A review of Jose Perez Beduya's 'Throng'
One could write an essay placing “The Search Party,” the first poem in Jose Perez Beduya’s debut collection, Throng, in the context of other poems of landscape and complex orphaning, from Blake’s “The Little Boy Lost” to Roethke’s “The Lost Son” to the William Matthews’s poem with which Beduya’s shares a title. Matthews’s poetry, with its wry vignettes and set pieces, would strike most as differing notably from Beduya’s, whose poems more closely recall the oblique precision of Michael Palmer and the lucent spirituality of Fanny Howe, but some lines of Matthews’s poem (“Though we came with lights / and tongues thick in our heads, / the issue was a human life”) aren’t far from moments in Beduya’s “Search Party”:
Our long, stumbling days
Began and ended
With balled versions of the prayers
We were taught in different tongues
Flashes and rustling
The narrative situation in Beduya’s poem, however, is more perpetual than packaged, so rather than elaborating a scene, such lines are its chief substance; Beduya’s lost children — who are also their own search party — find nothing more dramatically significant than “debris” and “notes / with nothing to report.” They are “a people very inside ourselves” who don’t as much disappear into their surroundings as merge with them (“Hills become a part of us”). Throng often marries such atmospheric and epistemological indeterminacy with what, in concert with Beduya’s ellipticism, feels as “clear” and “realistic” as poetry of more heavy-handed dramatization. “Parts,” for instance, swirls with stunned disorientation, yet its location and urgent seeing is steady and precise:
Alone in a night garden saying
I am I am
This empire butchers choirs
Displayed as green rooms
Later made raw
Hills in post-production
Later in the poem, the language of “post-production” echoes through snow that is “dead pixels” and a “heart playing its one red loop louder.” As in Andrew Zawacki’s reelingly techno-ecological Videotape, Beduya often approaches the natural through the digitized (“On helmet cam / The night twittering”), at times with overt references to the scripted requirements of representation (“Segue to a change / Of person but exactly / The same scenery”). By foregrounding the construction of the poems, these techniques help one move as quickly as the writing requires. “The Reunification of the Body,” for example, begins by putting us exactly where we are, arranging our posture before our understanding: “Stay down beside your confirmation number / And be someone’s garden.” In some of the poems, such as “Breathing Exercise,” a poem in which every strophe begins with “No” (“No quickness / No razor wire”), the swift alterations of these instructions feels more ritualistic, as though the poems are not only scripting representation but serving as a script for original experience.
The series of brief poems titled “Inside the Bright Wheel” contributes to this mood, offering mysteriously lucid glimpses:
We tremble and kiss
We lie down in riot films
Shivering you sit
At one end of a see-saw
While the vast and buzzing
God sit opposite
These quoted sections, as well as some of the lines quoted above (“This empire butchers choirs”), highlight Beduya’s talent for swiftly casting industrial settings in visionary terms, for showing how “Tenderized / Post-citizens” can still “keep warm.” I know few recent collections of poetry that so closely explore the ways in which lyrical experience can run through civic life, showing that “we still dream of an ethics” despite varied alienations. This interest sometimes swivels on the juxtaposition of the collective and the domestic (“Random wars while our flesh / Did household chores // The decade leapt / Through curtains of wet newsprint”) and at other times on language with a corporate tinge. Most often, though, it suggests a mythical regard for speech. “We gut our enemies / But speak softly into them,” one poem announces. Another poem, “Revolver,” resembles an origin story that begins in medias res:
Soon after the men
Of our church found trees
Of smoldering meats
In the backyards of our
One lambsman came
Pounding at our doors
To collect payment
We gave him statuettes
Of gold and curdled milk
This concern for ethics brings Oppen to mind, whom Jennifer Moxley mentions in her compact and capacious introduction, and one can also hear his lineage in Throng’s phrasing (e.g., “A cascade of stripes in the museum // A rip waiting to happen / Down the turn-of-the-century dress”). A longer essay on poems of a lost child might also include Oppen’s role as a kind of reverse Pied Piper in “Of Being Numerous,” when he considers younger companions (“The girl’s name is Phyllis — / Coming home from her first job”; “Strange that the youngest people I know / Live in the oldest buildings”). Beduya’s poems can similarly find distinct revelation through the ruination of singular seeing, as in the end of “Revolver”:
We found joy again
Without remainder on the other
Side of the ruins
To be on the other side of the ruins, of course, does not eliminate the ruins: they are still right there. We might not even be past them. But we find ourselves beside them, in relation. “You believe you are in the world / Without example,” Beduya tells us in “Noir”; throughout Throng, he shows that such beliefs are themselves telling examples, which makes them no less astonishing and estranging. “Guarding against numbness / We started small fires / Everywhere we went,” Beduya writes in “The Search Party.” The poems in Throng do the same.
On Emily Abendroth's ']Exclosures['
What comes to mind when you consider the word “exclosure”? Exposure? Enclosure? Exclusion? Language ripples out and collapses in, as if pressed and pulled at once. The title of Emily Abendroth’s new book of poems, published by Ahsahta Press, is ]Exclosures[, the curious word surrounded by reverse brackets, suggesting a bracketing and unbracketing that furthers this attention to the hinging/unhinging quality of Abendroth’s sometimes exquisitely wrought vocabulary. The title suggests a tight yet artfully unraveling language that is familiar yet strange. This linguistic tension is well suited to the poetry’s subject: the examination and excoriation of the culture of violence, war, and, in particular, incarceration in the United States — what Abendroth identifies as “state regimes of punishment and control” (61). The very world we know intimately is held at a distance; what is familiar yet ought to be shocking and strange.
]Exclosures[ is a collection that in some places relentlessly presses in on itself — on language, in particular, its own and the language of our shared social and cultural utterances — and in this pressure the book concentrates on some rather pressing matters: “roaring war” and “human poverty” and the disturbing “institutional rationalization for the wholesale destruction of personhood.” In the language of this latter example you might hear sincere urgency, yet an urgency that can risk sliding into intellectual patronization. In Abendroth’s own words, “You nonetheless too often found yourself locked in sequence” (40) — locked in the bureaucratic language, imprisoned. However, the risk of superciliousness is often averted by the rigor of Abendroth’s mind, best displayed by the Exclosures that are most artistic, most lyric. It is in her attention to language that Abendroth’s writing is most interesting, where the urgency of her firmly established ethical concerns is most forcefully conveyed. The writer’s control of our attention to the pressure that language itself asserts on our thinking and means of knowing — whether through research or ambient cultural ecology — is masterful at times. Manipulating the page to serve lyric expression, bracketing language as if stuttering in the mechanical echoes between dailyness and destruction, where “Sunday dinner” might stand in for “citywide curfew” (7) the poems assert an assessment of insidiousness both subtle and overt. “War” might be the grammatical equivalent of “midterm election” or even “titleship competition” in “Exclosure ]12[,” and the poem lets the meaning of this equivalence hover ominously (25).
In a poem that introduces the reader to the findings in Charles Darwin’s day journal regarding tame turtledoves and men who fired at them, Abendroth’s poetry exposes the troubling implications of senseless violence. The violence extends beyond the explorers, and “we” in the poem is the “we” fired upon. After explosions: “Everything is illuminated. / Everything is eliminated” (27). Ultimately, the poem leads to these italicized poetic reflections:
a retinal detonal
an antiseptic precision
the scientific derision
of sanitizing an area
insantizing an area
we were killing time until killing time
we smoked and then we smoked out all the others
the anxiously charged waiting of waiting to charge
of bowling for jowls (28)
The words of Darwin provoke insights beyond Darwin, allowing the reach of the book’s concerns to extend beyond one contained time or place. We are men and we are the targets of men’s weapons. Drawing from contemporary Wall Street Journal articles back to the words of Lucretius, Abendroth attends to a troubling world of control and violence that is pervasive, vast, and long. In response to an exchange between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, implying the “maddening” rhetorical violences of our racial history, Abendroth writes:
No terms have been provided by which to understand it in its own right.
And is “its own” right? And is “its own” its own?
and troweling (4)
Abendroth’s poetry is most compelling when it is at its most lyrical, relatively absent the ten-dollar words. Those are more suited to the book’s final prose piece “A Closing Note in Favor Of The Improbable.” Here she explains her political position and her poetics in this book, arguing, “one goal of our contemporary poetics must, of necessity, be to sound out the catastrophic and debilitating reverberations of living in a society that has effectively criminalized our most basic characteristics of livelihood and requirements for existence (our youth, our old age, our poverty, our needs for housing or a doctor’s appointment, our hunger) and instead fed them back to us as dangerous behavior and/or unsustainable, unassuageable demands” (62). The weightiness of her earnest concerns, however, penetrates more deeply when the poetics gives space for the reader to dwell in language and the silences around it, to absorb the nuance Abendroth draws into our attention. By exposing the troubling ways in which serious messes overlap in language, in life, through the poetic language, the poems put greater pressure on the ideas. Poetry is distinct, then, from political rhetoric, in a productive way, that might serve the politics.
Abendroth’s attention to language’s ohs and oohs, the “toes” and “composed” that pile up rhythmically with “shoes” before we “propose to unglue,” create a musicality that draws us into the kind of trance necessary to grasp the swarm of what “Exclosure ]3[” calls “human poverty.”
As tightly bunched as these toes are in this crudely composed shoes
how could we ever propose to unglue or to neatly disaggregate:
the common rights to forests versus the common rights of
Tightly bunched language, its unsubtle musicality reels in “humans” and “forces” and “privileges,” yet allows room for the lyric to ebb around the bureaucratic language. This lyricism is necessary for the reader to swoon in the nausea of its grim implications.
The poetry’s critique of the corrupt, cruel, and indefensible system of law enforcement and incarceration is important, decidedly thoughtful, and smart. When it pulls away from the very language it bewails, this poetry might expose a significant field with capaciousness and generosity. This is its privilege. ]Exclosures[ cannot tell us what exclosure might be, and yet we understand that it is necessary that we come closer to knowing, that we come to believe that something might be unbracketed.
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-notecompositions.
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 thatembodies 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!