Pretty Brutal Speech by Nick Thurston

Nick Thurston on how Kim Rosenfield’s Lividity and Steven Zultanski’s Agony both convert the long form poem into an act of hyper-objectification, and how both do so to brutally contemporary effect.


From the cover of Agony (BookThug, 2012) by Steven Zultanski.

In an age of acceleration and over-production, wherein the very ontology of published language has been transformed by its reformation through and as principally-digital data, the most intelligent and imaginative poetic responses seem to have come from the field of so-called Conceptual writing. Basically this is because conceptualist approaches to cultural production demand that “makers” consider what they make in the context of their field or community at the level of social epistemology as well as that of the projective imaginary. That is, the maker-subject recognizes herself as just one producer within a specific community and history of possibilities that are united by some shared concerns (technical, political, economic, geographic, sexual, whatever), and which are in turn embedded in other communities and histories of production. Those maker-subjects re-imagine those shared concerns by holding them together, often in dispute, which means that they don’t have to agree on what those concerns “mean,” but that they do privilege them as a/the problematic(s) for their community of production. The job, then, is to develop that shared problematic(s).

Conceptual writers are writing beyond other communities of literary practice because they’ve taken the risk of advancing the problematic(s) of poetry, whereas other communities of poetic practice (at least the ones who are producing textual fields that we would currently recognize as “poetry”) are failing to even at least sufficiently develop the problematic(s) of poetry in our age. At present, the conceptualist approach to writing (which is something that expands before and beyond so-called Conceptual writing) seems to be exploring what it means for poetic writing to be “contemporary” in the most interesting way right now. And the contemporaneity at stake in this contemporary moment seems to be being shaped by the unprecedented tension between a pair of facts that are perfectly articulated in Kim Rosenfield’s doublet “THE BRUTE MATERIAL OF WORDS. THE BRUTAL MATERIAL OF WORLDS.” (Lividity, p. 165), partly because of what it says and partly because she makes no claim to having said it first.

Rosenfield’s doublet is just one brutally eloquent moment within her sixth book of poetry, Lividity (Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2012). The slim volume format that frames Les Figues’s TrenchArt series is engaged, typographically, by Rosenfield’s composition, which literally descends through and down the book. It starts with a sequence of short corrective aphorisms, each set to the top baseline, one-per page, that begin, “The naturalization of vowels and syllables are atoning for an encore” (Lividity, p. 21). Its second section drops eleven lines down the page and explains, in textbook prose, how said corrections can be implemented through five phases of workshop learning. The remaining 120 pages of the poem do exactly that, implementing the corrections, enacted through the re-enactment of “micro-conversations” (Lividity, p. 45), figured as a five-part assemblage: a systematic explanation of the structuring of speech; a repetitious vocabulary list that enfolds consonance and assonance into an elocution exercise; a stuttering transcription of one or several sample interlocution(s); a “giving to the republic” (Lividity, p. 163) of what has been learned, converted or put to use in an all-too everyday Anglo-Saxon language act (i.e., a shopping list); and closing with a lesson plan or presentation about the relationalities that might now be established or re-negotiated by the newly conversant, proper speaker within a community of like-speakers. The inherent aggressiveness in the very concept of “implementation,” as something taught-learnt and insisted-internalized, is the central tension throughout Rosenfield’s poem. In creating that tension she presents proper-ness as the root conviction of colonial literary development:

Each of our 25 micro-conversations will become easier to put in place while forming a chronological suite that is solidly enchained. Each one constitutes a step closer to a sojourn in an Anglo-Saxon country. (Lividity, p. 164)

The whole poem is typeset in the blandly informatic Futura font on chemically sterile white paper. Its dual movement through and down the book is supposed, paradoxically, to lead us through a progression, a linear learning experience. In the Victorian fashion of a high school second language class, anyone who reads Lividity is interpellated by its disciplining clarity—one becomes complicit in its reformative action upon one’s own subjectivity. In reading Rosenfield’s poem, like an act of recital, one puts one’s own brain and mouth through a re-performance of the lesson—as a repressive self-disciplining intended to level out language into some kind of proper English in the (dis)guise of colloquial conversation. The relations between poet, book, and reader become a network of simultaneous and unequal colonizations. All three parties are changed conceptually by this inter-relation (the book in this case being the site or length of the long form poem) and yet remain lumpenly, corporeally, morphologically, the same; reminding us that conceptualist work produces, first and foremost, conceptual affect.

In this sense, the book functions like the livid corpse of one processual, accumulative language act; an act that was an act of capture registered on a restless palimpsest; a palimpsest understood as a material matrix that is somehow restlessly corporeal and somehow confused by its own restlessness. Here the long form disjunctive poem, as a book format and as a genre of poetry, has been put on the slab, still alive but strapped into a stasis, like the Condemned in Kafka’s “Penal Colony,” as a site for a polyvocal inscription, but one that willfully collapses or augments its different stances, tones and voices as if the poet wants to witness their collapse into endless encores. As Tricia Low alludes in the title of her short preface, Rosenfield’s book is a kind of autopsy. And whereas the poet’s will-to-collapse, to enfold voices, to same the different, will still be seen by some as an aggressive perversion against subjective difference, I would argue that it is exactly this calculated objectification that marks the book as so seductively and brutally contemporary.

From its opening aphorisms the rhythm of Lividity works on a principle of “Constant Sufficiency” (Lividity, p. 171). The constancy that it benchmarks couples a clinical tone with a covetous kind of bodily-ness: it is constantly about the physicality of “saying the right thing” in speech or in writing about speech. Although long, the poem is sparse and intense, precise and concise. In a different but equally considered way, Steven Zultanski’s third book of poetry, Agony (Toronto: Book Thug, 2012), also uses a conceptual license to hyper-exaggerate objectifying affects. Structured into two untitled parent sections, Agony refines a method that Zultanski played with in his first book, Pad (Los Angeles: Make Now Press, 2010). It involves making comparative measurements to taxonomise something(s) that are overly close to the poet, in body or mind. Riffing on Daniel Spoerri’s Annecdoted Topography of Chance (1962), in Pad Zultanski listed everything in his apartment according to whether or not he could lift it with his dick, and this quasi-autistic impersonalizing of the personal (his organ and his place) made absurd the masculinist formal showmanship all-too common to the avant-garde tradition that Conceptual poetry has inherited.

In Pad everything is measured one-way, against/by his dick. His dick is, if you like, the fixed, and his relationships are the variable. In Agony, the benchmark or units of measurement change figuratively for each section—different things, or at least different aspects of one thing (the poet’s body), are compared against different things in “Lives,” “Mouths,” “Hours,” etc. What is more, within each section, the “measure” and the “measured” establish a disfiguring, mutually affecting relationship, rather than a one-directional “holding up to / with.” This comparative method is transposed from statistical analysis and Zultanski uses it to make improbable comparisons between really different materials in the world. By hyper-extending the quantifiability of the fixed he manages to unfixes it, in turn unfixing the understanding(s) that he had pegged to it—of other things and of the method itself—as a kind of bizarrely logical negation. As a consequence, Agony performs a relentlessly intelligent deformation, through over-exaggeration, of the genre of confessional poetry, reaching an apotheosis in the second section of “Self Portraits”:

If all of the strawberries in the world made up only 100 strawberries, then each of those strawberries would weigh 44,092.452 U.S. tons.

Given that the total world production of strawberries for one year is around 4,409,245.243 U.S. tons.

And that the average weight of a single strawberry is 2.59 × 10.5 U.S. tons.

So each of the 100 big strawberries would be equivalent of 1.70 × 1011 average strawberries.

Given that the average volume of a strawberry is .75 cubic inches, we can assume that the average volume of a big strawberry is 1.1275 × 1011 cubic inches; very big.

My very biggest personal fear is of dying of cancer.

The invisibility of metastasis leads me to believe that the process must have already been underway for some time now, for who can say how long.

For cancer cells can break away, leak, or spill from a primary tumor.

Just as juice can break away, leak, or spill from a big strawberry, as it becomes squeezed or rotten.

If one wanted to squeeze a big strawberry between two fingers, say the index finger and the thumb, which are good fingers for squeezing, one would need fingers that were, say, 6.375 × 109 times bigger than they are now, if one were using my own hand as an example of the average width potentially spanned by the thumb and index finger.

It’s possible, if I were to have a cancer of the thumb and index finger, that my fingers would grow so big, though in all probability I would die before reaching such an ambitious goal.

Given the way I feel about cancer, that its invisibility is a sign of its presence and malignancy somewhere in my body, let’s assume that I already have cancer of the thumb and index finger. And that it’s spreading outwards, stretching my fingers toward their eventual monstrous proportions.

And by proximity and necessity, my hand is growing bigger too.

I can’t see it, so I know it’s there. My big hand, that is.

(Agony, pp. 121-3)

More often than not it is explicitly the poet’s own body or self-perception that is measured, quantified, and disfigured in drawn out informal paragraphs. And those paragraphs are topped and tailed by remorselessly short, single, framing, spoken statements:

Let me see.

Given that the average female breast protrudes about two inches from the chest, we can assume that the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, is 16,104 breasts tall.

Taipei 101 is 10,026 breasts tall.

The Shanghai World Financial Center is 9,684 breasts tall.

The International Commerce Centre is 9,528 breasts tall.

If the Petronas Towers were stacked, one on top the other, they would be 17,796 breasts tall.

So. Let me see now.

We would know the exact height of the five tallest buildings in the world, measured in breasts, and, additionally, the exact height of the tallest twin buildings in the world, if they were stacked, measured in breasts.

The average single-family two-storey house in the U.S. is 144 breasts tall.

The average U.S. man is 34.95 breasts tall.

The average U.S. woman is 32.15 breasts tall.

Given that the average height of one story of a house is 48 breasts, we can assume that when the average U.S. man stands in an average U.S. room, there are 13.05 breasts between him and the second story, if there is one, and that when the average U.S. woman stands in an average U.S. room, there are 15.85 breasts between her and the second story, if there is one.


(Agony, pp. 43-4)

I have no idea if the calculations are correct, which is in part the point; but they quickly become mazy and unfathomable, which I also suspect is part of the point. The inadequacy of all of this averaging starts off a glitch or oscillation between the categories of fixed and variable, which unfolds much like a Google Map over-processing too much detail. The narrator’s hyper-clarity becomes unwieldy, “his” syntax clunky and calculations impossible to follow, like a Google Image search that condenses representations of the actually real within the space-time of the virtually real. Like Rosenfield, and like Samuel Beckett at his best-worst, reading Zultanski’s poem out loud makes your jaw ache and your brain strain. In the case of all three poets and both modes of reading their work, this production of strain is perfectly measured and relieved just before the breaking point:

Look at me.

My right hand index finger is 3.4 inches long, whether pointing at myself or not.

If I sliced two inches from it, it would be 1.4 inches long.

I could still point at myself or anything else. For example, this flowerless vase, with a circumference of 15 inches, at widest, which I used to be able to more or less comfortably grip, but which now if I’ve sliced two inches from all of my fingers slides right out of my hands.

Given that the two-inch slice would cut directly into the knuckle of my index finger, I could then fit the leftover stub into the vase, until my half a knuckle’s stopped up by the lip, as a cork is stopped up by a bottle.

This stopping is due to the knuckle’s width, and not to the fatness of the finger. Thus the further slicing of my fingers would free up their essential thinness, and allow for a greater versatility with regards to fitting into holes.

The pinky finger of my right hand is now .8 inches long.

The ring finger of my right hand is now 1.4 inches long.

The middle finger of my right hand is now 1.75 inches long.

The thumb of my right hand is now .45 inches long.

So if I sliced two more inches from my fingers, I’d end up cutting jaggedly into my palm, which would thus retain the same asymmetry that my hand already retains with all its fingers in full.

But my arm, if measured from shoulder to scar, would only stretch for 23.75 inches.

With no chance of holding this vase, in any usual sense of holding.

(Agony, pp. 91-2)

Even knowing that Agony is only the first in a planned trilogy makes feel a stressful kind of excitement. The sheer scale of Zultanski’s project and the force of intention needed to actually realize it are part of the performance. The weight of conviction and the kind of labor necessary to construct something like this trilogy both put pressure on the way that we think about the doing of doing poetry. These poems are totally controlled and totally controlling—wholly unapologetic and brutally seductive—obsessive and yet disinterested.

It is on these levels, of control and performativity, that Lividity and Agony problematize the project of conceptualist poetry in a newly demanding way. Both books tell you what they are going to do and then do it, but do so through demonstration rather than explanation: They enact what they are, hence their all-too present thing-ness and their self-reflexive performing-of-the-book (understood as a site and context for knowledge production and literary reproduction). Both books also speak at the reader not with the reader—they don’t invite a conversation, in any sense—and they both refuse the reader any illusion of ambiguity. One might misunderstand or just not understand either poem, but not because they’re unclear. Both use prosaic and instructional modes to be brutally clear and materialistic, even corporeal and invasive, via a narrated, quasi-objective stance—talking to the outside about the inside of the body, its constitutive spaces and functions—prodding, poking and explaining from the outside-in—talking to themselves in the mirror yet consciously demanding all of our attention from the sterilizing distance of printed type on a mass-reproduced page. The brutal curiousness of both Lividity and Agony is brain tingling.

What both poets construct are intensities and densities of spoken language and/or language about speech. Yet their constructions form a literary texture that is not verbal nor simply written nor even the familiarly poetic. Rather, they imagine the crisis of speaking, of being a body that speaks; and they both project that imagination in styles of textual acuteness that could only ever be written—that are linguistic beyond speech. They at once obsess over and deny speaking—they write the unspeakable, and in doing so differently re-imagine what it means to speak about the self.

Nick Thurston’s bio info can be found here and his next book, Of The Subcontract, will be published in late spring 2013.

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