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.

A review of Amaranth Borsuk's 'Handiwork'



Amaranth Borsuk

Slope Editions 2012, 78 pages, $14.95, ISBN 9780977769872

When my first book was about to come out, I remember coming to understand there was some puffy critical notion out there of “the first book” against which I would have to contend. I don’t think it’s a codified thing, but it felt like it was something known by people who fashioned themselves as in the know. One such voice was Jordan Davis, who edits poetry reviews for The Nation and writes for “The Constant Critic.” He has said he prefers not to talk about first books of poems and that he follows Publishers Weekly in this.[1] He has gotten more specific about his reasons on occasion. In his positive review of Elizabeth Bradfield’s Interpretive Work, he avers: “I usually have a hard time getting past … self-consciousness when it turns up in the work of a new writer” and goes on to address some other cardinal new-writer sins, including “go-to rhetoric” (meaning familiar logical/syntactical constructions), “ekphrasis,” and “threes” (again, a problem of predictability).[2] Stephen Burt, another prominent critic of my generation (most memorable to me for his late-90s mulling of an “Elliptical School”), unsurprisingly identifies first books with the pitfalls of “period style.”[3] Boiling period style down to its conceptual kernel ends up feeling pretty unenlightening, unfortunately. This isn’t a theory or a critical position so much as an expression of distaste for predictable gestures. Maybe dude poets of my generation were especially allergic to the very trends we were simultaneously obsessed with identifying and consuming. Or, maybe we were ourselves novices, products of some sort of workshop culture — if not THE workshop — terrified to death of not knowing better. Insecurity hates insecurity, and as yet another dude poet of my generation, Joel Brower, has said, “first books of poems are sometimes, understandably insecure, and cluck like starved pullets dying for love.”[4] A pullet is a young hen. I think people who go around pejoratively comparing things to pullets may be protesting too much …

This is all said by way of getting to talk about Amaranth Borsuk’s first book, Handiwork. I’d prefer not to try making sweeping pronouncements about the way it transcends the limitations inherent to every “first book” or to a “period style.” Honestly, I don’t know if it does or not. And here’s another kink in the tangle of the first-book-review-as-serious-endeavor: how should one go about critiquing something emergent? Without a body of prior work for context, we can either frame our approach in terms of some broader cultural lens or we can set up a “first book” straw man (or straw pullet) and push off against that. The former seems hard. That latter seems lame. I find myself doing a little bit of both. Sorry.

Something about the formalism in Handiwork reminds me of the formalism in my own first book, which makes me think Borsuk isn’t totally transcending the limitations of the prototypical first book. How productive is this measurement? Not very. Part of what I want to say is that my subjective response to this book is one of personal recognition: it feels close and familiar to me. Part of what’s familiar is the reliance on form, something I think some might dismiss as a beginner’s gambit. I don’t read for weaknesses, however. I read for strengths. Form can function as a security blanket, and it can produce disasters. It can also be powerful and weird, something that takes a writer into and through (rather than around) insecurities. I reread Harmonium a few weeks before Handiwork arrived in my mailbox. That was a good first book and one big on form, and I find surprising correlations between that old growth hardwood and this sapling. Form is present in Borsuk’s work in service rather than at expense of heart; Handiwork is full of warmth and vitality. If you read no further, know that I think this book is the real thing: poetry happening in our time, and that is what we should expect of all books — first, or four-fifths-of-second, or whatever.

There is real energy here in the “Salt Gematria,” which spans the book and makes a deep place for itself prosodically and notionally. This series is unquestionably the book’s skeletal core. And it’s a remarkable one. I can easily imagine a chapbook with this series as its whole production.The series plays a necessary role in the context of Handiwork, stitching together the other (generally wonderful) poems that make up the collection’s soft tissue. Gematria is a Talmudic/Kabbalistic numerological practice that stresses mystical relationships between the building blocks of language and of the world and cosmos. In Handiwork, gematria works as part of a procedural poetic method, and its mixed engagement with contemporary experimental and ethno-traditional engagements obliges at least passing comparison with Jerome Rothenberg’s auto-ethnopoetic work (which includes copious gematria). In the case of both writers, sacred/devotional tradition is reinscribed as avant-garde strategy in a way that opens new, often radically new, territory while maintaining reverence for the sophistication of tradition.

The interplay between the sparse, formally constrained gematria work in Handiwork and its more free, individually titled lyrics pulls one through the book appealingly. Keeping perspective on what is afoot demands special effort from the reader. I would say there is ultimately a tension in Handiwork between two poetic/aesthetic approaches, which leads to a powerful feeling of variety but sometimes feels a bit pyrotechnic. Borsuk can make language do lots of remarkable things. That I can’t help thinking of Stevens may be mostly my own anecdotal problem. But it isn’t entirely so. Handiwork is not “Stevensian” in the predictable sense, meaning you won’t find much loopy sonic play or Platonic sermonizing here (though there’s some, and why not, of the former: “Boat, boa, bowie, buoy, beau”). Borsuk manages to do what Stevens does best. She knits the objective and the abstract together in genuinely moving ways. Ultimately, this is probably better described as a Stevens-via-New York school strain in the work. At the same time, Borsuk is tapping into historical/cultural/ritual bedrock, which is a fairly un–New York school move. As Borsuk’s notes indicate, Handiwork is haunted and informed by her grandmother Rena Berliner’s unpublished, autobiographical stories. While it isn’t clear which of the last century’s events Berliner actually witnessed, it is clear that the ecstasies and distresses of a real historical person are fully engaged through Borsuk’s “translation” (“feeling’s supple / tackle, by which we are seemingly / caught and, later, released”). Twining this historical material with gematria’s ethno-formal resonances draws Handiwork even further from Stevensian/New York school tonal detachment and towards an organic grit I associate with Black Mountain and its descendants (Rothenberg, Gary Snyder, Brenda Hillman).

Fittingly, the pitiful, orphaned hand is an important leitmotif across most of the lyric lyrics in Handiwork. It is delicately bound to “the salt” of gematria, and it keeps signaling the reader back to the material, embodied situation. Handiwork in this circumstance is a constant tension between bodily intensity and metaphysical extremity. The hand, which is ostensibly the most nuanced of native human tools (opposable thumbs, etc.), blunders along in Borsuk’s world, “blindfolded,” or it simply disappears, as in “Show of Hands,” from which all hands have been conspicuously excised. In Handiwork, one senses the inadequacy of human agency, of handed-ness, but in the midst of this deprecation one also finds an elemental esteem, “something to grope for.” I think these antitheses accomplish an impressive culmination in the haunting “Two Rams and Goat with Torso and Sheaves of Wheat,” which surges with oracular tones while simultaneously hovering in an indeterminate space, generated by the conditional mood of all its lines:

if your hands are separated from your body by a blast, a glance,
             or their own volition

 if your hands are asked to tell everything they know

 if your right hand survives each disaster knowing it’s lost its left

 if your wrists ache with spectral longing for their hands

 if your hands are masked and beaten with branches and wild fern


Here we are encouraged to consider metamorphic possibilities for our hands (some more unexpected or unlikely than others) in a broader situation of considering other metamorphic possibilities for flower, fire, fruit, food, a ram, a boy … “Two Rams and Goat with Torso and Sheaves of Wheat” may be an ontological argument and it may be an existential argument. It definitely pits certainties and doubts against each other (especially certainties and doubts about being a human creature in the stream of history above), not in quite the shape any poets I’ve mentioned above could offer. As a brief poetics in it its own right, this poem is a metonym for the claim Handiwork and Borsuk herself are staking, however early with respect to “career.” All of it is vital and important, traditional up to the point of being very new.



1. Jordan Davis, review of Famous Americans by Loren Goodman, The Constant Critic, May 8, 2003.

2. Davis, review of Interpretive Work by Elizabeth Bradfield, The Constant Critic, March 28, 2008.

3. For the “Elliptical School,” see Stephen Burt, “The Elliptical Poets,” American Letters & Commentary, no.11, and his review of Smokes, by Susan Wheeler, Boston Review 23, no. 3 (1998). For discussion of “period style,” see “New Poets on the Block,” review of The Body, by Jenny Boully; A Carnage in the Lovetrees,by Richard Greenfield; A Defense of Poetry, by Gabriel Gudding; Very Far North, by Timothy Murphy; Distance from Birth, by Tracy Philpot; Brief Moral History in Blue, by Beth Roberts; Worth, by Robyn Schiff; The Reservoir, by Donna Stonecipher; and American Linden, by Matthew Zapruder, Boston Review 28, no. 2 (April/May 2003).

4. Joel Brower, “Five Books,” review of Selected Poems, by Mary Ruefle; Effacement, by Elizabeth Arnold; Strange Land, by Todd Hearon; Tocqueville, by Khaled Mattawa; and Break the Glass, by Jean Valentine, Poetry, February 2011.

'All my lies are honest'

A review of Chad Sweeney's 'Wolf's Milk'

Wolf’s Milk: The Lost Notebooks of Juan Sweeney

Wolf’s Milk: The Lost Notebooks of Juan Sweeney

Translated by Chad Sweeney

Forklift Books 2012, 138 pages, $14.95, ISBN 098322157X

Wolf’s Milk: The Lost Notebooks of Juan Sweeney, translated by Chad Sweeney, begins with an epigraph by the mythic Juan Sweeney himself: “The letter before A is silence.” This epigraph is having pure fun with form while it issues a grave statement about the nature of creation — like the poems of this collection. This book of translations of Juan Sweeney’s writings — which Chad Sweeney reportedly discovered “on shreds of paper in the walls of Sweeney Castle in Oklahoma, where I was born and where Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre presumably passed away, though his body soon disappeared from the family crypt” — is an ingenious project about the relationship between the act of translation and the lyric persona.

Who was Juan Sweeney? Wolf’s Milk provides us with some information about him, which we immediately take to be tongue in cheek: he “loved cheese and whiskey,” he was “a direct descendent of the pagan king Sweeney the Mad,” and he was so loyal that he “regularly visited all seventeen of his grandmothers, and you should too.”

Juan Sweeney, as the persona of these poems, allows us to meander through numerous locales inside and outside of time: Spain, Dublin, one of Shahrazad’s stories, Bolivia. As an object, this book is also — well — witty. Nate Pritts’s blurb on the back cover reads, “When I was a child, my aunt would read the poems of Juan Sweeney to me in Spanish from a scroll that seemed to disintegrate in her hands.” The poems of Wolf’s Milk are framed playfully, and as readers, we are supposed to carry this with us as we view them, with “Juan Sweeney’s” Spanish verses on the left side of the page and Chad Sweeney’s translations on the right. Yet, Wolf's Milk is not a game about the concept of translation. Instead, this book, comprised of fifty-five numbered but unnamed poems, absolutely demands to be read with all of the nuances of a lyric collection.

Poem 20, which contains the “wolf’s milk” image of this collection’s title, resonates with a quiet beauty, its imagery presented to us in a mythic mode:

The wolves let me ride them

and muzzle their ears with my chin.
They’ve taught me it’s wolf’s milk
silvers the clover and poplar leaves

at night. They’ve clothed me in
their smell, and given me
a name which cannot be translated,
so I guard them while they sleep.

It is important to note that the wolves have both “clothed” the speaker inside “their smell” (a disguise as well as a moment of transformation) and anoint the speaker with “a name which cannot be translated.” The second poem of the collection also speaks to a refusal of translation. It begins, “It’s too easy to accuse God / of infanticide” and ends with “When you translate this / don’t translate this.” The poems of Wolf’s Milk, which at first seem to present a project of translation, ultimately become self-reflexive: a voice is caught in an impossible sort of present where it knows it is being translated. In the original Spanish version, the “translated” voice must have already been expressing itself at such a moment of crisis, anticipating the hunt for origins (or, even authenticity) that the project of translation invites.

Wolf’s Milk presents us with a beautiful paradox. Through the art of translation, we receive an art of persona. Even so, these poems delightfully comment on and obscure the possibility of even searching for the essence of “Juan Sweeney”: as original ancestor, or, author. In a recent interview, Chad Sweeney says that “The speech act is an attempt to cheat death by climbing back into the womb where form and emptiness are not separate.” The translations of Wolf’s Milk seek to climb back into such a space, “where form and emptiness are not separate,” and acknowledge that this yearning is, by its very nature, a challenge to the lyric utterance itself.

We must also remember that the lyric persona is already a translation of sorts, a translation that yields a version of self from — and in — the voice of another. Wolf’s Milk takes itself so seriously in its playful dynamic between the mysterious ancestral poet and the very real translator (who says, “Admittedly, I do not like his poetry much”) because it is making a smart statement about the inaccessibility of the origins of one’s own stories.

Consider how the speaker of poem 23 views “autobiography”:

I stood like a tree and
fluttered when the wind blew.

Woodpeckers watched me carefully
in case I was planning an attack.

I was planning an attack.

My autobiography:
The womb was my first house.
Its garden was the world.

Claiming agency over the autobiographical is an attempt that is as willed as an “attack.” Yet, Wolf’s Milk begins with the theme of inaccessible origins fairly neutrally. The first poem of the collection begins with a tone of admission more than anything else:

At least my lies are honest.

Night goes tuning its guitars,
tossing its magnolias into disarray,

and spinning a rough wool
from the last stanzas of dusk.

Notice how the evening sky is derived from poetry itself: the “last stanzas of dusk” signals the end of night via a formal description of the end of a poem. It is important to note that not only is translation itself a vital theme for Wolf’s Milk, but so is creation (poetic and cosmic), as in poem 21, where “The cosmos is a baby / blinking at its reflection.”

But what does it mean for the speaker — the mythic Juan Sweeney, “the most mysterious and influential Spanish/Irish poet to have ever lived” — to take “a name which cannot be translated,” in the words of poem 20, so that “no poet may trap them / into his verses”? It is important to remember that the very first line of this collection of poems is “At least my lies are honest.” One must consider the way in which a persona can bea kind of “honest” lie.

A persona poem, a really good one, reads as a real voice — even while it is a fiction. And Wolf’s Milk, though comprised of fifty-five poems, tempts us to read them as a kind of giant poem — issued by a single, giant personality. In this light, the collection’s epigraph, “The letter before A is silence,” becomes especially important. For a collection of translations so concerned with issues of making and remaking (voice, past, poem), this epigraph invites us to consider the impossible question about what exists prior to world creation (an overarching concern that has haunted thinkers as far back as St. Augustine in his Confessions). But “The letter before A is silence” also asks us to think about what a collection is, via a moment prior to the first enactment of the lyric voice in the collection, as well as how such a collection is made and what it represents.

And so, “At least my lies are honest,” Wolf’s Milk begins. What constitutes the beginning of the body of a work belonging to a lost (or, in this case, made-to-be-lost) person? Such a question begs us to think about the authority of the lyric voice as a creative voice. How does the immediately present text interact with its prior text, the poem prior to translation? How does translation itself invite persona into a new version? Are all translations personas, of a sort, masking the voice of the new author? Wolf’s Milk answers these questions by charming its way out of them — and by charm I mean delight, as well as the kind of transformation that belongs to the realm of magic — thus fulfilling its own important, grave, and beautiful project.

Investigations in absentia

On Paige Ackerson-Kiely

Book About a Candle Burning in a Shed

Book About a Candle Burning in a Shed

Paige Ackerson-Kiely

above/ground press 2011, 22 pages, $4, ISBN 1-897224-61-3

Paige Ackerson-Kiely’s poetry resides in no one’s land, in the heartland of John Keats’s negative capability.[1] In Book About a Candle Burning in a Shed, Ackerson-Kiely makes a bittersweet home there.

This chapbook — a collection of twenty-two prose poems that follow the case of a drowned girl through the eyes of an aloof detective — is filled with lyric possibility, crime fiction, love, loss, solar tetherball, identity questioning, heavy doses of negation, and bleak-as-hell small-city-America depictions. This list, I would bet a Sizzler dinner, covers the thematic footprint; however, it is the poetic nucleus of this genre-bending creation — the proverbial pole to the tetherball’s centrifugal force — that I hope to highlight here.

Central to the chapbook’s intrigue is what’s missing: in its pages we find as much absence as populace. “I like the photos of missing children tacked up on the grocery store bulletin boards,” explains the narrator, the aforementioned small-town gumshoe (12).[2] While his job is, ostensibly, to solve the case (and thus resolve what is absent, mysterious), such observations lean more towards the poetic than the evidential: “If you have any information please contact. I’m trying to focus on the distinctive way the carts are strewn over the parking lot, a plastic bag aloft over rows of old trucks, the beautiful woman, dark hair across her face, starting a van.” In the speaker’s aesthetic eye, the grocery store parking lot becomes a repository for the orphaned, the lost — people and objects absent from some prettier life elsewhere.

In this way, Ackerson-Kiely reaffirms how poetic possibility operates in a sphere opposite certitude, opposite positive information and narrative closure. Such is the central idea of negative capability: the ability to reside in uncertainty, to write within and of a world too complex to be easily resolved or reduced. And what’s brilliant about Ackerson-Kiely’s generic monster is how it sets up detective fiction against lyric poetry to create a tension between the narrative pursuit of information and the aesthetic blur of lyricism.

This tension between aesthetics and narrative gets worked out in a number of ways, the most pervasive being the bewitching presence of eros within mystery. The fifth of the untitled prose poems begins: “The thing about being wanted for a crime is that they want you, even when they don’t know who you are” (5). As though stuck on the idea of a “person of interest,” the speaker moves uncannily back and forth between murder suspects and potential spouses. Finally, thinking about “someone you’d better not,” the kind of person “you’d never marry,” he comes to a terra incognita where domestic bliss becomes his own unsolved crime.

The strange relationship between love and homicide begins in the first poem of the collection, as the detective conflates the dead girl with his ex-girlfriend. The entwining of physical death and failed relationship leads to a melancholic poetry stuffed with abject beauty. The ever-absent “girl” (both victim and ex) is consistently evoked by the gritty reality surrounding the detective, but because of “her” absence, she quickly shades into an imagined, aesthetic realm. For instance, as a result of the victim’s unknown identity, “They called her C. in the reports,” which the detective recognizes as “A good place to start a major scale” (4). Here, missing or negated information leads to aesthetic representation. Consider, too: “My girlfriend broke her leg some years ago. Had to sit on the toilet while I washed up and down her back with a sponge. Each knob of her spine I could not turn to open that little unhappy door, let it out, let it look in the mirror mouthing: enough, already” (6). Again, the frustration of narrative development becomes a platform from which to launch the poetic.

The entangling of different narrative threads leads to another facet of negative capability — a breakdown of identity that in turn allows for sympathetic identification. To conflate murder and breakup not only encourages the detective to find similarities between the drowned girl and his ex-girlfriend; it also encourages him to identify with (or as?) the murderer: “Mad about her death, about her leaving for another life. They are closer everyday to extradition, and I wonder after last supper, when all is said and done. I’d ask not to taste a thing, but for her delivered unto me in live flesh” (18). The metaphoric link between detective and murderer leads to narrative complication, certainly. But it also affords the speaker with other means for understanding himself and his relationship to the world, which is a necessity given the speaker’s realization that “I could not understand my loneliness, the shape of what I was looking at” (8).

The blurring of the speaker’s identity points, inevitably, to a lack of it. He acknowledges his shifty significance, noting “how my face is a room to be occupied” (16). Rather than a firm subject for study, the detective is rather akin to the aforementioned parking lot — a reservoir for feelings that don’t fit neatly into the narratives of daily lives. Non-traditionally, this detective is unable to solve mysteries and instead acknowledges the ill-fitting fragments of the world. Such is the case when a hotel clerk looks at him “with all the books at her bedside flashing in her eyes, words and feelings like obscure designer gowns she had no place to wear” (9). At times, it is difficult not to see the speaker/detective as a place for Ackerson-Kiely to wear the metaphors that don’t fit elsewhere. Indeed, because of its highly poetic language, the author’s presence is never fully occluded by the diegetical world of the chapbook.

Yet it might be more accurate (and productive) to see the speaker as a personification of that desire to be someone different, that need to mean something else, because meaning ourselves has proven unbearable. Such is an all too tragic (and too common, I imagine) human experience, and Ackerson-Kiely slips these moments into the mouth of her speaker: “I wanted to be something else, the kind of thing that needed tending. New model pick-up an old friend washed every Sunday afternoon, by hand, then drove far away” (13). Apropos of small-town narratives, locals here never get loose of the tragedies that surround them. Even when the businesses leave one by one, and only the storefronts remain like so many vacant faces, the speaker is left to wonder (as we all are) how life will continue amidst nothingness, to wonder who will care. Such is the plight and beauty of Ackerson-Kiely’s detective-poet, which is perhaps most evident when he momentarily dwells in the old shed where the drowned girl had resided. Barely interested in the random objects the shed contains, the speaker notes: “The single window looked out over a meadow swaying importantly. There was nothing to see but I saw it all, humming tunelessly to let anyone, anyone at all, know I was there” (4).



1. Readers interested in a brief rundown of Keats’ theory might consider Maria Popova’s article “John Keats on ‘Negative Capability,’ Embracing Uncertainty, and Celebrating the Mysterious” on the Brian pickings website. For more in-depth discussion, W. J. Bate’s Negative Capability: On the Intuitive Approach in Keats, first published in 1939, continues to be a touchstone for critical discussions of Keats’s theory of living amidst uncertainty; see Negative Capability: On the Intuitive Approach in Keats, ed. Maura Del Serra (Contra Mundum Press‬, 2012).

2. The chapbook is not paginated, so I have suggested page numbers starting with the first prose poem. Each poem appears on a single page with no pages between. Thus, there are twenty-two poems across twenty-two pages.