On Brandon Downing's 'Mellow Actions'
Brandon Downing’s Mellow Actions is the latest installment in a body of work notable for its batsoid consistency across realms as diverse as film, collage, and verse. It’s the wish of this reviewer to induce in the reader a sort of psychical readiness to enjoy this book, much like Iannis Xenakis’s miniature zoom-crackle composition “Concret PH” was designed to gird the nerves of picnicking spectators in preparation for Edgard Varèse’s “Poème Électronique” at the 1958 Phillips Pavilion.
Mellow Actions, dedicated as it fittingly is “For San Antonio” — where the Alamo, I believe, “stands,” a fine central Texas metropolis known for its convention centers and a river boardwalk festooned with Anthropologies and P.F. Chang’s — also seems very Taos-y, with ghostly stucco and Kokopelli affectations beaming in the aura of an AWOL spirit animal’s cocky inner shout-outs as they’re thickened and thinned by the American West’s nuclear-test-laced places.
“You’re just a foolish girl character
In milk industry-sponsored playlets
I perform for schools across the urban Southwest.” “So?”
Frightening variants of turgid nougat,
Yellow, ’73, god damn, say
Goodbye to a whole helicopter of bullshit.
With all the sanguine gusto of a super-parasympathetic nervous system that knows neither fight nor flight, Mellow Actions makes for a real wide-open-type palette of dreams; it gave me over to association, waving my receipts around in the night-hot stillness of the San Antonio at the end of the mind. Have you ever found yourself trying to open a new tab in your brain? And did you know that, at its most extreme points, Texas is some 800 miles across?
Shortly after Mellow Actions’s midpoint I think of Scott Walker’s song “Jesse,” an ode to catastrophe refracted through horror-corny Memphis moonlight and the ghost of Elvis’s stillborn twin brother that ends with a Beckett-like figure doing a smart Sisyphus exercise:
In the dream I am crawling around
on my hands and knees
Smoothing out the prairie
All the dents and the gouges
and the winds dying down
I lower my head
Press my ear to the prairie
(Scott Walker, The Drift)
This covers only one aspect (the Aquarian, perhaps) of Mellow Actions, its forms and the feelings these forms impart; the other, Dionysian aspect (and it is within the resources of this text to be shabby, so I mix god systems for you) is its actual language stuff, those “frightening variants of turgid nougat” churning bloodily through larks of chatter and moments of arduous lexical gorgeousness:
Which way could I get repetitive sets of
Four of my arm and wing feathers
To, on their own, tighten and form into
Stretched arcs, launching from my
Locked back, evenly spaced, towards a
With his tenacious and wide-awake Mellow Actions, Downing really “throws down” (all the chips on one move), or “throws up” (hands/inner organs), or “lays down” (the gamut/law/new rule), or “lays up” (Spurs basketball is a major subject), or “lays out” (as on a terracotta gurney, bullhorns and rhinestones epoxied to it, very mystical-stressed Las Vegas cast in the mise en scène) his vision of poetry in the age of “thoughtfully raised beef” wherein he’ll “store your web prints, transfer them to DVD+R, archive it, / Leaving you to focus on village flyovers.”
Mellow Actions also brings to mind Anthony Burgess’s “A Shorter Finnegans Wake,” which was such a daft/dim idea seeing as it’s hardly FW’s length that turns people off, and in truncating the thing into a merely shorter work with its own peculiar thickness he left these inadvertently funny chimerical glimpses of the twentieth century’s flyest homme qui rit. This feeling of compression, kneading, regurgitation into a form whose own apparently unforeseen contradictions express an additional level of comedy (of the flatfooted pratfalling variety) is present in Mellow Actions. A keyed-up reader will get the sense of many levels of both recursive and fractal revision having happened in order to get the periodic cheeseboard of the elements of Mellow Actions just right and wrong enough.
The title poem is a clear single, a nerve-tremblingly silly deep epic miniseries of serial form, showing that drawing-of-straws methods can offer a short hop to that Gesamtkunstwerk.
Anybody recall some song about a good general contractor?
As we meet the middle of this review, I present to you the manifesto that Mellow Actions wrote for itself in my head:
Mellow Actions is the product of a Rimbaudean surrealist technique (because in spite of what the facts say, “mellow actions” is, in our hearts, a rearrangement of the letters in the word “illuminations”) getting velcroed to a vernacular syntax at violent and joyous odds with the conspiracy between literacy and interiority.
Mellow Actions posits, in each of its many linked verses (think Japanese cooperatively group-written renga linked verse circa 1680 with its group dynamics of being not very cooperative at all and often most concerned with mutual skulduggery and sabotage), a comic speech that equates up-to-the-minute/over-colloquial/oversharing-prone/Internet-entangled attention-and-communication patterns with the proverbial “eternal Now,” a venerable, archetype-less, paradisiacal inner space —
And in so doing, Mellow Actions ouroborizes the dialectic between Transcendence and Proximity (or, sez Emerson, between logos and ethos, Power and Will, etc.) that is endemic to much American poetry if not poetry in summa.
Mellow Actions will, on that note and in every line and with MUCH LOVE, airbrush away whatever in the way of “meaning” might be misconstrued on either side of itself beyond the investing weirdness of today’s homepage’s psychic microclimate.
(Brief sunshower, foam of applause)
Let me end on a general note. For the overall excellence of this text, and also (without meaning to court gestalts) for the relevance to radical aesthetic praxis of the type of labor that went into enacting it, the term “bleeding edge” comes to mind — although like with a butter knife, that bluntest yet whipsmartest item in the knife family, like Zen “cutting through everything, even its own knife.”
Like Stevens’s bleach-in-the-sky vision of a mind without day or night, “the accomplishment of an extremist in an exercise.”
As I gaze on page 25’s fiery Lava Gym Downtown New Braunfels logo, I am one with tumbleweeds dozing in red dust.
Mellow Actions: a systematic derangement of the senses, minus the senses!
A review of Julie Carr's 'Rag'
I doubt “to be on the rag” existed as an expression or possibility before Eve and her husband trudged out of paradise into a world where the sky was lowered like a boom and the suburbs sodden with guilt and lust. The American King James Version lends God an especially cruel voice: “To the woman he said, I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in sorrow you shall bring forth children; and your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you.” And along with that, I imagine, came menstrual cramps. The primary human matter was unclean at its source. But where Milton wanted to justify God’s ways to man, Carr is interested in the daily fallout, especially for the fairer sex, who got the brunt of divine wrath and masculine blame. Rag, Carr’s fifth book of poetry, functions as a single long poem that begins and ends with a river red. The poem is nourished, and ultimately hemmed in, by these waters.
— from out of the wretched tide through the heat mothers pass — (9)
Motherhood here is inconceivable outside the archaic mechanism of human sacrifice. A vision of murder or suicide marks the passage of Rag, and the fact that we’re not sure if it’s the one or the other makes sense when both count as the price to pay for some essential fault.
The purple hem of her skirt — wind bends an alder to the ground (clouds doing nothing)
A body falls from a bridge, falls or is pushed, pushed or is leaping; the river
takes her, neon, neon in the river o red (56)
“If denial is a river it runs through doomed societies” (57). The characters in Rag acquiesce by silence, by a denial so permanent that they don’t perceive it, even as it steals their potential to act coherently, that is, to act through a coherence of language, reason, and instinct. I don’t mean to give the impression that this denial is related to God, or that Rag is a reappraisal of Genesis. God has been replaced by government, daily-ness, history, and routine. These forces demand a steady flow of blood. But for all that, they are only present as a shadow, which is to say as both a pressure and an absence. This seems right. The most effective border is the one inaccessible to words and inchoate to logic.
A technician provides a service while the law prescribes a border, a border around the language to frighten you. In this way we conserve an originary attitude, a set of dearly helds
More dear than the tawdry websites of the summoned, than the sportshops of the free, the gilded triggers of the expelled is our speech embalmed
Now like crows against snow, our eyes alone will decide
who has something to teach and who has something to learn (45)
This is a society that’s lost the freshness of intelligent exchange. A ‘rag’ is also a tabloid, a garbage newspaper, a platform for hacks and hawks. It’s a bundle of paper whose purpose is to suffocate any discussion that might advance the status quo. In biblical terms, it’s eternal old skin for new wine. It makes a society ripe for charlatans, snake charmers, and zealous ignorance. Businessmen sell soot. A father cuts off his daughter’s hands to appease the devil. A country fights perpetually, somewhere else. Not incidentally, the devil himself might make an appearance, pursuing his charming solipsism in front of an audience.
Neither transmitting nor receiving, but with a wire looped over his car
a man attempts to define the borders of the living
In russet suit — drinks from his red cup. Turns his face to the crowd
This is where it begins, he says, the center of the woman’s body its horizon (58)
Carr is very good at superimposing the local on the national, and vice versa. A woman thinks over her adultery while her husband plays the crossword. “These vague hours will deliver us eventually to the speech about the war” (40). Mothers and fathers sit in a school meeting and do nothing of value “while the debt ceiling rises,” and the oldest brother, uncultivated, settles into his “precise and foundational lust” (80). Pity (or fear) the land where the next generation has had its inheritance filched by magical thinking. On that note, I would like to quote one of the darkest and most shimmering moments of the river Rag:
In the tale the oldest brother’s pockets are empty, his sack is empty, his feet go round and round. […] What is happening? asks the nine-year-old. Dancers in black reveal a narrative of war. The city’s roof gardens go green. Actors in tights smoke in doorways. Frowning girls read on trains. Says the man, I cannot overemphasize how much I am against this. The women uncross and re-cross their legs. Lights blaze into the night with the attitude of horses, the attitude of fruit trees by highways. My hands circle the ribs of the sleeper and lift her from the couch while he codes a plan for a city made entirely of water, city of canals and rivers, upsurge and fall. Why can’t we add another day to April? asks the younger girl with the calendar before her. Because, says the mother, that’s not how calendars work. A long time ago, she says, you were a kid, and now you are not and I am a kid for a long time. How does that work? The wind like an anticipated asset arrives and is quickly subsumed into itself. Says the mother, pushing the stroller, that’s time, time does that. The government avoids a shutdown by “abdicating responsibility” “beyond” “bad at it.” And all sides claim victory as the laws are soaked and someone adds a six-pack of Red Bull to the bill. (79)
So what’s the problem? The problem is that every status quo — or everything for which we deny — has to be enforced, finally. Rag is set on articulating (obliquely, with mind clenched) the rapport between violence and possession. Women here are empty locations of desire, a truism that might constitute the law of advertisement: sex sells, meaning that it can be bought directly or vicariously. Rag is populated by film starlets reduced to a ghost of light, to an absence that can be filled or refilled with another person’s exercise of want. This is the real meaning of human possession. The heroine watches as the war hero departs on his train. “There were gaps between her teeth and she grinned ghoulishly at her own reflection in the moving train window … Consider my identity, she might say, failing to force her reflection to still” (39). The voice of Rag asks to be looked at “like a hole in the road, the garden or the sky” (39). The logic of possession, of being possessed, is insane. The possessed is obliged at the same moment to be and not to be.
“Like an oxen yoked” the daughter must please the king, please or be killed. For the king said, “come to me not clothed, not naked, not riding, not walking, not in the road, and not off the road, and if you can do that I will marry you” (42)
What the king really wants is neither possible nor impossible. The girl solves the riddle and is wed.
“But what is it you like about me?” she asked him a month later. “Your hands,” he said, “when they serve me the sweets.” And so the sister cut off her hands, just as St. Lucy gouged out her eyes, offering them on a cake plate (43)
I don’t know if the reader should look for solutions. Rag is too sumptuous a work of pessimism to give them. That’s a compliment, both on aesthetic and even political grounds. Rag’s pessimism ends by celebrating, in its way, what can’t ever be possessed and denied: death, aging, sustenance, birth, naivety, expression. They can be distorted or used, but not for long. Eventually, the river sweeps away the shore.
The dying are interviewed on the radio. The shadow of a thorny branch across a furrow in the rising light’s a hook like a child’s call. You in your yellow shirt, a language clipped into monosyllables, a maroon carpet beneath you. Even as tree buds, a stone in the mouth of the toad, even as blood gathers in the pregnant woman’s widening veins. You place your wine under your chair. Just as animals work themselves into one another, so do languages. (68)
Lawrence Giffin’s Christian Name is a tricky book because it’s the kind of book that seems to do one thing and then actually does another. On the one hand, it’s a collection of poems explicitly about a topic: the “feral-child” Genie, who was kept in isolation by her family until age thirteen and then submitted to years of experiments and study and exploitation by researchers looking for clues to language development. The poems reference Genie, name her, address her, describe her situation, and occasionally seem to speak from her point of view, though without making it clear what that entails — it’s not that Christian Name ventriloquizes Genie, not quite, but it may be the case that the poems’ contorted grammar and relatively persistent disjunction thematize the impossibility of trying to ventriloquize her, or anyone.
It’s easy enough to read many passages as illustrations of this problem, and to read the book as a commentary on the difficulty of speaking from a stable position. It’s so easy to read the book in this way, in fact, that it seems like a lure. Something more complicated must be going on. Take the opening stanza from the opening poem, “In Other Words in a Thought in Which a Consciousness of Foundering Survives”:
was at my feet.
I too knew
I knew the word that
named the process
going on inside my head,
was restrained The Sea
herself to point.
Consciousness, process, naming, pointing. You probably get an idea of where this could go: the sea, this big, old, immense, and seemingly empty existential thing (like a void of thought), stands in, speculatively and metaphorically, for the phenomenological experience of a world without symbols. The short disjunct lines and occasional interruptive spacing provide a formal analog to the difficulty of speaking what hasn’t yet been said. Which would all be pretty par for the contemporary poetry course and overly familiar if it wasn’t tied to such specific subject matter. The fact that the book revolves around Genie grounds it in social reality: it’s not just a rehearsal of philosophical questions of language and world; it’s an engagement with a particular world, in which, for example, a child who has been tortured all her life is treated as a science experiment. From there, we’re one step away from an allegorical reading, in which the extended childhood isolation and exploitative collection of data stands in for, say, the processes of the nuclear family and state education. However, this allegory doesn’t quite work, because the particularity and horror of Genie’s story resists being subsumed by a more general narrative.
By both producing readings of itself and pulling the rug out from under them, the book deftly avoids being everything that it is: it avoids being a stylistic exercise in post-Language writing by eschewing a focus on medium-specificity and instead commenting on explicitly articulated subject matter; it avoids being a commentary on its explicitly articulated subject matter by tying that subject to broader philosophical questions; and it avoids being an aestheticized philosophical meditation by aligning its philosophical questions with the questions that were asked by the people who experimented on Genie, suggesting that the forms of such questions are themselves exploitative. In this way, it simultaneously undermines itself and appears to be a coherent aesthetic statement. As I said, it’s a tricky book.
But it’s even more interesting than that. In fact, maybe you don’t think all that’s all that interesting. Maybe you think that’s just some intellectually banal postmodern bullshit. OK, that’s understandable. Maybe it is. But the book, and the poems in the book, are more interesting than what I’ve written about them.
In fact, the poems pretty frequently veer off into areas of concern that are not easily connected to Genie’s story, like depression, religious faith, and the rhetoric of cults. It’s not that you can’t tie these things back to Genie (which, of course, you can), but that many poems seem aimed at intentionally incongruous topics, such that it becomes a challenging interpretive game, which I’m not going to play, and I assume most readers will not play, to fit them all together. What’s more, the poems often become so caught up in their tortured syntax and layered discursive registers that it becomes difficult or impossible to say exactly what they are “about.” Here’s a stanza from “A Childish Passion for Balls”:
Your thoughts turned to low clouds.
They are meat agape. And sprechen veritas.
They are wheelchair effervescence in
hands across my America
that have a little tea service.
And here are the opening lines from one of the longest and most complex poems in the book, “We Laid It Down. We Got Tired.”:
Not more or less deprived
of ground regardlessly given
by a syphilitic’s tube of concealer,
I still have my likes, my dislikes,
caryatids of fecal columns
grown thin and winded
with righteous authority,
that is, by my need for speech.
You could tediously close-read these lines and perhaps make something of them. We’re all adept at pulling out words and phrases and treating them like keys to the poem. But I think that it would be more fruitful to read Christian Name more broadly, in terms of its genre: the lyric. Before doing so, I would like to say a few words about the lyric as a genre, and not as another name for poetry. The lyric is a malleable set of techniques, stylistic devices, and ideas that can be used to create certain literary effects. That is all. It has no privileged relationship to the body, no privileged relationship to the “self,” and no privileged relationship to poetry as such. Historically, it is occasionally seen as the dominant mode of poetry, or the most poetic of poetic genres. This is the case today, and has been the case more or less since Romanticism. But equating the lyric with poetry as such naturalizes it and elevates a few of its specific literary effects to the level of ontological description: as if the difference between self and other could be best rendered by a certain kind of line. The lyric is a genre among other genres, as poetry is an art among other arts.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s unimportant or extinct: even if this naturalization is a historically specific lie, it is nonetheless an operative lie. It governs how we read and understand poems, and it governs their production. Because we expect it to, the lyric poem today inherently demands an interpretation dealing with the individual, the individual’s body, the individual’s divided consciousness, and a social divided by individuals. And because Genie’s case is an extreme example of these divisions, it exaggerates the effect of the lyric. For Christian Name, this is a way to totalize the book: because the lyric is a device that thematizes the disjunction between body and language, every time a new topic is introduced, the genre of the lyric ties it to the major concerns of the book. A poem employing the language of cults? The lyric ties it to the division between self and other. A poem about parents’ coping with the death of a child? The lyric ties it to the division between self and other. A poem that doesn’t seem to quite be about anything? The lyric ties it to the division between self and other. And so on.
This is not to say that all lyric poems successfully thematize this division. Rather, because Christian Name repetitively insists on this point in form and content, it becomes more than an abstracted philosophical musing: the book points to how this same division functions concretely in various situations and social orders (in parent-child relationships, religious formations, education, etc.). Giffin’s choice of a disjunctive lyric mode, then, is not merely a capitulation to the consensus style of postmodern poetry, but a formal way of tying together the diverse threads of the book’s content. By writing poems which explicitly concern a series of divisions (between body and language, parent and child, earthly and divine, individual and collective, etc.) in a genre often interpreted as marking such divisions, Giffin is able to include an array of seemingly unrelated discourses and allusions (literary, philosophical, and political) without abandoning the initial premise. The poems are thus able to concern themselves with problems of dividedness and fracture but nonetheless hold together as a coherent book that can be interpreted as a whole.
This is more of a feat than it seems: the problem with a lot of contemporary poetry is that it uses the lyric as a means of dispersal and not as a means of establishing a structure of relations — often, the only thing the form of the fragment signifies is its being a fragment. But today, the best poets working with the lyric treat it as a set of techniques and ways of reading, as opposed to the natural heir of all things poetic. And so it can be used as a form for figuring, modeling, or negating the world, instead of as an end in itself.
Giffin is one of the most formally ambitious and conceptually odd poets writing in this vein, and in the end Christian Name is not such a tricky book. It’s really good. It’s about things. Things like child development, abuse, neglect, language, religion, education, and grief. All sorts of things, but things that are tied together by the book’s formal and generic choices, so that they seem like interdependent topics and not just a scattershot collage of discourse. Even what I earlier referred to as the book’s persistent avoiding of itself, undermining of itself, is part of the way the book totalizes itself: it doesn’t undermine itself to avoid consistency, but to relate each of its concerns to another concern, to bring consistency to bear on a seemingly disparate array of content. Christian Name is such a terrific book because it subsumes familiar forms of disjunction into a larger formal and thematic project. So if you like a whole bunch of disconnected fragments, don’t worry, you’ll get them. And if you like something that actually has a point and engages with the world, you’ll get that too, which will be even better.
A review of Prageeta Sharma's 'Undergloom'
What happens to the woman of color body as it endures the banal repression of the academy? And if it aches to be itself without pressure to conform and meet assumed burdens to produce, publish, and exhaust itself to ‘fit’ while concurrently losing itself? Undergloom by Prageeta Sharma explores the thingification of the woman scholar and the way her mind must adapt to a tepid environment. This innovative text refuses the armchair, rejects being told to take a seat, and exposes the internal politics of the unconscionable class system of our departments and divisions in a university setting and its deplorable yet veiled activities.
As an associate professor in creative writing at the University of Montana at Missoula, Sharma as the speaker expresses the humanity of despair and utter disapproval at the institution. She takes us through the undergloom, the southward space where said but untended language lands. By depicting moments from the classroom, faculty meetings, job talks, recruitment, retention, allyship, and passive aggression with colleagues, Sharma explores the impostor fatigue of doubly occupying career difficulty and rising mobility. The poems “Everybody at the Institution,” “Grateful,” “What Happened at the Service?” and “The White Filter” speak to internal, conscious, and subconscious choices to change Self to ‘fit’ what is ‘missing’ or not yet present, and in a sense, the racialized scholarly and cultural body becomes the missing and the occupied — she becomes the absence and the negative space. Sharma grapples, with deft language and microcosmic detail, with the documented stresses of a compartmentalized scholar-poet at work. She calls for brave selfhood in the poem “Hey Day”:
Don’t discount lightness when it occurs, life with its usual
bare corrosive sense keeps abuse thick and present.
And so when we were all self-effacing in ways that felt spunky and kind —
I became elated, I was pushing my identity, the real one.
The one not struck with terror, the one not struck down by anyone.
This is what I want every day, what I want for myself and for the future. (19)
The poetry summons the gashed body, the split Selves. By addressing the upset and bruised body, Sharma comments on the appearance of the body at work as possibly co-opting their realities; is the cultural body in an academic setting seen as complicit with the danger and multiplicity of the institution? Sharma asks about this collusion in “The Other Profiled in Cerulean”: “Could you look at me the way you look at him or her? / Would this mimicry allow for some kind simulacrum?” (8). By asking these questions, language is posited as a tool that breaks and repairs, fails and succeeds us. Sharma’s poetry points to this conundrum: the academy is a place of unwavering criticality — but can we spin the institution? — the institution, in turn, must be questioned as a mock-up of how power is divided and fought over. In the poem “We Have Trees Now,” the question “What is the profession of the culture-hoarder?” perhaps points out how the professionalization of cultural studies becomes a collection of bodies and minds. Do our universities and colleges dismember our faculty? Sharma, I think, says yes.
I think this wicked rivalry of selves
does not speak to some engaging quality you see
in yourself — talent for being unusual, eccentric force of brain —
you are not the neem from a tropical tree. (25)
Here, she rejects the notions that reduce the person to their mind and intellect. This is one way of dismembering; the act of dismembering can breed loneliness and wisdom, as evidenced in the poems “A Befallen Electric Harp” (54) and “Popularity in Poetry” (60), respectively.
The language of the poetry is political, seemingly tame but fiery in cry and as real as mental efforts to sustain one’s self. The poetry is seemingly confessional, sad at times from a place of exile, wanting or desiring as a form of hope, but not as a necessity. The poems depict the underlying abuse and navigation of the academic-industrial complex.
inscrutability is the only answer to power —
but to say I am inscrutable is to say what they always say;
the way shorn hair says everything about lack and space,
but can be hard to pull off without a menacing posture. (27)
In addition to being rendered invisible and marginalized, the speaker witnesses the ineffable lack of personhood not granted to other potential scholarly bodies. In the poem “Mobbing,” she plays with the results of an interview’s deliberation involving another colleague’s judgment: “her stink stank to you so you sunk her” (28). Sharma re-creates confidential spaces and hiding places of authenticity.
It is clear that Sharma’s thick use of language explores the craft of poetry and what it does to the crafter, the poet. Undergloom wrestles with talking to others, talking with Self, but most importantly, that it is said. Think of each poem as a wish, a possibility, or another way that could have been — a place right from the undergloom.
Elizabeth Williamson: Throughout Armies of Compassion, Eleni Stecopoulos dances with this premise: that our bodies can act in concert in ways that both attend to and reject a “national past” (69) and its re/production of nationalistic violence. Stecopoulos’s compromised but acutely aware body becomes our guide in tracing the threads of this violence, attuning us to the vibrations made by plucking taught, dried skin; vibrations that resonate across the gaps between us and our memory. Human borders ring against the borders between countries; forced to acknowledge the provisionality of the former, the patient (in the ward, of war, of history) grows accustomed to crossing the latter.
Armies of Compassion begins with a seemingly simple story, the story of the patient who goes to see a doctor, a doctor who attends to the body by bringing it into contact with various diagnostic instruments: “He gave me a sheet of paper on which emotions were typed in bubble font” (16). But the work moves almost instantly to improvised healing rituals, dreaming, obsession, and other modes of reimagining how we might notice, let alone care for, bodies in crisis. The book leaps sideways in order to anatomize as well as archaeologize the action of listening in relation to such potential for care, before landing on the terrain of body as theater in the poems “Kinesiology” and “Autoimmunity” — each formally a series of poetic clusters akin to a longer poem or cycle interrupted by breath. Stecopoulos here evokes the various ways in which sound plays on our nerves, or as you mentioned to me at the start of our reading the book together, david: to be autoimmune is to tune out everything which should be resonating in you.
david wolach: What a gorgeously tight, complex, and ludic book of interwoven poetic arguments, Armies of Compassion! In a first scene, as Stecopoulos is crossing the border of the US into Canada to “detoxify” her body made ill, already our understanding of “human” and “national” borders is problematized. By her evoking through jagged, terse, lineated, and prose-like forms the ecstatic hazards of “embodiment,” I am drawn immediately to the phrase staging ground, which in its dominant mode refers to the militarized brutalizing of bodies, a referent made particularly clear in the work of David Buuck. In Stecopoulos’s work, the phrase is investigated and inverted, maybe even reclaimed, in some ways not dissimilar from Buuck’s site-specific textual performances (pre-enactments). Armies of Compassion opens us to a kind of staging ground, though one that serves as that possible and not yet (at least widely) extant place for the healing of bodies. And perhaps because of this, and perhaps because the theater of the body is staged with such care and vulnerability throughout the book, when I hear you refer to “the patient” I think of the word’s verb form, “patience.” Stecopoulos performs deliberate patience as patient, performs a kind of insecurity and unbridling of bodily and psychic borders — as staging ground, one might say, of her condition and our appositional history.
Williamson: Speaking to that history (in critique, in whisper, in witness and doubt), prosody —particularly in relation to place (to concrete and historical echo) — plays such a central role in this book, both as the poem and in the poem: “As a conductor becomes the intelligent orchestration of resonating forces, more witness or exponential than director” (19). Stecopoulos’s work as researcher into myriad medical histories is thoroughly enmeshed with classical histories, including healing rituals and rituals of embodiment — indeed many prosodic rituals — that provide an alternative to Western clinical paradigms. Through these resonating forces — sounds made by and for other bodies — a counter-narrative, or perhaps an incantation for obscured affects to awaken within us, seems to be gathering.
When we begin to pay attention to those obscured affects, we realize how lovingly intentionalized the breath of space and the pause of line are in Armies of Compassion. The line’s break becomes vista, and something is constantly registering at the skin, in the bones. This book routinely, yet in such varied ways, produces intimate scenes of listening, training a microphone on processes of speech in social space.
wolach: Where you, Elizabeth, write about Stecopoulos’s focus on and use of “sound,” I want to reply with “organized sound,” or “reorganized sound” — to evoke not just the intensity of poetic form at work, this uniquely phoned prosody as itself healing and connective ritual here, but what I read as the ethos of radical organizing of the poems. This is to suggest that perhaps militant listening and the radical reorganizing of sound are not precisely “theatrical” but might consist, for Stecopoulos, in “a poetics of healing.” Healing is not of individual bodies alone but of constellations of bodies, of the planet that is interdependent with our bodies, itself a living organ in need of organelles that nourish it. Researching our conditional and provisional histories — making use of logos — becomes crucial. Yet it must be put into service by something other than itself. Healing thus involves organization, and if radical intervention, radical reorganization of (what we take to be) our senses (hence of sense).
In prosody, in sound’s vocabularies upon a body, its systems of touch and gesture, there is the shock of care that can perhaps heal or treat — and does so deeply treat (us) when organized as in Armies of Compassion. This body, “my” body, as Western medical professions like to say, wracked by an autoimmune system working overtime without overtime pay, is, as Stecopoulos has noted elsewhere, “sociopathic,” sickened by society, or the common disease with only uncommon symptomology, one of many various and visible manifestations of living under:
embodiment continuous war
made possible by
opportunistic infection (40)
I should confess that I am — this so-called body is — like Stecopoulos’s in Armies of Compassion, compromised by “opportunistic infection,” by the persistent condition of “continuous war.” And weakened now, disabled by definition, this body is pushed into living in the “invalid dark,” “immune” to all including itself (70). But what autoimmunity might be, beyond merely the consequence of genetic/biological mechanism, gets called disquietingly into question; we’re led to ask what and/or who, in addition to the cellular body, is susceptible to opportunity, what opportunities we might run into or facilitate beyond each other’s communicable and congenital diseases were we not immune to some of them. We’re also led at the same time to ask whether there is something nourishing about that “invalid dark,” whether it is precisely in that dark — those othering spaces — that we might find one another, that we might be treated, and if so, whether getting there is a matter of being with and for one another. By carefully tracing back the term’s usages and offering up the possibility that to be open to “opportunistic infection” and to be present with it might provide a sort of nourishment, Stecopoulos — particularly in “Autoimmunity” — turns “immunity” on its Western, contemporary head.
Williamson: The suffering archived in Armies of Compassion is inescapable, yet the names are uncertain and the “I” is always on the verge of being disassembled, even when “I was the carrier I was the narrator” (45). The body ventriloquizes itself — laughter in/as pathos. Artaud, perhaps centrally, is one of the voices driving us throughout, but sometimes the world gets in his way. Hearing this, Stecopoulos allows for rituals of healing to be caricatured, not just felt, performed, and celebrated — and so there is nothing romanticized about healing or ritual, terms that in the West are so often turned into springboards for capital’s mass-marketing schemes, manufactured fads which prey on desperation and cultural appropriations. Here the play is serious and the details matter. To paraphrase playwright Susan Parenti, the world is sick.
wolach: Dissolving then reassembling the “I.” Deromanticized rubrics and anti-rubrics of healing. The necrotic dance of laughter amidst rubble. This work, it occurs to me, shares much with Raul Zurita’s and with other lush “narrative” and “lyrical” forms that invert expectation of what lyric, politic, witness, and line might come to do as social combinatorial offsets, indeed as social-political archive, as you emphasize here. And I love that you quote the line from page 45: “I was the carrier I was the narrator.” Note the doubling here, to echo your honing in on Stecopoulos’s expert use of Artaud (and to echo Artaud). Note the shadowlife that being a “carrier” has. Here, and also elsewhere in the book, carrying gets quasi-equated to narrating, narrating thus to pathology as well as disablement. The doubling of “carrying” when coupled with narrative gets me to ask whether “I” (reader, wreader, shorn body) am the carrier of “opportunistic infection” or the carrier of metaphor? Am I, and can I not help but be, both at once? Is to make metaphor here, to narrate and counter-narrate the semantic joints of fitness in a fitness-obsessed capitalist culture, to be and become increasingly disabled? Metaphor, from the Greek metaphore, literally transliterates into “to carry across or over, to move across.” I am both moved, indeed transported, and often provocatively sickened by these lines that double, stand in, refract; I am susceptible to both the harmonic spectrum of the prosody and to the narrative made from these prosodic units, their targets of critique. Armies of Compassion gives itself over to this work, and so turns pages into acoustic chambers for a unique riff on the theater of cruelty, awakening us from the theater of cruelty that has continually inscribed and communized the first into being. We’re reminded of these years of Bush onward of recurring partial declamations that at once sing, argue, and question the very borders that get crossed, where, Stecopoulos tells us, “Nation’s a form of muscle testing,” and where “muscle testing” is, at least clinically, the EMG test: in which electrodes are struck throughout your body and you are repeatedly commanded to “flex” such that your response completes the circuit and you are shocked into confessing your weakness, hence your embodiment (90). Because where Bush’s flight-suit Air Force cameo is theatrical, Stecopoulos’s (body)work, not just at the level of the line but the prosodic breath-as-unit, becomes uniquely sung radical organizing conversation (to use a phrase from my own background in labor organizing) or the living theater of poetry. A “shunt” (to borrow again from David Buuck) that we either open or shut ourselves to, that opens and shuts us, rearranging the sensible and insensible landscape; that we trade and that trades us or that we hoard to make of the body a rainy day fund, its stockpile a surplus for brokerage, so that one hope for com-munity contra immunity might be to enact some of the potential evoked by Stecopoulos’s conditional statement that “Artaud’s theater of emotional athleticism would exhaust our remote control into utter sympathy” (22).
Williamson: But what exactly are the mechanisms of the theater Stecopoulos is inviting us into? This is Artaud’s theater, and Euripides’s — “Even flesh and blood’s theatrical,” as Stecopoulos reminds us in “Bakkhai.” This is certainly a theater of war, of empire. But the poetry does not stop there — in the book’s final pages, Stecopoulos shows us war’s staging as well as scaffolding, all the stories and accidental deaths that come before (and after) “the command to build” up this ground of corpses (86). Thus one of the voices from the dark who early on in the book admits, “I never understood theater until I chose strangers to stand in for me,” eventually moves diachronically through layers of landscape, not just crossing borders but digging down into the crust of the earth to feel the vibrations that started the mess we’re in, and further down, the energies of significance that sing underneath it (25). It may be true that “There has never been theater in America,” just as America has sought to absolve itself by forgetting those energies, that history (also a present condition) of colonialism and the redrawing of borders — but American politics, perhaps more so than any other politics, constructs for us a world in which “all the days [become] theatrical” (37, 47, 34).
wolach: Evoking the classic image of the deus ex machina, Stecopoulos writes that “the mystery has always been rigged; that the god descends on creaking pulleys in no way undermines the apparition” (24). But if the apparition is not undermined, the rigging too remains mysterious. Both the stage and the ground can possess us, possess our languages, Stecopoulos seems to imply and certainly enacts via the poems themselves. Sites of contestation and distraction, the built environment of the stage and the ground we lay our ear to and that we traverse, are also (in another context with different apparitions) poetic. Here they bookend border’s and body’s very provisionality (as you aptly put it in your opening paragraphs) as terms exposing, if you will, the rigging of the whole affair. The stage or the ground help make visible, for instance, the conditions under which provisionality can breathe life into bodies once bordered, stage and ground bordered now perhaps by rituals of remembrance and historical aporia, an attunement to absence, that which has disappeared from record, of those whose suffering has no (official) language perhaps but rest, pause, gaps in the language, an ante-language. The concreteness of ritualized sites of violence, whether violent in a ludic and — to use Artaud’s phrase denoting the work the theater (and in Armies of Compassion, other bodywork) could otherwise be doing — “philosophical” sense or, conversely, state-sponsored, tyrannical, and born of strategic designs on power and expropriation, these become entangled with the semipermeability and so provisionality of knowing the (post)human and subjected body. Bodies, i.e., “might exist” and likely don’t if they are not useful and/or are nonnormative (25).
The entanglement of these apparently separate borders gets us considering Thom Donovan’s question regarding “what the poem can do,” not simply what the poem is. Donovan is of course playing, after Deleuze, on Spinoza’s critical proposition that “we do not yet know what the body can do,” and via this coupling makes visible for us the dance between bodily, national, and poetic borders. The entanglement of borders in Armies of Compassion gets us to consider Foucault’s tracing of the institutional(ized) body (and its poems and all the rest) made “docile.” Foucault’s archeology investigates a reality we are too familiar with, wherein institutions of power have increasingly turned Spinoza’s ethical and aesthetic consideration into a thoroughly contemporary and oppressive science of surveilling, breaking down, individuating, cataloguing, and ultimately containing bodies (and their poems and all the rest) as part of the neocolonial capitalist enterprise — making Donovan’s reformulation, and the complicating moves in/of Armies of Compassion, so urgently important.
The proposition in Armies of Compassion that these entwined borders, while often assumed tout court by a dominant cultural ideology, are not only provisional but potentially de dicto, fiat if socially constructed and so gravely real in their ringing, sets the condition for — stages our conditions of — a persistent linguistic doubling throughout the book, a repeating thesis/antithesis coupling of seemingly known but actually assumed, and here utterly in question, sets of terms. Political body and (post)human body, border and boarder, agency and agency, antibody and anti-body, theater and theatrical, immune and commune — whether implicit or explicit, each is sounded against the other, creating a kind of prosodic and semantic dialectical reverb and metaphony where what emerges is a rhetorical collapse of strict definition rather than a binary.
Williamson: Armies of Compassion zeroes in on the ethical dilemma of a body in transit, in flight, the body that is both (post)human and profoundly political. That body is not ephemeral. In one such instance of investigating, as you put it, david, the shadowlife of our words, Stecopoulos writes of a “womb soldered to muscle” (70) — where “soldered” stands just to one side of “soldiered” but, perhaps more importantly, derives from the Latin solidare, “to make solid.” Such a body understands its complicity in the sacrifice of other bodies, and the poetry of this body is not afraid to address the language of militarism — as both an acknowledgement of the pervasiveness of empire’s tropes and as a way of forcing that language to reveal its own contradictions.
one wants to be treated, not saved
to be made unfit for the mission
to stop performing strategy where one lacks the guts (67)
As patients, we can no more be saved than we can be made fit. But so many bodies have been actively shut off from others, have been bordered and policed so as to be cut off from audibility, let alone community. The radical enjambment here and the sudden oncoming silence create a scene of alert: everything that should be offstage is happening on, and armies of extras are making their exits and entrances across our tenuous terrain.
wolach: Yet we notice that the body in Armies of Compassion conversely testifies to being organized and organizing itself to be in communities, to be open to reciprocal care in the face of seemingly impossible odds that care will ever come. When least expected, even in the most scorched environments, the possibility of care, when in the hands of vulnerability, persists. Armies of extras turn into those with whom one is reciprocally and intimately careful; hence the scene of borders, the site of the body, is not necessarily one of expropriative violence, territorialization, and violation, or need not be; and the stage and its chambered walls aren’t necessarily always constricting and nationalized, but are places for/of therapia, inscribing upon us that mark where rituals of healing have occurred and might occur again.
By the relative absence in the book of concretized images or definitions of what gets normatively ascribed as “community,” we sense a sustained meditation on reciprocity, on, perhaps, communis in waiting, a kind of preparatory action of a body that is vulnerable, that has its own — here sung — incantations towards community. As we witness (and hear) the body’s movement across (often) contested ground, “immunity” is carefully reimagined (resounded). This meditation emerges in part through a deeply studied etymological tracing, and is layered atop, to the side of, and underneath a condition that is at once local to the narrator’s body and global. The condition of crisis, the condition of being immune to hearing crisis, so to speak, emerges in multiple ways, not least via a subtle play on “trade” and “commerce” and US “trading partners.” And so too trade thus becomes metaphor and linguistic site of excavation: “Between possession and commerce a body might exist” (25). The concern for prosody’s function turns on a concern about markets trading in bodies in ways that exclude and expropriate other bodies and other forms of commerce — the giving and receiving of desire, of care, of story and song, of acknowledging and finding ways to meet mutual need. Local symptom is always, it seems, traced, tentatively, to global (geopolitical, historical, ritual) conditions. It is at this relation between the potential for the (re)sounding body to get in the way of market madness yet be swept up by it and fall into debt, to interfere with a market’s signal yet be sickened by it, that Stecopoulos, in a beautiful and necessary further connection, allows for problems of embodiment and illness/disability to be treated alongside categories of identity. In “Autoimmunity” and periodically afterwards, the gendered body, the racialized body, the expropriated reproductive body, the “unfit” body of Artaud’s as well as others’ incantation, is housed, policed, hunted, and haunted not just by US policy and cultural norms, but also by the modern Greek state of Stecopoulos’s heritage, whose increasingly conservative government, its hyper-capitalist nationalist forces (and armed forces), are perhaps matched only by the organization — the prosodic cul de sac — of its popular resistance.
Williamson: We might say of Armies of Compassion, then, that its pages’ surfaces are perhaps both “stage” and “ground” for a searing prosody and kinetic counter-narrative (a therapeutic turn of rhetoric) that destabilize the forces of its — our own — disablement. This is a place not a space to use a line of kari edwards’s that you have often referred to, a place that opens itself to the present through the past and future pasts, and is sickened in its care for us. So how does poetry intervene in our collective sense of place? “In any fundamentalist country,” Stecopoulos writes, echoing the powerful Duncan epigraph at the beginning of Armies of Compassion, “it’s strategic to encourage the dance” (62). The juxtaposition of Duncan’s and Stecopoulos’s imaginative play on the music under war formation reminds us that words like “fundamentalism” point inside our borders as often as they point outside them. We may be momentarily unsettled by the idea that our dancing could be the result of someone else’s strategic encouragement, but if we are careful readers, we might also remember that Stecopoulos is inviting us to retake (or to give up, i.e., impassively unhouse) the ground, to reimagine what it might mean, and what it might take, to act together, in concert — to make that act a dance rather than a phalanx wearing the cloak of artfulness.
wolach: Armies of Compassion dances in the face of what it hears — the book’s very title evokes this. It hears the terrible stealth of the drones above, the monotonous whir of the drones below; it hears the operations of a State that has turned already-occupied ground into staging ground for more wars on bodies; yet Armies of Compassion herein performs “escape” not from occupation or territorialization, but as a poetic action of slippage into livability, at times joyfully, within often or otherwise unlivable borders, doing so as transformative dance, as you suggest. Armies of Compassion reminds us of our own potential to “escape” here, à la the later Foucault’s noting life’s uncanny way of constantly escaping administered systems (our incessant management) despite the terrifyingly thorough individuating circumstances. Stecopoulos’s work thus reminds us, as Foucault does, of escape’s root definition: to leave your captor behind holding only your cape. Poetry — this poetry — is that cape the captor is left with. What gets staged, in that movement on/of the page, recorded, then played back, is a crippling regime whose theater, as you suggest, is evermore “theatrical” insofar as its tekne is, within official borders, the near-total corporate mystery play of civil oppression of a polity that is nonetheless constantly still living, and living beyond the suppression of that polity’s sociality by way of distraction and mollification, “lifestyle ethics.” The geopolitical financing of the present is the staging ground for a theater in which that corporate mystery play doubles as its own dress(age) rehearsal for war, and ultimately a new branding of colonialization. The counter-theater in/of Armies of Compassion, or its “theater” contra imperialistic rhetorical demonstrations of “theatricality,” is strange and absolutely crucial — as crucial as our need, amidst so much reckless freedom talk, euphemism, and sequestered torture, for the idea that care ought be received as well as taken. It is evident that we need, more than ever, an inoculation to the proliferation of so many — cf. “Homeland Security” — agencies that secure us from one another (34, 92).
If Armies of Compassion is at once a lyrical critique of geopolitical surplus drag upon bodies, and in part (and only in part) a gorgeously reimagined theater of cruelty, then Stecopoulos’s understanding of therapia has very much to with the redistribution of, and philosophical violence performed upon, the senses — of which we may realize upon feeling this book out that there are more than the scientized five. The therapeutic part of this poetic work is necessarily collaborative bodywork, then, and is, Stecopoulos implies, not curative so much as careful, healing insofar as it undoes us in an enactment of life’s leaking into the alleys without us as readers, as social creatures, getting to actually run or turn away from the felt reality of modern police states and the shock and awe of neoliberal capitalism. The action of slippage here is that of opening us to some of all this occulted life buried under mediated image-reality, schema-seizure; we become undone in our having sensed — if for mere moments — beyond “our goals / deranged” (80). In such moments we are given over to the kairological, where time opens and we can breathe, no longer waiting for “the cure.” We can then attend to, stripped of recourse to any catharsis, scenes of desire’s scarring:
Brother and sister
stand on the roof watching
the house burn out
around the pretense of their lives (87)
Williamson: Speaking of the scab or the so-called wound: if, as you mention, the book stages, in fact grounds us amidst, the life underneath that persists despite predictive calculations, I last want to turn our attention to the implication that these early scenes of receiving care not possible to receive in the US (or anyway not covered) are afterwards linked, via an exploration of autoimmunity, to, certainly, the geopolitics of the pathetic present, and also to layers — centrally — of the ancient past: “the government calculates the frequency to increase your sense of despondence” (23).
This is not a rediscovery of family roots, for “kinship breaks down as immune system” (93). But theater, with its roots in ritual sacrifice, offers Stecopoulos a network of languages for rethinking and reimagining “illness” as excessive sensitivity, as a situation in which one can go beyond witnessing the pain of those on the other side of history’s knife — one can “dream for them” in “The Asklepion” (99). The poetry’s generative, at times liberatory, bite comes from the indirectness of such claims, which operate as a series of swerves moving us, if moving us at all, out of linear time, producing not “progress” but “impasse,” troubled and therapeutic pause in the dark. This is not a path to salvation or recovery. Such words have been lost to us by now, “abducted by church fathers / and returned in fantastic boats” (94).
wolach: And so bodies made sick intentionally get in the way, excess spills in the darkened corners and messes up the machine, and “theater” counters “theater” counters “the theatrical.” Armies of Compassion patiently stages the ground, wraps us in a careful chamber, set up under cover of darkness inside a home-front laboratory for real-time occupation that is itself so precise in its formal maneuvers under Bush’s regime that it approaches the poetic. If this is a world where the imperial tactical rhetorics and organizational capacities since Bush have become so well rehearsed as to become in organization poetic, then we are in need of philosophically cruel labors that can both invert such precise groundwork and articulate through sensitivity’s excesses that groundwork’s designs. We must sing out of tune out of turn.
These pairings in Armies of Compassion, these doublings of sense that occur through phonic resemblance, synonymy, and use of radical enjambment, repurpose and investigate terms deployed in the West that not only behave as a set of pernicious, exclusionary antagonisms, i.e., prescriptive binaries rather than pairings, but that stand in for one another as if the normative political machine were naked in its wish for us to live out the Hobbesian nightmare. Stecopoulos is deft at digging up the trajectory of the rhetoric (and histories) of the false binary or assumed (Cartesian) definition in the service of the modern corporate state, jostling us from the political body to the (post)human body, language to language, where part of the therapeutic here is cruel in the sense Artaud’s theatrical organ is: “I endowed my legislators with / organs of feeling,” writes Stecopoulos (61), echoing not just Shelley’s would-be poet-legislator but reframing Plato’s. Yet the revealing cruelty of therapy always needs to be outsourced, traded among us. To sing out of tune and out of turn occurs under threat when working on the bodies of a distinctly theatrical regime, a regime threatened radically differently by the rhetoric of a polity’s poetry, the organizing (and radical reorganizing) of bodies and their symbols. Where we find linguistic pairs we find provisionality and augmentation, transition, more slippage. The complication of terms appears at level of the line, sometimes between sets of lines on facing pages, and yet at other times this occurs between poems such that like lines, the poems become enjambments of one another, building layers of sound, a soundscape of inversions. Regardless of scale, we get a vulnerable acknowledgment that in the spaces between bodies referential language meets its horizon and we sleep in song’s lament, our points tender and weak, impassively “we are waiting in the echo / for a tone” (97). Or, as Rumsfeld might have accidentally told us, and as Stecopoulos instead does, that in knowing that we do not know, we are accountable to essay one another’s tender points, to become and sing weakness. We are, as Edmond Jabès might put it, “gravely responsible” for those things said and unsaid:
Philosophy never confesses its diagnostic
essay all points tender to
the point of weakness and lament’s
nothing but ferocity
unclassed as song (83)
2. See, for example, David Buuck, “Buried Treasure Island,” PDF and other materials.
6. Donovan’s play on Spinoza and treatment of Deleuze shows up variously in Donovan’s work. See, for example, the excerpt from “from ‘Somatic Practice’” on Harriet the Blog, and more recently as it appears at the end of his poem “The New Us” at Bomb Magazine. For the Spinozan formulation, see especially Spinoza, The Ethics, Part III, and in particular, E3p2. Click here for the translation by R. H. M. Elwes. Of the voluminous material generated by Deleuze on Spinoza’s “mind-body” formulations, see, to start, “On Spinoza,” available along with other talks. For Foucault’s analysis of the docile body and institutions of regimentation, see Michel Foucault, “Docile Bodies,” in Discipline and Punish (New York: Random House, 1977).
7. Our current thinking has been shaped by many generative discussions on community with writers too numerous to name here. But we’d be remiss not to mention those whose writing on the work of Eleni Stecopoulos has deeply informed this review — we’re particularly indebted to Thom Donovan, Bhanu Kapil, Rob Halpern, and Melissa Buzzeo.
8. kari edwards, “subject: statement,” EOAGH 3.
9. The Oxford English Dictionary provides the Latin etymology “*excappāre, < ex out + cappa cloak.” Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), online edition, copyright 2013, “escape.”