Mutual-aid amid 'ASoUND'

A review of Cheena Marie Lo's 'A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters'

Boat from the cover of ‘A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters’ laid over a visualization one of the book’s poems of tabulated numbers.

A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters

A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters

Cheena Marie Lo

Commune Editions 2016, 76 pages, $16 ISBN 978-1934639191

As a rule, the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest possible concrete development, where one thing appears as common to many, to all. Then it ceases to be thinkable in a particular form alone. — Karl Marx, Grundrisse

Earlier I rode in David’s parents’ sports utility twice past the Church’s Chicken in Funktown that just shut — Chelsea tells me it was about a month ago — to and from moving a bookcase out of Uhuru Furniture & Collectibles into David’s new room in The Honey Hive, the cooperative house David until recently had a far less sunny room in. Chels speculates the Church’s shut in part because of how many folks, apparently residentially or vocationally displaced, hung out front; many still do, like folks still do on the sidewalks surrounding the recently chainlink-enclosed St. Andrews Plaza in West Oakland, a block from the tenants’ rights clinic. Chels added that the folks assembling in front of Church’s, whether just to assemble or else to hit up neighbors for chicken or change with which to buy chicken or whatever, represent the population of the restaurant’s neighborhood customer base, who were presently getting displaced. Following the logic of a recent piece in The Guardian describing how “in many poor and middle-income neighborhoods … McDonald’s have become de-facto community centers,” these folk of Funktown do less and more than represent demographic shifts. They’re doing what they’ve been doing for some time — getting together where they have been regardless of whether the doors behind them are open any more.

“[T]owards each other,” “towards our neighbors,” “towards the amalgamation of larger divisions of the species for purposes of mutual protection,”[1] to quote from a poem in Cheena Marie Lo’s new book of poems, their first. Lo, like me, is an Oakland-based poet, writing in (yet another) period of our neighbors’ violent deterritorialization and reterritorializing mutual-aid; this period is the subject of their book.

A series of un/natural/disasters and their mass mediations — statistics included — have already done the work of reiterating the racialization of many of those to whom I refer, the people Lo’s book allegorically cares most for. According to Development Without Displacement, a report put out by Causa Justa::Just Cause, the same organization that houses the aforementioned tenants’ clinic, “Between 1990 and 2011, Oakland’s African American population decreased [by 40 percent] from 43 percent to 26 percent of the population, the largest drop by far of any population group.” Census data visualized by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project shows that in the census tract including Funktown’s Church’s, the black population fell by thirty-three percent, from thirty percent to twenty percent, between 1990 and 2010.

The shuttered restaurant’s facade has already been covered in painted writing. My favorite throw-up there is “IDEA,” writ in big comparatively flat-styled block letters as if to name the social force that has displaced the restaurant’s operation. It’s that big idea that makes matters its own and then moves out many of said matters’ makers, as in the moving contradiction, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” — considered a natural phenomena by political economists before (and since) Marx’s critique. Recall that, for Kant, beautiful things — nature exemplary among them — are beautiful because to the viewer they appear as designed purposively despite lacking practical purpose; with this in mind, I quote the closing lines of Lo’s poem “How There Was So Much Water”:

how nature is layered on the manmade.

or how man interferes with nature and fails. something about lines and
       boundaries and naming. something about the ugly being beautiful.

how what’s dirty is actually crystal clear. (20)

Building exteriors are among the most insistent images in Lo’s A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters; these exteriors are subprime and beautiful, to paraphrase an essay title of Fred Moten’s. When I first heard Lo read from the book’s manuscript over a year ago at the release event for their Commune Editions comrade Jasper Bernes’s We Are Nothing and So Can You, I thought maybe some of the poems concerned foreclosed homes (no longer signature to Oakland’s housing crisis, but part of its basis; more so a residential injury signature to the crisis in Providence, RI from where I moved not long ago). Perhaps that night Lo read “Direct Sunlight Looking Over 4725 Dauphine Street,” which includes the following:

lines of parallel panels painted gray and peeling.

eight lines of parallel panels in the frame pained gray and peeling.

orange X spraypainted on eight lines of parallel panels in the frame, so
       bright against paint gray and peeling. (17) 

After another listen and several reads these images become more obvious marks of one of the many New Orleans homes wrecked when the levees failed amid Hurricane Katrina — because of so many “because”s listed in “Because Another Tropical Storm is Looming,” but most immediately “because the levees that protect New Orleans from floods are weak” (9). The “orange X spraypainted” appears again in three other poems, “X-Codes Mark the Spot on Every Home,” “Xs May Shine With Startling Clarity,” and “Yellow House Leaning Forward.” A little research following the book’s acknowledgement of K + 5: An X-Code Exhibition elaborates that the X-Codes were used to indicate whom or what FEMA responders found in the home as it was searched for survivors; the codes since “seem to say/xo rip miss you,” as Lo’s “X-Codes Mark the Spot” describes (60). (At the level of euphemism, my association with foreclosure wasn’t entirely wrong: finance jargon refers to a home as “underwater” when the price of the property is less than the amount owed to the lender.) 

The main un/natural/disaster serialized in the book, as I’ve already indicated, is the one faced by those to whom the language of news reports — from which Lo appropriates significant parts of the book’s text — refers as “poor black people,” or “poor and African-American,” or “poor black communities,” and these are just three of more than a dozen variations on that phrase Lo borrows: “folks [who] were told to evacuate, and they had no means to do it” (28–30), or else did and now have no means to get back. The repetition of these variations, among many other phrases, fragments, and sentences beginning with the word “poor” in the poem “Poor Marks for His Handling of Federal Response,” seems to simultaneously mark the inadequacy of such language and to perform part of an answer to two questions that appear early in A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters and that resonate throughout:

can a disaster be qualified by the number of lives lost?
                                                                                 /how to quantify absence?” (16).

A few years ago in the comment feed to Calvin Bedient’s “Against Conceptualism: Defending the Poetry of Affect” Bhanu Kapil wrote that “there ARE dead zones — real ones — and that to study their neutrality is a politics of sensation.” Kapil was contesting Bedient’s dismissal of M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! along with a whole slew of other works that sometimes get tagged Conceptual Writing. Kapil wrote that observation after seeing a performance of Zong!, and wrote this too: “Being there — at all — with [next to] [at the perimeter of] the worlds or beings who — don’t get to tell or say or be in certain vital or expressive ways” (brackets Kapil’s). This could easily be a description of what Lo’s book is and does, why it’s perfect that its acronym is ASoUND, indefinitely audible ambient as the whole thing is (I’m thinking now of Lyn Hejinian’s description of Renee Gladman’s Ana Patova Crosses A Bridge as “zones of sheer ambience”). But of Kapil’s declarations, which don’t once relate Zong! to Conceptual Writing, and how apt they feel to me for A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters, I can’t help but think how the book again and again apposes the concept of disaster and disaster’s general un/naturalism with its real sensitivity for disasters’ fields of ambient socioecological loss, losses that qualitatively count the disaster of late imperial capital and its cultural forms, conceptualism most definitely included. Near, against, amid “the state … in danger of collapse” and “there is no way home” (52), Lo poses: “so what about support and what about struggle”; “so what about the field upon which tender feelings develop even amidst otherwise most cruel animals” (38). 

When Cathy Park Hong wrote last year, “The era of Conceptual Poetry’s ahistorical nihilism is over and we have entered a new era, the poetry of social engagement,” this book was still on its way to us to help realize this new era. While reappropriating many of the tools that Conceptual Writing sought to claim for itself from older avant-gardes and amid much literal and figurative abstraction — whether lists of categories that “connect policy to built environment” and “probation to reinvestment” (13–14) or a three-page table of digits with no obvious reference except one of several acknowledgements in the back of the book (43–45) — A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters “speaks through its sheer numbers” (42). It says that disaster is inseparable from the socioecology that you can hear, no matter how distant, in the materials of its very conception when that materiality comes together; it’s always been together. 

This is why when reading Jameson Fitzpatrick’s review of A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters for Lambda Literary, I am both with and not with Fitzpatrick in hoping that “[i]n future work, perhaps we will have the opportunity to hear more of what Lo themself has to say in … asides,” such as:

(unspeakable this anxiety i am
unable to find the language
until long after waking
until then, there is this) (53)

For, as Maurice Blanchot reminds readers over and over in The Writing of the Disaster, the “unspeakable … anxiety”[2] of Lo’s speaker is an affective literary mark of the disaster that has and is always already come and yet to come. And that disaster is everywhere found, un-and-con-founding us. The speaker’s aside itself substitutes for found language “until” the “i” is “able to find the language … long after waking.” This language is something that we find, sometimes strangely, in common with Lo in figuring out how we can move toward each other amid these times A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters writes through. We are ourselves together in it.

1. Cheena Marie Lo, A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters (Commune Editions, 2016), 49–50.

2. Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (University of Nebraska Press, 1986).