A review of Joyelle McSweeney's 'The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults'
“I am a Futurist,” writes Joyelle McSweeney, describing the strange historical allegiances of her work: “But I am a Futurist of 1909 rather than a Futurist who believes or anticipates a Future as envisioned by, say, TED talk panelists or believers in the progressive motion of literature as a reinforcement of political/capitalist bona fides.” As declarations of avant-garde intent go, McSweeney’s is deliciously paradoxical: an anachronistic investment in a movement that militated against anachronism, that made war on the past and its pious preservation. McSweeney’s relationship with the past is hardly pious. She finds in it a source of derangement and delight, a pleasure so strange that it fractures the present and releases political possibility. And generic possibility: though McSweeney began her career as a poet, her work has gradually metastasized, transgressing generic and disciplinary borders. In recent years, she has written plays, poems, novels, and a steady stream of essays that theorize the perverse pleasures of her own anachronistic, antigeneric practices. She thus occupies a strange position in contemporary poetry. Her work refuses many of the pieties of experimental writing — particularly its monotonous demand for innovation — yet she is a genuinely innovative figure.
To properly evaluate her work and her historical poetics, we need new critical tools, new language. In that respect, McSweeney has been generous with her readers. Her 2015 book of essays, The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults, supplies a seemingly endless stream of provocations and possibilities. She not only theorizes her own historical dissidence but maps a broad canon of similarly slippery, insurgent figures, naming that canon the “necropastoral.”
The term “necropastoral” emerged in the mid-to-late 2000s to describe figures like Johannes Göransson, Lara Glenum, James Pate, and McSweeney herself. These figures are linked by a coterie style and a set of common interests. Grotesque, verbose, Jacobean, their work relies on linguistic excess to index the violence of contemporary capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy. It is an aesthetically and theoretically ambitious body of work — though its poetics have largely been theorized in unofficial spaces, like the (now-defunct) blog Montevidayo. Published by the University of Michigan’s distinguished (and often conservative) Poets on Poetry series, The Necropastoral is perhaps the most official statement of the group’s priorities and practices to date. It offers an opportunity to evaluate the necropastoral: as an avant-garde movement, as a poetics, and, above all, as a practice of reading.
Given the title of McSweeney’s monograph, one might expect her book to be an extended critical introduction to the movement, or, at least, an extended definition of the necropastoral — and, in a sense, it is. But McSweeney’s definition defies the proprieties of academic criticism. McSweeney’s critical method refuses the very idea that there is an answer to a question like “What is the necropastoral?” The necropastoral is defined by its capacity to multiply and mutate, to transgress its own borders — to indict the very notion of borders. As she writes early in the book:
I give the name ‘necropastoral’ to the manifestation of the infectiousness, anxiety, and contagion occultly present in the hygienic borders of the classical pastoral … The term ‘necropastoral’ re-marks the pastoral as a zone of exchange. … Never inert, the necropastoral is defined by its activity, its networking, its paradoxical proliferation, its self-digestion, its eructations, its necroticness, its hunger, and its hole making, which configures a burgeoning textual tissue defined by holes, a tissue thus as absent as it is present, and therefore not absent, not present.
One notes how far we are from traditional definitions of the pastoral, which tend to organize the genre around, for instance, the role of the shepherd, or the relative political innocence of pastoral life. We can account for the strangeness of this definition, however, by noting that McSweeney is not defining a genre: rather she is defining a process, a flow, a set of textual operations. The necropastoral is the name she gives to a mode of textuality itself — a kind of textuality that has broken loose from the ordinary, linear operations of literary history. She continues:
Strange meetings in the necropastoral eat away at the model of literary lineage that depends on separation, hierarchy, before-and-after, on linearity itself; released like a rat-body into all edifices of hegemony, the ‘strange meeting’ will emerge as one of the necropastoral’s occult political modes.(3)
The necropastoral both names and produces a history that oozes, moving backward and sideways, rather than marching forward in lockstep linearity. It also produces a criticism that oozes. In McSweeney’s practice, reading itself becomes a necropastoral act — an act of contagion and derangement. Indeed, the definition quoted above comes as a kind of preamble to McSweeney’s reading of Wilfred Owen — or is it an afterword? Before she introduces Owen’s poem she has already begun to absorb and redeploy his language (viz. the orphaned reference to “the ‘strange meeting’”). As she writes later of the necropastoral’s theory of history: “the ‘outcome’ never stops happening, the outcome can only be damage, the outcome sometimes happens backward.” (14) The Necropastoral teaches us what the necropastoral is through its own multiplicity, its disregard for critical propriety, and it thus announces the necropastoral not only as a field of aesthetic practice but as an emerging critical style.
The compositional principle of McSweeney’s book is thus metastasis. She does not offer an Archimedean point from which to calmly and objectively survey its critical dominion. Instead, its objects of inquiry multiply according to a cancerous logic, a logic that respects neither the boundaries of historical period nor academic discipline but makes occult leaps across and through them. The book is divided into four sections. After an initial section that meditates on temporality, developing a necropastoral theory of literary time — which McSweeney calls “bug time,” drawing on the manic reproductive practices of Japanese rice hoppers — she turns in the following two sections to figures like Leslie Scalapino, CAConrad, Hannah Weiner, and Harryette Mullen, whom she engages with in a series of short readings, alongside Roberto Bolaño, who receives more extended treatment. Few, if any, of the figures that McSweeney considers in this section would identify themselves as necropastoral poets — nor would they necessarily affiliate themselves with each other as a movement or avant-garde camp. This is a striking choice in a book called The Necropastoral. Though the necropastoral has been a coterie poetics, McSweeney refuses, resolutely, to read many of the figures most closely associated with the movement.
Instead, she dedicates herself to discovering traces of the necropastoral in other figures and other movements. At its most successful, this practice produces supple readings of the poets in question; and, through them, broad insights about art itself. For instance, reading Chelsea Minnis’s poem “Enough,” McSweeney derives an imperative from it with dazzling speed:
Art must exploit the world in order to articulate itself as a likeness, this time a likeness to ‘flushing sequins down the toilet.’ Sequins instead of money; not something valuable, but something chintzy, decorative; trashing trash; Art’s redundant gesture; saturating the line with itself. (59)
“this is a poem because it squeezes you … / It is a shimmer like flushing sequins down the toilet,” Minnis writes. Her poem may be said to issue an invitation: speaking in generalities about poetry, Minnis asks her readers to make their own generalizations, to draw their own conclusions about what poetry is, how it works. McSweeney’s reading capitalizes on that invitation, employing Minnis’s language to make a characteristically necropastoral argument: art is waste, trash, decorative, redundant, recursive. Here McSweeney moves in sympathy with her source, working through it and with it. Her readings are not always so successful, or so intimate with their source: some readers may feel that McSweeney sacrifices the historic and aesthetic specificities of some of the texts she engages with in order to make her necropastoral derivations.
This is a sacrifice McSweeney seems ready to make. Her essays wager that combining discrepant figures — like Aimé Césaire and Wilfred Owen, whom she reads together in the book’s first chapter — will release otherwise illegible forms of theoretical and aesthetic possibility. Over the course of her book, McSweeney’s generalizing impulse allows her to intervene in a wide range of debates: around media, translation, power, death, disability, Art (her capitalization), and temporality itself. In particular, media theorists will find much of interest in McSweeney’s reworking of the key term in their field:
I am using the term medium in two different ways here — one, medium like paint, photograph, marble, steel, the stuff of Art, the material of Art. The substance. And the other, the transfer of Art from one form to another, the delivery system, the conveyance, the technology … [The impossible properties of translation] issues in a third resonance of the word medium: that of occult, spiritualist receptivity to ambiguous presences. (108)
In McSweeney’s treatment, the word “medium” becomes itself an ambiguous presence. Instead of simply measuring the materiality of an artwork, it becomes an occult antenna, registering transmissions that cross the boundaries of the living and the dead, the past and the present. In other words, “medium” is a zone of necropastoral activity: a site of strange meetings.
Despite the scope of her argument — and despite her ambitious interventions in foundational categories like “medium” — McSweeney is not interested in producing a comprehensive rereading of the avant-garde or a univocal theory of art. She does not offer a clean theory or a universal history. Indeed, such a theory would be anathema to the aims of the necropastoral, which resists the boundaries, hierarchies, and separation such theories inevitably generate. Rather, each of her essays attempts to identify and describe fugitive traces of the necropastoral: to mark it wherever it emerges as a poisonous principle of salvation. McSweeney ends the book with a section titled, ironically, “The Future of Poetry.” It is an ironic title because McSweeney is not a futurist: or, rather, she is a futurist of 1909. She wants to liberate avant-garde writing from demands of the future, insofar as those demands are determined by capital and heterotemporality:
I think so-called progressives and innovators need to think carefully about how their ideologies of experimentation, innovation, newness, progress, and improvement remap or offer support to these ideologies of capitalist, corporate, historical, patrilinear time. (42)
In this sense, the necropastoral militates against the new. It defies the venerable Poundian imperative toward innovation — indeed, it accuses that imperative of being, surreptitiously, in league with capital. It imagines a different kind of avant-garde writing, which draws its shock from its investment in the past, its capacity to raise forgotten possibilities from the dead: “The future of poetry is the present, and it has already arrived. The present tense rejects the future. It generates, but it generates excess without the ordering structures of lineage. It subsumes and consumes pasts into its present, erasing their priority.” (153) McSweeney asks for the past and the present to infest and derange the future.
The title of the volume’s final section, “The Future of Poetry,” is ironic in another sense as well: since the publication of The Necropastoral in 2015, the word “necropastoral” seems to have fallen out of favor. The movement has become more diffuse, while losing none of the intensity of the writing at its core. It is thus tempting to read The Necropastoral as a historical document, a rich record of early twenty-first-century avant-garde writing. But, in these essays, McSweeney asks us to read differently — to make reading itself a necropastoral practice. Reading The Necropastoral in 2019, the question is not: what was the necropastoral? Instead, McSweeney insistently asks her readers to imagine how her reckless, fecund, occult reading practice might infect the present — and, in the process, pluralize the future, “partaking,” as she writes about the pastoral, “of Elysian geography, weather, and pastimes” (21).
1. Joyelle McSweeney, “We Must Be Decadent, Again,” Montevidayo,November 20, 2013.