'Power in all its minor forms'
Two Takes on Alli Warren's 'I Love it Though'
I read this quote from a twelfth-century verse chronicle by Wace, Roman de Rou, wherein he paraphrases the displeasure expressed by some local serfs at the neighboring nobility’s incorporation of the noncultivated lands that for these serfs had previously been a collective resource, writing, “We can go to the woods and take what we want, take fish from the fish pond, and game from the forests; we’ll have our will in the woods, the waters, and the meadows.”
The declaration here being that not only will we have what is ours where fish and game, the necessities of living, are concerned — being ours as they are everyone’s — but we will also have our will wherever we go. More than access to resources, it’s a way to live that refuses exploitation, that welcomes pleasure as powerful, and is open to a type of ambiguity. “We’ll have our will” is a promise — sexy, mysterious, and thrilling. Reading this I thought damn, how long has Alli Warren been out here traveling in time, helping to imagine other possible ways and worlds and drafting beautiful demands against unjust systems of control?
In I Love It Though Warren thinks about how we manage to live without finding it necessary to lie to ourselves or each other about how we’re living, even after hedges enclosed the commons, even as our bosses email us all the time. She thinks about how we manage to love and care for our friends, have desires, and sometimes see to their satisfaction, how we find pleasure in resisting the scenes and actions where we’ve been told all pleasure waits; in working for and spending money. Instead she writes,
I tell BB what I want around me
are the ripe and tender ones
wine the color of weather
the lush bearing of our longing
going on in my way, stupidly sincere
one foot in the office the other lolling
about the field …
And I’m so grateful for that stupid sincerity, because I understand it as a refusal, not just to never be fully in the office, but to never accept the argument that one ought to or must be fully in an office. In this “stupid sincerity” I read a persistent belief that we can have everything weather-colored and lush, and a determination to protect and support the ripe and tender. Reading it, I remember Jess’s discovery of Tifka’s in Stone Butch Blues and how that discovery helps her begin to address one of the central questions of the book — how to be strong enough to survive, but not so hardened as to be unable to offer the tenderness necessary for the love and caring that makes survival a long-term possibility and a joy. Warren writes about how we manage to live in this world by never forgetting the possibility of another, by accessing that other world, if only temporarily, through friendship and care, and by imagining and planning for that other world all the time. She writes,
Where nomads love
and build no hedges
So the window disappears
or someone opens it
Dear causal moment
dear inflated object
Who can live, who gets to eat
what’s a sidewalk, what’s a street
Let’s loot the establishments
I mean feed each other (47)
When Kanye West says “I love it though, I love it though, you know?” at the beginning of “Devil in a New Dress,” we can understand him to be referring to a number of contradictions, desires thwarted both by realities and by other desires, still pleasurable through it all, fantasies of being a certain kind of good person and failing, dreams of Dior and succeeding. I imagine him shrug and smile. It’s okay. He loves it though. Similarly, though in a very different world, when Alli Warren says “I love it though,” I hear what are sometimes called fighting words. It’s okay, she’s going to fight for what is hers, her body, her love, her human and non-human companions, and the daily pain of exploitation and injustice will not be powerful enough to take those things away, to compromise or degrade their meaning. Pleasure and love and fun will still be had and made tonight, it will be liberatory and not exploitative, a source of pride and not shame, and then tomorrow we’ll keep “... rooting / for every tender thing / for my sister / and for you” (96).
You read the poems in Alli Warren’s second collection, I Love it Though, to follow along, to do what Warren’s doing before you can say what it is. You’re not refusing to go to work, but refusing to be interpellated solely as a worker. You’re rummaging around in the omnipresent detritus of neoliberal capital for a way to like things. You’re looking for ways to feel other than dejected or angry. In “Lunchtime with Woodwinds,” you’re “tonguing what parts / any possible other world than this” (3). In “The Last Great Heteronormative Hope” Warren is “in the same possible world / in which I txt my boss // and scrawl anti-state messages on my eyeblack” (8) and you go with her, and it’s like you do that, too.
The poem, in I Love it Though, is a tool for tacit, quotidian resistance against unchecked interpellation into systems of global capital. Warren uses poems to rehearse and contort the language of accumulation. Warren’s poems manage the bewilderment of being implicated in a national teleology. What they refuse is not an impending process, but one that’s already happening and threatens to continue marching toward a predetermined end.
In “Tunics, Trousers, and Cloaks” what she “sings of” is “of pre-pledged consent / to the national future / in the tumult of the folds” (22). Warren’s singing of “pre-pledged consent” comes in response to what, in consenting, she’s presumably already sung. The poems presume that they aren’t Warren’s only words. She goes to work. She’s interpellated in its discourses and logics. The poems matter because they refuse that assumed complicity.
In “The Women Perform Their Ablutions” she writes, “Where is the net which saves / rather than traps / why is there something not” (38). Warren, in her poems, is working out how to map the flows of capital that manufactured and sold you your bed, and yet she’s trying to figure out how to rest there anyway.
These are poems that refuse a binary of enjoyment and panic. In “Split Apart and Plummet Down,” Warren writes of “power in all its / minor forms” that works “to make people believe / in keeping going / takes precedence / over joy” (28). Warren’s poems demand a pleasure in attention, breaking the language of capital into its sounds, drawing it usefully into dissonance, rather than abstracting it, or sending it away from its locus of meaning.
The primary engine for anticapitalist thought in Warren’s poems is sound. One way you refuse to feel like a tiny agent of global capital so much that lovely things aren’t lovely but only for sale is to listen differently. It’s how you get through the daily subordination of participating in structures of capital and power that don’t agree with you about what matters, to which agreement itself is neither interesting nor visible. Through listening, Warren’s poems find a logic that refuses taxonomy. These are poems oriented to getting through attentively, not to getting beyond. They locate their brightness, their pleasure, within what hurts.
In “A Better Way to Zone” she writes, “So, ear, be an instrument for thought” (47). In “There’s Always Some Bird Dog,”
I take off my hat
I get off and walk
O skin be strong
don’t end at lending
nouns to property
consult the ear
consult the air. (11)
Pleasure, in Warren’s poems, doesn’t refuse the knowledge of its material conditions, but demands that they have space at the dance party, in the illegal evening swim. To read her work is to keep trying as an orientation, to be invited to try as she tries. To read her work, you feel along the sonic attention of the poems as you move along the wall deeper into an unfamiliar, unelucidated house. These are not poems of exposure. They do a careful, systematic job of being asystematic so they can reset all the time. They’re agile poems. They’d be excellent at tennis. They ask that you listen to them as attentively as Warren listened in order to make them.
For instance, in “Our Portrait Exceeds Us” she writes:
debt swallows the moon
as an ear’s for
tonguing the open out
an ear’s for breathing
engine of thought
listens won’t die. (75)