On Becca Jensen's 'Among the Dead'
A fairly precise list of the things I ate during the two days I wrote this review of Becca Jensen’s Among the Dead: Ah! and Afterward Yes!
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
7:01 a.m. While I wait for the water to boil, I press my finger to a dirty plate and pick up a few crumbs of chocolate cake. They’re hard from sitting in the sink all night but still very rich. I feel a little sick almost immediately. The water boils. I take the dog out.
7:55 a.m. I find that poets tend to eat the same thing a lot — which is probably a species of the lyric impulse: a desire to propagate, preserve, and protect pleasure. Or trauma. Or, it’s a desire to make the two indistinguishable. Anyway, every morning I have the same thing for breakfast: Kashi, Greek yogurt, and blueberries. I only make eggs when I’m hungover or on special occasions.
10:05 a.m. I eat a small bowl of Snyders of Hanover Jalapeno Pretzel Pieces, even though I’m not really hungry. I used to eat these with my mom after school, and I still eat them religiously, especially when I have writer’s block — which, after two hours of focused writing, is beginning to creep in. (Note how writing follows the rhythms of sexuality: iterative rises toward climax followed by periods of detumescence. Tomorrow I will delete everything that I’ve written this morning — ashamed by the hysteric intensity of the writing, by my desire to re-write the whole history of the avant-garde in two pages.)
12:50 p.m. Lunch is the improvisatory meal: the space of play within the otherwise rigid strictures of the lyric impulse. I have scrambled eggs and an English muffin. And afterward, a few handfuls of caramel popcorn left over from my wedding. Barthes is right about writing but only because his famous aphorism is itself a tautology: tissues are a tissue of quotations.
3:50 p.m. I eat more jalapeno pieces and caramel popcorn as I re-read Becca Jensen’s Among the Dead: Ah! and Afterward Yes! (2012).It occurs to me that Jensen’s book also scrupulously documents a certain kind of consumption — of texts rather than foodstuffs. I consider making this a metaphor in my essay, but I realize that the metaphor is totally foreign to Jensen’s book. She talks about desire and subject formation in very interesting ways but she’s not really interested in eating.
Eating is, after all, a way of returning the body to itself. It brings the body and the world into alignment by assimilating the world to the body. When Jensen thinks about the body, she treats it as a form of dispossession and loss. The book is obsessed with drowning and exile. Jensen thinks these are the basic facts of embodiment. I read at first without comprehension, but with deep pleasure in the texture of her language. Then I realize that the book is designed to elicit this sense of mystification. Citations and commentary are introduced long before or after the passages they refer to, forcing the reader to travel backward and forward in the book, with the aimless consumption of a flaneur, an exile in aesthetics.
6:45 p.m. I experiment with making toasted pasta for dinner. The results are disappointing.
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
7:55 a.m. Kashi and yogurt again. While I’m walking the dog, I think about this urge to repeat. I decide it’s a way of regularizing temporality: imposing a small but potent uniformity on a vast play of differences. Then I think about the avant-garde. Its tragedy, in my opinion, is its determination to be different (or difference): to separate itself decisively from what came before. An Oedipal ambition, which ends in the violent suppression of the past. I’m thinking for instance, of conceptualism and its relationship to romanticism. Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing (2011) and Craig Dworkin’s introduction to The Ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2003) both begin by dismissing romanticism out of hand as the negative, reactionary force that conceptualism rescues us from; e.g. Goldsmith:
Because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of genius — a romantic isolated figure — is outdated […] today’s writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.
Who are we even talking about here? Hölderlin in his tower? Wordsworth on the Alps? (Even The Prelude, perhaps the most expressive poem ever written, is itself an appropriative rewriting of Paradise Lost.) Never mind that this dismissal has no purchase on romanticism as it was actually practiced. Never mind that conceptualism is itself a romantic movement, depending on the romantics’ discovery of a textualized material world that can be fragmented and appropriated by art. These are ritual disavowals; they are marked by a ritual mystification of the past. Why engage in this polemical (and sometimes brutal) self-repression? What happens when the repressed returns? With some regrets, I make eating the central metaphor of my essay anyway.
I like Among the Dead: Ah! and Afterward Yes! so much because it imagines and practices a kind of avant-garde writing which does not engage in such historical partitioning. It draws the whole of literary history into itself in a series of quotations which stretch from Odysseus to Ulysses. Though it flirts with genres like the verse play and the lyric essay, it’s really a commonplace book: a compilation of Jensen’s historically omnivorous reading, a place where multiple pasts combine according to an idiosyncratic chemistry.
9:45 a.m. More Jalapeno pieces. I wonder, as I eat them, whether I actually like them — honestly, they’re pretty gross — or whether I eat them in order to maintain a pocket of the past in the present. Probably the latter: desire is a form of nostalgia. The present, in which we desire, is almost entirely occupied by the past. (We might say that the present is a medium for the past.) Again, my thoughts turn to the avant-garde. We are always being told to “make it new” and “make it now.” But the now is populated by the past and propagates it. The question will be: how to write from the newness of the past and the pastness of the new. Without being an asshole — that is, without being motivated by a patriarchal longing for a lost unity of the poetic tradition.
We could try to think of the past as an unfinished reservoir of collaborative possibility, a source of innovation rather than its enemy. In a recent interview, Jensen notes: “After a while, most of my interactions were with dead people, or people who were such strangers that they might as well be dead. Basically, I only began to write as a way to manufacture conversations with some dead strangers.” She’s talking about her reading, but she may as well be talking about her book. While it features five distinct characters, each of these characters is less an autonomous subjectivity and more a channel for quotations. The book works, then, to erase temporal difference, to delete the distinction between citation and original writing. As Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum writes in her introduction to the book, “This atmosphere of allusion produces the feeling of reading great books: of being inside an enormous bell … unable to tell where one’s own voice ends and the reverberations begin.” Or as Foucault says, “I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face.”
12:00 p.m. Eggs and an English muffin again, this time in a sandwich (see what I mean about improvisation). Death of the author, death of the text, death of the reader, salt to taste.
1:30 p.m. With all this death stalking through the avant-garde, one might say that we are ‘among the dead,’ in Eliot’s felicitous phrase. Eliot, of course, intends to maintain a fairly strict distinction between the living and the dead:
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.
The living judge and the dead are judged. Jensen reverses this relation; the second half of her title, “Ah! and Afterward Yes!” is borrowed from a scene in Bleak House:
The gentleman put up his eye-glasses to look at me, and said, ‘Come here, my dear!’ He shook hands with me, and asked me to take off my bonnet — looking at me all the while. When I had complied, he said, ‘Ah!,’ and afterwards, ‘Yes!’
Here the dead judge the living — and find them pleasing. Eliot correlates the dead with the past; for Jensen, the present is dead and the living are the past. I am eating more popcorn and feeling very slothful.
6:00 p.m. I make falafel and hummus from scratch. The hummus is surprisingly good, but the falafel balls disintegrate as soon as they hit the oil. I use a strainer to collect the crumbs and we shovel them into our sandwiches like ground beef. It’s surprisingly good. Maybe it would be better to think that Jensen introduces a hesitation: we can no longer know who is living and who is dead, who comes before and who comes after, what is closed and finished, and what can be reshaped collaboratively. Jensen again:
But that was once but once, so what is now still now? Perhaps the sky? Sky being the infinite bound by limitations, i.e. My dear, my darling, spend your limited eternity with me. But this turn into sky happens ‘always still and always always,’ a quadruple positive, which equals a negative. Therefore, mathematically speaking, we are in the past (21).
No doubt I am not the only one who writes in order to speak with the dead.
1. Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 1. See also Craig Dworkin, introduction to The Ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, 2003.
2. Camille Thigpen, “Featured Fig: Becca Jensen,” Les Figues Press, last modified September 3, 2013.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha's 'Bodymap'
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s new book of poetry, Bodymap, insists we understand technology as “the practical application of knowledge.” This makes it possible for us to view survival as a set of skills and aesthetics, not as an end. Bodymap is a performance and a text, a love song to and an archive of working-class femme-of-color disabled experiences. Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha uses her hybrid poetic form and structure to center assistance and interdependency as a site of politicized cultural knowledge production, equipping oppressed individuals and communities with a multiplicity of generative “methods.” These methods are “the psychic and communal practices that arise at the margins of a marginalized community,” which exist simultaneously outside of, and within, oppressive systems. These individual and communal survival technologies are what produce oppositional consciousness, praxis, and aesthetics.
In order to politicize these communities and their affective labors, Borderlands Performance Studies scholar Chela Sandoval unites these skills under a framework she calls “methodology of the oppressed.” At its core, this social circuit of survival technologies is the practice and performance of knowing the conditions of the present. These differential forms of “oppositional consciousness” are the various areas of expertise, skill sets, patterns, and knowledge productions that occur under the conditions and positions of a marginalized existence. Using this framework, artistic forms and aesthetics emerging from the borders of the oppressive hierarchies of power and control become, “an effective means of individual and collective liberation.” In their book, Performing the US Latina and Latino Borderlands, Sandoval, Arturo J. Aldama, and Peter García identify these methodologies as “decolonizing performatics/antics.” Designating performance as the practice of decolonial intervention provides the groundwork for establishing an affective affinity across experiences, embodiments, and theoretical disciplines. Therefore, the various processes of resituating form and meaning by “reversing, releasing, and altering an established coloniality of power” become “the components of an aesthetics of liberation.” By reclaiming “prophetic love,” or “oppositional social action as a mode of ‘love’ in the postmodern world,” Sandoval politicizes the differential affect linking folks who are impacted by the consequences of oppression. This linkage encourages us to think critically about the powers of cultural production through a decolonizing lens.
With differential affective survival methodologies at the heart of this movement, performance becomes an effective site of resistance. Part of this resistance is performing the struggles and strategies utilized for building support and trust within and between communities. Within the framework of Methodology of the Oppressed, performance privileges aesthetic productions based on differential embodiments, knowledges, survivorhoods, and affects. However, decolonizing performatics/antics are not confined to the stage; Bodymap’s concurrent performative, archival, and activist impulses effectively position oppositional consciousness as a political site of decolonizing knowledge production. Because of the ways Bodymap insists on performing a crip aesthetics rooted in alternative methods of relationality, assistance, pleasure, and pain as “a set of technologies for decolonizing the social imagination,” Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s focus on disability theory and praxis aligns with Sandoval’s Methodology of the Oppressed to expand the developing field of intercultural performance methodologies.
According to the editors of Performing the US Latino and Latina Borderlands, “decolonial performatic/antic” methods often centralize artistic techniques such as “parodic-pastiche, hybrid, [and] bricolage aesthetics for generating myriad possibilities for expression.” The structure of Bodymap itself performs a crip aesthetics by utilizing a multiplicity of poetic forms as a decolonial intervention. In fact, Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha carefully endeavors to fail at embodying these various forms. The pages are comprised of love odes to cars and discount stores, lists logging imperfect and painful sex moments, “non haikus,” and unexplained abbreviations. Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s “imperfect” or “unsuccessful” use of form manifests the differential affective experiences of being a working-class disabled queer of color. Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha often uses enjambment at the end of stanzas to express an abrupt change in time and geographic location. In the poem “sternum,” Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha connects the two stanzas by a tattoo, not by linear time:
said home? home is right here
and touched her chest light
a year later
when you drilled the needle into my chest
and tattooed home there (97)
Here, the unpunctuated passage of time is meant to express the diasporic affect of being a working-class disabled queer of color. Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s rearticulation of poetic form to represent the oppositional consciousness of having to manage multiple homes, identities, and institutions for survival functions as a decolonizing performatic/antic.
In fact, Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s emphasis on “home” throughout the book signals her insistence on mapping differential crip cultural productions. There are many moments where Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha intentionally names crip and queer spaces and assistive technologies.
Leave us crumpled in sweatpants on our beds, vibrators always plugged in for pain control, herbal infusion in big mason jars, cell phone where we text our friends when we’re too gone to call, on hold for the low-income queer clinic for sliding-scale acupuncture, again. (39)
By exposing the ways in which working-class disabled queers of color make systems that are not designed to keep them alive work for them, Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha cites crip aesthetic production as a source of resistance to ableist, hegemonic power and control. By documenting everyday moments of surviving the experience of being sick, tired, and in pain, Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha unites a community across difference through a common love for the places and things that keep them alive, and therefore the desire to resist the oppressive systems that make those technologies inaccessible.
By boldly professing her love for the people, spaces, processes, and technologies cultivating, and assisting, her community, Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha contributes to a collective working-class disabled queer-of-color blueprint. However, Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is not mapping single spaces or objects; she is pinpointing the various ways in which people are assisted by, or assist each other with, these technologies:
She fucks my pussy that’s so tight after six months of nothing, says, you are so tight little girl, open up for me, that’s right — and I don’t have to work to come. And I cry when I do cause it’s like all the pain, all the not-enough, all the worked-to-death worn-through tired crip body, is coming out of my pussy onto her hands when she gives me what I have needed for so long.
Later, she texts me, “I could tell you needed to be fucked so bad and I was so happy to be able to give that to you.”
And then there was the moment on Skype where she said, “Only the hottest girls have fibromyalgia” and I threw back my head and laughed and laughed and fell in love. (64–65)
Here, Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha insists on the indispensability of sex and technology as assistive, healing methods of survival. As she recalls this crip sex moment, the present tense and the long lines convey an intense sense of urgency. By framing interdependence and relationality as both a fleeting pleasure and a life force, Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha transforms this methodology into a technology, and in turn, a source of knowledge production. Bodymap is mapping the differential, oppositional modes of interdependency keeping her, and her community, alive. This way, acts of interrelationality and assistance are positioned as an essential component of decolonizing resistance.
While Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is intentionally documenting this specific encounter, its poetic, performatic quality still preserves the moment’s transience. Using poetics as a method for compiling a blueprint, or an archive, of working-class disabled queer-of-color experience, she centers partiality as an essential feature of crip queer aesthetics.
Recognizing the partiality of Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work as an essential feature of a working-class crip queer-of-color aesthetics not only shifts the readers’ expectations of what technology is, but also challenges our ideas of what an archive should look like, or work like. What qualifies as a documentable “trace,” and what exactly does a map look like? To Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, this is a map aimed towards documenting shared experiences of survival, and these experiences do not always leave a trace, or want to leave a trace. While Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is compelled to document or blueprint a multiplicity of survival technologies to claim and decolonize aesthetic production, her archival impulse still assumes a partial quality in order to echo the precarious realities experienced by working-class disabled queers of color. The signposts present in Bodymap’s “map” are often coded, like an informal conversation between friends. The majority of Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s poetics are written using a kind of lingo specific to working-class disabled communities of color. Therefore, Bodymap offers assistance and communality to those who understand it, and requires translational work from those who do not.
the slow/walking lane of the Berkeley Y
you on the wheelchair lift, me walking slow, slow
all of us on our low-income memberships.
The elevator of every BART station,
any elevator, anywhere
any ramp, any time
any house where we bed bound jail break time
the community acupuncture clinic waiting room
my friend’s living room
where she exquisitely tops her PCA about precisely which dish to use
and gifts me with the ability to lift her palm. (55)
The idioms, abbreviations, and unexplained locales mentioned in the poems are the necessary codes Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and her communities have learned while “negotiating a landscape of inequality.” In doing this, Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha portrays the fleeting, and oftentimes unstable, methods of survival a poor disabled queer of color may experience. She also preserves her community’s privacy, especially of those who receive “illegal” or “unconventional” medical assistance. Except, by exposing these survival technologies through performatics, Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha also legitimizes the occurrence of such events and therefore politicizes their existence.
While Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s own performatics politicize her, and her community’s oppositional modes of being, thinking, surviving, and documenting, the book lays the groundwork for future reimaginings of what oppositional social action as a mode of love should look like. By blueprinting the methodologies of a crip queer existence, Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s “differential” poetics opens up more possibilities within the framework of Methology of the Oppressed, ones that push creativity beyond the materiality of survival. Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s representations of non-normative movement, cripness, and especially crip queer sex moments, are a part of a larger project seeking to map future social relations. Performance-studies scholar Jose Muñoz argues, “queerness is also a performative because it is not simply a being but a doing for and toward the future. Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” Muñoz’s work clearly resonates with Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s contribution to decolonial love as resistance. Her various assistive relationships with her lovers, her friends, herself, and even with the various oppressive systems she must manipulate, are all oppositional, yet practical and hopeful applications of knowledge. By centering technology as crip aesthetics, and crip aesthetics as technology, Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha qualifies assistive, cathartic, and healing modes of being as intrinsically political. She does this in her writing, and by making the book itself into a kind of oppositional love anyone can perform, memorize, or use in a critical analysis. Bodymap is a text, a performance, and an archive, an assistive technology and a decolonizing performatic dreaming of oppositional affinities, interdependencies, and sledgehammers to inaccessible curbs.
8. The grief experienced by queer communities is a pivotal source for the politicization of queer existences and is what mobilizes folks to build, maintain, and theorize assistive queer spaces across difference. Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha makes a reference to Amber Dawn’s “Where the Words End and My Body Begins,” in which queer grief is reimagined as a “blueprint.” By quoting Dawn, Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is simultaneously contributing to and professing her love for the act of mapping queer/crip spaces and figures. See Amber Dawn, Where the Words End and My Body Begins (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2015).
11. A reference to Robert McRuer’s “Coming Out Crip: Malibu is Burning,” in Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (NYU Press, 2006). Citing McRuer, who is an extremely influential crip/queer scholar (as well as José Muñoz) is my way of building on Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s crip/queer cartographic efforts. In the spirit of the crip-queer blueprint, I cite McRuer and Muñoz as a way of “professing love” for their work and thus, contributing to the crip/queer mapping process.
A review of Anne Boyer's 'Garments Against Women'
If someone asked me how I would envision a garment against women, it would not be too difficult for me to respond. I would suggest something steel and hidebound, an I-beam with little to offer the imagination. It might be a dark cesspool of factory life, much as Marx would have written about in the nineteenth century. It might be a hairshirt or a black mirror that promises no future. In one sense, Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women captures this, but in another sense, it is a book that talks with a sense of hope about what the world could be. In both senses, it is cleverly written and in touch with the details of a life spent working, hence filtered through a Marxist lens and full of the material world as much as a way of seeing escapes from the daily as part of the author’s horizon.
There is so much to say about this excellent book that I am sure to leave something out. The book begins with a section called “The Animal Model of Inescapable Shock,” which relives in prose Stockholm syndrome and other related tortures. Boyer writes: “If an animal is shocked, escapably or inescapably, she will manifest deep attachment for whoever has shocked her” (1). She writes about an electrified grid, and this sets the tone for what may prove to include commentary on today’s mediatized culture, the modernity that is still with each one as we use computers and other machines. A somber beginning. For Boyer, there is no end: “where is the edge of the electrified grid?” (2) she wonders, mentioning Capital for the first time.
In “1. the open book,” Boyer writes of transparency and its failings, and of its necessity, if one is compelled to believe in such things. She says that “[i]t’s only necessary to make a transparent account if it’s necessary to have accounting, and it’s only necessary to have accounting in the service of a profitable outcome.” We get a sense that this book is motivated by subversions of political economy, in the sense that mediated economy is ever-present in parts of our lives, and Boyer does this with craft and sagacity. She writes that “[w]ithout an open book, she would, following her assumed desire, steal, so that she makes a transparent account always first in some service of that larger body that is the order of business” (34). This book is about the machinations of business and what life could look like outside of them, but can we really imagine our lives outside of that particular economy? It’s doubtful, but Boyer does a fine job of toeing that line that so many would like to see achieved, all the while making us wonder what else there is.
Boyer’s style propels this book through its many memories and musings. She wonders innocently what makes a person write; she describes with incredible thoughtfulness her answer to this question; she discusses writing-conditioned sicknesses; she meditates on topics as various as sharks, information culture, poverty, reading, sex, food, and poetry. (Boyer has published many collections of poetry of varying length.) This book is original and topic-driven, with sections on “At Least Two Types of People” (can you guess?) and sewing, among other various sections. I think the strength of this book is in its motley sense. Boyer is able to tie together with an astute sensibility the many parts of her life that connect with others. She does this imaginatively, and the book does not read as a confession of facts for the most part. She creates herself, and writes of herself, in a style that is graceful and sometimes dialectical, saying, “I am not writing a history of these times or of past times or of any future times and not even the history of these visions which are with me all day and all of the night” (43).
She goes into detail about not writing (which is, surprisingly, writing), and she tells of books she would write and is but not at all writing. She gives us science fiction, reveries, and memoirs that include details of her daughter’s life, but without the sincerity that would cause us to be certain the details are “true.” And we have throughout this book the play of the self, making it a memoir but not the least a highly stylized, romantic one. As Rousseau and Wollstonecraft both make appearances here, I think the strength and charm of Boyer’s prose is her ability to create first-generation feminism all over again, leaving us to wonder whether she was hinting at the second- and third-generation themes in the poem with which the poet ends the book: “a catalogue of whales that is a catalogue / of whale bones inside a catalogue of garments / against women that could never be a novel itself” (86). Yet, as with all of Boyer’s writing, it is a novel approach that is taken throughout the book.
A review of Rod Smith's 'Touché'
In Wave Books’s new Touché, Rod Smith is a tender, often hilarious skeptic. His brilliance as a poet is strongest performing the many voices of willful ignorance and hard-earned perspective, often confusing the two in poetry that merges personal doubts with public ones. Built on a negative capability, Touché’s “futility as figurative / extreme” (81) is strikingly analytical about uncertainties in private awareness, domestic American politics, and the malleable referentiality of language in relation to the author’s scatological, punny, and aesthetically “clumsy” organizations of it, much more punk rock in Smith’s DIY grammatics than actual idiocy.
Smith’s grammatical experiments give a physicality of language that more traditionally stated poems in the book support (“The artwork provides the sensuous idea of freedom” ). That physicality pairs emotional experiences with general sensory ones in incredibly minimal, melancholy, and absurd ways. Like much of Smith’s writing, Touché is at its best when configuring aesthetic principles from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E with Smith’s own highly attuned ear and carefully interruptive voice.
flux — the runned
in the world’s
an importance bite
(bluffed & lucrative)
(bluffed & inner) bluffed
& crazed (58)
For me, the most successful part of Smith’s poetry is how slippery accountability becomes in small spaces between very carefully chosen words. In the fifth line of “[screened in]” we know the abstract language that came before (bluffed, churning, caught, bent) feels only connotatively sexual. But there’s an oddly placed narrative situation based on opportunities in the grammar. “Churning’s” reads as both “churning has” and “churning is,” and “learning’s bent” reads the same, personifying those verbs by possessing their own. The poem wants both a personifying possessiveness and a static “isness” to relate “caught” and “bent” as self-contained small lines that eventually overlap into a kind of character framing, where “churning’s” is a witness to “learning’s” either being bent or having bent something itself. That slippery accountability feels like a mind framing its own processing instead of the external behaviors that result from such processing. The reader is to trust that both the possessiveness and more static “isness” happen as a single fluctuating path for reading those grammatical parts; essentially, both possibilities from grammar exist, but neither is dominant. They are not conclusive but they are procedural, truly a “coarsening / flux.”
The specifics that do exist, like “leaving plates,” actually interrupt both paths as a way to get the reader back to something immediately single, banal, and recognizable, in this case objects at dinner being left just before a strong sexual act. I read that “tacit-faced care-thief” as the speaker acknowledging that what came before were pieces of an evasively rendered memory under review, and that the memory itself isn’t as important for the poem’s idea of audience as the moment of remembering. What’s interesting there is how important “bluffed” remains. The poem’s built on hope that such intimacy — like in the memory — will at least pay off as reference for creativity later, that in a sense whatever reality those pieces come from were failed experiences that seem to need reconciliation. So in addition to their more direct meanings, it’s hard not to see fermenting in the word “buried” and difficult embrace in “brace,” instructional emotional dualities the speaker gives itself to value its present moment of reflection.
The Good House, etc.
the house is made of would
& wonder — forty-five times
no one said it — a
former & future house, with
a dime, & definite —
the house that will save the small
animals from the ravages of inaction
the house that will impel, tiresomely,
a certain gate-kept diplomat’s
the house that refuses the unforetold,
stymied in the wavering, swanlike,
— maybe a lakehouse
w/ a horse
on a hill,
“The Good House, etc.” is a sequel or another chapter in Smith’s serial poem “The Good House,” which seems bottomless here and in earlier editions (included in Smith’s 2008 book Deed). Touche’s section begins similarly, addressing Smith’s “egretlike alabaster florist” (24) instead of the standalone egret from earlier versions (see The Good House, Spectacular Books, 2001). The likeness of the current subject to the egret is both a formal association with the older poem and a mark of change. Both use the egret to announce the long poem’s emergence during times of writing and in other books, the poem itself jumping through history a little better than your own forms of residence, more surreal and emphatic about common difficulties from living in paranoia about your nation’s ability to endorse conservative and damaging political status quos. Sometimes “the house” implies shared governance, often with a powerful class antagonist that the speaker identifies being under and against, very much the House of Commons duty that we actually know, or as Smith might say, that we need to be more familiar with. But the refrain isn’t just political theatre: everything can and does get brought there because it’s the common thing everyone leaves and returns to, as portable artifice and physical locations merge without pause.
Nothing in Touché is perfect, and the flaws aren’t always interesting, losing me more than twice where slant political commentary and odd word choice are more confusing than associative. Smith can be affectingly both in a great poem like “The Good House, etc.,” where he has length to sprawl, seemingly not focused on keeping any set voice or political sense afloat. Such parts feel more than just linguistic foreplay — they’re confessional, devotional, and sometimes tired examinations of art, class, love, and doubt. These poems concern the idea that a mind is never beyond corruption and error, empowered or otherwise, and specifically that mental forces elevated to broadcastable positions, publicly or internally, will only sell terms that promote particular interests, not the whole public or the entirety of an individual’s fluctuating needs. While the political value of such a stance is necessarily contextual, Smith’s reports are aesthetically brilliant in conflating public broadcasts with the associative methods that individual minds impulsively use to create identities, the brain selling parts of experience to different selves in different moments.
Smith knows that identity is a commodity, to the self and to the public, and that diversifying how the mind manipulates signaling from language is a way to draw attention to surprising, sometimes frighteningly detailed experiences about the impulsivity that all clear and ordered thinking originates from — in Touché’s case, with words that fluctuate grammatical positions during the poem in beautiful and completely Smith ways. These poems care about how our corruptions reason with each other, big and incredibly small, and how we distance ourselves from some by usingothers so that we can tell the cognitive stories of certainty and apprehension, and once again seem to understand a little better and a little more and maybe again, later.
Jocelyn Saidenberg's 'Dead Letter' and Brandon Brown's 'Top Forty'
What are the ethics of citation? Don’t all poems enter into the cacophony and babble of “the great conversation,” or to mix metaphors, that river of text, of jetsam and flotsam we all swim in and against? Still, to take up a gentle anachronism, we might ask, who sits at the table, and what is the etiquette of the host? How do you turn to your citation-guests? What do you offer? Two recent books, very different in subject matter and affect, take up this question — as both are explicitly addressed to other work(s) of art, inviting them, as it were, to the table. These reflections were first written on the occasion of hosting Brandon Brown and Jocelyn Saidenberg in Toronto at a reading of the Contemporary Poetry Research Group, organized by Mat Laporte, navigating through the tricky and wonderful territory of hosting and guesting: intimacies and disappointments, a stopped toilet, a rainy day, and a dumpling feast.
Dead Letter is a kind of rewriting of Herman Melville’s strangely opaque short masterpiece, “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street.” To remind you of the plot in a nutshell: it is a story about Bartleby, a law clerk whose main job is to recopy documents. One day he is asked to work and says that “he would prefer not to.” The rest of the story is about the narrative and metaphysical consequences of that refusal. Top Forty is also an extended critique, an ekphrastic meditation on pop songs, proceeding from the fortieth song to the first song on American Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest, September 14th, 2013.
In his last poem, Brown refers to “the long history of artists repeating, recycling, reusing other artworks in order to become less confused about their own art” (135). More words for artistic recycling: allusion, intertextuality, ekphrasis, rewriting, anxiety of influence, fan fiction, appropriation, translation. This recycling can read like mastery: I know you, pop song, Grecian urn, autopsy report, better than you know yourself! I can explain you, I can capture you, I can pin you down, boil you up, and render your essence. I can make money off you. In the same poem, Brown talks about a specific kind of mastery: “the long history in the US of white appropriation of black art, which regularly elides the visibility of that appropriation” (135). Together with this problematic implication of mastery, there’s also a sharp kind of sense of loss that lingers around the edges of these artistic projects. Anxiety that it won’t be as good as the original, that the copy can never be as vivid as the real thing. Poems are never as colorful as paintings, never as fun as a song that makes you want to get up and dance.
Both books take these two dangers into account as they proceed — but their main business is neither mastery nor loss. It’s something else, and I’ve been trying to find the right words for it — alchemy, making the space bigger, redeeming the sparks, if you want to get all Kabbalistic about it, or to say it really simply:love.
So let me be a little more specific. Melville wrote his story from the point of view of Bartleby’s lawyer-employer, and Saidenberg’s first big shift is to give Bartleby a first-person voice. However, in Dead Letter we still don’t get the exposé, the untold adventures of Bartleby, which would help us resolve the opacity of Melville’s text. Rather, Bartleby’s first-person narrative actually recopies many of Melville’s words; Saidenberg is more aligned with the job of scrivener than author, copying Melville’s words into her own text. Besides copying his lawyer’s documents, Bartleby is also given the task of proofing his work and checking the accuracy of his copy. In Dead Letter, we ourselves are also turned into these copyeditors/scriveners because we end up comparing the Saidenberg and Melville texts to each other, looking for discrepancies in the copy.
I’m writing this introduction surrounded by screens and by texts, sitting in a small office. I just read a piece in McSweeney’s on the snake-fight portion of your thesis defense. It was pretty funny. My phone beeped. I’m chatting with my partner about movie tickets while at the same time watching a video without sound of masked Israeli soldiers waking up a Palestinian family at three a.m. to ask their kids if they throw stones. Reading Ron Silliman on Kenny Goldsmith, Stephanie Young on Kenny Goldsmith, photos from National Puppy Day, apologies from the Israeli left for not winning the elections, a woman beaten to death in Afghanistan, advice on how to give away fares with your metro card on the new York City subway — this is the place we all live in, gorging all day on text, hemmed in by text, all of us like Bartleby hunched over his copying.
And yet something happens to Bartleby’s stifling geography in Dead Letter. It’s all about the accumulation of tiny transformations. Saidenberg’s Bartleby pushes at his text, moment upon moment of heavy lifting, hard labor (as Christian Nagler describes it in the afterword), until he cracks it open, until the paltry life Melville has given him is made wild, and the chambers seem to reveal a hidden Atlantic ocean inside them. For example, in the Melville story, the lawyer describes his claustrophobic Manhattan offices: one window looks out onto an air shaft, the other window has a brick wall for a view:
Owing to the great height of the surrounding buildings, and my chambers being on the second floor, the interval between this wall and mine not a little resembled a huge square cistern.
More or less the same text is copied into a prose-poem Saidenberg calls “Our Habitats.” Listen to her lines, or to her Bartleby speaking:
the interval between the chamber’s windows and this wall not a little resembled a huge square cistern, from which in a pastoral scene, a shepherd might water his flock (25, emphasis mine).
When Bartleby is given a voice, our spatial imagination expands a little beyond the lawyer’s chambers — the suggestion of water, sheep, the enormous care taken by shepherds, the meetings that can happen at cisterns. There’s something deeply ethical about this act of cohabitation with a text, with a character, which is also a function of spent time; this is not a dashed-off copy, but the most careful years-long record of scrivening.
Perhaps because Bartleby is so lonely in Melville’s story, I tried to think up literary relatives for him: Shakespeare’s Cordelia, who wants nothing from King Lear; Kafka’s hunger artist, who will fast until he dies. As I read Dead Letter, though, I came to relate Bartleby to one of the most vivid of biblical characters, preserved in the amber of the so-called dead letters of the Old Testament. Part of Dead Letter’s alchemy is to make you feel that all of that richness of Bartleby’s inner life was already in the Melville text; you just have to be looking really closely. You have to really devote yourself to the language, to cling and to cleave. Jocelyn Saidenberg reinvents Bartleby as a figure of cleaving, who devotes himself to his lawyer and his refusal. In that sense, I think Dead Letter gives Bartleby another literary relative — or maybe she was there all along in Melville’s biblically haunted text — and that is Ruth, who loses everything in a famine, but queerly cleaves to her mother-in-law Naomi, and in her persistent cleaving becomes a figure for redemption.
Flickers of redemption can be found in the most unlikely places: in addition to being about one week of top-forty pop songs, from “Take Back the Night,” to “Blurred Lines,” Brandon Brown’s Top Forty is also about Icelandic epic, the great advantages of baths, addiction, political strategies, how you know things, movies from the eighties, death, the end of the world, capitalism, and friendship. It is also about time, but it’s not elegiac about the ephemeral nature of pop (and poop) and fashion and bad movies, as the blurred childhood photo on the front cover might suggest. Well, not only. In summoning up these ephemera, the stray thoughts you have while you pee, the things friends say to you, little vanities, crumbs of philosophy, I think Brown is doing something with a bit more of a kick.
Ok, well, I’m just going to say it: in Top Forty Brandon Brown is “seizing up the past as an image that flashes up at the moment of its unrecognizability.” That’s from Walter Benjamin, who also says “Fashion has a nose for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is the tiger’s leap into the past.” What Benjamin is describing is the task of being so deeply inside the present moment, in fashion, and architecture, and cafés and the clichés of pop music, really immersed in it — in what he calls now-time — like putting your whole body into a warm bath — that you can see something important, something that will make the continuum of history explode. It’s flaring up and flashing by, so you have to catch it.
Benjamin’s metaphor always reminds me of the anxiety you get at a sushi-boat place when you see something you really like going by but you don’t get it in time, but this is happening about five times faster, and the little plate has the meaning of life on it, or at least a message from your long-lost lover. Brown’s trying to crack it open, and the only way to do this is with devotion, a shipwreck that comes from refusing to abandon the gaudy, boozy party-ship. There are moments of exquisite irony in applying philosophy and grammatical analysis to these songs, but even here Brown shies away from mastery, reminding us “I’m not just taking a cheap shot at Macklemore, / I’m implicated in this totally, as you know by now” (81).
In Benjamin’s famous fragments on the concept of history, he addresses the task of the revolutionary historian who must reveal the histories untold by the winners. Well, that’s not quite what’s happening in Top Forty, which sometimes reads as an address to a musical version of the dollar store, full of desirable plastic. But Brown subjects this plastic ephemera to a kind of rigorous, radical, and revolutionary philology, in the sense of the love and friendship at the basis of the logos.
Let me quote an example of this revolutionary philology in full. In discussing Ice Cube’s metrical innovation, he says, “it is an exemplary instance of very regular measures surrounding quick tribrachs of hurtling syllables, broken up by the lightest stresses, light as a mosquito’s proboscis” (135). Brown’s precision about language, about metre, is mixed with a precision about affect, about the touch of language on the body, which is itself a swoon of a sentence, a sweet and heady cocktail. But it is also, finally, a generous and humble hosting of Ice Cube’s oeuvre. In Top Forty Brandon Brown is throwing a philology party, and you’re all invited to drink and be merry and break open the continuum of history.
1. Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (1853), 5.
2. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings Volume 4 1938–1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott and others, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 390, 395.