A review of 'Writing Surfaces: Selected Fiction of John Riddell'
Writing Surfaces: Selected Fiction of John Riddell presents a sampling of the Canadian poet’s work from 1969 through 1994. Though some of Riddell’s works can be found online, including at UbuWeb, most of his work is difficult to find in print. Writing Surfaces is a concise and accessible introduction to Riddell’s writings, one which hopefully will serve to raise Riddell’s profile among a new generation of readers.
Riddell began publishing work in the 1960s and was a contemporary of — and often cohort with — bpNichol and Steve McCaffery. Like much of the work of Nichol and McCaffery, Riddell’s work probes the interaction between language’s material embodiment and semantic function, the representation of this interaction in and through media, and the effects of this interaction on composition itself. Riddell’s poetics come out of the concrete poetry tradition, refracted through his experiments with the process of composition and through his highly ludic sensibility.
Characteristic of Riddell’s works presented in this collection is the emphasis on fissures, joints, and seams. Most easily recognizable are the visual seams, such as the drawn lines separating and joining text and non-text in “à deux,” the rigid boundaries between neighboring texts/spaces in “letters” and more generally, the boundaries between the legible and the illegible in many of the works in the book. But one also finds thematic seams: juxtapositions of sense and nonsense, fiction and documentary, abstraction and particularity. And Riddell employs seams on the verbal level, perhaps the most literal and obvious example being the word “we” in the poem “we,” which acts as interstitial mortar in the alphabetical series of verbs out of which the poem is built.
In “a note on form” introducing his book Criss-Cross: A Textbook of Modern Composition, Riddell couches his practice in terms of a wider poetic syncretism:
a synthesis may not be desired / is certainly not effected
by displaying both schools under the same roof still
when brot together the prospect of marriage does not
seem as remote as may have been supposed
By the term “schools” in the quotation above, Riddell is referring to what he characterizes as traditional and avant-garde approaches to composition. Many of the pieces in Writing Surfaces are exercises in combinations of traditional genres with nontraditional/avant/experimental structures and processes. “Pope Leo, El ELoPE: A Tragedy in Four Letters,” one of Riddell’s more well-known works, is a story told in comic book form using text composed only with the letters “e,” “l,” “o,” and “p.” Another story, “à deux,” is a story of relationships (including perhaps one between two characters named Mark and Katherine) which is disrupted, blotched, and framed by stains and doodles on the page:
Some of the marks are reminiscent of rings left by a wet glass, of spills, and of smudges, a simulation of the way the accidents of life shape memory and perception, and consequently, narrative. Another example is “5 ways,” which is also a story of relationships involving multiple couples. The text is printed in long linear fragments of a few lines (sometimes just a single line) that are positioned facing in various directions on the page. The amount of these fragments per page increases through the piece, and the lines increasingly overlap so that the visual interference builds. The reader is forced to try and disentangle the text and piece together the narrative, echoing the storyline of characters trying to understand their own feelings and make sense of their relationships.
Riddell’s “writing surface” is a heterogeneous one. His model of the poem is a set of language attached to a set of nonlinguistic elements, gathered and held together, producing interior borders that the reader is meant to cross and recross, effecting seams, affecting reading. Riddell’s joining of linguistic to nonlinguistic elements can be read as the contemporaneous reverse of the visual art world’s strategy to incorporate language, which had gathered steam in the 1960s. Riddell recognizes and revels in the fact that language is not a closed system but is part of wider cultural activity. His poems play along with the boundaries between writing and other visual phenomena. In “Pope Leo,” words and line drawings intertwine in and through cartoon panels, drawn characters, and text torqued by and through the lines of the frames. In both “surveys” (excerpted below) and “glass,” bits of language occupy space alongside drops of ink (or is it paint?).
In “morox,” a text in a barred-spiral shape (but in a predominately prose-like format in terms of line vis-à-vis margin) spread across five panels, language fades into and out of various forms of illegibility (words turn from the lexical to the nonlexical, type blurs into blackness, letters break free from the bonds holding them to words and float about the page).
Given the prevalence of boundaries and joints, it’s not surprising that the central figure operating throughout Writing Surfaces is the interface. An interface is a threshold permitting a multilateral (often simply bilateral) exchange of information, the seam for negotiation between different assemblages (and often different media). Here interfaces even make appearances in the subject matter of the poems. For example, the window, the architectural interface between the interior and the exterior, dominates the cartoon poem, “Pope Leo,” dotting the facades behind which the action takes place and echoing the panel frames of the cartoon layout. “Criss-Cross” is a narrative constructed out of interfaces: Riddell presents a series of concrete-poetic reproductions of the encounters with language throughout a day in the life of a fictional everyman, Jim. Verbal units within “Criss-Cross” include the face of a clock, the label on a vitamin bottle, and a subway token. Lyrics to the Kinks’ song, “Well Respected Man,” serve as the “text-track” to the piece, running like a film soundtrack along the right side of the page, both accentuating the filmic surfaceness of the page and reinforcing the narrative thread. By taking the language encountered in the world, removing the graphic pizzazz and contextual flavor, and mapping it onto a two-dimensional page in simple courier type — that is, by changing media — Riddell demonstrates the banality of the message and emphasizes the monotony of the working life of the character, Jim.
derek beaulieu and Lori Emerson, the editors of Writing Surfaces, describe Riddell’s writing in their introduction as a study in the “writing of writing” (2) — writing taking writing itself as the subject. And their selection emphasizes this aspect of Riddell. For example, a high percentage of the lexicon in the poem “we” is language related: “we demur we denote we deny.” “Criss-Cross” is a piece of writing about how the writing we encounter is presented to us in our everyday experience, estranged both by its translation into a different typography and 2-D space and by its situation within a narrative framework. The pieces “watching” and “in take” both offer ironic takes on the notion of “close reading,” employing xerography and the photocopier’s zoom function. “Watching” (excerpted below) is perhaps the more interesting of the two, a series of snapshots zooming out from a text, so that the letters which at first are mere black figures on a white space come to situate themselves within a text that has to do with television.
The piece emulates the experience both of the camera and of the TV viewer on the other side of the interface; the poem is a gesture in which watching and reading are joined in a continuum. Riddell writes with the interface as model of writing, then: the poems often resemble APIs, or application program interfaces, a type of writing about writing (namely writing about the code that a person, the programmer, wants to interact with). His writing, focusing mostly on writing as a visual phenomenon, is often a demonstration of how writing and reading are both forms of the overwriting of the perceiving subject.
Ultimately what Riddell reminds us about writing (and the flipside of the interface, reading) is that they are not independent from other, traditionally “non-writing” activities, whether it’s watching, gesturing, or drawing. While Riddell’s writing is by no means the only to make these points, it is Riddell’s playfulness and craft, on evidence in Writing Surfaces, that make the experience more than just an intellectual exercise.
1. John Riddell, Criss-Cross: A Textbook of Modern Composition (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1977), 7–8. Reissued by ubu editions, 2013.
A review of Eleni Sikelianos's 'You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek)'
And I then came to Karthage. This is, truly, a blinding opportunity. And it will fall, but the book, in the severing action of its detailing, will not:
Now I have to get back and find each body part at each lost place and stitch it back. The first place was a well, and when I realized the word in Greek, το μάτι [sounds a little like “mother”], was an eye letting the water not fall but see into the middle of the earth, I knew my way. [bracketed insertion mine]
And truly Eleni Sikelianos tends her portions; truly she keeps to her arrivals. Truly she paints her Gestalt, paints it in her favorite sand-dripped, her favorite gemstone-cracking colors. Yes, it is truly and industriously she charts a human history in You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek). In eloquent form, she has many targets, and many names for them. At her most painfully precise she names “a net of family giftings” and recalls the shirt that Nessus bore and a great hero wore, and what we know about that burning. Her gift to the reader is, equally, tormenting at close quarters, as well as being magnificent.
Yes, this going back is a difficult facing. This research is, or becomes by virtue of Sikelianos’s bravest candor, a trick you play and a trick that your history, your subject’s history, will likely play in turn. It is marvelous, and always, always exhorts with menace and the countering mechanics that may appeal to the reader. Beyond that (if possible), it is a body of writing, truly, and searching-where, for the body surely, hers, her mother’s, her grandmother’s (“It [the where of the telling] bumps into all the body’s soft clocks”). It is truly a toughening (restated), this memoir that may read as if “[s]craping the silver nitrate backing.” After extreme fashion it duly and rigorously tests the turns of memory with regard to how-to, pictured and punctured in the wound.
What is a body, then?
I’d say it’s free.
Yes, a difficult remembering is how it stands as the many elegant ramifications, bristling in brilliance, become possible. It is thus understandable that the writing (with poetry) from and about memory should seek its travails, and keep seeking them. It is also not surprising that it should not quite attach to where it starts. Say that it starts in the desert, closely defined (very closely); it also starts with the grandmother, who symbolizes a woman’s quintessential plight, and who is “Elaine Marko, sultry exotic.” Of many aliases and many twists and turns in many places, she is heir to Victorville and eye-popping “dance delineator” of the halls of burlesque, for putting food on the table. That the granddaughter so admires her story is also part of the writing where it starts.
And surely this is not coincidental. Surely “The Golden Greek” (as in the promo-flash of the soon-to-appear “MELAINE”) is the holding place to be searched out, and never to be so, and yet so to be. Surely something must click and compel. There is memory, with “its sharpening knives” to realize the danger. There is knowledge of matters pressing and personal, to ward off trouble, if barely. There is this unflinching pursuit, so close to the bone, so metaphysical, as is all “iridescing.” Going further there is one’s always homewards regard, which can only angle at achievement, as if through space. It is not all one, it seems. The coordinates, however confidently named, will never be established except in great anguish. They shine like stars among us, but from a distant and pained and ever-not-escaping point of attention, so that having a “spotlight,” say, or four or five, well-placed, may serve for starters. So indeed a cropped and wholly patterned searching it is, a bright and crucial questioning, that brings the crisscross to the finding: “How can a memory travel to its event, kiss it, and shoot back to the present?”
Reading this book will be a putting to, so to speak. Reading this scorching disquisition into a fragmented, or (better) partial, past, reading this creative unraveling all the while so splendidly put to its lyrical paces, will be to go to another place, to clean up and grow up. It is possibly, or possibly ranks as, “another future.” In the event, defragmentation happens where the beautiful is sordid, as having such details as its means (“If you’re on a train, the windows won’t shut; you’ll need a bandana to cover your mouth. Endless grit in the nose and teeth. Blackened particles and splotches of red bleeding into sand.”); where the beautiful is replete with fates, challenges, and courage; and where it becomes a “tale of the toughest, hardest-assed woman to ever eat wood and bite nails on the face of the earth: Malena the Cat Lady, Woman-with-the-Bullets-over-Her-Breast, the Leopard Girl, Marko, my grandmother, the Golden Greek.”
You could also say that the beautiful is like being flayed alive. A shoring against it, however, will succeed where the lowlife’s estimation is marginal (see the Greek rembetes; see the refugees hoveling, around others having a last glorious time, “on the hillsides that form a ring around Athens,” famous Greek city, circa 1922; see familiar story); but rather, to pause for correction, is where
[t]he outskirts (rejecta) make their own centers, and in this center the Leopard Girl and the dwarf named Paul Roese embraced each other and collapsed.
Correcting for winds, then, for the signs and stigmas and petty salvations, is part of where it starts, and reaches and resumes. A part, moreover, of these retracings that are not retractions are certain essentialist themes. This may or may not surprise. What will count here is a decidedly magical presence, that of dwarves in our world. What will save us here is not to differentiate but to recognize a useful potency. Thus the dwarf who is the fourth of five of the Golden Greek’s husbands will illustrate essence, what that can mean. Thus a past event serves as topos, and the turning and turning as Sikelianos depicts it, the torn scrumming through the lists, even, as she invests it, will reveal this essence to be itself a kind of space. Indeed what being becomes, what it is and what it does in turn, a being one of many perhaps and often unaccountably, will disclose a beaming and assured centrality. It will become a kind or a brand of one, and be found, and be a coming forward not in a form of difference, though it is approached differently (cf. “middle of the earth”); not as a freak show’s presaging, though that is one of its guiding spirits.
Being thusly by all accounts centered in a paradoxical reading, of a privileging of contraries, of houses falling and “shards of dirty mirror” not touching, and of shimmering abundance, of fecundity in the desert, is a challenge that the reader, after the rebound, may not be up to. The experience may prove outlandish. In truth, it is for and by those only who have “brushed mass death.” It may be thus, in truth, for any of us, and may become too familiar in the being told. The charge borne is a heavy one, with knowledge and thrills (and sheer ills) in wait.
One wants to write of avatars while revealing a patch of skin between stretchyarn and bloomers. One wants to write, robustly, about being watched, how that goes down. One wants to write about ascension, about towers and not tombs (apparent tombs), and not always about those hoochie-coochies and a few filthy towels thrown in where the child sleeps backstage. One wants to write, in all sorts of ways, what it is to be a wife:
A wife is a woman and a woman is a wife unless she’s a femme. If she’s a
mujer, she’s a woman or a wife. If she’s butch. André Breton says:
Ma femme à la taille de loutre entre les dents du tigre
Mother midnight, wife this child.
To repeat, “Mother midnight, wife this child.” The reader, if he chooses, may want to ponder these many reversely sphinx-like answers to these many questions.
So then. To recount. Memories are not frightening though tending that way, but they are surprisingly violent, and not exactly Proustian. Where the Proustian atavism takes is in the species forms, and the star of the series that is You Animal Machine is the Feral Child, in numerous emanations, “[w]alk[ing] on all fours, … dumb, … covered with hair.” One has been invited to consider all things Greek, and that includes Aristotle. Further, the task of understanding the stories, of oneself and others, proves fruitful because the subjects, then and now, can be cleverly described as “walking libraries.” (“They met in a bookstore.”) From such intuitions flow multiple inclusions. The mention of that guy Averroës, for example, pushes links both to extended Mediterranean influences, not lost in the transfer to new homes and new worlds, and to Sikelianos’s family progression, that extraordinarily varied coming up and contending as it is infinitely (as by her) resourced and secured (even where the sources are scant). It is not so much that everything figures (“What card is missing? Taraka (Arabic), ‘to leave, abandon, omit, leave behind’”) as that the daughter’s realizations are so expressly promoted to finishing the dance, for it exhilarates strangely, this precocious patterning as of “[a]toms flying out to space, no longer trapped between life and after-life.”
From the essentialist concerns come all manner of richness and, it goes without saying, great textual appeal, such that the fascination that takes hold in Sikelianos’s writing, equally as with the subjects of her writing, lies in how it plays out in kinds. It figures to become a question-and-answer consideration beyond all questions and all answers. (It asks us, at the outset, to find “the key that turns the lock of the poison dress.”) So what is it? Is it, upon consideration, confessional? Is it of scholarly material? Is it of origins? Is it fodder for goats (she claims it is not)? Is it primarily philosophical in its searching out the truth? Is it innovative and inventive, again in its searching out the truth? Is it any or all of these essentials?
Is it “speculation” and therefore proof that searching out the truth is not enough? Is it of a documentary tracing, a “crackling” variation thereof? Is it new-informational, with body-machine replacing language-machine? Is it instead elegiac in the main of its turning, for that a truly sad passing into Leopard Girl and jaguar kin, and clutching and clasping and totemic affirming and symbolic acting and affirming and affirming of the mysteries (“pulling poppies, pulling corn-flowers”) and determination and desire and grit (plenty of it), and all of their aftereffects quanto pro tanto, enclose the author’s feelings to the end? Is it, then, träumerisch? Is it even, or does it amount to, a strong-armed, and often arm’s-length, panoply of various kinds of lists? Thusly is it informed aggressively to the posing of many tanked and tattered questions, and not without some well- and materially-weighted appeals to the gods? Is it in its many breathtaking turnings graspingly confessional (as mentioned), and vastly, introspectively brave and truthful? Of many questions, is it not a tinctured and tortuously living quest? Does it not progress, the magic underneath, wrong side or right side but still magic? If so, does it find its way inconclusively, or largely so, or barely missing, as in all the best expectations, in the end?
And finally it is, and so what is, this game that the reader, if she chooses, will find all-possible?
Ps. L’élan de vie dont nous parlons consiste, en somme, dans une exigence de création. Il ne peut créer absolument, parce qu’il rencontre devant lui la matière, c’est-à-dire le mouvement inverse du sien. Mais il se saisit de cette matière, qui est la nécessité même, et il tend à y introduire la plus grande somme possible d’indétermination et de liberté.
For a few months in 2014, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art presented a small exhibition of photographs by John Divola titled As Far As I Could Get. The exhibit encompassed one square room presenting prints from four different photographic series. In the title series, As Far As I Could Get, Divola has placed his camera on a tripod and set the shutter on a ten-second timer. As he starts the exposure’s countdown, he runs off into the distance marked by the camera’s gaze. At ten seconds, the camera takes its exposure, revealing how far Divola was able to run and the landscape that surrounds him. Each photograph in the series exhibits a different location, a different landscape, and a different time of day.
Over these same months, I read two books: No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself by Robert Fitterman and Corporate Relations by Jena Osman. Fitterman’s book is culled from postings expressing loneliness found on various online forums. Each excision of language is stitched into a continuous stream of single consciousness. Each post’s “I” overlaps, is undifferentiated from the previous and the next.
Fitterman’s text begins:
I’ll just start: no matter what I do I never
seem to be satisfied,
The world spins around me and I feel like
I’m looking in from outside.
I go get a donut, I sit in my favorite part
of the park, but that’s not
The point: the point is that I feel socially
awkward and seem to have
Trouble making friends, which makes me very
sad and lonely indeed. (1)
The book itself does not announce the appropriated nature of the text. As is common with Ugly Duckling Presse books, there is no description on the back cover. There is no afterword, bio, or author’s note. On its face, without knowing the details of the book’s composition, these words are all Fitterman’s words.
The sentences are recognizable outpourings of depressed emotions. Though one might be tempted to say that the utterances are uniformly clichés, most incorporate odd, singular moments that differentiate them as specific, individual utterances. Going to get a donut, finishing a rereading of Frankenstein, or mentioning a little brother named Christopher. The images and statements proliferate, mimicking each other, seeming to be completely recognizable, but in their constant twisting avoid replicating an exact phrase verbatim. Fitterman places before us language that is simultaneously singular and repetitive.
Of the four images on display from As Far As I Could Get, the one I find myself drawn to is “(R02F06).” In this image, Divola is captured running into a scrubby desert. It appears to be dusk, though it is difficult to determine due to the cloud cover. The figure in the photograph appears to have run about the same distance in this photograph as in the others. But I notice something different. Perhaps due to the camera settings or the diffuse lighting, as I approach the 60” x 40” print, my ability to discern the self in the photograph becomes more and more difficult. Divola’s body, which seems so distinct when standing a few feet from the canvas, dissolves into hazy pixilation. I become unsure — is that Divola I’m looking at, or is this just a blotch of something else that has appeared in the camera’s viewfinder? As I approach the limits of where the docent allows me to stand, I watch Divola’s self disappear into the desert landscape.
As Fitterman’s litany of depression and self-loathing continues, it becomes a neverending loop of negativity. The feelings are endless and intense. At various intervals in the single-section book, there are stanza breaks. For a moment, there is a pause of feeling, an instantaneous gap. And then the stream of emotion begins again, renewed, as if it never stopped at all. The language of raw emotions is left alone and untethered on the page:
So, it’s not like I’m a total introvert or I’m afraid
of living. I don’t have agoraphobia
Or anything like that, but I am still SO FUCKING
LONELY, I COULD JUST DIE! (26)
On the one hand, extreme emotional outbursts like this one can be amusing. As the speaker has been totally removed, and the language represented in this litany, I assume that it is not a sincere statement. The statement is pure hyperbole, exhibited in the traditional way of overreacting on the Internet: IN ALL CAPS.
But this response is in reality actually very sad. There likely is an actual person at the other end of this communication, someone who does feel these feelings and is reaching out for some form of language that can express them with true transparency.
Fitterman’s act of appropriation reveals that what becomes transparent is not language but rather the body, the person, the self that was speaking. In seeking statements that represent a pure emotion and assumedly leave little language-residue on the act of communication, the speakers find only themselves effaced. Anyone can say these words, and Fitterman proves this by saying them all together at the same time. The multiple “I”s become a single I — an I that clearly exists and thus does not exist at all. As the I emphasizes its selfness again and again throughout the book, it recedes further and further from view. The I becomes a word in language. And it is the words themselves that are left alone and self-loathing on the page:
[...] It has gotten so bad that I’ve just
turned off completely from
The world: unable to make contact with anyone
with any substance. (33)
What we are left with is the concrete artifact of language, the lone survivor. And so we are forced to read.
Near the end of Fitterman’s book, the I turns its attention to the you:
[...] I’m totally imagining who this “you” might be;
I guess one could say it’s a fantasy because I’m not really talking to
anyone, I’m not really relating to anyone, and it’s not
Like I’m going out and meeting anyone, so when I’m saying “you,”
I really don’t know who I am addressing. (69)
I wonder why Divola titled his series As Far As I Could Get rather than As Far As I Got? As I look deeper into the pixilated form of Divola in “(R02F06),” I realize that I’m also wondering how far I myself would be able to run in ten seconds. How fast is Divola? Am I faster? The title of the series exhibits the slipperiness of the I, how quickly it shifts from Divola’s perspective to my own. Is that as far as I, myself, could get?
Like Fitterman’s book, Osman’s Corporate Relations looks to a specific body (and use) of language as a source text. In Osman’s case, that body is a series of Supreme Court cases relating to the issue of corporate personhood. The first section is a series of redactions and poetic responses to Supreme Court cases related to the First Amendment. The poem derived from Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission begins:
a narrowly tailored remedy to that interest
to use the words of one Justice, that is ventriloquist speak
I would say that it is more like surrogate speech
Justice Ginsburg: who is the “you”? (23)
The form in which Osman presents her language selections makes the origin point of these words diffuse. Whose words are the first three lines? Are they from a single source, or two, or three? Who is the “I” in the third line? Who is the “one Justice” referenced in the second? The second line also brings to mind the legal use of repurposing language — how the language of previous decisions becomes a “surrogate speech” both informing and indicating the direction of the present decision, how a court decision becomes material in the compost to promulgate future decisions.
The Supreme Court stands, symbolically at least, as a single entity. In our ideal imagination, each ruling presents a singular voice. In reality, of course, this is not the case. There is the ostensible single “winner” based on the court’s vote. But then the voices begin to split and diverge. There are opinions that limit, determine, and muddle the straightforward vote. The opinions themselves are typically divided into majority and dissenting opinions. Language from previous decisions is used to justify and determine the current decision at hand.
So who is the you? Or, who are the selves that become embodied in the series of cases Osman’s poetics investigate?
In No Medium, Craig Dworkin studies works of art in which what we typically think of as content has been removed, leaving behind only the framework, or isolated medium, of the pieces. Pieces such as Aram Saroyan’s ream of typing paper and Nick Thurston’s erasure of Maurice Blanchot’s The Space of Literature. Dworkin argues in his readings of these blanked texts that one can never totally isolate medium from content — that, instead, everything is inscribed and everything is, indeed, content. Or that in these acts of erasure, the medium reveals itself as content.
Rather than excising the medium from the content, Osman excises the content of these court cases from their medium. Isolating the language of these cases does not distance the language from its source. Instead, the language of the court is revealed for examination. Dworkin claims “[t]he point then is not so much the play of presence and absence that has animated studies of inscription, but rather the recursive realization that every signifier is also itself a sign” (9). Osman’s use of these cases shows that this is equally true for books drilling down into the language, discarding the original form. In “Hale v. Henkel” in the section on Fourth Amendment rights:
I shall have to respectfully decline to answer
I shall give the same answer to that
I shall repeat the answer as given before
The same answer to that question
I give the same answer to that question
I must decline to answer for the reason stated
I just wish to state that I have declined to answer the questions, with the utmost respect (31)
These supposed answers are pulled entirely out of context, decoupled from the question or questions that triggered them. The result presents a Bartleby-like litany of non-answering answers. The case itself centers around whether a subpoena to produce corporate documents constituted unreasonable search and seizure in violation of Fourth-Amendment protections for the corporation. The amendment protects explicitly “[t]he right of the people to be secure.” In this piece of language, Osman both emphasizes and effaces the bodies of the people speaking. There is an obvious communication occurring, but it is one in which the language produced is more important than the people producing it. When the persons themselves can become so easily lost, is it any wonder that the corporation, a bodiless entity like the courts, receives the writ of protection?
In a prose note at the end of “Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad,” Osman quotes from Justice Hugo Black’s dissent in 1938’s Connecticut General Life Insurance Company v. Johnson:
… of the cases in this Court in which the Fourteenth Amendment was applied during the first fifty years after its adoption, less than one-half of 1 per cent invoked it in protection of the negro race, and more than 50 per cent asked that its benefits be extended to corporations.
The language of the courts is layered in its own history, dug out and retrenched for explicit purposes. One wants to speak of intent. One wants to speak of legitimate parameters. One wants to appeal to a common sense. But who do we appeal to and what do we appeal with? The body of the courts, the body of language, the body of our bodies.
Interspersed within the poems addressing specific court cases on corporations are other poems that explore the changing way in which the body and the self are conceived in a capitalist economy. “Mechanized Eccentric” presents the myth of John Henry:
a man holding a hammer
a man competing with a steam drill
a man striking fire
hammer ring hammer ring
hammer my fool self to death (43)
In this retelling, John Henry is not named — his name is stripped away, leaving only the empty language vessel of “a man.” And as Henry is emptied of his individual self, the man becomes indistinguishable from the machine he’s competing against: “in order to do the work in the quickest time, / at what cutting speed shall I run my machine?” (43). Is this the steam drill or is this the man? The body is no longer spoken of as flesh and blood, life and family, desires and dreams. Instead, it is reduced to “the pulling power and the speed and feed changes” that “enable the machine to finish its product” (43).
“Industrial Palace” ends Osman’s collection, completing the transition from machine as a metaphor for the body to the actuality of the body as a cog within a corporate structure. Beginning with “the body is a factory / in the workshop of the head,” the body becomes many: “a group of persons are authorized to act as one / a group of persons combine in one body” (71). The barrier between the body as a sovereign single unit and the group as a sovereign single unit becomes blurred in the rhetoric of the corporation. Lungs are the “pulley and wheel” carrying oxygen, “the liver is a chemical plant,” and in this conception, the corporation can become “a group of persons who can speak with one mind” (72).
As I finish editing this essay, the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby has been handed down, determining that a body that is a privately held corporation holds religious rights and its resultant constitutional protections. I find myself interspersing editing this essay with reading articles on the decision. I look up the full name of the case: Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al., Petitioners v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., Mardel, Inc., David Green, Barbara Green, Steve Green, Mart Green, and Darsee Lett; Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation, et al., Petitioners v. Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al. I read an article that includes an anecdote about the Green family, which holds the controlling majority of Hobby Lobby, praying around a table at their company’s Oklahoma City headquarters. David Green — founder, CEO, and father — “thanked the family for remaining in unison” during the case’s long winding through the justice system. There is no mention of Conestoga, the second company attached to the case.
Or, as Osman concludes: “look at the body: it moves” (72).
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.