'Perfect losses we can't mourn'
On Rob Halpern's 'Music for Porn'
Rob Halpern’s latest book, Music for Porn, is a thick intensity of writing, a cordage of verse and prose wrapped up in a plain brown paper dust jacket and pressed behind a frontispiece of half-frontal male nudes and metal fences (“untitled porn collage,” by Halpern and Tanya Hollis). The book is long and polytonal, layering and sectioning itself into geoliths of solo and choral discourse. Mediating the “music” is the prepositional object, “porn.” The cover art is hardly soft-core: a cut-and-paste job that obscures the sex act but teases its muscles and its members — the cock ring but not the cock it’s on. Of course, the ring is the thing; it is the part object relating the pleasures of one cock to some other. As Halpern’s cover art suggests (literally packaged in brown paper), the part object is as sensory as it is censored, as much the manufacture of fantasy as of material media — as much of porn as for porn.
How are we to read this porn? Where and when? In our present, it is the perpetual war of late capital: of desire and fear, waste and corpses, credit and shrapnel. This porn has a history, stretching back to Walt Whitman and the Civil War. It plays audience to its own arousal. Its “music” is like a drone, compulsively productive of a blank intention:
A badly dubbed audio his lips
Arouse my skin a canopy a sel
– ving sleeves inside a frame
Contriving recovery it’s so patriotic
Duty crushed a head in my groin
Puffed up on the unidentified
Airs nothing real no experience
To speak of nothing to sing
These poems just keep coming
— this disease of my mouth.
Out of sync, music and porn are subject to the same arousal, or arouse the same subject: the body of the American soldier. Halpern has described the soldier as a “back formation” in his poetry, a figure that emerged in the writing of his first book, Rumored Place (2004). Published in May 2012, Music is the result of a continuous project that has occupied Halpern through Snow Sensitive Skin (2007), coauthored with Taylor Brady, and the acclaimed Disaster Suites (2009), written in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
In their concern with crisis these books are timely and yet already late, compressing the language, time, and sensorium of the very recent past into a variable distortion of the present. They make a series, by definition unfinished, that is just recursive enough to go on without fulfilling its premise or predicate. Halpern’s poems bracket and cite themselves, often by means of the flat ventriloquism of italicized paraphrase. Sentences especially are spliced and interpolated in Halpern’s prose and prose poems, reflecting a tendency in his work to modulate between the less and more theoretical. The end of Music discourses on the biopolitics of the military industry:
… common sense itself becomes a kind of pornography expropriation of my most intimate relations just as pornography becomes a kind of common sense everything bearing visible value, everything erasing the relations that produce it. So one must speak in the pornographic even as one speaks against it … 
When common sense is “militarized,” it becomes a genre of pornography. In turn, lyric makes a counter-claim on sense by modeling sensation without immediately consuming it. Hence what Halpern has called lyric’s “Sadean provocation,” appropriating in order to retune the communicative relations of power between subjects and objects that are “otherwise pressed perfectly into the mold of money and death.” In Music, this counter-pornography is fully aware of its perversion (“my cock hardens in a soldier’s wound”), while testing the conceptual limits of that awareness. “The skin, being this endless organ of excitement and abuse, my own private pleasures being mere adjunct of that. Don’t confuse this sentence for a preposition.”
As metalanguage, the lyric porno wants to explore the verse-formal and generic properties of the various series (of poems, of poets, of books) that sustain a critique of crisis in crisis’s present, right now. Halpern’s prose/verse suggests a modulation between rhetoric and grammar, or polemic and song, whose peculiar drive is to anticipate something about the present which is presently unavailable, unthinkable, insensible. Tyrone Williams has commented on these shifts in voicing and tense as emergent signs of the post-lyric, the retroactive prolepsis by which lyric broods on its own discontinuous production. Lyric’s perfect present “is,” while post-lyric’s future past imperfect “will have been.”
Perfect losses we can’t mourn what we have
Erected structures voiding space things that will
Have come inside no place being where we live
A fantasy of home secures their missing limbs
My cock ensures them tender organs fulfilling
Orders of state when they migrate with no bodies
Readers of Disaster Suites will recognize the compressed yet speakerly affect in Music. Lines are cantilevered, enjambments are extreme; with each break the verse seems to revalue or disqualify the sense that has been its rule on behalf of what that rule is becoming. Thus, what the future-anterior tense will have registered is something like a slip-knot, a two-way structure of sense that suspends, in order to promote, the difference between before- and after-effects, right and left margins.
This goes for subjects, too. They decompose into past participles (“wound / -ed”), refusing to be taken wholly or synchronically. They are made up of actions that happen or do not. Many things in Halpern’s poems refuse to happen otherwise. Every feeling threatens to be the feeling of its own disavowal.
Attitudes of duty & debt esoteric
Securities fundamentalist pop
– ulisms negating politics like so
Many little negotiations of private
Interest embalmed with my love
My poems service you as well as
Waste demands what’s deepest re
– mains a delicate pumping sensation
Feeling this can’t mean this
— difference hasn’t yet begun.
Lines like these radicalize the intimacies and adjacencies of language as social realities, and at the same time, militate against the very possibility of their being vocative — virtually voiced or heard. Halpern’s lyric is the imprint of a voice delaying itself in advance, the impaction of self-address at the outer limits of late liberalism’s voucher-like promise of freedom. In a talk delivered at the Unitarian Center in San Francisco in 2010, Halpern recalled the melancholia of the late 1990s for Bay Area writers living in the wake of AIDS and the onslaught of NAFTA neoliberalism. His discussion of loss and disaffection should inform our reading of his poetry.
We were “between crises” as one might speak of being between wars, but there is never really any such “between” — just the spell of an interregnum when everyone is holding breath, and waiting, and pretending to adapt to a set of conditions that seem entirely fake … having identified, on the one hand, with too many personal losses — losses I myself had not yet learned how to mourn; and on the other, with a feeling of terminal belatedness, when it didn’t seem possible to believe in anything long enough to respond to it.
No matter its delay, loss punctuates a present moment unfolding into the future. No matter how empty, the feeling of loss is an event that has to have duration if it is to be social, just as a signal presupposes a response. In the late ’90s as now, for Halpern there is no “between” successive crises because there’s always the meta-crisis of the mourner, the slow death of the elegist whose feelings are constitutively too late.
Elsewhere Halpern has spoken of “patiency” as a name for a political subjectivity other than one purely of agency; instead, one which “has less to do with the body as the sovereign scene of its own actions, and more to do with the body as the scene of disabused mastery.” In Music for Porn, patiency names the utopian relation between militarized and queer bodies. When Halpern addresses the American soldier, it is to occasion fantasies of intimacy, but also to occasion elegies for the dead or the will-have-been dead.
It bears repeating that a book as rich as Music aims to tap into several genres of discourse, and not simply collapse them into self-contained lyrics. Hence, a section of poems that meticulously remediate the autopsy reports of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or, where we expect a sequence of lyrics — the ascendant form of much contemporary poetry — instead we get more prose, indeed criticism on Drum Taps, the book of poems Walt Whitman wrote during the Civil War. Profanely arch, Halpern’s prose does the hard work of denaturalizing concepts while leaving them ripe for repurposing in his poems. These are pensées poking around their own ruins, Benjamin’s allegories filtered through Stein’s parataxis. They won’t hold the attention of some readers for long.
That Halpern’s prose is demanding is important because it generates the ambient and “unbearable” condition of something impossibly difficult to think about. It goes as far as we can go with Music, or as far as our submission is a willful one of reading. We are made patients of this verse, skeptical voyeurs. The dark graphicness of Halpern’s porn-elegy makes us hesitate to be interpolated into their mise-en-scène. A soldier may or may not want to be visited in his hospital bed.
But just as Whitman did physically, Halpern visits them in writing. We let his address work on us, hearing Whitman in it, moved by its affection despite the anonymity of the bereaved or the beloved.
His moaning mourns a man like
Belief I write these things inside
— yr address myself enclosing.
The heart of “yr address” is to the master-chameleon of address, Whitman. Halpern is a reluctant intimate with Whitman, who was for all his subtleties a horn-blowing Yankee. But he brought world-historical significance to the queer elegy in Drum Taps, which he wrote while cruising the streets of Washington, DC, and nursing soldiers at the Armory Square Hospital. Halpern unfolds this history into a sensory event: the soldier’s body queers the repetition (through elegy) of the war it is constantly sacrificed for.
But war, Halpern reminds us, sensationalizes this redemption as a pornography of freedom, broadcast through the media of night-vision bombings, CGI raid simulations, and aircraft-carrier pageants. Hence the negative ecstasy of watching television news: the feeling of the impossible compulsion to feel distant misery. “Music for porn” is how sensory organs loop one another’s feedback. Lyric, or post-lyric, is the damaged harmonic of this loop, mounting claims against but from within the autonomy of porn (war’s autopilot regime of representation).
The pages on Whitman allow Halpern to plot a conceptual horizon for lyric without claiming for it the political fantasy of naturalizing thinking as “naming.” This is to plot a “non-site,” a [—] (to use Halpern’s glyph) where lyric is “like an organ of cognition in the process of theorizing its own historical disaster, or like a body communicating in excess of its rhetorical gestures.” This “body” is not a generic surface to be inscribed, but neither is it quite fleshy. It is the phantom between, the “feeling of not feeling,” of “suffering in a limb where suffering will never take place.”
The relationship between what a poet once felt and what another poet can or cannot feel now is, then, not just past-historical but phantasmic and immanent. Each poet and poem has, or is fucked up by, the condition (if only partial, if limb-like) for interpreting the other. This is how war poems sustain a fully historical relation to the futuremoment when they are read by readers who are conscious of lyric’s hard promise to be the grounds for value-claims that aren’t subsumed by the totality of its weaponized present. At the same time, lyric discloses the crippling inevitability of that present, and in that moment of relative autonomy, begins to absorb the negativity of war’s global accumulation in order to become itself the source of historical claims to value. Such claims, in Halpern’s poetry, proceed from the desire to rive apart negation and accumulation, to proclaim their radical difference even while deriving the value of demilitarization (or its possibility) from inside this difference. Value itself, as Halpern insists, has to be demilitarized. “What delusions of yr price” goes:
Yr mind being that of the mark
– et it’s not the secret of yr body
I want but the secret of value be
– ing the thing itself or what
Mystery connects me
— to the world.
Throughout Music lurks the bad outcome of elegy — that in soliciting the soldier, Halpern identifies a “blank,” “skip,” or “fault” in the genre of address and thus loops the distance between poet and soldier with that between poem and reader. In Rumored Place, this doubling signals a mistaken virtuality — “an extension of what content isn’t there.” In Music, this content is a destroyed body which cannot be replaced with lyric’s, and is only repaired as it is managed, halfway disavowed by the flat affect of “waste.”
If this sounds contradictory, it is — and necessarily so. Bonding Halpern to Whitman is crisis of (non-)feeling that bonds lyric to war even as they mutually abject and repulse, like cursed lodestones. Halpern worries that this amounts to a bad faith, a mistaken naturalization of poetry as both in and against history — a dark magic. By writing lyrics heated with lust for the soldiers they elegize, Halpern performs the “music” for a “porn” that he can’t remove himself from. The practice of verse becomes, by definition, compulsive — in turns ecstatic/mortified, morbid/apollonian. The wartime elegist moves haltingly, gropingly, toward the bodies of soldiers which lie suspended in a suspended present. These bodies are the proper object of elegy because they structure the time they lack: passing, past.
The limiting case, then, of Whitman’s “passing stranger”: a beloved whose recessive relation to time (or the present moment) lubricates longing rather than disables it. For Whitman, this “stranger” is always partly a figure for the problem of circulation that was so central to his verse practice. The book medium of his poems was a minimal condition of their rhetoric of address, because the reader’s immediacy to the page, counterintuitively and perversely, beggars any physical intimacy with the speaker or the poet himself. “Come closer,” we are beckoned … but to where exactly? The desire of verse to move immanently beyond the page has a special pathos in war writing, if we imagine that the mass address of individual readers bears an alien resemblance to war’s territorialization and reproduction of individual deaths.
But is this resemblance inevitable? It depends, Music suggests, on how far we are willing to take our alienation of the very form of value we want to practice — that of lyric — in our remote sensing of war in the Middle East. Can the poet articulate a relation to the present while writing verse that does not marginalize or embarrass itself by being yet another atrocity exhibit, a container for our local feelings of guilt and disgust? No poem consoles what is chronic, but a poem can reroute or re-pitch the rhythms of thinking and feeling so they are no longer chronic, no longer their own inevitable outcomes.
Here’s one more poem, “Remains Unwritten”:
My own stench being what attracts me
To undressing you mean what I think I
–’m feeling dismembered in the touch
I still can’t touch or say the names fall out
For what’s not mine to name you softer
Targets yrs I want to sing what will have
Been my body where yr odor clings I hang
In excess of the system where we’re caught
— not sensing the thing that’s sensing us.
The future perfect— “what will have / Been my body” — is the condition of being that preoccupies Halpern in each of his books. Sex is impossible by so simple a name, because its residue is that of disaffection, a mood of address “caught” in a vanishing system of tense which strips non-pornographic desire down to its impersonal skins.
Not only is the scene of writing not identical with one of speaking, nor for that matter one of reading, these imaginary acts — these vocative phases of lyric address — are one another’s half-lives. What will have been vexes us because it refers to something expired and something just begun — something sequenced and retrograded by lyric’s desire to mourn a future not yet heard. Halpern is singing words in and not out, and that’s urgent right now.
8. Halpern, “Becoming a Patient of History: George Oppen’s Domesticity and the Relocation of Politics,” December 11, 2010.
10. Watch Halpern perform this hybrid genre in a talk/reading he gave at the University of Chicago in 2011.
15. Halpern’s concern led him to append something like a defense of poetry, or disclaimer, to Disaster Suites. As Tyrone Williams observes, the note worries about the political implications of using a “non-ironic” voice — one which indexes a perfect lyric present — in a book written about the devastation of, and in solidarity with, the historically marginalized populations in New Orleans. See Williams, “Disaster Suites: The Present Poetics of Rob Halpern.”