The thing that doesn't fail
On Stephanie Young’s 'Ursula or University'
Stephanie Young’s Ursula or University begins, “I guess it’s too late ...” and (nearly) ends, “It can be never for a very, very long time. And then it can be now.” In between, Young hovers and waits, worries and writes, enmeshed in a Bay Area poetry community that, to her, crackles with potential seismic energy she nevertheless fears may forever fail to unleash the earthquake that would justify its pressures and change the topography of power and privilege whose violence mars the utopia she can almost grasp.
The earthquake that might come, never comes, must come, is one of the book’s persistent metaphors, a way of thinking the present moment as simultaneously necessary and non. Young imagines herself caught by the archetypal West Coast catastrophe in the scariest possible place: the BART tube under the Bay. The claustrophobic panic of this is too real to be merely symbolic: it makes my chest tighten, even on the eighth floor of the NYU library, just to picture it. But the resonance is real, too, in Young’s claustrophobic sense of her own small society, which she repeatedly and dutifully calls the “mostly white [or middle-class, or leftist] poets I am and hang out with.” She has to find a way to breathe, she knows, because she loves them.
I met Stephanie Young at the East Bay Poetry Summit in May 2013. I was very drunk at the time, drunk the whole long weekend, in fact, on the company of this extraordinary group of poets. In New York the poets kind of peer down into their drinks or crane their necks off toward a dark corner, but there, I discovered, they talk to each other! They study together! They make out all the time (or that’s what this book says, anyway)! And they actually let each other come over! To their, like, homes! I’ve known poets in New York for five years or more whose apartments remain firmly in the realm of my imagination, and probably always will (can I drop by?).
I bring all this up in the spirit of Young, whose book believes in, and practices, an attention to such happenings, participants, idiosyncrasies, histories, and hopes. It also inevitably obscures the very gossip it means to take seriously: this book, too, has secrets. But Young’s conviction is that these activities, on which so much time and energy seems to hinge, are as meaningful as the supposed poetries on which we habitually tell ourselves we must focus partly by ignoring the structures that bring us to their encounter. Is it possible, she asks, to arrive at “A critique of the networks and systems that surround and produce poetry communities, a critique arising, or moving away from, that at least doesn’t leave out my feelings”? That doesn’t leave out, in other words, a body — not the swoony, orgasmic body so many poets seem to mean when they say they care about “the body,” but rather the sweaty, anxious, recoiling body that really exists in the social body, whose microcosm is the society of other poets, except when it isn’t because of all the other societies that community excludes. And yet crucially is, or theoretically can be, conscious of excluding, so much so that the exclusion functions like a fault line, always there, ruining utopia, making it hold its breath. Young offers up her own body’s acute attunement to such dissonance. When a conference on community labor and poetics chooses to invite only poets who don’t work in the academy, she attends; but, aware of the absurdity of excluding supposed “academic” poets who are really at the fringes of a no-longer coherent academy anyway, Young writes:
I felt as if I had to sit there and take it. I is the conditions of my labor didn’t belong anywhere. Waves of sweat ripping up my ribcage. My face very hot. I ate handfuls of snacks at the break, pretzels and chocolate, shoveled it in and didn’t talk about whatever it was that felt so personal, I took something personally, something ripping or tearing in the body, in the family, in the home sort of, in the guts. In the guts of the room, of the organs that matter—to our bodies, the organs our bodies are made of. I went back and forth on this. Whose body was whose. Was it one big body like a church. I didn’t mean to presume you are part of me. I didn’t mean to presume I am part of you. But secretly, I felt this was true.
Is that secret belief — a church of poets! — doomed to disillusionment? In one sense, of course it is, since the poets are revealed again and again as subject to the failings of every body (individual and social).
But then something happens. And this book, which laments those failures even as it refuses to be blind to them, finds a way to function not just in spite of but through them (it’s a long book, mostly prose, hybrid in every way, but it does have a plot, the best kind, one the author doesn’t see coming because she’s writing it in real time). At first, there are protests of the shooting of Oscar Grant, an African American resident of Hayward, on January 1, 2009, at Fruitvale Station, by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle (who was functionally acquitted). Ursula is in a profound sense an elegy for this innocent, ambushed person, even as it wonders how it can perform that elegy from the heart of a nearby but also distinct community whose warm embrace both enables poetry but also seems to doom it to myopia (however hard it rubs its eyes). “What could ever be adequate,” Young asks, “to the death of a man I didn’t know, his body marked by race, class, location.” At the climax of the book, however, Occupy comes to Oakland, and suddenly everyone’s activated, embodied, the community rocked to its foundations. Earlier, at one of the anti-BART protests, Young finds out what her body knows and doesn’t know, how
most of the time I drove my car, often I checked the weather online, generally I moved between my car and the doorway, between restaurants and bars, the walking path and parking lot, theater and arts space. Mostly I moved between the private and semiprivate houses. My body knew how to get money out of an ATM because that’s how money had trained it, to shield the keypad with the hand, to be aware of my surroundings without appearing too nervous. My body had been trained to go with the flow, not how to block it.
With Occupy, however, these fearful anatomizations give way to a suddenly assured catalog of injustice’s vocabulary and the “interruptive power” that being-there, as Young is (even in all her ambivalence), can truly bring to bear:
And so I called out to the singularities, the names I didn’t know, called them out in rooms full of poets. Called out the names I didn’t know to the names I did. Maybe it looks like a retreat to poetry. But really it was all I had. The names. The calling.
The earthquake comes and we are all together, if nowhere else, upon the ground, and in the terrifying trembling we reach for each other, so hard.
Young wonders whom she writes for, no matter whether from the center of her coterie or from its edge. Let’s ask it: who is this book for? Simple: it’s for me. It’s for you. And it’s for anyone, since everyone, not just poets, lives in their own little local, imagining its borders are self-evident, when the only lines that truly matter are deep underground, are the absence of ground, are long, tense fissures where they slumber, waiting to remake the world.