Robert Yerachmiel Snyderman: Lyric fermentation, a practice
(via C.D. Wright and Besmilr Brigham, in memory)
[Presented originally at “Outside-in/Inside-out,” A Festival of Outside and Subterranean Poetry, in Glasgow, Scotland, on October 5, 2016, as a testament in part to C.D. Wright’s work with the archive of poet Besmilr Brigham, while touching on much else in the process. (J.R.).]
When C.D. Wright died … American poetry lost one of the great ones, one of the figures who changed what the language can do, one of the writers whose lines and titles, sentences and similes are going to last at least as long as American English. That’s something I believe, but it’s also something that seems inappropriate, even rude, to say, because Wright’s artistic powers cannot be separated from her deep sense of democracy, her work against boundaries, rankings and exclusions, her insistence that poetry, and society, should become, not a hierarchy or star system or a way to exalt a singular self, but a way to be generous, to share the powers we get, to give of oneself, to let everybody come in.
Stephen Burt, Los Angeles Times (ShallCross, 2016)
Culture is what we overhear and what we overhear is noise, not a privileged didacticism we should mutter after. Dough culture is sour. Crushed grain and water, given space, left to change in an experimental zone, if you will, a jar, traditional, ghetto. Culture is what’s passed down and chained to change. I’ve chained, or linked, held, digesting and wrapping or tonguing, studied my noise for my ancestors by responding, adding the water and flour. Whatever is available to me in my time now, my fields, my supermarket, my rations. Culture is radically shared substance, bitter, wild to its eater, and appropriately so. Its bitter wild is signage of persevering lifeforce, digestive affect, and innate experimentalism. But for all of that it is also (a) dying, somewhere between the now-not-wholly material culture of ancestors and very present but not visible microorganisms. It is evidence of what’s at stake for emotional beings. The foremost popular advocate in the U.S. for fermentation’s significance to food justice and cultural history, Sandor Katz, rightly associates fermentation with a coming-to-terms-with and re-envisioning of mortality and death because fermentation is a projectile utilization, preservation, changing, and presencing of what-could-rot to keep for living, preserve through winter, sanitize in the way of restraint and witness, grant the gut ecology-tools by which to cultivate genetic resilience. The politics of fermentation, or what sociologist Heather Paxon calls “microbiopolitics,” presences us in the violence of “Pasteurian ethics” which need us to erase microbes, bacteria, biotics wholly as if we can separate from them, from our vacuum of space where we, as if we could, make time alone. Maybe rightly so, we do this out of a fear of falling ill, because of the fermented thing’s dangerous soil-potential activation, addressing what makes us edible to the dark unnamed god; that moral inverse of our own behaviors that silences subjectivity for the omnipresence of the body. We over-prescribe and inject anti-edemic chemicals into our dead. We try to perform the body of death. Pasteurian ethic is that vast contract that protects through indiscriminate erasure on the most base level confounding a visibility that turns out to be of ultimate significance. The ecology of our immunity is all bound up in the cascading of resistances the microbial world inherits and advances. And what is immunity other than our most fragile conundrum?
Susan Stewart, in “Lyric Possession,” writes on Plato’s reason to exile poets from his city on the basis of the cancer they initiate, of possession and mimesis, “The point is that one cannot intend to be possessed; one is helpless before the magnet and one’s helplessness is contagious.” What is lyrical is a matter of fragility and what we tend to do with ourselves against it. Lyric in its most urgent conundrum calls and levels, which is painful, ecstatic, and collective; that active tension between subjectivity and the material commons that never ends in language but the contagion of utterance. Fermentation in the Pasteurian era is lyric force that makes things reckon, both progressively and retroactively, in a momentum propelled by a perceived-to-be unperceivable excess. Fermentation is real genetic influence, process, feast, as much as it is teacher and metaphor. Somewhere here in the crush of ancestrality and microbials and subsequent bio-momentum is the full permeable capacity of lyric, quite indifferent to the separations between what we name and the ways in which lyric objects disperse, which is to say with or without rotting.
Fermentation incantation. Incantation is the magic behind apostrophe. All language is apostrophic. It is always addressing two. It is always addressing one who is present and one who is not, from a place of speech-origination that is as permeable to its own not-being as it is to its capacity to assert being. Lyric’s shifting of language between subjectivity and material distortion intensifies this process. That which the critic Jonathan Culler, in his various works on lyric theory, calls “embarrassing” in regards to apostrophe, is I think its fundamental source of resistance to its own institutions, including language and all that codifies it. The poet Lisa Robertson parallels and informs my stance by her idea of “the prosody of noise:” “The rhythmic opacity of noise,” she writes, “or the body or the city fails or exceeds its measure” (61). The lyric becomes incantatory as a form of noise, dependent upon its arrivals or emergences from the shelter of institutionalization; the way it runs from it without ever really leaving and what happens then by the prosody of that refrain. Robertson: “The prosody of noise parses a discomfort that uncovers, in its unstable caesura, the fact of the citizen’s material fragility” (61). The lyric poet is ultimately within but, and at least, triangulated, always able to incant to (at least) two outsides by the simultaneous surfacing of herselves. One outside is that shelter of institutionalization. The other is a violator of the sheltering, less immediately present, less named, yet equally something one is within. Incanting to both there in that is incantation-fermentation; a vatic acculturation that induces othering sensibilities, misdirecting language to and through what is expectant because it’s paying debt to an origin subversively fragile, which is to say it alters from the roots, ecologically speaking. This happens because it happens in a historicity that confounds presence into what I think Fred Moten in a more specific context calls nothingness, and Robertson noise, “the historicity of nonmeaning,” and what Theodor Adorno in “Lyric Poetry and Society,” calls “lyric’s inalienable right.” I will quote Adorno at length:
Not only does the lyric subject embody the whole all the more cogently, the more it expresses itself; in addition, poetic subjectivity is itself indebted to privilege: the pressures of the struggle for survival allow only a few human beings to grasp the universal through immersion in the self or to develop as autonomous subjects capable of freely expressing themselves. The others, however, those who not only stand alienated as though they were objects, facing the disconcerted poetic subject but who have also literally been degraded to objects of history, have the same right, or a greater right, to grope for the sounds in which sufferings and dreams are welded. This inalienable right has asserted itself again and again, in forms however impure, mutilated, fragmentary, and intermittent — the only forms possible for those who have to bear the burden. (45)
If these are the social conditions of lyric utterance, I think we might call them in a more total and visceral manner, lyric momentum, lyric fermentation, incantation-fermentation; a force welded to possibility and poverty, the poverty of possibility and the possibility of poverty. Lyric fermentation steps outside of the shelter of rhetoric by working specifically with unseen and also nonhuman agents of social condition; some tradition of evocation and anti-meaning expenditure addressed to whole ecologies of power and space. Lyric fermentation is what Adorno calls an “undercurrent that makes language the medium in which the subject becomes more than a mere subject” (45). It is only by way of (the sealed off, the hidden, the excised) poverty that subjectivity is afforded to the whole, and social conditions are afforded to ecology.
I approach these things through telling of an archive that for many years lived between readership and trash; between the carpentry of an author’s husband and Southern humidity and the teeth of rodents; between a daughter’s body and indifference. When I found the poem, “The Origin,” Besmilr Brigham’s archive became a law. Handwritten in blue ink, dated precisely in the upper right corner “Feb. 5.88/11 am,” I was sitting in the dust yard of the daughter Heloise’s home, Las Cruces, New Mexico, cataloguing everything because I thought she was dying. Heloise had just returned from the hospital diagnosed with bladder cancer. Besmilr’s boxed papers surrounded the bed I slept in and once I woke to see three little people sitting on top of them, looking at me. Heloise limped her tall, thick body outside, and read loud the scrawl, at the edge of her voice, while I typed.
I am an old woman writing.
in a gully of fright, bare red earth —
a yard of graves, hill-land and
delta; a child rocking in a chair
learning to read; it began, a recurring
in silence, with fingers on letters
feeling out the words. a young
woman’s songs, singing in the night
“The Origin” was evidence that she was still writing then. The late work is all in notebooks, handwritten; most of it dated precisely, with the time. She was hard in Alzheimer’s by the early ’90’s when C.D. found her in backwoods Arkansas, having dropped out of a brief period of belated literary recognition some fifteen years before. At this time, Besmilr could not always identify with her own work, questioning, for instance, in a video Forrest Gander recorded, from where “in the world” the poem she was reading out of the binder in her hands had come. When I saw (or should I say read, or witnessed?) “The Origin” I felt I was being addressed as an instrument of the archive, that it was employing me, making me it. A pulse emanated through all the papers and the house where her husband died before her in her lostness, and Heloise’s cancer. The word “writing” in the poem’s first line is subject and verb. “I am an old woman writing” is a stilled state of active being, continuing to perform in a combustion. It is old writing that irrupts the archive, adamantly and always resettling, unsettling, giving writing to I am not. She instrumentalizes her life’s work in its total precarity with a base statement of self-witness that cannot really be eradicated by any other. In this simple gesture, Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever, which deconstructs the “codetermination” of “archivable meaning,” is undermined by a diffident speech-act of self-witnessing and -protection. To re-appropriate Roland Barthes’ term, Brigham’s poem-object is the punctum to her papers; stripped of and stripping ready association, piercing for an other axis of perceiving and meaning-making. What if the specific poverty of a specific lyric’s tendency to ferment, foments past the archival superstructure into its own ante-archival persistence? What if this persistence is what saves it?
The noise before archive calls for an embodied research that might underlie recuperative urgencies as much as it reckons the extent of influence. In the noise: poems, blood-urine, photographs, voices, boxes, sleep, defunct mines, logging woods, cats, a bed the author’s husband died in, intuition, ghosts of the scholar, and income tax records, or the smell of paper rot that is the smell of accumulated backwoods shames and the exact disintegration of memory break down upon each other to formulate shapeshifting trace of authorial power. The exciting problem of this need is that it is pushed out and pushes out of bounds for immunity. This pushing is interrogative and instructional. I have asked myself the following questions, because the living and dying of my subject (and the living and dying of how there I arrived) instructs it. Where does Besmilr begin and the young, working with what she left, end? Where do Besmilr’s intentions begin and the archive’s own end? Where does Besmilr’s lyrical force begin and the decisions Heloise makes about its shelter end? Lyric fermentation, the dangerous abolition of boundaries these questions inaugurates, designates the mortal field. Fruits and drought of my intuition, hallucinations, illnesses, experience, and thought are given import to meet Besmilr in a mutual and dark noise. As when Robertson writes, “Noise doesn’t cohere with the figural self-identity of meaning,” that it “exceeds its own identity,” the lyric force of a woman’s materials teaches and so reforms, deforms “us” into untracked elsewhere. We join, so to speak, such a force of things to be closer to each other than our names can be. “Noise is moving survival.” The point is there is no evacuation of the subject’s momentum. There is no purification process for the caretaker and the dead to decisively separate themselves, in working through what is left.
Adorno, Theodor. “On Lyric Poetry and Society.” Notes to Literature Volume 1. Ed. Rolf Tiedeman. Trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. Print.
Katz, Sander. “The Art of Fermentation Sander Katz Interview.” Youtube, 22 April 2014. Web. 06 December 2014.
Robertson, Lisa. Nilling: Prose Essays on Noise, Pornography, The Codex, Melancholy, Lucretius, Folds, Cities, and Related Aporias. Toronto: Bookthug, 2012. Print.
Stewart, Susan. “Lyric Posession.” Critical Inquiry Vol. 22, Issue 1 (Autumn, 1995). U Chicago P, 34-63. Print.
(The author thanks John Melillo, Julie Carr, Jerome Rothenberg, and the organizers of the Outside-in/Inside-out Poetry Festival in Glasgow for the fundamental gift of dialogue.)