Starting from lull

Jill Richards' "Distribution Series"

Marilyn Buck

Ronald Paulson's The Art of Riot in England and America is a small, thin book. Its concerns are mainly with art, with nineteenth century pictorial representations of riot. In it Paulson attempts a taxonomy of riot so as to understand its festivities, its seditions.

I have read Paulson’s book several times in the last few years. At moments frustrated with how it seems too ecumenical. At other moments frustrated because when it gets to the literature his examples feel a little tired (and so male): Norman Mailer, Nathanael West, George Romero, etc. But still his taxonomy has felt useful for thinking about the various books and blog posts and poems and prose that have started appearing in public in the last few months that are full of what David Buuck keeps naming — with at moments a snideness and at other moments a joking generosity — “occu-po,” or writing that is somewhat informed by and/or about the various moments of political antagonism of the last few years. And as I keep reading Paulson on the nineteenth century I keep wondering about how “riot” shows up in these twenty-first century works.

I will eventually get to works that attempt to represent the interruptions, the antagonisms in various ways. But I want to begin with a piece by Jill Richards called “Distribution Series .” I heard her read this piece at Davis during the Revolution  and/or Poetry conference. And while many at this conference were reading works about the joyous hope that comes with possible sedition (see Sean Bonney’s reading), Richards read a work about what happens after these moments: “we agree that it is lonely now, that it is lonely at home and it is lonely in the large groups of people at the beginning of the summer.”

Richards’ piece is written in twelve parts. She has written it in a sort of modified version of the form Nanni Balestrini used in The Unseen: narrative prose paragraphs with limited punctuation that frequently, but not always, start in one time and then without transition move to another. I like this form because I see it as getting at some of the complications of connection that are impossible to articulate except through proximity. Here is section two:

At reading group there is an argument about what a lull is and whether it exists here or not. There is an argument about who attends what meeting and who speaks for how long. The people I know work shit jobs or have no jobs or keep working the jobs that promise to lead to better jobs we agree that it is lonely now, that it is lonely at home and it is lonely in the large groups of people at the beginning of the summer the Holdout was robbed and the robbers separated the white people from the non-white people now there is a door that is locked after dark

Most of “Distribution Series” is about what happens in the lull. The way that everything gets a little brittle. That if before in the time of festivity and sedition, everything and everyone felt possible to see, after everyone is forced to play one singular representational role. At least three times this sort of statement appears:

Everyone knows that outside of this assembly or reading or conference where everyone is represented equally is one thing and that outside of the poem or the conference or the assembly is another that the people who shake sometimes still shake and the people who are stared at are stared at the people who don’t belong don’t belong the people who are beaten are beaten the people who can’t pay rent can’t pay rent the people who are bosses are bosses and the people who are harassed at work are still harassed at work before and after they are the ones that speak on the stage.

Recently "Some Oakland Antagonists" wrote a piece for CrimethInc for a series that was to study “what we can learn from the waning phase of social movements." It was about “the rise and fall of the Oakland commune,” and after inventorying the rise, it turned to the "toxic interpersonal dynamics" that come after the rise. These antagonists end their piece like this "But the questions still remain: what would it mean to actually take care of each other and to collectively sustain and nurture an unstoppable insurrectionary struggle? How can we dismantle and negate the oppressive power relationships and toxic interpersonal dynamics we carry with us into liberated spaces? How can we make room for the myriad of revolts within the revolt that are necessary to upend all forms of domination?" These are, of course, not the easiest of questions. They are big and bold, full of aspirational bravado.

I begin trying to understand an art of riot with the lull, even as I am looking for a literature to understand what it means to collectively sustain and nurture an unstoppable insurrectionary struggle, to dismantle and negate oppressive power relationships and toxic interpersonal dynamics. In part I do this because I feel as if I am writing this in the lull and because so much of the literature about the occupations, the possible seditions of the last few years has been written from the lull. Poetry after all has a long tradition of tranquil recollection, for better or worse. And I suspect that this makes some of the work that has been written about these moments full of heroism. And some of it full of defeat. What I like about Richards’ piece is that it is about being inside and being involved and trying to think from that position. It is neither heroic nor defeated. Richards’s piece juxtaposes the moments of friendship with the moments of brittle, perhaps in an attempt to work through an answer. It ends with a story of wheat pasting posters about Marilyn Buck and leaving one of the buckets of wheat paste on the sidewalk. It’s a nice story of a moment before the lull, about being together. If I was an optimist, I could write here about how it remains there for some else to pick up. Wheat pasting will go on! But I'm not an optimist. Marilyn Buck spent a lot of time in jail and only got out as she was dying.

Richards doesn't say it but Marilyn Buck was a poet too. I mention that though not as a moment of hope for poetry will not save us, but just for the historical record.