A review of Joseph Massey's 'At the Point'
Joseph Massey’s second ‘full-length’ collection of poems, At the Point, expands on the work in his previous Areas of Fog. While that collection’s detail of and attention to place finds a natural extension in At the Point, this collection finds not just an increasing awareness of the immediate presence of the Californian coastal landscape where he lives, but an active restraint in the face of the landscape. In the earliest lines of “Found”:
to say. The landscape
overwhelms an impulse
to speak. (33)
Here, these first two couplets are devoted to the impulse ‘to say’ — an impulse found throughout At the Point. Yet this impulse is overwhelmed by the sheer fact and immediacy of the landscape. Accordingly, the poem then turns its attention outward, and becomes filled with all manner of sensory experience. The visual sense is marked by the openness of sky and time, while vaguely recognizable sounds filter in to the field of perception:
… Sky clouded
A dog or a child’s sound
ricochets through the park.
And the ocean’s drone
Indeed, the focal point in these lines rests with the presence of both the geographic and sensate terrain, which lends the poem its real force. In Massey’s refusal to speak for the landscape, the world is left with its own sense of immediacy and power. While the “impulse / to speak” is acknowledged in the opening lines, this impulse is restrained in the face of the overwhelming presence of the landscape itself. There’s no melodramatic touch lent to the lines; there’s no symbolic import: the quiet insistence of the world speaks for itself. At the poem’s close, we are left with the acknowledgement that:
… The impulse
Though the poem’s core is framed by an admission of the desire ‘to say,’ Massey’s refusal to take something awayfrom the environment by speaking for it and bringing something else into the space of the poem, marks a crucial aspect of Massey’s work in At the Point. Here, it is enough that the impulse itself exists; nothing more need be said.
A similar moment appears in “The Dunes.” After a handful of couplets given to the description of a beach and the debris found there in the morning, Massey writes:
from a tire-
bush lupine. (66–67)
Again, we find the recognition and tension of the meaning-making self again giving way to the sheer presence and fact of the surrounding environment — in this moment, a shadow clambering “from a tire- // flattened / tuft of // bush lupine.” Massey navigates the temporal space in which the environment and the self take part. In this space, little is fixed. Yet what remains is the fact of the world itself, its presence in the face of all else. In the tension between determining how much of the self must reside in the poem, similar questions arise — how much of this self must appear in the landscape about which Massey is writing? How much of this can actually be conveyed by the language of a poem? And how much of this can appropriately be conveyed by the language of a poem?
Speaking to that, here is Massey’s “Forming” in its entirety:
we dream —
of the room
we find ourselves
breathing in —
how they leave us
in pieces — a part
of the pattern
to become. (44)
Massey’s attention to place throughout At the Point rests in the geography of the landscape. And the landscape that Massey’s collection depicts is constantly in a state of having been altered. That language too can alter a landscape, Massey is aware. In his poems, we are conscious of presence — that of the world, and of humanity. We read of debris and trash as often as of the beach, grasses, or sky. Still, in this there is a kind of coexistence.
This is what I find to be one of the singular achievements in Massey’s collection: that for all his attention to presenting the tension between the natural and manmade worlds, there is still an acceptance of each of them. In this way, Massey focuses our attention on the actual, without dragging along a bunch of other baggage. In his poems the manmade and the natural coexist. At the Point gives us a world where we constantly run up against the question of how much is too much. It embodies the impulse to resist going too far. And yet we find that in places where we have, there is still a kind of understanding in a world where:
embody a breeze
neither of us feel. (54)
A review of Joshua Ware's 'Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley'
In a certain sense, to write an homage to something or someone is to admit a failure: one has neither the initiative, creativity nor means to attempt to create something new, something less overtly indebted to one’s specific interests. Paying homage displays a writer’s embrace of influence — especially artistic influence — and posits that it is so pervasive in our contemporary culture, so slyly insidious, that to try and write anything other than an homage (of some sort at least) is to be willfully, woefully ignorant. The sentiment here is that nothing is new under the sun — nothing has ever been new under the sun — and, consciously or not, every writer writes nothing but homages of varying degrees every time he or she sets pen to paper, finger to keyboard.
Winner of the 2010 Furniture Press Poetry Prize, Joshua Ware’s Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley acknowledges the above postulation in a variety of often jarring ways, ones rarely seen in contemporary American poetry. “I believe in secrecy, that is, in the power of falsity, rather than in representing things in a way that manifests a lamentable faith in accuracy and truth,” Ware — by way of the influential French theorist and philosopher Gilles Deleuze — writes in the poem “bringing you closer to what you speed from.” This belief, then, permeates the entire collection: that which is secret and unknowable is more poignant and powerful than something wholly open-faced, glaringly transparent, and thus representative of a “lamentable faith,” one arguably half-didactic.
Going back over fifty years, the lineage and history of Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley is half-complex, but it can fairly easily be reduced to two key players: poets Jack Spicer and Rod Smith (and not the poem’s namesake, Robert Creeley, whose person and work is not directly referenced or mentioned in any of the three works). In his 1960 collection The Heads of the Town up to the Aether, West Coast Renaissance poet and noted contrarian Jack Spicer wrote the initial “Homage to Creeley,” a long poem that made up a third of the content of The Heads of the Town up to the Aether. Dedicated to Jacques Cegeste, a character in Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheus (part of Cocteau’s famed Orphic Trilogy), Spicer’s “Homage to Creeley” discourses often tantalizingly obliquely on a variety of subjects: hell, Joan of Arc, the American novelist Booth Tarkington, the sound of the voice of Cegeste, and, perhaps most pertinently, the various loves and would-be-loves of “The Poet” (“Love isn’t proud enough to hate / The stranger at its gate / That says and does / Or strong enough to return … What was”). Spicer’s “Homage to Creeley” is essentially a clever, caustic farce, one that often references its own “failure” (especially with regards to the direct, open-faced nature of what Spicer believes a proper homage poem might consist of). Poetically the most interesting aspect of the poem is its set of “Explanatory Notes”: directly beneath each lineated portion of the poem there is a solid black line and below it, in prose, an “Explanatory Note” that ostensibly purports to explicate the lineated work above it. Yet — in typical Spicer fashion — many of these “Notes” roundly refuse to elucidate anything for the reader. In contrast, some of them go out of their way to further complicate matters. With the lineated portion of the poem reading in its entirety “Our father that art in heaven / Christmas be thy name / Our father that art in hell / We’ll tell / Them,” the “Explanatory Note” for “ Prayer for My Daughter” reads, in part, “Jim discovered Christmas and the diamond in the back of the diamond. In spite of The Poet’s invention of his name … Hell is where we place ourselves when we wish to look upward. Eurydice and Orpheus and Hermes were all simpleminded” (274).
At just thirty-one pages, Spicer’s “Homage to Creeley” poem is fairly short and — with the exception of the distinctive, deceptively playful “Explanatory Notes” — in the context of his entire oeuvre not particularly notable. But Spicer is a poet that since his premature death, in 1965, has become increasingly widely read outside his adopted hometown of San Francisco. His “Homage” captured the attention of a multitude of different poets, one of them Rod Smith. Included as the last section of his 2007 book Deed, Rod Smith’s “Homage to Homage to Creeley” is, at just five pages, far shorter than Spicer’s poem. It essentially takes up where Spicer’s poem left off, albeit forty-seven years later. In the penultimate poem of the section, “The Life of a Dime,” Smith writes in the lineated portion of the poem:
“A dime does not think.
This makes it enigmatic.
The dime thinks “I do not think”
“This makes me enigmatic”
A bad poet might then write
“A penny for your thoughts”
This would not be worth a dime”
In the accompanying “Explanatory Note” for “The Life of a Dime” Smith (just like Spicer before him) roundly refuses to explain nearly anything about the poem that sits above said note:
The erotic idea of a or the erotic dime is a dense erotic eroticism of erotic
longing says the bread & circus thief to the analyst, erotically.
Old dimes are removed from circulation & treasured. Or melted down.
Does this resemble consciousness? I still love you.
Taken as a whole, “The Life of a Dime” presents many of the hallmarks that Spicer’s “Homage” poem did. Pervading in it there is simultaneously an ironic slyness — “The dime thinks ‘I do not think’” — and an unreserved earnestness —“I still love you” — that endearingly mystifies the reader, plain and simple.
Sans an “Explanatory Note,” Smith’s final “Homage to Homage to Creeley” poem, “pour le CGT,” reads in its entirety: “We work too hard. / We’re too tired / To fall in love. / Therefore we must / Overthrow the government” (87). The CGT being the French General Confederation of Labor, one of the major trade unions in France, “pour le CGT” ends both “Homage to Homage to Creeley” and Deed on a wholly satisfying note, one that of course answers a question that has yet to be asked. On a syntactical level the poem is straightforward enough — but why exactly is the poem dedicated to the French General Confederation of Labor? Why not “Overthrow the government” here, there and everywhere? Like Spicer before him, Smith isn’t telling, and although the black line across the page is still there, “pour le CGT’s” “Explanatory Note” is left entirely blank. Within the context of the now-established “Homage to Creeley” tradition, however, one can’t help but desire it any other way.
Ware, then, does both Spicer and Smith one better. Consisting of three sections and over double the length of “Homage to Creeley,” Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley continues the set “Homage” formula — lineated poem with accompanying “Explanatory Note” — but in many ways extends it even further than Ware’s predecessors did. The book begins with a dedication page to “Jack Spicer’s Ghost and Rod Smith,” a dedication that it is immediately made clear is little more than a “ploy to fill an unspecified function. While unspecified, the ploy’s failure should evident, nonetheless, to readers.” Whereas Spicer invoked the persona of “The Poet” in his “Homage to Creeley,” Ware utilizes “the poets,” and he furthermore plays up the nature of his debt to Spicer and Smith. Language from and allusions to Spicer’s work show up throughout, whereas Rod Smith’s persona is a recurring figure in the book, albeit one that — via the same dedication page — “is a pseudonym for a former lover of the poets; the proper noun Rod Smith is not a reference to the poet Rod Smith.” Over the course of the collection Ware plays up the always tenuous nature of identity, both poetic and literal: in the “Explanatory Note” of a later poem he writes, “The poets once asked: “Why should you assume that ‘the poets’ are us? We have almost nothing in common.”
Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley is a dense, occasionally openly divided volume: the word ripe does not do justice to how many historical, political and poetical references are encased in the book. In its first section, “Termination Shock,” one learns how “[French theorist Jacques] Derrida’s concept of grafting” can be understood poetically, the significance Bob Dylan’s motorcycle crash on July 29, 1966, had on “the poets,” some of the often-nonsensical rules —“Keep your Nails clean and Short, also your Hands and Teeth Clean yet without Shewing any great concern for them” — included in George Washington’s 1748 tome Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation (Washington’s stern visage appears on the cover of Smith’s Deed), why “the poets” reject gravity as a “once-upon-a-time story,” and the nature of mimetic art in contemporary society. And all those references appear in just the first half of the book’s first section, each in a separate “Explanatory Note.” Many of the lineated poems in the volume, then, are lyric in nature, some ringing with homophonic language. Taken from the poem “The form it now maintains is only the illusion of fullness,” the phrase maple tree appears as “May / pull tree”; in “at any moment. / What else” the word elegy reads: “Elle, O gee!” Ware’s reasoning for incorporating such phraseology is no doubt one of expectation, or rather the thwarting of such. When reading a poem (or piece of prose, for that matter) the reader expects to see the word maple tree exactly written as such; elegy is elegy is an elegy. Yet homophones force the reader to understand each word and phrase in ways rarely encountered. In the “Explanatory Note” to “Blushing to a Concrete City,” Ware discusses Louis and Celia Zukofsky’s homophonic translation of Catullus, a translation that endeavored to capture “the sound, rhythm, and syntax” of the original, “instead of replicating its semantics,” and in many of the homophone-based lyric poems in the book Ware attempts a linguistic complication of a similar sort.
This is the same out-of-the-box reasoning that dedicates Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley to “Jack Spicer’s Ghost” and a “Rod Smith [that] is not a reference to the poet Rod Smith.” And just like Spicer and Smith before him, Ware very rarely directly explains each lineated poem in the included “Explanatory Note.” Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley thus asks something different of its readers than most poems or volumes of poetry tend to, and there is really no one way to “read” the book; its multiplicity is seemingly endless, and the fact that so much of its “poetry” is actually in “Explanatory Note” prose further aggravates matters. There are also — somewhat problematically — no page numbers included in the collection. One can’t recommend to a friend the poem “Eris” “on page 74”; instead he or she is forced to mutter, “I really liked the poem ‘Eris’ — it’s kind of near the back but not all the way at the end.” Although again thwarting reader expectation, the lack of page numbers in Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley is the most frustrating aspect of the book since — unlike every other linguistic, conceptual, and poetic device Ware utilizes throughout each of its three sections — there seems to be no clear aesthetic rationale behind it.
A number of quotes in Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley might encapsulate the volume as a whole, among them: “Poetry … should be considered a multiplicity if one has any chance of understanding it, or better stated, moving comfortably through and within it” (“cities / thought becomes”), or: “The problem with being numerous is a problem of memory: everything eventually dissipates … no matter how well documented. Something new emerges” (“A Kiss Less Consecrated”). The two most pertinent to the collection, however, appear in “But, Since I Am a Dog, Beware My Fangs,” the final poem of the first section of the book. In the “Explanatory Note,” Ware quotes two statements made by the conceptual American artist Sol LeWitt. The first reads: “When words such as painting or sculpture are used, they connote a whole tradition and imply a consequent acceptance of this tradition thus placing limitations on the artist who would be reluctant to make art that goes beyond the limitations”; “Illogical judgements (sic) lead to new experience,” states the second. Within the context of the lineage, scope, and form of Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley, it is of course no accident that Ware chose these two LeWitt statements to quote. “When words” alludes to the fact that the book Ware has chosen to write is one that simultaneously accepts and reacts against “tradition” and “limitation.” By writing a volume so firmly entrenched in the “Homage” mode as written and conceived by Spicer and Smith before him, Ware accepts, even flaunts, tradition’s necessity. Yet at more than double the length of Spicer’s initial “Homage to Creeley,” not so subtly dedicating itself to “Jack Spicer’s Ghost” and a “Rod Smith” that “is not a reference to the poet Rod Smith” (one that instead is “a former lover of the poets”), Ware’s Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley insists that the “limitations” placed on his work will be ones negotiated and accepted by him and him alone. And “Illogical judgements (sic) lead to new experience” by virtue of their sheer newness: elegy is not spelled “Elle, O gee” but one appreciates the word differently when it is done so; “Art / amiss” forces a different understanding of Greek goddess Artemis’s possible being and nature. Ware thus plays up the infinitude of language’s every possible permutation, and Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley’s reader comes away with a greater respect for language’s elasticity and durability as a result of his frequent manipulations.
Involved, long, occasionally obfuscating, Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley is not a book for everyone (is any?). What Ware accomplishes in the collection is noteworthy, however, especially in terms of how refreshingly distinct the Homage is relative to so much contemporary American poetry. Ware dares to forgo what Tony Hoagland describes as the prevalent current aesthetic of “goofiness, with its quick-sequenced non-sequitur enactment of clever, addled adolescence,” or simply “cluelessness” as a “characteristic pose[s].” Although Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley is only his first full-length collection, Ware’s is a voice that heralds something more forceful, something new, and perhaps eventually something that shall garner an “Homage to Ware” work of his own. And a failure his Homage is not.
A review of Carmen Giménez Smith's 'The City She Was'
We have the terror of collectivity. And then we have the joy of collectivity. Carmen Giménez Smith reminds me that frenemies lurk around the Hard Rock Cafés of any city. But she also reminds me that we don’t have to go to the mall alone to pierce our ears and I’m relieved. And when we return to our homes and look at our freshly pierced ears in our solitary mirrors, Giménez Smith’s poetry forces me to confront the fallibility of the self, how “the houses project their occupants.” Her poems are riddled with both acerbic acceptance and sincere longing for transformation, so they live in a constant or conflicted state of attentive revision. She writes: “We’ll live off the grid. We’ll live sort of off the grid and spend too much money on organic marmalade.” She writes: “Some of it will be true and some of it will test what we know.” Giménez Smith’s newly released fourth collection of poetry, The City She Was, tests what we consider comfort, how we approach or appreciate disguises, how we recognize forgiveness, and whether smugness is our nation state.
Comfort: If we’re comfortable with the familiar, the expected, then what happens when we become aware of the staid quality of existence? Giménez Smith examines this strange purgatory and illuminates the various voices struggling to decide, on a very basic level, how to live. In the titular poem, she writes:
The day is bare as white,
so I stay inside
lest the wind change me.
I sort my miniskirts to trade
with skinny girls at Buffalo Exchange.
Here, the speaker retracts from an outside that might inflict unwanted “change.” This possible, uncontrolled transformation contrasts the safe alternative of considering what clothing items might be out of fashion and ripe for exchange. Irony and sadness emanate from the recognition that trading attire could be considered “change,” but not one that welcomes the unexpected or is removed from the dictation of current trends. The decision is safe and it’s hard to resist safety. “This could get serial,” Giménez Smith threatens.
If we choose to read the collection as housing multiple voices, then Giménez Smith never fully sides with any particular speaker. If we choose to read it as one voice, layered through the complexities of human inconsistency, then we’re given a candid battle between will and awareness, need and excesses of desire, compliancy and risk. The poems that grow from discomfort abandon the familiar for a more startling adventure. In the first poem, “For About Five Minutes in the Aughts,” the speaker is defiant, confrontational, and explains, “Pills / made me shaky, but I filled myself with pills because they made me shaky.” In contrast to the prior excerpt, this narrator does not avoid a level of potential distress. The altering experience is worth the adventure, and the exposure to newness, to this modification, becomes the primary reason for engagement.
Disguises: Puppets, apartment ghosts, hair, and costumes embody and animate the emotional landscape of The City She Was. Giménez Smith investigates how much of the daily is artifice and whether deception and authenticity can simultaneously share space within this city. In “The Walk,” the female character recognizes the fakery but then becomes complicit to its puppetry:
That’s the way a walk renews —
she makes her way through
the imperfect city and discovers
how the world is people
with hand puppets. People who shiver
metal sheets for thunder,
and then she squints her eyes
to fuzz it more, to prettify.
She notes the people creating false interaction with hand puppets and the unnatural thunder booming from ground level. Yet, the discovery stagnates when she chooses to squint “her eyes / to fuzz it more, to prettify.” Disguise instigates denial.
In “Under a Wan Sun” and “The Grand Tour,” however, disguise is the springboard that enables invention. The first stanza of “Under the Wan Sun” begins:
Blue gets plucked from the dresser for today’s
costume. I’m feeling demure, so I want
the faux-priss of the opera-princess-drag queen.
If we’re dissatisfied with or feel trapped in a particular behavioral pattern, costumes offer a device to extricate ourselves from a pervasive mood. The speaker shifts from being reserved and shy to embracing a flamboyantly gender-bending stance. Freedom from expectation. “The Grand Tour” considers how artifice could actually evolve authentic love:
I want to be the thinking I invented last night,
but I’ve already run out of disguise.
Instead it’s some amour, plush velvet,
some pretending to read Proust. We’re propping
up the corpse of romantic love.
In this instance, disguise allows the rethinking of non-romantic love. After it “runs out,” the corpse comes back. When available, disguise offers the space for experimenting with a new, undefined kind of love, possibly one that can flourish when the energy of “propping up” the old is redirected. Giménez Smith asserts, “my costume, my itinerary,” and thus, the clothing’s performance transforms into a journey of unexplored territory.
Forgiveness: If we are to be forgiven, if we are to boldly ask for forgiveness, then to what are we admitting guilt? And do we need to distinguish the self from the other in order to ask this of someone else? Forgiveness is concerned with the boundaries of identity and how it permeates the edges of our temporal location to transform notions of the self. The poems of The City She Was confront the reader with the voice(s) of someone who recognizes and relishes a distinct selfhood, yet finds culpability in its behavior. Giménez Smith contradictorily admits:
I am blameless but not blameless.
I am pristine but not pristine.
I am hugged but not hugged,
all of us not hugged. All of us teem
with shame but most of all me …
These halting plaints remain basis
for the teeming discord I am,
a patient with a gram of mutiny.
If you’re changing the disposable diaper of your child then you might be an attentive mother but a bad environmentalist. If you’re helping a student with a paper after class, you might be a diligent and supportive professor but at the same time, completely forget that it’s your brother’s birthday and be a neglectful sister. We might be distinct, but we’re also inconsistent, complex, and ultimately many things at any moment, rendering us “a teeming discord,” “blameless but not blameless.” And importantly, we’re not alone in these contradictions. Yet, we have a limited perspective in that we do tend to prioritize the self both in negative and positive terms. As Giménez Smith writes, “All of us teem with shame but most of all me,” and in another poem, “Turn me in, offer me coffee, take me soup, and privilege my opinion.” Here, she captures what we are always asking forgiveness for: the desire to have our opinions privileged, to seek out and love those who show us this favor.
And through our love and kinship we inculcate others. Giménez Smith commands, “Whisper that secret name we learned from the movies. I’ll forgive you. / We’ll puppet voices and mug shots, and you can forgive and forget. We’ll bury our past.” In these suggestions, the language of pop culture creates bonds that either lead to forgiveness or the need to be forgiven. Costumes are the shovels that bury memory’s corpse. But then what happens in the present and the future?
I couldn’t stop describing my flaws to you as serious
and possibly fatal, but you darned every incision.
Which is to say
I can tell you everything that ever happened
because it’s already done. What about
what I am capable of? I’m afraid of the next day.
Candid fear and the possibility for revision mark the shift between the city she was and the landscape she can become. The speaker must figure out how to draw the blueprints for this new city with some, all, or none of the “darned” flaws. Capability is patience with “a gram of mutiny”; it reads as both/either a threat of continued failure and/or a fresh prospect waiting to be lived out through interaction.
Smugness: I’m not sure if I mean self-satisfied, in that these poems know the audience, wink at the reader. Or if they embrace the humor of pointing at the mirror. Or ironic insouciance that actually reveals a deep concern for how our language connects us. The City She Was constructs a skyscraper of tragicomic stanzas that towers over us:
“I stuffed his inbox with amendments and bloated metonymy.”
“I collected fancy pens / and yeah, I’m working on an article
about animé and Marxism”
“We deforest, we slay with biting humor, and wait for what is
offered in return. / It’s what we vow because we’re caught in
each other’s complex web.”
“You refer to everything through cinema, say, this is so Before Sunrise
or I had a Last Tango in Paris yesterday. You’ll blush. You’ll twist away.
Oh, the trash you’ll read in magazines as scripture!”
Is it more understandable to name the emotion you experience or name the movie that embodies a similar emotional atmosphere? Giménez Smith plays with mixing highbrow and lowbrow language to remind us how concentric circles of cultural referents shape identities and systems of communication. Maybe these are the modern versions of O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poems. They don’t exclude in order to show a picturesque world nor do they preach. Instead, they revel in all aspects of the contemporary, even the spirit-crushers: “the tiny babies and the IED-blown / leg” or “because of baby bear not finding mama bear.” O’Hara writes, “and my heart — / you can’t plan on the heart, but / the better part of it, my poetry, is open.” Giménez Smith echoes this sentiment when she claims, “my sloppy heart a sponge filled with blood to squeeze onto / any circumstance. Because it is mine it will always bleed … / I’ve got so much blood to give inside and outside of any milieu.”
When I finished this collection, I realized that I wasn’t a tourist in this city, but a citizen (for better or worse or blood). Giménez Smith does not rely on us to discover the city she is now, but I think she asks us to consider our culpability and interconnection as we glide into the next moment. We must sit ourselves “alone / under the single bulb of self-interrogation.” And from this solitary place we can open: “You start as strangers with each one and they become a compartment in you with her habits and her sweaters, with all his stray bits: a Cornell box in you, the wreckage, each of the hims, the hers, the them.” Toward the end of the book Giménez Smith asks, “Is it okay to say Bible in here?” There is no answer. Does God offer an alternative to the self’s privileged opinion? This is one possibility. Regardless of where you place your faith, and how faith might center or decenter the self as a gesture to the Other, Giménez Smith encourages us to question the responsibility of location and where we’re situated in relation to others: the human voice, touch, literature, cinema, our wreckage, and the love habituating within.
When I read an acquaintance’s life writing, it seems an act of friendship not only because my experience and impressions of that person can be confirmed or amplified, but I learn new things and am drawn to consider how that person structures, omits, references cultural matters, politicizes, or not, their lives. What does the work as fiction do?
I met Bill Lavender in Madrid during 2005 after having accepted his invitation as visiting writer for the University of New Orleans International Program. It seems a prelapsarian moment — shortly upon returning to the states, the onset of the Katrina flood and destruction began. Toward the end of Memory Wing, post-Katrina and -BP disaster are referenced in despair:
and the whole big planet
teeming with birds and fish and mammals?
we could save it from the abyss
and all those species from extinction
but we’re not going to
we can but we won’t ought to be
our rallying cry the flag motto
and the poet turns to a simple paradise of feeling the sun’s warmth while lying in the grass as if it takes super-human strength to pull a tiny paradise from an overwhelming hell. But, as is often said, knowledge constructs suffering, and the greater arc of Memory Wing is a portrait of the artist as a young man — how he comes to know, how the three-part comedy of dying mother whose memory is damaged by dementia, dead father who had to be both overcome (“Father / führer / phallic ambrosial”) and incorporated, and his two sons’ birth; their utter embodiment and growth are all aspects of how Lavender articulates self-construction.
That summer of 2005 in Madrid also brought poet Susan Schultz to the UNO program, and, of course, her work on her mother’s dementia in both dementia blog and Memory Cards 2010–2011 series comes to mind. Though structured differently from Memory Wing, Schultz uses the blog format, going back in time to record daily observations of her mother’s loss of language, her children’s growth in language, and her reflections on ideas (as well as her own inability to remember until her mother’s death) results in a flood of memories of who her mother was and what made her interesting rather than those of a sad life growing ever more silent and inert.
My former teacher Raymond Federman frequently said that all writing is fiction, even history is fiction, and autobiography, too, especially autobiography. To me Memory Wing reads as a screenplay in the form of poetry: the text is a sequence of quatrains, and the diction is vernacular in lower case. A thoughtful telling, and often funny in the way being bad has its pleasures, the tone is good to hear and the ethical arc is believable. The work has the filmic convention of framing shots, first using the wing of the hospital — the memory wing — where Lavender’s mother lies speaking to the dead, not fully recognizing her son. In between, we are taken through Lavender’s memories of early years: rebelling against authoritarian teachers, a wonderful mythic snake he and another boy draped on a stick to bring back home:
it crossed the stick seven times the head
hung low tongue darting mouth opening when
anyone or thing approached momma called it
a coachwhip jet black down the tail
His other explorations led to physical punishment by his father, growing loyalties to his friends and tough lessons of betrayal — he is ashamed of not recognizing a poorer boy (later we see betrayals such as one friend “ratting out” another in a drug bust, sexual infidelities, loss of focus in some friends who had a chance at something), and a turn to the woods as his best friend, real parent, and scary presence:
running in the woods the woods the woods
were my best friend and they were the
scariest place they were where I hid and they
were what I hid from and then the wind of the
wing of something
passed over the house in the night
We are returned to the filmic framing devices: his mother in the hospital, his discussion with his dead father in part two over a log fire that doesn’t warm, and, in part three the intermittent address to his sons. In between the frames, we see and hear Lavender’s memory reconstructed, made alive. In each of three parts, we have Lavender’s experiences of sex, poetry, work, bikes or motorcycles, early reading, and literary teachers who are flawed but become more sophisticated as he grows, a few walk-on parts by well-regarded poets, C. D. Wright, for example. We also read of an early besting of his teacher to the delight of classmates as his earliest memory of what the “future” may be, his sense of audience as a challenge to power.
This is interesting because this figure is repeated later on. It appears in part two in the extended description that a friend, Brazier, gives of what it was like to attend his first Rolling Stones concert. A sequence that could stand on its own, too long to be repeated in full, it begins with Lavender and Jim Calhoun playing chess in a bar that becomes increasingly packed and loud, results in Lavender’s memorable win, then Brazier’s describing the audience that waited for the Stones to begin:
and the crowd gets quiet like it is a single
animal and it has pricked up its ears …
… close and hot and i actually started to
get a little scared felt the crush and smell
of the crowd drug-crazed ecstatic panicking
there was no place to run in case of emerg-
ency we were in this to stay it was as i said
the world itself and how does one escape
the world? and then i heard it a switch being
thrown it was click just like a regular
light switch but louder and one lone
spotlight came on on the stage right
over jagger’s mike and the crowd
hushed just like that just like that switch …
… like all these things were a single
sensation synaesthesia a single energy and that
energy was powering us all like
one heart was pumping
The audience is revisited at a Mott the Hoople concert:
signs and the arena full of smoke like some
giant pleasure dome and mott
carried us away the crowd awash
in mescaline floating above itself in a
skein of smoke and light
The lovely rebellious unity becomes politically extended as the challenge to the father-state, both as Lavender’s singular father’s “paranoid tomcat discomfort” and racism and as the collective father Nixon and the My Lai massacre created by the state:
on the hill above the stadium with our crosses
that spelled my lai when nixon’s helicopter passed
right over us and the crowd growled like
So in this sense the singular life is also the shared life, yet it is a different version from, say, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. Though it’s easy to consider much of this as a screenplay, embedded toward the end is the contrast between a movie moment and life where “scenes take decades to unfold.” Even so, much does happen here in a moment: a turn to leave town that happens in a snap of the fingers, to travel, to consider oneself a writer, to understand the collective intelligence of an audience, to seduce or to sublimate seduction into a business hustle, to consider the relation of “memory to lies,” and this vision of the materiality of language:
as if to write were to build
something physical architectural that would
catch in the ground and hold while the river
ran by it
This leads to a powerfully written concluding sequence; he recalls a swimming pool game he played with his sons creating a current for them to swim against:
you might join arms and
encircle me like a gill net
but on every pass inexorably
i wiggled between you and got away
until he surfaces from this dream and sees “the little girl with your face,” his granddaughter, then concluding with the myth of the Cyclops and Odysseus, the wanderer, who is “No one.” And like all fishing around, all reconstructed selves, so much got away, yet so much is a material force to work against.
A review-essay on Jon Leon
In a culture in which unfreedom is the object even of the desire for freedom, Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay Drink Fanta may offer the disappearance of desire (in the paradoxical form of the immediacy of everything touchable) not so much as a solution — the book is anything but a commentary on celebrity culture or a polemic against the culture industry — but as a factual index of the total poverty of everyday life.
Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay Drink Fanta is a small, wordless book by the poet Jon Leon, published by James Copeland for his new Content series. Leon’s book is a series of black and white photographs of photographs and television screens depicting the actresses Zoë Lund, Elizabeth Berkley, and Lindsay Lohan.
First, there’s Lund, the B-movie virgin-whore of Mr. 45 and Bad Lieutenant (which she cowrote), who died (fashionably late) of heart failure due to cocaine. Next is Berkley, the child actress who played the enterprising libber Jessie Spano in Saved by the Bell and later the opposite of Spano in the character of Nomi Malone, stripper protagonist of Showgirls. Finally, Lohan is the poster child for child-star syndrome who got her second break as Cady Heron in Mean Girls, but since then can only be seen vacant or crying in Us Weekly and on TMZ.
The first thing you notice about the pictures is that all of the images of Lund and Berkley are taken from movies (Lund in various roles, Berkley in Showgirls). The images of Lohan, on the other hand, are either paparazzi or personal photos; hers are pictures in which she is not a character but herself as celebrity. This difference is intensified by the fact that Zoë Lund and Elizabeth Berkley never look directly into the camera, always off to one side, while Lohan always looks straight into the camera.
It is impossible to tell where Lohan in character ends and Lohan in real life begins. Instead of ending and insisting on this problem of an infinite series of representations without origin, Leon begins there, and thus his book is poised to break out of its po-mo short circuit through, as we shall see, a curiously ingenious method.
Take, for instance, the fact that the photographs are of other photographs or of television screens. The photographs of television screens have the same graininess that photographs of television screens have always had, giving them a sheen of naïveté. Yet I would argue that the tiredness of this kind of image (the innocent — though sophomoric — glee when one first takes a photo of a TV) is integral to the book’s success, assembling perhaps an aesthetic as abject and uncritical as its subject matter — not something filthy and pornographic, not the suffering body, but the banality and obsolescence of life lived after an apocalypse. It testifies to a half-truth that for us the only proper response to the total commodification of suffering and exploitation is the repetition of our masochistic desire for representations of meaningless suffering.
In that sense, perhaps, Leon’s photographs offer an alternative to the hedonism of the Ryan McGinleys of the art world. When the art world turns out as many Dash Snows as Hollywood does Lohans, it is no longer possible to seek refuge in the formal purity of serious art. At the same time, Leon’s photographs in their very form stand against the cynicism inherent in work of artists such Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons who are unable and unwilling to imagine art as it exists outside of market forecasts.
In one way, Leon’s desire to have “everything touchable right now,” or as he says in an interview, to have “a Coke with Lindsay,” is a kind of longing for presence that belies his total inurement in the fashion system. At the same time, we can read Leon’s desire for authenticity as a simulation more pure in that it demands the nearness of things and images and the accessibility of celebrity, as opposed to the alienation of such a desire in the forms of fashion and advertising which reduces spectatorship to mere consumption. It demands inclusion not in the seductive spectacle of the fantasy (actually running naked through a wilderness of fireworks with beautiful naked twentysomethings) but instead in the ungrounded real of that fantasy — the fantasy as such.
This lends to Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay a kind of nihilism, one irreducible to the forced choice of McGinley or Hirst. But in general, this nihilism can be characterized more by resignation and surrender than by ecstasy and jouissance: a fascination with surface, a resignation to the present and the attenuation of utopian drive, and the painful inability to imagine an alternative, a pain reflected in the eyes of the women in Leon’s pictures.
The poor quality and uninspired form of the photographs tends toward an unassimilable triteness that refuses both the cynical game of Hirst and Koons, and the uninhibited free expression of McGinley and Snow (or even the gloss of Vice magazine).
It suggests that surrender is the current possibility for true artistic production in a culture where the only recognizable symbols of jouissance have either been trademarked by Levi’s or figured into the extensive portfolio of Saatchi & Saatchi. It is no longer possible to look at a Richard Kern photograph without kind of wishing you were looking at a Terry Richardson photograph instead or, better, Internet pornography in the privacy of your home. You can get all the gory titillation of Acker in online erotica and save yourself the slog through experimentalism. And yet, Leon’s book does not depict abjectness, and the abjectness of everyday life that is evoked by the insipid monotony of his photos lends the project something more ineffably interesting even though the photographs are themselves uninteresting.
Thus the upside of the book’s resignation to inauthenticity (its “surrender” to popular desire), insofar as that resignation is a hallmark of postmodernism, is that it is able to declaim the falsity of that inauthenticity from the real point of its resignation. This is especially true in the longest and most compelling part of the book: for the final sixty or so pages, the famous image from Showgirls where Berkley is shown licking the dance pole repeats, first just one per page, which is soon doubled and then quadrupled. It’s the total gratuitousness of pop culture cranked up by affectless indifference of lulz.
For instance, in the Berkley sequence, one gets the feeling that one is looking at the individual frames of that film, that one has gotten to the minutest level of granularity possible, that like a physicist, one is looking at the elementary particles of this pseudo-scandalous scene that everyone’s older brother talked about and that we all anticipated in reruns. At this microscopic level, where we would expect to find the very kernel of desire that would justify our seduction, we find only the mute repetition of the same.
The book insists upon the falsely true desire to have everything touchable — “false” because impossible and ideological, and “true” because that very falsity is the truth of desire. And the book is all the more illegible for insisting neither on the symbolic reversal inherent in appropriation and détournement nor on death’s potent and poignant negation (which is not a negation), insisting instead on a kind of pure positivity of consumption, on a horrifying dialectical reversal of the culture industry which creates a world so humanized, comprehensible only in terms of human consumption, that it has become entirely inhospitable to humans. It is also a world in which art imitates life only to the extent that it can condition that life, can influence its trajectory, so that a celebrity is predestined precisely to turn out a drug-addled wash-up continuously hounded by camera crews. Otherwise, he or she is judged an antiquated failure. It’s a process that cannot be countered by an ironic mash-up or a mandarin high/low distinction.
The book perhaps gives a new legibility to the false choice between popular art and serious art, which Adorno described as “torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up,” namely that the choice between highbrow and lowbrow is not sufficiently combatted by a more fundamental choice between cynical enjoyment and critical fascination. In Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay, we find ourselves in a culture transfixed by the antinomy of desire, the misanthropy of its logic caught between the pain of living out the tragic plot penned by the culture industry and the inability not to desire or to free our desire from profit. Inspiring because uninspired, Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay is neither an ironic collage of high and low culture nor a “so bad it’s good” recuperation of trashy libertinism.
It’s perhaps impossible to like this book, which exists almost as a negative space within the field of desire, but that might be the point (even if it’s not Leon’s intention). Could there be a work of art that is not likeable, that cannot be redeemed? Could there be a piece of what we call art that is not assimilable to desire, that cannot be mediated enough (by terms like “outsider art,” “pastiche,” “transgression,” “conceptual art,” etc.) ever to become fungible? It may be that the impossibility of enjoying Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay is an index of the current impossibility of art itself insofar as its objects are immediately exchangeable and invested with both capital and desire.
Art in general (and poetry in particular) can nowadays only touch the real in its total failure, mostly because life, which should be real, appears only more artificial. And the real some artworks touch in their failure is in no way the real as that which is obscured by art’s artifice, but is instead the real as the real of art as an undecidable choice between theatricality and absorption (or, in Leon’s words, between the perception of life and life itself). The problem is not so much with their collapse, but with our continued insistence on their separation, or, as is sometimes the case with Leon himself, with the veneration of one over the other.
And that’s why I find it odd to see myself writing that Leon’s work, esp. Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay (perhaps contrary to Leon’s intention and certainly contrary to his characterization of his own work), is a kind of rejection of experience as a useful category for social change, where social change is predicated upon a change in consciousness. The poetry of failure, on the other hand, always finds its end in consciousness; it is an attempt to change or raise consciousness through some sort of radical experience — whether pornographic or apocalyptic. Its contradiction lies in being able to make a non-goal (failure, uselessness, waste) into a goal (social change). This return of the goal (in the form of utopia) comes about via an inability to think the desire for the real as a kind of non-desire or disappearance of desire (as in, the real of desire could not be something desirable).
It seems to me that contrary to all the fin de siècle decadence and Brett-Easton-Ellis-ness of his poetry, Leon’s form is essentially against desire and especially the desire for the real in the form of a nude model lounging in a hot tub or a cracked-out topless redneck in the pages of Vice.
That being said, one cannot ignore that, for the most part, Leon appears to be another poet-hedonist, calling as he does for the construction of “a total environment of total bliss,” which the poet-critic Dan Hoy reads as a call to “enable and induce the experience of the impossible.” But the image evoked by the content of Leon’s work is precisely the imaginary capture that ends in the limited capacity to think only in terms of desire and experience, not the impossible. And while that is the Leon which Hoy, and to some extent Leon as well, promotes, I think Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay is rather a more complex book than that.
The more interesting and telling aspect of Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay does not appear as a function of its content and only obliquely in terms of its form. Instead, the book “works” in that it is explicitly a book (an art book no less) circulating in the world of interchangeable commodities, except that its almost unassimilable crappiness ensures that it will occupy that world’s suture to the emptiness of being, the immanence of everything’s dissolution in everything else — what we might call “total bliss without experience” or simply “the impossible.”
It is at this point that the book neither represents nor performs, neither positively or negatively, but instead brutally and factually is that which runs perpendicular to desire — whether the cynical desire to have it all right now or the utopian desire to have it all later. It is something more horrible than any negativity, which however pure can always be appropriated dialectically as a misrecognized identity. Instead we get the book as a total positivity, as the fact of beauty, seduction, desire, and ideology prior to any distancing critique. It’s the horror of having “everything touchable right now.” Whether cynical or utopian, desire is always about deferment, whether the dissolution on possessing the object of desire (Lacan’s “ce n’est pas ça”) or the elevation of the object to a plane of total transcendence. Leon’s book is an affirmation of the fact that since you don’t get your desired object you still enjoy. It’s a new twist on the old, “It’s not the destination …”
Is this Leon’s intention? I don’t know. Is it successful? Maybe, maybe not. All I’m saying is that I find in it something more interesting than a project or a solution. Leon starts from the unnamable and impossible real of art, that which runs circles around art; his interest in decadence and exhausted libertinism is accidental. The real of art does not shine through the veneer of glamour, conspicuous consumption, and the commodification of the art world by a violent exposure, by hysterically pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, because the real cannot be an end, cannot be a goal, cannot be represented by a tittering manicule or a roaring J’accuse! Neither can it be the perpetuated fantasies of reconciliation and consummation crystallized in the image of rooftop hot tub as metaphor for utopia.