Saturday, 10 May 2014

On 'Agitprop: An Ode'

Is Luke Roberts’ ‘Agitprop: An Ode’ (published at the back of ‘Internal Leg and Cutlery Preview’, ed. Mildew, Cambridge 2014) a Spring Awakening, or a side-ways registration of a crisis point in the intricately and / or polemically demarcated political investment and involvement, purported or sort, of recent British and American poetry? And can these things even be opened up and talked about? As in: where are we now at? In any case, Spring comes in as and through the figure of peasant stupidity, crapping in the vases at the Winter Palace, “degrading beautiful things” as per Gorky, “on my own ass optimistic how quaint”. Or, as a student, you live paranoid on a road with police, the easy enemy, writers play dead and dumb, a generation is dead and speaking on (and you are stepping over the wreckage), the kidnapped daughters of the rich become revolutionaries then recant or is this a tactical defence against what they did when ‘brain-washed’, how far left can you turn? There’s an enthusiasm for those extremes, “the whole mythical history of kidnapping” for the house-arrest or kidnapped or willingly participant Maoists, Comrade Bala, Patty Hearst (my spell-check said ‘Hearts’), which has to check itself with a swift deflating punch to the gut: cf. “cutting everyone’s throats in Paris”; cf. “the terrorist attacks in / Russia were good / afford no better word / than that” (Josh Stanley, Contranight Escha Black). This might be similar to what pastoral peasant stupidity is doing here, reclaimed against the courtly manipulation of a tamed image of that for the entertainment of the men and women in the palace, “[not] mention[ing] the slaves” in “diversions of a pleasant kind”. It won’t fit, in “many bad analogies” won’t quite properly sit down.

Similarly: to what extent is the invocation of Pasolini’s notorious diagnosis that the police were the working class subjects whom 1968’s revolting students invoked as the demon bourgeois daddy to be expelled, in a new leftism which would soon shrink back to the managerial function - as commented on in a recent blog post by Richard Owens - or the anecdotal seeming-denunciation of trade unions as ‘the left wing of capital’, aimed at marking a crisis point both in older (say, Leninist) modes of organisation and the young, bourgeois ultra-left? And where does poetry, its autonomy, or not, fit into this? The quotation in question comes like this: “The poet dreams of totality, / but Pasolini sided with the police”, which goes onto a chiming bathos rhyme with ‘fleece’. The role of rhyme in this poetry, as, indeed, in that of Owens (see ‘Now the Screaming Starts’ in the Leg, and ‘Pennies from Heaven’ in Materials 3 ) is absolutely parodic and, or is it satirical in its use of rhyme, as against some recent thought-theological experiments with what a valourized metre and rhyme can do; and this in turn perhaps has something to do with the argumentative operation of this poetry, wanting and being easy in its flow but in a way that pushes that over the edge of its own skill, crossing across the page in intricate lineation which both imposes a feeling of formal control and enhances the abundant haphazardness that sometimes to slip in. Scuffed polish, flecks of mud or blood or shit on the shoe, moments of alarming tragic-comedy, directed at the poet themselves, by the poet themselves (though perhaps more so in the poems in Roberts’ recent Left Helicon (Equipage, 2014)), “fainting at the hot dogs”, “ashamed and angry”, “young, stuck, and desperate, / pissing in mid-air.” There’s at once an embarrassment at (deliberately amped-up and self-mocking) and a pleasure in this figure of forlorn domesticity, harmony in love, “domestic commitments on the world stage”, the ordering of the house (eikos) which will “always be prais[ed by] tourists”, and the economy of love and desire and commitment at home, with the figure of forbears (“your ancestors, / patrilineal”) or children as a hope that must be criticised for its bourgeois gendered construction and yet is also held out, as with spring, or pastoral, a future promise not stuck on or into historical re-enactment and perhaps only present as a romantic and sentimental trend, but still being that which is “the brief” to “continue to live”. There is, as in much of Roberts’ poetry, a certain privacy of reference here, and privacy either is or is not the right word, submerged, collaged, or disguised quotation as the patch-work form of making; and yet it, and those last lines quoted in particular, is not just personal in the sense of a self-romanticized male woundedness, imagining itself so perfectly in touch with gradated depths of real human feeling, but applies to the “whole generation of poets playing dead”, to any dying of a rising hope, a movement quelled and temporarily hushed.

The rhyme with ‘police’ is on ‘fleece’, and the question or the image-range turns into one of clothing, and uniform, “becoming didactic, / slipping in and out of uniform / as it suits” a satire on too-easily assumed extremes of righteousness or certainties of position – when, after all, what is the poet’s admittedly precarious but nonetheless at least temporarily stabilized academic positioning but an “insufficiently insurrectionary […] work placement for three years paid for / by the state”? Even as the advancement, “flexing up their brands and flawless assets / in advance”, of radical political poetry for careers and years in forced competitive racking up of words and publications, the advancing of your theory treading out some new and unique ground, the courting of the publishing house, is not yet, for the poet on that generational cusp, the issue. And even as the tone here as ever shifts, so that what is said is in part polemic, but a polemic already anticipated in an irony which is not quite, though it could quite easily become, a defence mechanism; or rather, a necessary and corrosive scepticism which is more than just a self-perpetuating turning inward, but a part of a broader critique that is necessarily uncertain because of objective social circumstance, and must thus be reflected in confusion, self-abnegation, etc. And even as an apologist tone for this is satirized (“so I send my apologies”), uniform turning into a list of parts rather than wholes, totality boiled down to a covering commodity which blocks out the ‘rural idiocy’ of a shambling, ugly smell: “Excellent coat, / excellent new deodorant, / excellent boots.” The totality that the poet dreams of is always fractured, means you would have to think about, say, at least the following three things. (1) The imminent potential break-up of the EU, the rise of nationalism, fascism, civil war and ethnic conflict. (2) The objective position of the student, which, in the wake of the defeat of the student movement already-nostalgically valourized as possibility (as it’s so much harder to do for the riots which ‘we’ didn’t participate in, even if some have tried (see Hind and Mildew's We are Real + review in Hix Eros 3)), and which, of all the writing that came out of it, only really Danny Hayward’s piece for Mute even begins to get at. (3) The fact that, emphatically, ‘totality’ cannot mean an agitprop which imagines a stable audience and an older model of the working class to be preached to and converted, converted and preached to.

The poem describes itself as “inconsistent”, the poet wanting to “side with the poems” as against their instrumentalisation, ending with a register reduction after that totality and the reach back to history, to pastoral poetry, the peasantry, the police, Pasolini, and so on, to the “stories / of our absence / told to you and you alone”. This isn’t as bleak as it sounds, because while ‘you’ are alone, I am telling you this, so that there is a ‘we’ even if it is absent (cf. “The poem is about disappearance”); I am telling you why or how ‘we’ (a larger dreamed-of ‘totality’, perhaps) are not here, but in doing so we are still here, intimacies that are always heart-broken or fading away or dreamed and projected and fragmented, and ‘you’ still ‘imagine me’, even if this a fantasy, and the daughter who is not there (“my daughter’s name was Olive / in the singular”) is nonetheless a reminder against any jouissant dissolution to nihilistic nothing, that “the brief is to continue to live.” At the end of A Hunt for Optimism, Victor Shklovsky imagines the writer getting onto the tram “carry[ing] a live bird – his heart – in his hands”, which they must protect; and yet this is not just a model of refined sensibility against the jostling of ‘masses’ and practicality, but can actually become a mode of transmission, of communication, so that this writer’s heart is actually your heart, “hidden in the chest of another man”, gifts and possessions which must be nourished and protected, the poet or the writer feeling love for each one of them beyond and as their class position. (Remember too that Karl Marx felt that poets should be nourished, protected, their little idiosyncrasies tolerated.) A.B. Spellman’s 1964 poem ‘To my Unborn and Wretched Children’ also concerns privacy, interiors, acts of provision and communication. It is a short poem, uncapitalized, and works variants on phrasings around home, life, hurt, want, clothing, and the sacrificial singling out of the singular ‘me’ (“let it be me”). Its first two lines are as follows: “if i bring back / life to a home of want.” To bring back life is to bring back to life, even as the poem plays with this bringing back being a kind of economic provision, for the ordering of that home, to clothe and care for hurt and want, bread-winning; but to go away, and to come back, with life, is not necessarily just to fix that home in the patterns of love that must be directed and crushed and squeezed out of and by an alienated labouring ordering. In ‘Agitprop: An Ode’, with “reserves of grief” “surveying the wreckage”, “catharsis” and “climax” no fun and no wallowing in misery, you “fall in love with self-criticism” but that can never turn into an inverse or inverted form of self-love, right off by being right on. In kidnapping you go away, are absent, and then you come back, changed or damaged, or perhaps converted and cleansed. What terms the poem kidnaps here, or whether the poem itself is that which is held for what ransom, are the wager its reading and its readers must propose.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Morton Feldman, For John Cage [Café Oto, 25.03.14]

[performed by Aisha Orazbayeva (violin) and Mark Knoop (piano)]

Disregard any first-half record players positioned to ‘play’ suspended microphone-suspended violins as any old visual, cod-performance, cod-aural gimmick, complete with the dressing of quasi pop-songs spicing up the classical world in utter dilution –ok disrupt things, but for fuck’s sake do it well, not just some tolerated hoop everyone jumps through or watches someone else jump through because someone’s told someone that someone else thinks it’s cool, and everyone politely knows better. But no one really came for that, anyway. Listening to the Feldman, then, feeling the simultaneous sense of some sort of serenity, but that isn’t the right word, really, and some sort of despair or panic; things are held, things are slow and quiet but then suddenly they speed up like a tiny breathless race only to move back to something else. The piano and violin in unison or alternation unwind a scale, a unison which is always slightly morphing, always slightly off-centre. There are about four or five moves which get repeated, transitioned between: in one of them, the violin repeatedly bows a single note over piano chords, extremely high, like a constantly-repeated whispered scream, then moves back to a more conventionally varied scheme, hands execute a dance up and down the strings, the violinist could execute a note perfectly and it will still sound fluffed, edged with harmonics, scraping away at the instrument’s romantic cantabile capacity to get inside and beyond all that. At those moments of scream, the music almost gets unbearable, though it’s not a scream in terms of harshness of pitch, more in terms of long drawn-out held-in intensity which never fully extends itself, releases itself, always moves back into a repetition or a variation of a different kind of thing. Sometimes it’s actually actively funny, an obvious tonal repetition, a scale, a unison passage, a child rehearsing and repeating the simplest things with the patience a child would never have. Transposition, the return of the same material, movement without movement. It could go on. A particular scalar move starts to recur more and more towards the end, a refrain of sorts. The piece doesn’t feature much silence or many pauses, if any, the piano sustain-pedalled almost throughout, or so it seemed, not so much as a cavernous resonant quasi-religious ex-cathedra echo chamber easily posing as mystical aura, dispensing the gravity of aesthetic beauty and wisdom, extending in time that feeling of enlarged space, but instead a structural mode of slight extension and discontinuous continuity. Mostly the two instruments play together or in close proximity / alternation, sometimes one will ‘solo’ briefly. Material is shared, the players almost seem to try and trip each other up, are made to so, in tricky synchronicity, Knoop looks up each time they need to make a dual entrance, land on the same point. Orazbayeva’s legs on the floor extend into weird shadows, simultaneously extended and huge and miniaturized into a shadow-homunculus, both infinitely extended and infinitely reduced as Feldman’s late music might be said to be. Development, progression, the concerto argument of the subject extending in or against collectives, etc, the whole romantic bourgeois-revolutionary or religious tradition or nature tone-poems or what have you, has no place here, the music is not even a dialogue so much, though there are aspects of that, instruments are in the same place and the music is a whole, written for all of them. Is it a private music? In a sense it’s so familiar and so easily recognizable as a style that anyone could do it now, or think that they could do it, but what does it yield up to us or to each listener specifically and personally, what emotion is there or do I read in, shooed away for Yoko Ono to bring her jam to town when we just wanted to sit there to recover, still in that position of enforced physical stillness, the slowing down of breathing. Feldman’s music, at this length, is easy to follow, though there are inevitably moments of slight drift, even if its similarity of materials wouldn’t enable a reconstruction of the piece absolutely chronologically or in its entirety, that kind of summary. But the reduced set-up perhaps makes it less easy to get lost in, washed over, as, say, ‘Coptic Light’, the focus is easier, though equally absorptive. This is not music of drama, or struggle, except as that is, whatever, where it has come from, been distilled from, or not; not even like those moments in, bad comparison, Helmut Lachenmann, where you get musical history through the ruins, or that sort of thing – even, say, the comfortably regressive melancholy variant of that you might find in post-minimalists or post-Romantics like Valentin Silvestrov; not even that, or not at all, the concern above all with process, extension, limitation, temporal exploration, sticking with a thing and doing it, development of attention, not to some spuriously opened framework of the aesthetic beauty of hipster’s farts, toilet door squeaks, police sirens and passing trains in the extend intervals between a barely-sounded e-bowed squeak, but to the piece itself, listening to its expanded inwardness, inwardness of expansion, a room of people giving quiet regard to the work while people outside are looking in at the windows, the spectacle of a roomful of listeners to a sound you cannot hear highlighting some sense of social absurdity, open for everyone to see. You could valourize this discourse of enclosure, safety, a carved-out space against some vulgar monster outside, but would you really want to: the music is all those terms dropped out of the magic moments hat – patience, delicacy, fragility, monotony – but it is also extremely assertive, violent even, in its following-through of intention, or steadfastly pragmatic, whatever goal is or is not in sight, if that’s really the term to use – in, for instance, its insistence on extending a territory for longer than might be thought ‘necessary’ or ‘comfortable’ and then, once that extension’s been settled in, moving on to something else again. Not boring, not sentimental or easily open but tender, not easy but absolutely there in its surface, being nothing else except what it is, you there, too, sitting quite still, not even sure what to think or what to feel.

Monday, 10 March 2014


[This pamphlet available with other orders through ©_© / Face Press, March 2014]

The poems in the anonymous pamphlet with its cover paper’s stuck-in scattered flowers like whited-out Stan Brakhage slides [viz. ‘Mothlight’] have a tensile poise between an excess which might, crudely, be schematised as the formal contrast between the extension of a line across the page (e.g. “Sleeping through a rain-soaked street in an unplayed city”) and the shorter lines surrounding and made to seem small by it (e.g. “I am possessed by the magnetic curve of star-/ light / In the east-facing bin”), and an actual excess in those shorter lines themselves, whose line-broken pile-up races all the more so: “my heart races / the duel / carriageway”, these two modes of transportation, dual or duel, hitting carriage return. In relation to this latter, consider the preponderance of roads of various kinds in some recent work: Stuart Calton’s ‘Torn Instructions for No Trebuchet’, and work by Keston Sutherland and Simon Jarvis; where (or specifically, here, and especially in the poem ‘A Smash Hit Glides To Your Lips And Over The Duel Carriageway’) the poem is mode of travel, dazzled by bright lights and songs on the radio and the faces lit up by those lights like a drab-glam parody of movie melancholia lighting, “Chaste like a Sofia Coppola film”, wanting to make this real fake beauty not be like that but not being able to help or stop itself: “Poetry should make nothing / jealous or beautiful // but can’t.” Those proliferating negatives, further complicated by the unclear relation of jealousy and beauty, would seem to imply that poetry shouldn’t make anything, a familiar claim, as statement of fact if not injunction (“poetry makes nothing happen [etc]”); but what exactly it is that poetry “can’t do” here? If it cannot do what it should, which is to make nothing, then it must make something, but perhaps what meaning spills out is that, because poetry cannot make nothing jealous or beautiful, therefore it makes everything jealous or beautiful. We might consider also whether the ‘or’ here is an equivalence for ‘and’ or if it really is ‘or’, so that the toss-up or the gamble in poetry would be either jealousy or beauty or both, and that the beauty itself would be a kind of falsity, a kind of possessive jealousy; as, wanting the night itself to be in intimate relation with oneself, “come and stay with me, night over my head”, the “smash hit” both the radio pop song and the car crash just waiting to happen.

Obviously the sea (sometimes, “the sea of error”) is also in these poems, especially the final one, ‘I Clean You All Over With My Tongue’, “slopped with a melancholia” in part in parody; and it (the sea) is not presented as some image of the longed-for ‘natural’ invested with hope, or, the gap between that degraded image and the thing itself is the subject of “envy,” where it’s not the boat but the train that’s slow, that froze, on the way to China (“The green was informed / with envy of everything natural / and trains froze on the way / to Henan”), caught in trapped-travel as illusion of movement, where the appeal can even be made to a god, of love (“help me eros”), but only for destruction, lashed out, actually cleaning the sea with one’s own tongue, taking in the bilious overspill of industry and capital’s digging as an erotics of wasting and spending (“help me cause to rust / the great warmth of the sea”); if I cannot have love, and if this is my love itself, jealous and beautiful, abjectly in wrong implication so that, in ‘What Does The Crisis Refer To’, “I am terrified by what we call love” both is and is not equal to its following line, “Climate change.” For the sea will freeze, the snow fall, marine as deposits drift down, nutritious in feeding-dependence cycle, trickle-down marine economics, snow and rain, falling, tears and lashes grazed by light landing which is catastrophe or beauty or both. “For you by such lights change nothing”, so “lie down alone in the universe,” when “not one of my thoughts will work anymore on anyone,” all absented, all lost or vacantly and mistakenly invested with love:  “Where are you now / Other than more dreams [...] To have regained my original purpose, to hold you / In flames”, Wieners here, even, in that self-destroying-renewing fire of desire, and the world itself internalized – “The world has gone to answer / in my heart” in bad reflection or introjection taken to be some emotional landscape as a pop song really “the radio songs. I love / Whatever comes on, to be okay with my limits”, pathetic pathetic fallacy where the image of love collected in time and space within the statement that “tonight the church will be full” is all wrong, alright, where ‘you’, as love object addressed or as speaker self-addressed, even become Christ, “slaving on a cross, melting a phone”, and there is no future to sacrifice to, you just are, that way, imagined so, imagining yourself and others as victims but holding on to the thought that, though “I’ve lost you […] I’ll never lose thing like you,” this addressed you already become a thing, object-memory in permanent image, bad mirror, container for these hopes but also generator of them, meanwhile or simultaneously though that ‘I’ am or have become “sick of a world / That makes nothing possible,” hearing the melancholy in the injunction merely not to stop in 24-hour party forever, Miley Cyrus lying in the world and gliding in flight to the next crash on Crisis mode forever; “What does the Crisis Refer to”, loving loneliness and a pleasurable pain, burning blossoms, flowers, scattering them all over stupidly all at sea white or blue “soup,” “blue water,” systematic evolutionary regression narrative even only as hint, going to the coastal limit not as okeanos mythic void-return world-curve possibility, lyric world love-curve, back-journey to actual collective-individual location, but smaller and emptier, where what drops off the not-God horizon you even said, wanting love, was God (“Like the time I knew God was the horizon”), will be unbearably everything and all there is. “There are poems”; this is nothing.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Some Intimacies and Objects

Lisa Jeschke in Dusie 16: “You have addressed me by means of words, which is nearly love, a bit of.” The bit might be the muzzle in the horse’s mouth, the gift horse looked upon with all its soldiers inside as love or as love disguise offered up, the imposition of such gifting; and too might be the broken object, not integrated to be split, in good and bad bits, the good breast the bad breast as present or absent, loved or hated, incorporated or lost, word sucked in as the other’s sucked in, swallowed and eaten to be part of me, my nutritious inner self, registers of privacy or intimacy as recognition of the other instead making address the mere taking over of that other in linguistic conquest, violence at the root of love, exclusion of others to focus on this one object, exclusion of this one object to focus on that focus itself, object standing in for that x lost thing now existing as “you” or as “me”, pronoun in substitution and deferral. Here are some of the words by which “you” might “address” me, from Robert Kiely’s ‘Intimacies’, in the same issue: “I want you to whisper your PIN in my ear slowly.” Intimacy here becomes parody of communist sharing as sexual sharing, as that conduct in sexual relation in which socialism must also manifest itself and be constituted: where sharing here instead is merely my access to your money as my power over you, as a come-on, as a whispered token of love, my access to all your tokens of love, the money shot, the money store. PIN is Personal Information Number: the number that therefore I am, the “bit of” me broken off to info-cash. Recall: Jeschke and Lucy Beynon’s 2012 piece 'Self-Portrait', satirizing a project for theatrical intimacy, in which Beynon’s National Insurance Number was blown up to gigantic art-display size and put up on a wall, as ‘revelation’ of self, the category of self as categorized state, as State Category, self-surveillance, a resolutely non-erotic display of intimacy. Jeschke’s ‘No’ as negativity, Levinas parody - “Love has assumed the FACE of the person one loves,” as mere greeting “Hey, good to see you!”, you become object, “I am a PIECE of FURNITURE,” that object merely filling the space, to be sat down in like the ‘commentary’ on sex-race fetishism on whose spread-eagled legs sits the wife of everyone’s favourite Russian billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich, performaing art. “We” are “part of the furniture,” taken for granted, objects constructed by craftsman whose labour’s obscured, fixed, “still at any particular”. It’s a “hotel,” with the movement through, the strait gate through which at any time the Messiah might enter only in parody, as parody Messiah, the worker bringing us our meal, room service, for us to feel them up. We are experts in taste and we have chosen you as our lover, and something dies, inside, nothing is moving, the “you” that is “leaking” as “matter” is just a corpse to show you it was once alive, you only notice it when it starts to smell, it’s history’s angel blown into the window like a pigeon and splattered on the carpet. It is all too far and seperate and broken, made to work, to be used, for “EMPLOYMENT”, the storm itself is calm, the tempest blowing the angel forward and away from the past rubble to be righted, its has become internalized as a static chair with the sun in our face and our hair, a frozen rictus grin. The conversation itself has died, la petite mort, a horrible sexy trinity, its third ghost term no transformation of the one by and into the other, no dialectic overthrow, no negative transformation and just instead this beautifully smooth corpse in the freezer, cryogenic preservation for future activation deferral and or a stalled past stall, dragging limbs over limbs in listless list, inscribed and restricted by terms as terminal no-space middle-ground, not alive but not not alive, dead inside and outside in hell getting by. It is cold, and you are centuries late.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Stuart Calton, 'The torn instructions for no trebuchet' (Barque Press, 2013)

Stuart Calton’s The torn instructions for no trebuchet has, say, five areas of concern. It requires that you read it in a succession of readings, that you read it again and again, that you live with it, really, as all the 'best' poetry does, that it might actually change your life as it desires the life it sketches, in general and in particular, to change, that you will live with this poem, that it will reveal itself to you, not from a position of teasing hiddenness, but from the work it forces and accomplishes of you and of itself, really does so. The, say, five (or maybe rather six) areas of concern are: the journey by car, around the motorway near Manchester, going and coming from where it’s unclear; the kids in the playground, who are the poet’s, but might also be the poet’s younger self; a very specific set of not-quite real or possible engagements with the inner and outer material of flesh, tongue and teeth and gums, penis and breast, melding and meshing both as very deep in oneself and as of and in another, whether, say, lover or mother; a polemical attack on Amiri Baraka’s Marxist writings as exhibiting an ultimately bureaucratised and conservative Stalinism, full of disgust for the ‘perverted’ or ‘ugly’ body, in which a fantasy of totality, full of stereotyped and cartoon figures as representations of particular forms of social evil, dispenses with the particularity of personal experience and of contradictory emotion which is not ‘bourgeois’ introspection, but the essential grounds for challenging and examining the root of social formation, and all its harm and hurt, particularly in the realm of sexual relations; mixed in with this attack, what appear to be topical comments on the SWP scandal unfolding as the book was being written, itself a major political failure in the realm of sexual relations, a collective non-acknowledgment, on the part of party leadership at least, of the absolute necessity of right conduct in the realm of these relations if the collective organisation desired for is to mean anything at all; and, finally, that with which the book ends, a desperately moving apologia for the failure of a particular love relationship to live up to the investment it was given with socialism as actually lived mode of being between specific people, and the utopian remainder within that loss of that hope as the absolutely necessary condition of being a socialist.

Psychoanalysis is crucial here, from Klein and others. As with two other books published that year, by Keston Sutherland and Andrea Brady, Calton is concerned with the formation of the subject and its relation to politics and ethics; but whereas Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P attempt would seem in part to be to inflate the subject and its love relations as if it could match the politics around it, and Brady’s Mutability focuses in specifically on the relation of mother to child in the early stages of life as a complex course of minute ethical problematics, Calton’s is perhaps less specifically tied to that personal investment, so that, though it is crucial and moving for me that those real biographical marks, that have really come from his life – the dedication to Tori, the sudden and unexpected address out to specific addressee – “Tori, I’m sorry” – the closing passage; all these both resist generalizable totality claims and insist that a vision which is something like totality, of socialism, can be found in these bits, not as essay or performance of identity but as constantly failing and falling assay, as the poem’s extended verse paragraph and irregular line lengths accumulate absolute claustrophobia and constriction, marked especially by successions of monosyllables that assume the shape of something like a tongue- or an eye-twister, the condition of absolute stress where sex is not metaphor for political cred, not thus stretched, is not romanticized life-pitch outside of daily attentive regard as the real ground of relation, love’s real work, but that it is this that it says, that the truth of the poems says, that “still forever I / hate this fucking system and I wanted our life / better to realize the true generality and make its / really-existing untruth external in our / particular.” So perhaps no one will read this book, with its lack of flash, its self-sufficient insistence on being a poem, whose argument is made in poetry, not bolstered with any interview with overt long blurb, with any of that stuff. But really, it’s fucking imperative that they should.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Amiri Baraka, 1934-2014

Baraka obit for the 'Contemporaries' site here.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Stay on It: On the Music of Julius Eastman

What is that distinguishes this piece by Julius Eastman from the similar pop-minimalism of the Philip Glass Ensemble and on to the music of an even-more watered-down populist-assimilator like Michael Torke, which its anticipates but far surmounts? That distinguishes it from those generations’ softening of the stringencies of the first generation minimalists, from their softening of that first generation's stringent asceticism -- infinity in a grain of sand, the biggest canvas from the smallest materials or a deliberate poverty, austerity of means as against romantic swoll excesses of cod- or post-romanticism? Unlike Glass and unlike Torke, Eastman’s music is not content to be aural wallpaper but to actually swell itself, in ambiguous bursting or reduction, in massed small ensemble as orchestra (Eastman’s pieces - the 'nigger series', say - are often open in terms of instrumentation, so that 18 stringed instruments would do; 4 pianos would do; the perversity of combinations and the ear for texture, bright and clean in some pieces but also capable of a thick murk building up and out of and into rhythmic insistence). #Stay On It#, the absolute fresh happiness, as it seems, of the recurring pop-py chordal figure reduced or amplified, reiterated or swelled, down to solo piano near the end, or stuttered, broken into rhythmical suspension as bars are left out for silence as emphasis or interruption, burst out of somewhere mid-way as saxophones and clarinets mesh improvisationally into moaning, wailing modes of joy that, like much of Eastman’s music, have a latent melancholy and desparation in their triumph: the strength of the damned and oppressed, up against the wall, staying on it, smart but not rich, evil and crazy guerilla nigger outcasts: the melancholy that finally trickles on its own as the piano part winds down and we are finally left with only the continuing shake of percussion as the bereft yet determinedly still present ghost of that rhythmic obsession-insistence Eastman so loves.

Eastman’s pieces focus on process, organic form, the latent content of each piece in at its beginning and evolving out like the big bang: or, in the certainly minimal, but not conventionally ‘minimalist’ 'If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich', a deliberately bull-headed slow upward scalar ascent, forcing the trumpet to ‘stay on’ high figures of a Maynard Ferguson quality, brass ensemble like the smashed remains or sketches for some film score stretched beyond latent melodrama to the point of absurdity and then back. Tubular bells ringing into the silent hollow. Scratchy twisting bending amplified violin over nightmare chattered ensemble iterations. Edge of the fucking seat in tense and tensile boredom. Bull-headed, in your face. Shattering the Glass enclosure.

Eastman’s pieces are about ensemble, co-ordination, non-privileging of individual voice, complex interlocking of parts, moving almost into chaos and even staying there for a bit, but then back: “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR”, shouting in time for the unison re-entry of addictive riff in 'Evil Nigger'. Ba-DUm, Ba-DUm, ba-Dum, as Kyle Gann says of the rhythmic figures in 'Gay Guerilla'. The pre-climactic use of Martin Luther's hymn 'A Mighty Fortress is Our Lord', in anthemic reclamation. You want to be a solider, a martyr, a gay guerilla, in subverted Lutheran hymn, that granite flow. Stay the fuck on it.

Joan d’Arc’s presence is holy because it is defiant. “Speak BOLDLY,” the climactic line of Eastman’s solo recitation-prelude to his multi-cello ‘The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc’, in which the massed hordes of speaking saints say over and over, insist that Joan stay on it, excluded but defiant. Speak Boldly. Say it, over and over again. Joan of Arc is holy AGAINST the church – “a reminder to those who think they can destroy liberators by acts of treachery, malice, and murder….[L]ike all organizations, especially governments and religious organizations, they oppress in order to perpetuate themselves” – the holiness of her presence a raggedy collective, a whole made up of parts only just staying on it, speaking off the same page, from pop, pop-classical, jazz, the singular. Here’s the dissonance which Kyle Gann sees “dissolving into transcendence”, outside the comforting trance of Glass, reflections shone blinding your eyes in coolest shade, spooks; but no transcendence as mere escape, in material returning transformed to stay here on it, to show you process not bamboozled, not spiritual-droned to ecstatic guru surrender, New York incense chamber, but bold-face fucked up.

From Anna Kisselgoff’s New York Times review of his 1986 dance collaboration with Molissa Fenley, ‘Geological Moments’ (the music for which was actually shared with Glass, and which, as the review notes, forced itself on the dancers in a way that Glass’s, eminently ignorable, did not): “[Eastman] performed as a soloist with both dissonant resonance and a strangely muted evangelical fervor.” Both taking the implicit piss out of, by contextual oddness of placing, and fully participating in and channelling that Church rigour, that church fever, that bull-headed staying on; you might say, too simply, it was a Protestant retort against some decadent un-focussed transcendence, were you to miss, whatever, the moral imperative against the kind of moral condemnation that would be turned against Eastman’s own ‘kind’ (kinds) by precisely that kind of model. Or, he makes use of both, Joan’s ecstatic shattering of roles into that different raggedy-ass but completely precise collective, out of Cage, indeterminacy, improvisation, militarized minimalism-discipline, sacred and profane, mighty fortresses whose walls might come crumbling down any second only to rise again, building the city in momentary negotiation, “majestic rising modal scale”, as someone put of the conclusion to ‘Gay Guerilla’, “Right thought, right speech, right action, right music,” as Eastman himself put it in 1981, “always making new inversions”, adjustment to justice, to a judgement not imposed from above but in ethical drive right ON.

Because also, as Andrew Hansen-Dvoracek notes in an invaluable MA dissertation on the three pieces (Evil Nigger, Crazy Nigger and Gay Guerilla) performed at the 1981 Northwestern University concert from which are taken many of the recordings on ‘Unjust Malaise’, the three CD set of Eastman’s music released on New World records, the use of Luther’s hymn is re-appropriation: as Debussy’s 'En Blanc Et Noir', which uses a similar alternation between the white and black keys of the piano, uses that hymn as an intrusion into the lush impressionistic tonality of his own language, as (crudely) German armed forces invading the French countryside, Eastman appropriates it as counter-weapon, not valourizing despoiled weakness but fighting back, ten years after Stonewall, a new militancy in reference to Afghani or PLO guerrillas, that invoked spirit; as he re-appropriates ‘nigger’ as equivalent Holy Name to the ‘99 names of Allah’ – “either I glorify them or they glorify me”; Martin Luther become a nigger faggot minimalist warrior.

This appropriation as re-arrangement, transposition, subversive playing of roles, which is always connected, to whatever greater or lesser extent, to that element of parody to Eastman’s persona that we hear or read about from reports on performances and appearances and in the music too. This is that which so dismayed John Cage: Eastman’s performance of one of Cage’s Songbook pieces (“give a lecture”) as ‘Professor Paga of La Jolla, California’, with his boyfriend and sister as his ‘assistants’, discoursing on a new sensuality of love, which managed to dismay Cage, to offend Cage, by being both too frank in its homosexuality (his boyfriend nude by the end of the piece) and too sarcastic, too much a caricature, in its satirization of the academic world to which Cage was now at least partially indebted too or reliant on for artistic capital, in its flamboyant display of a sexuality Cage had concealed form his music and which it at once seemed to question and to too-securely or solely inhabit. Or hear Eastman’s rock-solid baritone on Arthur Russell’s Dinosaur L tracks, as he swoops up through octaves to emphasize the mutant panic at the heart of the disco collective Russell so loved: “Go-o-o Ba-ANG!” Eastman’s high note at the end almost becomes a police whistle, the invasion of a safe space, fluidity rigidly funked into rhythm and surrounded by the hostility of homophobes and cops.

And yet and against that which disco might sound too smoothly like to us today, an earthiness, a dirtiness, reclaimed: “and what I mean by niggers is that thing which is fundamental, that person or thing that obtains to a basicness, a fundamentalness, and eschews that which is superficial or, what can we say, elegant”; the “great and grand” American economic system, based on the “first and great nigger, the field nigger.” The underclass in the hall of the mountain king, bashing across the entire harmonic series on four concert grands, swooping in and moving on up from below. So it’s entirely appropriate to hear him booming out “in the corn belt, corn corn” on that other Dinosaur L track ‘In the Corn Belt’, alongside guitars, muted trombones, his own organ, bouncing percussion; a jam that at once flits away into what David Toop or Simon Reynolds might call the ‘oceanic’ and that Stays On It, stripping away whatever veneers or masks it wears. As Russell puts it on ‘Go Bang’ – “I wanna see all of my friends at once": but this isn’t some hippy-dippy imagined family as false internationalism, pot-pourri soft-imperialism to provide a soft wash on the speakers of bougie flats done up in aromatic cleanliness, in their best feng-shui; it is messy entanglement hard and bright and dark and sad and strong.