Potential loss



Laynie Browne

SplitLevel Texts 2015, 82 pages, $12.00, ISBN 978-0985811167

Possibility is neither forever nor instant.
                                            It is not easy to sustain belief in its efficacy.[1— Audre Lorde

What is the relationship between serial and elegy? What poetic form might accommodate the dailiness of grief without erasing or domesticating what has been lost? How might a poem lament the dead and honor the differences made by loss without foreclosing the possibilities that loss has made available? What potential does loss hold? Might poetry hold space for such potential? In
P R A C T I C E, Laynie Browne documents, enacts, repeats, and embodies these questions in a series of sixty-six short, often prosy poems. The book is an intimate account of the daily and each poem is rigorously ephemeral — studies of affective, cognitive, and physical situations that never quite qualify as event or as meaningful activity. The meaning one might hope to glean from these minutiae seems almost withheld; their shared inconsequence is striking. And because the book attends so closely to the quotidian, it’s difficult to know what to do with the grief that frequently surfaces to arrest these poems’ barely perceptible movements. Loss threads through and holds the whole together, but the obstinately ordinary seems to absorb the full affective force of that grief.

Of course, such attention to the everyday is a hallmark of the poetic series. In the tradition that follows Oppen’s Discrete Series, the form is a collection of poems that center the minute and the minor, which themselves become meaningful as such in the poet’s hands. Its numeric order also allows the serial to elide sequential modes that have been burdened by teleological ideas like narrative, progress, or causality. In contrast to the givenness or inevitability that such concepts often advance, numeric order seems to make room for different modes of connection and disjunction among poems and their contents. The series is thus a form with a special investment in the ordinary and, by extension, the distinctions we make between the ordinary and everything else. But
P R A C T I C E does not set out to redeem a sphere of the ordinary by including it into preexisting schemas of value — schemas that dismiss the ordinary as lacking in complexity, surprise, or meaning. Instead, Browne is interested in how loss actually informs such schemas, especially the evaluation of the consequential and the inconsequential. Rather than thinking about loss as the end of what has been lost, and the end of measurable consequence attributable to what has been lost, Browne finds in loss itself a well of immeasurable inconsequence; and in loss’s persistence, the potential of inconsequence.

One of the lesser-cited theses from Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” envisions “[a] chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.”[2] Browne is a version of Benjamin’s chronicler — the difference being that she recites nonevents rather than events. In doing so, she acts in accordance with a truth that corresponds to Benjamin’s: if no event should be regarded as lost for history, nor should any loss be regarded as past. Judith Butler argues that Benjamin’s account of history accommodates a particular form of thought: the thought that may “emerge from the ruins, as the ruins” of loss.[3] While the ruins of history give Benjamin’s angel a vantage from which to observe the logic of progress, in
P R A C T I C E the ruins of loss give Browne a vantage from which to observe the logic of consequence. From this perspective, loss persists physically, as absence; cognitively, as thought; affectively, as grief. Browne’s contemplative lyric is a document of this persistence and its inconsequence.

Thought emerges as staring, as noticing; as nonproductive contemplation. It is a nonevent: “Practice replacing one thought with another.”[4] Ruin-born, loss-generated thought works with, rather than against, its own ephemerality — its contingency — and it has an equalizing or flattening effect:

1. […] Rough heel replaces soft consciousness. 10:35 am replaces 9:35 am. Where our bodies reside in space is not probable. Replace this emptiness with a quotation: “Temptations thronging through my hours are strong.” Replace sugar with sweetness. I said, I don’t know how to be helpful to you now, and he said, replace bitterness with turnstiles, complacency with walking.

What exactly is happening here, in the poem that opens the series? I don’t think we can say exactly — and I think that’s Browne’s point. Whether we read “replace” as an imperative or as a descriptor, the lack of subordination between objects and between clauses depicts a change in circumstance but specifically not a change in value (sweetness might take sugar’s place, but their relation is horizontal, not hierarchical). Time moves, things trade places and are replaced — but nothing progresses. Further, the poem lacks an agent doing the replacing. Without any markers of value, time’s passage does not amount to progress, and the agency behind near-stasis is not only unclear — it actually recedes. In other words, even as something seems to happen, we are unsure whether it even qualifies as “happening,” or who it might be happening for or to. In such uneventful chaos, nonlinear connections arise among the ordinary. In a nonprogressive, nonteleological temporality, an agency that makes nothing happen appears and dissipates and allows other forms of movement to come into view.

The sense of suspension we get from this poem extends throughout the series. Progressive time is perhaps our most ready-to-hand measure of loss — we know what is by its difference from what was. Suspending that temporality allows us to think, observe, and embody other forms of difference and more intimate modes of knowing loss:

29. Courting an absence — to what end I cannot say
Liminal space is soon to be replaced
Do not forget oblivion
The lost apparatus, holding nothing in one’s hands  

As the serial form avoids subordination among poems, Browne avoids subordination within them. With such bare clauses, everything seems to take place at the same time. Browne disarticulates loss, the difference between is and was, from conceptual containers like the past: it remains as the “nothing” one yet holds in their hands.

As we have seen, loss as a mark of difference — a persistent redefinition of what was and what is — has a strangely equalizing effect on the circumstances in which it appears. Browne creates a temporality in which different things occupy similar positions at different moments; the agency or volition behind movement seems to evaporate, itself replaced by the type of thought and movement that emerges from loss. Judith Butler calls this “melancholic agency,” insofar as this form of agency “cannot know its history as the past, cannot capture its history through chronology.”[5] Browne here renders melancholic agency as recessive in its rejection of certain ideological distinctions and its correspondent refusal to offer something else in their stead. It refuses “the past” as inertial, loss as an end. It also refuses to make anything happen:

1. […] When that voice appears that claims we must all be dead, replace non-wakeful living with the milk of a dark blue star you keep with the pudding string. Do not replace childhood, but when it replaces itself in your children practice going to the well. If you lay down on the ground, rise up again.

Here the poem eludes progress by virtue of repetition and replacement in much the same way that the book moves as a whole: barely. One page replaces another, different numbers in the series trade places and occupy each other’s previous positions. What remains of and after loss gives rise to a form of agency that does not accord with agency’s typical frames of reference. Rather than asserting itself in action, it is felt through contemplation, engaged with attention. This attention is something like Audre Lorde’s erotic, “that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge.”[6]
 P R A C T I C E’s persistent recognition of loss, refusal of progressive time, and repetitive approach to the past as potential all might seem like nothing so much as deeply rooted irrational behavior. But from this attention emerges a different sense of selfhood; or better, a different sense of selves. If the erotic is “a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings,” focusing it through irrational grief (the chaos of melancholia) gives rise to a self that is more of a node among others and not a single, static individual.[7] In P R A C T I C E, selves proliferate as connections and disjunctions. Browne’s melancholic erotic attends to sensation in a way that blurs boundaries between self and other and between present and past: “Hold out your arms to practice sight beyond skin.” Absence remains present in tactile, sensory, and imaginative terms, while her senses of self are continually disorienting:

33. […] Who you were once in a photograph cannot be relied upon.

39. Practice the version of yourself you must pardon, the one with fragile lips, drifting into late. Where loneliness is as vast as unbecoming I could not find the balm. I went out in several frocks, coats, and dresses only to realize that I had left my fingers at home. And all of my necessary sources of red.

49. This is the mind seeing for the first time that you do not resemble your portrait […]

54. […] When thoughts tire of pleading they will walk urgently in a direction away from your body […] When you arrive inside your inhabited self your movements are more intricate and thus invisible to petitioners.

55. […] If you are unable to represent yourself even in imaginary terms, you may watch a palette of sylvan days removed from your body […] 

In refusing to take self for granted, Browne approaches her own body as uncertainty, a fragile point of departure: “9. Practice noting yourself within a body, a location as real or unreal as violin cliffs, stark overhangings of doubt, the barren cavity of a hunting animal.” Her nonself-identity makes self-knowledge provisional, a matter of circumstance rather than a narrative of progress. Further, this situated selfhood foregrounds one’s obligation to others, and the different sorts of potential enmeshed in that obligation; in Browne’s words: “I practiced this sentence repeatedly after her passing: Why am I still in a body?”

In this way, P R A C T I C E treats loss as absence, a form of presence:

29. Courting an absence — to what end I cannot say

32. Don’t practice loss, though when it arises chant through the sauntering chasms […] And how did I make it past the first year of absence?

41. […] Practice not standing in your own presence.

Serial as practice, practice as elegy, then — elegy as the attention emerging from melancholy, and alternative to domesticating vision; a practice of boundless dis- and reorientation. Browne’s documented practice embodies loss, allows us to follow her as she traces her new contours. Of mourning, Judith Butler says, 

What grief displays […] is the thrall in which our relations with others hold us, in ways that we cannot always recount or explain, in ways that often interrupt the self-conscious account of ourselves we might try to provide, in ways that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control.[8]

Butler here is underscoring the question of a grievable life — or, how do we live with others in ways that affirm mutual humanity and, in so doing, enable forms of grief that affirm both mutuality and differently distributed precarity? I think Browne’s questions follow from Butler’s — it is the question of how language might be disarticulated from the frames of reference that demand that we let go of loss, of what is and may be lost. Laynie Browne’s P R A C T I C E moves into the interruption made by loss, relinquishing a self-conscious account of herself by accommodating loss as persistence, as presence. In P R A C T I C E, we can understand relation as contingency and loss as a force with the potential to reorganize our existence, if only we attend to it. 

1. Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” in Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007), 38.

2. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 2007), 254.

3. Judith Butler, “After Loss, What Then?” in Loss: The Politics of Mourning, ed. David L. Eng and David Kazanjian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 468.

4. Laynie Browne, P R A C T I C E (Urbana, Illinois: SplitLevel, 2015). P R A C T I C E is unpaginated; all numerals in the block quotes of this review refer to poem numbers. 

5. Butler, “After Loss,” 468.

6. Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic,” in Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007), 54. 

7. Ibid. 

8. Judith Butler, Precarious Life (New York: Verso, 2004), 23.