Poetry in crisis
Rob Halpern and Keston Sutherland
Stuart Hall, Brian Roberts, John Clarke, et al. write in Policing the Crisis (1978) that during the slow unfolding of crisis there is “a stripping away of the masks of neutrality.” With the masks slipping off in our respective post-Trump and Brexit horizons, liberal commentators on both sides of the Atlantic stammer about how to put all this excess hatred back in the box, as if we could just return to business as usual. As liberal governance makes way for increasingly authoritarian rule, the specter of the outsider can be understood as the projection of the cause of suffering onto the wrong object. However, the state is not only upheld by the legal and extra-legal violence of its border and police systems, but also by the control exercised through the extremity of exceptional violence. There was an important precedent to our current moment. Contained at great distance, the exclusion and detainment at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib served, and serves, to strengthen the imperial might of Western sovereign power. Only the state can have a legal monopoly on violence. Everything else is the terror of disorder.
How to write a poetry that faces the continual crisis and extremity of violence within contemporary capitalism? This is a question that orients the work of two writers, the US poet Rob Halpern and the British poet Keston Sutherland. If capitalism enforces a system of competition that unleashes intense hatred onto the dispossessed rather than the dispossessors, both Halpern and Sutherland have written work that ruminates on what it means to attempt to love a “wrong” object. Their work asks, what does it mean to love in a world that is conditioned by exceptional violence? Halpern and Sutherland are both indebted to Marxian and psychoanalytic understandings of the relation between the libido and economy, often explored through the extremity of violence in contemporary imperial conquests. This is what Halpern terms in Common Place the complicity of “military cargo my skin / Now shares.” Or, as Keston Sutherland writes in “Song of The Wanking Iraqi” (2004), collected in Poetical Works 1999–2015, “the army is the tongue you stick out.”
Whilst their work has its important and significant distinctions, they attend to the extremities of the overlapping drives of Eros and Thanatos. A key way of understanding their respective work is that they aim at a poetics of intensity. This could be imagined as the playing out of libidinal drives in meter. Their work switches through the ardent release at the threshold of instinctual renunciation. This intensity, however, is often not solely that of the biographical figure of the poet. Their poetry often works through the imagined and misplaced “incorrect” desires that could be said to both characterize and critique the contradictions of power in class society. To give just one example, in “Roger Ailes” from Sutherland’s Neocosis (2004): “I get down to the unspoiled protoplasm of his eros” (192), “his” being that of the now-deceased former head of Fox News and general purveyor of hatred named in the poem’s title. What the poem works through is how “all my / life is possession, and possession I know is a lie” (197).
Halpern’s Common Place continues the conceptual drive of his previous collections, including Music for Porn (2012) and Disaster Suites (2009),by setting up a lyric relation towards an imagined love object. After Music for Porn explored the desire for the body of the American soldier, Common Place predominantly contains and holds the “Gitmo” detainee as the object of its lyric attention. In the section “Correspondences” there is a series of letter-poems to named detainees, such as:
Dear Muhammed Ahmad ~
There must be a total incompatibility between the idea
Of sending you this letter and the dream of the poem it
-self annuls the difference btwn realist & utopian desire
Being no difference at all I keep dreaming of objects they
Bewilder me a cop a soldier a detainee love’s radical promise
Blocked at the site of its deviation a square a cell a sentence (100)
The address locates the poem in the realm of realism, which the second line of the poem immediately ruptures. The rest of the poem could be seen as calling into question the very ideal form of lyric address it simultaneously constructs, to work through how desire for a love object is complicit with systems of power. Across Halpern’s work the named and unnamed love object functions as a placeholder for any possible social relation as such. In “A Note on These Proceedings” desire is articulated as “if love’s realization implies a revolution in the very structure of our life-world signaling the end of a truth whose universality forever false hangs on the death of every particular, then his body demands a love I can barely even intimate” (71–72). The intense erotic desire for “my detainee” is a highly ambivalent one (73). There is a common misconception in the reading of this work that the desire held for the wrong object is imagined to be a corrective; through “true” love for an incorrect object a world of universal falsehood can be overcome through a utopian desire. In this kind of reading queer desire is a double negative. It is perhaps rather the case that the expression of desire for the imagined body is worked through in a poetic language that serves to use the lyric standpoint to reveal Eros’s entanglement with power. Rather than there existing “true” and “false” desires, desire as such is as equally imbricated with utopian potentiality as it is with the trappings of power and oppression. Even though the imago of the detainee is still imagined from the remnants of real brutality — as Halpern writes, “My bladder floats in the same somatic void from which his meat’s been drawn, quartered and sublimed into a medium where love destroys its object, failing to distinguish opposites” (39) — this love demanding intimacy is aware it is an obliterative one. The lesson for social transformation in Halpern’s poetry is that striving toward the promise of a better world will necessitate navigating and escaping regimes of power; these regimes may even be reproduced in our own behavior.
While the conceptual imagining of a love object is not the professed lynchpin of a poetic project in Sutherland’s work, several of the collections collated in Poetical Works 1999–2015 similarly work through the lyrical exertions of desire within the world of global capitalist supply chains. In Stress Position, syntax is reconfigured as a kind of torturous endurance. The collection includes a section where one of the speakers of the poem is sexually assaulted by skinheads in the toilet of a McDonald’s, possibly in Iraq’s Green Zone — “I alone will / forever dream the loss of you, my analgesic fascists” (242). In “Falling in Love Cream Crab” from Neocosis — a poem that presents its ambiguous relation to the wrong in the grammar of its title — this world is “a life aflame in the shark shit, / only now forever” (190). Sutherland’s breakthrough collection is the 2007 long poem Hot White Andy (J. H. Prynne gave it perhaps the rather backhanded compliment of calling it “The Waste Land”of the twenty-first century), which takes as its romantic focus Andy Cheng, a factory floor manager from the city of Wuhan, China, found by the poet using Google. Having written many poems focusing on US imperial might in Antifreeze and Neocosis, China demarcates the supposed waning of US hegemony as a way for Sutherland to attempt to switch the focus of his poetry. In Hot White Andy the lyric voice expresses “I need / but will not have you” (227) and “I speak to you. You are impossible to forget, / the face ecstasy screams under / lighting the world you damage and repossess” (227). This impossible love object is the haunting memory of, presumably, a former love and also the universal damage of a dispossessing force.
For Sutherland, love is “the provisional end until death; / TL61P its unconditional perfected shadow / opposite” (308). In both Halpern’s and Sutherland’s work, the shadowy underside of the ends of love and death is the universal rule of commodities, where, as Marx put it, “persons exist for one another merely as representatives of, and, therefore as owners of, commodities.” This false universality enforces the condition of competition and the violence that are necessary to maintain the rule of capital. In Sutherland’s The Odes to TL61P the product code for an obsolete tumble dryer is a stand-in (or, in Halpern’s words, a placeholder) for the mediation of human desire by the universal rule of the commodity form as such. These urges overspill into emphatic proclamations of love, such as in section II of ode 2, where
[…] for all the time you wait and break or mend to die will only make the memory of difficult passionate love still more occult and tender faces disappear as lost mist leaves a mirror clear to vanish permanently diminish not so passingly as love must in a slighted head shut up in dreams admired instead of shed like jobs to multiply the way out by the inward cry for fleecy care or finny drove or feather’d youth or all my love or scaly breed since with that shit Iraq in general must grit its icy core of heart and mind in not just spectral abstract rind but profit for the vested rim who mass produce the phantom limb rip open markets in despair mock cannibals who bite the air rinse spit and flush their sacred founts and whine about the body counts. (308)
Whereas parts of the book are in meter, in this section the poetry is arranged into justified prose blocks. Within these prose blocks are the crushed remnants of poetic tradition, like Alfred Prufrock trapped and screaming in a refuse compactor. It is a common feature of Sutherland’s poetry that it stretches and works through an identified literary history. Bits of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Swinburne, Pope, and many others work their way into his verse and are subjected to various kinds of détournement. In this section the identifiable end-rhyme scheme compacted in the prose block “haunts” the reader’s attention as if it were a phantom limb of poetic tradition. The form speeds up the reading process. The lack of punctuation forces the eye from one clause to the next. This accelerated verse produces an intensity whereby the reader struggles to follow the pileup of images. The echoes of internal rhyme create a dissonance between the words’ aural quality and their referents. This rhyme implies a Pope-influenced Georgic — a poetic style from a period of nascent capitalism — crossmatched with images from the violence of Iraq as imperial conquest: “profit for the vested rim who mass produce the phantom limb.” All of this creates a shadowy agency of compounded objectivity and subjectivity, what Marx described as a “bewitched, distorted and upside-down world,” where people are ruled by things.
Across his oeuvre, Sutherland’s poetry works by abrading the poignancy of the particular through a comic and abject bathos. Consider the opening lines of “Reindeer” from The Stats on Infinity:
It’s late Spring, and the spiraling
sun leaves a glow across the thriving earth
and eight million reindeer head north
loose through dark snow
to mate with eight million zombies on ecstasy
who will not eat you because they are not hungry
to mutter of old men’s voices,
and we waste our smart bombs on the wedding carpet (289)
A clear influence on the style of this poem is Frank O’Hara. The declarative and descriptive tone sets the poem in a phantasmagorical scenario, which then gets broken by the interjection of the increasingly banal or absurd. In distinction to O’Hara, this tone of the ridiculous is broken by a fiercer inference of political violence: “we waste our smart bombs on the wedding carpet” is a phrase wrought with a grimacing irony, one where there is no payoff for “getting it.” Poets such as Ezra Pound or J. H. Prynne have similarly reprimanded the barbarisms of modernity, the horror of war, or the stupidity of exchange. However, throughout Pound’s work, among the descriptions of horror and stupefaction, there are threads of a Dantean light. This stress on the beauty of the particular is what Sutherland’s bathetic humorous insistence on “a life aflame in the shark shit” works to undermine. This is because this poetry aims to make the reader aware how complicit all of their possible actions or relations to the world are with an extremely complex and violent divisions of labor. The poetry of Prynne, Sutherland’s former teacher, urges an ethic certainty such that the reader is compelled to take a stand towards reality that depends upon exercising vigilance. This is related to poetry as a form of knowledge production, a certain kind of understanding of the world formed through the reader’s attention. For Sutherland an adequate understanding of the world — as a particular kind of poetic knowledge production — is never enough because, as Marx argued, it is marked in the very fetish-character of the commodity, that understanding it does not make any moves towards overcoming its cruelty. Like O’Hara’s work, there is a generosity in Sutherland’s poetry in that it does not require full comprehension for the reader to find a way in (although there may be no escape route).
Alongside the use of bathos, in Sutherland’s work the stress on the beauty of the particular, or the necessity of ethic vigilance, is replaced by an ambivalent Romantic ardency, one of subjective overextension. The Odes to TL61P represents a poet’s attempt to put as much of their uninhibited thinking into a poem as is possible. The work is accordingly fascinated with the presentation of all kinds of wrong desires, forbidden thoughts, and sexuality at the borderline. Through doing so, it has arguably constructed an impasse in his writing; one that he has been unable, to date, to work through. There is a searing, bathetic intensity to Neocosis, Hot White Andy, and Stress Position that is not maintained in The Odes to TL61P. I would argue that perhaps there is an eager slip into an unabashed, Romantic ode form that lacks the self-imposed metrical restraint of the preceding work; this exaggeration of the perversity of subjective desire, rather than holding a mirror to exploitation and oppression, can risk celebrating the fact of wrong desires as such.
In Halpern’s work the selection of a wrong object is a way of working through how and what kind of intimacy might be possible in a world of universal falsehood, what capacity for love as “A haptic rose, my dead giveaway” (65). Two tensions abrade each other in these lines, the romantic gift of bloodshot intensity and the revelation of a morbid fantasy for a corpse. Halpern wrote some sections of Common Place having worked through the autopsy reports of a Guantanamo detainee who committed suicide — “The body viewed thru a cell window where he lay / Not breathing” (138). The commonness of this body is its distinction; it is an open secret of our shared condition. Occurring out of sight, it is an image detained, where its suspension is a sexual secret, the perversity of hatred’s musculature. Like Sutherland, Halpern wants the reader to be put into a circulation of images of violence where one’s own complicity with such violence is inescapable. However, the desire for love as an erotic relation of commonality within conditions of violence draws upon barely mentioned histories of specifically queer experience (the AIDS crisis is part of the condition from which this work has emerged). There is in his work a “hapticality”— as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call “the capacity to feel through others” — of capital’s rhythm against bodies, the laying hold of skin upon skin. This intimacy rests in Moten and Harney’s understanding of the haptic’s ambiguous relation to violence. In a politics of blackness or queerness, violence is the inaugural condition of subjectivity as such, but even within that violence there must be a true intimacy or care, some possible commonality. In Halpern’s work, however, there is a push beyond Moten and Harney’s haptic. Among this violence, need for care, and manipulation of need, the question that hangs suspended from it is what do we do with our hatred?
Halpern’s poetry contains a metadiscursive critique of subjective expression. The lyric voice takes a step back from its wildly impulsive erotic and phallocentric thrust to express doubt at these urges having any kind of resistance to domination at all. At the beginning of “Demon of Analogy” the voice expresses, “Now that I’ve written these things, I’m beginning to realize that my detainee is but one in a series of substitutes for someone else” (90). Halpern’s more recent poetry in Touching Voids In Sense (2017) starts to raise questions more directly about what it means to be queer and to have survived or outlived the sick through traversing how his work has depended on the logic of substitution. It is one of the strengths of Common Place that performatively wrong desire can be subjected to scrutiny after the point of its expression. The writing could be seen as a charting of how desire and political critique may be imagined to coexist outside as well as inside poetry. Poetry like that of Halpern and Sutherland urges us to think through how if we really do demand and desire an end to a world of universal falsity and domination, we must be capable of confronting the fact that it will take both our impulsive urges and their regulation and self-critique to overcome it. As Theodor Adorno said, there is no possibility for right life within the wrong, but as is often missed with the parroting of this phrase, for those who wish to end the reign of wrong life there must be a standpoint towards the wrong that demands an end to suffering. The world is full of damaged subjects expressing wrong desires. Emancipatory politics must work out the extent to which toward wrong desires may be symptomatic of the wrong, and scaled up and down class relations. But to purport that subjectivity is identical to wrongness is surely to eternalize domination, the domination of human life by private property.
While the work of Halpern and Sutherland could be reproached for saying too much, for overstepping ethical boundaries, what is significant with any such criticism of this work is that it is made in its context. It is often the case that the work of both poets builds up to dizzying intensity of proclamation, of an ardent belief or revolutionary desire for overcoming the wrong world. This is often undone within the poems through ethical failure as a kind of self-sabotage. Furthermore, as both poets explore the relation between capitalism and sexual desire as a condition of fantasy, the desire for a wrong love object could be seen as a form of work — one bound to the social necessity of work as such, and the violence that enforces it. The poem becomes a space where fantasies of wrong desire are expressed, renounced, and strained against. The poetry of both Halpern and Sutherland does not reproduce the violence of the world for easy thrills. It recasts this violence within the second-order system of poetry so as to create a space in which to think through it. We may have questions about the particular ways in which their writing fails to adequate itself to this violence (one might argue that it will always fail but it also must try). However, in a world where Theresa May can say that what makes her most angry in the world is injustice while she oversees a border regime that makes people disappear, it would be a fallacy to suggest that the most ethical relation that poetry can take towards violence is to not speak of it at all.
2. This can be seen in how activists are now frequently arrested under counterterrorism charges. In the UK fifteen activists grounded a flight at Stansted Airport that was due to deport people who had been in detention. They have been found guilty but the case is currently on appeal. See Damien Gayle, “Anti-deportation activists to go on trial over Stansted blockade,” The Guardian, March 16, 2018.
5. See Ed Luker, “True Love, True Labour: Rob Halpern’s Music for Porn,” in Hix Eros Poetry Review 6 (August 2015).
9. See Aftab Ali, “Theresa May ‘wrongly deported 48,000 students’ after BBC Panorama exposes TOEIC scam,” The Independent, March 29, 2016.