An adventure in thinking
Simon Jarvis’s The Unconditional: A Lyric, a single poem spanning 242 pages, might very well be the Waste Land of our times — only unsung, and way longer. Any number of light-hearted parallels can be drawn between Jarvis’s venture and The Waste Land as its modernist predecessor as a cartography of urban/consumerist experience, but a closer look and such comparisons collapse to differences and distances. While Eliot’s was a (now typical) modernist impulse, a celebration of “fragments shored against my ruins,” erudition, and the Dickensian city in its throes, Jarvis’s work is heavily ironic, self-reflexive, and like the characters it harbors, it never stops unreeling itself to no end — not just a fragmented consciousness, but a Romantic core sustaining itself through and in-between a continuous argument with dramatis personae derived from a range of intensities, with background shades of Hegel (starting with “The highway blacked out like comparison” ), Adorno, Husserl, Bourdieu, Barthes, Hobbes, Adam Smith, and Paul de Man, to name a few (I did not know death had redone so many) and with its constant grappling with phenomenology, being in all its shades and cases and the body, ideology, virtuality, and reality (or at least a reality where “As ‘lack of cash’ returns to ‘face I smash’ / then to the bosom of that after church / I cannot bear, yet cannot bear to leave” ), not to mention its revisionings of literary theory and its critique of science (“Sir Richard Dawkins Baronet of Slush”  is lampooned in the poem, one thinks, less for his ideology than for behaving like the rock kicked by Johnson), The Unconditional seems bent on giving the philosophy back to poetry’s P.
At first blush The Unconditional seems pretentious/pedantic in its tenor and the ground it covers. (The poem has the dramatis personae QNUXMUXKYL [poetic junk DNA], Agramant [very much a man of the world], =x [the hero on his Inquest], and Jobless [in search of an answer or failing that a job offer from Agramant], who trace and retrace their paths in J’s neurons where he sits writing, always already slightly hysterical versions of themselves, caught up in half-finished conversations, but always coming back with a remainder, a left-over or by some accounts, epiphenomenon, that refuses to die [“The gap I am, that absence in the brain” (129)].) From what I experience, though, the poem’s concern is not erudition, nor obscurity. As a lay reader, I have, time and again, stammered while reading The Unconditional out in my head, not because of the references/memes ceaselessly segueing into each other, but because of the original force of the verse/thinking itself which refuses to be a meme. A love duet from Alien (176) sidles up to D. 959. Jarvis’s is not the sort of verse that ideologically resists either closure or interpretation. The lyric’s concerns are more complex, and one can say with almost a straight face, a brush with the sublime, or to use Jarvis’s own phrase, “poetic thinking as a materialism of the beautiful.” The programmable desert in which it sings is also one where voices are heard in the decimals of the rocks and sky.
In the preface to a book of essays, Adorno cites in detail a letter from the composer Schoenberg to Rudolph Kolisch:
You worked out the row for my string quartet (except for one small matter: the second consequent is: 6th note C sharp, 7th G sharp) correctly. It must have taken a great deal of effort, and I doubt I would have had the patience. Do you really think it is of any use to know that? […] it can act as a stimulus for a composer who is still inexperienced in the use of rows, suggesting one way to approach a piece — a purely technical indication of the possibility to draw on rows. But this is not where we discover aesthetic qualities. […] I have attempted to make this clear to Wiesengrund on several occasions, and also to Berg and Webern. But they don’t believe me. I cannot say it often enough: My works are twelve-note compositions, not twelve-note compositions.
Also Jarvis himself — “That passage of the record is as though / the pianist should not play but invoke / the score before our eyes — ‘you know the rest’” (45).
The poem has as its daimon, its prime mover, William Wordsworth, or at least the Wordsworth who appears in Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song. At one point in that book, Jarvis quotes a reviewer, a contemporary of Wordsworth who had written “[t]he division of labour is not rightly kept up between the picture gallery of his imagination, and the logical workshop of his brain” (23). Jarvis goes on to discuss why this is rightly so. That such is the nature of “philosophic song.” From what he says one can gather that poetic thinking for Jarvis is somehow not just a matter of hyperlinking philosophical “topics” but allowing the philosophic song to trace the contours of thinking qua thinking. As he puts it, “The reliance on the proper names of the philosophers or of the star theorists creates a situation in which their thoughts are ‘always already read,’ in the sense that as soon as we see those names a pre-interpreted series of ‘positions’ tends to be marshalled. In these circumstances, readers’ eyes readily slip from the words quoted to the proper name taken to be in possession of them. The name is read instead of the thoughts” (7). Jarvis traces (in the same book) two overlapping movements in the final lines of the Prelude. From what I gather of Jarvis’s thoughts on this, Wordsworth, while underscoring the importance of an original perception, does not claim this to be a movement back to a past/childhood where things were clearer, not a genetic but more of a static account speaking to the ever-renewed and ever-decaying process of creation. Or to quote Wordsworth via Jarvis, “Uneasiness must be driven away by fresh uneasiness” (147).
Jarvis also highlights Crabb Robinson’s take (23–24) on Wordsworth’s poem as a transmutation of the philosophic (derived by blasting the “accidental individual dress” off like a true philosopher and then reclothing this idea in an individual dress; setting up “a poetic exhibition”). Add to this Jarvis’s complex give and take with the voice of the scriptures.
optatively by repetition I
break open from its smooth erasure there
a dry skin on my skin and killing it
break my bone open to the speaking wind
becoming utterly incapable
of not receiving broken life as life (49)
The “optatively” in the first line hovers like a prayer over the rest of the lines. Much of the poem has to do with peeling off layers to get to the meat and bones inside. Here, “smooth erasure” talks to that loss of affect, codified responses to art and society where errors are rounded off/explained away just like the small gap that “I am.” Jarvis wants to use repetition against repetition and come up with, if not a solution, a temporary glade. There is a sense of surrender/hope here, the body left as a device for whatever Idea or deity would have it. Broken life as life. Being as a becoming. Still later, “=x ran from his body” (116).
Ostensibly a novel written in metrical verse, with the main protagonist “=x” (as Jarvis points out in a characteristically playful footnote to the poem, “Readers may wish to give the character =x a value equal to, or slightly smaller than, that of the letter ‘s’” ), The Unconditional traces the journey of =x and several minor characters including a character named Jobless (a nod to the class consciousness of the poet or/and perhaps the biblical Job) as they move through a series of thought experiments/experiences and settings that disappear as soon as they arise. (It all starts on the polished counter of a bar). Jarvis makes no secret of this instability in the poetic surroundings, pastoral or otherwise. There’s a sense of “comedy” even when the presiding deity in some of the sections is a car crash (described in detail, the sensations of weightlessness, the snapping back of the head, what goes on in there) or suicide or lecture (pages 54–55, where the professor, a self-professed liberal humanist, drones on about the staying power [or the lack of it] of Ideas, continues losing his audience till only =x and a few others are left of which young Wiesengrund is possibly the more well known). “The ‘spirit’ which is at last arrived at is at first only this surplus by which beings are somehow, as it were, more than what they are. The model is not one of chiasmic exchange, but of an original proliferating excess.”3 It is this original excess that is the guiding spirit of The Unconditional.
To quote Kant, “The pure concept of the transcendental object (which is actually always the same, =x, in all our cognitions) is what is able to provide all our empirical concepts in general with reference to an object, i.e. with objective reality.” Jarvis seems to have taken this Kantian lesson to heart. The poem begins “Data float down; the own rote load doles out / a doubt-loud flow into the overload” (5). This emphasis on data brings out the tension between a theological impulse in Jarvis and the view of the economic man as a site of continuous construction. The next two lines take this further with “Facts, moping at their blindless diurm, tread / the light to dumb muck for cash in one line. / Hush dim glut making you a linear red. / Hush now to a mindless lucky smash. / Infinitesimally aperture” (5) or again later in the book, “Money mourn Person from its metal tree / My long discolouration is well known” (111). The poem uses Light with all its theological and purifying force. Only the Light in this materialistic simulation has a touch of violence, forcing its way through the infinitesimal apertures of spirits/minds/brains beset by data. “‘[T]here is always something more to see’ […] as ‘continually’ or ‘yet’ is repeated, the more the motionlessness of all this infinite striving beneath it.”
This usage of Light seems to have become something of a trend amongst many British poets. including J. H. Prynne, John Wilkinson, and other “Cambridge” poets like John Regan who seem to be working on a model of transcendence gone wrong in the modern world. Jarvis, to his credit, takes this one step further, superimposing a discarded Romanticism on the subject who is little more than the summum bona of his purchases, whether Ideas or particulars glowing in LCD. So we find =x torn between suicidal impulses “running upstairs to push his willing teeth / into and through the glass and to an air / hoped sung and stammered by what broke bones there / suspended in brown vacancies of shade / crowding their varnish to a wooden glade / of former trees whose long surrendered height observed no alterations in the light / as =x first climbed the stairs and then climbed down / backwards from Eden with no smile nor frown / breaking the clench of composited teeth” (6). It is interesting how everything comes alive, however miserable their present condition may be, in the poem. The trees with their long-surrendered height seem to be a meditation on the Fall which =x, that human condition, is doomed to repeat and play out through endless retakes/replays. “Endless wanderings” of the spirit along a conveyor belt branded Jacob’s Ladder or a Supermarket of Earthly Delights. (As for the teeth and how they play out in the poem, and for a synopsis of the poem’s concerns, see this excellent review by Tom Jones.)
It is interesting to see how Jarvis injects this sort of thinking into his poetics. Negations multiply into positive assertions or what could potentially be convictions. Possibly Jarvis’s verse can be branded as “a phenomenology of hope” or “a despairing of present-at-hand philosophy.”
ONly immiserable life can tell
why copia copies out at all a truth
ONly the precrescendal mind in hell
knows why the copyist copies any truth:
an old mutation of the modern mind
gives to the singular every poorest best;
a new-old reinvention of the kind
returns to copiousness its lack of test:
as frozen wastes are warmer in the zone
where heating makes them partially at home
so when a falsest rigor comes to rest
its worser impulses begin to home.
From colons semicolons multiply.
Logic at length in lists must surely die. (48)
The first line features the word “immiserable,” one of the poet’s many neologisms. The im- prefix can possibly be read in two ways (aside from the obvious pun on immeasurable): as an immersion in misery, or a life without misery, touched by grace. Now the copia transcribing truth, etc., and the quick analogy with frozen food from the supermarket continue to describe a virulent spread of logic arriving out of nothing and leading us into the rigor mortis of a nothingness, of a lack of Spirit that we try to beat at its own game. Thinking becomes a program at length in lists. The volume of discourse, the lists, seemingly cover up for the solipsism. Jarvis’s attitude to language is refreshing, and thus on page 130 we have Jobless upsetting his beer can and “its glop / refuting thus all languaged theory’s map” as Jobless continues to “listlessly” look at a “lit mass of illumined cloud” on his screen. Later on Jarvis claims “Only part of language is like chess.” He seems to believe in the redemptive power of language, not just the materiality of the signifier or Wittgenstein’s language game. “[T]he more material song becomes our skin” (163) but in The Unconditional we have a level of belief that seems to assert there’s a way out. Jarvis flatly states, “Language without life is its business suit” (205).
This IS the broken lighted triple word
lighting whose daylight audible as sound
redoubles irredundantly its force
donating not a penny to the thing
and not a penny either to the thought
where wordlessly evacuated space
resubstantiates its nothings there (49)
Tom Jones writes, “Samuel Johnson’s refutation of George Berkeley’s immaterialism (Boswell reports him kicking a stone and saying ‘I refute it thus’ to demonstrate that there is material substance) finds itself allied to materialist attitudes to culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But the act of blunt (and philosophically rather unconvincing) argument is for Johnson an act of self-harm. Here it is an act of aggression towards another: typically for this poem the seemingly contained philosophical action/argument spills out of the individual sphere to become a social problem.”
Later on in the poem this comes back, true to the poem’s commitment to repetition and distributed thinking.
Total transcendence furs its desert good,
Only inhuman rock may now resist
ideal billows that would first prefer
to rot the soulless soul-piece stuck inside
and paint its values in the desert sky. (206)
Boswell’s account of Samuel Johnson, in the middle of a conversation after coming out of church, “striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it” eerily mirrors the energetics of the characters here. The search for meaning that is not always “sealing discomfort with a stony eye” (73). For example we are told of
Where the repulsive gold most thickly flows
or where most sparsely does find its repose
its thin tails cannot but spell contours which
reweb excreted nets of thinking glitch
eating away at basiliskal state
bring on the cruxial imperfection where
some meaning particle enjoins the next
to blurt out meaning quite outside the text.
I.e. Agramant was terrified (137)
Literary theory or otherwise, the focus of The Unconditional is on the excess of things. Here cash and the entangled “meaning particles” of the Internet conspire, for all their apparent negativity, to blurt out meaning outside the text. Jarvis’s poem is itself a model of this variety of original thinking. But Agramant of course only wants his “bills to be paid.”
The typography of the poem, with its quickly-multiplying parentheses that sometimes open and continue unerringly through pages only to close with a finality that does not really give any closure, is recursive, caught in an infinite loop without seeming repetitive. (Though the end of the poem is a repetition of the initial invocation. The cycle completed, the program executed. One can take a leaf out of Jarvis’s book on Wordsworth as he writes “The ‘endless way’ is thus bracketed, both in the facts of the narrative and in reader’s minds, as a seeming endlessness.”) The fact that the poem is written entirely in iambic pentameter and that it self-consciously employs a poeticized idiom or even purple (bruised?) prose, does not take away from this programmatic feel of it.
Time and again, while reading The Unconditional, I have wondered over how someone like me, from outside the verdant grounds of academia, can derive so much pleasure from a poem this unabashedly complex, and derive so much delight not just from connecting the dots (which I do unthinkingly every time I open the book again) but from the quality of endless thinking that goes on in there. Perhaps the age of the hypertext has prepared the ground for a work like The Unconditional. Where knowledge is not a limiting factor, Ideas hover between memes and actuality, there being no inner continuously talking down to an outer, but there also being no unreal love of the outer stripping down the inner. Thinking, to Jarvis, is as intimate as a refrain as tinnitus and just as real/troubling.
Perhaps on some level Jarvis’s venture speaks to Deleuze’s characterization of individuation as “it operates beneath all forms, is inseparable from a pure ground that brings it to the surface and trails with it. It is difficult to describe this ground or the terror and attraction it excites. Turning over the ground is the most dangerous occupation, but also the most tempting in the stupefied moments of an obtuse will … For this ground, along with the individual, rises to the surface yet assumes neither form nor figure … It is the indeterminate, but the indeterminate in so far as it continues to embrace determination.”
Or perhaps the only thing worth remembering while reading this book is Schoenberg’s admonition — “My works are twelve-note compositions, not twelve-note compositions.” And so they are, and so it IS.
6. Tom Jones, review of The Unconditional: A Lyric, Jacket 31(2006).
7. Douglas Lane Patey, “Johnson’s Refutation of Berkeley: Kicking the Stone Again,” Journal of the History of Ideas 47, no. 1 (January–March 1986): 139.
A review of Julia Cohen’s 'Collateral Light'
“I believe only in the evidence of what stirs my marrow,” Antonin Artaud writes in his “Manifesto in a Clear Language.” “I am visceral!” cries Julia Cohen in Collateral Light. There is evidence to believe it. To engage with this book is to be involved in the marrow-stirring process. To be plunged, arrow-like, into the breathing body and to pass clear through the bloody flank to the still, white bone. And yet, despite the violence of this tragically un-vegan metaphor, the hand that lifts us from the quiver is gentle, and generous, and shrewd, and funny. The arrow’s destination remains, somewhat miraculously, whole and unharmed. By Cohen’s hand, we sail through the air, through the delightful estrangement of seeing the world transform into a sea of tiny objects below us, and when we land, we’re deeper inside of our own guts than we thought possible.
The arrow is a metaphor I didn’t choose. Cohen chose it, again and again, as one of several images that arcs through the collection, threading the presence of a single idea through what is otherwise a book virtuosic in its endlessly renewable imagination. “No One Told Me I Was the Arrow,” the opening poem of the book’s first section, introduces the sharp, flying object:
a black rooster
of my red
into a glass
The images here are representative of Cohen’s overall approach to imagery, in that they are attentive and surreal. They are compelled to be precise — “a black rooster” — while at the same time mostly unstapled from the rules that govern our particular physical reality — “tipping / the color / of my red / heart’s name.” They are at once preoccupied with the limitations and ecstasies of being a being, and soaring beyond the meatbody. “My pixels / deflect arrows.” Cohen’s is an imagination with one foot in the real and one wing in the ether.
As Artaud’s brief “Manifesto” continues, he too invokes a sharp weapon, this time as a means of getting at a theory of the image:
There is a knife which I do not forget. But it is a knife which is halfway into dreams, which I keep inside myself, which I do not allow to come to the frontier of the lucid senses. That which belongs to the realm of the image is irreducible by reason and must remain within the image or be annihilated. Nevertheless, there is a reason in images, there are images which are clearer in the world of image-filled vitality.
Artaud’s knife and Cohen’s arrow — and, by extension, Cohen’s imagery — are to be understood in context. That which is irreducible celebrates the capability of the image, and Collateral Light is nothing if not irreducible. “Color has me / I imagine,” she writes in “The Place We Worry About,” one poem of many that embodies the image’s power to evoke real feeling by lifting real objects from their realist circumstance and refashioning them, collage-like, into a new and essential unit. And as in so many of Cohen’s poems, this careful curation of unlikely language-objects yields, as discovery does, a complex mix of anxiety and delight:
of a house rhythmically
To shuck the silken
An accent misplaced
Slackness of violets
In opposition to the place we worry
As evidence effects the afternoon
How real the object
remains despite all abstractions
A violet rash
Denied their easy and expected environments, our senses perk up. They worry. They anticipate. Without the bright light of narrative, we feel around by the glow of our heightened senses, encounter each object one at a time — gardens, silk, violets — and our relation to them is necessarily instinctive, from the gut.
Indeed, the theory and execution of “feeling” is a constant conscience in this collection. “I can’t just sit here with feelings,” Cohen writes. “I wear / the frame of the glasses without glass / so you can touch my eyes.” Here, even expressions of tenderness are rooted in a visceral, penetrating strangeness: “I put my face / inside your face // & look down / at the sunken garden // My toes are cute // My packet of / bees comes in.” It’s the old joke about how the best way to someone’s heart is through his chest, with an axe. A knife, an arrow. Cohen’s images sharpen and plunge, and stay in us.
But I want to give you a new feeling one you can’t
get rid of right away
That the arrow represents a pattern in the collection is indicative of the collection’s generosity, its interest in collaborating with the reader as she makes exploration through the book. Cohen intuits our biological need for patterns even in the most imaginative of playgrounds and creates structures for the rational brain to play in, while at the same time challenging it to play differently. Often, we find Cohen establishing small moments of certainty and then destabilizing them, urging our rational parts to recognize themselves and nonetheless look to the gut for guidance, as in these lines from “Someday You’ll Be Replaced by Language & Then Nothing at All”:
I killed the beast & then I became the beast
Whatever I ask for turns red
I climbed the stairs before the staircase
I’m to blame
Your first image bounced back the real ear
sits in the chest
To bend our biology toward “the real ear” requires that we be convinced by the power of the image to speak, and the legitimacy of the gut as a source of listening, of feeling, and, ultimately, of truth. It requires that we add the rhetoric of knives and arrows, their sharpness and irreducibility, to our definition of what is to be believed. (Who will argue with an arrow when it’s lodged in the skin?) These poems embody the sense that the particularity of the visceral, of our physical biology, cannot be separated from the instinctive, mysterious quality that also resides there. “Abdomen domain // Where I store my arrows.” The same is true of our feelings — driven by pattern and information, characterized by outburst. As it explores these capacities in the image and in ourselves, Collateral Light curates a feeling of what poetry — and what we — might be capable of stirring.
On Brandon Downing's 'Mellow Actions'
Brandon Downing’s Mellow Actions is the latest installment in a body of work notable for its batsoid consistency across realms as diverse as film, collage, and verse. It’s the wish of this reviewer to induce in the reader a sort of psychical readiness to enjoy this book, much like Iannis Xenakis’s miniature zoom-crackle composition “Concret PH” was designed to gird the nerves of picnicking spectators in preparation for Edgard Varèse’s “Poème Électronique” at the 1958 Phillips Pavilion.
Mellow Actions, dedicated as it fittingly is “For San Antonio” — where the Alamo, I believe, “stands,” a fine central Texas metropolis known for its convention centers and a river boardwalk festooned with Anthropologies and P.F. Chang’s — also seems very Taos-y, with ghostly stucco and Kokopelli affectations beaming in the aura of an AWOL spirit animal’s cocky inner shout-outs as they’re thickened and thinned by the American West’s nuclear-test-laced places.
“You’re just a foolish girl character
In milk industry-sponsored playlets
I perform for schools across the urban Southwest.” “So?”
Frightening variants of turgid nougat,
Yellow, ’73, god damn, say
Goodbye to a whole helicopter of bullshit.
With all the sanguine gusto of a super-parasympathetic nervous system that knows neither fight nor flight, Mellow Actions makes for a real wide-open-type palette of dreams; it gave me over to association, waving my receipts around in the night-hot stillness of the San Antonio at the end of the mind. Have you ever found yourself trying to open a new tab in your brain? And did you know that, at its most extreme points, Texas is some 800 miles across?
Shortly after Mellow Actions’s midpoint I think of Scott Walker’s song “Jesse,” an ode to catastrophe refracted through horror-corny Memphis moonlight and the ghost of Elvis’s stillborn twin brother that ends with a Beckett-like figure doing a smart Sisyphus exercise:
In the dream I am crawling around
on my hands and knees
Smoothing out the prairie
All the dents and the gouges
and the winds dying down
I lower my head
Press my ear to the prairie
(Scott Walker, The Drift)
This covers only one aspect (the Aquarian, perhaps) of Mellow Actions, its forms and the feelings these forms impart; the other, Dionysian aspect (and it is within the resources of this text to be shabby, so I mix god systems for you) is its actual language stuff, those “frightening variants of turgid nougat” churning bloodily through larks of chatter and moments of arduous lexical gorgeousness:
Which way could I get repetitive sets of
Four of my arm and wing feathers
To, on their own, tighten and form into
Stretched arcs, launching from my
Locked back, evenly spaced, towards a
With his tenacious and wide-awake Mellow Actions, Downing really “throws down” (all the chips on one move), or “throws up” (hands/inner organs), or “lays down” (the gamut/law/new rule), or “lays up” (Spurs basketball is a major subject), or “lays out” (as on a terracotta gurney, bullhorns and rhinestones epoxied to it, very mystical-stressed Las Vegas cast in the mise en scène) his vision of poetry in the age of “thoughtfully raised beef” wherein he’ll “store your web prints, transfer them to DVD+R, archive it, / Leaving you to focus on village flyovers.”
Mellow Actions also brings to mind Anthony Burgess’s “A Shorter Finnegans Wake,” which was such a daft/dim idea seeing as it’s hardly FW’s length that turns people off, and in truncating the thing into a merely shorter work with its own peculiar thickness he left these inadvertently funny chimerical glimpses of the twentieth century’s flyest homme qui rit. This feeling of compression, kneading, regurgitation into a form whose own apparently unforeseen contradictions express an additional level of comedy (of the flatfooted pratfalling variety) is present in Mellow Actions. A keyed-up reader will get the sense of many levels of both recursive and fractal revision having happened in order to get the periodic cheeseboard of the elements of Mellow Actions just right and wrong enough.
The title poem is a clear single, a nerve-tremblingly silly deep epic miniseries of serial form, showing that drawing-of-straws methods can offer a short hop to that Gesamtkunstwerk.
Anybody recall some song about a good general contractor?
As we meet the middle of this review, I present to you the manifesto that Mellow Actions wrote for itself in my head:
Mellow Actions is the product of a Rimbaudean surrealist technique (because in spite of what the facts say, “mellow actions” is, in our hearts, a rearrangement of the letters in the word “illuminations”) getting velcroed to a vernacular syntax at violent and joyous odds with the conspiracy between literacy and interiority.
Mellow Actions posits, in each of its many linked verses (think Japanese cooperatively group-written renga linked verse circa 1680 with its group dynamics of being not very cooperative at all and often most concerned with mutual skulduggery and sabotage), a comic speech that equates up-to-the-minute/over-colloquial/oversharing-prone/Internet-entangled attention-and-communication patterns with the proverbial “eternal Now,” a venerable, archetype-less, paradisiacal inner space —
And in so doing, Mellow Actions ouroborizes the dialectic between Transcendence and Proximity (or, sez Emerson, between logos and ethos, Power and Will, etc.) that is endemic to much American poetry if not poetry in summa.
Mellow Actions will, on that note and in every line and with MUCH LOVE, airbrush away whatever in the way of “meaning” might be misconstrued on either side of itself beyond the investing weirdness of today’s homepage’s psychic microclimate.
(Brief sunshower, foam of applause)
Let me end on a general note. For the overall excellence of this text, and also (without meaning to court gestalts) for the relevance to radical aesthetic praxis of the type of labor that went into enacting it, the term “bleeding edge” comes to mind — although like with a butter knife, that bluntest yet whipsmartest item in the knife family, like Zen “cutting through everything, even its own knife.”
Like Stevens’s bleach-in-the-sky vision of a mind without day or night, “the accomplishment of an extremist in an exercise.”
As I gaze on page 25’s fiery Lava Gym Downtown New Braunfels logo, I am one with tumbleweeds dozing in red dust.
Mellow Actions: a systematic derangement of the senses, minus the senses!
A review of Julie Carr's 'Rag'
I doubt “to be on the rag” existed as an expression or possibility before Eve and her husband trudged out of paradise into a world where the sky was lowered like a boom and the suburbs sodden with guilt and lust. The American King James Version lends God an especially cruel voice: “To the woman he said, I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in sorrow you shall bring forth children; and your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you.” And along with that, I imagine, came menstrual cramps. The primary human matter was unclean at its source. But where Milton wanted to justify God’s ways to man, Carr is interested in the daily fallout, especially for the fairer sex, who got the brunt of divine wrath and masculine blame. Rag, Carr’s fifth book of poetry, functions as a single long poem that begins and ends with a river red. The poem is nourished, and ultimately hemmed in, by these waters.
— from out of the wretched tide through the heat mothers pass — (9)
Motherhood here is inconceivable outside the archaic mechanism of human sacrifice. A vision of murder or suicide marks the passage of Rag, and the fact that we’re not sure if it’s the one or the other makes sense when both count as the price to pay for some essential fault.
The purple hem of her skirt — wind bends an alder to the ground (clouds doing nothing)
A body falls from a bridge, falls or is pushed, pushed or is leaping; the river
takes her, neon, neon in the river o red (56)
“If denial is a river it runs through doomed societies” (57). The characters in Rag acquiesce by silence, by a denial so permanent that they don’t perceive it, even as it steals their potential to act coherently, that is, to act through a coherence of language, reason, and instinct. I don’t mean to give the impression that this denial is related to God, or that Rag is a reappraisal of Genesis. God has been replaced by government, daily-ness, history, and routine. These forces demand a steady flow of blood. But for all that, they are only present as a shadow, which is to say as both a pressure and an absence. This seems right. The most effective border is the one inaccessible to words and inchoate to logic.
A technician provides a service while the law prescribes a border, a border around the language to frighten you. In this way we conserve an originary attitude, a set of dearly helds
More dear than the tawdry websites of the summoned, than the sportshops of the free, the gilded triggers of the expelled is our speech embalmed
Now like crows against snow, our eyes alone will decide
who has something to teach and who has something to learn (45)
This is a society that’s lost the freshness of intelligent exchange. A ‘rag’ is also a tabloid, a garbage newspaper, a platform for hacks and hawks. It’s a bundle of paper whose purpose is to suffocate any discussion that might advance the status quo. In biblical terms, it’s eternal old skin for new wine. It makes a society ripe for charlatans, snake charmers, and zealous ignorance. Businessmen sell soot. A father cuts off his daughter’s hands to appease the devil. A country fights perpetually, somewhere else. Not incidentally, the devil himself might make an appearance, pursuing his charming solipsism in front of an audience.
Neither transmitting nor receiving, but with a wire looped over his car
a man attempts to define the borders of the living
In russet suit — drinks from his red cup. Turns his face to the crowd
This is where it begins, he says, the center of the woman’s body its horizon (58)
Carr is very good at superimposing the local on the national, and vice versa. A woman thinks over her adultery while her husband plays the crossword. “These vague hours will deliver us eventually to the speech about the war” (40). Mothers and fathers sit in a school meeting and do nothing of value “while the debt ceiling rises,” and the oldest brother, uncultivated, settles into his “precise and foundational lust” (80). Pity (or fear) the land where the next generation has had its inheritance filched by magical thinking. On that note, I would like to quote one of the darkest and most shimmering moments of the river Rag:
In the tale the oldest brother’s pockets are empty, his sack is empty, his feet go round and round. […] What is happening? asks the nine-year-old. Dancers in black reveal a narrative of war. The city’s roof gardens go green. Actors in tights smoke in doorways. Frowning girls read on trains. Says the man, I cannot overemphasize how much I am against this. The women uncross and re-cross their legs. Lights blaze into the night with the attitude of horses, the attitude of fruit trees by highways. My hands circle the ribs of the sleeper and lift her from the couch while he codes a plan for a city made entirely of water, city of canals and rivers, upsurge and fall. Why can’t we add another day to April? asks the younger girl with the calendar before her. Because, says the mother, that’s not how calendars work. A long time ago, she says, you were a kid, and now you are not and I am a kid for a long time. How does that work? The wind like an anticipated asset arrives and is quickly subsumed into itself. Says the mother, pushing the stroller, that’s time, time does that. The government avoids a shutdown by “abdicating responsibility” “beyond” “bad at it.” And all sides claim victory as the laws are soaked and someone adds a six-pack of Red Bull to the bill. (79)
So what’s the problem? The problem is that every status quo — or everything for which we deny — has to be enforced, finally. Rag is set on articulating (obliquely, with mind clenched) the rapport between violence and possession. Women here are empty locations of desire, a truism that might constitute the law of advertisement: sex sells, meaning that it can be bought directly or vicariously. Rag is populated by film starlets reduced to a ghost of light, to an absence that can be filled or refilled with another person’s exercise of want. This is the real meaning of human possession. The heroine watches as the war hero departs on his train. “There were gaps between her teeth and she grinned ghoulishly at her own reflection in the moving train window … Consider my identity, she might say, failing to force her reflection to still” (39). The voice of Rag asks to be looked at “like a hole in the road, the garden or the sky” (39). The logic of possession, of being possessed, is insane. The possessed is obliged at the same moment to be and not to be.
“Like an oxen yoked” the daughter must please the king, please or be killed. For the king said, “come to me not clothed, not naked, not riding, not walking, not in the road, and not off the road, and if you can do that I will marry you” (42)
What the king really wants is neither possible nor impossible. The girl solves the riddle and is wed.
“But what is it you like about me?” she asked him a month later. “Your hands,” he said, “when they serve me the sweets.” And so the sister cut off her hands, just as St. Lucy gouged out her eyes, offering them on a cake plate (43)
I don’t know if the reader should look for solutions. Rag is too sumptuous a work of pessimism to give them. That’s a compliment, both on aesthetic and even political grounds. Rag’s pessimism ends by celebrating, in its way, what can’t ever be possessed and denied: death, aging, sustenance, birth, naivety, expression. They can be distorted or used, but not for long. Eventually, the river sweeps away the shore.
The dying are interviewed on the radio. The shadow of a thorny branch across a furrow in the rising light’s a hook like a child’s call. You in your yellow shirt, a language clipped into monosyllables, a maroon carpet beneath you. Even as tree buds, a stone in the mouth of the toad, even as blood gathers in the pregnant woman’s widening veins. You place your wine under your chair. Just as animals work themselves into one another, so do languages. (68)
Lawrence Giffin’s Christian Name is a tricky book because it’s the kind of book that seems to do one thing and then actually does another. On the one hand, it’s a collection of poems explicitly about a topic: the “feral-child” Genie, who was kept in isolation by her family until age thirteen and then submitted to years of experiments and study and exploitation by researchers looking for clues to language development. The poems reference Genie, name her, address her, describe her situation, and occasionally seem to speak from her point of view, though without making it clear what that entails — it’s not that Christian Name ventriloquizes Genie, not quite, but it may be the case that the poems’ contorted grammar and relatively persistent disjunction thematize the impossibility of trying to ventriloquize her, or anyone.
It’s easy enough to read many passages as illustrations of this problem, and to read the book as a commentary on the difficulty of speaking from a stable position. It’s so easy to read the book in this way, in fact, that it seems like a lure. Something more complicated must be going on. Take the opening stanza from the opening poem, “In Other Words in a Thought in Which a Consciousness of Foundering Survives”:
was at my feet.
I too knew
I knew the word that
named the process
going on inside my head,
was restrained The Sea
herself to point.
Consciousness, process, naming, pointing. You probably get an idea of where this could go: the sea, this big, old, immense, and seemingly empty existential thing (like a void of thought), stands in, speculatively and metaphorically, for the phenomenological experience of a world without symbols. The short disjunct lines and occasional interruptive spacing provide a formal analog to the difficulty of speaking what hasn’t yet been said. Which would all be pretty par for the contemporary poetry course and overly familiar if it wasn’t tied to such specific subject matter. The fact that the book revolves around Genie grounds it in social reality: it’s not just a rehearsal of philosophical questions of language and world; it’s an engagement with a particular world, in which, for example, a child who has been tortured all her life is treated as a science experiment. From there, we’re one step away from an allegorical reading, in which the extended childhood isolation and exploitative collection of data stands in for, say, the processes of the nuclear family and state education. However, this allegory doesn’t quite work, because the particularity and horror of Genie’s story resists being subsumed by a more general narrative.
By both producing readings of itself and pulling the rug out from under them, the book deftly avoids being everything that it is: it avoids being a stylistic exercise in post-Language writing by eschewing a focus on medium-specificity and instead commenting on explicitly articulated subject matter; it avoids being a commentary on its explicitly articulated subject matter by tying that subject to broader philosophical questions; and it avoids being an aestheticized philosophical meditation by aligning its philosophical questions with the questions that were asked by the people who experimented on Genie, suggesting that the forms of such questions are themselves exploitative. In this way, it simultaneously undermines itself and appears to be a coherent aesthetic statement. As I said, it’s a tricky book.
But it’s even more interesting than that. In fact, maybe you don’t think all that’s all that interesting. Maybe you think that’s just some intellectually banal postmodern bullshit. OK, that’s understandable. Maybe it is. But the book, and the poems in the book, are more interesting than what I’ve written about them.
In fact, the poems pretty frequently veer off into areas of concern that are not easily connected to Genie’s story, like depression, religious faith, and the rhetoric of cults. It’s not that you can’t tie these things back to Genie (which, of course, you can), but that many poems seem aimed at intentionally incongruous topics, such that it becomes a challenging interpretive game, which I’m not going to play, and I assume most readers will not play, to fit them all together. What’s more, the poems often become so caught up in their tortured syntax and layered discursive registers that it becomes difficult or impossible to say exactly what they are “about.” Here’s a stanza from “A Childish Passion for Balls”:
Your thoughts turned to low clouds.
They are meat agape. And sprechen veritas.
They are wheelchair effervescence in
hands across my America
that have a little tea service.
And here are the opening lines from one of the longest and most complex poems in the book, “We Laid It Down. We Got Tired.”:
Not more or less deprived
of ground regardlessly given
by a syphilitic’s tube of concealer,
I still have my likes, my dislikes,
caryatids of fecal columns
grown thin and winded
with righteous authority,
that is, by my need for speech.
You could tediously close-read these lines and perhaps make something of them. We’re all adept at pulling out words and phrases and treating them like keys to the poem. But I think that it would be more fruitful to read Christian Name more broadly, in terms of its genre: the lyric. Before doing so, I would like to say a few words about the lyric as a genre, and not as another name for poetry. The lyric is a malleable set of techniques, stylistic devices, and ideas that can be used to create certain literary effects. That is all. It has no privileged relationship to the body, no privileged relationship to the “self,” and no privileged relationship to poetry as such. Historically, it is occasionally seen as the dominant mode of poetry, or the most poetic of poetic genres. This is the case today, and has been the case more or less since Romanticism. But equating the lyric with poetry as such naturalizes it and elevates a few of its specific literary effects to the level of ontological description: as if the difference between self and other could be best rendered by a certain kind of line. The lyric is a genre among other genres, as poetry is an art among other arts.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s unimportant or extinct: even if this naturalization is a historically specific lie, it is nonetheless an operative lie. It governs how we read and understand poems, and it governs their production. Because we expect it to, the lyric poem today inherently demands an interpretation dealing with the individual, the individual’s body, the individual’s divided consciousness, and a social divided by individuals. And because Genie’s case is an extreme example of these divisions, it exaggerates the effect of the lyric. For Christian Name, this is a way to totalize the book: because the lyric is a device that thematizes the disjunction between body and language, every time a new topic is introduced, the genre of the lyric ties it to the major concerns of the book. A poem employing the language of cults? The lyric ties it to the division between self and other. A poem about parents’ coping with the death of a child? The lyric ties it to the division between self and other. A poem that doesn’t seem to quite be about anything? The lyric ties it to the division between self and other. And so on.
This is not to say that all lyric poems successfully thematize this division. Rather, because Christian Name repetitively insists on this point in form and content, it becomes more than an abstracted philosophical musing: the book points to how this same division functions concretely in various situations and social orders (in parent-child relationships, religious formations, education, etc.). Giffin’s choice of a disjunctive lyric mode, then, is not merely a capitulation to the consensus style of postmodern poetry, but a formal way of tying together the diverse threads of the book’s content. By writing poems which explicitly concern a series of divisions (between body and language, parent and child, earthly and divine, individual and collective, etc.) in a genre often interpreted as marking such divisions, Giffin is able to include an array of seemingly unrelated discourses and allusions (literary, philosophical, and political) without abandoning the initial premise. The poems are thus able to concern themselves with problems of dividedness and fracture but nonetheless hold together as a coherent book that can be interpreted as a whole.
This is more of a feat than it seems: the problem with a lot of contemporary poetry is that it uses the lyric as a means of dispersal and not as a means of establishing a structure of relations — often, the only thing the form of the fragment signifies is its being a fragment. But today, the best poets working with the lyric treat it as a set of techniques and ways of reading, as opposed to the natural heir of all things poetic. And so it can be used as a form for figuring, modeling, or negating the world, instead of as an end in itself.
Giffin is one of the most formally ambitious and conceptually odd poets writing in this vein, and in the end Christian Name is not such a tricky book. It’s really good. It’s about things. Things like child development, abuse, neglect, language, religion, education, and grief. All sorts of things, but things that are tied together by the book’s formal and generic choices, so that they seem like interdependent topics and not just a scattershot collage of discourse. Even what I earlier referred to as the book’s persistent avoiding of itself, undermining of itself, is part of the way the book totalizes itself: it doesn’t undermine itself to avoid consistency, but to relate each of its concerns to another concern, to bring consistency to bear on a seemingly disparate array of content. Christian Name is such a terrific book because it subsumes familiar forms of disjunction into a larger formal and thematic project. So if you like a whole bunch of disconnected fragments, don’t worry, you’ll get them. And if you like something that actually has a point and engages with the world, you’ll get that too, which will be even better.