’t already know better, you likely never would.
Looked at separately from the cognitive dissonance introduced by actually existing socialism, however, the image that Brecht presents of a harmonized art and society is, well, sort of appealing. With its emphasis on free association and autonomy, it is consonant with the ultraleft and anarchist perspectives we consider to be the best of historical communism. The play is a left variant of what we have described elsewhere as the essence of Modernism: “a vision of modern society fundamentally improved and transformed by its submission to a modernizing set of aesthetic values and techniques.” But for all its appeal, Brecht’s future can’t be ours. Modernism was premised upon the possibility of an alternate course of modernization, a development of the technical capacities of society with the help of singers and experts that would redound to the common good. But today, few think that the problems we face can be solved through some new round of modernizing planification. Modernization has happened, and the result has been a world that seems, now, more resistant to humanization, more opposed to the common good. Those of us who can imagine a future of freedom and the full expression of human potential do so, it seems, not as the continuous extension of present developments, but as a break with them. Though technical expertise and irrigation projects and poetry and girls on tractors will no doubt play a part in such futures, as people try to find their way out of the mess capitalism has left us, the unity of poem and plan belongs to another age.
[Written in the process of reading Mikhl Likht’s Protsesiye/Processions along with the translation from Yiddish by Ariel Resnikoff & Stephen Ross, while following the procedures set earlier in The Lorca Variations. A tribute both to Likht & to his language.]
Wandering in the wasteland
I saw the snakes smile
their dusty skins
the weak reproach
of someone’s membranes
dust kicked up
whose pale eyes
match your own
we live with
face to face
& the fire
Pan plays for them
brutes that the sun
rains down on
that the time allows
from the bottom up
that the dust
atop a mountain
are hammered down
stone after stone
ignites the air
atop a mountain
in a show
stones touching stones
& casting shadows
stones in heaps
the luck of brothers
fire in the sky
a heap of stones
& how a hammer
like a kiss
a kiss or something
a ritual of blood
driving all creatures
whom a genie
fills with love
with hate –
leaving her prey
to what they aim at her
down to the basest
or in scum
there is magic
in the place
where blades glint
hopes still live
deep in the vortex
the long stretches
air so thick within
in the season’s calm
we cut through
with a pair
a zephyr floating
something to envy
skulls that time
has left behind
on their bellies
up from the depths
from a stone
grass covers earth
in the sea
Bernstein chants 73 through 75 in "1 to 100" (1969)
Through ARLO (Adaptive Recognition with Layered Optimization), enabled by the HiPSTAS (High Performance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship) project headquartered at the Information School of the University of Texas at Austin, I sought to visualize the later passages of Charles Bernstein's chanted/screamed list or counting poem, “1 to 100” (1969). Thanks to Chris Mustazza, Tanya Clement, David Tcheng, Tony Borries, Chris Martin, and others, I am finally learning how to use ARLO to some rudimentary effect. Every single PennSound recording is now available in a test space to which ARLO can be applied by researchers, including myself, associated with the project. We are just beginning. HiPSTAS has received two NEH grants to make all this possible, and PennSound is a founding archival partner. Through Jacket2 we hope soon to create a special ongoing commentary space where PennSound-affiliated digital humanities scholars using ARLO can first learn to visualize and then create stable critical vocabularies for describing the sound of poetry as recorded. In this critical method, textual presence and reference are not necessary — although the emergent methodologies don’t seek ideologically to exclude the text as a parallel or ancillary or even a kind of control against the reading of a visualized soundform. We aim to see the sound of a poem performed, and, where possible, to start from scratch in effecting a method of close listening akin to, but not dependent upon, nor derived except conceptually from, close reading. In order to see what happens to the poet’s voice when Bernstein talks, chants and then, in essence, screams “1 to 100,” I chose numbers 73 through 75, at a point in the poem when the voice has begun to move from worded speech to much-purer-than-usual noise — a move we can take to mark a transformational moment in Bernstein's sense of his poetic vocation. ARLO enables one to make a .wav copy of the selected passage and here it is. The enunication of “seventy” in the articulation of each of these three numbers keeps the poet in the realm of words, while the stretching of the open-vowel-dominated single digit (“threeeeee,” “fooooooour,” “fiiiiiiiive”) attached to each iteration of the decade, is what moves the poet toward his endpoint of sound-without-sense. (Below at left you see the ARLO visualization of “73” only and can see the “3” stretched to the point where it meets the start of “74.” The greatest vocal disturbance occurs at “ven-ty” in “seventy,” followed by the release of the stressed yet breathed syllable “three.” Ty-fiiiiive makes for an odd iamb, with the stress eventually linking to the next number’s first foot in such a way as to dampen its own stress. Above at right one sees the ARLO settings here, including the very low damping factor. Obviously this kind of elision is extremely exaggerated and rare when a poem's words are uttered at such deliberate intervals; this kind of hyperextended elision happens routinely in song but very rarely in poetry.) Yet there is strong sense here, since listeners know exactly what is ordinately coming. Narrative expectation, we might call it, is the quality of listening here that draws the sound back to speech. Yet despite the strong pull of numeration, it's at this point in the piece that one begins to forget or neglect intrinsic finality in favor of the chant’s anti-teleological effect. ARLO enables me to minimize the damping of the sound, so that the stretched digits can be seen and visually compared as Bernstein moves to the Zukofskyian upper limit of music in his journey as a young poet away from the lower limit of speech — away from the semanticism of the poetry against which he had begun to rebel. The poem's resistance to teleology is best apprehended through its sound; its textuality, such as it ever was, moves in the other direction.
Kathy Lou Schultz
I first read M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! #6 within the context of her book-length work, Zong!, which I had ordered after hearing about it from several friends who had attended, or participated in, performances of the work while it was still in progress. I approached the book with a feeling that this poem was crucial and I needed to catch up with what my friends had experienced. I also longed for my poetry communities in San Francisco and Philadelphia, where I had at times attended multiple poetry readings within the space of one week. I felt an increased sense of urgency indicated by the capital letters and exclamation point on the book’s cover: ZONG!
My most recent scholarship focuses on what I term the Afro-Modernist epic. I have found that understanding the contextual framing of these long works is essential to reading any of their individual parts, and the poem text of Zong! is surrounded by numerous frames. These include: multiple dedications, epigraphs, and acknowledgements; a glossary; “Manifest”; and “Notanda” (Philip’s account of writing the poem); and, finally, the legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert from which we know the story of the slave ship Zong whose crew, in a calculated attempt to collect insurance money, threw African captives overboard while they were still alive.
It is from this legal case that Philip constructs her epic. As a lawyer and a poet, she has both a fascination with, and deep distrust for, the ability of words to make meaning. Thus her repeated claim, “There is no telling this story; it must be told.” The poem teeters between legal language and poetry, and the ways in which either may evacuate or imbed meaning, history, and emotion.
Philip also makes a haunting assertion that she acted as amanuensis. The poem recorded in this book is “As told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng.” The spine of my Wesleyan paperback edition even lists both “Philip & Boateng” as the authors. Thus, Philip animates the voices of the ancestors through the writing of this poem.
As I page through the book, my eye is drawn to Philip’s use of the page — the manner in which the words collect, then disperse; how they constellate at points like waves; or dissolve into individual syllables and letters. The poem reaches for breath, for sense.
Water is an enemy in the poem: the calm seas that do not push the ship forward to its destination, the dwindling supply of fresh water for drinking, the expansive sea that consumes the Africans forcibly thrown overboard, never to resurface.
I am so entranced by this movement of words, that I nearly miss the footer running along the bottom of the page: “Zuka Tuwalole Femi Chuma,” a role call of names. The entire series, Zong! #1–26, is built upon a foundation of names, a monument for the dead.
Zong! #6 is a series of questions, assertions, and contradictions. The first three lines (centered on the page, though aligned by the imagined right, not left, margin) suggest a body: “question therefore / the age / eighteen weeks.” The “age” (and not “duration” or “length”) evokes the image of an infant (age, eighteen weeks). Our habit is to describe a baby’s age in weeks, before we realize we can begin giving the age in months: four months, five months … Yet, this child is rendered to body only: it is neither “he” nor “she.” A sense of doom rises in my belly.
Other assertions and then contradictions follow: “but it is said …” “and / contradicted / by the evidence …” “— from the maps” showing a ship off course, out of time, outside of time. A journey estimated at forty days now gone eighteen weeks. Unable to correctly interpret the “evidence” of the map, does “the age” of the infant body indicate space and time? (An infant born on ship?) The body. The body of evidence. Contradicted.
Because Philip constructed the poem from legal language that renders the human body visible only through an insurance case that determines its monetary value, she plays with the inherently contradictory moral logic until it implodes, revealing itself to history.
It is through the series of framing devices that I am led further and deeper into the words on the page of Zong! #6 — even as they threaten to pull apart.
Kathy Lou Schultz is the author of four collections of poems, most recently Biting Midge: Works in Prose (Belladona) and Some Vague Wife (Atelos). Her monograph, The Afro-Modernist Epic and Literary History: Tolson, Hughes, Baraka, is part of the Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics Series from Palgrave. Schultz’s articles have appeared in a wide variety of scholarly journals including Contemporary Literature, Journal of Modern Literature, and Jacket2. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Memphis, where she directs the English Honors Program and teaches courses in African American and Afro-Diasporic literature, poetry and poetics, and modernism.
We often find ourselves discussing, often in rooms with other poets, often in schoolish settings, what it means to say that something is poetic. It is for the most part clear enough in reference to other literature, suggesting a higher-than-average degree of patterning the sonic and visual aspects of language. Or to put matters in another register, “poetic” suggests that some relatively larger portion of the communication is borne by things other than denotation and connotation, by measures to be found beyond the dictionary and thesaurus.
But when something beyond language is identified as poetic, problems arise.One can easily imagine some people agreeing over dinner that a particular piece of furniture was poetic, but when pressed, producing five or eleven different explanations. In the last century, poetry did perversely well in coming to stand for something like an acme of aesthetic achievement, indeed becoming a kind of synecdoche for imaginative capacity itself — perversely in that it is able to mean so much precisely by meaning so little, or at least lacking a specific self-recognition. Fredric Jameson offers a rather unsympathetic formulation of this inverted development as part of modernist ideology.
It is as though in return for the acknowledgement, by the other arts and media, of the supremacy of poetry and poetic language in the modernist system of the beaux-arts, poetry graciously returned the compliment by a willingness to adopt, however metaphorically, the technical and material accounts the other arts gave of their own structure and internal dynamics. (A Singular Modernity, 153)
In the following era, whether we use the term "postmodernism" or not, poetry has been largely evicted from the catbird seat, while still doggily panting after other modes; one need only consider the familiar blather about poetry trailing X number of years behind painting or sculpture or what have you, as if the only difference among these practices was that certain external ideas that simply exist floating freely in the ether had been spotted sooner elsewhere, and now it was just a matter of poetry pulling the wool from its eyes and cotton from its ears. We might suggest that this ambiguous delusion about the comparability of poetry and the studio arts has a half-submerged class character. One need only consider the well-known phenomenon (we have felt it ourselves) of poet's jealousy when the painter comes strolling out of his or her studio at end of day, clothes smudged and streaked with lovely and serious-looking oils, runoff turpentine staining sturdy shoes. This envious sense that painters, e.g., go to work and have work clothes, that they actually make things, that they work with their hands — well, this is not terribly challenging to decode.
Surely this is the reason that Jameson's epochal assessment of postmodernism begins with a historically older image, able to stand for the lost era of manual labor: a painting of work boots. Grounded in the materiality of real production, painting et al. are also able to leap into the future via transforming their production process. But if this is in any sense true, such an analogy must simultaneously disclose the absurdity of poetry haltingly trying to reproduce fine art's dematerialization of the art object; it is precisely fine art's parallels to commodity production that gives the refusal to produce a political charge.
These are merely preliminary thoughts toward approaching the question of "the poetic" in an art that is purely physical, activity without direct product. What would it mean to say that a dance is poetic? The occasion for this question is subjective: an encounter with a specific dance or two as the most astonishing experience of art in the last few years. Turf Feinz is a collective from Oakland and environs. They practice a dance style known as turfing, which is also a way of understanding style itself according to an intense localism — an assertion that stylistic distinctions belong not just to a city but to a neighborhood, to a few blocks. Turfing is in turn associated with hyphy, a hip-hop phenomenon largely of the Bay Area that simmered during the nineties and emerged nationally around 2006-2007; it is the soundtrack of choice for turfing shows, sharing with the dance style an intense localism, as if its language were landscape. As the immortal E-40 puts it, in a turf-laden video, "I'm from the Bay where we hyphy and go dumb / from the soil where them rappers be getting they lingo from." E-40 is not himself from Oakland but from Vallejo, a few towns over.
It is not the association with hyphy, exactly, that makes Turf Feinz poetic; in the first instance, it is the intensely elegiac character of the dances. This is true in the most literal sense: the major pieces (recorded and tracked by YAK Films) are dedicated to the dead. The first Turf Feinz' piece to find a global audience is frequently known as "Dancing in the Rain," from 2009; its proper name is "RIP RichD." It was recorded on a rainy streetcorner the day after the death of dancer Dreal's half-brother in a car accident. It remains incomparable. It comprises an astonishingly inventive set of passages, building from a single dancer toward an improvised quartet, the dancers betraying considerable formal training, some ballet behind the classic "Oakland boogaloo" from whence turf dancing springs. The main feel is that of gliding, its intensity amplified by the slick surfaces. On the corner of 90th and Macarthur, the moves feel — despite the remarkable technique — perhaps a bit tossed off, casual. But that's not it. The dance is somewhere between machinic and all-too-human, but it is insistently expressionless. The first dancer is masked up. As others join, it becomes clear that the inexpressive faces are part of the performance: all of the embodied activity with none of the exuberance such motion would ordinarily imply. The dance is soulful, whatever that means, but without spirit. Even as the four members wheel and pivot through space, the dance is flat, or flattened. It is in this way that it becomes fully elegiac. It is about what's missing, or a missing dimension.
It is also about the police. The establishing shot, indeed, is a conversation between one of the crew and a cop in a roller, which must depart before the dance can begin. This will foreshadow Turf Feinz' other best-known dances: "RIP 211" and "RIP Oscar Grant." Kenneth "211" Ross was shot to death by officers in December of 2009; Oscar Grant on January 1st of that year by transit cops, though such differences are specious. All cops are bastards, after all, and killing African-American kids is pretty much their thing. This is a broader context of elegy as it exists in Oakland; the missing dimension is always the life of kids of color. At the end of "RIP 211," under heavy dubstep (a remix of Nero's "This Way"), the crew gathers against the wall of a squat. An AC Transit bus passes across the frame like a cinematic wipe made from the material of the city. When it's gone, so are they.
This shot will be repeated in "RIP Oscar Grant," finally the most powerful of the trilogy — but in the middle, at the inflection point. Seven and half minutes long, it develops with no hurry as the crew makes its way, inevitably, to the Fruitvale BART station where Oscar Grant was murdered, an event that would set off a sequence of riots and confrontations known as the Oscar Grant Rebellion. Here are some acual images of the police murder:
Accompanied by audio collage of news reports and a minor-key piano, the crew one by one offers isolated performances at the site of the killing: patient, slow (and sometimes filmed in slow motion), beautiful. Again they remain expressionless. Just before the three minute mark, one of them slides up and down the platform, at moments almost frictionless and yet absolutely stuck to the earth. There is no taking flight in turfing, no transcendence, no symbolic emancipation or escape. There is only this world, where the bodies are until erased. At 3:04 the lateral motion is suddenly interrupted by an awkward, astonishing pirouette against his angular momentum, pivoting and then improbably pausing on pointe, just one foot, body perfectly arched. The world is suspended. He tilts backward and toward the ground, his backpack pulling on him. Cata•strophe, a downward turn. It seems he'll fall, that everything will come down. A BART train enters the picture and obscures whatever happens next. There is the sound of a gunshot. When the train passes, another dancer is mid-move. Things resume.
If the social distance between poetry and painting concerns ideologies of production, what then of dance — of allegories of physical labor without a product? It would be easy enough to go to the late modern ideas about performance and post-medium arts, the dialectically doomed attempts to outmaneuver commodification. But this seems inapposite to say the least, and moreover shifts us unremarked to the consumption side, where commodities are exchanged and exhausted. This won't do, finally. The dance is production side, if via its absence. It is scored and choreographed to the rhythm of machines but without their presence, embodying the blank technicity of labor without any production to speak of — but still unable to efface entirely its moments of human invention, the swerve. It is a dance of aimlessness and streetcorner, invention for its own sake, amazing and defeated: a dance, and here we perhaps arrive at the far horizon of the argument, not of surplus goods but surplus populations, excluded from the economy if not from the violence of the state. A post-production poetics.
In this sense, poetics means something like a form of timeliness. The shape of being historical. At the end of 2009, the year from which these three dances issue, the unemployment rate for black youth rose to 50% — almost half the population excluded from the wage. The dance in this sense is a conversation with Detroit and Athens, Madrid and Dhaka, with the favelas of São Paulo; a quiet confrontation with the world as it goes, after the global slowdown, after the social factory could put any kind of good life on offer. In Oakland, where unemployment already runs above state levels, the rate for African-Americans is generally double the city average at any given time. In 2008, Vallejo, home of E-40, became the largest California city to declare bankruptcy. Catastrophe calls the tune. It is perhaps seductive to imagine a post-production aesthetic as utopian, emancipatory, freed from the factory whistle. Post-human, even. For now, the inverse is the case. There are bodies. They have neither an obvious way out nor a persuasive way back in. This surely is the peculiarity of our moment...