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, p.vi) 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.

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