My first impression that I cannot shake each time I open The Xenotext: Book 1: this is not the book I thought it would be. The bioart project became well-known in its time: to implant a poem inside the DNA of bacterium d. radiodurans that would be read by the organism each time its genome replicated, expressing another poem as RNA pairs up for transcription. The bacteria would become an archive of a certain idea of poetry, a poem actually alive, a poem that would likely endure longer than any reader or any concept of poetry (d. radiodurans can withstand heavy doses of radiation, survive in extreme environments, and will in all probability outlast humans).But The Xenotext: Book 1 is not that story, not that poem. I did not know that Bök would not tell in this work the lengths he has gone to strive for this project and the success and failures encountered along the way. All along it was understood that the poem was not going to be the verbal icon, and not the book either, but the work of the poem in its trying to get made. Poeisis included: all the computer programming, grant writing, art exhibits, promotional tweets, interviews, preposterous claims, raised eyebrows, and bioethical murmurings. The poem project also involved aiming to survive at least ten thousand years later with enough of these subroutines still running to keep the poem’s grammar warm and agential.
It is strange then that most of that work on the bioart poem goes unmentioned in Book 1. Instead, the book consists of five sections containing a mix of prose and poetry, whose form and content are structured in varying degrees by some aspects of genomics. There is also a “vita explicata” where Bök details his methods and states that he sees Book 1 as “an ‘infernal grimoire,’ introducing readers to the concepts for this experiment” (151). With the genome as muse and medium, this is really a DNA text. The book fits somewhere in the early twenty-first century between J. Craig Venter’s genome cowboying and GMO redemption rhetoric and Donna Haraway’s accusatory “fetishism of the gene,” the feminist eco-technoscience-inspired rejection of masculinized selfish genes and synthetic genome rescue operations in favor of a decentered, pluralized, and environmentally embedded sense of coming to know what genotypes and phenotypes can do.
In a section titled “The Nucleobases,” for example, Bök supplies a visual of each nucleotide and crafts a short poem on tightly restricted terms: only nine-letter words beginning with the first letter of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, or hydrogen in proportion to the nucleobase’s chemical formula, and including some content that rhapsodizes bees (the fate of bees is a thread that runs throughout Book 1). Here is “Adenine (C5H5N5)”:
cocooning nectarous honeydews — heartsome
numbingly hypnoidal (87)
Reading Bök’s many DNA poems, we realize that all our bodies are made from highly restricted vocabularies. Bök wrote in the time of the first generation to witness the great bee die-off, when the chemical genius of bees was undone by other chemical geniuses who decided to spread insecticidal neonicotinoids everywhere. This was a time when one could openly question whether skill at synthetic genetic modification or care for a biodiverse world stood as the highest mark of intelligence.
Bök seeks to collaborate with the genome, writing along with it rather than through and over it. Many of the poems in the book take on the visual and organizational feel of nucleic material. Writing with the genome requires working with its generative and generational properties that occur at micro and macro scales. Bök’s project embraced writing with biological longevity and epochal time frames as enabling constraints. How do you write and read for (at least) a ten-thousand-year time span? There are clocks made to keep time for ten thousand years, and writings inscribed on tombs for radioactive nuclear waste meant for any possible reader who might stumble upon such a toxic archive. There are epic poems that believed themselves to be immortal and unforgettable and are long lost, while a fragment of an exchange of glances caught in Sappho’s scroll — “for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking is left in me” — still carries an erotic charge thousands of years later. Although Bök has sometimes claimed he aimed to write a poem that would effectively become immortal, the writing of poetry has never been about striving for one temporality or one version of longevity.
Bök’s The Xenotext helped open the field of xenopoetics in its time. Xenopoetics involves reading and writing in varying time scales and from varying points of view in addition to the human perspective. All texts have xenopoetic qualities as they ask: how would an individual, human or nonhuman, read X after time Y has elapsed? Xenopoetics amplifies concerns about the durability of a poem’s medium, message, and range of transmission. In addition to form and content, the question of contact becomes paramount for the poem. Xenopoetics considers the aesthetic and material properties that enable poems to send an image, a feeling, or a message to an unknown reader in an unknown time across an unknown cultural gap situated in an unknown land. The xenopoem, with Bök’s The Xenotext: Book 1 as an example, stresses the conjunction of form, content, and contact. Xenopoetics engages the medium to transmit the message and questions what message transmission might mean at species and planetary levels.
Bök’s “Alpha Helix” instantiates xenopoetics by casting the helix as one of the primary forms of the cosmos, a swirl of matter-energy that can offer a platform for anything from bad weather to biological lifelines. The helix form, here iterated by the pronoun “it,” bears writing and life across the universe:
Whatever lives must also write. It must strive to leave its gorgeous mark upon the eclogues and the georgics already written for us by some ancestral wordsmith. (140)
It is the little vortex that can torque the course of evolution for every micrococcus. (141)
It is but a fuse lit long ago, its final blast delayed forever, the primacord escorting a spark through every padlock on every doorway shut against the future. (141)
It is but a tightrope that crosses all abysses. It is but a tether that lets us undertake this spacewalk. Do not be afraid when we unbraid it. (146)
Bök believed that the poem and the genome could together extend the xenopoetic properties of both into new time signatures and new aesthetic conditions. Bök wonders throughout Book 1 that DNA may already be a xenotext, and perhaps already has a message encoded within, or can be a message-medium in the future. Probably all advanced civilizations in the universe manipulate the composite living elements of their existence, and they all probably question why such manipulation should be done at all and what the problematic consequences of such power can entail. But maybe the genome itself already has such questions and concerns embedded in it, as Bök writes:
Tell me, Wraith and Reader, tell me: Will love save us from our fear that we are here alone? What then if we peer into the sky at night but see no distant lantern blinking at us from the far end of the cosmos? What if such a beacon goes unnoticed, like a dying flame in the darkness? What if only the most wicked people in the world (the pharaohs, the warlocks, the assassins) ever get to read this signal from outer space? What if the message, when decoded, says nothing but a single phrase repeated: ‘We despise you! We despise you!’ What if we find the evidence for such hate embedded in our genomes? Even now, colonies of dark ants from a species called Mystrium shadow feed themselves upon the blood of their young. Even now, my love, these words confess to you that the universe without you in it is but a merciless explosion. (19)
How long does that “you” last? That address, that mode of lyrical speaking, that personified word, that body, that intimate other, that way of reading and being read, that form among forms. How can poems and genomes be ways of transmitting that “you” for ten thousand years?
Let me harken back to a lovely tweet from Bök that I keep returning to, where he states: “I am still amazed that poets insist on writing about their divorces, when robots are taking pictures of orange, ethane lakes on Titan.”
But recall Sappho’s burning eyes: a furtive look can last longer than the records of kings. Already we see patterns of divorce are having planetary effects — that is what geologists in Bök’s time called the Anthropocene. No one knows for sure what ephemeral messages may end up enduring longer than messages borne in a microbe’s practically immortal genetic coils. Like cave paintings that record the story of a hunt for a shamanic animal that has now long since gone extinct, poems are things for capturing amazement, sometimes ephemeral and sometimes monumental, in the amber of overly formalized language. So, for this xenoreview, I leave this for the next unknown reader in an unknown time:
I am still amazed that astrocapitalists insist on mining yet another asteroid, when poets on Earth struggle to write about their devotion to remain tied to a single wobbly planet.
I am still amazed that yet another new synthetic form of bacterial life intended to produce and store energy has been generated in a lab, when luminous colonies of coral keep living and dying in the ocean, trying to maintain themselves between stone and bone as the seas digest all our discarded polymers.
I am still amazed that space agencies insist on sending more robots on one-way missions out of the galaxy, when a planet full of people keep falling in love, divorcing, or otherwise pouring out their desires in the billions to anyone who will listen.
A review of 'The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven'
The Agnes effect
We all have our sacred texts — not necessarily religious in derivation — texts that offer comfort, that answer an unarticulated need. In Brian Teare’s fifth book, he charts his shifting relationship to the painter Agnes Martin, to whom he turns in the midst of a devastating and illegible illness. Teare’s book functions as a record of this experience and an interrogation of it. Martin’s interpretation of the value of suffering informs his decision to turn away from her: “Agnes is my teacher until she isn’t.”
If you have never read any of Agnes Martin’s writings, it is possible that none of this will make sense to you. Martin’s voice contains an incredible amount of charisma. It’s the combination of eccentricity and conviction that makes her so loveable, in my experience. Her short essays, lineated so that they look suspiciously like poems, manage to be both didactic and deeply spiritual, punishing and idealistic — think Gertrude Stein’s bossiness and inclination towards repetition, Matsuo Basho’s haiku of the solitary traveler, crossed with the lyric pedagogy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. In short, reading these writings, it feels like Martin is talking to you. She positions herself as a teacher — and in fact, many of her writings were originally composed as lectures.
Teare is certainly not alone in his obsession with Martin; since her exodus to New Mexico in the late ’60s, she has served as guide/guru/muse for many artists and writers. The mythography built up around Martin is understandable given her rejection of social life (not easy to do in the art world), her withholding of biographical information, her esoteric writings, and her highly singular style of painting (the grid) and working (constantly).
In 2015, one year after the tenth anniversary of her death, Nancy Princenthal published a biography of Martin, and an extensive exhibition with a corresponding monograph opened at the Tate Modern. Both of these projects attempt to take on Martin somewhat comprehensively (for Princenthal, this includes an accounting of Martin’s struggles with mental illness). I’m sure I won’t shock anyone by noting that poetry, unlike mainstream publishing and the art economy at large, is not a particularly profit-driven market. That being so, how does Teare’s project both overlap with and veer off from the others? Who will read it, I wonder? Admirers of Agnes Martin who are not scared of poetry? Readers of poetry who regularly engage with the visual arts? You?
“rectangle and square / a thinking couple” (45)
My formats are square but the grids never are absolutely
square; they are rectangles, a little bit off the square, making a
sort of contradiction, a dissonance, though I didn’t set out to do
it that way. When I cover the square surface with rectangles, it
lightens the weight of the square, it destroys its power.
Teare stages the drama of his illness graphically in his poem “There is the work in our minds, the work in our hands, and the work as a result.” While the overall shape of the poem is a box (square or rectangle, hard to say), two discrete sections make up this shape. The first, identifying the “clinic a proscenium / I return to as audience / to watch my body” (8), resembles a right-angled r or sideways L, double-spaced and reaching into the corners. The performance of healing described in the first section is just that — an empty gesture.
The second stanza, square and single-spaced, occupies the bottom-right corner. The setting is the poet’s bathroom, where, in another nod to Martin, the tiles are “blue square framed in white.” The thinking body moves from being a spectator to a producer of somatic knowledge: “the sharp pure urge to puke.” And yet, this knowledge yields no answers, only repetition and a growing disidentification with the body’s (il)logic: “my body fits to itself roughly / a blade chafing its sheath” (8). Again, we see the uneasy fit of one shape to another, unity achieved at the cost of a chafing rub.
Most of the titles of these poems are single lines extracted from Martin’s writings; some of the others are names of paintings or drawings (where “name” is either “Untitled” or a list of dimensions and materials). The titles hover above Teare’s poems, grey to the poem’s black ink, of a larger, thinner font, almost translucent. Their function is similar, suggesting loose relations, a conversation, starting points. Teare’s typography is utterly attentive to the page as compositional field — the design of the book, wider than standard, stretches the page into an almost square. The form of the poems endlessly deviates from, and yet always point back to, Martin’s “thinking couple,” so that the negative space is just as visible as the text.
Teare investigates the field of composition from his very first poem — in a deictic gesture, he calls attention to “where my body first enters the picture” (3). Alluding to the juxtaposition between what is felt and what is seen, he invokes “the loom upon which materiality turns / pictorial.” Even within the more discursive “field of consciousness” (22), Teare is still aware of the visual field of his own poem: “the frame as white as the time / I spent under anesthesia.” The presence of the body as an interruption is depicted in the image of the “white hospital bed / before I get into it” (19). Here, the pristine surface, or “a really empty painting” transcends its two-dimensional state and “the picture fills up” (19). The intrusion of the body into the field speaks to the material traces or markings left behind by the painter/writer, but at the same time reveals the absence, or rather, the marked exclusion of, the body, in Martin’s writings.
“a form that pains” (26)
Illness shapes time: “illness keeps / a little calendar” (14), but we see that the poems also serve to give form to illness: “the grid’s a little calendar I put each minute into” (25). “I don’t experience pain as repetition” (31), Teare writes, and yet: “my body becomes / a repeated thought” (53). Learning to be with pain, Teare attempts to articulate in language that which is inexpressible, to work within a form that takes into account the rupture and repetition of illness: “I mean I’ve had to fashion a form that pains.” While repetition and seriality emerge as primary concerns in The Empty Form, creating another hinge with Martin, for Teare, adherence to a strict form appears to function more like an irritant than a salve.
The three sections of the book punctuate a movement away from Martin and Western medicine and towards teachers and texts that are associated with Chinese medicine and Eastern spiritual practices. Teare traces out the development of his somatic knowledge in the transmission of the healing practice of acupuncture, a markedly different experience from visiting a public clinic: “each needle // the healer sets / in my flesh // is a fact / I feel” (29). Acupuncture needles, figured by forward and backwards slashes, are brought into the poems as borders, and the porousness of the body as well as the page is acknowledged.
The response to pain and its attendant affect, suffering, prompts a sharp turn away from Martin’s doctrines. In “The Untroubled Mind,” the essay that introduced Teare to Martin, she writes: “suffering is necessary for freedom from suffering.” Martin’s conception of suffering infuses it with meaning, and even more, value. Combining the tenets of a Christian belief system with Martin’s teachings, Teare writes:
sometimes I still feel
very why me about it
very Christian I mean
I believe suffering
could be really useful (39)
Because the influences and sources of Martin’s writings are so varied (and even, at times, contradictory), incorporating “a range of life-views, including Old Testament Calvinism, expressions of visionary Christianity, Platonism, transcendentalism, Vedanta, Zen Buddhism, and last but not least Taoism,” it is impossible to place her in an exclusively “Eastern” or “Western” philosophical framework. It may be that in his dealings with Martin, Teare, like the artist herself, conflates and bifurcates according to his own design.
Teare places his experience of illness alongside Martin’s idealism in a single column:
I know she believed
art is better hungry
before I became ill
I could eat without fear
my lover could enter me
and I desired nothing else (17)
But to move from this stuck place, he must reconsider the split that he has come to believe in: his life before and after pain: “perhaps I was not yet conscious of it / the way a wire kept the rose upright in bloom” (43). In his closing poem, he undoes illness from its association of a fall/The Fall, redirecting his language away from a narrative of inevitable decline: “it took a long time to arrive at being ill / without falling” (72).
The value of solitude, the rejection of society and companionship, is key to Martin’s path. The isolation of illness however, is not chosen. The unnamed illness that Teare deals with in this book removes even the comfort of diagnosis, and the community that could spring up around a shared illness or disability. And yet, Teare refuses to choose the stance that he feels Martin advocates in the poem title “People that look out with their backs to the world represent something that isn’t possible in this world.” Teare, conversely, maintains: “there’s nowhere the world doesn’t hold me here” (64).
Just as his experience of illness can’t be processed without outside reference (clinics, symptoms), his work — that is, his poems — is likewise involved in the world, a striking departure from Martin’s doctrine of inspiration (the work arrives premade to the waiting artist). Teare, however, emphasizes inextricability and interdependence: “as though a body or lyric / doesn’t begin outside itself” (27).
“needle each word / until it bleeds” (52)
Teare’s wrestling with the lyric has been a conspicuous and conscious element of his work for some time. In his second book, Pleasure, where he pushes up against the limits of the elegy, he writes, in a poem titled “Dreamt Dead Eden” of “the lyric, which can’t keep anything / alive.” This struggle is in evidence here too, from the very first poem: “I insert a knot / between the warp and weft of the observed surface words / to stop the work of the lyric” (3). There is something about a too-shiny and too-neat object that Teare distrusts.
Perhaps this distrust is what initially draws him to Martin — and also what causes him to reject her. Martin did not romanticize or elevate the natural world, nor did she prioritize somatic knowledge, preferring to dwell within the realm of the ideal form. But I wonder, returning to the paintings themselves, if Martin’s desire to unlock the grid and undermine the square, if her frayed margins and stray lines don’t bear a similarity to Teare’s need to break open the lyric, to “needle each word / until it bleeds.”
though lyric is a woven grid
hard stresses threading weft
through the warp of stacked
lines the last stanza finished
I put my ear to its little box (55)
The placement of Teare’s ear reveals a relationship between the artist and the art object that is tactile and dynamic. For Martin, the work is totally distinct from its maker; the intellect and the body are not to be sources for the work: “All human knowledge is useless in artwork.” Teare’s poetics emphasize proximity and interrelation. Here, artistic production is inseparable from the body’s sensations, and suffering, the “human knowledge” at the center of these poems, “means nothing at all” (60).
Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil and The Devastation by Melissa Buzzeo were published by the same press, Nightboat Books, on the same day in 2015. How do these two works speak to one another?
Taken together both pieces gleefully frazzle and implode a number of genres: novel, poem, historical fiction, autobiography, performance text, theory. The works situate readers in psychogeographical outskirts, landscapes that wish to enact a language turned away from violent erasures and silencings. Who does literature serve? Or, more pointedly, how does literature fail the body, its traumas, and its healings? Can this failure be transformed into sites of potency and critique?
Kapil set out to write a historical novel, one whose context would be a race riot that occurred in an immigrant suburb of London during the seventies. This novel would center on Ban, a young brown girl walking home in the beginnings of a protest. When she hears glass breaking (a sound of violence) she responds by lying down. And then? The novel does not continue as one would expect, for Ban refuses to be legibly written:
Ban was gone. She continued on without me […] Ban looped — an orbital of dog shit, soot, bitumen, and diesel oil — around the city […] The more time passed, the less and less was Ban. Something that could be written down.
In the space of historical fiction what would happen to this brown girl? What would the novel ask of her, of her body, of her representation?
Ban demands “a literature not made of literature,” while Buzzeo admits the need “to resist the cataloging which saves nothing which petrifies everything.” If you read a novel not made of literature, what does it become? Suspect, fugitive, waste? Merriam-Webster lists two definitions for petrification. The first is to frighten someone so thoroughly they are unable to move or think. The second is the change of organic matter into stony concretion, whereby its original substance is replaced by mineral deposits. I find both of these meanings useful when meditating on the limits of literature. It is tempting and disturbing to see this process in writing. Is this the result of literature, to frighten (language, ideas, subjectivities) into stony concretion, so that what previously was (is) becomes overdetermined by forms that can drown and maim the original contents and motivations?
Kapil’s work brings to mind Saidiya Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts.” Hartman delves into the wreck of the archive in order to find experiences of the Middle Passage from black women slaves. What she finds instead are stories “not about them but rather about the violence, excess, mendacity, and reason” that “transformed them into commodities and corpses.” Hartman warns of repeating the violence in the attempt to “place” or represent what has been lost and/or silenced. Rather than continuing the story to its (assumed) predicted conclusion (death), Kapil does not finish the sentence. Ban refuses to be trapped in a grammar of violence. She’d rather lie down. In the space of a novel that cannot be written, Kapil presents us with notes, errors, performance gestures, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s licking dead tongue, blog entries, earthen silhouette offerings, a butcher block, remembrances for bodies left to die. How to memorialize a young Indian girl who, when walking home from the cinema, was caught by several men, raped, and abandoned in the street?
I thought about those 40 minutes and compared them to the fictive — 12 hours — that Ban lay on the ground. What was in the work — as an image — had appeared beyond it — as a scene. I thought about the crowd that gathered to watch as — [Jyoti Singh Pandey] — the Fearless One — as they called her, afterwards — began to die; a black rope and other materials extended from her body towards them — according to witness accounts. Does the body of the witness discharge something too? At that moment I stopped writing Ban.
[...] And there I lay down on the ground.
[...] And this was the part of the project that could not be completed in the same place that the project was held. (25)
The epithet ‘the Fearless One’ masks more than it reveals. The phrase cannot capture the black rope, the extending materials, the psychic rupture. The epithet triggers memories of her dying, of the violence done to her. The body of the girl is swallowed by the event. What traumas are left unsaid? Ban collects what in a traditional novel would be disposable, diminished, hidden. Some sections are never shown: Kapil relates her decision to delete a series of stories exploring Ban’s childhood. The force of the book is not what is told or witnessed or recorded. The writing strives to be a presence, one that seeks to conjure what lives on despite a foreclosure. Ban shifts from a fictive girl to a composite of historical invocation and “intense autobiography” — she cannot adhere to the forms of character. By lying down, she signals a syntax of resistance, one that treats the sentence as an extension of what bodies leave behind. Kapil’s prose discharges, suspends, absorbs, breaks, regenerates, exhausts. The page is not an end to a means but a participant; it resembles the ground(s) where Ban lies and where Kapil traces her body outline rituals. Her exercises seek to discover how to remember a site of trauma without replicating the original violence.
In her preface subtitled “For a Work Undone,” Buzzeo reveals that her book began with an intention to write as a way to heal from loss. Instead she found her text swallowed up by pain:
As devastation often does, it became all loss and as such what to do with a language smaller and smaller, a meaning more and more totalitarian? What to do with a book enacting itself? (7)
Buzzeo rewrites her text in order to unwrite the overwhelming loss. Language cannot hold her original intention — it instead overdetermines the importance of loss as an event. How to exist despite, in spite, ahead of language? Buzzeo refuses the smallness, opting instead to write a text where the gestural replaces the linguistic. The Devastation explores life following an incident only named. The reader is presented with this recurring image: two lovers at the bottom of the ocean floor, the decaying remains of a disaster that emptied the waters, drained all pronouns, left only the language of reaching and pulling. In another work the devastation — the loss — would subsume the remains, mistaking silence for nothing. Here, the text is what’s left behind; that which no longer exists (as you would think) returns to communicate its forms. Buzzeo uses an abbreviated syntax that takes on the properties of water — it releases, floods without warning, trembles with moments of stagnancy, reflects a pulsing rhythm. The book’s movements enact an accumulation of what cannot be uttered aloud, of what stays silent but potent.
You start with a page: one that has been torn out of your mouth
You fold it in half: you stay.
Beside what drained
Beside what parted
Beside what had yet to be (21)
The text performs poetry as a sea wreck, as the erotic touch of the form(less), as a language unsaying itself. It does so to describe the ways in which language can constrict us into narrowing paths and spaces. What if that which connects us is washed away, evaporated, forgotten? Or, what if it is not forgotten but petrified until its meanings and/or possibilities become overwritten, expendable, removed from context?
How does one say of the Devastation
When it no longer is
That I made the bed with the book
That I had to unmake the bed to remove the book
To remake the self (51)
To say the devastation is to privilege its meanings over the remains, the wastes, the illegible. The bed, the floor, the basin can be variously understood as the page, the aftermaths, a charnel ground, a charged land, poetry in ruins. As in Ban, The Devastation occurs in the outskirts, in a space where nothing exists except the absence of. The image of a sea creature reaching beyond the limits of self signals a desire to reach beyond our totalitarian notions and representations of self and experience.
How to counter the fallibility of the novel, that which peddles a single story, a violence, a petrification? If you begin a book about healing but it ends up being all loss, where did the original intention go? Where did healing lie? And if healing lies down, does that mean healing is resisting what loss brings forth?
The sea creature and Ban are kindred spirits. In refusing the structures of the novel, the works enact the ways in which literature can erase certain subjectivities. Both spend most of their time lying down in the attempt to discern what lives on despite being silenced or “abbreviated.” In “End-Notes,” Kapil notes how their works are in relation:
Melissa brought forth the discourse of waste material, abandonment, the “person left for dead” who — perversely — does not die. How to make (from this) (from these things): a form. A charnel: ground. (88)
In her preface, Buzzeo also mentions writing from “the charnel ground.” The term refers to an area where the formally living are left to decompose. In a similar way for both books, writing itself becomes a friction that yearns to break down the forms of the novel. Literature cannot hold their intentions; Buzzeo must unsay her text while Kapil’s materials urge her to set them on fire. The page does not behave as it should; it morphs to a site of trauma, recuperation, activation, and failure. The sea creature and Ban, two forms who should not count, thwart our efforts to “read” them. They refuse to be trapped in our meanings. What we are left with are volatile sentences, remnants seeking to:
Emit light. Perceptible to ones who also. Lie down on the ground. Lie down on the ground like that. (62)
Stacy Szymaszek's 'Hart Island'
In Hart Island, there are whispers of people who lie just below perception, muttering multivocal protests of how, based on their status in life, they are placed away and forgotten, invisible shoulders upon which the city (or the poetry world) rests. Not an anxiety of influence, but a murmuring of both injustice and desire to connect, for recognition — for people to either stand at the grave and acknowledge or appreciate, no matter who a person might be or might have been. Toward that, Hart Island is part memory, but it is also active record of life taking place on the page, a liquid unfurling of how language apprehends the incomprehensible about it, as quickly as it takes shape and then dissolves again.
Just as Frank O’Hara’s words on a plaque placed to the side of the entrance to the Parish Hall of St. Mark’s Church shape the experience of poets about to enter for a reading, I hear his echo, particularly of his great poem “Second Avenue,” in Hart Island. There’s a similarly mercury-liquid pace of poets moving through urban space abstracted through language, a similar exploration of how concrete existence shared with so many million others changes through time and in that change is all the shifting states of consciousness of both here and not-here. Change is supposedly the opposite of death, but are those buried in Hart Island actually in that presumably static state when relatives and friends are not allowed to visit and meditate upon that still connection, when those buried are not publicly named and therefore definitely declared dead? Instead, it’s limbo: a suspended state of anticipated transformation. Szymaszek explains in a preface that Hart Island is the location of the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world and one to which public access is severely limited. So those disconnected from their dead are not able to move on, but yet they do — the paradox of never-ending mourning, or the myth of “closure.” And in the place of family and friends, those who tend to the plots are inmates of Riker’s Island, another island of injustice and erasure.
The yard of St. Mark’s Church is also a cemetery, and the poets who work and read there walk over a system of vaulted spaces and read next to wall spaces filled with dead people. Some poets’ ashes have also been sprinkled surreptitiously and illegally in the back garden (and that’s all the detail I’m going to give). While to imagine so is what’s called a “pathetic fallacy,” or giving life in verse to natural or inanimate objects, the walls yet seem responsive to the hundreds of readings given at the Poetry Project. Is it so pathetic to imagine that a certain kind of ongoing vibrational energy has been set up within the molecules that make up that plaster, paint, and brick?
this veneer of civilization is
“[I have other skills?]” only recently
de rigueur for poets best not say
“[There are other workers]” you
work here sore groin stand-in
for black eye triggered
impulse for some cake you’re a big
lesbian wipe off your knees save cry
into wilderness for after dinner (44–45)
The heart of Hart Island and Hart Island might be about what it is to treat people, and bodies, decently, whether alive, dead, or an employee of the Poetry Project. How does identity extend from poet to citizen to denizen to worker to corpse? Szymaszek’s language is buoyant, expressive, perplexing, transforming, and at times almost desperate — again, like O’Hara — in how she trusts poetry to keep her alive and speaking through situation after situation. “Your distinction is merely a quill at the bottom of the sea,” writes O’Hara in “Second Avenue.”
But unlike O’Hara, the body and its travails intrude at odd, anguished moments and very unlike O’Hara, Szymaszek’s form is shorter, closer to speech, fragmented, quicker to turn, less enchanted with sound and sound for sound’s sake, or the sonic beauty of frilled lines.
elaborate sty in my eye
bisection of okra garden
is euphemism for flea
market necropolis so
if I lose you in the street
if I lose you in the street (33)
Her form is a different kind of necessary, more squeezed, more urgent, less conveying of influences (Rimbaud, for one) and more conveying of voices muted by gender, class, and race — perhaps M. NourbeSe Philip is another influence in listening for and providing voice to the dead, or Alice Notley, attempting to provide a conduit for those beings/nonbeings.
The layering of experiences within language is intense, and the entrances and exits to and from busy street to cemetery/yard to office to artistic space to all the other incessant and disconnected places of today like malls, stores, institutions, are as abrupt and as rich as in “real life.” Maybe Ed Roberson’s City Eclogue and how it layers all the human connections and histories of civil rights vital to a city is also a reference for Hart Island:
“involve body in muscle
memory” hit mailbox and
pharmacy veer away from
HRC kids who see easy fix
for marriage money no
grail collects the blood
via undressed living
space flush dirt from poor
tile job poorly tiled face
enter the yard where
everybody knows the sexton
is the saint (28)
But I don’t mean to imply that Hart Island is all influence. Quite the opposite: such a poem putting together this sort of language from this sort of perspective (even perspectives) is rare (but desperately needs to be less so) — the poet is a flâneuse, but one who is not a figure of leisure, nor a male who enjoys relative safety and privilege when moving through the city or institutional spaces to acquire them somewhat. And this acquisition often becomes monoperspectival — the flaneur edges toward the tiringly ubiquitous singularity of the hero. Instead, this working flâneuse observes from her stance below-radar and belowground the essential details of how space-institution-art-poetry world-cemeteries are built and made and maintained. And what’s more, shapes these tough and jagged facts and observations into poetry.
… I don’t know
why do you come here?
one night the gates were left
open and the people who were
sleeping continued to sleep (69)
Ultimately, while these final lines of Hart Island question that true change can really occur, I still find in the very difficulty and risk of writing such a piece, as she questions the order in how the poetry world is constructed and its previously unspoken hierarchies — questioning that rarely ends well for the questioner — a desire that change will occur, that the workers will be acknowledged and respected, that the dead will be named and visited, reestablishing the essential connections that keep the entire city (of poetry) afloat.
On Rae Armantrout's 'Just Saying'
Rae Armantrout’s 2013 book Just Saying, a phrase that calls into question the veracity of what we say, think, and feel to be the case, or a phrase used to offload the force of an insult, suggests a motif of our inability or refusal to render our systems of thinking and believing in convincing terms. To be sure, the poems are varied in their address, circling around domestic concerns, mortality, social codes, product placement, forms of transactions, and systems of belief. One of the moves that Armantrout makes so well is to channel the many-tongued voicings of the clichéd-chorus. In the cacophonous, hyper-mediated Internet age, in the postrecession capitalism of America, in the images reflected back to us from the culture industry, Armantrout’s poems take on the bricolage of heterogeneous language acts and recast them to render new systems of meaning. It is in this recasting that poetry can be thought of as an instrument to not only document our present conditions on the ground, but to refigure those conditions, to see them anew.
Armantrout’s poems are characteristically short, and usually advance through precise, almost Dickinsonian lines, where prolixity is skillfully trimmed down to reveal taut and muscular lines and stanzas: minimal words, maximum weight. But unlike Dickinson, Armantrout works in sections, either numbered or broken by an asterisk. The effect, while multiple, is often to destabilize the poem and allow it to disrupt expectations of a coherent, discrete speaking subject. The instability always feels generative, constantly allowing for surprising correspondences.
To cast another metaphor, Armantrout’s poems perform like miniature dragnets, dredging the sediment of our personal and collective social constructs out into the open, where they are assembled and made to speak in disjunctive tongues. In this way, Armantrout's many-voiced approach reveals a rigorous poetic practice of allowing voices, images, ideas, to play out in constant tension and counterpoint.
This productive tension is delivered through the use of sections or breaks, allowing for a word, idea, subject, sense, feeling to be explored through shifting angles of report and inquiry. This move, through repetition, almost develops an argument, as if to say: we are going to see what will happen by taking a look at this phenomenon, by changing the terrain and language practices around which it is understood. This gesture highlights, in a way, how knowledge or ways of knowing is partial. It is one side of the story, but within the stories, language emerges as a form of power, as a mechanism for framing. As Armantrout understands, language comes before us; we are at the mercy of what’s available. In the penultimate poem of the book, “Hymn,” we read:
To put one over
One is everywhere
into branching again
“Glory be to him,”
that can’t quite dissolve
Collapse on cue.
Praise Sisyphus. (100)
The opening of the poem imagines, abstractly and in a slightly mocking tone, the act or the proposition of being deceived. We might surmise this opening comment suggests the hymn as a song of devotion and praise to a God. A hymn is both thing and action, generally sung in unison by a congregation of fellow believers. In a way, the first section of Armantrout’s “Hymn” presents a thesis on the hymn as a thing, something passed down through generations, as mass deception masked in the third-person singular of one. The following sections echo, extend, and refocus this thesis, recasting the action or thing in new terms. We move from the general to the concrete, as if the poem were making an argument. And within this movement, the poem asks the reader to consider the singular as a more extensive, all-pervading phenomenon which I read as a kind of critique of almost unconscious repetition on both an individual and collective level, as in the last line of the poem: “Praise Sisyphus.” In a sense, the poem sees in repetitive performance a form of control: this act, whether the singing of a hymn or some other collective act, represents a larger activity of following consensus, as in the line “Collapse on cue.” But it’s the form of the poem that enables the reader to participate in the process of making meaning. The jump-cut effect of the section breaks asks the reader to stop and consider the parts in relation to the whole.
Armantrout’s sections, whether numbered or indicated by an asterisk, produce what I call a trampoline effect. That is, instead of my eyes descending down the page, breaks in the continuity of the poems send me back, as if the stanzas were playing tricks on my eyes. There’s a way to quickly read Armantrout’s poems, but something gets lost without constant attention. Her moves are slithery, oblique at times, and at other moments, the phrasing comes at a deceptively simple angle that delights, producing a dance for the intellect.
In the poem “Subdivision,” the first section reads: “In a horror movie / the dead eat the living; / while in reality / the living eat the dead” (31). This kind of role reversal, namely, horror film as a genre, follows a narrative formula, while in “reality,” this formula is reversed. The pairing, while simplistic, carries a depth of suggestion. The language is almost deadpan and reportorial, and on a basic level, the pairing of horror films with reality suggests a subdivision of pleasure and human behavior, or perhaps more subtly, human behavior as pleasure. We accept both as “natural” in their environments: what’s more, our pleasure in eating the dead takes on an eerie, blissful lack of awareness of the impact of such choices. Sure, we consume the dead as a matter of sustenance, but we often neglect to consider how the dead are bound to larger ecological systems. To see animals as merely dead for our own gastronomic pleasure highlights how we subdivide reality into parts. And we do this without much logical defense other than “it’s my right to eat whatever I want.” The last two sections of “Subdivision” read:
To matter (verb)
is to be
matter is that
You’ve been living
in a false
one composed of
This poem is characteristic for how it moves from the opening report on horror movies and reality to a play on the word “matter” — as something or someone that carries weight or significance — to how matter is the very material that constructs the world. The third section further extends the notion of subdivision by having the reader focus on a “you” being addressed. This “you” seems to have mistakenly been living without influence, but the poem suggests that we think of the preposition “of” as necessarily highlighting our adherence to parts of the world, whether they are persons, objects, or ideas. The poem ends with a comment on the assertion that “one composed of / ‘of,’” is “extensively subdivided.” We are told, in an open way given the lack of punctuation, that being subdivided is a quality that balances us, or at least gives us the appearance of balance. Any precise Armantrout poem allows us time and space to see words and ideas deconstructed so that the familiar can be reseen.
In 2001, Wesleyan University Press inaugurated its commitment as the home of Rae Armantrout’s twenty-first-century work Veil: New and Selected Poems, the first helping of Armantrout under the wonderful editorship of Wesleyan over the years. (They’ve also brought us the engaging work of Peter Gizzi, Elizabeth Willis, Kamau Brathwaite, Ed Roberson, Jack Spicer, and Brenda Coultas, among many notable others.) Veil marked, in a way, a poetic proliferation that has been followed by Up to Speed (2004), Next Life (2007), Versed (2009), Moneyshot (2011), and 2013’s Just Saying. (Itself was published in early 2015.)
It feels almost necessary (like a fresh breath of air) to have before me a new Rae Armantrout book every couple of years. Her work feels vital. It shows the workings of a mind willing to grapple with and recalibrate the bewildering experience of living in our young twenty-first century. I know this is a large claim, but it’s the breadth, seriousness, and intensity of her work that holds a reader. As a reader, I’m put in acute proximity with a mind that tells us in Just Saying: “I don’t like / the option / of zero wiggle room” (90). To the open eye and ear, the poems offer an intelligent cadence. Her poems are precisely sounded on the page, as in the poem “New Intelligence”: “Stars / are the campfires / of exiles. // Language exists / to pull things / close” (91). Here, we’re invited to imagine language as an instrument to put the world more under our nose. These stanzas bridge the distant and near. By bringing the earthly to bear on the ever more knowable sky above us, Armantrout also seems to suggest that the distant is often in a state of banishment; the distant object is distant precisely because it was coerced or persuaded. But language, and hence the poem, is a vehicle that enables new connections, and perhaps more to the point, reflexive action.
Armantrout’s poems are intimately aware that language is inherited, used, displaced, internalized, monitored, misappropriated, bound to the commonplace, and rendered a mass of dividing cells from which we fashion our experiences or define the experiences of others. Her poems are lyrics strained through a cheesecloth saturated with institutional and other kinds of jargon. Her poem, “Elements Of Blank,” reads in full:
You’re not selling the product
You’re selling commitment.
Somehow we know that the cover girl has just lifted her
head, looked into the lens by accident. Her light eyes
are those of a lion raising its head from a carcass. (Her
tousled blond hair reinforces this effect.) A moment ago,
it seems, she was absorbed in something all-consuming,
draining. Clearly, her gaze only appears to take us in.
Get them to opt out
of what’s available
apart from the experience
of our product.
To take flight is to make a decision which can’t be rescinded.
That in itself is enough to inspire fear. But it isn’t wise to show
weakness. Now our fate is bound by momentum to that of the
people around us, people we did not choose, would not have
chosen. We await the beverage tray. When it comes, we will
once again have a number of options. (49)
This poem, in a way, is representative of the shifting voices in Armantrout’s work. I hear a professor in an Introduction to Advertising course lay the groundwork for the inner workings of the formula for product placement. Another voice, perhaps a professor in a cultural studies department, unpacks the phenomenon of appearances in contemporary advertising photography. Elsewhere, I hear an advertising executive address her fleet of foot soldiers, getting them on board with the idea that an image of experience is finally what sells products. In this move, I hear the echo of a product not as object but as commitment. Suddenly, rhetoric merges. And finally, in the last section, I hear, say, a panel of life coaches discussing air travel as a hackneyed metaphor for stepping inside a situation outside one’s control. Within this experience, which it would be wise to bear, suddenly appear choices to counter the inalterable. “Make the best of the situation” emerges as an available cliché.
This confluence of voices, woven together and then dispersed, becomes a working laboratory for exploring experience as mediated by rhetoric and ways of doing business. At their best, Armantrout’s poems present identity in a similar way that we choose products in the market. From her title poem, “Just Saying”: “What I write / I write instead / of ivy” (11). What we’re left with is one choice instead of, or in place of, another. Within these choices, we’re hardly cognizant of how our opinions and actions make fluid, logical sense, much less offering a passionate defense of them.