Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
Activism, biblical prosody, the productive capacity of negativity, and bonhomie among poets.
2013 saw the publication of books by David Brazil, Jackqueline Frost, and Evan Kennedy—all writers based in the Bay area. These works, read in tandem, produce a unique dialogue about politics, theology, and activism. All the authors were involved, to greater or lesser extents, in Occupy Oakland and I wanted to ask them how the compositions both anticipated the events of 2011 and spoke to their experience participating therein.
At long last I am finally able to sit down with all of your books and consider the conversation I believe they are having with one another. I’m particularly interested in their proximities—geographically, intertextually, politically, socially/communally—and how these proximities collide via the occupations of 2011–2012. What I observe is a profound sharing of affinities, especially through the various theological discourses/figures you invoke: Saint Paul, in both Jack’s The Antidote (Compline, 2013) and David’s The Ordinary (Compline, 2013); and Francis of Assisi, in Evan’s Terra Firmament (Krupskaya, 2013). I know there are many more I am excluding.
So here is my opening question: How might these books be situated toward one another through recent events, but also through a shared sense of discourse prefiguring these events, which shaped your thinking about sociopolitical action and radical practices of community?
>span class=”initials”>Jackqueline Frost I’ll begin by noting that your question is vast. But the gesture of it circumscribes the story of the books: how these three books came to exist, and as a trilogy. The question also suggests that the movement and struggles experienced here in the Bay during the fall of 2011 serve as a sort of rubicon—which must be qualified.
The poetic affinities that can be easily excavated in our respective works predate those events and, in a way, continued through them indifferently, though we took from them as students of a discourse, and talked through them together, then went away and wrote through them alone. This is how our singular books were produced qua a tendency that we developed and that developed us. This tendency is hard to pin down, but theology is a good start.
The milieu of bay poets, generally speaking, is already quite metaphysical; anyone would tell you so. Lots of people working on dead languages, and necessarily, often on quasi-religious literature. My interest in biblical eschatology was nascent before meeting David and Evan in 2009. Also, I was negotiating aesthetically with the rise of conceptualism, which makes sense as the youngest poet of the group, and with political questions of identity and recognition from a queer context. It seems to me, now, that what grounded our lyric progression was the footprint of biblical prosody—whether via Augustine, Milton, or the Gospels themselves. I abandoned conceptualism for the depth of feeling—yes, feeling!—that the lyric opened onto, that I experience in the later works included in Evan’s first book, Shoo-Ins to Ruin, and for the depth of thought in David’s strategic, novel use of language, both in his texts and in our conversations.
Around this time, Evan was cultivating his concept of bonhomie, which became, for me, an essential tool in navigating what some might call “community,” and for examining the limits of affection that manifested as professionalism and the acquisition of social capital among poets, as well as the debilitating fear and volatility that permeates queer circles. Bonhomie exposed fragility while fomenting an aspirational type of collectivity, which is less sterile than solidarity and more radical than friendship. It flies in the face of Nihilist-Leftist perspectives that cannot even utter terms like “goodwill.” (Hocquenghem notes the same issue among the French Left in the 70s, and likewise says, “Theirs is not a system for progressing through contradiction.”)
But the radical democratic gesture of bonhomie is also the point of departure between Evan’s work and mine. As he found it “crucial to stay hopeful” and wrote through the positive messianic project of Terra Firmament, I found myself in need of a negativity that was compatible with the anger of the subjugated—through the shame of class rejection, gender rejection, internalizing this shame and later realizing its perversity.
And this is perhaps where David came in: he was investigating alienation (this is my diagnosis). Through our conversations, we explored a new modality, a way of analyzing our lives with theology, philosophy, and political economy in unison. More than anyone else I know, David believes in and practices the inextricability of these modes—arguing that the dimensions of any instance cannot be negotiated without bringing metaphysics, epistemology, and ontology to bear on a given scenario—as these correspond not just to a higher order of “consciousness,” but to the lived world of human thought (following Hegel, the real is rational).
I’ll bring in the question of Saint Paul by mentioning how the occupations, the camp, the politicization of daily life—how all that resonated with the three of us after a lengthy mutual fascination, comprising years of our friendship, with Paulian concepts, with Saint Francis, with medieval Christian mystics, with the intersection of radical communalism and poverty and denial of this world; and how all of this can be filed, abstractly, and poetically, under thenomos, the law, judgment, or politics. Materially however, it signifies historical inversions of our present arrangement, namely, communism.
David Brazil I am honored to be placed in this constellation, and I choose that term “constellation” advisedly, because the beginning of an intelligent response to Thom’s prompt requires the specification of distinction-within-pattern. This is to say, all three of us (I think) end up in different places with respect to our politics, but this is good and fine, and these books/us make a picture together even while preserving our singularities as artists, thinkers, and people. When Angela Davis spoke on the morning of the General Strike in Oakland she said, “Our solidarities will be complex solidarities.” There’s a reason I’m still quoting that line two years later.
Also, of course, as my dear comrades have also said, we need each other—among other reasons, to tease out of one another the threads of our vocation. Hölderlin says, “Yet never gladly the poet keeps / His lore unshared, but likes to join with / Others who help him to understand it.”
Jackie is spot-on in what she has written: so much of what we all have in common, which comes up in these books, predates the events of fall 2011. Evan reminded me this week that one of our first conversations was about St. Augustine, and I recall studying the Gospel of Mark with Jackie and Sara Larsen. These conversations and studies inflected our work, and as Jackie so eloquently says, became “a tendency that we developed and that developed us.” A tendency which, perhaps, no one apart from the three of us were even really aware of, but which gave me a great deal of courage and permission to push my work on in directions that hadn’t seemed possible before.
So, yes, we were all bookish and studious, as Bay writers have historically tended to be. But how did the events of 2011 activate these latencies?
To talk about what really happened here in 2011, well, I don’t want to be mystery-mongering—after all, a lot of other people were there and plenty has been written already—but even at the time those of us who were there knew there was a strong wind-from-elsewhere blowing. No amount of cold-water historiography after the fact can possibly change the experience of Occupy Oakland at Oscar Grant Plaza, “now in the mind indestructible” no matter what reversals the subsequent years have placed upon us all. I am certainly not likely to forget going down to the Plaza the very first day with Jackie and some other friends, her reminding me, “Let each one remain in the calling wherein s/he was called.” (That’s Paul.) From that day until the police destruction of the camp two weeks later, Evan’s stated ambition of a “habitable earthly paradise” was on the table at Oscar Grant Plaza—a polis where the fault lines of an apartheid city (inside an apartheid country founded on slavery and genocide) became visible as the first stage of amelioration, where insofar as possible all the basic needs of everyone were met, and where uniformed police were not permitted to enter.
But the funny thing about my book is that it’s not an Occupy book. Everything in it was written prior to the fall of 2011, with the exception of the last section, “To Romans.” The central section of the book, “Economy,” was begun in March of 2011 and finished in August. That piece seems thoroughly haunted by that world to come in October, knowing not what it should be (its precise lineament) but that it will be. A prose attempt at propaganda I wrote that summer begins with this epigraph from Leibniz: “heavy with futurity.” Something was gonna happen. Obviously this perception follows in some degree the general world tension on the heels of the Arab Spring, as well as the events in Madison. And then, over the summer of 2011, various local anti-austerity and anti-police-brutality actions. But, you know, Shelley also wrote that “poets … are the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.”
In other words, the book stands temporally oblique to the thrust of your question, unless perhaps that obliquity is a means to think the unrest of time within itself. CJ Martin has recently written, very beautifully, about the presence of this concern in The Ordinary. “When are we?” and “what is time really?” are by no means emptily speculative questions. Back to Jackie’s formulation: these questions are philosophical, political-economic, and theological, all in one. That intersection is where we live, whether we like it or not—hic Oakland, hic salta.
Evan Kennedy On my third day in the Bay Area, I met David at the 21 Grand reading series. We began a dialog that allowed me to toughen up. My appreciation of writers such as Augustine had been superficial—in the way that I wasted my childhood examining portraits on baseball cards closer than stats—and underwent reevaluation through David’s recommendations and books gifted with incredible foresight. Presents included Lyotard’s The Confession of Saint Augustine, Agamben’s The Time That Remains, Stephen Rodefer’s Villon, Cavalcanti, Kahn’s Heraclitus, an overly generous selection of Pope (“And it’s not even my birthday!”), essays on the medieval resurrection body by James Blusher and Stanley Prikov, and, among others, a Loeb Confessions (Augustine’s) which I prize. My reevaluation of Augustine required greater attention to the “shape” of the sentences (as Beckett admired), the stark and sad heft of the God-seeker’s body, and the necessity of praise, which I began directing in my writing to unnamed collectives of men, a necessity at the time, in terms of bonhomie.
Though my memory is as foggy as my morning bicycle commute, the standout moments in my early friendship with Jack and David occur at Condensery, the reading series Zoe Tuck and Jack curated out of Jack’s Oakland home. I still remember the look on David’s face (a twinkling of baffled intrigue) when I reported discovering a passage from the Gnostic gospels that contains lines directly lifted by Bob Dylan for his 1983 album Infidels (a guilty pleasure for us both)—I’ve a paper forthcoming. Dialog between us three progressed almost exclusively through run-ins at readings because the East Bay is currently the hotbed of poetic activity, and I’m earthbound in all-but-forgotten, pricey San Francisco without 24-hour public transportation. I also have trouble sleeping on couches or alongside most anyone else.
My friendship with Jack developed through these readings, the intervals allowing sullen inquiries within myself. I wound up launching a strategy of courtship to secure the feverish accomplices a poet’s work requires. I mean that Jack and I didn’t have to go to
Giants games together (though we did) or attend Christmas mass (did that too) or eat a slice from every pie at St. Francis diner (then run out on the check); instead, I found for my work allies in Jack’s so it could better defend itself from hopeful destroyers. To cut to the chase, I began thieving from her poems—with gusto—and continued to find in David and Jack a hopelessness unburdened by despair but expectant toward a radical adjustment of our sensitivities. My idea of their expectation later crossed over (so to speak!) into Saint Paul’s messianic expectation—with thanks to David’s treatment of Epistle to
the Romans—and my rather dogged reverie of a habitable earthly paradise for all of creation. I don’t know if anything similar to habitable earthly paradise played out at Occupy for however brief a time.
I would now like to ask you each a discrete question, in hopes that you may also feel free to form a dialogue with each others’ responses, and/or respond to the question I have posed to another.
Jack: I am intrigued by what you identify as “Left Nihilism,” and your wanting to distance yourself from this historical attitude. Despite our shared left melancholy, I’m wondering how poetry and art may offer us a way out of the bind of sociopolitical despair, and/or simply a sense that there is no horizon for acting with renewed promise, a lifework or praxis that overcomes the overdetermination of our affinities and affections by both an administrative calculus made possible by late capital and the confines of existing political models and attitudes/affects? Maybe a simpler way to post this question, Jack, is: What might it mean to be a committed communist and a poet now, in our cultural moment?
David: Something that interested me upon reading The Ordinary is your use of found writing materials (scrap paper and other waste material). At some point in the book, via a conversation with our friend Brian Whitener, you relate this to “the commons.” Could you talk about your evolving use of found materials to evoke the reuse of waste, and thus the estovers of a bygone (or possible future) commons? You may also wish to talk about your penchant for obsolete writing technologies (the typewriter/hand-written letter) and the design of The Ordinary (by Michael Cross) with regards to the notion of commons. It reminds me of a shared favorite passage from Augustine, often quoted by Robert Kocik: “if only they had used the world without using it.”
Evan: Upon hearing (and seeing) you read your work this past spring at the SEGUE reading series in New York, I was struck by a number of things with regard to your performance of the work. First, that it is very rare for poets to perform their poems from memory, and yet this was precisely what you were doing, sans score. Could you discuss your decision to perform the poems of Terra Firmament from memory? How may this performance choice possibly relate to the content of the book?
>span class=”initials”>DB I am thinking as so often with my Bible to my left, and specifically a passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 4:13: ωs περικαθαρματα του κοσμου εγενηθημεν, παντων περιψημα εωs αρτι (we have become as the refuse of the world [or the kosmos], the off-scouring of all things until now). This is Paul writing to the church at Corinth in the first century. This is also our present proletarian condition. We are the “surplus populations” spoken of in contemporary political economy. We are cast out, cast off, traduced and abjected, left with no history. This is also reflected in our material reality, in our relation with the objects through which we think ourselves and in which we model all possible relations. As CA Conrad writes in his introduction to A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon, “If I am an extension of this world then I am an extension of garbage, shit, pesticides, bombed and smoldering cities, microchips, cyber, astral and biological pollution.” We are all that.
All waste also actually talks. Being struck in the face by history it has no choice. “[E]conomy” was an attempt to discover the contingent prosody inside of the intersection of objects, days, a space (Oakland) and myself. The question of waste or garbage is the question of the possibility of falling, stage by stage, entirely outside of the circuits of exchange-value, toward the cold dense bottom of the universe Aristotle thought the world was. And then, the possibility that what is so reduced can then explode the cosmos, the world according to their order (the order of the enemies)—the stone the builders rejected. Gnostic, Lurianic, alchemical—take your pick. We rise.
The historical commons was destroyed by primitive accumulation, and I often find it misleading to talk about “the commons” unless we’re clear that we’re talking about a social structure of non-metaphorical access to the means of subsistence outside the cash nexus and the wage relation. Any of you proles reading this know very well there’s no such thing. If you want lunch, find a fucking ducat or it’s tough luck. In a talk in San Francisco several years ago Robert Kocik spoke to this concern when he said (and I’m paraphrasing), we have to make a commons out of money. I’m sympathetic to this project, as a transitional aim: using money to destroy money. Or rather the relationships that money structures—its cosmos. (The Greek word Paul uses, κοσμου, is related to our English word “cosmetics”—it’s an adornment or a harmonious ordering. In our case it’s the harmonious ordering of the world for the benefit of the owners, an order it is our collective task to overturn, to overturn, to overturn.) I believe we can rebuild such a real commons (this is what I understand to be the political task of communization), but we certainly don’t have it at present.
Rather than the commons, the waste that structures “economy” comes from the space of civic abandonment, which I think is something else entirely.
As to the question of the use of the world, I can do no better than to fast-forward in I Corinthians a smidge to get to the famous ωs μη (“as not”) starting at 7:29—in my translation, “But I say this, brethren, the kairos has been rolled up; for what remains, let the ones having wives be as though they had not wives; let the ones weeping be as not weeping; let the ones rejoicing be as not rejoicing; let the ones buying be as not holding what they buy; and let the ones using [χρωμενοι] the kosmos be as not misusing [καταχρωμενοι]; for the scheme of the kosmos is passing, and I want you to be without care.”
EK I began to memorize the poems when my printer broke during a bout of frenzied editing. If a line slipped from memory, I rarely heard it again. Turning readings into recitations provided the opportunity to test the work through these acrobatics. Furthermore, New York poets are a demanding bunch with a rabid appreciation of child stars, and I felt compelled to honor that at SEGUE. From the small triumph of occupying those texts and delicately shepherding them along arose an affirmation that the work was passable. My solace bolstered itself, and those memorized poems reappeared in recitations to myself throughout subsequent days.
Which brings me to my body, and the unimpressive but suitable set of muscles assisting me as I try to describe this. It’s safe to say that much of the book was edited atop my bicycle. I don’t mean I had papers scattered before me like that bicyclist pedaling the velodrome while reading Le Monde. I mean that I would recite the poems while pedaling, swerving around cabs, coming to full stops for cop cars, letting my eyes get caught up in street candy or, to less exhilaration, my reflection in shop windows.
Perhaps a correlation can be drawn between rhythms in the work and pedaling, especially since I compose by ear, but that’s a little too tidy for the filth of my city habitat. Because the bicycle is an extension of my body and I understand what will hold me or spill me (I’m tempted to conclude we only truly understand those we top), the poems became vocalized extensions of my hands, feet, and skinned knees. Certain poems I enjoyed reciting to myself when glum, or cheerful. The work would be a little different if I had another’s body.
JF You ask if art presents “an out” from what we both like to call “left melancholy.” I’ll say straightaway that I’ve never experienced poetry mitigate melancholy. Sex, running, yoga, more coffee, less coffee—these things have helped me. But I have found the world of poetry—and we do refer to it this way—to be a genuine distraction from the more unsavory elements of existence, be they political or not, as any subculture with its own shared prerogatives and mythos can insulate us from the monotony of the wage relation, heterosexuality (for many), neurosis, whatever.
What I experienced during the struggles in Oakland was a certain possibility around poetry that had been long lost, dashed by the dystopian nature of experimental poetry milieus (their competitiveness and insularity, the way they consolidate white supremacist and male homosocial bonds, a meaningless crisis of trends couched in a contradictory democratization of style, etc.). In short, I discovered that my audience was not limited to the “poet’s poets,” that many people in the movement were excited, moved, and challenged by poetry, and this gave me a renewed strength in my art practice. It affirmed my relationship to poetry outside of the fraught affirmation of white, cisgendered/heterosexual social capital that I was more than capable of accruing and cashing in on for material and psychical gains within the poetry milieu.
As far as committed art goes, I think often of an Oki Sogumi line: “we had very few choices to make but we always made them.” Politically committed poetry transposes one’s priorities in the making of the poem from asking if politics is a suitable subject for poetry. Is the poem a suitable space for politics? And if the answer is no, then what is to be done? And I wanted The Antidote to be a text wherein, “events congeal into image as social aggression” (to invert and paraphrase Lisa Robertson’s formulation). So, to get back to anger: this is where Terra Firmament and The Antidote diverge. The Antidote is negativity, with all its dialectically productive capacities.
I suppose I don’t believe that being a communist and a poet means anything at all, necessarily. It certainly doesn’t promise an actual radicality among self-describers. I also don’t believe that poetry can be militant, in any real sense. It can speak to militancy, articulate it, etc. But it doesn’t do militancy. Most “militant poets” in the Bay and in the UK don’t do militancy either. It remains almost entirely aspirational, based on the circumstances in which we are embedded—that is, being poets/people who have not lived through a truly revolutionary moment. We have been protestors, occupiers, vandals, etc. But militants? Hardly. The appellation “communist poet” does arise as a vector of being through the specificities of the historical moment—though honestly, this determination, its legibility, is due almost entirely to the propensity of bourgeois, academic culture to have it both ways, that is, to be able to reproduce itself as a class of experts with specialized knowledge, while at the same time positioning itself as the vanguard of revolutionary practice.
But any life must negotiate multiple modes of existence. As David reminds us in The Ordinary, economy (or, our situ) is composed of oikos and nomos. A committed art practice, and a politically committed life is concerned, if negatively, with law and society, but it is also concerned with the arbitration of allegiance and accountability outside or before the law, for which the family (affinity group) is the archetype. And the nexus of questions around family, coterie, camaraderie, and accountability have remained with me through the decomposition of the movement, through the bifurcation of positions, through the brutal minutia endured without a unifying sequence. Importantly for us, camaraderie is shot through with the question of ethical life in a world of dead ceremonies that prohibit the extent of affirmation and affinity. As proletarians, we must contend with a world of law and a world of allegiance and must calibrate our movement across these worlds. For me this movement had proven increasingly intractable, such that the only choice availing itself is an active denunciation of power and counter-violence against a life fixed by the substrate of value—which, like the riot cop in Evan’s A Cyclist, is not to “be met and won over,” but “met and transfigured as silence.”
As Nanni Balestrini writes in The Unseen, “to generalize the offensive means to radicalize disaffection.” The Antidote turned out to be a bildungsroman of radicalized disaffection; the becoming of a deep antagonism with the present state of things and the sudden clarification that everything else—anything outside of this fundamental polemic—is (in the words of Robert Hurley) “unground and suspect.”
In place of a new round of questions I want to prompt you to do something.
I am curious if you can take one phoneme, morpheme, word, phrase, line, stanza, or unit (page? movement?) of each others’ books—one that is particularly meaningful to you, or particular to the dialogue of these books—and produce a “reading” of it? Or perhaps even better than providing a reading would be to reflect on how you see this moment of the book taking place in relation to your own work and a larger field—both of poetics and the socio-political. Feel free to “close read,” in other words; but also riff on where these moments in the work lead you.
>span class=”initials”>EK “and stealing a little bit of life / in the Metropolis.” –Jackqueline
“It sounds like a / market response.” –David
The other night, my bicycling trajectory intersected too much with a car, and the driver pulled a gun and gave chase. Neighbors are goons. I eventually returned home fine, and, since my address is all over my poems, I assume he hasn’t read them. My obscurity continues to save my life. I call the encounter banal not because I’m indifferent (I’m a sissy) but to be shot while pedaling home listening to “Bangerz”—good lord. I always picture “Wild Is the Wind.”
Thus, I was culpable too in this moment void of any heft outside the prospect of his violence—a market response, a reminder for me to alert the vital.
An issue I find myself articulating, or seeking in Jack and David, is that of designing a home among antagonists who act as impediments to my solace. When I’m met with resistance while asserting my fragility as a bicyclist in motion, I turn to Francis of Assisi, quoted here in early hagiography: “if we bear such great wrong and such rebuffs without disquieting ourselves and without murmuring against him and think humbly and charitably that he really believes us to be what he has called us”—motherfucker in my case—“and that God makes him speak against us, write that here is perfect joy.”
DB “What of Paradise Now.” –Jackqueline
“and so on toward paradise now” –Evan
Back in 2010, I wrote a text that Sara Larsen and I ran as the cover of an issue of Try magazine. It was titled “Immediate Demands” and read as follows: “END THE WARS / NATIONALIZE THE BANKS / FREE EDUCATION / NO MORE APARTHEID / UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE / WORKERS COUNCILS / ABOLISH PRIVATE PROPERTY / NO MORE INHERITED WEALTH / RIGHT TO HOUSING / RIGHT TO FOOD / RIGHT TO LOVE / PARADISE NOW.”
In other words, politics didn’t start with Occupy, and it hasn’t stopped with the death of Occupy. Not till we have built Jerusalem in Oakland’s green and pleasant land.
In citing lines from Jackie’s and Evan’s books, I’d also like to make them dialectical propositions, with respect to the simultaneity of the question of paradise and the progression towards it. That is, we work on it and toward it, we demand it, speak it, perform it, in the absence of the certainty of its contour, but feeling the heart list.
There’s a place we can go together and we know we can make it together. Getting there is the difficulty, but true hearts are not dissuaded. After the first police destruction of Occupy Oakland’s camp I wrote an article for our daily newspaper, the Oscar Grant Plaza Gazette, in which I cited Ezra Pound’s line, from the Pisan Cantos, about the destruction of the city of Wagadu: “now in the mind indestructible.” If we have seen it, we know it can be real, and we can work to rebuild it.
This phrase in the poems of my friends shows also the degree to which their works are an archive of the affects, and affect’s achievement into linguistic form, of the periods through which they passed, as an object to hand on. “For poets establish what remains” (Hölderlin).
I also love about the word paradise that it is surely mongrel. It’s a loanword from Persian (where it means an enclosed garden), into the Greek of Xenophon’s histories, and from thence it’s used to translate the Hebrew gan in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. From there it’s borrowed back into the Talmudic lexicon as pardes— the point of departure for the famous story in Talmud Hagigah: “Our masters taught: Four men entered Pardes, namely Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aher and Rabbi Akiba. Rabbi Akiba said to them: When you arrive at the slabs of pure transparent marble, do not say: Water! Water! For it is said, ‘He that speaketh falsehood shall not be established before Mine eyes’ [Psalms 101:7]. Ben Azzai cast a look and died: of him Scripture says, ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints’ [Psalms 116:15]. Ben Zoma looked and became demented: of him Scripture says: ‘Hast thou found honey? Eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it’ [Proverbs 25:16]. Aher mutilated the shoots. Rabbi Akiba left unhurt.”
Inside of this story, and the word pardes, lives the traditional fourfold exegesis of scripture:peshat, or plain sense; remez, or allusion; derash, or homiletic interpretation, and lastly sod, the secret. Each of these methods may be brought to bear on scripture, or on another sort of text, as Dante insists in his Epistle to Can Grande; or, lastly, and this is the sense that interests me here, in a hermeneutic adequate to this our earthly life. The last word on the fourfold goes to William Blake: “Now I a fourfold vision see / And a fourfold vision is given to me / Tis fourfold in my supreme delight / And threefold in soft Beulah’s night / And twofold Always. May God us keep / From Single vision and Newton’s sleep.”
Speaking on the morning of the Oakland General Strike, Angela Davis said, again: “Our solidarities must be complex solidarities.” I believe this, I quote it frequently, and I would add, our readings (of books, of the worldly vale) must be complex readings.
That’s how I would answer a perhaps impatient question along the lines of: Why all this detour into Talmud, Septuagint, Xenophon, and Blake? Because writing has real stakes, because history didn’t start yesterday, because overcoming the amnesia of the present (including the present’s hermeneutics) is part of the task of the poet, because reason operates under a certain sign of eternity, because remembering where it is we want to go is an indispensible part of actually fucking getting there.
JF David writes, “The house is the form of its transmission, but if the house is broken, if in my dreams I no longer know where I live, how do we proceed, from what do we gather the signs from which we’re made down here to knit our fucking hearts?” This is the beginning of “Economy.”
Often I ruminate about durability and volatility. The volatility of a livelihood, of resources, of relationships. The volatility of choices, of work. The special volatility of relationships between women, between queers; between women and queers across race. The durability of wealth, of social mobility, of perennial access. The special durability of relationships between men; the durability of heterosexuality; of white sociality. How the conspiracy against transfiguration is so present we find it banal—especially banal because the way out is occluded. As Muriel Rukyeser wrote, “By these roads shall we come upon our country.” The transmission of our country, our house, broken, as David says, comes through forms of relation—in the material and spiritual fact of bodies. Life is composed of this one substance: transmission; relation. The substance resides in the broken house, the dilapidated field of signs.
Evan writes, “It’s true that more poets could speak to me about how your sounded name soothes the sensation within my dominion, but I still wouldn’t know you from Francis, those dead to law, the black bloc, or any of his other resemblances.” When I found the world really fucking broken, like a car crash you can’t stop staring at, like seething, I ran headlong into a small, closed continent of vanguardists. It was like but not like the small, closed continent of poets where I had lived previously. Because revolt was in the air, I felt a great amount of fear lifted, or at least contained by the space of the movement. Though to be American is to live in fear of death—to live in the broken fantasy that the world will tenderly lift you out of indigence, that you will never be completely crushed by poverty or completely enslaved by your masters. Inside the movement, there were new signs, a new language and meaning for my body, and because the enemy stood before us so often in those days it seems obvious; the sides drawn seemed obvious. Historically, the politically conscious Left in the US is where so much real political potential has gone to die, because the struggle could not be advanced beyond the egos of those controlling it; another broken house. It informs us that radicalization is a continuum: Virginia Woolf famously called destroying one’s repressive impulses “killing the angel in the house.” It’s a handy allegory for coming into a more robust political awareness—the way it always, always takes something away from you—and it is the nature of ethical life to determine what it takes to be less important than what it gives: perspective, reality.
Killing the angel is a political metaphor for us because it is not hard to see the broken house, but leaving it tends to require drastic moves. Because feminized people are socialized to crave approval, to be liked desperately, one can only carve out so much space for real change from a place of fear. I was talking to a friend the other day, saying, if only there were a little more durability in our feminist circles.” And she said, “isn’t that exactly what we don’t want?” If Rukyeser’s formulation for political transformation, “birth, love and choice,” is accurate, choice is volatility in the face of ideology, volatility that is fierce and positive.
We focus on our times, destroying you, fathers in the long ground : you have given strange birth to us who turn against you in your blood needing to move in our integrity, accomplices of life in revolution
–Muriel Rukeyser, from Theory of Flight
Something striking in all of your responses is how feeling, affect, embodiment, spatial practice/movement, and gesture/performance take priority. And how lyric modalities form a vital, proprioceptive loop between sociopolitical exigencies and the urgencies of “the person”—one’s body, one’s self, one’s dispositions, one’s feelings. A micropolitics (or ethics?) constituted in relation to singularity, ensemble (family?), and polis.
To quote Jack: “Inside the movement, there were new signs, a new language and meaning for my body, and because the enemy stood before us so often in those days …” I also think of how much Evan’s responses have evolved through his bicycling and the bodily danger bicycling in an urban setting entails. And of David’s wonderful diagram at the front of The Ordinary, which makes reference to the Spinozan dictum: we have not yet determined what a body can do.
Often I wonder if lyric is not the means by which we can most effectively gauge what a body can do, counter to the forces and matrices of forces that David has identified as blocking the most urgent political and economic revolutions of our time. Recently I have been thinking about lyric in two ways with regards to the occupations and other struggles. Through its “denotative” function, which Kristin Ross discusses in her book The Emergence of Social Space: Arthur Rimbaud and the Paris Commune. By using language denotatively, we place language in relation to a particular set of socio-historical actors, within a specific space, time, and place. And in terms of what Robert Kocik calls “idiolect,” which is any personalized or collectivized use of language that may also include or lead onto “nation languages” (Kamau Brathwaite) and “minor literatures” (Deleuze & Guattari) where collective enunciation may determine the forces which shape events.
How, in your mind, may your books, and others’, form a collective enunciation through their engagement with particular lyrical forms? Also, how might you reflect on the spatial politics and somatic practices of Occupy with regards to the development of certain idiolects and other (localizable) uses of language? What effects of the poem may remain yet to be determined?
>span class=”initials”>EK I prefer your micropolitics of the individual. Thanks for mentioning Kristin Ross, who concerning Rimbaud’s Illuminations writes: “a whole parade of universal history, races, cultures, populations will be played out on the body of the speaker.”
Played right, this could amount to a marvelous culture of one. Solidarity within Occupy was something I could not attain, being unable to act alongside a protestor whose sign read that her heroes were cop killers. My heroes have always been elsewhere, alone but
defining an alternate community.
Rimbaud: “Action isn’t life; it’s merely a way of ruining a kind of strength.”
In Terra Firmament, I considered sorely neglected World War I poet Wilfred Owen, who only found queer confraternity in the trenches while fighting for a society that maligned, or worse, many in his ilk. His lyric genius unfolds alongside the bodies of young soldiers facing large-scale mechanized killing. This isn’t twink jingoist Rupert Brooke’s valorizing (in stodgy meter, no less) but an affection for the physiques and feelings of young men turned into pulp. Owen the stammering officer-poet served to design a desperate lyric bonhomie.
From Dominic Hibberd’s The Last Year: “Owen told [his cousin Leslie] Gunston he was being singled out by French girls thanks to his French, so much so that other officers held a mock court-martial on him. ‘The dramatic irony was too killing, considering certain other things, not possible to tell in a letter.’”
I think Owen’s lyric gauges how a body breaks down, or explodes. He’s still burdened by Victorian aesthetics, but fractures are there in meter and slant and consonantal end rhymes.
That is, I rather jump for joy for the re-territorialization of the fiercer attitudes found in those who see themselves as bodily containers of cities enacting a fresher allotment of fraternal affections.
TS Eliot: “we have to remember that the Kingdom of Christ on earth will never be realised, and that it is always being realised; we must remember that whatever reform or revolution we carry out, the result will always be a sordid travesty of what human society should be—though the world is never left wholly without glory.”
Step on necks and the necks will sanctify your kicks. Piss on ants and the ants will sanctify your piss. I am cutting the confetti for the day I make a wildlife sanctuary of this body.
JF To quote Rukyeser again, in The Life of Poetry she writes, “Poetry is above all, an approach to the truth of feeling.” She goes on to count poetry among the psychic resources available to us: “In a time of suffering, long war, and the opening of the horizon, there is no resource which we can afford to overlook or to misunderstand.” One of the lessons that I’ve embraced over the past year concerns the inability to abstract political poetry, as concept, from the lives and the life world in which it occurs. The content of the idea called “political poetry,” or “insurrectionary turn,” “or militant poetics” ceases to have meaning insofar as it can be removed from its instantiation within the life of a person or a collective. It’s foolish to cut notions off from the relations that generate them. This is also afoot in “conceptual” poetics, wherein the subjectivity of the poet who has arranged the text is supposedly evacuated. For me, it’s a person’s life, its substance, constituted from a politics or a poetics or a militancy, and the body in which that life peregrinates, that grants contour to the question of the place of poetry in all this.
We were taught to reject subjectivity in our poems, but I think for that reason most contemporary poetry written by people of my generation is a sort of softcore surrealism wherein experience is so profoundly layered with whatever-content that nothing about the poem functions beyond “easy mysticism or easy wit.” I was in New York at the beginning of January and saw Lonely Christopher read from his new book Death and Disaster Series, and thought, who could say that Lonely Christopher isn’t the best poet in New York City, writing very serious and emotional work; writing through grief, acquiescence, desire, emptiness. Who could read alongside Lonely Christopher and feel as if they had brought much to the table, unless they could summon intensity and disclosure in their own work.
So Evan writes, “as you coughed up froth and later brought me / your lungs, rather, songs.” To write against the weak messianism of “circuits and flows” that forgets the transversal aspect, that the “ground,” if you will, of all exchange, is the material body. Bordiga wrote (from a friend’s translation): “We are on the side of the species’ eternal life, our enemies are on the side of eternal death. And Life will swallow them up, by synthesizing the two terms of the antithesis within the reality of communism.” To whom are life and death purely figurative? When we say we are on the side of Life, we mean we want the eradication of illness, and no more dying brought on by the perverse and foreordained exclusionary trials of late capital. When we say we want this, we also speak to our fear of being devoured by it. In a poem called “You Have the Eyes of a Martyr,” I wrote:
in the last of days/
we have changed our names
in the now of night/
we grew quiet / and saw
/ the problem / with our bodies /
is this and other countries enduring /
But Evan states it better in “The Dandy Xth,” where he writes:
while I have seen death
devouring men and
spitting up pulp, and like
a dog, returning to its vomit
to devour pulp again
and spitting up pulp, and
returning again to its
vomit to devour pulp again,
and spitting up pulp, and
isn’t death just like
a dog in this regard,
and doesn’t it take the beastliest among those motherfuckers to put
damage onto such sweet men
DB All histories enact a matrix of the possible loves. By project of them ones who’ll come to be inside this space have stuff to cling to that they didn’t have before, from which they make themselves. This is what art ends up being, not what is in essence but what it has been for us—that from which we wove what we would be, and not just as a solo subject but in a picture with the others, both in the horizontal square and also in the cut that goes through time and ties the thread that saves us from a fate of all forgetfulness. Occupy is dead because the dialectic keeps moving and wants to try on different garments. We all know it’s like surfing, which is why we all gotta just keep paying attention, awaiting the messages. Of course loving one another doesn’t hurt a single fucking thing either, like they say in my church. It’s always been a mistranslation: the kingdom of God is among (entos) you. In the squares, in the projects, in the slumps and sloughs and downtimes, in the squabbles at the endless meetings when you’re reading gospels in the cafes or having dinner with your friends, biking, strolling, fucking, hoping, in the long meantime where care is our only mundane solace, thanks.
Thom Donovan’s second book of poems, Withdrawn, will appear this fall with Compline. He is the co-editor and publisher of ON Contemporary Practice, an online journal and monograph series for writing about one’s contemporaries. For current projects visit whof.blogspot.com.
David Brazil was born in New York and lives in California. His first book, The Ordinary, was published by Compline in 2013. Previous chapbook publications include Spy Wednesday(TAXT) and Meet Me Under The War Angels (OMG!). He organizes with the Bay Area Public School and helps curate the HEARTS DESIRE READING SERIES.
Jackqueline Frost is the author of The Antidote (Compline Press) and You Have the Eyes of a Martyr (O’clock Press). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Rethinking Marxism, Hi Zero, Lana Turner, Elderly, and LIES: a Journal of Materialist Feminism. She curates the queer reading series Red Element in Oakland.
Evan Kennedy is a poet and bicyclist who lives in San Francisco. He is the author of Terra Firmament (Krupskaya), Shoo-Ins to Ruin (Gold Wake Press), and Us Them Poems(BookThug). Visit dirtyswan.wordpress.com.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby