The best of all possible Audens
A review of 'Goodnight, Marie, May God Have Mercy on Your Soul'
Poetry makes nothing happen. Since 2008, it’s been pretty common for contemporary poetry and the discourse about it to swirl anxiously around this line from W. H. Auden. Nobody likes it; everybody quotes it. But in quoting it, nobody tries to argue for some distance between poetry and politics. It’s more like the question of whether poetry (and art more broadly) is or is not political has been answered by the movement of history — it is. So a new question is now on the table about how poetry is or can be political: what’s the best way to understand the politics of poetry? In this connection, many morbid Audens appear. There is the Auden of poetry that makes nothing happen because poetry, itself, is the happening. This is a line I associate with conceptual poetry, but on the other hand it rears its head in the context of attempts to explain why in the wake of Donald Trump’s election more people than ever started clicking on links to poems online. It’s the Auden of aesthetic autonomy, the Adorno Auden. Then there is the Auden of poetry that makes nothing happen because poetry is a pointless exercise when revolution is already ongoing in the streets — so why bother, except that we are bothering in order to point out the uselessness of our own bothering — this is the Auden of a reinvented historical avant-garde, which insists that art should struggle to abolish the distance between itself and life. It is an especially interesting Auden because the holders of this line are very astute critics of the very avant-garde ideology their position winds up advancing.
There are probably more Audens we could caricature. I mention these two in particular because it is between their competing claims for poetry — that poetry is immediately political in the terms it sets out for itself, and that poetry is utterly useless to politics, and so is political to the degree that it orients us away from its own terms toward the proper domain of political struggle — that the poetry of Marie Buck takes shape. Buck’s work puts a peculiar spin on the problem of Auden; it seems to say, sure, poetry makes nothing happen, but it doesn’t feel that way. This distortion of the Auden line seems like a good way to frame my account of Buck’s latest book, Goodnight, Marie, May God Have Mercy on Your Soul, not least because of the way that it underscores the flippancy of the book’s tone. Which is not to say the book is insubstantial or trivial — or, actually, it is these things, deliberately. It is through insubstantial and trivial articulations that Buck goes about some very serious business here. Flippancy, in other words, is a means to a poetic end; it evinces a sincere commitment to exploring the ways that poetry might make itself useful for politics.
Flippancy rears its head from before Buck’s book even begins. The title, Goodnight, Marie, May God Have Mercy on Your Soul, is a long and unwieldy phrase that announces a concern with time and temporality. In the first place, the title locates us in time: we are at the end of a day, it is nighttime, time for bed, time for someone to say goodnight to the poet, etc. But the end of a day is linked to the end of a life through the juxtaposition of the language of bedtime with the language of the law. Specifically, as Google tells me, “May God have mercy on your soul” is a locution used during the pronouncement of death sentences in courts of law. But the phrase has another significance. It’s the punchline of a famous monologue in the famous, if totally unwatchable, Adam Sandler movie Billy Madison, which I didn’t need Google to dredge up but which nevertheless appeared before the Wikipedia page when I searched for “May God have mercy on your soul.” Whatever grandeur we might have imputed to the figurative connection between bedtime and the death penalty has been qualified by this possible, even plausible, referent. The zaniness of the Billy Madison allusion introduces another temporality into the mix, placing childhood (at least adolescence) alongside nighttime and the abstract determination of a life’s end via sentencing to death.
I’ll have more to say about Googling and Billy Madison in a moment. For now suffice it to note that flippancy opens directly onto the question of how subjects are formed, the main theme of Goodnight, Marie, and one which serves to explain the book’s frequent dallying in the topoi of psychoanalysis. Indeed, however one feels about the solutions that Freud, Lacan, and their followers propose, the questions they ask about where subjects come from are surely indispensable — and, I would add, politically necessary, which Buck is at great pains to make evident. Whence her frequent and stark articulations of a gendered division of labor, as in the second poem, “Kicking Hard in My Cage”:
I sat there and organized my potholders.
While my father made his biscuits.
While my mother had a flower in her hair.
The poem’s title expresses a concern with unfreedom, which the lines I’ve just quoted route through the institution of the family. The speaker, her father, and her mother are all on separate lines and in separate sentences. The father actively “makes,” while the mother simply “has” a flower in her hair, passively. Buck’s “I” is caught somewhere in between; it is both “sitting” there, passively, and organizing potholders — an item which is metonymically linked to domestic labor. What is at issue, then, is a gendered division of labor, which the speaker goes on to thematize in light of the passive/active dyad at issue in these opening lines:
And my cape pulled me this way and that,
me without control,
me trying to win on my own,
me my own unhappy ruler.
My soul makes a list:
I want the large iron door.
I want the glowing book.
I want the nameless.
I want to homestead on an island of nothing.
I want to dissolve.
I want to score a goal with someone else’s head.
I want a big wide bed.
To make it past these ghosts, though. (11)
Buck is at once passive and active, the agent of her own misery (“me my own unhappy ruler”) and its object, that which is “pulled […] this way and that,” or the object of a list made by “my soul” (which list is also comprised of statements either of active desire or of active verbs). The grammar of this catalogue, which straddles between active and passive — it is neither in the passive voice nor yet a linguistic refraction of some deed undertaken outside of language, or, more precisely, outside the inner life of the speaker — is the grammar that transfixes Buck in Goodnight, Marie. For instance, the next poem, “My Touch,” takes the form of another list:
I hold something near my ear.
I hold a paintball gun.
I hold a cup of coffee.
I hold a duffel bag and a pair of gardening shears.
I hold a cop’s baton.
I keep my hand in my pocket.
I hold a knife I cut lettuce with.
I hold the steering wheel of a front-end loader.
I hold a bag.
I hold a knife.
I hold a gun.
I clench my fists.
I hold my things, which I’ve gathered up into my hands. (13)
Each of these lines portends a set of possible actions that the speaker could carry out beyond the page, but we don’t have enough information to deduce which among those deeds the speaker is likely to do. What we can note is that the speaker intends to do something. Which brings us back to the glib Auden-heuristic, in light of which we can ask: if we grant that poetry makes nothing happen, does that mean that poets necessarily intend nothing? A quick glance at the works of W. H. Auden — or of any other poet — suggests the answer is no. And one of the great upshots of Goodnight, Marie is that it insistently foregrounds this question of intentionality, which lends a political substance to the problem of mediation I’ve said motivates and energizes Buck’s writing.
Another way of saying this is that poetry, for Buck, is an anticipatory or a preparatory mode. It looks forward to the situation in which its latent oppositional stance might become manifest. And it does so by worrying about the relationship between latency and manifestation — or, if you prefer (as I do), between subject and object. In this context, the “politics” of poetry has to do with questions of intentionality and awareness rather than of efficacy or axial politicality. In other words, the matter of consciousness makes clear that poetry’s relationship to politics is akin to the relationship the art critic John Berger posits between “demonstrations” and revolutionary movements. For Berger, what he calls demonstrations are “rehearsals for revolution” and specifically of a “revolutionary awareness”; they are shows of possible power on the part of the masses that stop just shy of their own realization. Which, to me, seems like a pretty compelling analogy for poetry, not least because it allows us to put the Auden question to bed. Sure, poetry makes nothing happen, but it inculcates in the reader a sense of what it feels like when one is making things happen. It is, in a classical sense, a didactic art: it teaches you something.
So Buck joins a host of other contemporary poets who share a vested interest in the possibilities for a poetry of teaching. The way she thematizes this investment is interesting, and extends the various topoi of mediation we’ve been discussing so far. Witness the opening of the poem “2,” which is one of several poems titled with Arabic numerals — “2,” “10,” “3” — that pop up periodically and out of numerical order across Goodnight, Marie. Here we see learning as something that one does in the context of political struggle itself, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the only learners are the strugglers. Buck writes:
When you’re marching, someone wishes to express solidarity, but does not know the solidarity fist, and so first flashes a peace sign, which is confusing in the context of this particular protest, and then switches to pounding her heart with her fist and then touching it with her open hand, making an exaggerated facial expression to connote solidarity. She’s at work; she’s a doorwoman at a hotel, and I wonder if she would potentially get fired for that, were someone to put an image of that online, were that image to go viral. (14)
These two sentences figure a basic political problem: the constitution of a group (the marchers) in terms of the people who are excluded from that group (the doorwoman). The sympathy of the latter for the former is sincere, I think, but the struggle to find a form for expressing solidarity creates a rift in time between the marchers and their enthusiastic audience. The doorwoman, that is, lags behind the protestors, even as their marching occasions some learning on her part. But this learning is constrained by the necessity of a wage. Does this beget a further separation of doorwoman from marcher? The question’s an open one, made more complicated by the fact that the speaker places herself in an ambiguous (if not ambivalent) relation to the marchers. “You” marches; “I” wonders. There is no mention of any “we.” The first-person plural pronoun is a felt absence, one that structures the way these lines stage the question of collective political action as, specifically, a question, something whose solution is not given in advance and so is liable to change as it unfolds. The awkward, real-time negotiation of the doorwoman holds the place for any possible future “we,” which makes collectivity itself an awkward thing, something that one participates in and constructs over and through time, an entity that learns its way into being through trial by error rather than just showing up fully formed.
Another way to read the missing “we” here is in light of Buck’s suspicion of visual culture, which serves as an external support for the institution of wage labor. The doorwoman, that is, is at the mercy of her employer because of the omnipresence of images in our lifeworld, a surfeit of seeing that ends up being constraining and coercive. There exists an antagonism between protest and memes, between struggle and social media — an observation that flies in the face of recent liberal investments in protests that resolve themselves on the horizon of the production of powerful images of people in the streets, the consumption of which images exempts the sharer of the image and the viewer (note that the problem is with a “viral” image) from having to ask difficult questions about their own participation in politics beyond certain received and institutionally valid channels (i.e., voting for this or that bourgeois warmonger, calling indifferent congresspeople, signing online petitions).
Buck’s poetry, in its articulation of a particular form of intentionality, stands in stark opposition to the fantastical immediacy that pictures of protest promise but can never deliver. Against the satisfaction of an image consumed in an instant is the durational process of making a commitment. In this light, I would say that Goodnight, Marie is a veritable master class in the structures of feeling that constellate around commitment or alignment, which is what lends much of the book its intransigent tone. Whence these lines from “I was Hoping for a little, ‘Marie, please don’t go!’”:
Are you still working at the Firestone Plant?
No, I went to Princeton.
Are you still working at the Ford Plant?
No, I went to Columbia.
Are you still working at the Bosch plant?
No, I went to Yale.
And then I opened my mind to a spell
and performed torture
with my grip like a Crab-O-Saur
and my head a Tin Trespasser that goes where it wants,
a mystic vision that guides my Grabbers. (48–49)
The couplets in this passage stage a lyric call-and-response that indexes, at first sight, the class distinctions that underpin higher education in the United States. And yet as a graduate student — and knowing that Buck was a graduate student at one point, completing both an MFA and a PhD — I find the distinction between industrial plants and Ivy League institutions a bit more fraught than one between the working and ruling classes. For Princeton, Columbia, and Yale are not only elite institutions; they are also the beneficiaries of the immiserated labor of grad students, and vehement opponents of attempts by graduate students and adjuncts alike to organize and bargain collectively. Any implied narrative of social ascendancy is thus canceled out by the omnipresent fact of exploitation, which amounts to a political strategy on the part of the ruling classes, who seek to maintain the division of mental and manual labor wherever it may appear, and at all costs. These lines, then, gesture toward, if not a counter-strategy, then at least the terrain on which counter-strategizing might occur, the name for which is as simple as solidarity itself.
And then there are the proper names. I confess not to know what a Crab-O-Saur, a Tin Trespasser, or Grabbers are. But I think the effect of these mystifying nouns (or the use, in other poems, of Grox, which some Googling tells me is a species of antagonistic alien in the Spore video game universe) makes strange a certain type of mass-cultural referentiality that is almost ubiquitous in contemporary poetry as a readymade figure for collectivity. This is why, ultimately, it’s worth connecting the title of Goodnight, Marie to the use of “may God have mercy on your soul” that appears in Billy Madison. Buck writes a referential poetry with an investment in mass culture, but her use of reference cuts in the opposite direction from a lot of other poetry being written now in that it deliberately does not conjure any kind of solidaristic horizon on its own terms. This gesture serves a pedagogical purpose: it highlights that the unification effected by mass culture (the utopian kernel of “culture today is infecting everything with sameness,” maybe?) is simultaneous with the increasing alienation of people from one another. This dialectic of homogenization and fragmentation lies at the heart of the capitalist mode of production; it is at once the basis for, and the major impediment to, collective struggle against that mode of production — which Buck’s poetry insistently brings forward, presenting to the reader as a problem that politics will have to take into account.
I have yet to talk about the performing of torture for money. What does it mean that the speaker opens her mind to a “spell”? Is she ideologically duped? This is surely part of it, but I think that in light of the references to higher education we can read this as a figure for the unsavory ways that intellection finds to let itself (to let the intellectual, more precisely) off the hook of having to contend with political and social exigencies. In this light, the invention of proper names to serve as tenors for the vehicle of remunerated torture indicts academic work for finding solace in the thought that culture can constitute a form of resistance, behind which lies that finicky rationalization: I am describing the objects that resist, and in doing so am, myself, resisting; I am at one with these objects! In the last analysis, however, I am inclined to read these lines as a sincere description of wage labor, which shapes the world that these poems exist in and refract, and which is the basis for all of the temporal problems that swirl around in this book.
To these problems Buck offers no solutions, but I don’t think that’s her understanding of what poetry is for. Poetry is rather more indirect, limning the impasses of the present and pointing beyond itself toward all that needs transforming — up to and including a certain received idea of poetry and its relationship to revolution or radical politics. The great strength of Goodnight, Marie is thus its consistently disconsolate stance, which holds that revolution will be thrilling, but it will also be, like poetry, a project, one that requires everyone involved to learn by doing. In this sense, there is some truth to the Auden quip. Poetry doesn’t make anything happen, but it prepares us to make things happen. So, finally, the question of whether one should choose poetry or revolution seems completely absurd, “like asking,” to use one final image from Buck, “if/you’d rather have a real twenty bucks or a fake twenty bucks” (14) — a question entirely beside the point.