Reviews - July 2011

Time's loop

A review of 'Möbius Crowns'

Mobius Crowns

Möbius Crowns

by Dan Beachy-Quick and Srikanth Reddy

QUEUE 2009, 48 pages, $8, ISBN chapbook

 everything takes form, even infinity
— Gaston Bachelard

Near the end of the second chapbook of Möbius Crowns, a collection of aphorisms about the creation of the book, a bridge is constructed between poem and world:

Every poem walks toward the last line that abuts the margin, the margin abuts the hand that holds it, and the hand, having put the book down, might shadow the eye from the sun looking east across the lake or look west against the mountains.

Letters move from one to the next to form words; words move from one to the next to form lines; lines move from one to the next to form sonnets; sonnets move from one to the next to form this book that is read somewhere in the world, perhaps next to a lake or underneath a mountain. The location where the book is read is not predetermined. But that location exists by necessity, and the poems of the book will become poems of the world as they are read.

I read this book in Istanbul on a balcony on the fourth floor of a building with a glimpse of the Marmara Sea.

Before one experiences the aphorism announcing the connection between poem and world, one experiences a box.

The form of this book is a box, held together by two thick paper bands. The top band says “Möbius Crowns.” The bottom band says “Dan Beachy-Quick / Srikanth Reddy.” Between the bands on the front of the box is an image, the design of a Möbius strip in gold, viewed from above. When the bands are slid off, the box opens up. It opens up fully, flattens itself against the table into a shape loosely resembling a bird or a specialized paper airplane. Three objects are inside the box. A single card and two chapbooks. The top chapbook is titled Möbius Crowns and the second chapbook is titled with the image of the Möbius strip.

As I read the book, the pieces that make up the book surround me. The box flutters gently in the wind that comes from the direction of the sea. I put the card inside the second chapbook to keep it from blowing away. I turn the spine of the second chapbook toward the wind to keep the book from becoming flattened open permanently.

The first chapbook contains poems. Each page is a separate poem and each poem is in the form of a sonnet. The first chapbook has two beginnings. There is no front and no back. Each side of the book is a separate entryway into the book. The first beginning is:

A sapling in a circle, roots buried
In air.

The second beginning is:

Now rages in the mechanism’s toothed gears.

In the first, a young tree suspended or growing upside down, exposing its roots to the air. Nature, though a nature that is distorted or, more likely, isolated — a tree without its earth, surrounded by a circle. The second of mechanics, equipment. “Now” is a noun, not an adjective of time — time itself. Now rages in the toothed gears. An eternal now raging forth in a cyclical motion, through the equipment of gears.

Wikipedia describes a Möbius strip as “a surface with only one side and only one boundary component.” This does not sufficiently describe what a Möbius strip is. The object looks similar to a ring, but a ring with a twist. A Möbius strip can be formed by taking a band of paper and attaching one end to the other with a half-twist. This twist turns the two-sided strip of paper into a one-sided loop. In a traditional ring, a single revolution around the ring brings one back to the starting place. In a Möbius strip, however, a single revolution from a point leaves one on the opposite ‘side’ of the surface. Without changing sides, one has moved from outside to inside or inside to outside. A second revolution is required to return to the starting point. During these two revolutions, the entirety of the surface is encountered without crossing an edge.

More than the sea, I see a succession of buildings as I read. Somewhere in the middle I hear the call to prayer, which bounces around the buildings, arriving as a multiple voice.

The question of form invokes the question of natural and artificial. Does something being made, being placed into a form, changed from one form into a new form, necessitate that it is artificial?

Bring me my coronet of rotating gears.
Contrive me a throne from coiled spring.

The throne is not an artificial object made from the natural object of a tree. The throne is contrived from the already-contrived coiled spring. But the spring is presented here as a basic, natural object. This spring and this throne are for a queen who lives “in a clock by the sea.” If one were to live in a world that is a clock, a coiled spring would be a basic, raw material. Of course, we do not live in a clock-world. We live in a “real world,” a world made up of the natural — what the real world provides — and the artificial — what we make of the real world.

At what point does material move from natural to artificial? What amount of work or manipulation must be put in by a human to turn naturally occurring metal into an artificial object of a spring? Is the spring, which begins and continues to remain metal that is originated in nature and earth, artificial?

This spring and clock-world exist in a story told by old men who “know their old story by heart.” The words of this story are stored in the heart. Others are stored in the mind:

Memory occurs before the event
Etches its weight as nothing in the mind.

Words become physically realized objects as:

Graven letters distended by time
The granite mother emerges as moth
A century past.

As I begin reading, a narrow band of sunlight runs across the center of the balcony stretching across my thighs. As I read, my pants become hot, and I sweat a little. I rub the sweat from my brow to keep the beads from falling onto the page. Though I am hot, I drink hot tea to quench my thirst.

In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Martin Heidegger examines the line that divides “creating” and “making”:

We think of creation as a bringing forth. But the making of equipment, too, is a bringing forth … But what is it that distinguishes bringing forth as creation from bringing forth in the mode of making? … [W]e find the same procedure in the activity of potter and sculptor, of joiner and painter.

Heidegger then visits the point that the Greeks “use the same word techne for craft and art and call the craftsman and the artist by the same name: technites.” This argument based on linguistics holds a basic fallacy:

… for techne signifies neither craft nor art, and not at all the technical in our present-day sense; it never means a kind of practical performance. The word techne denotes rather a mode of knowing. To know means to have seen, in the widest sense of seeing.

To bring forth, to make, and to create is to know, and to know is to see. And to see is to see a thing of this world. The ultimate question becomes what it is to see the self:

There is this matter behind my face. I
Cannot find a shape to describe it.
If I open my mouth will you look inside?

What shape is the I? The exterior of the body apparently does not suffice to answer this question. The exterior body is the form of the box, but what the object is is also what is inside.

The second book begins:

I twist myself, binding my beginning to my end, thus making of I an O.

The second book is concerned with asking the question what shape has the I of Beachy-Quick and Reddy become after the act of creating? For Charles Olson, form, creation, and the self are all part of a singular process:

Form is not life. Form is creation. It changes the condition
of men. It does not disturb nature. Nature, like god,
is not so interesting. Man
is interesting. (Olson, Collected, 355)

This process not only occurs of itself, it occurs irrespective of nature. The metal spring is still metal, nature has remained preserved. What changes is the queen, who now sits on a throne made of a spring. What changes is the essence of Beachy-Quick and Reddy, who begin as an ‘I’ and end as an ‘O.’ It is their condition that has changed in the process of writing these poems. And it is the condition of the reader that changes as the poems are read.

Would it be so radical to claim that the sculpture or the painting is an object of the world? These objects are fetishized, often selling for millions of dollars. People travel around the world to look at these objects, and in some cases to possess or touch them. The object-ness of the visual arts is firmly entrenched in the art-ness. They remain inseparable, even in this age of mechanical reproduction.

The poem does not carry this same object-ness. The poem, rather, has historically assumed itself a more eternal, infinite existence:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

The lines of the poem give the possibility of eternity to the subject through the poem’s own eternal existence. Is this a reference to the ability to reproduce the words systematically in a way that only recently could be done for visual art? Permanence can be found in the non–object-ness of the poem, which like Shakespeare can transcend time and avoid the inevitable erosion of time, as happens to the statue in Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

But the eternal and infinite of Möbius Crowns differs from the eternal and the infinite of Shakespeare and Shelley. Words are objects, not metaphysical, ephemeral entities. A word must exist in a physical realm, as an etching on stone, ink on paper, sound waves in the air, or neural synapses in the brain. Mother etched into the tombstone over time gets worn down to moth. Words that are read are made into physical entities that abide by the laws of physics. Words do not exist perpetually in an unchanging bubble that avoids the effects of time. Books must be reprinted as the old volumes age, crumble, and turn to dust. Printing and spelling conventions change, requiring updated, edited editions. The living language develops, leaving some words behind and creating new words. A work, even in its ability to pass through time, is also affected by time.

But there is an infinite at work in Möbius Crowns. Each page offers a sonnet. The succession of sonnets continues into the center of the book, where there is a juncture. The two sonnets at the center are upside down from one another, each appended with:

The mark of infinity. Infinity does not necessarily encompass everything; it is not boundlessness or eternity. It can be limitlessness within a system. The book Möbius Crowns is infinite within its own boundaries, endless within its own form. The sonnets are not end-points. Each is a gentle curving back into the book from a different angle. From one center, a return to the front of the book and a delving in from the other side. Two loops through the book are required to return to reach an end, to return to the beginning. Turning from one beginning to the second beginning, there is a sense of déjà vu. In the first sonnet from one entrance there is:

The earth a body the monster turned
Inside out.

The first sonnet from the other entrance contains:

Any house will turn itself inside out
In good time.

These echoes continue throughout the loop back in towards the center from a new angle. Each sonnet is both an arrival and a departure. We recognize bare outlines, remember vague images, but:

There is no arrival, only return to a location we forgot we’d been in before, as the sun marks the solstice, as the sun marks the equinox; we look up at it and see it by its own light: an outline the crown of its own heat blurs.

I read this last aphorism and close the second chapbook. I look up and notice that the sun has moved from above my left shoulder to behind my right shoulder. The balcony is now enveloped in shade, and the breeze cools me. I do not need to shade my eyes from the sun, but I find myself using the book to do this, as if putting it against my brow will allow me to see something further off in the distance that I couldn’t see before. I see so many more buildings out there.

 


Works Cited:

Butternick, George F., ed. The Collected Poems of Charles Olson: Excluding the Maximus Poems. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

What lyric itself thinks

A review of 'Canto'

Canto

Canto

by Dan Beachy-Quick and Srikanth Reddy

The Offending Adam 2010, 18 pages, $12, ISBN chapbook

              … Infinitely far away,
Where you or someone wrote the first word,

Wait for someone or something to wander by
And push down on it. Then the tower
Will topple, then the field where the band plays

Will lift upward, the music will stop, but the river
Rushing back to its source will be a new music,
No melody but wildness, no finalé but forever.
(Canto 3, lines 32–39)

His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past … The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[1]

1.

From Benjamin forward, there is a decided strain in aesthetics that finds the wrecks of history to be the proper object and responsibility of the artist. In this current of thought, it is the artwork that recognizes and maintains the cut in time drawn by historical trauma; the artist, belated to her own occasion and in the manner of Benjamin’s angel, backs into her own future while looking backward to the living past of trauma. And either the form or the content, or both, of the artwork must commemorate this backward orientation (so the thinking goes) or admit of its own decadent self-involvement. “There is no document of civilization,” Benjamin notes, “which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another” (256).

The vision of the human in Canto, Dan Beachy-Quick and Srikanth Reddy’s latest collaborative effort, might seem to echo Benjamin’s own vision of Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” as in Canto 13:

                 … I have seen
A human head: a circle with two circles gleaming
And a dark circle below. Look inside, pilgrim.
Write down in musical notation the screaming (lines 27–30)

And to admit, as Canto does through its title as well as in its form (fourteen verses of varying length in a modified terza rima) and in its persistent imagery, of a decided interest in lyric, is in the twenty-first century an invitation to the epithet of barbarity.

As it is, though, the barbarity of lyric after trauma (to which critics have responded by charging lyric in particular with remembrance, with the sudden precipitation of historical condition) is itself predicated upon a presumed isolation, doubly-articulated, at the scene of lyric: first, an isolation of the poet herself, after J. S. Mill’s notion of the lyricist as she who, imprisoned and oppressed, is overheard by the auditor (herself also imprisoned) sighing and singing consolation to herself in the next cell over; and second, an isolation of the lyric poem itself, as Celan in his “Meridian” speech shifts the isolation from the lyric poet to her poem, and casts the two adrift:

The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author stays with it.

Does this very fact not place the poem already here, at its inception, in the encounter, in the mystery of encounter?[2]

While Mill relegates to separate cells the lyric speaker and her auditor, and Celan imagines her song frozen in the moment of its drift through the transom overhead, theories of lyric sound, too, have imagined something of a backward-looking (or -listening) angel. Susan Stewart, for example, suggests in her “Letter on Sound” that “…unless we are listening to a spontaneous composition of lyric, we are always recalling sound with only some regard to an originating auditory experience.”[3]

But Beachy-Quick and Reddy’s Canto offers a decided challenge here — to those who condemn lyric outright, to those who charge the lyricist with an always-backward gaze in an obligatory mourning, and also to the sort of lyric temporality that Stewart theorizes in her “Letter on Sound.” Canto is certainly studded with the ruins of its moment (whether that of infinite war or of financial disaster):

I woke up and let the war sleep in my bed
Dreaming of garlands and a bride
Displaying her diamond garishly mounted

On a grenade’s ring. The hole in her face lied:
It was no mouth, it was no eye … (Canto 3, lines 1–5)

At the halfway marker along our life’s path,
I found myself lost. It was a dark would,
Green selvage dripping from last night’s bath

Of fog, steam rising from a jogger’s hood
As she passes, no guide in sight, only a forest
Of For Sale signs sprouting up in the neighborhood

We will be leaving soon … (Canto 13, lines 1–7)


Srikanth Reddy and Dan Beachy-Quick

But, at the same time, the sequence erodes the foundation upon which many lyric fictions rest. In so doing, Beachy-Quick and Reddy’s work, in Canto and elsewhere, offers a reinvigoration of lyric — a testing of its values and our expectations, by two of its most careful and ardent practitioners.

2.

As a distillate of “culture,” lyric like any other artifact bears the stain of Benjamin’s barbarism, the thumbprint of the historical victor. And if we continue to assume lyric to be self-involved and belated to its own era, we’re confirmed in our condemnations. But if we consider how lyric sounds — or, more radically, what lyric itself thinks — we can achieve a lyric that at its limit-cases may turn against the very barbarisms that have made it possible. As the charge to the “pilgrim,” above, concludes:

           … Look inside, pilgrim.
Write down in musical notation the screaming,

The sighs, and the laughter. Set it to three-four time,
A waltz for the living, all grace notes, no coda,
Scored for orchestra, fire engine, and mime. (Canto 13, lines 29–33)

Stewart would note that lyric is always recalled sound, and further that, “[b]ecause lyric maintains the convention of the individual speaking voice” — wherein spoken rhythm, even in rigid metrical forms, always trumps the metronome — “[lyric] will not, in the Western tradition, be synonymous with music” (34). In writing Canto, however, Beachy-Quick and Reddy have constructed a useful ambiguity wherein the “dark circle” from which shrieks an angelic horror is also and at once the warm mouth of voiceless human pleasure.

The score imagined in the above lines waltzes forever forward, motivated by the ghost of the fourth beat that haunts every such dance’s time signature. “All grace notes” — themselves free from the very metrical structure they normally ornament; “no coda” — no restatement of “theme” carried throughout, lodged in a memory and repeated at the end. And played upon ensemble, errand, and gesture. In the ambiguity of its at once angelic and human mouth blending its shrieks and sighs, in its regard for ensemble as instrument, and in its mobilization of the balletic or gestural as vehicle of lyric meaning, I’d suggest that Canto imagines itself as that which is written by “pilgrim” in “musical notation,” as its own fourteen verses enact the collaborative, the epistolary.

With only the entire sequence subject to attribution, and then attributed equally to both men, the authorial uncertainty of any given line or stanza or verse emphasizes the persistent lyric appetite that metabolizes author for speaker, person for persona. But while the speaker or persona — nearly always singular in Canto, and when plural, often suggesting a domestic couple rather than a team of writers — in any single instance of the sequence are, of course, markedly different from Beachy-Quick or Reddy themselves, the creation in their poem is no more different from them than is the one in any other lyric utterance issuing from any other poet. In this, Canto’s song is lyric itself, sung of the moment of transformation between historically particular author and aoristic lyric speaker. And as a collaborative project, Canto mobilizes that transformation as an active force at the scene of its reception. Canto’s choral voice, sung in unison, focuses such lyric resource upon cultural transmission — an inoculation, perhaps, against the enabling barbarity beneath such exchange.

With a composite speaker as a sort of open secret underpinning the sequence, emphasis in Canto falls instead upon questions of construction. In their chosen verse-form for this effort — terza rima, but modified through careful use of slant-rhyme — Beachy-Quick and Reddy turn a lyric form based in recollection instead towards an anticipatory uncertainty, in which the return isn’t a memorializing but rather a play upon the given. (Here we might remember Louis Zukofsky’s aside in his “‘Mantis’: An Interpretation”: “Is the poem then, a sestina / Or not a sestina?”)

In their constructions, Beachy-Quick and Reddy give us an organic, unfolding architecture-in-process, one that is perhaps nostalgic — I recall that in the middle of their sonnet-sequence Möbius Crowns, the two men underwent a change of place, and found themselves no longer living in the same city, or even time zone, after years of local exchange — perhaps nostalgic, then, but not with the apparently requisite mourning of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century lyric.

It’s with a maker’s ear trained upon the future and its materials that we hear such as their Canto 7, wherein “duets” jostles against “votes” and “note”; where “home” leads to “the poem” and “his name”:

Response, call and, 49–51.
Members of a flock may emit a sound
In order to remain in touch with one

Another. Some birds engage in round-
Robin calls, while others sing duets
In unison, ie. the quail, shy ground-

Dwelling birds, casting their votes
In song from the long grass’s half-shade,
Half sun. They sing as one the same note

But lay eggs in nests they haven’t made—
Their song may be considered their home.
Cut out of the text with a razor blade,

Figure seven’s gone missing from the poem.
Was it a sonogram of the adult male’s vibrator?
A photo of the author signing his name

In his book for a stranger? … (Canto 7, lines 1–16)

A reader’s reading becomes the plural song of songbirds singing becomes the desperate phatic song of the scattered flock becomes the lyric cycle of here-and-there becomes the dissolution of number into unison becomes “their votes / In song.” Canto 7, then — the lead-up to the silence at the midpoint of this fourteen-canto sequence — might suggest that the one and only fact of “political” belonging (number) finds no purchase in the lyric moment.

As elsewhere in the sequence (Canto 3, for example: “I woke up and let the war sleep in my bed / Dreaming of garlands and a bride / Displaying her diamond garishly mounted // On a grenade’s ring. The hole in her face lied: / It was no mouth, it was no eye … [lines 1–5]), the “public” and the “private,” the “single” and the “plural” are found to intersect with and inflect one another, and precisely at the moment when the individual is called upon to submit to number and republic (even, in each case, of two).

3.

And, finally, Canto, part of The Offending Adam’s Chapvelope One, is not a one, a two, or even a three or a four. Beachy-Quick and Reddy’s sequence, in its own beautifully austere sunflower-yellow saddle-stapled 8.5-by-5.5-inch format (no image on the cover; just a gorgeously oversized printing of title and authors’ names), comes accompanied by a postcard and a microbroadside. The postcard itself is multiple, with visual work by Shawn Stucky and a poem by Jennifer Sweeney. And the microbroadside, containing prose by Melissa Kwasny, is letterpressed in a brown on a fine heavy cream stock; as all such items are an implicit collaboration between the writer and the (here unnamed) printer. So we have a group of three, which is a group of five, but actually a group of six … themselves (as the large round sticker sealing the chapvelope proclaims) all a group of one.

The editors of The Offending Adam have written of their Chapvelope series that their “interests were to create an object for book fetishists, something unique and special, something that can only exists as a print project and can only exist in this specific form.” And while this certainly strikes a chord among all conscientious printers (myself included), the nature of the project itself, at all levels, requires its readers and handlers to consider precisely these sorts of questions — those of number and kind, of how material and exchange dissolve into acts of each other, even as they become more particular and defined. I certainly find that the Chapvelope with Beachy-Quick and Reddy’s Canto speaks to my own interests in the nature of lyric, and how lyric might at once be caught up in as well as fugitive from the networks of exchange, capital, republic, and the like, and I imagine (I can only imagine …) the process of that text’s construction as somehow analogous to the state of the Chapvelope in my office this evening: one piece facing me from atop the bookshelf, another propped up on the door-frame, yet a third (the envelope itself) scrawled with notes, and Canto itself splayed open at my elbow. Where is it? (Where is lyric? I then turn to ask. Could these be the same sorts of questions?) Fragile, insurgent, invasive, and scattered; as the editors at The Offending Adam have noted that they hope to “foster an intimacy of reading, a closeness or [an] ability to draw close to the text,” Canto and its fellow travelers inaugurate a publishing venture that will require close attention in the future to come.

 


1. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 258.

2. Paul Celan, “The Meridian,” in Collected Prose, trans. Rosemarie Waldrop (New York: Routledge, 2003), 49.

3. Susan Stewart, “Letter on Sound,” in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: Oxford University Press), 29. Emphasis in the original.

The light contingent on darkness

A review of 'Black Life'

Black Life

Black Life

by Dorothea Lasky

Wave Books 2010, 72 pages, $14, ISBN 9781933517438

Barbara Guest says in Forces of Imagination that “it is the obscure essence that lies within a poem that is not necessary to put into language,” that this essence leaves a “little echo to haunt the poem.” In Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life, the essence is derived from, but not contained in, a directness of language, which while hinting at a sort of arrested emotion, and sounding naïve at times, thinks through concretes and situations. Her echoes reside in conceptual omissions.

If the essence is not in what she says, Lasky’s poignancy is the result of subtle insights, both endearing and intuitive, suggested by what language leaves out. Abstract language is a fantasy of imagination. Candor, however, is the exposed tip of a much deeper truth. In Lasky’s straightforwardness, we are haunted by her innocent remarks and self-dismissal.

If I am anything, I am the fluttering of so many things into one thing
That I am not powerful
At least not as myself (4)

“As herself,” her voice is the acumen of a single experience. By conjuring the ordinary, Lasky produces a specific awareness of universals. The idea of a black life is a type of permutation, a life in which light is contingent on darkness. “The fluttering of so many things into one,” thereby, suggests that the unknowns constitute the whole. This passage serves as a quiet lesson: we will never know the things that make us, but that these housed mysteries are our fortitude.

Lasky makes her own adages, and the effect is resonant:

There is a lot to be sad about
But no point in feeling that sadness
In a world that has no capacity
To take your sadness from you in a kind way (12)

This quaint advice expresses a limit of the physical dimension. The world can only do with our sadness exercises in abuse. There is “no point in feeling that sadness” because suffering does not end the cause of suffering. We must surrender to the idea that a distant and indiscernible presence dictates our affairs. Throughout the book, a sense of this acquiescence to the inevitable persists, expressed here through a series of reversals and self-reflexive clarity.  From “Even Dirty Birds”:

Well who could blame you, I can’t stop you
From loving a ghost of yourself that was willing to speak
Of living things that you so readily had forgotten when you yourself so was
So living so living so that you forgot how to breathe and you died
I will not let you die, no
So there are ghosts that are not me but that I am a reflection of
In that I am living, water, and air, part lime in that I am woman
But I am not a woman so much so that I am air (29)

The first few lines of this passage call on our inability to retain any of life’s daily holinesses, which we so desperately seek to do. “So living so that you forgot how to breathe” explains our attachment to our mortality, our devotion to life at the expense of actually living.

The living and the ghosts metamorphose into one another, wearing each other’s changing masks like the skin of a reptile. The line “there are ghosts that are not me but that I am a reflection of” tells that our lives are evidence of a fundamental transience. Ghosts reflect the speaker’s livingness, reminding us that death mirrors being in that being exchanges endorsements with death.

The topic of death is prevalent in the collection, both through explicitly expressed fear — “It is a black life, but I don’t want to die” — and subtler bouts of wisdom — “You only go towards death / Like it is a very small detail.” If the only way to slip out of the shackles of a fear of death is to conceive of it as an insignificant feature of life, then one could infer that the black life, though difficult and rushing headlong toward death, actually negates fear, breaking the cycle of a fear of fear. Life contains darkness to begin with. 

In “Very Vivid and Horrible Dreams,” Laksy writes:

I woke up and knew all the dead people
That had haunted my life from birth until that period
I knew the men in boardrooms that had been fighting a different kind of war
Only one day die as frail as they came
Only one day to die! I left this life and went into the next
Where I was myself, but a skinny self
A better self (41–41)

The “dead people” that haunt our lives are those shadows of our own being, ghosts, in their forebodingness and legend, which we see and compare our present selves to. In the lines “I left this life and went into the next / Where I was myself, but a skinny self” we find the futility of life is not so sincerely expressed as our investment for a better self in the afterlife. Therein, the promise that death means we are still conscious beings capable of pleasures. Perhaps, only in death are we capable of pleasure.

Lasky’s entire book is made up of small details, which assume a nonchalance of all foreseeable disasters that comprise life. In “Some Sort of Truth,” she writes of her father:

I stood in the white light of the nursing home bathroom
With the sun spilling everywhere on me
And tried to talk to him, but never, he’d never listen
People don’t always listen to you when they are dead
But that’s not sad
I get tired (16)

Here is the rub: we are only ever capable of communing with the living once they are distanced from us, but unable to without this reserve.

She explains humans fall apart; they grow tired, get sad, and fall in and out of love. Together the shades of these events effect the color black. And that isn’t sad. Sun spills into darkness because events are unevenly juxtaposed. Such is this collection. Much of the book is also about love, expressed in equally unabashed candor as death. Lest we forget that love too is an inevitable part of being.

The frankness and affection with which Lasky expresses love (“I was in love once and all I could think of was joy / Not drinking, nor sex, or spaghetti”) do not attempt to quantify or make comparisons, but innovate a new definition by which to measure our own vision. Instead of being sentimental, her words are candid, and earn our trust as an invested reader.

“Black Life” encloses Lasky’s devotions by combining the clarity of distance with the precision of insight. We find through her straight talk and exposed inhibitions that she explores the textures and forms of being:

I am so glad I was brave enough
To leave the place in me that was not wild
To go into the cave of life that is not dead (76)

Here, Lasky demonstrates not just the nerve, but the compulsion to relinquish the predictable in favor of the wild, and that the difficult is where true being lies. Choosing “the cave of life that is not dead” is to apprehend the verve, the unstill, and to see being as unboring. In our quotidian routines we easily forget how to do this.

Throughout the book she demonstrates a duality of being self-conscious and fearless; Lasky leads us into a world broken by death and shattered open with light.

Explorers, anthropologists, and historians

A review of 'from unincorporated territory [saina]'

from unincorporated territory [saina]

from unincorporated territory [saina]

by Craig Santos Perez

Omnidawn 2010, 136 pages, $15.95, ISBN 9781890650469

I was a history major at the University of Georgia, no doubt the worst history major not only in Athens but the greater Southeast. It’s not that I dislike history, you understand, it’s that I cannot interpret history.

In from unincorporated territory [saina], Craig Santos Perez sent me back to the period at which I realized I couldn’t be a historian, to the point where the facts evolved beyond themselves and became ambiguous notations. This isn’t a negative reflection on the book; quite the contrary. It’s a reflection on what drew me into the book in the first place: an exploration of the culture, identity, and language of the Chamorro. Santos Perez leads us all to be explorers, anthropologists, and historians. If anything, I feel vindicated.

This is Santos Perez’s second book, and while I admit I have not read the first part of the Unincorporated Territory saga, it’s not impossible to pick up with Grandma Santos’s story here. She’s a grandmother like many others — like one of mine, even — concerned with reassuring the future that their particular group will find a way through the future, in this case via a sakman, which as far as I can gather is a long-range canoe. The stories and comments attributed to her throughout the course of the books, beautifully pieced together and splayed out via line breaks and white spaces, give us the sense of a language and identity in the middle of a fearful transition:

a map dividing the land covers
my mouth and ears at night
I don’t know if I can say our language
will survive here

yet I’ve never known another place

Maps are lines. I know that sounds self-explanatory, but how many cultures can we name at this point in the twenty-first century that are separated by arbitrary lines that reflect no reality but their own? Voice is the strongest weapon.

But what happens as language changes and the culture begins to be “reinvented by each new gaze?” This is the crux of [saina] and I believe the entry point at understanding the world Santos Perez is expressing, which for a great many of us is generally beyond comprehension. The thing is, these lines that have been previously drawn are all eventually erased, and to an extent, [saina] comes to terms with that realization. Language, culture, and identity are always on the verge of reinvention: it’s just a question of what impetus will lead to the change.

The poems of [saina] are generally anchored in moments like this one at the bottom of page 37:

‘guahan is being briefed by federal officials from us department of homeland
security on new guam-cnmi via waiver program will allow visitors from hong
kong but not from china or russia primarily concerned illegal immigrants or asy-
lum-seekers will enter us along with security issues of military buildup govern-
ment of guam banking on visa waivers for china and russia to drive declining
tourism arrivals.

These moments feel like hinges from which the more personally focused parts of the book are free to swing. What I feel is interesting here is that I have no idea whether this comes from a document or whether Santos Perez is simply writing about something that he knows is going on. It probably doesn’t really matter, as culture is entirely perception, and as the poet says in his acknowledgements, the misinterpretations of history and culture are entirely his own. But that’s sort of the beauty: the determination of right and wrong is immaterial in the poem, which allows the poet to work progressively without being worried about such binary issues. And in [saina], Perez can do that: he can work through any issues he chooses because if the book were an essay, it would be open to criticism based on what’s right or wrong, whereas here, we’re concerned with the poetics.

Much like language itself, [saina] doesn’t settle anywhere on a particular form for that poetics. Throughout the book, prose is mixed with thoughtfully delineated sections, as well as places where the visual décor takes on a falling and sometimes splattered appearance. This too pushes the points of the poems: in order for all these known things to shift, so to must the manner in which we speak of them. If culture is going to adapt and move in new directions and if old identities are to be subsumed and new ones created, then so must the way we think of the poetic line. The way Santos Perez mixes forms is rather indicative of what we’re talking about: we’re taking the old and the new and creating a new identity and culture through language.

A question I like to ask myself in my own work is, “What are the white spaces doing?” Asking of this of [saina], I find myself noticing the breath, the gaps, creating beats in which the previous idea has a moment to settle. I used to feel such things were arbitrary (and thus avoided white space myself), but I see how they work here: the beats and moments of [saina] are the sinking in of renewal. The white spaces are a vehicle for language as it regenerates into more identifiable cultural forms. At one point (page 103), words are even broken up so that “but” becomes “b       ut,” though I imagine it as “buuuuuuut,” drawn out and hesitant.  “We had to be quiet,” the piece continues, spaced out and riffing on the tension of ever having to be quiet when that’s not your choice.

In the pages of [saina] Santos Perez has created a new culture, a new identity through his use of language. Rather than attempting to preserve, the ultimate goal of the book is to embrace reinvention. While I’m still not a historian and hope I never am, it’s OK, because we cannot dwell on history. History being a nightmare and all that, it’s important to remember to move forward. New cultures and identities are to follow, each with their own perspective and attention to language.

The poem as a type of activism

A review of 'War Rug'

War Rug

War Rug

by Francesco Levato

Plastique 2009, 77 pages, $5, ISBN Enhanced PDF

Politically charged investigation raises the stakes of poetry for both the poet (as producer) and the poem (as art object). This type of poetry not only invokes the bardic practice of speaking the wisdom of the group, but also uses the poem as a type of activism. When critics question the role of poetry in the real world or what it can accomplish outside of its own existence, activist poetics that enters conversation with contemporary political happenings offers one of the better answers. This activist poetry can reveal knowledge about real happenings through the conceptual relationship between the real and the world of art.

When it comes to the American wars perpetrated in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, several poets have offered works that interrogate the morality of the wars themselves and the agents of war (i.e., American soldiers, civilians, insurgents, etc.), respond to the patriotic climate of the age with counterpatriotic acts of civil disobedience and consciousness raising, and critique the political environment in the United States of the 2000s. These documentary, investigative, and political efforts are not new, calling to mind a lineage of long-form poems and poets that respond to oppression and outrage, including Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust and Testimony, James Agee and Walker Evans’s collaboration Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Ed Dorn’s Abhorrences, to name just a few.

In the decade just past, the following poets have taken up this lineage of investigation and activism: Brian Kim Stefans organizes a group of poets during the buildup leading to the Iraq War in his blog-based digital poem Circulars; Kent Johnson employs the power of the poetic image to shock and indict those complicit in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal in Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War; Kristin Prevallet’s Shadow Evidence Intelligence critiques the simultaneous escalation and failure of intelligence in post-Patriot Act America during the US push for oil-based empire; Juliana Spahr meditates on the global relation of bodies and minds in This Connection of Everyone With Lungs; Gabriel Gudding’s consciousness gets taken over by the wars and political climate as they invade his road-based epic Rhode Island Notebook; Eliot Weinberger uses a collage in the style of hearsay to critique the misinformation used to invade Iraq in “What I Hear About Iraq” from What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles.

And now we can add Francesco Levato’s War Rug to the pantheon of investigative and documentary poetry authored in response to the continuing wars. Levato’s War Rug offers a prime example of what Marjorie Perloff, in her essay “Screening the Page / Paging the Screen: Digital Poetics and the Differential Text,” defines as differential: “texts that exist in different material forms, with no single version being the definitive one.” I locate Levato’s book-length investigative poem sequence as occurring, in full or in part, in five locations, each site with its own distinct temporal and material concerns that affect how the poem is consumed by readers, interactors, or viewers. War Rug is at once a book-length investigative epoem, a work of contingent or relational poetics via the use of purposeful hyperlinks in the eBook’s “Author’s Notebook,” a gateway for continued investigations on the Internet via the works cited, a documentary work of cinépoetry, and an interstitial, conceptual artifact via Levato’s use of the afterimage as a motif to transcend the eBook’s own differential materiality. War Rug, echoing the Afghan art form from which the title is taken, is apt, as the discrete locations of Levato’s work are woven together, presenting a multimodal poetic device that can serve as a litmus test for how these contemporary American wars embed themselves in the public consciousness or slide away into broken links and lost domains.

To begin with, War Rug is a long poem delivered as a PDF ebook. I first experienced it as such, reading through it as I would any other book, although the “About This e-Book” page explains several possible ways of interacting with the book, acting as a means to guide the reader or interactor. As a book of poems, Levato’s long-poem sequence is divided into several recurring forms that reveal interwoven narratives based on an array of source texts, including “journal entries, firsthand accounts, and news reports to poetic constructs collaged from military doctrine, Freedom of Information Act released government documents (like CIA interrogation manuals, and detainee autopsy reports), and numerous other sources” (vii).

The first page of War Rug reveals important tactics Levato uses to create the poem. His poem includes portions that have compelling lyrical sound work that contrast starkly with the horror inherent in the poem’s content and imagery:

Flash               a body reduced to beads of glass

fused in sand at the blast point’s edge

                         Filigree

the lace of an exposed cheek
over tooth and jaw;

                                                       impossibly white.

Pause               the space between light (1)

The assonant run of “a” sounds in the first two lines (flash-glass-sand-blast) creates a musicality in the poem that urges me forward and belies the awful reality of “a body reduced to beads of glass / fused in sand” after an explosion. The long “e” sounds of “Filigree” and “cheek” and the full rhyme of “white” and “light” also cause this dissonance between the beauty of the language and the gory images I project mentally while reading it. Just as Levato might measure the worth of these lines in light of his own culpability in the war effort, I also began to question whether I ought to take pleasure in reading these lines, forcing myself to be mindful of what they represent and what the ethical wager is for this investigative, activist poem.

In addition to putting me face-to-face with these moral and ethical implications of engagement, the first page also introduces the concept of the afterimage, which is the central conceit in War Rug: “Afterimage / a thickening of scar tissue, the absence / of expression, of an eardrum, / of an iris.” By definition, an afterimage is an optical illusion in which the image or its inverse remains after the eye has literally stopped seeing it, like closing your eyes after looking at a light source and still seeing the light. In creating a poem that is differential, simultaneously textual, hypertextual, and cinematic, Levato encourages interactors to reckon with this idea of the afterimage (also aftermath) as central not only to his textual poem but also to the intertextual boundaries the poem, in all its forms, implies.

This dissonance continues on the second page as Levato sets up a tactic that controls the tone of the poem. He appropriates definitions, a recurring device within the long-form documentary text, to pull back from the awful lyricism of the opening page:

[ Definitions

Enucleation: Complete surgical removal of the eyeball.

Evisceration: Surgical removal of the contents of the eyeball
with retention of the sclera or cornea and sclera.

Exenteration: Surgical removal of all the eyeball contents
which may include the removal of the eyelids.

Ocular Prosthesis: A plastic or glass fabricated eye
that replaces volume of the enucleated eye socket. ] (2)

These definitions, culled from another text, have a clinical sound that is different from the poetic sound work noted above. The lyrical portions of Levato’s poem are constantly balanced by found language, which gives the poem a restrained, journalistic tone. This is not to say that Levato’s stance in relation to the material is ambivalent, but that the documentary intertextuality, not the appeal of the poet’s “I,” does the ethical work of the poem by pulling me, as reader, into a zone of conflict or dissonance. This technique allows the poem to create a complexity that echoes the complexity of the war and its active and passive participants, rather than a moralizing rant against the status quo of the war.

On the third page, the poem begins to expand outward, offering interactors two prose segments, each with hyperlinks that lead to the annotated “Author’s Notebook” and then beyond it to the Internet. The first prose segment describes the relationship between a specific photograph and an Afghan war rug, both of which are afterimages, keeping with Levato’s conceit:

It begins with a photograph and a rug; that so much can be woven into
both, one in dyed wool, the other scar tissue against the undisturbed
surface of her hand. She is in white, he a dress uniform, three-quarter
view. The eye facing the camera is glass. (3)

Levato extracts images here in a fragmented-but-purposeful way. Several images are used, including photograph, rug, skin, military wedding, and glass eye, but the connection between the images and any narrative that might bind them together is cryptic, although the glass eye certainly refers back to the “body reduced to beads of glass” from the opening page of the poem. Levato withholds the full story tactically, entreating readers to mentally project their versions of these images and interactors to engage the links.

These links present the first crossroads of War Rug, revealing its differentiality, as I can now choose to navigate away from the long poem or to continue reading. Although the “About This eBook” page has already explained that each numbered link will take me to the “Author’s Notebook” and beyond, no instructions about a definitive reading of the eBook are offered. I chose to read the eBook straight through at first, finding myself comfortable in the mystery of images offered by the first three pages of the book.

During rereadings, however, I found out that in the “Author’s Notebook,” Levato explains that the prose poem quoted above refers to a series of photographs by Nina Berman called “Marine Wedding,” which features a soldier burned and maimed by a suicide bomber. Clicking the link takes me to Nina Berman’s website and a sequence of eighteen photographs featuring Sgt. Ty Ziegel and Renee Kline, his fiancée. Among the opening pages of the eBook, the “Author’s Notebook,” and the hyperlinks leading me to various websites, new meanings are created that complicate the idea of the afterimage (seeing when the eye has stopped seeing/reading) that undergirds Levato’s project.

Moving from poem to annotation to Berman’s website, the poem appears to realize, to become more real, more fixed, via the transition from poetic image to note to photograph. This movement, however, is an illusion, as I am transitioning between different modes of artistic representation, two ways of capturing the seldom-revealed aftermath of a real war, something that, despite Levato and Berman’s efforts, I can only begin to imagine.

The transition from Berman’s photographs back to the poem is ekphrastic. Levato, by not only textually documenting these images but also providing access, invites interactors to become witnesses, to share in authorship by reading it but also by peeling back the exposed edges of his documentary collage, giving the project a wider scope than if it were simply a textual poem.

At the same time, Levato shields interactors by way of the “Author’s Notebook,” which can function as a buffer between poem (images in imagination) and web-based image (fixed images). Levato does link to two graphic websites. One is Salon.com’s archive of photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison tortures of captured Iraqis. Page forty of War Rug alludes to another photograph — a face peeled off and tossed on the sand — that begins a list of horrible images. Levato quotes from a pornographic website called Nowthatsfuckedup.com (now archived on Unseenwar.com): “The bad thing about shooting them, reads one caption, “is that we have to clean it up” (40). In the “Author’s Notebook” Levato warns of “explicit content” after the link to the Nowthatsfuckedup.com archives, which includes extremely graphic photographs taken by soldiers of mutilated or killed Iraqis as well as crass comments. I have a difficult time describing these horrific images, especially juxtaposed with such disrespectful and cavalier captions.

These vivid and horrifying contingencies provide a counterpoint to Levato’s restrained tone in the textual poem created by the use of appropriated clinical and technical writing, which is the inverse of the photographs because of its dry description of how such destruction is enacted. The section titled “Notation” describes military protocol for informing next of kin about soldiers who are killed in action. Levato incorporates a long list of actual death scenarios from the wars on terror, and juxtaposed with technical instruction in how these messages are to be delivered (as well as other military documents about wound ballistics and other horrors written in the technical language of an instruction manual), the blending of registers devastates. (The documents can be accessed via both the “Author’s Notebook” and, if readers are interested in deeper investigation, through the “Works Cited” page.)

War Rug, as eBook and digital poem, juxtaposes pornographically violent images with the manuals explaining how the violence is carefully planned and perpetrated. This method pushes documentary poet and interactor beyond simply bearing witness to testimony about these wars, revealing the thin line between documenting work and voyeurism. Levato’s relentless investigations evoke Freud’s notion of the uncanny from his essay of the same name. In experiencing War Rug, I feel the interplay of heimlich (concealed/private) and unheimlich (unfamiliar and strange/frightening), and I get caught up in observing what is normally taboo or obscene. When I connect to the Unseenwar.com’s archive of Nowthatsfuckedup.com from the “Author’s Notebook” and spend time on the sight, I too become a voyeur, offered a glimpse of the gratuitous and horrible violence of these wars enacted on insurgents, civilians, and GIs alike, thousands of miles from my relatively safe vantage point. This violence, among other images like soldier’s caskets, is typically censored, controlled, kept from view, and silenced, but it lurks in its home on the fringes of the Internet. Through this interlocutor, what is normally censored is now “on/scene,” to use Linda Williams’s term. As War Rug extends further from long poem to digital poem to film, the differential texts beg a larger question about enculturation in the United States. Even though both graphic sexuality and graphic violence are rapidly becoming ubiquitous, mainly because the adult entertainment and war industries generate billions of dollars, why is gratuitous sexuality decried publicly more frequently than gratuitous violence?

Another text woven into the panoply of War Rug, Levato’s film War Rug, interrogates the question of enculturation, among others. Levato appropriates videos from different places, including old military training cartoons, on-board captures from Apache helicopters, 1950s Americana, and children watching a violent (but to their eyes hilarious) puppet show. The film layers image on top of image, using computer software that modifies sampled film clips to create transparency, showing us two images at once. The layered images are accompanied by an abridged version of the textual poem and a musical score by Richard Fammerée. As a mashup, the appropriated videos become recontextualized in such a way that they are put into dialogue by assemblage. Watching the film, I cannot help but recall the conceit of the afterimage, knowing that the glass eyes of two cameras captured videos that are being recombined to create something new and different. And yet, this afterimage also echoes the picture of Sergeant Ziegel, whose glass eye stares at the camera eye, even as the image is repurposed by Levato’s eye in his documentary poem.

Watching the film, I understand the reach of Levato’s work, especially in scenes like the puppet show, where young children in the 1950s (black and white) are watching one puppet beat on another. The children laugh. Violence is acceptable, permitted, humorous, and entertaining. Violence happens over there, away from me. Violence happens to an avatar, an idea, an image. The film gives a fixed image to accompany the enculturation of violence in the United States: the culture of violence is always up and running, to the point where it cannot be discerned whether it’s overt or covert. The film depicts Apache helicopter attack footage and bombs detonating buildings, both of which look like something from the newest Call of Duty video game. In the film and the game, shapes resembling humans are annihilated. It would be easy to say here that both are mimetic depictions of real or realistic events (but not really real). But neurologically speaking, these images are their own kind of reality, a representational layer of trauma.

The connection of eye to eye, of poem image to website image, of discrete film clips recombined into one, reveals how the afterimage extends to create an interconnected root structure in conceptual space. In her essay “New Media Poetics: As We May Think/How to Write,” Adelaide Morris notes, echoing Gertrude Stein, that “we are, each and every one of us, nimble citizens of an always newly technologized mediated world that hasn’t yet entered, much less altered, our categories of thought. The trick, for Stein, is not to be ahead of one’s time — ‘No one is ahead of his time,’ she says (521) — but in one’s time.”[1] Levato’s poem and film are certainly kairotic, as Morris values and Stein prescribes, but Levato’s War Rug presents the possibility of a future for itself as a conceptual afterimage of the current American wars. Eventually, I imagine the hyperlinks in War Rug becoming dead ends that no longer serve the purpose of linking the eBook to the array of images and documents from the web that help it expand outward, enriching it through this contingency. In fact, as I write this, the link to the casualty notification procedure for the US military has changed locations.


New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts and Theories (left) and one of its editors, Adelaide Morris

These dead ends can be an allegory for the conceptual eye of culture. Eventually these images and their locations, both in the poem and on the web, albeit having an illusion of permanence, will fade out of consciousness and memory, relinquishing their gravitas to time. In this way, I can imagine Levato’s War Rug as the ultimate afterimage: the poem as detritus after the eye of culture stops seeing, stops caring. It is this conceptual future — poem as mediated, differential afterimage, existing in different materialities and temporal forms — that makes War Rug an important new media poem with the potential to be both in its time and conceptually ahead of it.


1. Adelaide Morris, “New Media Poetics: As We May Think/How to Write,” New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories, ed. Adelaide Morris and Thomas Swiss (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 2.