Reviews

A proliferation of differences

A review of 'Troubling the Line'

Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics

Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics

Edited by TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson

Nightboat 2013, 544 pages, $27.95, ISBN 978-1-937658-10-6

In Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, the first anthology of its kind, editors TC Tolbert and Trace Peterson have included a wide diversity of aesthetic and social perspectives. Poems by Jake Pam Dick, Aimee Herman, kari edwards, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, the two editors, and several others exhibit the kind of strategies — disjunction, linguistic play, disruption of syntax, and derangement of narrative flux — characteristic of innovative poets who, at least to some degree, have been influenced by Language Writing, aspects of the New York School, and the most experimentally inclined American surrealists, post-Objectivists, and Black Mountain poets. The late John Wieners, directly affiliated with Black Mountain, and Eileen Myles, a major second-generation New York School poet, appear in the anthology alongside newer poets. There is a spoken-word poet, Natro, and several poets who seem to have appropriated elements of Slam poetry. Among those who employ relatively direct narrative or meditative strategies are Amir Rabiyah, Ari Banias, Cole Krawitz, Duriel E. Harris, Ely Shipley, Fabian Romero, and Kit Yan. 

Many contributors focus on the connections between language and sociopolitical power in both their poetics statements and their poems. Bo Luengsuraswat perceives “languages” as “violent” and declares, “You choose what type of harm you prefer to endure at different moments” and cites as an example the choice to “gender” rather “than being gendered by someone else” (84). Some contributors to the anthology seem to perceive definition as necessary, if problematic, whereas others see resistance to definition as most crucial.

In his lightly iambic, rhymed “So Let Am Not,” the widely know poetry critic Stephen Burt presents a male speaker who wistfully imagines an alternative life as the “flirty girl” he has “never been” (448) but is held back by being “of others, of / responsibilities” and finds the prospect of transition too daunting: “I do not want / to pull up roots, to build a new / high house amid imaginary trees” (449). This individual does not make a decision to choose “reality” over dream/appearance or visa-versa; there are different kinds of “dream” without a touchstone of reality: “So let yourself be / but know who you seem. / Know the difference / between a dream and a dream” (449). Note how the colloquial meaning of “be” — don’t change yourself — allows the poet to avoid establishing a hierarchy in which “being” is worthier than “seeming.” Regardless of biological origins, “seeming” is the important choice to make, and the speaker affirms the primacy of “seeming” over a problematically reifying “being” in the poem’s closure:

Let a man and a boy and a girl whose torso is
            a testament to metamorphosis  
tell their own tales but as for me
            I am not and I am not going to be.
Thank you for listening. Once or twice
            I did come close. I was almost a flirty girl. (450)

In “Ready to Know,” a poem in which “all words” are “found in the June 2005 issue of Seventeen,” Joy Ladin imagines the commodity capitalist engine of the production of femininity casting its spell on a man transitioning into a woman and thus critiquing its advertising rhetoric:

Ready to know which girl you are?
Find out while you shave your face   
and try to convince yourself

you can look great, hide tummy, enhance bust,  
find the best dress for your shape,
exfoliate your past so gently  

you won’t even feel     
the ambivalence that rocks your body,   
leshing out your future, adding curves to your shame. (303) 

The ironic underside of Ladin’s uncanny tercets suggests that if the audience for this rhetoric buys the imperative to “say yes to the girl you see” (303), which offers her “up // to the goddess moving through / the guy [she has] been for years” (304), she will fall prey to what kari edwards in “a narrative of resistance” identifies as an “end-game” involving “the epiphany of late Capitalism” — that is, “to be the greatest consumer by buying one’s way into endless cycle of unexamined representations of the grand tale” (323). Even if the “‘I am this _____ (fill in the blank) and I am beautiful and sexy and fine and I am ok no matter what you say’ club” comprises a useful “first step in seeing one’s self other than a formless form situated in social shame,” it is an inadequate “stopping point” (323). Instead, edwards advocates leaning “towards deviation, migration, position shifting, slipping in and out of focus, […] try[ing] to find alliances that go in the same direction by a different track, corollaries that get lost in their own direction,” as “a tool for disruption, activism, acts of personal and public empowerment” (325).  

Julian Talamantez Brolaski seconds edwards’s dicta about “disruption”: “Mimesis may be a typical response to the world, but it is the distortions that are provocative” (316), and so Brolaski “distorts” ordinary language in poems like “most honeyed” that shuffle dictions and spellings from different eras, use trans-discourse like the adjective “xir” (neither “her” nor “his”), derange syntax, put various words under erasure, vary spacing within a line, and include superscripted and subscripted parts of words. Here are the relatively “clear” concluding lines of “most honeyed”: “perhaps one does not / not want to be found    unsupple in the main and unduly hided / that one ys most of all (the time) w/ oneself” (312).

For many of the poets in this volume, trans-self-identification is not determined by access to advanced medical technology that simply “corrects” the misalignment of the body into which one was born with one’s psychological identification with fixed, finite, “natural” properties of the other gender. Instead, as Peterson asserts, there is a desire for “a poetry with a connection to the biological, but a biological that relies upon neither ‘gender essentialism’ nor reproductive teleology as defining characteristics” (20). Peterson even parodies the limitations of the technology, which cannot always keep up with the vagaries of “the viewer’s perspective,” in “Trans Figures” through allusion to Genesis:

Let there be breasts! (and there were breasts)
Let there be a penis! (and there was a penis)
or at least it looked like it from the viewer’s perspective,  
under these clothes. If only it were slim,  
with wide hips! (and it was slim with wide hips)
Let there be taffeta, muslin, silk, velvet,
velour, or crinoline: and there were all these things, 
in abundance. (467–68)

Through the ironizing of this “lo and behold” exclamatory discourse, Peterson’s speaker implies concern about whether the construction of visual appearance is actually a source of “abundance” or a new paucity. In kari edwards’s poem, “This leftover disruption thing,” being “disassembled,” rather than being reassembled within predicable constraints (“in the contours of contours”), is the demand, a prelude to the emergence of a fiery “impossibility”:

we want the freedom  
to be disassembled    
freedom from connotations  
of the nearly possible  
being intoned         
in the contours of contours

[…] 

we want a combination of
the impossible
dreaming substance
moving in fire
because it’s a condition  
in a substance         
moving in fire (321)

Citing “critical feminist theory” as being “about challenging gender norms” as arbitrary “social construct[s], D’Lo, a Tamil Srilankan Los Angelean, writes in “Growing’s Trade Off” about being “born female” and “experience[ing] life […] through a masculine-identified female body” (117). D’Lo has “a vagina,” has “not taken male hormones,” and does not “identify as woman or as man” but “as transgender” (117). As for j/j hastain in the poem “Is a mistaken carcass a place of memory?” the question “Is there ever anything new to be written of our genders and sexes as they develop us?” is to be replaced by lovers’ intention “to enshrine masteries of fusion. […] This was the last page of the diary. This more than woman or man or ______” (252). The change from passivity, being “developed” by outside forces, and active “enshrinement” of a mastery of self-styled integration, is most crucial here.

For second-generation New York School poet Eileen Myles, the power of language can challenge foundations of male domination by giving women access to the tropes of male privilege, thus permitting the satisfactions of woman-as-man and man-as-woman.  In “My Boy’s Red Hat,” she asks: “Am I a man writing the poem of the woman. I was born male, that was my feeling. I looked at my body and apparently I even demanded a penis as a child. It’s what my mother reports. Do I have one now. Yes it’s language. This ropey poem […] Maybe a poem is the famous detachable penis” (176). Or as TC Tolbert puts in the poem “(ir)Retrieval,” “That the body which is my body is indeterminately” (459). 

Another form of resistance to definition and advocacy for complex visibility can be found in Aimee Herman’s “Poetics Statement”:

How to define the need to not be defined. On Monday, see Poet in tie and vest. On Tuesday, feast eyes upon cleavage and whale fat lipstick. On Wednesday, Poet is packing, Poet is binding, Poet is gender concealed. […] On Saturday, Poet is the slash. On Sunday morning, Poet is M and in the evening back to F. (43)

And here is the opening prose-block of Samuel Ace’s “I met a man”:

I met a man who was a woman who was a man who was a woman who was a man who met a woman who met her genes who tic’d the toe who was a man who x’d the x and xx’d the y I met a friend who preferred to pi than to 3 or 3.2 the infinite slide through the river of identitude a boat he did not want to sink who met a god who was a tiny space who was a shot who was a god who was a son who was a girl who was a tree I met a god who was a sign who was a mold who fermented a new species on the pier beneath the ropes of coral (431).

The passages from Herman and Ace’s texts both utilize catalogs to emphasize a proliferation of differences. Herman’s catalog promotes de-definition through shifting images that each appear to encourage a (temporary) definition, except for the ambiguous “slash,” which connotes both androgyny and violence. On the other hand, Ace enacts a kind of regress that is thrown off when the reiterated verb “was” is changed to “met” (going back the verb linked with the initial “I”) and later to a trope of tic-tac-toe, then designations of chromosome patterns. When the “man” meets the “woman,” is he meeting the women inside himself who has “met her” own male “genes” or genes that code the possibility of his being female? Is the process of gender reassignment like tic-tac-toe, but with x’s and y’s rather than x’s and o’s? The nonce word “identitude,” coupled with “river,” somehow sounds more fluid, psychologically appealing, and socially enabling than the historically troublesome “identity.” “Identitude” is both a river and the “boat” on which the “I” “slides”; the fact that the “friend” whom Ace’s speaker “met” wants the boat to stay afloat seems a call for “the infinite slide” to continue indefinitely, perhaps to the point where “a new species” is “fermented.”

If the destabilizing of “identity” into a more welcoming, capacious, transgender “identitude” parallels the destabilizing of monological, wholly instrumental language into poetic discourse sliding toward a free play of signifiers, Jake Pam Dick’s “Jake’s Translit/My Transmanual” is a prime example. Taking up where Joyce, Derrida, Lacan, and other pun-happy literati, philosophers, and psychoanalysts left off, Dick exfoliates her manual of the intertextual while ringing changes on the poet’s first name:

’C ’Cos all Jake now. Except some Franz: free man or French! Jake, Jacques, Jack. Like every transman jack of them — no, like one. Truth jacking logic, speeding off with it. […] But don’t just jack off: jake off. Give a hand job to another or novella. Incestuous poetics: do brothers, sisters. A Jake in the books should be deviant, non sequitur! Transmanual vs. Immanuel. […] Expel, eject, ejaculate, I jake. Females do it also! How sex re-enters. I would enter the girl! Or the boy! Crushed-out sex with other texts: bastardizations. Translate’s not enough; translit is better. With God licks and riffs. Plus a slit. (275) 

Can “some Franz” (Kafka, maybe?) — now solely in a textual realm — become a “free man,” no longer enslaved to his celebrated repression, thanks to the verbal guitar-jacking/jaking of the “I jake’s” “licks and riffs”? Notions of “truth” are said to (hi-)jack “logic,” which, otherwise, could be “translit”: “lit” (literature, illumination) across artificial boundaries, as well as the “slit” of the “tran” that can “jake off.” Such an associative logic is not “translation”; to “translate’s not enough” if it asserts itself pseudo-authentically as seamless, “pure” transition from one language to another. On the other hand, sexual intensity engendering textual “bastardizations” fulfills a “transmanual” categorical imperative for ejaculation, whether “manually” induced or otherwise. Not only the determinate male entering the determinate female in a “sequitur” eventuating in “legitimate” offspring, “sex re-enters” in numerous combinations. And “a jake” enters the “box”/“books” only to self-“eject.”

Although this review so far has focused on poets’ treatments of transgender issues, numerous poems on other subjects appear. CA Conrad in the visually subtle poem, “it’s too late for careful,” marshals a rhythmically and rhetorically intense critique of US policy in the Middle East in relation to corporate irresponsibility at home:

              killing babies is less    
threatening with the politically
                                  correct militia   

                           vices for         
the vice box for         
                                        wards of
                                        the forward state          
                                        who like different 
                             things to kill alike

we CANNOT occupy Wall Street but
                 we CAN occupy Baghdad (91)

The noun “militia” suggests those to the right of the Tea Party; the term “vice box” indicates the icy doctrine of then Vice President Cheney, probable author of the Bush Doctrine. Also note the play on “wards” (those orphaned by US policy), the “forward” march of overly “forward” (imprudent and rude) military intervention, and the pairing of “like/alike” suggesting a link between a preference for violent action and multiple targets lumped into the same category. Conrad repeats the reference to the sabotage of the Occupy movement later in the poem: “we CANNOT occupy Philadelphia but / we CAN occupy Kabul” (92); “we CANNOT occupy Oakland but / the ghosts will occupy us” (93). 

Various poets in the anthology address racial/ethnic transformations in language as well as LGBT approaches to “troubling the line.” Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán’s poem “Cycle undone” envisions a highly specific homecoming:

                                     […]  If the Red Sea
could part once more, and Palestinians
return home. Who knows what we would do
if we owned our own lands? Perhaps live
or be free, rather than simply
on sale. If we could feel waves wash up
against us, and not be covered in sludge and salt,
hypodermic needles (we wash out with bleach, take
to the exchange), if dirt were sacred once more. And
water clean. If we were more than a preposition,
conjunction, something to bring others
together. […] (29)

In “A Queer/Trans Womanist Indigenous Colored Poetics,” Bodhrán declares: “I use writing as a tool for collective and individual healing and decolonization, a way of rescripting our lives as queer people of color, mixed-bloods, and women of color, as people who know what it means to struggle, daily, multigenerationally” (34). Bodhran perceives “the mythic and magical in the quotidian as potential antidote to our malaise” and holds that “historical trauma is revisited through the particular site of the body; and (trans)national metanarratives and discourses are negotiated through periods and zones of contact” (34).

Similarly, Micha Cárdenas, who engages in digital technology work on behalf of Mexicans seeking to cross the US border, finds “magic” in the “queer” uses of computer systems. In the poem “We are the intersections,” Cárdenas expatiates upon the late Chicana lesbian Gloria Anzaldua’s poetic/theoretical deployment of the “borderland” trope: “We are constantly navigating the violence of borders of all kinds, / skittering across earth pinging satellites that never correctly know / our exact locations, / for they never know how many kinds of thirst we feel” (395). Cárdenas insists that individuals’ and groups’ multiple subjectivity is a most powerful resistance to the erection and policing of borders: “I am the intersection, of too many coordinate systems to name. / We are the intersections, and we exceed the borders placed on us” (395).

Taken as a whole, Troubling the Line manifests numerous “intersections” that vigorously “exceed” many “borders” imposed on the categories “transgender” and “genderqueer” and those who partly or thoroughly “inhabit” those categories.

The solar vowels in our throats

A review of Meredith Stricker's 'Mistake'

Mistake

Mistake

Meredith Stricker

Caketrain 2012, 78 pages, $9, ISBN 1110000093543

Rosmarie Waldrop chose Meredith Stricker’s Mistake as the winner of the Caketrain Chapbook Competition in 2011. “Chapbook” seems a misnomer for the seventy-eight-page book, and the collection finds itself at the intersection of the most interesting work today in contemporary poetics. It is innovative without being apolitical, experimental without compromising emotional resonance, and uneasily categorized.

In notes for the book, Stricker writes that Mistake “was set in motion by the ongoing full-moon practice of ryaku fusatsu, a repentance or forgiveness ceremony in the Zen tradition, paying attention to accidents, overprints, flaws, the discarded, the unwanted, the cast-off.”[1] Brian Teare, in his blurb on the book’s back cover, calls Mistake “a brilliant book about reading, particularly about reading events that could be construed as accident or chance.” Through a fiercely intelligent engagement with psychoanalytic theory (Freud), Buddhist philosophy, evolutionary science (Darwin’s tangled bank metaphor), labor (The Gleaners), plotting of history and art (Walter Benjamin’s Archives), interpretation of vestige (Gustaf Sobin’s Luminous Debris), and mythology and memory (the Orphic Hymns), the meditation engages readers through structural virtuosity, stellar visual innovation on the page, and a sharp attentiveness to language in the fusion of various lexicons: historic, artistic, scientific, and philosophic.

Barbara Guest in “Poetic Statement: The Forces of Imagination” writes:

In [a] state of suspension the art that is created is infinitely susceptible to new shapes because no shape can be regarded as final. No form is safe when the poet is in a state of perpetual self-transformation, or where, as Hegel suggests, the artist is in a condition of infinite plasticity.[2]

In Mistake, Stricker embraces a variety of shapes through which to defy certainty. The condition of “infinite plasticity” in the artist’s work demonstrates the teeming, dynamic, and interconnected relationships between body, mind, text, and land.

A quote from Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life fringes Mistake’s table of contents and begins the book: “the numerous little slips and mistakes which people make … have a meaning and can be interpreted” (7). The first angle from which Stricker approaches the mistake is thus a psychoanalytic one. Stricker quickly establishes that to know the human being’s slip or mistake, we must interpret it. She asks how we measure the human slip or mistake without imposing our own ideas of right or wrong, about behavior or action, through interpretation. Beginning with Freud alone might destabilize the answers. And what can we really determine about the human subject with individual subjectivities at play?

The first poem of the collection serves as a guide of sorts, asking what it is possible to know: 

(9)

With scattered, bracketed, and converging text, Stricker conjures the binary blink of the twenty-first-century Internet age. Stricker points to spatial considerations, a global arena inside of which we are at once closer to one another and more distant. With tongue, ink, or computer screen, we program our surroundings. We place and displace language like a woman pulling out and placing inside rings in a jewelry box. Rings of course operate here both as noun and verb, conjuring both visual and aural image.

Visually and sonically, Stricker moves outward from suburbs to stars and the surface of the moon where “earth spins    spine spins” (9). From spins to spine, this dizzying caesura returns us from stratosphere to the body. The piece is an apt embodiment of the book and places readers within the rich, emotional landscape of a pained, postmodern world.

The question of who the radiant director is arises too in the piece. The radiant director is for one a reference to fire — one of many in the book. One interpretation, from a Buddhist standpoint, could be as reference to the three poisons that often drive human beings. “‘Everything is burning!’ said the Buddha, ‘Burning with what? Burning with the fires of greed, hatred and delusion’ (Samyutta Nikaya 35.28).”[3]

1. “The Book Is Heisenberg”

The first of Mistake’s seven sections is entitled “The Book Is Heisenberg.” Werner Heisenberg, a German physicist, determined our observations have an effect on the behavior of quanta. To know the velocity of a quark we must measure it, and to measure it, we are forced to affect it. The same goes for observing an object’s position. Uncertainty about an object’s position and velocity makes it difficult for a physicist to determine much about that object.[4] By way of the section’s title, Stricker suggests that we consider a “mistake” within the realm of science, where science’s processes are as fallible as those of psychoanalysis. 

In the first piece, text as art object appears, hovering in the middle of the page:

(15)

The mashup arrives just after Maurice Merleau Ponty’s epigraph: “We must consider speech before it is spoken” (13). Considering speech before it is spoken is to see speech and language as the mind’s swarm: as knowable as unknowable, nonlinear, variable, capable of mistakes.

Here you can discern text behind the text more clearly than you can in the book. The clearest word emerges at the top. But is it “born,” which might suggest joining this world, or “horn,” which would suggest the noise we make?

Stricker illustrates multiple narratives, or multiple strands of ideation, even with a simple mistake. At the bottom right-hand side of the page is a more linear progression. Whether or not the two lines serve as a translation or transliteration, the two lines point to human error. They even instruct us how to deal with the most mundane or childish errors like spilling milk. But these are somewhat nonsensical instructions when they tell us to wash a book in milk in order to correct a mistake.

The section’s second page then steers us from breakfast table to sky, traversing life from the biosphere to outer space:

(16)

Using phrasal repetition allows Stricker to play with meaning, as one proceeds through the poem.[5] With the repeated contact of “stars” with “foreheads” and “hands” and “inner ear,” Stricker also conjoins atmosphere to earth, body to stars. The “stars are Being / barbed wire in stars” indicates that the activity here is not some utopic stargazing venture. Existences are at stake. Something ominous is at play when stars are barbed. Further, barbed wire in stars hint at human beings’ use of land. Outer space is just another jeopardized frontier. At the end of the piece, Stricker encourages us to listen to what the stars have to tell us and even intimates the human body’s connection to stars. We are, after all, stardust.

In this section’s last piece, as elsewhere, Stricker works with the idea that a human being is a text too in the section’s last piece. Traffic is “humanity surging out the boundaries of its own skin” (17), and “just as leaves fall and translate the forest, chaparral, grassland,” “no street adheres to its past self” (17). Leaves of books and leaves on trees connect book, body, and street. We are multitudes bursting within, weaving histories across the land and through text.

2. “Mistake — An Evolutionary”

“Mistake — An Evolutionary” begins with a page entitled “TANGLED BANK,” which is followed by a passage from Darwin’s Origin of Species that contains the term. The title of the page and quote call attention to the figurative possibilities of the tangled bank. After the Darwin quote, Stricker writes: 

(19)

Stricker puts human, bee, science, and artful expression in contact with one another. This is not merely a conflation of human and animal/insect. There is a meditation on what constitutes a body and sentient being. Phylogenetics, as defined in the online Biology Dictionary, is as follows:

The study of evolutionary relatedness among various groups of organisms through molecular sequencing data and morphological data matrices. The study of evolutionary relatedness among various groups of organisms through molecular sequencing data and morphological data matrices.[6]

Stricker brings the study of genetic connection across groups of organisms to the fore, elevating the importance of change to data in such studies. Etymologically the word phylogenetic derives from the Greek phylon [tribe] and genesis [origin]. Error is contextualized with human beings across the evolutionary timeline. In our “adaptive improvisational helix of altered phoneme plans,” language is adaptable, error-prone and not without the power to impact other living things. Error, like a bee swarm, gathers around the human body. Then, as if by something more like vultures than flying insects, shards (like glass) of meat are carried away.

The next page of the section juxtaposes Dante, the hunters of Cueva de la Manos or Chauvet, and Plato’s allegory (22), where the “cave” of Dante’s Commedia and Plato’s shadowy walls seem materializations of scientific experiments themselves.

Throughout “Mistake — An Evolutionary,” words are struck through and amended, offering not only a translation of what has already been written but a multiplication of sound play as “aphasic side-effects of living / in human weather” continue a “musical cerebellum loose / slipped euphoria / could be another word wool / particular, self existing” (23).

In the last two pages of “Mistake — an Evolutionary,” Stricker intimates the violence of language and mistakes. We “mistake plunder for pleasure”; we “mistake oil for grail.” We “mistake money for monet”; we “mistake faith for … fake.” We “mistake rapture for capture / captive, capital, capsized” (24). Neo-imperialism, commodification, religious hypocrisy, and ruthless global capitalism are evoked while “the ferocity of darkness seeps through” and “death is the stain we cannot live / without” (25). The tangled bank is as much about the evolution of species here, as it is about negotiating the gulf or ruin with song.

3. Waste products

The first poem has repeated lines, the first of which is: “the coast of Japan is thirteen feet closer to us” (31). The piece possesses similarities with “[stars are being]” discussed earlier and gestures to Fukushima and other catastrophes natural and manmade. Heaven is a rumor and a disaster (31). Words like split and wake are repeatedly juxtaposed with phrases such as “heaven is a bestseller,” “heaven is / jesus with sea green eyes,” and “my god is an ocean” (31). The poem points at the unfortunate tendency of our citizens to eye the paradise that is waiting on the other side rather than to protect the wonders that exist right in front of us. Repetitions serve as litany, as means of connecting humans in time, and as emphatic statements to wake up. This piece puts not only the land in conversation with bodies but also interconnects those bodies across the planet. Formally, though, this piece is different than “stars are beings” from the first section. Repetitions are disrupted. Coding is undone. Waste in the tangled bank is untangled.

In “Reactor I.1 / I.2 / I.3,” body, land, mind, and text are shoved together, written in black on white, written in red, written upside down, and elided. The piece nods not only to a singular disaster but all such disasters (Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl). Interesting that Stricker chooses to utilize double, rather than single, strikethroughs on the first page of the piece. On the second page of “Reactor,” Stricker writes:

(33)

Broken in different lines, and sustained across the page, Stricker repeats: “what they call garbage is closer to liberation” and “there is no away we can throw things” (34). Garbage is alone, homeless, set aside, present.

In this “one tiny book,” we are asked to look at the way natural disasters inhabit memory and the body. As Leslie Scalapino writes:

A poem may place [sounds, conceptual shapes, and events in the outside] together. As such one’s conceptions alter oneself and being, and alter their one being outside. The individual (and any individual instance) occurs as reading. As: while, alongside, and being (reading is an act).[7]

With right justification, text upside down, the word “mistake” in red, Stricker pushes language in several directions for reading to be such an act.

The last of “Waste Products” reads: “unlike any other light // radiant fuel rods cast-away for millennia tours of duty // entombed in sentient earth” (35). Radiant light is darkened, cast away in war.

With all the work Stricker has done to put land, bodies, and language/art into conversation, the waste is defined as garbage and polluted land as much as it is defined as what stays and gets thrown away on the page. “Waste Products” seems to ask if a book, however inexact or amiss, can make a difference or cause its own reaction. Will it go into the garbage, too? How is it a mistake? How is a book waste? Is this book, like an exploding reaction, a mistake too? Is the book complicit with human error? How are we complicit?

4. “A Burning Thing”

The fourth section opens: “I will not be smoothed out / fur, roughened / shies away // articulate waste / matter / scattered” (39). The I unsurprisingly has human and animal qualities and “shies away” from scattered waste but refuses to be “smoothed out” or silenced — at times approaching destruction with ferocity and at times turning inward. At times there is the ability to speak of such waste, and at times there are no words. The speaker is “articulate waste” but not “matter,” as matter is struck through.

“A Burning Thing,” because of its placement after the previous section, emerges from the waste. The “thing,” a breathing thing but also a haunting thing, appears as whatever our culture objectifies or commodifies or manifests through greed, delusion, and hatred.

If there is “no ‘away’ we can throw things,” as the previous section attests to, then what is the burning thing? It is the unmarketable word, the spoken word, the testimonial that burns. A meditation of burning thing becomes a personal matter of the humanimal alive on the land, experiencing the devastation and articulating it with song.

Stricker writes, “who will find you? Thrown // away // in fullness // of life // pissed away” (39). The cycle of affirmation and negation is illustrated with elided text and erasure by way of text struck through. What follows is an important moment for the book:

 (40)

The map is supposedly the non-commodity, yet the non-commodity is the thing shrinking and tightening, reflecting what is marginalized, ignored, or silenced. “Entire breathing worlds with people and their languages / animals and /greenness” are vocalized, even as the powers that be attempt to devalue or ignore them. Stricker reintroduces those worlds and sets the burning thing alight, allowing us to recognize destruction. But because a burning thing will only glow so long before it’s gone, Stricker illuminates temporal limitations for sentient beings and land, even as the powerful “arrange their strategic/world of red dust    other ‘high value targets’” with rooms full of “sports-bar dinner faces frozen” (41). At the section’s end, Stricker synthesizes a meditation on the burning thing with language:

 (42)

By the end of the section, we are asked to look at what is made of words, rather than what is made so by words. And what is made of words burns in “flame-throated letters,” “vowels [that] fill our throats,” in the “clattering row of eucalyptus” (42). Letters at the beginning struck through are re-inhabited. Letters “see” us and allow us writing and reading modes through which to interpret ourselves. Languages and silences comprise a matrix of simultaneous beauty and difficulty, denial and testimony.

5. “Black Stone”

“Black Stone” begins with the following Rothko epigraph: “I would rather confer anthropomorphic attributes upon a stone than dehumanize the slightest possibility of consciousness” (45).

There are seven poems in this section, three to ten lines each. All the pieces are right justified, with underlined titles of biosphere, the letter, black, stone, lens, mute, and white. The space occupied by living organisms, language, yin color, earthly material, tool for representation, silence or silenced individual, and yang color. One poem, “the letter,” explores the materiality of language in addition to a broader sense of language across beings:

(47)

Text is found in the precious resource of water, is scraped dry and articulated in art. The word in Hebrew for bee is etymologically related to the word of God. This is significant, because language is of the body, in life and in death. As “living ones” pass through this life, so do bees (the word) pass through this too. There is of course the earlier link between science, bees, humans and language in “Mistake—an Evolutionary.” But besides that, “letter” ends ultimately with a question. What do the bees think we are (or what does the word think we are)? Are we “flowers or meat/or something in between” (47).

Throughout “Black Stone,” Stricker humanizes the possibilities of consciousness, concretizing the abstract. This bears consideration because Stricker examines not only individual consciousness but also the broadening consciousness of a culture and the way it views its land, its money, and its fellow beings. And Stricker does this with compassion. This section is a reminder of the always changing qualities, the imperfection, and the interconnectedness of living things. “I love you like ochre,” she ends; “I love you” (50). 

6. “Orphics”

A seal rises up out of the sea at the beginning of “Orphics”; the speaker of the poem barks to it like a dog. This is a moment of levity, apt for a section that meditates about death but speaks largely of this life.

“The Gleaning of Fields” is a significant piece for this section and for the book. Gleaners of course are individuals who pick at already reaped fields for odd remains or leftovers. Just after Stricker arches Orpheus over a field, a prose block of chemical compounds, a litany of odd remains and leftovers related to laborers, appears: residue of methyl bromide (ozone depleting chemical), malathion (pesticide), naled (insecticide), copper hydroxide (a product of smelting). Stricker gives the environment human qualities: “wetlands, aquifers, jetstreams” are identified as “the veins” (59).

This is not to oversimplify what Stricker is doing here. Neither here nor elsewhere do Stricker’s efforts seem focused on creating a narcissistic anthropomorphism or some pat conflation of nature and humankind. Poetry provides, as Scalapino relays in “Eco-logic in Writing,” a mode through which to see “plains of action of people and natural phenomena at once … all times exist separately at once, present-future-past” (63).

For several of the pieces, Orphic hymn fragments serve as not only points of departure but also a sort of ongoing palimpsest. In fact, there is often the feeling when reading this book that there are at least two, or more, ideas happening simultaneously. Text lies on top of itself: “fractal Ionian shards” and “ghost letters” (63).

7. “There Was Wilderness”

“There Was Wilderness” begins with an epigraph from an Orphic hymn: “Quickly grant me cold water from the Lake of Memory to drink” (65). It is impossible not to think of the fragments of Sappho, the Orphic hymns, and, in contemporary letters, the work of Anne Carson in the opening poem of “There Was Wilderness.”

(67)

The gaps that the fragments and columns create are informative. These push the reader to discover meaning. In excavating layers of past meanings, Stricker foregrounds the temporal. Text fragments speak to the transitory quality of language and human life.

There are many ways one can read the piece through columnar arrangement. Throughout the section, as in this poem, wilderness is language, and like the body broken by land or in some ways unable to speak. How a body ages and dies (68) is once again put into conversation with the land: “what death might be white echo from below” (69).

8. “Fallen”

The last poem in the collection is “Fallen,” where title conjures spirit and body. The poem begins in the material, with algebraic exponent. But Stricker writes it incorrectly, I assume purposefully, as X11-17 rather than 1/X6.

(70)

We are told by the speaker that we’d be “recognize[d] … anywhere across crowded … causeway.” The book is a dream; “the book is a Heisenberg.” That is to say, the book is related to uncertainty. Blanketed in uncertainty, the question of what mistake means lingers long after putting the book down.

With “Love through thorns” and the supplication to “Blind Mercy,” Stricker reminds us that with all the constraints of the embodied and mortal being, the spirit stretches out with possibility. The last word of the book is one more mathematical mistake before words of the body and in speech act, with “salt / on our lips” — all of us radiant directors with “Fire Throat / still seeking.”


1. Meredith Stricker, Mistake (Pittsburgh: Caketrain, 2012), 78.

2. Barbara Guest, “Poetic Statement: The Forces of Imagination,” in American Women Poets in the Twenty-First Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, ed. Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2002), 189–90.

3. Andrew Olendzki, “Burning Alive: Turn Down the Thermostat and Cool Down the Fire of Our Minds,” Tricycle Summer 2009.

4.  Josh Clark, “How Quantum Suicide Works,” How Stuff Works April 2013.

5. Using numbers to reference repeating lines, or phrases, the form is as follows: 1, 2, 1, 3, 2, 4, 3, 5, 4, 6, 5, 7, 6, 8, 7, 9, 9, 10, 9, 11, 10, 12, 11, 13, 12, 14, 13, 15, 14, 16, 15, 16, 16, 17, 16, 18, 17, 18.

6. “Phylogenetics,” Biology Online.

7. Leslie Scalapino, “Eco-logic in Writing,” in Eco Language Reader, ed. Brenda Iijima (Brooklyn and Callicoon, NY: Yo-Yo Labs and Nightboat Books, 2010), 60–78.

Living Dada

A review of 'Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada'

Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada

Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada

Amelia Jones

The MIT Press 2005, 336 pages, $20.24, ISBN 0262600668

“Why should I — proud engineer — be ashamed of my machinery?”

In her poem “The Modest Woman,” published in the modernist literary magazine The Little Review in 1920, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven derides the prude and celebrates the female body and modern form. A German immigrant, artist, and poet, the Baroness was a vibrantly disruptive figure in New York City’s avant-garde. A living, breathing vehicle of avant-gardism — since called the Village’s Tristan Tzara — she embodied the spirit and aesthetic of Dada. Parading through the streets in outrageous found-object costumes — tomato-can brassiere, postage-stamp beauty mark, spoon-and-feather hat, with her giant penis sculpture in hand — she constructed her poetry, sculpture, and self from the detritus of the modern city. American art historian Amelia Jones observes that the Baroness wore “modernity and its violent effects in and as her body” (29). The aggressive fervor with which the Baroness lived and created her work unsettled even the avant-garde and is the driving force of Jones’s Irrational Modernisms: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada, an art historical book on this early-twentieth-century avant-garde.[1]

So when poet Eileen Myles enters a conversation about conceptual art and subjectivity in her May 2013 essay “Painted Clear, Painted Black,”[2] she pulls on the threads of a conversation long under way. She enters by way of a comment made by Marjorie Perloff about her writing: that it is an example of “transparency or feigned transparency” in poetry. Myles deliberates on the meaning of “transparency,” and why it seems to be an objectionable thing. She wonders: is the rejection of an embodied subject behind the work a rejection of conflating author and art, of the lyric speaker, of an authentic self?

Myles also wonders if the call for an end of transparency is actually code for discomfort with identity politics, the feminine, the speech or bodies of women, queers, or people of color. In making the case that subjectivity and conceptualism are not incompatible, Myles reminds us that postmodern play is not necessarily at odds with the feeling (of) bodies of artists and audiences, and that subjectivity need not be simple or singular; nor is all conceptualist art disembodied. She understands the avant-garde to be “composed of a shaky grid holding a multiple of approaches” and notes in the “theory world outside of poetry, feeling is hot stuff.” I would add that not only has “feeling” been hot stuff in critical theory and literary studies for decades (what’s been called the “affective turn” happened around 2000), but visual and performance arts have a long history of interest in the body, feelings, and questions about reception. Myles identifies contemporary poets doing “unabashedly postmodern work that is free wheeling and exacting in its deployment of emotion” and reminds us that sound poetry is a bodily performance and that appropriation has served to mourn or mark a moment. Troubled by the misogyny in a conceptual writing process in which “womanly transparent feelings are now successfully marshaled into order,” Myles reminds us that in art there is feeling — “Feeling is an inside and outside gong. It’s history.”

I begin this review with Myles’s piece because I am struck by how much it resonates with Jones’s 2005 interdisciplinary art historical book, which revisits the early-twentieth-century New York City avant-garde by way of the recently rediscovered Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, whose biography and art illuminate this history of feelings and bodies working with and against cultural forces and aesthetic constraints. Because the life, body, and art of the Baroness were one and the same. Strangely and spectacularly ornamented and overflowing with what she scavenged from her street wanderings, she might, in the words of Jones, “help us understand how the messy, personal, and subjective have — in waves, beginning at least with the rise of identity politics in art world discourse in the late 1960s — begun to reemerge with increasing force to challenge the repressive boundaries of the restrictive patrilineal model of art practice and art history” (27). In Jones’s compelling alternative history of New York Dada, the Baroness is not simply an overlooked colorful character; nor is she a marginalized artist to be inserted into a preexisting narrative. She influenced avant-garde culture, inspiring, enacting, and creating innovative Dadaist art. Documenting her sharp wit and the sensual pleasure she took in interacting with the materials of her world, her exciting body of work includes and combines assemblage sculpture, sound poetry, visual poetry, painting, diagrams, fashion, and performance. As Dada embodied, the Baroness is a form of what Jones calls irrational modernism, and as such is representative of a new approach to understanding the historical avant-garde, one that “revises our current conception of radical artistic practice” (24).

In 1922, Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson, editors of the American literary magazine The Little Review, saw the Baroness as representative of American Dada and featured her in their modernist magazine — along with Mina Loy — as the face of Dada, declaring her “the first American dada”: “she is the only one living anywhere who dresses dada, loves dada, lives dada” (5). When one encountered the Baroness, one came into contact with a disorienting mélange of seemingly incongruous landscapes and materials: she was known to carry around canaries in a cage; wear gilded carrots and beets, a readymade shovel earring, and a gold curtain tassel belt; and model outfits she made out of maritime flags and machine parts. She subverts what Jones identifies as the dominant model of avant-gardism, one that “is predicated on the erasure of the subjectivity of the artist — the messy and potentially compromising aspects of her or his sexuality and other biographical vicissitudes — from the artistic encounter” (21).

For Jones, the Baroness, “in her inimitably fluid and destabilizing way, thread[s] her way through the book, just as she insinuated herself into the circles of artists and writers now associated with New York’s World War I-era artistic avant-gardes” (10). Her itinerant movements and art-play in the city brought her into contact with its avant-gardists, with whom she had both accord and discord. She collaborated with them and critiqued their art, including that of her good friend Marcel Duchamp, with whom she shared an affinity for found-object art assemblages and plumbing sculpture. (Who first had this found-object affinity is a question that Jones takes up; following the lead of Baroness biographers, she suggests Duchamp’s Fountain came from the Baroness.) Given her involvement in and contributions to the American Dada aesthetic, the dearth of attention given her in modernism’s histories is shocking and dismaying. Jones takes the Baroness seriously, intricately reweaving her back into place in New York City’s early avant-garde; her presence provides new and different lenses with which to see and understand these artists and their art. In this role, she is a productive irritant for Jones, who seeks to examine and highlight what she calls artistic subjectivity: “by attending to the lived avant-gardism of the Baroness, I want to revise our current understanding of New York Dada as a group of visual objects and images whose meaning and political significance has remained more or less static over time and, thus, interrogate our understanding of avant-gardism and even of art history and modernism themselves” (13).

The Baroness’s “lived avant-gardism” inspires the richly textured art-historical narrative of Irrational Modernism, which details the cultural and social dynamics of New York City avant-gardists as they worked, wrangled, and collaborated with one another before and during World War I. Jones highlights correspondences between the lives and art of the Dadaists and the dislocations that modernity and the war had set in motion: specifically, how the war, immigration, Fordism, Taylorism, and the city’s shocks of modernity were reconfiguring borders, bodies, and psyches, as well as shoring up social and gender norms. Of particular interest to this book is the impact these unsettling forces had on Marcel Duchamp, Frances Picabia, Man Ray, and the Baroness. The Baroness was unique to the group in that she “enacted the violent dislocations in personal and national identity put into play in the period” (36). As Jones explains: “the Baroness is a figure whose boundary-breaking performances rearticulated gendered and national identity to an extent far beyond that to which most of the male avant-gardists, their anti-bourgeois proclamations aside, were ever willing to go” (36). Thrown in jail many times — for wearing a man’s suit, stealing an umbrella, assaulting poet William Carlos Williams, being suspected as a German spy — the foreign, androgynous, sexually aggressive Baroness failed to fit into even the avant-garde’s categories, “flowing threateningly forth across the boundaries of respectable avant-garde behavior” (10).

It is the queer figure of the Baroness, threatening in her challenge to gender identity and to norms of social behavior, who enables Jones to write what she sees as a needed alternative view of New York Dada, one which the Baroness facilitates by “reenacting the very irrational effects that she so dramatically stood for at the time, performing the seedy and seamy underside of modernism that discourses of high art and architecture have labored to contain through their dominant models of rational practices” (10). For Jones, the Baroness offers an alternative way of negotiating the “mad rationality” of industrialism. In her flâneurial immersion in the spaces of urban industrialism — as “an androgynous German woman with a voracious sexual appetite, dressed in urban detritus like a mentally ill ‘bag lady’” (9) —she enacts what Jones sees as a radical art practice. Unlike the Dada men, whose work Jones argues never fully embraces irrationality, the Baroness does not sublimate or repress the body’s response to the shocks of modernity. Instead, she revels in the modern city, appropriating and fabricating shape-shifting identities and transgressive art forms in and through a disordering of its language and objects. As an embodied sign of what is grotesque and carnivalesque in the modern city, she points to irrationality and incoherence as a way of negotiating its machinelike forms and forces. The Baroness exhibits the nervous condition of neurasthenia, a “complex network of bodily/psychic symptoms that rupture the subject’s smooth functioning” (28). Thus, for Jones, the Baroness and her “mad” form of Dadaism serve as a critique of modernity’s forces that work to regulate, control, and contain the body; she resists and confounds the discourses of rationalism, nationalism, and masculinity that occupied her time and place.

Jones offers a book about “doing art history,” what she labels an “overtly neurasthenic art history — disorderly, irrational, and highly self-invested” (28). In the first chapter, “The Baroness and Neurasthenic Art History,” Jones explains the role of the Baroness in this history by plunging into all of the book’s key concerns and concepts — neurasthenia, rational modernism, rational postmodernism, irrational modernism, readymades, and the avant-garde. Given the enormous ground Jones wants to cover, her narrative is quite dense, and at times disorienting, as she utilizes myriad lenses to examine and illuminate this group — psychoanalytic, historical, biographical, formalist and feminist — combining these approaches and sometimes switching gears abruptly. While this approach makes some sense, given the multifaceted nature of this project, at times it feels like too much too fast. Jones wants to do justice to her subject matter, and thus she comes at it from every angle, attempting in one book to take all possible paths of inquiry — now that the Baroness is on the scene.

Leaving Germany in 1913, Elsa Plotz arrived in America the year of New York’s revolutionary Armory Show. She brought with her the aesthetic and cultural sensibilities of the avant-garde communities of Berlin and Munich, where she had been living and circulating since the age of nineteen, when she left a difficult middle-class family situation — an abusive father and what she described as a stepmother’s “bourgeois harness of respectability” (7). In these cities, Elsa worked as a chorus girl, model, actress, and artist, and had a number of lovers and a couple of husbands. Not too long after her arrival in America at the age of thirty-nine, she married a disinherited German Baron — acquiring a title but no wealth — and shortly after their marriage, he went to war and died. It was in New York City that she began making, writing, and wearing her art. Embraced by some and scorned by others in its art and literary circles, Elsa in many ways remained an outsider: she was a German woman (arrested and imprisoned during the war), androgynous, and uninhibited about her sexual desires. Her art was mostly ephemeral, public, so not easily incorporated and placed in a exhibit, museum or institution. As a poor peripatetic flâneuse, she wandered the city streets, sometimes wearing a car taillight bustle, so as to, in her words, not “collide with anyone.” Yet, given her electric energy, she had collisions — with the bourgeois of the modern city and with some of the more buttoned-up modernists, including William Carlos Williams, who, as the story goes, first found her intriguing and pursued her, then felt such trepidation about her aggressive ardor for him that he took up boxing lessons to defend himself against her amorous assaults — calling her “a dirty old bitch.”

The Baroness challenged the period’s gendered and national discourses more radically and more overtly, Jones argues, than did the avant-garde men in the face of their fraught relationships with the war. Jones begins her history of the New York Dada with the impact of the war on “the best-known representative of the visual arts component of the New York Dada movement, the triumvirate Man Ray, Duchamp, and Picabia” (30), focusing on their distance from the war and their lives in America. She frames the second chapter, “War/Equivocal Masculinities,” with a quote from Freud’s “Thoughts on War and Death” (1915) about the “noncombatant individual” whose response to the disorientation of being a “wheel in the gigantic machinery of war” is an inhibition of “his powers and activities” (34). This is followed by a quote from a letter to The Little Review (1920): “The Baroness … [claws] aside the veils and rush[es] forth howling, vomiting and leaping nakedly … It is a blessing to come upon an unconscious volcano now and again” (34). If the Baroness unreservedly erupts and spews forth feelings about modernity in the form of bodily fluids, as noncombatant men in a modern city far from the war in Europe, Man Ray, Duchamp, and Picabia respond differently. In close formal analysis of their art, Jones sees anxieties about masculinity at play in the abstraction and destruction of the body, dysfunctional machines, voids, and “obsessive heroic enactments of male power” (133). Their work illustrates what she calls the “mad rationality” of modernity: feeling is sublimated and the body is broken, alienated, and dismembered, appearing as fleshless machines, glass, diagrams, and shadows.

In contrast, the lived art practices of the Baroness elude modernity’s appropriative logic, which would contain and rationalize that which is excessive, confusing, and other. The Baroness’s strange outfits, found objects, and readymade poetry cull the materials of her everyday, reveling in ecstatic and confused fleshy combinations of body, city, and world. Irrational Modernism might have spent more time on the Baroness’s radically innovative writing, which she herself called “readymades in poetry,” but as an art historian Jones focuses on the Baroness’s found-plumbing sculpture and assembled objects to make the case that her work serves as an explicit challenge to modernity’s oppressive forces of rationalism. Jones does not paint her as a complete anomaly of the time, however; nor does she set up a strict male/female artist dichotomy. She pairs her with the also historically marginalized Arthur Craven, who like the Baroness embodied the spirit of Dada in absurd costumes and performative bodily play that undermined the period’s militaristic mechanical masculinity. Jones notes Craven “lived his life and practiced his art (the two processes being identical in this case) in such a manner as to embody the male subject of urban modernity during the early twentieth century” (173). What seems most compelling and convincing — both to Jones and to me — is the way in which the Baroness’s body “became a kind of ‘readymade in action,’” an embodied “sign of the ruptures in the social (and gender) fabric during this highly charged period — of the uncontainable, violent, feminizing, debased, and debasing effects of modernity” (9). Jones turns to Chaplain’s broken feeding machine in the film Modern Times as a related image in her second chapter, “Dysfunctional Machines/Dysfunctional Subjects,” in which she investigates and rethinks works of the Dada canon with attention to the Dadaist men’s “feminized and broken machines” alongside discussion of the Baroness’s art objects and her writing on machine culture.

While the Baroness was terrorizing Williams, she was inspiring her friend Duchamp. Not only was she a living readymade, her art — much like his — appropriated material from the modern world: its streets, signs, stores, and newspapers. (In a painter’s studio on Broadway, the Baroness once recited her poem, “Marcel, Marcel, I love you like Hell, Marcel,” as she rubbed down her naked body with a copy of his Nude Descending the Staircase.) In focusing on her sculpture, Jones puts forth a proposition made by the Baroness’s biographer, Irene Gammel, that she very well might have given the famous Fountain (1917) to Duchamp to submit to the Armory Show. Not only does he mention in a letter that it was given to him by one of his women friends; it fit into her oeuvre of found-object sculptures, which explicitly cite female body holes and phallic parts. Her sculpture God, from the same year, is an iron plumbing tube mounted atop a wood miter box. Jones points out their shared appreciation for readymades that reference the fraught dynamics of man and machine, and of the body and industrial capitalism; Jones also deliberates on the Baroness’s art as excessive and playful critique in contrast to Duchamp’s art, in which the body is trace or an absence. Jones argues that “by circling around, rather than enacting, the compromised bodies of modernity, Duchamp kept his practice radical to a degree — but safe (and fully disembodied) [and] ultimately retained control and thus artistic mastery by choosing, contextualizing, and directing the display of each readymade” (141). In discussing the lives of Duchamp, Man Ray, and Picabia, Jones exposes what she sees as personal, psychological, and aesthetic negotiations of masculinity in response to the war. She is overt about her intention to provide more complex and more contradictory narratives than art history narratives in which these men are reduced to radical or genius artists heroically battling forces of industrial capitalism and normative masculinity.

Breaking down what she characterizes as the formalized rationalized logic of art history, Jones makes explicit her own personal interest in the Baroness and neurasthenia. Of her fourth chapter, “The City/Wandering, Neurasthenic Subjects,” she writes, “I increasingly overtly identify with — and project onto — the Baroness as a radical urban wanderer performing a fragmented narrative that itself is flâneurial,” and she characterizes art history as neurasthenic and as a mode of historical wandering (32). She is an art historian who has experienced neurasthenia in the form of a panic disorder, she admits, relating her emotional excesses to the excesses of the Baroness.

In the middle of this chapter, Jones includes a creative piece of writing in which she assumes the voice of the wandering Baroness. While this journal entry fails to capture what is formally innovative about the Baroness’s own language and poetics, it conveys the presence of the storyteller, conflating author and subject, which is clearly Jones’s intent. In the opening chapter, she states, “Anxiety is my mode of being. Sometimes reading about Francis Picabia or the Baroness, […] I feel attached to them by a hot, electrified wire of neurosis across the decades” (28). In these instances, and throughout Irrational Modernism, Jones is deliberate about her desire to dispense with the illusion of objectivity or neutrality in writing; she makes transparent her personal identification with the Baroness as a way of acknowledging the body and feelings of the/a writer in what is a sound scholarly examination of New York Dada. This is her boundary-crossing, a intervention of feeling in staid institutional art historical writing. While I imagine some readers might feel uncomfortable with this — which might be the point — I appreciate her intent. In making explicit her interest in the Baroness, Jones calls attention to what compels her writing, her art-history-making — and to how one feels her way into and is present in art.

Irrational Modernism is a compelling contribution to the recent (and belated) attention to the Baroness and her radical form of lived avant-gardism,[3] one in which she “performed a kind of unhinged subjectivity that most of the other artists of her day only examined or illustrated in their work and that many, in spite of their aspirations to thwart bourgeois norms and define themselves as avant-garde, assiduously avoided” (5). In her avant-garde community, the Baroness “shone a raking light on the limits of radical practice, galvanizing debates” that dismissed her as “beyond the pale of avant-gardism” (209). This same raking light illuminates our current debates about avant-gardism and feeling, given that the exciting body of the Baroness, her felt and feeling art, anticipated and informed future avant-gardes, performance art, feminist and queer art, and conceptualism. In her poem “Constitution,” the Baroness “Still / Shape distinct — / Resist / I / Automatonguts / Rotating Appetite — / Upbear against / Insensate systems.”[4]


1. Amelia Jones, Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005).

2. Eileen Myles, “Painted Clear, Painted Black,” Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics, no. 29 (May 2013).

3. In the opening pages of Irrational Modernism, Jones declares her indebtedness to a number of feminist art historians whom she admires and upon whose work she is building and extending; this includes Naomi Sawelson-Gorse’s anthology Women in Dada and Irene Gammel’s Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity — A Cultural Biography. Published in 2002, Gammel’s biography paints a fascinating, multifaceted picture of the Baroness’s role in the early-twentieth-century avant-gardes. Gammel’s biography served to rediscover the Baroness, and soon after a small collection of her poetry came out: Subjoyride, titled after her readymade poems from 1919 to 1920. In 2011, a comprehensive collection of her writing, Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, was published by MIT Press. A beautiful book of all her writing, it includes her published and unpublished poems, and handwritten manuscripts covered with intricate drawings and diagrams.

4.  Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, ed. Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011), 171.

Tunneling through the self

On Hoa Nguyen's 'As Long as Trees Last'

As Long as Trees Last

As Long as Trees Last

Hoa Nguyen

Wave Books 2012, 69 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1-933517-61-2

Living with As Long as Trees Last, Hoa Nguyen’s latest collection of poetry, is akin to living with Charles Olson — his endless exuberance, wide-ranging curiosity, and aesthetic agility, as well as his famous invocation of the body as a tunnel through which one must go to know more truly the self and the world around it. “Down through the workings of [the poet’s] own throat to that place where breath comes from,” he writes in Projective Verse, is the path to becoming “participant in the larger force.”

Living with As Long as Trees Last is also akin to living with John Cage — the attention to silence, to the music of reality, to the harmonies and disharmonies that make a life. I think of the presence evoked by his work, of being present to the world, bringing one’s instruments to the stage of the world and allowing the world to play.

Olson and Cage are present in As Long as Trees Last on every page, egging on Nguyen from behind the stage, giving her the theoretical foundation upon which she builds and builds and builds her own vision, one marked by the harmonies and disharmonies of language, thought, and feeling that she reached down into herself to get. The discordant bells of jagged syntax and juxtaposed imagery ring often in the book, discordant in the way a life is lived with anxiety and ferocity, but these bells that ring discordantly also ring true. They ring true in the way Cage’s work rings those everyday sounds, allowing presence and attunement to the oft-neglected disharmonies of reality, but with Olson’s exuberance and his boundless will to break the self off into pieces of the outside world.

But let me be clear. This is Nguyen’s show. It is her throat readers descend into. It is her voice we hear in these discordant bells. For all its kinship with Olson and Cage, As Long as Trees Last is Nguyen’s tremendous symphony. Living with it these months since its release by Wave Books has been a constant pleasure, one that encourages itself as well as the life of the reader to be one of effulgence and grace.

Indeed, it encourages being in its infinitive form, as eros, as will against a very difficult world to inhabit. But inhabit it, we must. “What it means to be / out of work,” she writes in “I’m Stuck.” And in “Being,” “The cup or bowl said to be / precious stone is really green / glass.” Elsewhere, “This is being” (“For Lisa Camile in Memoriam, April 18, 2010”); there are things to do (“Mash the sea / Evolve love / Keen / Coo,” from “Rain Poem”), things to perceive, sounds to interpret, and voices to utter and re-utter into the fabric of the poem.

The space of the poem, then, becomes a space of living, acted and reenacted, where the poem is inhabited as if one’s life were dependent on it (It is! It is!), and also where voice is heard present to the self as if coming from another, as a unique entity of the act of being within one’s self. In “Being,” she writes, “I molt ‘wrapped / in the hide of a yellow cow’” and in the moment the voice becomes present to itself, as if hearing one’s own voice on an answering-machine, a little off but unmistakable and strange:

The dream hand wrote:

How eyes can see brightly
across great distance

Brightly
Distant

This vision of one’s own hand writing is a kind of inhabitation of the self, an inhabitation-as-poem that becomes a life project, Nguyen’s life project. It is a manner of writing and a path through the world that subverts the nonbeing, bodiless meandering of contemporary life. Indeed, as she writes in “Soul Poem,” “It’s the ‘end of enchantment,’” but this end-as-terminus is never an option. Nguyen’s poems constantly bound toward enchantment growing on the leaves of the Chinaberry that grows within one’s self. If anything, As Long as Trees Last is keyed up, bright-eyed, and against an end of any kind.

In “Being,” she writes, “Being outside the world / needs a ‘spiritual degree,’” but not any sort of certification from academia. On the contrary, this spiritual degree is one of attunement, of a heightened listening that Cage and Olson inspire. Elsewhere, in “Unused Baby,” we mustn’t try to “glue the ripped / paper back to the religious / art”; we must “make a mess of it” because the mess of the human body and soul is where we must go to look outward onto the world with any degree of spirituality, so to speak. Subvert academia and subvert religion, Nguyen seems to say, but have spirit and have art.

As we progress through the book, we encounter these instances of inverted voice and subverted societal conventions, and are enchanted by them as they swirl into a whirlpool that pulls everything into the body of the body of the poem. “The outside is the inside,” she writes in “Hexagram #1 Poem.” And this whirlpool effect rearranges our conception of outside and inside in its wake, hence:

I am in the poem pulling
thistle and like the dream
where drive-by Chinaberries golden

Catch cars in the soundscape
a squawking call too with
Lady Xoc’s shield

These stanzas from “Lady Xoc” perfectly capture this blurred and busted line, the porous skin between outside and inside, culminating in the extraordinary “Words You Should Know,” a poem that proclaims the poem-as-life-project aesthetic in a litany of nouns, verbs, and adjectives drawn from A New True Book: The Choctaw. The poem presents readers with a list, a poem as interplay between the language of the world and the poem’s struggle to make its associations and variances count, make them fill the poem with the difficulty of being alive outside as well as inside the poetic space. For all its exuberance, As Long as Trees Last is not neglectful of difficulty, the struggles that the self faces in attempting to inhabit the world. And yet, even as “Words You Should Know” presents readers with “Poverty” and “Defeated,” there appears “Ravine” and “Vine” and the book’s closing imperative to “Please / just open the door / to the sun” (“Swell”).

These closing lines point us to the poem-as-inhabitation-of-the-world that we have encountered all along in As Long as Trees Last, but with a flourish and a passion that could only come from a poet as committed to Olson’s becoming “participant in the larger force” as Nguyen is. As Nguyen opens herself to the world through the “workings of [her] own throat,” she opens the body of her poems to the outside as a way of fully inhabiting the world and the poetry that connects us to the world. Indeed, if we must “open the door / to the sun,” then we must first realize that “the outside is the inside” and that “the wall is a door” (“Hexagram #1 Poem”).

As Long as Trees Last stands on the other side of this door, and, with the wisdom and aesthetic agility unique to poetry, desperately, ferociously pulls us through.

The thing that doesn't fail

On Stephanie Young’s 'Ursula or University'

 Ursula or University

 Ursula or University

Stephanie Young

Krupskaya 2013, 186 pages, $17, ISBN 978-1-928650-35-5

Stephanie Young’s Ursula or University begins, “I guess it’s too late ...” and (nearly) ends, “It can be never for a very, very long time. And then it can be now.” In between, Young hovers and waits, worries and writes, enmeshed in a Bay Area poetry community that, to her, crackles with potential seismic energy she nevertheless fears may forever fail to unleash the earthquake that would justify its pressures and change the topography of power and privilege whose violence mars the utopia she can almost grasp.

The earthquake that might come, never comes, must come, is one of the book’s persistent metaphors, a way of thinking the present moment as simultaneously necessary and non.  Young imagines herself caught by the archetypal West Coast catastrophe in the scariest possible place: the BART tube under the Bay. The claustrophobic panic of this is too real to be merely symbolic: it makes my chest tighten, even on the eighth floor of the NYU library, just to picture it. But the resonance is real, too, in Young’s claustrophobic sense of her own small society, which she repeatedly and dutifully calls the “mostly white [or middle-class, or leftist] poets I am and hang out with.” She has to find a way to breathe, she knows, because she loves them.

I met Stephanie Young at the East Bay Poetry Summit in May 2013. I was very drunk at the time, drunk the whole long weekend, in fact, on the company of this extraordinary group of poets. In New York the poets kind of peer down into their drinks or crane their necks off toward a dark corner, but there, I discovered, they talk to each other! They study together! They make out all the time (or that’s what this book says, anyway)! And they actually let each other come over! To their, like, homes! I’ve known poets in New York for five years or more whose apartments remain firmly in the realm of my imagination, and probably always will (can I drop by?). 

I bring all this up in the spirit of Young, whose book believes in, and practices, an attention to such happenings, participants, idiosyncrasies, histories, and hopes. It also inevitably obscures the very gossip it means to take seriously: this book, too, has secrets. But Young’s conviction is that these activities, on which so much time and energy seems to hinge, are as meaningful as the supposed poetries on which we habitually tell ourselves we must focus partly by ignoring the structures that bring us to their encounter. Is it possible, she asks, to arrive at “A critique of the networks and systems that surround and produce poetry communities, a critique arising, or moving away from, that at least doesn’t leave out my feelings”? That doesn’t leave out, in other words, a body — not the swoony, orgasmic body so many poets seem to mean when they say they care about “the body,” but rather the sweaty, anxious, recoiling body that really exists in the social body, whose microcosm is the society of other poets, except when it isn’t because of all the other societies that community excludes. And yet crucially is, or theoretically can be, conscious of excluding, so much so that the exclusion functions like a fault line, always there, ruining utopia, making it hold its breath. Young offers up her own body’s acute attunement to such dissonance. When a conference on community labor and poetics chooses to invite only poets who don’t work in the academy, she attends; but, aware of the absurdity of excluding supposed “academic” poets who are really at the fringes of a no-longer coherent academy anyway, Young writes:

I felt as if I had to sit there and take it. I is the conditions of my labor didn’t belong anywhere. Waves of sweat ripping up my ribcage. My face very hot. I ate handfuls of snacks at the break, pretzels and chocolate, shoveled it in and didn’t talk about whatever it was that felt so personal, I took something personally, something ripping or tearing in the body, in the family, in the home sort of, in the guts. In the guts of the room, of the organs that matter—to our bodies, the organs our bodies are made of. I went back and forth on this. Whose body was whose. Was it one big body like a church. I didn’t mean to presume you are part of me. I didn’t mean to presume I am part of you. But secretly, I felt this was true.

Is that secret belief — a church of poets! — doomed to disillusionment? In one sense, of course it is, since the poets are revealed again and again as subject to the failings of every body (individual and social). 

But then something happens. And this book, which laments those failures even as it refuses to be blind to them, finds a way to function not just in spite of but through them (it’s a long book, mostly prose, hybrid in every way, but it does have a plot, the best kind, one the author doesn’t see coming because she’s writing it in real time). At first, there are protests of the shooting of Oscar Grant, an African American resident of Hayward, on January 1, 2009, at Fruitvale Station, by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle (who was functionally acquitted). Ursula is in a profound sense an elegy for this innocent, ambushed person, even as it wonders how it can perform that elegy from the heart of a nearby but also distinct community whose warm embrace both enables poetry but also seems to doom it to myopia (however hard it rubs its eyes). “What could ever be adequate,” Young asks, “to the death of a man I didn’t know, his body marked by race, class, location.” At the climax of the book, however, Occupy comes to Oakland, and suddenly everyone’s activated, embodied, the community rocked to its foundations. Earlier, at one of the anti-BART protests, Young finds out what her body knows and doesn’t know, how

most of the time I drove my car, often I checked the weather online, generally I moved between my car and the doorway, between restaurants and bars, the walking path and parking lot, theater and arts space. Mostly I moved between the private and semiprivate houses. My body knew how to get money out of an ATM because that’s how money had trained it, to shield the keypad with the hand, to be aware of my surroundings without appearing too nervous. My body had been trained to go with the flow, not how to block it.

With Occupy, however, these fearful anatomizations give way to a suddenly assured catalog of injustice’s vocabulary and the “interruptive power” that being-there, as Young is (even in all her ambivalence), can truly bring to bear:

And so I called out to the singularities, the names I didn’t know, called them out in rooms full of poets. Called out the names I didn’t know to the names I did. Maybe it looks like a retreat to poetry. But really it was all I had. The names. The calling. 

The earthquake comes and we are all together, if nowhere else, upon the ground, and in the terrifying trembling we reach for each other, so hard.

Young wonders whom she writes for, no matter whether from the center of her coterie or from its edge. Let’s ask it: who is this book for? Simple: it’s for me. It’s for you. And it’s for anyone, since everyone, not just poets, lives in their own little local, imagining its borders are self-evident, when the only lines that truly matter are deep underground, are the absence of ground, are long, tense fissures where they slumber, waiting to remake the world.