Wednesday, 9 September 2015

“As life is to other themes”: Ian Heames’ Sonnets.

[Been neglecting this blog for a while: more to come soon, hopefully, on Ryan Dobran's Story One and on the first issue of Asphodel magazine. Stay tuned...]

[There are six books of Sonnets so far, all published by Face Press:
[1] June 2014 [red cover]
[2] October 2014 [navy blue cover]
[3] January 2015 [pink cover]
[4] February 2015 [grey cover]
[5] May 2015 [black cover]
[6] August 2015 [silver cover]
(also, ‘Seven Poems’, 2014).
The first book uses material by Jonty Tiplady (constituting roughly half the sequence), and a couple of lines from Tiplady appear in books 2 and 5. Given that all the pamphlets are simply titled ‘Sonnets’, I’ll refer to them by the colour of their covers in order to delineate between them – e.g. Black Sonnets, Red Sonnets, etc.]

Something like a veil is placed over the experiences in these poems; they are reports, or descriptions, of actions (“walking earlier tonight along the motorway / beside the science park”, Black Sonnets, 1), or observations, of emotional states: these often seen through a screen, whether that of the cinema to which the speaker goes to at night, alone, or of a computer game, an internet search, or the history of poetic reference itself – resonant figures such as the ocean, tropes of death, mortality and poetic immortality or afterlife, love poetry, loss, the heart. Cultural references to Lars Von Trier, dubstep, Villon, Keats and the like may seem to stand in for something they gesture towards, ciphers which could be mined for meaning but which also point to the provisionality with which their placement imbues them. Current and past history is figured through Versailles or 9/11, an atmosphere of industry or technology – the recurring power plant, the motorway, the computer game. The poems are above all about the cultivation of a precision of atmosphere, but not really as objectivism: what is there (the ocean, the power plant, the cultural artefact, even a particular feeling apparently easily named through conventional tropes) slides into something else, the levels are not clearly delineated; this often happens through puns, palindromes, and the like. Thus, in the first sonnet of the blue book, the cave in which the internet is “most weak” refers to broadband but also perhaps, as John Bloomberg-Rissman suggests in his recent review, to Plato’s cave: the shadows on the wall. Actors, puppets, shadows and ghosts, arranged by the poet with power and precision but also a self-effacing awareness or presentation in which that poet (as persona) seems not to be fully in control, doomed to obsessive repetition and tweaking, reaching for inadequate speculative or assertive descriptions of both grand geo-political events and the workings of love: climate change, the militarisation of the police, technology, warfare and the like.

The poems also conduct something that is not exactly a polemic or a sustained argument with trends in the poetry scenes of the last decade or so from which their poet has emerged, but which is, nonetheless, one of the ranges of reference or concern, as a kind of satire so diffuse as to remain fairly oblique: as, in the earlier ‘Gloss to Carriers’, “the white hot temples / Of Capitalism and Love / Its dismal optic carbine”, or, here: “We both write language-critical lyric poetry / without meaning. We both speak without meaning to.” (Red Sonnets, 9). In the latter instance, “language” could be both language itself – a lyric poetry that, though itself made in and of language, reaches for the familiar trope of a feeling exceeding the bounds or bonds of language that yet structure it, and allow it expression; or, in a specific context, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and its perceived depersonalisation, its removal of the bourgeois lyric subject for a more open mesh of discourse. The fact that this poetry, whatever it is, is “without meaning” reflects a familiar criticism of what gets called ‘innovative poetry’, though it’s somewhat modified by the following “meaning to”; poetry as containing meanings that might go beyond intention, if we read ‘meaning to’ back onto the initial ‘meaning’.

If, according to one reading of the above lines, this poetry rejects the apparently critical function of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing for a still-sceptical lyric address, such an address nonetheless does not come from a place of subjective stability of authority. The first sonnet in the first of the books contains the lines: “I think I am in danger / of becoming someone else.” The poems are often insistently first-person, but this first-person is ‘the poet’ or ‘the speaker’, (generally) doing believable things, preoccupied with familiar themes, characterized by a particular attitude towards experiences, yet with slippages – the use of found text, the wider registers of geopolitics, etc. The lines above sound like something from any kind of cheap melodrama, though they also, of course, by their placement, play on age-old poetic tropes of persona and identity. But in fact, how much in the poems is this actually a ‘danger’, the compromising of the integrity of the poet as a person? Rather, might this slippage between self-contained or coherent person or personality and the ranges of discourse they deploy be a central operating mechanism?

From the third sonnet in the same book: “You […] want to say / you are not really the sort of person who spends their time / alone at night, eating a lot of food and admiring the internet.” This is put in the second person, though it could equally refer to the speaker. It also claims that ‘you want to say this’, which implies that you haven’t already said it, and perhaps won’t, or can’t; that, consequently, you worry you really are this sort of person. In any case, you would only be ‘not really’ that sort of person – there would still be an element of that in you, and in what you do. From the fifth sonnet: “You (the entity receiving / the above)”, which parodies the idea of the idealized love object, the insistently real, though distant person, or, indeed, the ‘common reader’. The addressee becomes merely an ‘entity’, perhaps not even human, though ‘receiving’ implies that a message has been ‘sent’, presumably with the intention of transmission and communication (even as the following parodically suggests an extreme solipsism – “Nothing is as interpersonal as being alone” (Black Sonnets, 5).

The poems, then, frequently work on address – ‘you’, ‘we’, ‘I’, but the object of address (often, as in lyric, apparently a love object) is infrequently specified, and might be just as often a fantasy, a celebrity – “My love for you is like everything I said to Jena / Malone in private” (Red Sonnets, 5), “Natalie” who has “dark eyes” in ‘AI in Daylight’ (preceded by the line “Ilium is toast”). These celebrities function like the idealized mythological or literary figures that ‘Ilium’ suggests: as muses, as convenient (dis)placements into poetic history that both allow and conceal the emotional weight with which they are freighted. (Red Sonnets, 7: “All of us / build inhabited worlds around impossible objects.”)

Nonetheless, the gendering of the sonnets is in general less problematic than it has been in some of Heames’ previous work, where the association of an unnamed female figure with a fetishized technological apparatus, as well as a mendacious militarized force (the latter association perhaps deriving principally from Prynne’s ‘Her Weasels Wild Returning’), was a recurring theme. Here, though, as we’ve noted, there is something of this (Jena Malone), the love object tends not to be specifically named or gendered, and we even find lines which (perhaps) suggest some sort of utopian escape from gendered norms and gendering, even as they also suggest the highly individualized, competitive and, again, often militarized world of computer games which again threads its way through the work: “In my dreamworld, where genius / is genderblind” (Black Sonnets, 3).

In this regard, the love poem might also suggest, not just a two-way or otherwise intimate relationship, but games of strategy and alliance, whether in computer games or political systems: from ‘Seven Poems’, “like a love poem / to the other side / this is to toy with.” Indeed, the same is true of enmity and hatred (though Heames doesn’t really seem interested in hatred as an emotion). The poem might name ‘enemies’ or ‘opponents’, who are not definable political entities (as they might be in the contemporary work of Sean Bonney, Lisa Jeschke & Lucy Beynon, or Verity Spott, however much the formulations of such attacks challenge the fostering of violent feelings or strategies onto a particular person, rather than to the system they represent and embody) or those who have wronged the poet (as they might be in Villon), but, are, rather unseen players on an internet game: “You have opponents on the internet you don’t see. / You can’t see the joy on their faces / driven off by flame.” (Blue Sonnets, 7).

Politics thus uneasily meshes with love and hate, displaced as a possible horizon of activity from the poet, observed through the sceptically-viewed frames of internet and television reportage. Thus, lines from the fourth sonnet in the black book – “Freeing us / to protest as holograms” – refer to the hologram protest devised to circumvent and draw attention to legal clampdowns on public protest in Spain earlier this year. The way it occurs in Heames’ poem is not, however, as political possibility, but another distancing effect in which protest can only occur through technological displacement, as a kind of stand-in for the movement of bodies on the ground. Protest or mass movement is hinted at in the poems, but what generally appears is the image of the apparatus of its repression – helicopters, the White House, the police, and so on. “Suddenly the poems were full / of riots shields and a cool intelligence” (Red Sonnets, 4).

The poems sometimes seem to throw up their hands altogether, in relation to the possibility of love, hate, politics, knowledge, of holding on to and examining any object: “no trace anywhere / except / lost it now” (‘Seven Poems’). Indeed, one might ask if these are poems characterized by a melancholy acceptance, a desire to find beautiful though self-critical affect within a horizon of defeat, loss, an inability to totalize or systematize, merely to play with the pieces of the puzzle that can never be wholly defined: a derangement that is sensual, and with the affect of rationality, but more often felt as arrangement (‘Arrangements’ was the initial title of an earlier project reworking some poems by Jonty Tiplady). The nearest definition to what ‘we all’ are is “some general ferocious longing” (Blue Sonnets, 3).

Certainly, one of Heames’ primary interests here is how particular systems or ranges of affect – often, computer games, cinema (“like snow in Von Trier”), certain forms of music (“melodic dubstep”) – function, what it is like to inhabit their worlds, which mesh with the real world of history, contemporary reference, walking around, dreaming, looking at things, deciding whether or not to speak. A frequent feature is the use of found language (“I like this Trebuchet” (‘Array One’), “Someone flew / a drone through Chernobyl and the result is haunting” (Pink Sonnets, 10)) for its particular affect and how that affect can be changed by displacement and re-placement within the poem. Heames I think values this language for its affective qualities, rather than (or as well as) using it to make some sort of culture-industry critique – hence his interest in the work of Will Stuart, its use of pop songs, not for ironic reasons, but as markers which are re-inscribed, away from their familiarity, into the context of an avant-garde theatre piece where they can be revived as actually containing particular hopes and expressions (individual responses) of how to cope with the world. (In a paper on Stuart’s work given a few years ago [], Heames argued that Stuart’s deployment of JLS’ ‘One Shot’ might cause us to question what ‘sympathy’ we could have the range of different feelings the song might prompt in individual listeners, feelings that cannot be disentangled from the song’s forms (or, indeed, their material frames of production), leading to something like a feedback loop of sincerity and depth.) In the Sonnets, the poet is somewhat distanced from these forms, or they are distanced in the poem, considered as textual objects but not for a laboratory examination, a sociological survey, a cultural critique, etc; they are allowed their own integrity. Such forms might often be ameliorative, might mesh with economic set-ups that discourage dissent, but for Heames, they are not entirely conformist, are not merely methods of coping with a politically-flattening affect or effect.

‘Seven Poems’, from 2014, is not part of the Sonnets sequence, but handily encapsulates many of its concerns. Here, we find political references which, though oblique, are obviously related to contemporary situations – in this case, the militarisation of the police in America, and, to a lesser extent, the UK (Boris Johnson’s purchase of water cannon) – “war gear flows to police departments / you still heart”. “Heart” here functions perhaps as verb, via the literalisation of the facebook emoji in which ‘love’ is replaced by an icon of a heart, and subsequently translated into ‘hearting’ something (where ‘love’ tends to means something more like ‘like’) – though the line breaks which surround the phrase make its object unclear (perhaps the police departments of the previous line). The fact that ‘you still heart’ – that you have a heart, are still capable of love – might thus be placed against the fact of militarized police forces (the book’s original title was ‘Stuffed Toys in Patrol Cars’), yet it might also suggest that you still love the police (or the following “team that wins”) despite evidence as to the fact of their mendacity. Or heart might again be a noun – “you still heart” – suggesting death, the stopped heart (the poem opens with an injured ‘tsar’ lying in “the palace of human purpose / of the human heart”). Hearts recur in this sequence – the pun on “widely red [read]” in the first poem, in which a heart that can be ‘re[a]d’ by a single person only functions as tool of intimacy, or the putting of lips on the heart in the second, a visceral image of love, or of giving voice to the heart’s most intimate concern, followed by a line from Wieners’ ‘Supplication’ – “take this curse off of early death” – as if giving expression in this way might, as Wieners supplicates poetry to do, provide the poet with all they lack in life.

From the first sonnet of the blue book: “poetry that we experience as heartache.” Heames’ interest in a poet like Wieners, who makes enormous claims for poetry saving his life, with poetry as that which filters yet might also exacerbate experience almost too painful to be lived – homophobic and class-based persecution, institutionalisation in mental hospitals, the living through of a paranoia that has very real causes in police violence and the like – is one that gives credence to, or at least admires in some sense that amping-up of emotional effect (a result very much of lived experience, and patently not false). However, the sonnets never do this themselves without deploying some sort of diversionary strategy, an ironic deflating move which might be characterized as self-protective. Such self-protection might arguably both allow, or enable, the flow of these sonnets, in books after book, and limit what they can do. At the same time, the sonnets rely on the particular affective register of almost haiku-like lines which often centre on familiar tropes associated with emotion, as we might find in Wieners – the heart, love, loss, weeping – which chart what happens when individual or shared self-protection falls away, yet which, framed as a retrospective story, almost akin to the opening structure of a fairy-tale, still maintain some measure of distance which Wieners generally and painfully avoids. “Once when we were entering a universe we were yet to love, / our eyes welled, tender from the freak event of being open”. (Silver Sonnets, 2) Poetry itself can replace the person who writes it: “Some poems want flesh / to replace them, / mine just want somebody to come round / to the accident of their being. / Poetry begins to hurt.” (Silver Sonnets, 3) The poems are both fascinated by and sceptical of “taking your own inner life seriously”, and hence that poem, the third sonnet, immediately moves on to computer games, a sphere of displacement for an inner life – “some people just want to hate god and collect gemstones.” The process of desired replacement attributed to “some poems” (rather than, as one might expect, ‘some people’) allows a dance between poem and person which relies both on craft and ‘accident’. Poetry itself ‘hurts’ as if wounded, but ‘hurts’ as a verb could also be active – that it is poetry itself that is hurting someone, something – perhaps the reader, or the poet themselves.

Coming now to the lines from which I’ve taken my title, from the first sonnet in the blue book: “Text is to whole conduct / as life is to other themes. Love that / corrects nothing.” This seems as good a set of lines as any to take as a possible dictum for the poems’ method or concern, their scepticism. Text – the poem – relates to ‘whole conduct’ – an ethics? – as life does to other ‘themes’ – everything reduced to ‘themes’, and again folding back to text. The ‘love’ the poem might express ‘corrects nothing’; poetry does not have an educative or ameliorative function. (See, of course, Auden and Spicer.) This seems to be amended or expanded in the silver sonnets book, the latest of the six so far, with the fifth sonnet, which concludes: “Poetry is just / a beautiful simple way / of being wrong.” How are we to take this? At face value, as something of a guiding principle; or as ironic and ridiculous; or as some measure of both? The tone, as it is throughout, is intentionally hard to place and judge.

In this regard, the fourth of the pink sonnets has: “Trying to suggest tone / without claiming either / there is truth, but there is much more, / or there is healing pain”. The syntax is pretty knotty here, but we could parse the alternatives as being the fact of there being truth, but also ‘much more’, or the existence of ‘healing pain’ – in which healing could either function as an adjective in a paradoxical construction where the experience of pain heals, or a verb in which pain is healed. In either case, it’s unclear how exactly the two are contradictory. The sentence comes across, again, as a meta-commentary on the poems’ own processes and concerns. Tone is suggested, but not inhabited – indeed, such cautiousness and self-reflexivity is itself a tonal move.

Such folding-in in happens a lot, and not just in terms of tone – rewriting a history of language and poetry as it relates to the world, in counter-intuitive and sometimes deliberately provocative ways: “Language arose, / at least in part, / as a response / to an aesthetic / modernism.” (Silver Sonnets, 5) What might be a self-confessed weakness in poetry – its wrongness and inability to correct anything – is also, potentially, for the poet of these poems at least, a strength. From the first sonnets book: “At least you can say that / in poetry you are less sure”. Poetry here is a necessary ground or sanctuary for uncertainty (tying in with the desire “not to breathe / my thesis over anyone” (see below), ‘beautiful’ and ‘simple’. The line-break here inflects the meaning: another way of reading the lines might be, “at least you can say that [somewhere else, but] in poetry you are less sure”, which perhaps amounts to the same thing – poetry, again, as a space of greater uncertainty, whre the only thing you can say is that you are ‘less sure’ about what you’re saying. Poetry, then, offers, not scientific clarity, but a space to examine contradiction, complication, complexities of feeling.

Yet at the same time, it might dictate exactly what those feelings are. “Some of the things said dictated / what you could love” (Black Sonnets, 9). Language modifies the object onto which various feelings are put – which could be, as we noted earlier, an object deliberately chosen for its abstraction or spectacular / removed nature: a celebrity, a historical muse, a poet whose surname stands for what they have said in their poems rather than the person Keats or Villon themselves. Rather than allowing the poet to find out and work through what it is possible to love, the poem has set up the field of what can be done in real life, and in that sense functioned as an imposition, rather than allowing a mode of access to knowledge – whether self-knowledge or knowledge of others and the world (the two of course connected). This statement of apparent doubt is itself modified by comic deflation, in a phrase with the metrical set-up of a well-turned out poetic line but one whose reference is the apparently banal and inappropriate one of a game of football: “with no keeper to round” (cf. the more obviously comic “I will buy he in FIFA”, or “Injuries have been a plague all season”). ‘Keeper’ could of course have the double sense of ‘a keeper’ – a term used to describe someone with whom a romantic relationship could and should be sustained – in which case ‘round’ becomes hard to read: whether to ‘go round’ (the sense it has if we read the phrase as being about football), or, perhaps to ‘shape’. Because this follows on from the lines about what one can (and by implication, cannot) love, this suggests an absence. What has been said has shut off the possibility of the ‘keeper’, of a sustained relation, and the poet is left with the shifting field of objects of attention onto which they fix their attention with a self-critical eye, even as this range of objects often works on the logic of a kind of obsessive repetition and recurrence (though not usually transformation). When transformation or expansion does occur, it deliberately overreaches itself: “my love for you […] is a way of life / and has allowed oceans” (Pink Sonnets, 8); “breathing in / the polis of a billion years” (Pink Sonnets, 5) (the pun, or at least the sonic prompt here would seem to be on polis and pollen).

Similarly, the tenth and final sonnet of the grey book begins: “So, / if I ever die, / I will write you / such a decent poem / that the plant melts / and becomes / heart-shaped. / I will call it Anglophone / poetic practice / as a way of feeling”. The absurdity of “If I ever die” (cf. “I’m not going to die” (Red Sonnets, 9)) is further destabilized by substituting the italicized acadamese of “Anglophone / poetic practice / as a way of feeling” for ‘poetry as a way of feeling’. The abstraction of ‘poetry’, as well as the claims so often made in its name (as they are, albeit sceptically, throughout these sonnets), is changed into something more like a research or conference paper proposal (or, indeed, a doctor’s practice, a healing possibility – cf. “or there is healing pain” (Pink Sonnets, 4)). One might expect ‘way of life’ here, certainly implied as a contrast to death: in any case, the lines suggest that feelings denied or shut off to one ‘IRL’ are allowed to blossom within the poem (cf. “Simplification is at the heart of real life” (Red Sonnets, 4). Poetry contains a transformative aspiration – the melting of the power plant into a heart shape, a kind of parody of swords into plougshares or something of the sort – but one that also risks cultivating the notion of a somewhat abstracted ‘feeling’ and elevating it to a poetic pinnacle where it is perfected and removed from life, more so than being generated by or responding to life.

Something like the converse of this, though, occurs in the fourth sonnet of the silver book, where the poet writes: “I don’t want to breathe / my thesis over anyone”. Thesis, in its Greek etymology, relates to ‘putting’ or ‘placing’: so that while the poems are insistently concerned with placing and (re-)arranging various new or recurrent tropes and (often vaguely-delineated) speakers and addressees, they do so, not from an intended position of power or manipulation, but in order to leave a certain openness to the reader with whom they make their contract, leaving their images or the particular intonation of line-broken phrases open for interpretation. The poems in general perform few of the radical deformations of syntax often associated with avant-garde poetry: they are often constructed through propositional, grammatically-coherent statements – theses, if you like. It’s the links between these and the absence of an overarching narrative – one exacerbated by the constant hints at and promises of narrative, which are generally borrowed as fragments from other, familiar storylines, whether the news reporting of 9/11, global warming, or the presence or absence of the lover – that cause complications, that aim to make the process of reading a pleasurably elusive task. For the speaker not to breathe their thesis means for them to apparently abdicate, and certainly to distrust, their own position as someone with something of worth to say, because they are a poet, or because the thing is in a poem; not as a political or utopian model of democracy, consensus, etc, but as a working-through and setting-up of various constraints.

A thesis has to be proved against counter-attack, and must thus set itself out strongly. One could propose that refusing this perhaps closes off the possibility of counter-argument, that the poet’s apparent self-removal might thus also seem like an evasion. But we should also understand the term in relation to the fact that Heames is currently working on his own Ph.D thesis – the poem must not become merely an illustration of something for academic point-scoring, must be its own, independent entity. Finally, thesis, in its original, prosodic sense, means the stressed syllable in poetry or music, by which one sets down the foot or lowers the hand in beating time; the fact that the syllable is stressed connects to the strength of assertive proposition that the word has more generally come to signify. The poet’s breathing of a thesis is thus part of a sounding of the poem too, but poetic stress and stress of argument aren’t meant to batter the reader over the head with skill or virtuosity: if the analogy is to be musical, we could take Satie (that combination of glacial, stately movement and surface and some sort of melancholic emotional pull) as opposed to, let’s say, the strenuous bombast of certain variants of nineteenth-century Romanticism.

The poems, then, aren’t meant to be ‘decoded’ – “The secret impresses no one” (Blue Sonnets, 3) – even as they also aren’t meant to be clear, propositional statements of position (theses) – or just ‘atmospheres’ “without meaning.” Instead, they frequently dwell in a “dreamworld”: an alternative region which, in the history of poetry, has, of course, often functioned as a space to make veiled political critique, as well as to speculate on the origins of poetic inspiration and the tasks of the poet. Without the cosmological frame available to Chaucer or Langland, though, dreams must appear slightly differently; there’s less stability. Thus, it’s hardly comforting that it can sometimes feel as if the speaker is wandering through a perpetual waking dream. From the tenth sonnet of the silver book: “I had dream / things to do”. I’ve mentioned activity, and here dreams themselves become active, a list of tasks to be accomplished. In certain religious or mystical traditions, the thinker deliberately dreams in order to find the solution to a problem, to access a higher realm of knowledge; psycho-analysis, meanwhile, might suggest the dream as a means of finding self-knowledge, albeit one which is socially shaped, and has social consequences – and one which is, moreover, not self-discoverable, but must be expounded, admittedly through one’s own talking, to the analyst as a necessary added presence. Surrealism’s use of dreams for social critique would be an obvious frame of reference for modernist poetry, but that particular strain doesn’t really seem to be part of the tradition Heames is working within. In the tenth sonnet of the red book, “knowledge is itself” described as a “collection of strange dreams / used to describe feeling”. One might expect the formulation to be reversed, at least if the poem were operating according to a scientific model by which dreams and feelings (and, by extension, the sphere of the aesthetic) are often left alone because not discoverable by evidence-based methodologies. But this is a poem, and, while it’s interested in problems of knowledge, verifiable data, and feeling, it appears to trust neither empiricism nor a reliance on the strength of emotional feeling rhetorically pulled off to make the poem ‘work’, to be persuasive or moving. In that sense, the sonnets move across the two halves of the statement – the one thing used to describe the other thing, whether dreams or feelings or knowledge – as their operating territory; themselves, probably quite deliberately, coming across as ‘strange dreams’ in which feelings and knowledge (whether bits of found language, quasi-argumentative statements, assertions, etc) are certainly invoked, if not always described in detail.

This might even have a utopian dimension, if we consider lines from the third sonnet of the blue book: “That the dead obsess / in their own fractal proto-socialist dream time / is their own / terrain.” (Blue Sonnets, 3) Yet there seems to be a negative or critical inflection here – the dead are obsessive, their socialism is only a ‘proto-socialism’, more akin to fractals’ infinite reproduction of the same forms on various scales than to a complex social arrangement concerned with a more just society, and it is their business whether or not they obsess, not ours. Indeed, immediately following is the sentence “Come to grief”, which might suggest what has happened to the dead, whether or not through their obsession; or, perhaps more likely, allowing us to retrospectively re-read ‘obsess’, not as the action of the dead over an unspecified concern, but as your or my own obsession over the dead, placed in a passive construction in which that obsession is framed as if performed by the dead. In that sense, ‘come to grief’ could refer to the speaker or addressee’s fate if they become too concerned with the ‘dream-time’ of the dead, or to what happens to the dead in ‘their own terrain’; or a means of avoiding obsession through the working-through of mourning, in which obsessing over the obsessive dead might finally be moved on from (even as such obsession is so often the work of poetry).

In an (unpublished) introduction to a reading Heames gave in Cambridge late last year, Lisa Jeschke describes his work as containing images “which make you laugh on the inside, but, because the image is so forcefully contained, restricts your ability to laugh on the outside, or at least restricts your ability to laugh convulsively on the outside.” I wonder about laughter here – that perhaps part of the atmosphere of these poems, what I’ve called their veiling, or screening, or filtration, has to do with presenting material with the structure or quality of a joke (“I will buy he in Fifa”, “O mate I do”) but without allowing one to laugh, leaving one uncertain, not only as to the intended effect, but to what exactly this means for the experience of the poem. This forceful containment could be, as Jeschke believes it to be, a mode of useful rigour, a refusal of the easy punch-line, though laughter (even ‘convulsive’, ‘outside’ laughter) itself – as much as it can reinforce cruelty, community self-definition by exclusion or in-group homo-social smugness, ‘getting it’, etc – is not always a bad thing. Jeschke goes on to use the phrase “openly repressed”, which is nice – not so much because it suggests the neat argument it would be easy to make, where repression in the poem reflects repression in social, economic (or, predominantly for Heames) affective relations, but because it captures something of the poems’ tonal qualities, their simultaneous ease and uneasiness with that ease. For Jeschke, Heames’ poems “do not use media and games jargon in relation to the war on terrorism or the financial crisis as a declaration of something like the world-as-simulacrum, but, on the contrary, as a declaration of the fully material relation between language and the real world.” This insistence on formal containment – or games, veilings, filtration, repression, etc – puts “pressure” both ways, between poem and “outside world”, so that what appears to be “formal perfection” actually turns out to be “the representation of perfection”, one which “ultimately presents an image of absolute error and mistake: ‘just when I thought / I was perfect / I find this big weird mistake.’” So, once again, Jeschke here argues, not that the poetry reflects the unreal perfection-repression of the world as constituted by global capitalism, but that its containment as textual object –as poem – moves in and out of that world, taking bits with it.

This might relate, though it seems a little different in emphasis, to what Heames himself writes in a 2010 review of another sonnets project, that of Geraldine Monk: “words will have and go their own way.” We could parse this as something like the social unconscious of language, we could bring in Voloshinov; words, though they seem to act in transcendent fashion – or as other organisms, other life-forms we can maybe set in motion but can’t quite control, that, in fact, control us – are also socially determined, but can be worked through and with. That might not sit quite right, with either that statement, or the poems, but no matter. More work can be done on that later.

OK. So I’d still venture that there may be limits to these poems. There is so much one could write about them, and they encourage this. The methods Heames has found to generate and arrange material seem potentially inexhaustible – the sonnets could just go on forever within their discrete units, offering a wealth of material for close-reading and for what I earlier described as the cultivation of atmosphere. Both formally and in terms of statement, there’s a thoroughly built-in self-critique and sceptical handling of material. For instance, in terms of the sonnet as medium, there’s much play with intensely varied line lengths. The sonnets don’t appear to follow a discernible rule controlling this, though, like much of Heames’ poetry, there does seem to be some sort of private compositional system governing them, which is there more for the purposes of the writer than the reader – in a similar fashion to what Jeschke half-seriously calls the “pedantically numbered” system of ‘AI in Daylight’ (or indeed, ‘Array One’ and ‘To’, the other books which, with ‘AI’, combine to form the sequence Arrays). Yet this potentially limitless generation and questioning of material perhaps risks being unable to fully trouble its own premises. The open-ended gestures, in which the poet refuses to “breathe [their] own thesis on anyone”, also mean that argument itself remains diffuse, poetry reduced to being merely a “beautiful simple way / of being wrong.” Is this enough? The poems are certainly accomplished, skilful. And form is never more than extension of content, etc – but, beyond accomplishments of form, I guess what I’m gesturing towards is the sense that poetry might importantly allow something between, or elsewhere to these particular poems’ focus. Thus, on the one hand, the near-obsessive concern with the filtrations of what constitutes ‘daily life’ (in certain cases, for certain subjects with certain horizons of concern and activity – “the sort of person who spends their time / alone at night, eating a lot of food and admiring the internet”); certain cultural practices or references; particular affects of alienation; the academic and vocational interest in poetry. And on the other, a different kind of view of the polis and of poesis, where – and here I’m borrowing phrasing from the introduction to Robert Duncan’s Bending the Bow, itself borrowed from Olson, which has recently been helping me to frame the work of a very different poet, David Brazil – the “boundary” between poem and world, or town, or ocean, or power plant, or computer game, or whatever, sits slightly differently. Life as more than just another ‘theme’. In any case, the question I just asked, about whether ‘this’ is ‘enough’, is perhaps absurd – the demands placed upon poetry, and addressed in these poems themselves, cannot be singular, and the critical move of enlisting the textual object under examination for a particular aesthetic-political project has its pitfalls. I guess what I’m trying to get at is how I personally respond to the sonnets, what use I feel I can make of them – even if that doesn’t appear all too clear itself in this review. Needless to say, this will differ from reader to reader.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

David Brazil - The Ordinary

David Brazil, The Ordinary (Oakland: Compline, 2012 (reprinted 2014)) Paperback, 230pp. $15.00)

What follows is a slightly revised version of a review which, in its original form, first appeared at Shearsman Review last year. The piece, which is something like a brief introduction to the book’s scope and concerns, was written after a visit to the States during which I spent a bit of time with David in Oakland, and out of an attempt to transmit some of my own enthusiasm for the work – which I’d first started properly reading in late 2013 – but it seems appropriate to start with some more recent thoughts about David’s poetry in general, even if this risks piling up one introduction on another.

One of the things that’s striking about Brazil’s project, I think, is how it relates, or doesn’t relate, to the relegation of learning, of study, to an academic position – at least, as the academy might provide an ideal of some sort of scholarly community devoted to pure learning, in itself, while remaining wilfully ignorant of the class hierarchy with which that entwines. (Neither is the poet a researcher, in the sense that word might assume within the models that increasingly predominate over and compromise even the tainted ideal of scholarly ‘purity’, tallying up points for the Research Excellence frame.) I don’t here want to make the sort of spurious anti-academic move all too common amongst academics – what’s worse than a self-hating academic, after all. But these are, of course, objective contradictions which must inevitably be central for transatlantic poetry communities which so often exist either within, on the fringes of, or in parallel relation to the academy, whether enthusiastically or oppositionally – and generally it’s a combination of both. Certainly, poets do not and have not ever existed without some sort of relation to institutions – no one has. Indeed, that fantasy of independence is precisely the kind of idealisation that the anti-academic critique itself risks reduplicating. Perhaps what I mean in relation to Brazil’s work, then, is ‘institution’ rather than ‘academy’, though attempts in Oakland to develop institutions of a non-official or semi-official nature are undoubtedly vital to it– the model is certainly not of entire, hermetic separation. (I’ll return to this issue below.)

In any case, it’s a project very much about learning, and archaeology, excavations of and against the tradition of dead generations (“don’t you know / there aint no grave” (‘Praxis, Apostles!’)), tracing histories of thought and the ideological underpinnings of the western world through theology and revolution – one which aligns with the academic work done by Badiou and Agamben and others, but which never feels like a mere illustration of current trends. A book like The Ordinary might encourage us to perceive the quality or the scope of epic, though the division into clearly separate chapbooks, maintained in the collected edition as sections which each possess a distinct identity, as well as Brazil’s publishing and writing practice in general, should, I think, disincline us from such a characterisation. Thus, while a project of great scope, it’s neither academic, nor really Olsonesque (or Whitmanesque): the poet themselves may pose sometimes seemingly assume a near-vatic tone, but generally discourses in more modest spaces of poetic address. For instance, in the sixth poem from the chapbook Holy Ghost, we get what appear to be bits of arguments and discussions on a street-corner or a social space, sometimes fractious and oppositional (“antagonism in the social fabric’s just what you expected, / go to work and ask about it there, check out the / pamphlet at the bank, ask your black neighbour is / racism over, or motherfucker just ask me”), sometimes offering a reinforcement of shared vocational goals amongst a community of poets and friends. From the same poem: “How / can we keep making art is just another way of saying how / can we live in the world, now answer the question with your own valiant works and consider your debts to your forbears / in making, you owe them big for everything you are, the / other name for everything you love”.

Brazil frequently works through fragments and compression, though these fragments sprawl, and, as journal-like entries, could be part of a process that goes on infinitely, depending on the circumstances of the poet’s life with which they are insistently entwined (though not for purposes of either lyric self-aggrandisement or self-chastisement, which can be two sides of the same coin). I’m thinking here mainly of the first few sections of The Ordinary. In whatever case, though, this isn’t Maximus, nor, really, is it any of the similarly large-scale projects emerging from San Francisco during the 1950s and 60s – Jonas’ Exercises for Ear (or, more accurately, the unfinished project Orgasms/Dominations); Duncan’s Passages and Groundwork; and, outside San Francisco, the attempts at a Maximus-type work by the likes of Robert Kelly (Spicer’s serial poem are a different case I think). It doesn’t build up instructive fragments as part of a cumulative and accumulative project for total knowledge; though, like Maximus, it does combine a large-scale historical reach with an insistent focus on a particular place, albeit one whose politics are far more sharply delineated and unavoidable than those of Olson’s Gloucester. In that sense, then, one could still usefully place it in the currents of poetic work done in San Francisco and Oakland over the years, from the circles round Spicer and Duncan to others.

Indeed, the following sentence from the Introduction to Duncan’s Bending the Bow seems apposite: “The commune of poetry becomes so real that [the poet] sounds each article in relation to parts of a great story that he knows will never be completed.” Completion and expectation, working and unfolding, are very much horizons for Brazil’s work, particularly as they relate to questions of time, of kairos, the fitting moment, the dialectical refusal of a solely linear model of history and the way that might manifest through the kind of dialogues between living and dead with which poetry is so often concerned. For Duncan, the interplay of private and public – as it relates to his homosexuality, to the cultivation of a sustainable and central domestic partnership with Jess, and to the volatile history of San Francisco as a city built, as he notes, on earthquakes – is one in which what we might call the civic, or political voice of poetry is ultimately subsumed to a polis which exists in the ‘commune’ of the poem itself, where what enters are “only words.” Thus, on the one hand: “Everywhere, from whatever poem, choreographies extend into actual space. In my imagination I go through the steps the poet takes so that the area of a township appears in my reading.” Yet, ultimately, “the boundary lines in the poem belong to the poem and not to the town.” (All quotations from the Introduction to BTB, One suspects that Brazil, while constantly aware of the poetic as a particular mode which is none other than itself and cannot be otherwise subsumed – and this is not, it should be noted, an argument for the ‘pure text’ artefact, to be read and re-read at will, or even with a scientific exactitude, as if it were a laboratory specimen sealed off from the world – might not go so far as Duncan along that line of argument, given the deliberately messy and attacked nature of the poems that appear in The Ordinary – certainly in their visual appearance. (Though the revisions and excisions of the book’s earlier part do remind me of the footage of Duncan composing a poem live on camera in the recently-unearthed Poetry U.S.A. documentary from 1965 dedicated to his work – a documentary with a beautiful coda in which Duncan accompanies John Wieners to the now-derelict Hotel Wentley, the film agonizingly fading out in the midst of a Wieners’ recitation from the Wentley poems).)

In any case, whatever parallels we might find with Duncan’s theorisations of poetry (perhaps some parallels in the use of rhyme too), The Ordinary very much has its own thing. The fragments herein could be shards of lyric, of rhymed verse, of quotations from Marx and the Bible, of notes towards essays, working by a process of deletion (the blanked-out words which sometimes drastically reduce the size of a poem by half or more). Perhaps there are countervailing impulses, between those deliberately worked and attacked deletions (nonetheless marked by dating, by the visible evidence of hand-written revision, so that these are not instances of a perfected textual object, but of the process of working and composition itself, in all its messiness), and the essays or poems with longer lines which stretch and bend the ‘boundary lines’ between poetry and prose (particularly in the section entitled ‘Economy’).

This development of something in which poetry and prose mutually inform each other and sometimes overlap is an important aspect of the work, yet the use of metre and rhyme also strikes a consciously insistent note. Examples in this respect would include ‘To Romans’ and the just-released Praxis, Apostles!, which alternates rhymed sections, often in iambics, with ones whose prosody is more irregular, freer verse forms with irregular line lengths. These more regularly rhymed sections seems to come in part from song refrains, which are often quoted (Destiny’s Child’s open the chapbook Holy Ghost); or see Brazil’s use of singing at readings: as here, where he sings ‘Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning’, a song whose reference, in some renditions, to what is generally known as ‘the time’ but sometimes ‘the work’ might refer both to time, to the apocalypse, but also to the cessation of labour. (“Keep your lamp trimmed and burning, / The work is nearly done [or, The time is drawing nigh]”.) Rhyme isn’t associated here with a stultified and stultifying academic verse, but with an alternative, popular tradition of song, whether that be found in contemporary pop music itself, or in the resistant strains of African-American spirituals, where religious hope and revolutionary consciousness blend and entwine. The language through which Paul’s work is filtered – the combination of modernised and archaic vocabulary, the use of vernacular American English (‘y’all’ appears frequently, a regionally- and class-specific elision which insists on the inclusive nature of the second-person address) – doesn’t appear as translator-ese, as a gimmicky trick of forced updating: it’s too insistently weird for that, and yet completely at home and at ease within the discourse-range it’s set up for itself. Instead, Brazil’s practice is characterized by a recognition of the historically-determined, yet malleable and vulnerable contingency of poetic form. As he puts it in the ‘kairos’ section of The Ordinary: “having lost the forms & faith / in forms // we have only / prosody, // a houseless / meter” (p.xvi). (Cf., perhaps, J.H. Prynne’s 2008 essay ‘Huts’ in Textual Practice.)

Such range is pretty much throughout shaped by an overriding concern with theology, a concern that might surprise some, given the often stringently materialist mindset of transatlantic poetic communities. Something of this is registered in a comment Richard Owens makes in a blog post from a few years ago, in which he describes ‘To Romans’, in its original stand-alone pamphlet form, as: “Like seminar notes toward a more thoroughgoing biblical exegesis halted midway by — what — maybe the constraint of time or our collective inability to reconcile an ecclesiastical imagining of love with a desire for social justice.” Whether or not one one’s self believes that such a reconciliation is a necessary or present horizon of concern or activity – opinions will, needless to say, differ – Brazil certainly does; the reasons for which we might begin to adduce from a 2010 letter to Brandon Brown on the concept of kairos, in which he writes of:

something among us which if not transcendent may at least be described as super-personal — the collective symbolic existence — which the language of theology often seems of value to describe — or, I should say, to understand, since that collective existence is materially inextricable from the histories of which have formed its basis, all of which have been explicitly Christian for millennia, and which even now, secularized, bear their theologic traces.

So the interest in theology is not motivated by and does not lead to an escape from history and politics, but from an attempt to go to their root, even as it also comes from a strong position of actual belief. Brazil’s church is broad; it is of the outcasts, the activists, the poets, is not an institution as such. That said, the latter word’s Latin origins – the verb instituĕre as it transforms into a noun form – include ‘begin’, ‘arrange’, ‘establish’ and ‘teach’, suggesting something active, rather than ossified: the moment of establishing, rather than the establishment itself. In this regard, see Brazil’s comments from 2011 on the Pauline notion of pistis, generally translated ‘belief’ or ‘faith’, as active, as something done, “a sort of performative” which “happens in the human world as a rhetorical situation and a rhetorical transaction” (‘On Michael Cross’ Haecceities: A Group Review and Sourcebook’, Little Red Leaves Press, 2011, p.27). And, even if we understand ‘institution’ in the more fixed or negative sense by which poets have often understood it, one could still frame the term as applying to something more like the Bay Area Public school or the intensive reading groups held in Brazil’s house which prefigured that broader activity – what Laura Moriarty in her review of The Ordinary calls “a sort of anti-institution” (Moriarty, ‘Being Happy with The Ordinary, Part 1’, The Poetry Foundation); as a term, that is, based on the latencies in the original Latin rather than on what the word has come through repetition to mean. Some sense through all this, then, of clandestine activity, as with early Christian meetings under Imperial persecution – the parallels with political activism of certain kinds. Secrecy and revealed knowledge; revealed, not through a moment of exterior inspiration, but through one’s own work and study and activity. All this, as a risky move, taken over and over again; and one which manifests, in Brazil’s work, as a total, but contingent aesthetic.

[What follows is the review itself]

The Ordinary is a big book, lovingly made. It consists of six, pamphlet-length section, and it feels like something of a statement: in a note of acknowledgment, Brazil thanks Michael Cross – whose publications, through Compline Editions and, previously Atticus/Finch truly are some of the most beautifully crafted small press objects being made at present – and without whom “this book, both as concept and object, would never have come into existence.” Indeed, that balance between the apparent grandiosity of the project and the often lo-fi aesthetics of the poems themselves is one central to Brazil’s particular brand of religious communist poetics. At one point he writes, “my prosody’s from here” – here being, primarily, his home-town, Oakland, CA, whose environmental pressures and socialities are figured through a highly-developed auto-didactic acquaintance with ancient languages, and with political, economic and theological history – see, elsewhere, his bibliography on revolution, the appendix to Lisa Robertson and Matthew Stadler’s Revolution: A Reader – and through the detritus of language and material out of which the poetry’s shaped. Thus, vernacular usage will come up against, or alongside, words in ancient Greek, theological concepts, Marxist economics, and records of conversation-as-community, marked by an insisting first-person naming of friends and fellow poets – sometimes all within the space of a few, closely-placed lines. For Brazil, these are all part of the process, part of the field of economy which is his field of study, his social situation. “there’s no other place from which to write what we must / say than FROM INSIDE THIS SHITTY LIFE.”

Such concerns again crop up in the work of Brazil’s close compadres Evan Kennedy and Jackqueline Frost – with whose Terra Firmament (Krupskaya, 2013) and The Antidote (Compline, 2013), respectively, The Ordinary has been presented as a kind of trilogy of shared concerns. All three books emerge out of the political organisation and activism which reached a peak during the activities surrounding Occupy Oakland and the Oakland Commune, and all emerge as a record which must in some way reckon with the ultimate defeat of that movement, “in the caesurae between struggles” figuring its lessons and retaining its hope. “hope pours forth / from out the fault, the / one at uproar / withinside itself”. Throughout, a faith in poetry itself and in the unique work it can do – however much this faith is racked and split – is never lost, as it can sometimes be in instantiations of a militant poetics. Poetry here does not end up in ironized self-recrimination, nor is it exaggerated in propagandistic claims that can never be lived up – what Brazil in a letter to Thom Donovan from December 2011 calls “the crust of reified sloganeering and narrative claims trying to make a fit matter for the spectacle”. As Brazil writes in a letter to fellow Bay Area poet Alli Warren published at Donovan’s OTHER LETTERS project: “It continues to be revolutionary to remember, to insist, to stand up for. To be an agent of a very fragile cultural transmissions.”

There is a crucial sense here of community – all three poets will often address, or record conversations with, the poets with whom they are in regular dialogue, memorializing a context and setting up what does not imagine itself to be able to tap into, say, a mass movement, but which is, nonetheless, very much political in its pursuit of a field of shared concerns which often intersect with broader activist struggles. This community, or communities – “strange communities that are an aggregate of such strange selves” – is, of course, “a profoundly enigmatic form of sociability”, yet, for Brazil, it might nonetheless figure itself as a “contingent alternative to accepting the regime of atomized economic life, nuclear familitude, and all the rest of it”. It is not an “empty hedonism in the face of catastrophe,” a nihilistic retreat, but precisely where, through the practice of poetry and attendant friendship, the ethical might be figured in a way that necessarily must inform political practice on a broader scale: “we will not have the political we need until we can meaningfully renovate our social being.” (All quotations from letter to Warern.) (On this, see also Frost, in a recent BOMB magazine group interview with Brazil and Kennedy, on Kennedy’s attempt to formulate an ethics (which he designates bonohomie) that is “less sterile than solidarity and more radical than friendship”, which “flies in the face of Nihilist-Leftist perspectives that cannot even utter terms like ‘goodwill.’ This with its counterpart in Frost’s own “negativity […] compatible with the anger of the subjected.”)

For Brazil, poetry and its attendant and informing speech are “a form of talking in diaspora […] a prayer that we can / say only in quorum”. There is here also an actual belief in vocation – about which Brazil has delivered a talk, full of the dense deftness which manifests itself throughout The Ordinary, for the Poetic Labour Project. What is meant here is not the hierarchy of class election and fetishized specialisation, the abstraction which divides intellectual (or artistic) from manual labour, akin to Blake’s figuration of the “Priesthood” as a cult which “abstracts the mental deities from their object” (itself, for Blake, the usurpation of a project which is initially poetic). Rather, in a usage whose lineage derives in part from St Paul, Badiou and Max Weber, we have the formation of a “small band of militants” existing in opposition to the atomized subjectivities required for the formation of capital and the de-formation or still-birth of group identities and modes of organisation that might be posed against it. In poetic terms, this is the ambition to “do you work irrespective of impossibilities”, to study, to “unconceal – to show forth a hidden thing,” and even to see if you can speak history – through etymology, theologicy, economics – “political truths […] but also truths of the imagination […] or thus about how we live and feel, truths of the heart.” (Letter to Warren). These ‘truths’ are not the class interests and predilections of the court or the bourgeoisie disguised as universal, eternal verities; they must rely on the material truth of the existence of those excluded from symbolic and economic orders, that ‘waste’, seeking to “harmonize”, to speak within and from, the condition of being a “chrono / choked prole”, trapped within “prole tempo”. Proletarian here meaning: “We are the “surplus populations” spoken of in contemporary political economy. We are cast out, cast off, traduced and abjected, left with no history.” In the face of this, to speak that history. “[T]o be a writer is a calling, but to be a proletarian is the state in which we are called.”

Three of the The Ordinary’s first four sections – ‘Kairos’, ‘Election’, and ‘Descort’ – consist of shorter poetic fragments, often including crossings-out and corrections in pen which sometimes radically alter the shape of the original, type-written poem; the third, ‘Vierges’, contains uncorrected, though still lo-fi, typewritten poems; and the sixth, which might initially the most surprising, is a metrical and idiosyncratically modernized translation of St Paul’s Letter to Romans, a latter which, according to a tradition of interpretation stretching from Jacob Taubes to Badiou and Agamben, forms the foundation of a politically emancipatory theology predicated on the rejection of law: whether this law be that of the Torah, the rule of the Roman empire (predicated precisely against the Jewish people), or of law more generally, as instrument of class and State oppression. These more overtly ‘poetic’ parts constitute the majority of the book; the fifth section, entitled ‘Economy’ – parts of which were previously published by Little Red Leaves Press – manifests what is often a more essayistic process, taking the form, in a mixture of prose and poetry, of a kind of diary of thought and hope. Its approach to the notion of ‘economy’ comes from various theoretical angles and as a journal-like working-through of the practice of writing itself. Individual poems, here, as in the first and second sections, are dated in pen and written on scraps of paper found on the streets of Oakland – advertisements for church services, housing forms, surgical procedures and the like. Such scraps are the detritus of those so poorly provided for within the management of economy – understood, contrary to its etymological origin (oikos), as that house which is most certainly not a home; those who suffer “the deleterious effects upon body, psyche and interpersonal relation” that are “the life of the oikos considered generally”. These daily, structuring forms of violence at times manifest themselves in images of extreme and direct – often gendered – suffering: “stop the girl / kid’s mouth with a cock / lest she utter an / irrevocable curse.” Here, nonetheless, is the possibility of a curse that can’t be called back, against tormenters, against the “retro hetero werewolf […] dual hetero foil to your head”: the possibility of that resistance necessary for survival.

As Brazil puts it in the BOMB magazine group interview: “All waste also actually talks. Being struck in the face by history it has no choice. Economy was an attempt to discover the contingent prosody inside of the intersection of objects, days, a space (Oakland) and myself.” (Or as the recent Praxis, Apostles! has it, “from out the wreck, / the wreck of my / particulars, my / placenames”.) These scraps of non-human detritus also find their analogue in those human beings symbolically and materially cast aside within economic processes. St Paul’s “we have become the refuse of the world, the off-scouring of all things until now” (Corinthians 4:13) finds its parallel in the wretched of the earth, the proletariat, the “preterite part” excluded from the fatalist-Calvinist ‘elect’ of capital. Economy’s method, then, is a process of composition by incrementation and erasure, as in the ‘redacted’ parts prevalent in the first sections of the book as a whole. “[W]hat congealed / to force his pro-/duct […] forms / a house of waste” : the transformation of living substances to dead ones, the substitution of material labour and labourers by what Alfred Sohn-Rethel would call the ‘real abstraction’ of exchange, that which is given material form by its unconscious, lived basis. These are theological, or, let’s say, metaphysical concepts which are still lived by and through: “we’re all walking around with theology in our mouths”; “Cash, I told Dana’s, a negative eucharist.” Against them are posed models of polis which instantiate different models of law, ethics and economy: the nomos that must underwrite and, perhaps, reconfigure, oikos. “[T]he ethical body must / incessantly repeat / the spiritual act of its upsurge, / must always be reborn, / must always recall itself / to its name and its / freedom” (p.lxxii).

The sixth and final section of The Ordinary, ‘To Romans’, is the culmination of the book in that its concern is with law –“law law law law, what’s law, what’s the law, what’s the relevant law” (p.cxxiii) – and with the universal. In an earlier poem considering the role of the judge, Brazil expands outwards from a local instantiation of that role – the judge from “Iowa” who “reads thrillers” on his break. The comic disparity between the human manifestation of the structural role (Brazil has to “ask Lord” what that judge does in their spare time) leads onto a broader consideration of ‘judgement’ as such, in which “every day” might be “judgement day”, the instantiation of a practical ethics through daily action and negotiation. So that this poetry is supremely ethical; it is a poetry where ethics must and can only be constituted in ongoing contingent negotiation and struggle; and it is a poetry full of detritus, waste that speaks back, “waste as muse”. The Ordinary is not exactly ‘social realism’, nor is it a celebration of the magic of the unjust order that is, but rather, the strenuous hope for its transformation and overthrow: “the future […] legible in the lineaments of the present [which] mingles with those liberatory shards of past history whose light blazes to us all across time with the message of a liberated humanity” – and the endlessly complex figuration of how this might manifest itself in practice.


Talk (on Vocation) at the Poetic Labour Project.
Correspondence with Alli Warren, 2010, at Thom Donovan’s OTHER LETTERS Project.
Letter to Thom Donovan, December 2011, in Donovan (ed.), Poetry during OWS (p.20).
Bomb Magazine Interview (with Donovan, Jackqueline Frost, Evan Kennedy), April 2014.
The Ordinary and Holy Ghost at Compline.
Antisocial Patience at Roof Books.
Praxis, Apostles! at Materials.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Martin Iddon, New Music at Darmstadt: Nono, Stockhausen, Cage and Boulez (Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Martin Iddon’s book, backed up by extensive archival research, is, as its publishers tell us, the first full-length study of Darmstadt to appear in English. However, as its subtitle, indicating a focus on four of the Darmstadt big guns, suggests, its focus is somewhat more narrow than might have been expected from such a publication. This is not to say that it merely enshrines a canonical narrative, in which Nono, Stockhausen, Cage and Boulez line up to take their respective places as grand masters within an accepted view of musical history – quite the contrary, in fact. The book’s purpose is twofold: first, to demolish the myth of the ‘Darmstadt school’ as stable compositional style or method and to situate the origin of that myth in the discussions that were taking place in and around Darmstadt during the 1950s; second, to examine the impact of Cage’s visit to Darmstadt in the late ’50s as, in some ways, the nail in the coffin of serial unity that never really existed. As Iddon shows, this unity was one promoted partially by the composers themselves – though never consistently, and often in line with shifting personal and musical relationships – and partly by organizers and critics such as Herbert Eimert and Hans-Klaus Metzger.

In this regard, his method is, in general, to focus on key performances and points of debate – lectures and essays by Adorno, Hans-Klaus Metzger, Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono and Cage – with detailed analyses of particular pieces, often drawing on previous work by other critics, peppering proceedings. Thus, central parts are played by: the early confrontation in one of Adorno’s workshops between Adorno, Stockahusen and Karel Goeyvaerts over the latter’s Sonata for Two Pianos – one which is obliquely referred to in Adorno’s essay ‘The Ageing of the New Music’, an attack on what he perceived as a tendency towards a quasi-totalitarian, a-humanist construction of music through ‘objective’ tables and quasi-mathematical methods; a 1953 radio debate on the influence of Webern in which Eimert polemically responded to Adorno; Metzger’s own responses to Adorno over the years; and lectures by the composers themselves, which increasingly came to consist of veiled and direct attacks on each other, including Boulez’s ‘Alea’ (whose target was in part, Cage) and Nono’s ‘The Historical Reality of Music Today’.

The book is, then, not so much a strictly analytic study of particular compositions as one which is concerned to carefully record the musicological reception and the various narratives of influence and development that emerged from within and outside Darmstadt during its most formative period. Yet, in a sense, this means that it is neither one thing nor the other: in terms of specifically musical detail, the analyses are generally kept to a minimum, while, on the other hand, one at times wishes that the parameters were slightly wider, and that the socio-political background to the debates were addressed more fully. If Iddon’s summaries and delineations of various positions expressed within Darmstadt debates are detailed almost to fault, there is, nonetheless, little real sense of audience reception – who exactly, for example, are the various discontented individuals who boo and whistle through various different premieres, and what sort of contemporary impulse do they represent? Furthermore, how and out of what might any collective entity that might be described through terms such as ‘audience’, ‘students’, ‘performers’ and ‘composers’ be said to have come to be? And what of the status of musical institutions in post-war West Germany; the status of repertoire and of modernism in the wake of Nazi suppression, American-influenced conservatism, Cold War suspicion, and the like; and the tensions that might exist between these contexts and Darmstadt’s avowed intent to be an international course? Addressing these obviously complex questions might truly allow Darmstadt to be presented as something more than the mythic institution which, for all Iddon’s efforts to show up through examining the narrative constructions and administrative niceties behind the façade, it somehow seems to remain.

An introduction, for instance, sets up the founding of the summer courses and the role of Darmstadt’s first director, Wolfgang Steinecke, within the post-war climate of West Germany and the American-led process of de-Nazification, but this thread is dropped throughout the rest of the book to focus on the details of the various music-focussed polemics. Yet such concerns are clearly to the fore in both Adorno’s and Metzger’s arguments around the political implications of serialism, as well as in Nono’s polemical attack on Cage and indeterminacy, a 1959 lecture translated in English as ‘The Historical Reality of Music Today’, which is given a useful and typically detailed reading towards the end of the book. The three-page conclusion, in which Cage’s presence at Darmstadt is read through Zygmant Bauman’s figure of the ‘stranger’, is frustratingly cursory and brief, and perhaps suggests a different study – one in which, for example, Iddon himself might lay down his own analyses of or opinions on the political implications of Cage’s music, and, indeed, of multiple serialism, and their place within both the musical and political situations both of Germany and of America. Mention of Cornelius Cardew, then Stockhausen’s assistant, leads one to make the tantalizing connection between discourses surrounding improvisation, graphic scores and indeterminacy and Cardew’s own graphic score ‘Treatise’, even if the dating of that work falls outside the range of Iddon’s study. Certainly, the recent discourse surrounding Cage and improvisation is one that extends far beyond the parameters of the often over-simplified understanding of improvisation in the Darmstadt discourse Iddon describes (by which I don’t mean to imply that he necessarily shares it). It’s also something which would open up beyond the callous dismissal of all non-western art music that might be suggested, for instance, in Boulez’ statement, quoted on p.252, that “he, as a westerner, had been shocked to discover the absence of ‘masterworks’ in non-western musics.” (The statement as quoted is somewhat perplexing – Iddon’s sentence construction implies that either Cage or Boulez might be the shocked subject: “Cage did not feature at all, although Boulez mentioned that he, as a westerner…” – and statements made elsewhere by Boulez suggest a more nuanced attitude: in relation, for instance, to the echoing of non-western timbres in his own Le Marteau Sans Maitre, he discusses the risks of “a clumsy appropriation of a ‘colonial’ music vocabulary” of a piece with early twentieth-century exotica.)

Iddon’s book is not intended to be a definitive history of Darmstadt, as his focus on the composers named in the book’s title indicates, and a broader sense of Darmstadt’s evolution and situation might be gleaned from an examination of his stand-alone articles published elsewhere, such as ‘Trying To Speak: Between Politics and Aesthetics, Darmstadt 1970–1972’, which deals with controversies surrounding the organisation of courses during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in the wake of the political upheavals of May ’68, as well as a volume of Contemporary Music Review, ‘Other Darmstadts’, co-edited with Paul Attinello and Christopher Fox. That said, it feels somewhat frustrating that one has to burrow around in various different sources in this manner when the book itself – as a University Press-produced book, rather than a single-issue article – might reasonably be expected to give some sense of scope as well as of specific detail, particularly given that it was published in 2013, some years after much of Iddon’s previous work on Darmstadt.

Likewise, brief mentions of other composers and students present at Darmstadt are often frustratingly brief, even though some of them – most notably, Henri Pousseur – were often enlisted as figures in these debates. Here, they barely even receive walk-on parts, with the result that the contextual backdrop to the debates Iddon does address, or even the details of arrangements and cultural situation of Darmstadt in general, sometimes feel a little fuzzy, despite the wealth of correspondence, reviews and radio broadcasts cited. This is not necessarily to do with a lack of focus on politics, more to do with the fact that it might be useful to have some sense of how personalities beyond Goeyvaerts, Metzger, Steinecke, Adorno, Bruno Maderna, David Tudor and the book’s titular figures might have functioned within Darmstadt and within the debates surrounding it. But it is also to do with politics, or with politically-inflected issues. To take one example, the brief mention of the controversy over Sylvano Bussotti’s Pieces de Chair II, which Stockhausen, Steinecke and others agreed should not be performed due to the homosexual and “possibly paedophilic” content of their texts, raises issues concerning sexuality touched on in Antonelli’s essay ‘Gay Darmstadt’, which centres on the tension between Bussotti’s open sexuality and preference for transgressive, theatrical work in the tradition of Artaud, Genet and others, and the more ‘academic’ approach of the closeted Boulez. Likewise, if Cage’s ‘otherness’ in this context is perhaps as much to do with his status as an American and his particular and distinctive theorisation of the role of composition and the composer, it’s worth noting that he was also gay – as was Metzger, at that point Bussotti’s partner – and that sexuality might have been worth at least a brief digression.

To be sure, Antonelli’s distinction between Boulez and Bussotti could easily be caricatured into an opposition between a bloodless, academic, closeted serialism and a chance-influenced, theatrical and flamboyant approach which could be seen to reproduce unhelpful binary visions of Darmstadt, as well as mapping these onto sexual characterisations which they don’t necessarily fit. He himself is careful to qualify and to avoid this – and, indeed, his article is cited by Iddon in the discussion of Pieces de Chair – yet the impression one gets is that, in situations such as these, Iddon seems to feel that the wider ramifications of sexuality, or politics, are not worthy of a place in a book which insists on unpacking the actual technical workings of multiple serialism as method against the oversimplifications of both its detractors and advocates. Yet, beyond any caricatures, they might nonetheless still be said to form part of a political and musical discourse whose examination could well have enriched his study. In another instance, we are presented with a tantalizing remark from an anonymous member of the ‘Schoenberg school’, quoted in a secondary source: “enough with feeling and alcohol! I am an engineer!” It’s conceivable that this might be explored further, not to suggest not the crass distinction between ‘mechanistic’ or ‘technocratic’ mathematical procedures and – say – an expressionist or neo-romantic ‘access’ to emotion, but the actual social environment in which such music was created, presented and performed, and the emotional, political, social and cultural lives out of which it emerged. Nono’s letters to Steinecke, frequently quoted from here, are full of exaggerated punctuation, colloquialism and the like, and something of this spirit must be recoverable without necessarily descending into an exclusively gossipy biographical focus. Similarly and beyond this, institutional complications potentially caused by Nono’s political commitment – which Iddon mentions in passing with reference to the fact that Nono, a member of the Italian Communist Party, was present at Darmstadt a time when West Germany, just as Hitler had done, had outlawed its own Communist Party, the KPD – seem a further area of concern that might usefully have been explored. Even if performances of Nono’s music were not necessarily as politically charged in Darmstadt as they were at, say, both the Italian and American premiers of his opera Intollorenza 1960, which was blighted by right-wing protests in both countries, Nono’s politics is surely a more central topic than it is allowed to be here. Indeed, Cage’s role as an American, and what might be termed his performance of Americanness, given the complex history of American influence in West Germany, is perhaps somewhat under-stressed as well. In the conclusion, Iddon argues that “the order that Cage truly ruptured was hardly musical but social”, and an expanded sense of what is here meant by social – not just in relation to Cage, but to Darmstadt as a whole – would have given the study a greater resonance and range than it has, however useful it is as a source of research.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014


We got on the train and the sky burned down red and someone made a joke about the last days of Europe, or the world, and we went from the train to a basement full of books to another train and then on foot to the warehouse space where the reading would take place. It was Saturday. There were about thirty or forty people in attendance once everyone had arrived; the space contained bits of art on large pieces of polystyrene and a kitchen with mulled wine and plastic sheets for walls and clusters of art-types and leftists and poets. The atmosphere was convivial – people were pleased to see each other, it was just before Christmas so there was a kind of solidarity with going home to see families and its traumas or joys of what-have-yous, and some sense of emerging from whatever periods of hardship into some kind of holiday, however real or false – there was karaoke afterwards, banter between readings, a sense of excitement at this combination of readers and the work they were doing. Each reader in their own way provided a different spin on how contemporary poets might be figuring politics in poetry, two of them from within the UK – Chalmers and Hayward – two now settled in the U.S. but with strong ties to UK poetries and to particular ways of writing that come very much out of UK poetry scenes – Stanley and Scozzaro – however helpful or unhelpful these geographical demarcations are in delineating and categorizing. From the more ‘purely’ American side, Frost’s work is the most ambitious in scope, in a certain sense, chronicling as it does, in her most recent book,s the struggles and particular violences wrought on a particular generation of ‘Young Americans’. Certainly, ‘YA’ (the book) is a total project in itself, a major statement. Perhaps there’s a certain attitude or collection of attitudes – call it a certain self-confidence – in the history of American poetry which allows this kind of scope in a way that the other writers, from elsewhere, might not allow themselves, or be encouraged to think themselves in. Certainly, the voicings, the insistence on rhetorical weight, come from a particular place which I’d identify as specifically American, which is perhaps as much to do with performance as with text, though the text does encourage that kind of delivery. But we’ll get to that later.

Ed Luker, who’d organized the reading, opened by reading a poem written last week entitled ‘Pouring one out for the Petit-Bourgeoisie’. The poem is a screed of sorts lambasting the gentrification of London, with particular reference to art scenes – bearded poets, “Ur-Bane Outfitters”, “fashion ninjas”, ‘creatives’, shopkeepers seeking a state of violence to maintain their profits, and the counter-cultural recuperations of Iain Sinclair. Indeed, probably the most memorable incident, and a somewhat puzzling one, features Sinclair’s severed robotic head speaking lines from J.H. Prynne’s ‘Questions for the Time Being’, a poem first published in The English Intelligencer in 1968 which critically considers the self-characterisation of a poetic ‘underground’ within that “community of risk”: “so much talk | about the underground is silly. WHEN it would re- | quire a constant effort to keep below the surface.” I guess, in Luker’s appropriation, these lines could be taken to turn on the liberal or ‘apolitical’ arts scene ignorant of or indifferent to the cruelties of the process of gentrification and the concomitant assault on affordable and social housing, the conversion of London into a millionaire’s playground - a self-valorization, a blindness to structural positioning akin to Prynne’s vision of the “mirror of the would-be alien who won’t see how / much he is at home.” That it is Sinclair who speaks these lines maybe complicates things, or maybe not: as a writer who in some senses takes the artistic underground, work often marked by at least ambitions towards political critique, and turns it into marketable fodder, material for heritage tours packaged as anti-heritage tours, summaries of galleries of eccentrics you can spot on a leisurely dérive while wandering through charmingly forgotten corners of London, ‘his’ ventriloquizing of Prynne’s address self-describes his own hypocrisies of strategy as much as it castigates the hypocrisies and illusions of others. In any case, the poem as a whole is funny, and furious. It feels like the kind of lambasting of scenes on which the poet themselves is on the periphery that is useful but also potentially risky: ultimately, the reason it gets away with it is because it doesn’t have any illusions about its own moral righteousness, is not that kind of satire, poses its questions at times with a terrible urgency. “I reach for my balaclava, Nathaniel Turner saw visions of blood on the corn […] How is class constituted in the concrete lobster of post-industry, how does / Its conflict appear, who and how many will die, what songs will we sing to remember them.”

Josh Stanley, on a visit from the U.S., read the first poem from the photocopied book, ‘A Story’, his first in years, put out in the last couple of days by Defector, another new Cambridge small press operating on card covers, staples and photocopying. ‘Salute for Jeffrey Boyd and Lukas Moe’ is dedicated to Stanley’s union organizer and graduate student friends, and seems broadly representative of what he’s been writing recently. Josh told me before the reading that the title was a nod to O’Hara, but I don’t see much O’Hara in this work. The poem seems caught, perhaps deliberately, between two styles which aren’t resolved, but held in suspension; an insistent political address related to unionizing, derived from Stanley’s experiences in New Haven, which in tone and even vocabulary reminds me a little of the 1930s Marxist poetry of Edwin Rolfe, and an ironized address shot through with obscenity and pop-culture references – Nicki Minaj, Snoop Dogg, various forms of edible consumer product – deployed for bathetic effect, most obviously coming from the work of Keston Sutherland, and more in line with Stanley’s earlier writing. The content of the poem and the delivery and reception of the reading seemed in quite marked contrast to the other work that was heard on the night (albeit with the caveat that each reader’s work in its own ways was equally different from each other reader’s). What I mean is that this was a performance of a passionately held political position that speaks in part to or from, or perhaps for, a differently constituted political community than that of the UK poetry scene from which Stanley – who’s not published much recently, in the UK or the US – has been largely absent for the past few years. I wonder if, or how much, he sensed that this position was one which many in the room might shy away from or be nonplussed by or not know much about, and I wonder how much the reading was a form of actual agit-prop, an actual attempt to convince them of the need to “form militant unions.” Here are some of the lines in question, anyhow:

“I wanted my face to fuck / your face […] I will fight with all my life to make you you […] Comrade whoever, I love you […] Destroy your / fucking enemy with your visions of collective life. / Artists, teachers, writers, scientists, all of us who crawl in the dirt, / we must form militant unions and assert the power / of our labour. […] it is our responsibility to use our privilege even / in our despair, born there to fair life give me your hand / and let’s destroy our enemies and love each other and / have everything by rigorous life struggling blessed future.”

That final block comes from the end of the poem, and when these kind of lines appeared at the reading, they provoked laughter, but that laughter was, for me, filled with a kind of joy or delight in the affirmative risk that was taken at these moments, as well as something of the kind of political awkwardness I’ve suggested above. Perhaps this is just contextual: a different politics, and, at those points, a different stylistic mode to all the other work we’d heard. I’m still not quite sure what to do with it all – at times I wanted the poem just to go with its Rolfe-ian impulses and become straight agit-prop; at others I wondered about its unwavering belief in the power of the union as, in the poem, a revolutionary demand or praxis, a suspicion about the substituting of means for ends. Certainly, if Stanley’s work adopts the union as a model of how to do politics, Hayward and Frost suggest different ways of figuring political organisation.

Hayward, like Stanley, in some senses takes his point of departure from Keston Sutherland’s work - compare, for example, the kind of narrative moves, full of substitutions and multiplications of character, in the poem ‘Night Light’ that appeared in a summer Hi Zero magazine, to the narratives in ‘Stress Position’ - but he takes it in an entirely different direction, and one entirely his own. Reading and listening to Danny’s work feels like witnessing a comically and heroically failed attempt to grasp everything at once, all social relations, from the smallest object to the forces of capital by which it is produced or deployed. Something like this: “It goes without saying that whatever is said within this box is not knowledge, or science, but art, and that whatever happens here is not insight into this world but commentary on misapprehension, a struggle to know exactly where it is that we ought to start, gathering together a series of x number of elements…” So the poetry’s dystopian visions often come from a particular English register of pop culture filtered through dark comedy – the game-show piece entitled ‘Noel Edmonds’ for instance – and are also saturated in a close and attentive engagement with the thought of Karl Marx and the conceptualisation of where current political struggles might go. This is not poetry that asks us to consider Danny as THE poet or THE POET writing these lines; rather, it is a poetry that can actually allow thought to happen, without seeking to self-present a persona shot through with lyric authority, however ironized – it is work that thinks hard. It holds itself in suspension, does what it does without pretension, even as the moves it sometimes makes - and the same is true of Danny’s prose writings - may seem deliberately quixotic. The paper he gave a few weeks ago, predicated on a comparative close reading of Nigel Farage and Holderlin, is a case in point - Danny used the comparison in order to make the beginnings of a complex theoretical argument about the changing definition of the petit-bourgeoisie in the work of Karl Marx and what this might tell us about the appeal of UKIP, the status of a precariously-placed class strata who feel threatened from below but excluded from above, and thus turn their ire on scapegoated immigrants, those who do not fit the definition of a fantastical community of national belonging organized around a few symbolic vagaries but ferociously and passionately held to. In any case, every reading I’ve seen Danny give recently has seemed more aggressive in some ways, more charged, read faster and with more almost comically panic-stricken furious emphasis -- but aggression is perhaps not the word I’m looking for, for this isn’t an aggression turned on the audience, or on himself, but a panicked rigour which knows the tasks it’s set itself are bound to fail but doesn’t rest complacently on that, that tries anyway. “That this is nearly the truth; that to be near to the truth is the only way to change it.” So that perhaps this ‘aggression’ – or whatever we might call it – is itself even a tender thing.

Christina Chalmers’ poetry demonstrates an evident acquaintance with European modernism in multiple languages, a knowledge of history and theory, and an engagement with live issues of gender and politics, sometimes through allegory, sometimes through a first-person or first-person plural voice that unsettles its targets but can’t necessarily be identified with Christina herself in lyric first-person address, and where the collective subject is equally uncertain: e.g. “this preciosity I speak as”; “we held pipe in the middle of the noiseless / expanses , we were only ever a worker there , glutting fish and creeping before / expiration”. Christina reads quite often, particularly in London, and has been published a fair bit, yet I sense that her work hasn’t really been fully digested by that many of us yet. This might in part be because the reception of poetry often relies on a strong reading style, demonstrative or assured in particular ways, which gives the work a character adjacent or complementary to how it reads, and because Christina’s own reading style seems to perform a certain distance from her own poetry: it’s unclear whether she likes or even actively dislikes her own work, which is perhaps a quality of nervousness and of a refusal to sit on the levels of an assumed achievement, refusing to let that work sit easy. (The final text she read, for example, was characterized as unfinished, as in progress, fragments towards a more cohesive whole, though if it had been introduced differently, one might have assumed it was the finished thing, which I liked -- it didn’t feel like a presentation of a fait acompli, something else to be ticked off and boxed up for cultural export.) Advantage and disadvantage: because the work itself is quite different from much that’s come out of recent scenes, there’s a particular difficulty, of finding contemporary co-ordinates to relate it to, to characterize its voicings or ranges of references and so on, which could on the one hand spark a more intense and difficult engagement, but on the other lead to a certain mode of appreciation which doesn’t necessarily follow through on what the poetry demands. I include this little write-up in that.

Connie Scozzaro gave a great performance, from what I could see of it positioned in the doorway, translating near every line into a languid parodic arm gesture, reading with cigarette in hand, not really as a cool pose but suggesting something of the lunges in register or mode or position that seem to be going on beneath the surface of the work. The sense I got from the reading was that very real flashes of alienation and despair, often in relation to labour and gender, were presented as part of dialogues which turn on themselves and seem even to mock that despair. Here I’m thinking mainly of the long poem in progress she read towards the end, which appeared to be a dialogue between (perhaps) a therapist and a patient. Maybe that impulse I sense in the work, accurately or not, is a way of coping, with the fact, for example, that the children being babysat by the poet are placed in a structural relation to her which renders her labour invisible: “We have spaghetti hoops and I wish they would / sometimes ask me about my day but they barely conceive / of me as a person. I am a cartoon pair of legs & / so reliable, hand out the food on two manicured scoops.” When I say ‘coping’, what do I mean – certainly not poetry as therapy or as self-insulation, but as a holding in suspension of feeling and structural relation so that the co-ordinates are presented in clear-eyed fashion but with a certain refusal of direct emotional identification, of shifting persona and perspective, of a caustic and sarcastic wit that can at one point lump together Sigmund Freud, Tony Blair and “the British poet John Wilkinson” as “avant-garde daddies”, as “men / I imagine show up when it really matters”, without this necessarily being a complete statement of position, a complete ideological claim. So the work is satire, maybe, in part, but a satire that hasn’t necessarily absolutely determined quite what, or how many, its targets are, where it’s going and what it’s doing with all them – and I think deliberately so. Maybe this is partly to do with the caustic reading style, playing for laughs, but uncomfortable laughs, that the work mimics or enacts a process by which real hurt is being subsumed and overlooked, where gendered and class-based structural victimisation becomes an instance of comedy, or tragi-comedy, shown up all the more for being treated with what can appear to be a kind of flippancy. So that these laughs are laughs that can’t be sunk into, that keep the toes poised, that catch out, that provoke discomfort and thought.

Jackqueline Frost’s poetry, by contrast, chooses to take the stories of desire and despair it presents with absolute seriousness, authoritatively and with gravity, with firm first-person singular and plural oratorical weight. (It is not a poetry much interested in jokes.) Jack read some new work, still in a provisional state (some of it appears, along with Luker’s poem and a few of the poems that Chalmers, Scozzaro and Hayward read, in a little stapled magazine published to coincide with the event), as well as a short excerpt from the book published this summer by O’Clock Press, ‘You Have the Eyes of a Martyr’, and a longer part of the new long poem ‘Young Americans’, again recently published in a U.K. edition by Defector. In conversation afterwards, Josh saw ‘YA’ as a work mourning departure from community – the political and poetic scene in Oakland. Against or in relation to this Frost would insist that a static model of a particular mode of organisation – or ‘organizing’ – as itself a fixed good can be harmful, that communities fuck up, are provisional, that the fixed form of, say, the union, can or often does reproduce bad gender dynamics or bureaucratic complicities that treat the form itself as the end-point, rather than something that might want to self-abolish, to go further. Her work is above all about survival: as she writes in a statement of poetics for the Elective Affinities blog: “A responsibility to render forms of life as they presently exist. To enunciate what occurs affectively in the space of protest and intervention. Desiring the transformation of society into a survivable place.” Its stakes are high, its mourning is not nihilistic or cynical, nor, really, ironic, but a working through of real issues really experienced and really lived – and these are profoundly ones to do with class and gender and violence, with a specific autobiographical resonance that’s far from abstract. So ‘Young Americans’ begins with young girls selling their blood or being positioned to be those who pick up the pieces, or don’t, when men go off to war (“being made for someone who’s made for the war / or being broken by it later”); and goes on to be about the histories of colonisation and gentrification that constitute “the crime of settling a city”; and the anarchists’ “worship of danger / importance / secrecy”; and the problem of envisioning a collective practice based on “total freedom” when that practice betrays that hope, and when “I don’t yet know what I’m willing to do for it” and “I don’t know what will happen now”. Yet, despite all this, that “I imagine that I can feel that I am living and can make a greater gesture or my spirit can”, that “I do have my underground” and that “I know this too is poetry”, “How the song is coming through, clear and absolute.”