Typological inquiries

On Lori Anderson Moseman's 'All Steel'

All Steel

All Steel

Lori Anderson Moseman

Flim Forum Press 2012, 96 pages, $18, ISBN 978-0-9790888-4-1

Made up of three sections — “Teaching Tools,” “Labor Pools,” and “Work Cycles” — Lori Anderson Moseman’s All Steel builds a complex series of cause-and-effect-like inquiries. These inquiries are based on a trio of typological metaphors: tool (is to) genre (as) type of worker (is to) building or social space (as) month or holiday (is to) ritual. The need to process events, experience, and empirical reality emerges as the impetus behind classification and naming.

Surrounded by excesses of material and sensorial information, these poems, and people in general, seek a means of organization and compression. Language itself is a means of shaping currents of thought. Here, tools, buildings, holidays, ritual, careers, and genres shape — All Steel highlights this correspondence.

Both the large metaphors and the titles highlight manmade classifications. Within the scope of objects and categories, form reduces the range of possible responses and actions. For example, in the case of a hammer, there is a way of letting the weight of the tool fall to avoid tiring one’s arm, the resistance of its form to a punching motion effectively prevents people from using a hammer in such a way. The subtleties of genre make it more difficult to define in any concrete way. Thus, by positioning it against tools, All Steel invites the extension of a tool’s capacity to dictate actions to the way that genre may dictate modes of writing.

Titles in All Steel seem to test specific versions of the text’s larger juxtapositions. Thus, the sum of these comparisons becomes most solidified in the table of contents, where we can see title after title positioning a tool next to a genre:


Harrow  |
Drawknife  |
Pulaski |
Crooked Knife |
Spar Pole |
Pickaxe |
Axe Handle |
Core Bore(r) |
Increment Borer |
Drip Torch |
   Scalpel |
Sawhorse |
Paper Cutter |
Hoof Pick |
Spurs |
Propeller |

Survival Guide
Oral History
Comparative Analysis

Through titles that bring together specialized tools and genres of writing, such as a “Drawknife | Testimonial” or “Core Bore(r) | Oral History,” the table of contents makes typological and comparative strategies visible before one even arrives at the first poem. Divided by a vertical bar rather than connected by the conjunction “and,” or even the semigrammatical “ : ” or “ :: ,” the table suggests that connection and comparison will be performed as a spatial activity.

Within moments and spaces of excess, such as the traumatic death of a firstborn child, or walking across the aftermath of a forest fire, categorization and naming become most necessary. I get the sense that Moseman passes material, source texts, sensory information, and memory through a sort of invisible sieve. In the opening poem, “Harrow | Melodrama,” the title, minimal and typological, is the result of sieving:

Nineteen and nearly blind, she runs
across fenceless acres to her husband.
He and mule are at the plow. No.
He’s at the rake. No. Must be the harrow.
She’s just learning each season’s blade.
Unsure even now as she runs to him,
dead baby in her arms — their first.

When she reaches him, they become
one-winged birds destined to fly
as a pair — broken nest in their beak.
The ground below always in need
of breaking, of poking, pecking. (15)

Beginning at the moment when an excess of emotion bursts into the range of an unplowed field in the form of a “she,” the poem describes a trajectory and reaction between a husband and wife. However, before we arrive at the final image — “they become / one-winged birds destined to fly / as a pair — broken nest in their beak” — the poem runs up against a listlike sorting of farm tools: “He and mule are at the plow. No. / He’s at the rake. No. Must be the harrow.”

Tools are sorted and classified by the “she” racing, “nearly blind,” across the field. Functioning as a series of attempts to place herself, the tools recede only to reemerge, by proxy, in the final two lines of the poem as “the ground below always in need / of breaking, of poking, pecking.” By this logic, the work performed between the harrow and its operator becomes embedded within the tool.

The absence of actual melodrama in the poem and proximity of “Melodrama” to “Harrow” in the title invite the extension of this conception of a tool to the realm of genre. The similarity of the plow, rake, and harrow, plus the possibility of mistaking them for one another — all three instruments mentioned in the poem are designed to tear through and loosen the topsoil of a field — call to mind the subtle distinctions between classifications of writing. Often overlapping and borrowing techniques from one another, genres function as tools in a space of writing by laying down a series of general expectations. These expectations allow some questions to go unasked; some possibilities go unexplored.  

To the extent that a tool is designed to perform a particular function, it restricts and calls for particular actions — there is a proper way to drive a harrow or to swing an axe. Overwhelmed by material, text, sensorial experience, and memory, genre can function as a filtering tool by which the excesses can be processed and sorted. And indeed it is almost through genre or choice of a tool that one may begin, literally, to handle that which overwhelms.

Moseman’s frequent use of two-column structures also functions as a filtering mechanism. However, in these, connection is made where the poem seeps across the right margins of the column to bleed into the other. A reader is always faced with the desire to read both columns at once, but due to the impossibility of doing so, must settle for reading each poem twice — once moving left to right across the margin of the columns and again reading down each column — as in “First Tools | Fairgrounds”:

2nd wave [1978

axe – the first tool we’re issued on site
then, a rusty file to sharpen our blade
steel on forged steel – a skinned knee
we stroke unidirectional to the edge
drought hills our brittle California gold
we whittle underbrush arbutus strung out
we whack all day & boys stalk our thighs
count out militia songs hurl insults
until we swing a labyris their way

backlash [2004

cane – the first tool we’re issued at home
the one granddaddy broke to poke his bore
tap tap we girls with our champion gilts
move them slow in front of the judge slap
the jowls the front quarter bruising shows up
 on white pigs on a Hampshire’s white stripe
that thin beauty queen sash on a shoulder
roast) future farmers we parade market hogs
for the joy of slop and being singled out (41)

Parallel descriptions come together here despite, or perhaps because of, the length of time between 1978 and 2004. Beginning with two tools, the lack of punctuation (other than several em dashes) suggests that one might read each column as distinct until the sixth line, which runs over into the right column. The way the smooth left margin is displaced by the interference of the first column indicates that the line might have merged or have been replaced. Even if reading across the margins had not occurred to us before, we must do so now, and it’s as if an unnerving echo has introduced itself into the poem. When reading across the columns, we’re faced with parallel sentence structures and a sense of call and response at once.

It is a slippery sense of relation and commonality which All Steel builds in this poem. Leaving this reader tantalized, the text constantly eludes — there is always the possibility of something else, something one’s missed. The complexity of the work as a whole, with organizational and classifying structures shaping on several levels, and its innovative use of titles, keeps me diving in again and again — if not to grasp, then to be within the moments of these poems again.

Everything remembers equally

A review of Jennifer K. Dick's 'Circuits'



Jennfer K. Dick

Corrupt Press 2013, 81 pages, 12€, ISBN 979-10-90394-30-8

Jennifer K. Dick’s third collection of poems, Circuits, tells us on the title page that it is a “rereading/revisiting of George Johnson’s In the Palaces of Memory,” a 1993 work of popular science. But the result is not an analytical kind of poetry. Circuits is a reminiscence of Dick’s adolescence and early adulthood, when she was learning to be a scientist, a career path that she would give up for literature — which means that scientific conceits provide the awkward and heated language of first loves and first abuses: “‘You’re getting along with science,’ her lover claimed, faded, ‘You want touch’” (73).

Behind Circuits is the idea that obsessed Johnson when he was writing In the Palaces of Memory: “Whenever you read a book or have a conversation, the experience causes physical changes in your brain. In a matter of seconds, new circuits are formed, memories that can change forever the way you think about the world.”[1] Circuits is not about biology. It’s not about the relationship between our daily selves and our cellular selves. Dick makes no distinction between the substrate (brain or chip) and the experience that’s supposed to be inscribed on it or by it or through it. Neurons and dendrites have the same status and even the same “size” as the people and dishware of our memories. Everything is outside the body, soaking up an emotional charge:

Tubes measuring crackers, white flour, keeping like she, turning back to the clotting of blood cells called dislike and smooth hook. Together change occurs — is increased. Erythrocytes evolved in their cafeteria counters where students didn’t feel hungry. […]

Later — into the world, the other door band-aided sobs outside. Who knew she’d dine in the institutional hall? Through the tiny capillary? […]

“The A-cell is not a solid 40-weight motor oil,” she would say. “Language came. Was.” But then, waiting outside, she wrestled to bandage the skeptic looks of silver forks. Spoons’ ability to change openings. (4)

So a capillary can be walked through, erythrocytes can be stacked on tables, and a door can be band-aided, spurned and sobbing. The elements of the body join our landscape, a landscape that is, in turn, continuous with our bodies. Every object, being sensitive, is capable of knowing and remembering. Dick is not trying for strict metaphors. She’s giving all causes, from little to big, from physical to psychological, from inanimate to animate, from AI to I, the same scale and putting them on the same plane:

A neuron’s nucleus is located … Or perhaps a whole true central, genuine, as in origin, middle banded by beginnings, begging synthesized to produce the proteins, receptors, all the baseball diamond backgrounds over beers, country lanes, over you. (35)

Dick brings science down from Platonic skies, so that its content can get rained on or sunburnt like the people who make it. Science is done by humans, is a game of patterns played by humans. It comes from and returns to the human body:

Lynch’s lab once and for all staring at LTP in the Toronto Sheraton concocting the demise of the rival. No one was ready for theories yet — still in the if-then premise of a bit of irony, the coup de grace which could end its only winning hypotheses, inference by inference climbing a tower to nowhere. “We could be wrong,” he said one afternoon. (29)

The “We could be wrong” is one of Dick’s motifs, in a book where motifs act like enzymes, provocatively. The more I read over Circuits, the more it seems like a series of clues for a puzzle that cannot be enunciated. Facts are accepted because of pride, convenience, and, most crucially, intoxication. “Lynch wrote: implications for being able to focus. Lie” (39). The Lynch speaking here is named after the real-life biologist Gary Lynch, author of Synapses, Circuits, and the Beginnings of Memory.[2] He pops up in a few poems, often to warn us that “one of the terrible things [is] to be selective” (27). He’s something of the mad scientist, the one who understands the dark corners of method: you can’t look closely at A without ignoring B. You can’t master C without letting D go to pot. And once you have your facts, then what? On this point, Dick is skeptical of any logic except the organic. If facts are lived and breathed, full of retribution and lust, then so is the logic that gets us from one fact to another. Details and half-stories sprout out or cluster, and the connection between them is sometimes as thin as a fiber. Because the organic is almost never linear, but a net or mass of the vaguely linear, Circuits is replete with passages, portals, gateways, diners, highways, restaurants, hotels. In this world, we are driven recklessly by the people we meet along the way. That is, if Circuits hasan organizing principle, it must be whomever we love at first sight:

“Why’d you choose now and not some other?” she asked, curled up candlelit by the tie-dyed, batiked wallcovers. In the first dead-head’s minivan, stoned, PCP-laced, fields pitched … More complex networks. “The synaptic frequency is graphed against the other, harder-to-analyze,” they explained. This live blonde, this lanky US Championship, everything I’d ever met. (13)

Circuits does not try to locate itself in one place or one time, because it’s never sure where it will go from one line to the next. Butit’s quite sure of how an event will be said. The book has an almost overwhelming lyrical voice. With that much drive, however, the eye can pass over some of the best lines without appreciating the details that make them brilliant. I suggest that the reader move upwards as well as downwards, randomly as well as conventionally, and take none of the networking for granted. I have called Circuits a lyrical book. What I mean is that it assembles all data points within desire. Memory might be the subject, but desire is Circuit’s logic and sine qua non:

“Tell me,” I said, “why light, as in toward night, masters emblazoned zones, enchanting theorists? Did the singing end?” (48)



1. George Johnson, In the Palaces of Memory: How We Build the Worlds Inside Our Head (New York: Vintage, 1992), xi.

2. Gary Lynch, Synapses, Circuits, and the Beginnings of Memory (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1968).

Whose hearts are a thousand chemicals

A review of Calvin Bedient's 'The Multiple'

The Multiple

The Multiple

Calvin Bedient

Omnidawn 2012, 172 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1933517476

Calvin Bedient’s fourth full-length volume of poetry, The Multiple, realizes the lines of multiplicity initiated by his previous three collections (Candy Necklace, 1997; The Violence of Morning, 2002; and Days of Unwilling, 2008). These earlier collections suggest the plurality of experience by gathering and juxtaposing snapshots of perspective to insinuate the whole. The Multiple takes this approach a step further by explicitly pointing its particular sampling of reality’s permutations toward the infinite outline of the unexcavated majority. The poems of The Multiple are as interested in communicating the negative space of what can’t be captured as they are in the positive space of what can. Bedient’s unwavering fix on the subjectivity of everything unleashes a “huffing accordion commotion” whose implied poetic production spreads well beyond the constraints of the physical book that delivers them. “Becoming’s a broken idea,” these poems insist (16).

Bedient frames his text as a series of fragments drawn from not one, but a choir of indefatigable epics, whose sample size has been limited to the standard length of a contemporary volume of poetry. Bedient’s distinctive poetic timbre permeates these poems, yet he maintains a stance that is distinctly more curatorial than authorial. Bedient positions himself as an archaeologist — or perhaps more accurately an astrobiologist — listening for “a palmful of memory-pollen” to reformulate “the lost chord innumerable in the dark / hubbub of the stars” (47, 67). Just as the presence of exoplanets can be inferred by the gravitational wobble they induce on the observable stars they orbit, the restricted space established in The Multiple resonates with implied systems of unseen verse and unrealized sequences.         

Indeed, to describe this book as a “collection” of poetry is to underestimate the complex relationship between these poems and their poet. An anthology of reworked translations might be a more apt description of “this thing come into my heart / many centuries old” (13). By presenting himself as the conduit rather than the origin, Bedient further emphasizes the inevitability of missing elements — and the primacy of negative space. Bedient boldly declares his fixation on the overarching specificity of everything.

Bedient’s typographical choices reinforce this sense of universal expansion. One striking example is the use of nine different typefaces to present the titles of the forty poems that appear in the text. As The Multiple progresses, many of these typefaces are additionally filtered through a variety of fonts. These typographical signposts label a series of poetic systems and sub-systems that extend and overlap those already established by the book’s three asymmetrically weighted sections. While the most abundant typeface is used to title more than half of the book’s poems, others, including the typeface used for the body of the text, introduce only a single poem. As a result, there’s a distinct sense that many poems are missing here, if not entire groupings. What might otherwise read as typographical frivolity outlines a web of resonance that establishes each poem’s membership in a series of interleaved groupings, both observable and implied.

These phantom limbs further extend themselves by overlapping those systems already established in Bedient’s previous volumes. For readers familiar with any of these three works, The Multiple’s “discriminate/indiscriminate rain” (59) might become the “unitemized rain” of Candy Necklace[1]; The Violence of Morning’s “arrhythmical mass writing of the rain”[2]; and/or “the imperial redundancy of rain” from Days of Unwilling[3]. In this way, each of Bedient’s earlier books becomes a potential recruit in realizing the implied fragments of The Multiple.

While the text is filled with the sorts of finite moments that define the human condition, The Multiple rarely stops to muse for long on any single moment in the multidimensional field of experience. Bedient relentlessly underscores that each of us is “W E T  C H A L K, / several, probably, WET / CHALKS swimming together” (54). There is no single reading of the self, no need for prolonged introspection, because the construct of “I” is itself understood as a collection of systems. This interplay, this hybridization and amalgamation of perspective — historical, personal, artistic, scientific, and imagined — allows Bedient to name the expansive negative space that exists between the pages, poems, and lines of The Multiple.

“This thing this thing this thing this thing,” Bedient intones as he launches into the recursive routine that closes the book’s opening poem (13). There is no feasible way to name the infinite except through such logical machinery. Bedient happily embraces that limitation from the outset. To insinuate the gestalt of perspective that necessarily ricochets from a singular “I,” these poems strive to make themselves “electric with you, / with you, pronoun so sweet and burning” (81). The inevitable result of Bedient’s inclusive “you” is an endlessly equivocal “I.” When it’s a historical figure, we see ourselves. When it’s an abstraction, we see a community of lovers. When it presents itself as the author, we necessarily suspect fiction. We’re never quite sure who we are.

It isn’t that Bedient eschews personal experience. These poems are littered with the leavings of individual perspective, including some we’re encouraged to suspect might be the author’s own. Even as The Multiple declares poetry of the personal irrelevant, these poems rely on a communal, disjunct slurry of personal particulars as the only available raw material for communicating what Bedient describes as “an impossible totality”[4]. This tension between relativistic gestalt and quantum-mechanical particulars is explicitly addressed in the self-contradicting dialogue of “There are as Many Universes as there are Phrases”:

I can’t stop to explain
every little thing
to you, I no longer
write about the personal,
my theme is the moment
— bottomless, self-
destroying — and anyway

the door of the trailer has
opened she steps down
like a long-legged bird
testing a thawing river,
watches me play,
smiles, turns away. (31)

We can’t know if the particulars on the trailer steps are drawn from the personal experience of the poem’s “I” or not, especially given the speaker’s initial assertion that there will be no personal anecdotes. The second stanza might be read as a contradiction of the purpose outlined in the first. Alternatively, the experiences of the “me” might be read as a distinct offering from an alternate first-person perspective. The “me” and “I” are analogous and autonomous, both self and other.

Throughout the text, this equivocality of perspective establishes smaller systems of internal overlap, which mirror the larger systems established between poems. The Multiple relies on this ongoing ars poetica of contradiction to conjure its expansive landscape of ambiguity. The layout of this poem — twin stanzas arranged in columns that read vertically even as they adhere horizontally — emphasizes that uncertainty. This is personal, but it isn’t anyone’s personal in particular. Or rather, it’s everyone’s personal.

Against this backdrop of all-embracing perspective, “The Gordon Stewart Northcott Murders of Boys in Wineville, California, 1928,” provides an unsettling moorage for the epic fragments that both precede and follow it. The poem, the most distinctly narrative in the text, presents the gruesome particulars of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders not to shock, but to insist that the totality proposed by The Multiple be taken to its logical conclusion. The interchanging perspectives of both perpetrator and victim are filtered through the second person pronoun “you” by an unidentified, authorial “I.” Bedient’s unflinching amalgamation of this narrative with all other narratives, including his own, emphasizes the depth of the plurality for which he argues. You are innocent; you are culpable; you are Gordon Stewart.

The poem appears on page thirty-three, one third of the way into the text. This central placement allows the presence of the poem to be implied well before it arrives, though its full gravitational pull is only realized retroactively. Over the course of the first thirteen poems, tropes of birds, butchers, axes, and eggs set the stage for this outpouring of terror, violence, and unexpected empathy:

We are suspect men birds earth     wrists cuffed
        bent over the hood of evening (15)

O doctors of the butcher-shop, the finger-painting on your aprons is
                            the masterpiece in my chest, I ignore it, I am salty like (21)

It was there that the headless chicken ran, excited with the news,
while your father stood unmanned in the yard
holding the short red skirt of the ax. (22)

Like bees that crawl on an egg hot from a hen’s ass
                    (they do not know what’s inside
                   they will kill this thing hot from the hen’s ass), (24)

the wave-shovels cannot pick up the dead duck fucking waves hats off
      to the dead duck (26)

The violence in these threads registers immediately, but because the hard-hitting motion of “Gordon Stewart” hasn’t yet arrived, that violence is still situated exclusively within and between the systems of these earlier poems. The butcher, the father holding the ax, and the destructive bees are all positioned within a community struggling to understand this violence as an aspect of itself. If this community feels at times as though it might teeter into the depths, it also tempers that violence with a measure of hopeful resistance.

Once the poem announces itself, this earlier imagery is suddenly rife with unwanted particulars. It’s impossible not to see the unfettered violence of Gordon Stewart nested everywhere within these poems, within ourselves. Rather than allow this realization to drag the text into abject despair, Bedient employs “Gordon Stewart” as a hinge that allows this process of insertion to continue in both directions as the text proceeds. In the second and third sections, these tropes continue to push forward and morph into new threads that reinform not only our understanding of Gordon Stewart, but also the perspectives that precede the poem. The Multiple insists we struggle to integrate even our most disturbing potentials into any understanding of reality we construct.

Like the typographical systems established in the poems’ titles, the new communities that develop in later sections overlap without erasing. In this way, the coop that contains both the chickens and eggs of the first section provides Bedient with the communal prefix “co-” that informs the tenor of the second and third sections:

             the sun scratches the tulips out of the dirt
                                                                “co-“ that makes sense,
                                               “and” is a sovereign good               (50)

The violence of Gordon Stewart doesn’t disappear, but instead is reversed and reapportioned as the book progresses. Here, it’s the physical violence of the sun that coaxes organic bodies from the soil. This isn’t a different violence. It’s the same violence from a new perspective. This communal dissection of the word “coop” continues in the third section with another recursive routine that suggests the word’s resonance with its heteronym “co-op” by repeating it until it begins to dissolve into its component parts (65). It’s no coincidence that the title of the poem where this repetition occurs is the only other to share its typeface with “Gordon Stewart.”

Again and again, The Multiple takes hope and despair on equal footing, enveloping both in its ever-expanding collection of particulars. Bedient rejects the primacy — and authenticity — of individual perspective. These poems embrace community in its totality, violence and all. They argue that acknowledging this totality is the only way to initiate a shift in our relationship to that violence. By acknowledging our communal culpability, we inevitably acknowledge the possibility of our own humanity. The Multiple employs the unlikely figure of Gordon Stewart as a vehicle to demonstrate how such shifts might occur. The bloodied axes, butchers, dressed carcasses, and serial killers of the opening section eventually morph into the scents, breaths, and purrs of the unfettered body calling out for a more hopeful mixture of community and violence: “or why not a moan from far-off sea-sucking clouds? / Why not love?” (76).


1. Calvin Bedient, Candy Necklace (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1997), 48.

2. Bedient, The Violence of Morning (Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 2002), 36.

3. Bedient, Days of Unwilling (Philadelphia: Saturnalia Books, 2008), 4.

4. Bedient, “A Brief Interview with Calvin Bedient,” by Rusty Morrison.

Cathy Wagner's 'Nervous Device'

From commodity fetish to form

Nervous Device

Nervous Device

Cathy Wagner

City Lights 2012, 80 pages, $13.95, ISBN 0872865657

Poetry’s capital is cultural: this “state of being / text,” for the polyvocal speaker of Cathy Wagner’s fourth full-length collection, Nervous Device, is the state of being “cave-droppings” whose center is a “stone-hole soup.” The valuelessness (as evacuated site, or shit) of poetic “unmoney,” however, is for the speaker no less valuable than economic capital (also symbolic), which, like language, conditions value: “The unmoney is structured like a / Money is structured like a language. / Give that thought some currency” (55).

Giorgio Agamben’s theory of language as the prototypical state of exception in which the sovereign (metalanguage) determines the boundaries for territories of mind makes poetic language’s exilic state under capitalism heavily ironic, when considering language as a foundational matrix of “inclusive exclusion” by which things accrue value by virtue of belonging and being named.

Labor (the third component of production along with land and capital), while referenced in classical political economics from Adam Smith to Marx, has been neutralized as well as concealed (reduced to quantitative variables of work and time), which is to say, abstracted: the logic of capital reducing labor to labor power and time (a commodity reduced to the effects of value produced, stripped of its concrete, qualitative specificity and historical reality). Modernist arguments for aesthetic autonomy, followed by leftist platforms (labor politics, civil rights) of the ’60s and ’70s, have been supplanted by those of neoliberal aesthetics and marketization, what the wry speaker of Nervous Device refers to as “The Autonomy of Art Has Its Origins in the Concealment of Labor,” a one-line poem in which the abstraction of labor is shown to be the genesis of poïesis (aesthetics, and the construction of self): “My heart beat very hard by itself” (32).

The speaker of “A Well Is a Mine: A Good Belongs to Me” (couplets of quotations that can be read as isolated fragments or microconversations) articulates the fear of essentializing difference within these structures (“Anybody here who’s de facto ‘black’?”), and speaking from outside of one’s nonidentical subject position: “I’m afraid to speak for anybody in a different identity category.”

The addressee of this poem, and others, is, in the funhouse mirror of globalization, the speaker, the faceless profit-monger of the 1 percent, and the other friends and foes in the room, in turns:

“Who is responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf?”


“And how many slaves will you need to maintain your standard of
        living sans oil?”


“Can’t come to your birthday party, it’s my slave week.”

“Need categories of us.”
“A use for identity politics.”

“A use for identity. They also serve who only stand and wait.”
“Heidegger called them ‘standing reserve.’”

The splintering of this poem into citations substitutes authorial stance, however problematically, for polyvocality: these iterable speech acts without signature suggest that wage labor is bonded labor, exchanged in the marketplace along with the soft goods of subjectivity and sentience and (re)packaged for consumption as “identity” and “categories of us”:

“If some of us are to be slaves, it’s a good thing there’s this income
“It does make it easier.”

“A feudal system, stabilized —”
“By international trade.” (3–6)

The “I” of Nervous Device is internally divided: “I built this tone / ironically; that is, / it goes against itself.” This alienation of any “natural” unities (vocal, identitarian) under capitalism makes poetry an act of ventriloquism. From “Unclang”: “reaching two prosthetic limbs out as far as you / can on either side to grab something in front of you. You can’t grab / it but maybe you’ll take flight” (10–11).

The split between the “glamorous avatar” of exteriorized body-consciousness and the speaker’s own body is, in “Innocent Money,” posited as necessary equipage for a neoliberal subject (doubly so for a woman under capitalism, already alienated by exclusion from a linguistic or market category other than “not-male” or as an object of consumption and exchange). With hilarity, the poet appoints herself divider of her own personhood, and as distinct from a male subject, in the direct trade interaction between capitalist-entrepreneurs (and, as Nervous Device argues, exploitative wage labor between those market subjects without a product to sell other than human capital, unskilled labor, or, in countries controlled by the IMF, natural resources). “I must maintain / our separation, boys / so that you will continue to invest” — albeit founded on the commodified body’s dead, yet penetrable, form: “She is / I am handling / my carcass / with strings”; “I enter my carcass / to embrace you” (12–13). 

In this poetic performance, Wagner shows the body to be not only metonymic of capital (a physical object possessed by self or other), but of the miasmas of self, character, voice, and “presence”: of, in short, art. If, however, owned (bought back, or repossessed), this very capital becomes the foundation of (literal) self- and body-possession, and by extension, time (the subject becomes not just a representative “I” but subject experiencing interiority through self-reflexivity: a sense of “herself”).

The creation myth of a fungible, late-capitalist subject (a bonafide “nervous device”), this collection’s central question is how poetic statement can remain nondiscursive “play” (“How can I knock be clear about my intentions”) after the incident of “Meaning / brutally dragged in.” Intentionality, here, is represented by the speaker’s choice “never to be obscure”: “I understand why I was: explaining / is a bore, and flattens lang, so, it takes experience to write a real poem / that is well-lit” (10, 66).

The transformation from commodified language and alienated subjectivities, produced by the corporate state or culture industry, to human capital, restored to the agency of the poet-producer, frees the speaker to “mean” nonsense (or resist fetishizing a totalized meaning): “I emerged from postlanguage // What’d I say? // Green clamp pulleywamp” (27). It also marks a shift from exclusively aesthetic to ethical claims: “refrain from all damn harm” (39).

The enactment of perception creates a schism between subject and object: “I split the sun into parts when I look”; “I was differentiating the page / From itself by writing” (72–73). This is the event of language, occurring after the sensory-somatic learning of a language (oral muscular activity), when language is meta-phored (symbolized) and begins to circulate as social currency.

Moving from “normative anomaly” (“The dummkopf vice / Gets me stuck on things, bad habit”) to innovation beyond the recombinatory guises of the lyric (as “prosody whore”) entails accepting that the goods poetry offers (perspective, position) are as solvent as what the speaker can offer the poem (form), necessitating — for actuality’s sake — union: :Voracious view, / climb tree from inside speedway, // willow, meet my will” (41, 50, 72). Nervous Device constructs sites in which the other, without prostheses, may appear (“I recognize you with surprise. / In this poem you are by yourself”) within the emergent field of (who knew!) verticality and color: “Blue probable/ should I look up” (70).

But before sentience, the bloodletting of the real: “Let miserere deep. / Be mine for air” (42).

'Perfect losses we can't mourn'

On Rob Halpern's 'Music for Porn'

Music for Porn

Music for Porn

Rob Halpern

Nightboat Books 2012, 176 pages, $17.95, ISBN 978-0-9844598-9-6

Rob Halpern’s latest book, Music for Porn, is a thick intensity of writing, a cordage of verse and prose wrapped up in a plain brown paper dust jacket and pressed behind a frontispiece of half-frontal male nudes and metal fences (“untitled porn collage,” by Halpern and Tanya Hollis). The book is long and polytonal, layering and sectioning itself into geoliths of solo and choral discourse. Mediating the “music” is the prepositional object, “porn.” The cover art is hardly soft-core: a cut-and-paste job that obscures the sex act but teases its muscles and its members — the cock ring but not the cock it’s on. Of course, the ring is the thing; it is the part object relating the pleasures of one cock to some other. As Halpern’s cover art suggests (literally packaged in brown paper), the part object is as sensory as it is censored, as much the manufacture of fantasy as of material media — as much of porn as for porn.

How are we to read this porn? Where and when? In our present, it is the perpetual war of late capital: of desire and fear, waste and corpses, credit and shrapnel. This porn has a history, stretching back to Walt Whitman and the Civil War. It plays audience to its own arousal. Its “music” is like a drone, compulsively productive of a blank intention:

A badly dubbed audio his lips
Arouse my skin a canopy a sel
 – ving sleeves inside a frame

Contriving recovery it’s so patriotic
Duty crushed a head in my groin
Puffed up on the unidentified

Airs nothing real no experience
To speak of nothing to sing
These poems just keep coming

   — this disease of my mouth.[1]

Out of sync, music and porn are subject to the same arousal, or arouse the same subject: the body of the American soldier. Halpern has described the soldier as a “back formation” in his poetry, a figure that emerged in the writing of his first book, Rumored Place (2004). Published in May 2012, Music is the result of a continuous project that has occupied Halpern through Snow Sensitive Skin (2007), coauthored with Taylor Brady, and the acclaimed Disaster Suites (2009), written in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

In their concern with crisis these books are timely and yet already late, compressing the language, time, and sensorium of the very recent past into a variable distortion of the present. They make a series, by definition unfinished, that is just recursive enough to go on without fulfilling its premise or predicate. Halpern’s poems bracket and cite themselves, often by means of the flat ventriloquism of italicized paraphrase. Sentences especially are spliced and interpolated in Halpern’s prose and prose poems, reflecting a tendency in his work to modulate between the less and more theoretical. The end of Music discourses on the biopolitics of the military industry:

… common sense itself becomes a kind of pornography expropriation of my most intimate relations just as pornography becomes a kind of common sense everything bearing visible value, everything erasing the relations that produce it. So one must speak in the pornographic even as one speaks against it … [2]

When common sense is “militarized,” it becomes a genre of pornography. In turn, lyric makes a counter-claim on sense by modeling sensation without immediately consuming it. Hence what Halpern has called lyric’s “Sadean provocation,” appropriating in order to retune the communicative relations of power between subjects and objects that are “otherwise pressed perfectly into the mold of money and death.”[3] In Music, this counter-pornography is fully aware of its perversion (“my cock hardens in a soldier’s wound”), while testing the conceptual limits of that awareness. “The skin, being this endless organ of excitement and abuse, my own private pleasures being mere adjunct of that. Don’t confuse this sentence for a preposition.”[4]

As metalanguage, the lyric porno wants to explore the verse-formal and generic properties of the various series (of poems, of poets, of books) that sustain a critique of crisis in crisis’s present, right now. Halpern’s prose/verse suggests a modulation between rhetoric and grammar, or polemic and song, whose peculiar drive is to anticipate something about the present which is presently unavailable, unthinkable, insensible. Tyrone Williams has commented on these shifts in voicing and tense as emergent signs of the post-lyric, the retroactive prolepsis by which lyric broods on its own discontinuous production. Lyric’s perfect present “is,” while post-lyric’s future past imperfect “will have been.”[5]

Perfect losses we can’t mourn what we have
Erected structures voiding space things that will
Have come inside no place being where we live

A fantasy of home secures their missing limbs
My cock ensures them tender organs fulfilling
Orders of state when they migrate with no bodies[6]

Readers of Disaster Suites will recognize the compressed yet speakerly affect in Music. Lines are cantilevered, enjambments are extreme; with each break the verse seems to revalue or disqualify the sense that has been its rule on behalf of what that rule is becoming. Thus, what the future-anterior tense will have registered is something like a slip-knot, a two-way structure of sense that suspends, in order to promote, the difference between before- and after-effects, right and left margins.

This goes for subjects, too. They decompose into past participles (“wound / -ed”), refusing to be taken wholly or synchronically. They are made up of actions that happen or do not. Many things in Halpern’s poems refuse to happen otherwise. Every feeling threatens to be the feeling of its own disavowal.

Attitudes of duty & debt esoteric
Securities fundamentalist pop
– ulisms negating politics like so

Many little negotiations of private
Interest embalmed with my love
My poems service you as well as

Waste demands what’s deepest re
– mains a delicate pumping sensation
Feeling this can’t mean this

                                                 — difference hasn’t yet begun.[7]

Lines like these radicalize the intimacies and adjacencies of language as social realities, and at the same time, militate against the very possibility of their being vocative — virtually voiced or heard. Halpern’s lyric is the imprint of a voice delaying itself in advance, the impaction of self-address at the outer limits of late liberalism’s voucher-like promise of freedom. In a talk delivered at the Unitarian Center in San Francisco in 2010, Halpern recalled the melancholia of the late 1990s for Bay Area writers living in the wake of AIDS and the onslaught of NAFTA neoliberalism. His discussion of loss and disaffection should inform our reading of his poetry.

We were “between crises” as one might speak of being between wars, but there is never really any such “between” — just the spell of an interregnum when everyone is holding breath, and waiting, and pretending to adapt to a set of conditions that seem entirely fake … having identified, on the one hand, with too many personal losses — losses I myself had not yet learned how to mourn; and on the other, with a feeling of terminal belatedness, when it didn’t seem possible to believe in anything long enough to respond to it.[8]

No matter its delay, loss punctuates a present moment unfolding into the future. No matter how empty, the feeling of loss is an event that has to have duration if it is to be social, just as a signal presupposes a response. In the late ’90s as now, for Halpern there is no “between” successive crises because there’s always the meta-crisis of the mourner, the slow death of the elegist whose feelings are constitutively too late.

Elsewhere Halpern has spoken of “patiency” as a name for a political subjectivity other than one purely of agency; instead, one which “has less to do with the body as the sovereign scene of its own actions, and more to do with the body as the scene of disabused mastery.”[9] In Music for Porn, patiency names the utopian relation between militarized and queer bodies. When Halpern addresses the American soldier, it is to occasion fantasies of intimacy, but also to occasion elegies for the dead or the will-have-been dead.

It bears repeating that a book as rich as Music aims to tap into several genres of discourse, and not simply collapse them into self-contained lyrics. Hence, a section of poems that meticulously remediate the autopsy reports of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or, where we expect a sequence of lyrics — the ascendant form of much contemporary poetry — instead we get more prose, indeed criticism on Drum Taps, the book of poems Walt Whitman wrote during the Civil War. Profanely arch, Halpern’s prose does the hard work of denaturalizing concepts while leaving them ripe for repurposing in his poems.[10] These are pensées poking around their own ruins, Benjamin’s allegories filtered through Stein’s parataxis. They won’t hold the attention of some readers for long.

That Halpern’s prose is demanding is important because it generates the ambient and “unbearable” condition of something impossibly difficult to think about. It goes as far as we can go with Music, or as far as our submission is a willful one of reading. We are made patients of this verse, skeptical voyeurs. The dark graphicness of Halpern’s porn-elegy makes us hesitate to be interpolated into their mise-en-scène. A soldier may or may not want to be visited in his hospital bed.

But just as Whitman did physically, Halpern visits them in writing. We let his address work on us, hearing Whitman in it, moved by its affection despite the anonymity of the bereaved or the beloved.

His moaning mourns a man like
Belief I write these things inside

                                     — yr address myself enclosing.[11]

The heart of “yr address” is to the master-chameleon of address, Whitman. Halpern is a reluctant intimate with Whitman, who was for all his subtleties a horn-blowing Yankee. But he brought world-historical significance to the queer elegy in Drum Taps, which he wrote while cruising the streets of Washington, DC, and nursing soldiers at the Armory Square Hospital. Halpern unfolds this history into a sensory event: the soldier’s body queers the repetition (through elegy) of the war it is constantly sacrificed for.

But war, Halpern reminds us, sensationalizes this redemption as a pornography of freedom, broadcast through the media of night-vision bombings, CGI raid simulations, and aircraft-carrier pageants. Hence the negative ecstasy of watching television news: the feeling of the impossible compulsion to feel distant misery. “Music for porn” is how sensory organs loop one another’s feedback. Lyric, or post-lyric, is the damaged harmonic of this loop, mounting claims against but from within the autonomy of porn (war’s autopilot regime of representation).

The pages on Whitman allow Halpern to plot a conceptual horizon for lyric without claiming for it the political fantasy of naturalizing thinking as “naming.” This is to plot a “non-site,” a [—] (to use Halpern’s glyph) where lyric is “like an organ of cognition in the process of theorizing its own historical disaster, or like a body communicating in excess of its rhetorical gestures.”[12] This “body” is not a generic surface to be inscribed, but neither is it quite fleshy. It is the phantom between, the “feeling of not feeling,” of “suffering in a limb where suffering will never take place.”[13]


The relationship between what a poet once felt and what another poet can or cannot feel now is, then, not just past-historical but phantasmic and immanent. Each poet and poem has, or is fucked up by, the condition (if only partial, if limb-like) for interpreting the other. This is how war poems sustain a fully historical relation to the futuremoment when they are read by readers who are conscious of lyric’s hard promise to be the grounds for value-claims that aren’t subsumed by the totality of its weaponized present. At the same time, lyric discloses the crippling inevitability of that present, and in that moment of relative autonomy, begins to absorb the negativity of war’s global accumulation in order to become itself the source of historical claims to value. Such claims, in Halpern’s poetry, proceed from the desire to rive apart negation and accumulation, to proclaim their radical difference even while deriving the value of demilitarization (or its possibility) from inside this difference. Value itself, as Halpern insists, has to be demilitarized. “What delusions of yr price” goes:

Yr mind being that of the mark
– et it’s not the secret of yr body
I want but the secret of value be

– ing the thing itself or what
Mystery connects me

                                                  — to the world.

Throughout Music lurks the bad outcome of elegy — that in soliciting the soldier, Halpern identifies a “blank,” “skip,” or “fault” in the genre of address and thus loops the distance between poet and soldier with that between poem and reader. In Rumored Place, this doubling signals a mistaken virtuality — “an extension of what content isn’t there.”[14] In Music, this content is a destroyed body which cannot be replaced with lyric’s, and is only repaired as it is managed, halfway disavowed by the flat affect of “waste.”

 If this sounds contradictory, it is — and necessarily so. Bonding Halpern to Whitman is crisis of (non-)feeling that bonds lyric to war even as they mutually abject and repulse, like cursed lodestones. Halpern worries that this amounts to a bad faith, a mistaken naturalization of poetry as both in and against history — a dark magic.[15] By writing lyrics heated with lust for the soldiers they elegize, Halpern performs the “music” for a “porn” that he can’t remove himself from. The practice of verse becomes, by definition, compulsive — in turns ecstatic/mortified, morbid/apollonian. The wartime elegist moves haltingly, gropingly, toward the bodies of soldiers which lie suspended in a suspended present. These bodies are the proper object of elegy because they structure the time they lack: passing, past.

The limiting case, then, of Whitman’s “passing stranger”: a beloved whose recessive relation to time (or the present moment) lubricates longing rather than disables it. For Whitman, this “stranger” is always partly a figure for the problem of circulation that was so central to his verse practice. The book medium of his poems was a minimal condition of their rhetoric of address, because the reader’s immediacy to the page, counterintuitively and perversely, beggars any physical intimacy with the speaker or the poet himself. “Come closer,” we are beckoned … but to where exactly? The desire of verse to move immanently beyond the page has a special pathos in war writing, if we imagine that the mass address of individual readers bears an alien resemblance to war’s territorialization and reproduction of individual deaths.

But is this resemblance inevitable? It depends, Music suggests, on how far we are willing to take our alienation of the very form of value we want to practice — that of lyric — in our remote sensing of war in the Middle East. Can the poet articulate a relation to the present while writing verse that does not marginalize or embarrass itself by being yet another atrocity exhibit, a container for our local feelings of guilt and disgust? No poem consoles what is chronic, but a poem can reroute or re-pitch the rhythms of thinking and feeling so they are no longer chronic, no longer their own inevitable outcomes.

Here’s one more poem, “Remains Unwritten”:

My own stench being what attracts me
To undressing you mean what I think I
–’m feeling dismembered in the touch

I still can’t touch or say the names fall out
For what’s not mine to name you softer
Targets yrs I want to sing what will have

Been my body where yr odor clings I hang
In excess of the system where we’re caught

                               — not sensing the thing that’s sensing us.[16]

The future perfect— “what will have / Been my body” — is the condition of being that preoccupies Halpern in each of his books. Sex is impossible by so simple a name, because its residue is that of disaffection, a mood of address “caught” in a vanishing system of tense which strips non-pornographic desire down to its impersonal skins.

Not only is the scene of writing not identical with one of speaking, nor for that matter one of reading, these imaginary acts — these vocative phases of lyric address — are one another’s half-lives. What will have been vexes us because it refers to something expired and something just begun — something sequenced and retrograded by lyric’s desire to mourn a future not yet heard. Halpern is singing words in and not out, and that’s urgent right now.



1. Rob Halpern, Music for Porn (Callicoon, New York: Nightboat Books, 2012), 91.

2. Ibid., 157.

3. Halpern, “Pornotopias,” Damn the Caesars, Summer 2012, 101.

4. Halpern, Music for Porn, 119.

5. Tyrone Williams, “Disaster Suites: The Present Poetics of Rob Halpern,” Damn the Caesars,Summer 2012, 116.

6. Halpern, Music for Porn, 32.

7. Ibid., 89.

8. Halpern, “Becoming a Patient of History: George Oppen’s Domesticity and the Relocation of Politics,” December 11, 2010.

9. Halpern, “Porntopias,” 106.

10. Watch Halpern perform this hybrid genre in a talk/reading he gave at the University of Chicago in 2011.

11. Halpern, Music for Porn, 90.

12. Ibid., 49–50.

13. Ibid., 115.

14. Halpern, Rumored Place (San Francisco: Krupskaya, 2004), 61.

15. Halpern’s concern led him to append something like a defense of poetry, or disclaimer, to Disaster Suites. As Tyrone Williams observes, the note worries about the political implications of using a “non-ironic” voice — one which indexes a perfect lyric present — in a book written about the devastation of, and in solidarity with, the historically marginalized populations in New Orleans. See Williams, “Disaster Suites: The Present Poetics of Rob Halpern.”

16. Halpern, Music for Porn, 72.