Expression Concrète

A review of Divya Victor's 'Natural Subjects'

Natural Subjects

Natural Subjects

Divya Victor

Trembling Pillow Press 2014, 140 pages, $16, ISBN 978-0988725775

Divya Victor’s new book Natural Subjects deconstructs the relationship between sentimental notions of authorial authenticity and normative models of citizenship in a way that will add some much needed bitters to your cocktail, at least if you can stomach it. The book is therefore, on a theoretical level, an absolutely refreshing and uniquely contrarian read. But on the level of the sonic and textual, it is also one of the most sumptuous, expressive, and musical books to come out of experimental poetry in recent years. Particularly in a world where postmodern and hybrid and post-selfie lyric is always already so banal as to have lost its musicality, and the sheerly conceptual has forsaken music.

To return to music in poetry means to return to the concrète — signification for the sake of signification, not for the sake of concept or lyric or parodic postmodernism (gestures that are all too communicative).  

It helps that the book is topologically set up like a musical score, with alternating text sizes and placements, plus a multitude of references to old popular songs from “one little, two little, three little Indians” to “Do, Re, Mi” — tunes that forge a passport examination of cultural literacy, an exam that seems to never end, even after the passport is received and authorial identity is created.

What do we expect from the author, from her photo, from her bio; how do we assess Victor’s literacy, her ability to sing the songs that we know, so that we can have a politically resonant connection with her, so that she can have connection with us, and so that we all can commiserate over a leftist political problem? These questions are repeatedly provoked in this musical book, through rumination on the problematics of the passport and the author’s photo and identity.

Instead of answering directly to the interrogation of the questions that arise, Victor gives us shocking detours, like a cover image of red meat, as if to mock our impulse to have a humane author-reader connection. Her title, Natural Subjects, so clinicalizes our demand for the natural subjective position of the authorial self that it makes us feel a bit wretched for wanting it. As with Kim Rosenfeld and Trisha Low, the clinic, law room, diary, and church are all sites where identity is born and bred but also resisted, even if this resistance itself becomes a form of authorship, a way of singing. But drawing too from the imaginative dialectics of dialect that infuse the poetry of Douglas Kearny and Julie Patton, as well as the neon art of Glenn Ligon. Enter here Eliza Doolittle’s mispronunciations, that cute show of cockney Englishness, which are peppered throughout Victor’s book and serve as inspiration for her own misheard lyrics.

As with Victor’s earlier book, Things To Do With Your Mouth, instructions are not only sites of grooming, care, and domestication — they are sites of cruelty, discipline, and force, as well as resistant authorial standpoints. But this resistant authorship does not give the reader a “natural subject” espousing caps-locks politics. Nor does it mean you’ll get levelheaded quotidian slice-of-life poetics.

Victor’s “I” is speculatively tuning itself against your expectation, picking from different misheard tunes, and different poetic styles — and the tuning, as in Kieran Daly’s music, is itself a site for the production of musicality.

Here Victor tunes her I:

I is a period of continuous residence and physical presence in the United States

I is a knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government

I is an ability to read, write, and speak English

I is good moral character

I is an attachment to the principles of the U.S. Constitution

I is a favorable disposition toward the United States (24)

Victor’s making of sonic and textual musicality out of expressive and legalistic confession is a new form of concrète poetry that aligns with the work of Low and others working across a post-conceptual spectrum. It bears no comparison to the New York School and its spin-offs, as it is not quotidian and cosmopolitan in a neutral way. Remembering that concrète poetry is both abstract sound poetry and visual page poetry, and that both types share a diminishment of the vernacular communicative voice, then what is privileged is sonic and/or textual abstraction. And yet, concrète poetry has recently begun to blend in with sites of sensible communication, network-building, and expression. An irony always is inherent in the way visual poetics has parodied advertising, but perhaps less funny when used to uncritically promote contemporary art in glossy books, such as The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century (Hayward Publishing, 2015).

That said, some of the most cutting-edge of books are not forging a vernacular, affective identity or reaching for a gallery-ready idealized notion of “visual poetry.” But rather, are constructing what Low calls the “not-not I” — a redoubled repression of the authentic voice, and the production of the concrete book, diary, media object, or art project. These projects can be epic pastiche (Cecilia Corrigan’s Titanic), explicitly personal (Low’s The Compleat Purge), or frighteningly impersonal (Steve Zultanski’s Agony), but they are never transparently communicative. Which is a real achievement, considering that “non-communicative” aesthetics have become all about communication and coterie, and that confession has become so omnipresent that it ceases to have value. The confessor, like the analysand, is simply irrelevant, and so is the impersonal poet. But with these new works some sort of opacity enters the page and is difficult to handle.  

Perhaps the key work to use confession in an opaque manner is The Compleat Purge (Kenning Editions, 2013), which, rather than being an authentic event of the author vomiting up Asian American post-feminist post-Catholic S/M identity and emotion, is about sublimation through the creation of a concrete object, form, or structure. This sublimation manifests at the level of the text as trepidation around modes of procedural entrapment — notably the repetition of the suicide note — confusing the expected authenticity of the vernacular voice while activating sustained concreteness. Songs have terminal duration, though they are repetitious — as Low writes of sex, “It is fleeting, and once satisfied, begins again, a knot at the base of the belly that moves up against your throat.” Still, never one to stay too long in unqualified Eros, Low ends the cited paragraph with “fucking can kill you” (97).

These new works of Expression Concrète build on an avant-garde notorious for questioning the authentic presence of the Other’s voice. English experimental poetics from modernism forward has often been polyvocal to such a point that musical and textual “presence” is forged in spite of the author’s intentions. On the other hand, sometimes such presences are an intended part of the procedure, hence the double meaning of concrète — presently musical and presently textual. In fact, for the post-structrualist avant-garde, mediation (irony, delay, deferral, simulation, imitation) is often as immediate and swift and violent as Artaud’s cruelty. 

Expression Concrète qualitatively represses certain kinds of authentic vocality in order to produce objects of study and concentration that remain always polyvocalizable and musical, no matter how legalistic, speculative, communicative, confessional, pastiched, banal, and doctrinal their content may appear. Unlike prior flat-affect art, Expression Concrète isn’t blank or cynical (illustrating some thesis on “performative intentionality”) but always a musical lull back into the unreadable musicality of the concrète text. Since the unreadability of postmodernism is so thoroughly readable, and the detours to identity and affect are even more readable, a new form of opacity arrives.  

Some of these new works are simply using gimmicks and are unreadable not for the sake of art but because of a lenient impulse to conventionalize oneself in a scene: this is bad post-conceptualism. For instance, online publisher GaussPDF is chock-full of works that are unreadable because of laziness but also works that are unreadable because of musical genius. One has to parse quite a bit to tell which is which! But if you can parse, the formal complexity you’ll find in the good work is rewarding and new. Though, most critics will default to reading through old aesthetic lenses: affect, irony, and identity, “disruptive communication in the service of canonical continuity,” or else there will be the desire to see things as liquid, fluid, perofmrative, and hybrid (this one is becoming hot in the art world, where poems are thought to leap off the page and, hopefully, into the market). However, Expression Concrète refuses to give an upper-case I/WE to rally around, or a fluid hybrid accessible lower-case “i,” but instead a complex shuffling of expectations and eluding of conventions. Just as Low’s suicide notes unintentionally make for aesthetic reading material, even as they pose as unreadable, grotesque, and violent.

On a different yet related note, poet Emji Spero sources texts about decentralized networks (from Deleuze to mushroom manuals) to produce a coherently visual book of poetry in almost any shit will do (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2014). And Gabriel Ojeda-Sague’s Nite [chickadees] (GaussPDF, 2015) tracks socio-political turbulence in America through Twitter postings by Cher, interrupted by large emoticons — toying with camp and appropriation in a way that is both effective and affective; but also totally visual, with the heartbreak icon particularly jarring and surprisingly poignant after a childlike misspelling, “ERIC GARDNER.”

And then there is Shiv Kotecha’s book Extrigue (Make Now, 2015), which offers a dryer example of the concrete. As “intrigue” means to be led into (in) a trick (trice), “extrigue” disentangles the magic of poetic absorption, and leads us out of the trick. Which is itself a trick. An old one. The text is comprised of caps lock and numbered, painstakingly described “clues” from the movie Double Indemnity, creating a book that is “blank” and “static” (as Steve Zultanksi describes it). Kotecha attributes this to the black and white nature of the film: “With this movie, I didn’t have to gauge between pink flesh or dead flesh, because it was all just a matter of things being lighter or darker than the things they were next to,” and thus, he chose to not to write Salo but instead Double Indemnity. Unlike Tender Buttons, the catalogue here is pulled from VLC media player, pausing the frames, and is therefore a redoubled simulacrum. Nonetheless, when returned to the page, and the site of “authenticity” that the published book of poetry refuses to not be registered as, we get yet another rendering of expression gone concrete: “A GAPING HOLE ON THE TOP AND BOTTOM OF WHICH IS SHINY WHITE FOLLOWED BY SHINY BLACK FOLLOWED BY A FIELD WHICH MUST BE SKIN A SOLID GRAY WHAT IS LIKELY A SHOULDER BUT ONE CANNOT BE SURE THE TIP OF A CIGARETTE THE CLUTCHING OF KNUCKLES THE FALLING OF AN ARM …” Of course, using the term gaping hole comes with its set of heated connotations, but the book continues to play on and through coolness, conveying the confusion of mediated watching, torn between passive visual consumption and active emotional excretion.

In Victor’s Subjects, the demands we place on subjects to become citizens, issued in all caps, also remind us of the demands we place on “authors,” to be good and moral representatives of their subject position:


The tedious nationalism of even the most radical Leftist and anti-racist poetic projects in America is given a bit of a shove here, but Victor’s book is not an aggressive affront to demands like “We encourage the subject to have a natural expression” (30): rather, she offers a formally singular revelry that comes after confrontations with formally deadened formulas. When Victor mis-sings the old tune “My Bonnie” as “my body lies over the ocean,” we think of Bonnie, and also the author’s body; then, with “O bring back my body to me,” we think of the disappearance of the body, and how the fort/da game of the authorial body is unpleasant yet engrained in popular song. Was Bonnie ever even there? Is the author’s body present in the text?

These lines of questioning quickly detour as Subjects becomes about the concrete phrases without heeding polemical efficiency:

I swear / because the terrace / is for kites, the verandah / is where we oil our hair / because the lorries have horns / the goats have kept alive / almond and gooseberry / steeped in glass jars / because we measure / the grain with copper, we know / a month ends later / because tables are made … (47)

We shift into Victor’s inner ear, and rather than finding it branded by authenticity or counter-authenticity, lyric or concept, figure or abstraction, or some “quirky” hybrid that balances both — we get a refreshingly new concrète sound, that is both effusive and compact. We stumble into a vision that sounds good, without ever sounding so good that it is easy-listening hybrid crap. Despite the constriction of cultural memory and enforced cultural tunes, the ear continues to work, bending and unbending the landscape of official culture.

ME, a name I call my self (48)

The problem is not that we can’t get rid of the songs that get stuck in our head after they are hammered in (as Henry Higgins hammers “the rain in Spain” into Doolittle in My Fair Lady) — it’s that we can’t get rid of our selves rubbing against the songs; we can’t have pure unfiltered unmediated access to the authentic folk song or authentic national anthem. In Subjects, Bonnie’s body never comes back. The body remains buried, beneath riddles, half-heard memories, and disturbing headstones, passports, and medical reports. By giving concrete form to the lushly mutable speculative/musical back-and-forth motions of memory/selfhood/text/tune — we are reminded not of the liberating potential of poetry to remix normative cultural standards but rather of how subtle the poetic ear actually can be. And how the poetic ear can rub critically up against nationalist essentialism, even as it craves to belong.

The poetic ear does not always produce coteries or prize-winning books or monuments or raise the dead or bury the dead. Sometimes it just produces a little tune. But the littlest tunes can be the most daunting. Subjects reminds that authors, like citizens, no matter how counter-dogmatic, are always groomed, and postured to be “natural subjects,” spokesmen with author photos and proof of cultural literacy. This is theoretically refreshing.

But no great concrète work ends with a theoretical refresher. Taking steps beyond the deadlock of subjectivity, even when writing about “piles of dead people,” Victor uses repetition and variation to forge a remarkable aesthetic kernel out of routine cultural expressions, without being for or against expression, itself. This is a stunning feat and its own sort of coup d’état.

A life in books

A review of Anthony Rudolf's 'Silent Conversations'

Silent Conversations: A Reader’s Life

Silent Conversations: A Reader’s Life

Anthony Rudolf

Seagull Books 2013, 748 pages, $35.00, ISBN 978-0857420800

Poet, publisher, anthologist, and translator Anthony Rudolf has had a number of fascinating — the phrase is derived from Landor — “silent conversations” throughout his life, many of which are eloquently related in this penetrative, free-flowing exploration of those texts that have considerably enriched Rudolf’s intellectual and artistic life. Cleverly framed as a surveying of his many shelves of a lifetime’s collecting of books, Rudolf’s book, Silent Conversations: A Reader’s Life, consists of a series of fascinating and insightful memoirs addressing those writers with whom Rudolf has had his most profound conversations — those that spoke most directly to his head and heart. 

Each of us lives many lives: as sons and daughters, wives and husbands, fathers and mothers; of labor and leisure, lives both public and private. With writers, these lives can become intertwined. This is due in part to language making public the life of the mind; language is the currency by which one’s inner life is given a public showing. Conversation is a kind of mental intercourse, an exposing of the intellect. And when the conversation is between the printed word and its reader, the even stranger and more complex alchemy of self-conversation occurs. The author’s words become in a sense the reader’s mental property. An especially excellent author’s individual thoughts can become the possession of any number of disparate minds. And the more perceptive the reader, the more alive the writer’s words become. Without good readers, words are mere marks on a page.

Seen this way, Silent Conversations can be described as Rudolf’s autobiography in books. Interspersed throughout this book are various fascinating autobiographical details, some humdrum and some salacious, particularly the various bits of literary gossip and anecdotes he shares — one senses these are just the tip of the iceberg. Rudolf was, notably, the editor and publisher of the renowned Menard Press, started in 1969, and he published translations of Rilke, Mallarmé, Tsvetayeva, Vigée, and Mandelstam, in addition to works by F. T. Prince, Octavio Paz, and Robert Friend, the poems of Primo Levi, essays on the nuclear issue, Shoah survivor testimonies, criticism on Reznikoff and Pessoa (writers also examined here), and many of Rudolf’s conversations filtered through this role; certainly publishing involves its own unique form of conversation, a multifaceted dialogue between editor/publisher, author, and audience.

Compulsively readable, erudite and alive, Rudolf’s prose here displays the virtues that have impressed this particular reader on previous occasions, albeit in much smaller and more focused books. For a work of this size necessarily risks ranging too far and thereby losing its focus. “My book, like many literary works, involves excess,” Rudolf writes perceptively in his introduction. Thankfully, Rudolf’s voice lends this book a surprising coherence so that, whether he is discussing a poet, novelist, cartoonist, scientist, philosopher, architect, painter, or playwright, his voice and intellect remain wonderfully concentrated.

“Why do I read, why do I engage in these silent conversations?” Rudolf asks in his brief, enigmatic preface. “I read because the forms of life and the structures of experience, the energy and beauty of the mind and its double, the body, are explored, incarnated, and traced in the best literature.” Always present as a guiding thesis — what he calls in his introduction “inventory and classification,” in particular a revisiting or rereading (which essentially involves a conversation of a different sort, that of a dialogue with one’s younger self, who purchased these books and at one time cherished them, and perhaps still does) — is how these particular artists have spoken to Rudolf, how their words and thoughts and images have weighed on his heart, and guided him, inspired him, or even just stirred in him an aesthetic delight. Some of these artists Rudolf knew or knows personally — and so, one assumes, engaged in conversations of the audible variety — while others remained to him strangers, inasmuch as any author is a stranger to their audience.

Rudolf’s excitement for the works he discusses is palpable and infectious. When he writes in praise of a certain work, it makes one (this author, at least) interested in tracking the source down. A bit of autobiography on my part: were it not for Rudolf, for example, I may never have read the astonishing works of one of his literary “heroes,” the heartbreaking novels and memoirs of Primo Levi, or the apocalyptic prose of Piotr Rawicz. Rudolf’s exploration of the catastrophes of the twentieth century — politically, metaphysically, and morally — helped to form the backdrop of my extended meditation on the life and work of poet George Oppen, an author whose work Rudolf greatly admires, and whose poetry, incidentally, first led me to Rudolf’s. (Rudolf published a long poem of Oppen’s in an early 1980s anthology Voices Within the Ark, coedited with Howard Schwartz, which contains poems by the editors.)

Silent Conversations is divided into several sections, each of them further subdivided into various subsections and themes. It is best to read them as presented, as Rudolf has obviously taken great care in the ordering of this book; each section is intentionally placed, and each builds thematically upon the last.

Rudolf begins with a discussion of French literature, as these writers were a part of his early self-education; for example, the early ’60s vogue of Sartre and Camus — both here are knowingly explored. Yet it is French poetry that provided Rudolf with entrée into a more literary avocation. (Unlike most of his contemporaries, Rudolf has never held a university position, and in that sense, freed from the senseless politicking such employ necessarily entails, has remained something of a literary free agent, able to follow his interests and passions organically.) “I ‘used’ France and its poetry as a cover story for my early attempts to experience life as a writer and poet, even as I endured boring day jobs,” tells Rudolf. It was as a young man chancing upon a copy of Yves Bonnefoy’s seminal volume Hier régnant désert that instigated Rudolf’s lifelong obsession with French poetry. His subsequent discussions of various French poets (including nineteenth-century poets Hugo, de Lamartine, de Nerval, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud, and twentieth-century poets Valery, Apollinaire, Jacob, Jabès, Levis-Mano, Aragon, Char, Reverdy, Bonnefoy, Deguy, and Royet-Journoud) are knowing and insightful, filled with glorious detail of their lives and works.

Equally important to Rudolf’s identity as author and reader is his being Jewish. Rudolf notes that “Jewish is a different kind of category, synthetic rather than analytic” and therefore crosses categories from literature to music to cinema to social anthropology. Always a careful delineator of Jewish identity, he chooses his subject matter wisely: with miniature essays on Jewish responses to the Shoah, to Israeli politics, to history and religion, to folklore and humor, to literature, poetry, and film — all in an effort to “find out what story, personal to me, is told by the hundreds of Jewish books” he has gathered in his library.

What follows is a lengthy consideration of the subject perhaps closest to Rudolf’s heart: poetry. Rudolf begins this section by admitting that “in recent years poetry has fallen away in terms of my existential involvement and psychic need”; he has since obviously turned his attention toward fiction and autobiography, as both reader and writer. Whatever Rudolf’s current psychic needs, it is clear from the extent of his collection that poetry has formed the greater extent of his interest in literature throughout the years, and his discussions of the many poets included here, largely defined by region, and mostly in English (British, American, Irish, Scottish, and poetry in translation) are on the whole quite lucid and perceptive. Many of the poets Rudolf has seen fit to include are for the most part under-read and undervalued, and as such the book does them a marvelous service by giving them the much-needed serious critical estimation they deserve; I’m thinking mainly of British poets Donald Davie, Charles Tomlinson, the English works of Celan translator Michael Hamburger, Jon Silkin, Andrew Crozier, and others. Rudolf also takes the opportunity to address certain British poets, whose work is better-known though has still loomed large in his personal pantheon, including the omnipresent Ted Hughes and the hermetic yet lately productive Geoffrey Hill, always a force to be reckoned with. Across the pond, Rudolf looks at a number of American poets who have influenced him: the high modernists Stevens, Eliot, Pound, Williams, Moore, and Stein are discussed as a matter of course (Rudolf’s discussion of personal favorite Stevens is revelatory), along with the modernist precursor Emily Dickinson, mid-generation poets Bishop, Berryman, Lowell, and Sexton, and second-wave modernists Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, John Wieners, Joel Oppenheimer, Ed Dorn, Gilbert Sorrentino, Jack Spicer, and Gary Snyder. The section of poetry in translation is also demonstrative, dealing with some lesser known poets from throughout the world; Rudolf knows something about translation, having done a fair amount of it during his long career in poetry.

Rudolf follows this section on poetry with a quite interesting short section on Russian literature, a subject that typically presents those without knowledge of the Russian language with a fair amount of difficulty. Not so for Rudolf, who “took up Russian in the sixth form solely because the [high] school told my father and mother at a parents’ meeting that I had more chance of getting into Oxbridge with modern languages than with classics.” This knowledge of Russian led him to a fascination with the Russian classics, including the major nineteenth-century powerhouses Pushkin, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, and Chekhov, all of whom receive treatment here. Yet it is with twentieth-century Russian writing — with its agonizing evocation of the various political and social disasters of the twentieth century and how these disasters have been addressed through art — that holds an ongoing fascination for Rudolf. Consequently, these works are given more extensive consideration, in particular the superbly chilling prose works produced by or about Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, including the works of Mandelstam’s widow (which should be required reading for any student of Russian history or art). Some less familiar names, at least for English audiences — Tvardovsky, Sinyavsky, Vinokurov, Prigov, as well as some English elucidators of Russian literature — are also given due consideration.

Rudolf turns his attention from Russian literature to his most current fascination: biographies, autobiographies, letters, journals, and memoirs; perhaps not an unsurprising interest given that the author, now in his seventies, in looking back at his own life, is now witness to the shape that life has now taken. As a result, this section consists of an extended thinking over what comprises biography and autobiography, what purposes they serve, and how the various authors under discussion here have utilized the form to give lend a pattern to their lives. There are some of the usual suspects (Hemingway, Hazlitt, Butler, Dahlberg), yet also some lesser-known explorations in autobiography that Rudolf has carefully chosen to spotlight, including those by American poet Michael Heller and English poet Kathleen Raine. There is a fascinating short section on those authors Rudolf describes as “fragmentarians” — including Walter Benjamin and F. Scott Fitzgerald — in addition to an altogether brilliant discussion on letters, journals, memoirs, and diaries of authors as diverse as Rilke, Celan, Odets, Babel, Clair, and Cheever.  

Rudolf has, in his time, written a fair amount of critical work, and thus, as a matter of occupation, has read his fair share of the stuff; these works make up the next section. Included here are responses to the critical work of a number of well-known and lesser-known critics, including Alvarez, Ricks, Chatwin, Olsen, Gass, and Steiner, with a brief section on various essayists. Fiction, another major current interest of Rudolf’s, is then treated, and the authors Rudolf has selected are surprisingly diverse, including the deeply Germanic work of Bernhard and Handke, but also the magical realist Márquez, American enfants terribles Fitzgerald, Ellison, Roth, Mailer, and Salinger, a number of British and European writers, and a lovely, candid discussion of his friends, including Elaine Feinstein, Alan Wall, and science fiction author Michael Moorcock.

Rudolf concludes this massive, 700-plus-page volume with a consideration of other books that do not fall into the above categories, including children’s books, reference books, rare books, books on painting and art history (given his interests and personal life — his companion of many years is the celebrated painter Paula Rego — a not unsurprisingly extensive section, comprised of artist books, writing about art, and various other works of criticism). Sections on architecture, photography, drama, music, and sport round out the section on visual arts, while the book’s concluding section consists of Rudolf’s readings on human sciences and science. I found this section, whatever Rudolf’s professed “severe shortcomings,” among the most thought-provoking.

Any author out of necessity ranges into territory for which he may or may not be best equipped; the finest writers are students of the world, as the saying goes, and Rudolf, in possession of an insatiable curiosity that is the hallmark of every good writer, reaches far and wide here, with engaging discussions of subjects as diverse as social anthropology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, language, history and historiography (a fascinating section, I found), travel books, an all too brief discussion of politics, given Rudolf’s lifelong political activism, and concluding with a short but highly poetic and touching discussion of the sciences, in particular the concluding section on his fascination with the word “pebble,” which is a hauntingly eloquent evocation of how words, even in their minutiae, open up worlds. I’m reminded of Oppen’s statement about “small nouns” and how these nouns carry with them an enormous metaphysical weight — an echo of George Steiner, perhaps. In Rudolf’s concluding lines, he puts that statement to test, quoting from Clarence Ellis’s history of pebbles: “The cycle goes endlessly and steadily on. The finest grains become compacted into solid rock. Millions of years later the encroaching sea, aided by the sun, wind and rain, breaks up the rock. A pebble is born.”

Rudolf has spent a life gathering ideas and images from his reading like pebbles from a beach. Silent Conversations: A Reader’s Life contains many of these resplendent stones, each of them held up to the light of perception, each carefully and perceptively illuminated.

'We want to live on it'

A review of 'We Used to Be Generals'

We Used to Be Generals

We Used to Be Generals

Sarah Campbell

Further Other Book Works 2014, 56 pages, $12.95, ISBN 9780989313216

Sarah Campbell’s poems are funny, but so what? There’s no shortage of funny contemporary American poems. In fact, one could argue that a particular strain of humor has been the default setting for much American poetry, be it mainstream or avant-garde, since the poets of the New York School, tutored on Auden, shook off some of the high seriousness of Modernism mid-century. True wit is something else again and, while often funny, is not automatically so. If irony is still, despite counter-efforts, the spirit of the age, poetry of wit stands in an ironic relationship to it.

And Campbell is witty. She has, for instance, her own take on the one-liner:

Why I Needed an Enemy

Talk to me (40)

It’s the extra minute of reflection such poems necessitate — the thinking resulting — that sets the poetry of wit apart from the “merely” humorous. In fact, wit on the page often functions in the opposite manner to wit in speech: there, it is all about speed of apprehension and delivery, circumstance and opportunity taken; written wit, instead, can operate in a “depth charge” manner, setting off ripples of unease long after one might have assumed it to be dormant.

Wit cleaves to darkness, courting extremities of failure and compromise, ultimate scenarios for which death can stand as useful synecdoche. Rather than raising its voice to prophesize or confess, wit tends to drain abjection of its sublimity, edging it closer to bathos (there are poems — The Waste Land comes to mind, and the close of The Dunciad — that somehow manage to do both):

The World Is Getting Fatter

We want to live on it[1]

“Fatter” is multivalent here: what does it refer to? Material wealth? Morbid obesity? Population growth? All of the above? While the idea that this increase is a struggle for increased signification — “Earning / Meaning” — is reassuring (don’t we all want more meaning, to mean more?), the last line, a common enough phrase used about a windfall, inheritance or pension, echoes oddly here. We might want to live literally “on” Earth, but if it is “We” who have been “Earning / Meaning” — over the sum total of human history? — that is not itself a resource: an expanding human “World” is not the same as the planet, Earth, that has to sustain it (or not). In this reading, the projected desire of “want” picks up a desperate edge: it may find itself frustrated. The poem, from this perspective, settles into a strange ecological lament.

Such antic presentation of apocalypse is refreshing, but requires a careful repositioning of the poet/speaker in relation to both subject matter and reader. A hard act to sustain, but Campbell’s work provides good examples of what can be gained by maintaining a faux-standoffish stance:


You are not my consolation
Other people’s lives look better than
Other people’s lives
The mind is an argument all its own (32)

The opening line suggests we’re about to get a bittersweet break-up poem, but this assumption is immediately belied by the more generic, abstract statements that follow. Are we to read lines two and three simply as a looping paradox or as an admission that all such outgoing comparisons are ultimately fruitless? The last line certainly suggests as much, replacing an outward-looking perspective with a turbulent solipsism. The title “Correction” might be assumed to follow the implied argument, moving from failed connection to accepted isolation, but the overall “correction” involved may be acknowledging that all these differing levels and desires — relationship as communication and comfort, social comparison as validation, ongoing internal debate — coexist and must be navigated. Wit allows for the ambiguity.

As this aphoristic (faux-aphoristic?) style suggests, there is something in poetry of wit that gravitates to concision and cleanliness. Again, Campbell steers this urge to brevity away from connotations of self-contained completeness into something more unsettling and surprising:

As Seen Watching TV

And nothing at all will happen again
Then   (47)

What might have been another obvious attack on the nullifying effects of modern media — “nothing at all will happen” — is rendered strange. First, there is the title, which swaps out the more typical phrasing “As Seen On TV,” raising the question of whether this poem concerns something seen on TV or someone — the speaker? another? — observed while watching TV him- or herself (an unnerving idea, as we are rarely more vulnerable than when paying attention to our devices). “And nothing at all will happen again” could easily be a complete statement in and of itself, but “Then” extends it; without offering any tangible consequences, it implies “nothing” either as cause or as potentially cataclysmic effect, one we’ll be too busy watching TV to anticipate.

As Campbell’s latest book demonstrates, even a small body of minimalist poems can take on bulk and weight in the reader’s memory and imagination out of proportion to word count. “As Seen Watching TV” shows how this aura of completeness can itself be used as weapon: the fragmented or unbalancing poem masquerading as self-enclosed pearl, leaving the reader feeling oddly implicated, trying to supply the missing resolution, rounding out the deliberately unfinished. Taking the place, in other words, of the oyster.

Such studied ambivalence is no mere deconstructive gesture. Instead, the appeal is that it allows us to occupy equivocation, to see from two (or more) perspectives at once (or, more realistically, to flit between them in rapid succession). Individuated though it tends to be, and we tend to be, poetry of wit intimates that we’re all in the same boat:

Head Beater

I hear you
The concentration
The same puzzle as always[2]

Disclaimer: in presenting Campbell here as a poet of wit, I realize I am placing her work in a somewhat distorting light. She is also a fierce poet of Eros, a singular magician of sound and phrasing, a near-conceptual manipulator of found material. She is making poems as poised and crafty — crafted — as any currently being written.



1. Sarah Campbell, The Maximum (Fort Collins: Bonfire Press, 2008).

2. Sarah Campbell, Everything We Could Ask For (Austin: Little Red Leaves, 2010).

'Cross Worlds'

On 'Transcultural Poetics: An Anthology'

Cross Worlds: Transcultural Poetics

Cross Worlds: Transcultural Poetics

Edited by Anne Waldman and Laura Wright

Coffee House Press 2014, 366 pages, $18.95, ISBN 978-1566893589

Naropa University’s program in poetics has gained near legendary status. The annual summer sessions bring in poets from around the world to teach week long seminars, give readings, and participate in panel discussions. Founded in 1974 in honor of Jack Kerouac by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, it has long since eclipsed its early beginnings when it was generally taken quasi-seriously as a place for the devoted to study with surviving elders of the Beat generation, et al., while pursuing meditative practice (i.e., “disembodied poetics”) with varying levels of serious intent among participants. For a taste of what was in part the norm from the period look no further than the documentary video Fried Shoes, Cooked Diamonds (1989) for example of Gregory Corso’s bantering style of instruction in assorted living rooms and stairwells, wearing a necktie as headband. 

This is not to imply that the footage of Professor Corso is anything but adorably terrific. Rather that as Cross Worlds: Transcultural Poetics makes clear, the teaching style at Naropa has just evolved into the practice of a much more broadly palpable pedagogy. Not that some current-day instructors didn’t have a hand in the rambunctious climate of the past, as Eileen Myles attests: “The first time I ever came to Naropa, in 1979, I was sort of a young, constantly-getting-trashed lesbian with her girlfriend, and we came here and raised hell. We laughed at the Buddhism. Now I sit a bit” (136). Streaks of similar behavior no doubt continue among students of today. I know of one young would-be poet who crashed the summer program one week a few years ago, sitting in for free, and even at random consoling Anne Waldman for a brief minute in the women’s restroom over a recent personal loss in the poetry world.  

Opportunity for personal interaction with visiting instructors combined with unstated permission to rebel, raise some hell, and just do your own thing are trademark attractions of Naropa. After all, the integrated educational experience in poetics offered does not seek to separate out the personal and political from the work of writing and studying poetry. Instead it encourages students to draw upon personal histories, theories, and self-identifications when producing their own body of work. While this perhaps may be said of nearly any MFA program, few or no other programs are as dedicated to poetry as a radical art form capable of manifesting itself as cultural work with the desired intent of altering the political-social reality. 

Here’s Joanne Kyger sharing her own poet-survival tactics while on the panel “Cultural Activism: Writing Under the New World Order” during the dark years of the Bush regime in 2003:  

I inform myself as much as I can. I live in a small place, so that is what I can do. And I talk with other people. I add my presence to the bulk of people showing their democratic right to oppose policies they believe wrong through demonstration and parade — although at the last parade all I did was, with a friend, make posters under the apple tree in the back yard and take pictures of ourselves, but at least I have that as a recorded opposition. I obsess, I write poems; I have deep and dark dislike for the current people in power, I think they invented evil. I never used to hear about evil in the speech of diplomacy before. I gag when I hear the word terror. Then what? You start to get a little poisoned. Is it only rhetoric that has power? (176) 

An experimental bent and/or edgier political outlook colors the work of most everybody invited to Naropa. It remains one of an ever dwindling number of educational institutions where hands-on practical pedagogy focused on poetics will hopefully always trump bureaucracy. Of course administrative offices are still needed to keep the lights on and the classes going, but Naropa provides a beacon for successful resistance to the increasing corporate-think flooding American educational organizations. A direction which promises nothing good for the imagination or the holistic intellectual health of the country, as Eileen Myles exclaims in her talk “Choralizing Cultures”: “The ultimate direction of the corporate culture is continuous, continuous, continuous consciousness, and that only yields psychosis” (143). 

Having never been to Naropa I’m unable to speak from personal experience, but Cross Worlds certainly supports the impression that instructors at Naropa of all ages and backgrounds celebrate the program’s embrace of the anti-mainstream. They ask necessary questions of students, challenging presumptions, advising courses of action, and developing complex responses to complex times encouraging that the practice of poetics be at once both as divisive and yet healing an act as ever. Cecilia Vicuña’s “What’s Poetry to You?” pushes readers right up against the gates, questioning the limits of who is answerable to who, and for what. Vicuña is a Chilean activist and poet well aware there’s plenty of blame to be spread around, but she isn’t willing to let any members of her audience off the hook:

It is easy to feel angry with the US, but I think people all over the world don’t feel angry with the US.They feel puzzled and angry at the fact that Americans are not claiming their democracy. Why are Americans passive, letting these freedoms and this democracy slip away? (246) 

As with all the contributions, Vicuña’s talk is centered on how important it is a poet not lose sight of the ways in which engaging with the wider political and/or social culture vitalizes and transforms the nature of one’s poetic practice. Cross Worlds contains example after example of poets with a broad swath of political know-how combined with practical experience sharing how to put ideas into words into action. This is the fourth published gathering of Naropa material since the seminal two-volume Talking Poetics (1978) and as ever the accruing book collections of transcribed Naropa talks continue to prove endlessly rewarding. Entries in Cross Worlds date from 1975 all the way up to just a few years ago, presenting a wondrous mixed tape collection of sorts covering the scene across multiple generations of teachers and students. 

Pierre Joris, in “Arabic Poetics and the International Literary Scene,” points to the deplorable lacunae in Western historical knowledge regarding derivative roots of our traditional lyric love poetry: 

the lyric, the love song, comes from the troubadours. Since the Middle Ages, the root of the very word troubadours, our philologies have told us, comes from trobar, which means, they say, in Latin “to find.” Now if you look trobar up in the etymological dictionary, it has a little star on it that means this is a suggested root, this is not a documented root of this word. If you ask any specialist in Arabic poetry, specifically in Arabic Spain, the Moorish kingdom, that root is in fact tarab, the Arabic word for “song.” […] the best European — German & French & Spanish & English philologists — unable to tear themselves loose from what at base is cultural imperialism, namely their belief that there has to be European roots, an autochthonous European origin to lyric poetry & that it may — must — not come via Arabic song & poetry. But that is indeed where this lyrical tradition, that will also give us Dante & beyond, comes from. (160)  

In “Talking Back to Whitman,” Lorenzo Thomas re-frames the conversation from the perspective of his renewed vision of an African-American poetry tradition. He offers short takes on a number of poets beginning with a compelling, if somewhat oppositional to others, such as Amiri Baraka (109), reading of eighteenth century Phillis Wheatley by stressing the importance she be read as a deeply ironic poet steeped in Alexander Pope. Regarding the early twentieth century poet Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr., he pointedly remarks:

Here is a man whose father was a poet and a minister of the gospel, a man whose legacy, if you want to call it that, extends to the woman [Wheatley] who wrote excellent neoclassical poetry a few years before the American Revolution. On what possible basis could anyone in 1917 say of this young man, as he stands up to read a sonnet, how did this happen? That is the question. It doesn’t make sense, does it? He read Shakespeare, he read Spenser, he read Wheatley, he read Milton; why in 1917 should someone ask him, “how is it that you write sonnets?” (110) 

In similar spirit, Bhanu Kapil gives her own “meaning of the word postcolonial” (171) in “The Event of the Border”:

Write backwards from the dissipated, exploded, violent body. Write the blows backwards until you make a real body. This movement of a body through space, how to reduce the pain of this body, the pain of a static, habitual, repeated movement — impact — is what I mean by healing. Not resolution, but a rewriting in neuromuscular terms of gesture. As the new gesture, which is often much more painful to experience than the habitual gesture to hold, is held, we breathe deeply, to nourish the new structures of fibers and nerve bundles and cells. If we breathe like this long enough, the specific human cultural form can become something else. (171)    

A firm belief in poetry’s inherent transformative principle properties is pervasive throughout this collection. From continents to languages, there’s a diverse offering of perspective both historical and contemporary. The result is not only an enduring testament to Naropa’s program in poetics but to the overall pursuit of knowledge grounded by poetic practice. While some of the panel discussions and talks may appear all too brief or incomplete, Cross Worlds nevertheless contains several indispensible documents concerning contemporary poetics.

Habitation caesurae

A review of Heather Christle's 'Heliopause'



Heather Christle

Wesleyan University Press 2015, 112 pages, $24.95, ISBN 0819575291

First of all, what is a heliopause? If etymology can be believed, it’s the caesura that lives in the sun, a respite from ordinary days and nights, a pause in life wearing a yellow dress, or maybe a green dress, maybe also embedded with jewels. These poems by Heather Christle, in her fourth full-length collection, wear the title well, but not all of them. There are ebbs in the sun’s glint that let us in on what ants might learn from masturbation, on the poet-speaker’s friendship with a fellow poet, and on the oscillations of music and its influence on the poet-speaker, though this too could be redolent of sun (in a sense). These are not conventional narrative poems, and, as with her other books, Christle provides a sense of lyric exigency that is both humorous and necessary, leaving little excess but comprising a world that leaves readers with ways to get in.

The sections of the book diverge from one another quite a bit. These are poems of habitation, in the sense that a linguist would dwell in language, as the epigraph by W. S. Graham lets us know: “What is language using us for? / It uses us all.” The poems are very light, as the yellow or green dress attests, and Christle writes in the book’s first poem that “What’s in charge here is the scattered light all over // and how it pulls my very blood into my hands.” She immediately segues into a beautiful section called “Disintegration Loop,” a meditative piece dedicated to William Basinski, a long poem written while listening to his music. This is a poem of contradictions and loops; it is a haunting poem that reminds me of Jack Spicer or some of the cooler pieces by George Oppen or Michael Palmer. Christle uses abstract philosophical language (“beauty is what beauty does to you”) to weave a web of paratactic fragments here.

Other poems in Heliopause address someone ambiguously defined as “you.” In “Summer,” the poet-speaker says:

Today you find yourself guilty
as the rim you split
an egg against
You press charges
You spell out your name

It’s tough to know who’s being addressed, for the speaker doesn’t seem to address everyone reading but an individual. These poems are not without a sense of violence, of the Real, for in “Realistic Flowers,” Christle writes that “I was so happy I could have / torn your head apart.” I get the sense that Christle is deftly and consciously working with Lacanian themes in the smaller poems that are not addressed to anyone, and a number of them show a sunny face to the reader that is just the slightest bit menacing.

“Elegy for Neil Armstrong” makes a whole section of the book, and is very funny. Christle riffs on Frank O’Hara — “Neil, we can // see you // get / up” — and the poem is spaced across the page to read like an erasure poem. This poem stands apart (but just a little) from the sad, spacey speaker of the other Real poems, and so do some of the poems with dedications. Christle maintains a sense of disappointed hunger in many of her poems, but the haecceity in the poem to Arda Collins is a nice change: “What they are trying to tell you / is you are wearing the wrong bra / for your shape and situation.” “Dear Seth,” for Seth Landman, does the same. Here the speaker-poet leaves the sun and gets sentimental, with lines like, “You have been disappointed / in love and I am sorry.” She maintains spacey humor but includes more of the physical world: “It’s snowing again lightly in Ohio.” I think this is a welcome change and appreciate Christle’s inclusion of the sensible world and its details.

The last poem, “Poem for Bill Cassidy,” is more confessional, and seems much softer and contains more gravitas than the other poems. It opens:

Already I have confessed
the whole alphabet
                                    under my own duress
I came back again to try
a lamentation

The poem ends the book (with its multifarious and quirky humor) on a somber tone. Yet the book ends with a thick light, as the speaker would have it. The yellow sun stays bright, and I’ll be curious to see whether Christle’s next book delves into the shadows a bit more.