Tuesday, May 31, 2011

HASTY NOTES ON CITIZEN CAIN

With almost no sense of shame an impressive number of Germans have taken up the leisurely activity of reenacting the US Civil War. In a recent Atlantic Monthly article, Wolfgang Hochbruck, professor of American Studies at Freiburg University and Union Army reenactor, remarks, "I think some of the Confederate reenactors in Germany are acting out Nazi fantasies of racial superiority ... They are obsessed with your war because they cannot celebrate their own vanquished racists." The kernel of an as-yet-unrealized joke is concealed in this recent phenomenon; something like that moment in episode ten of the television series Party Down when blond-haired blue-eyed Uda Bengt, the team leader for Valhalla Catering, sternly establishes dating guidelines after making a pass at actor-turned-caterer Henry Pollard: "I like art films. Nothing too depressing. No Holocaust shit."

There are jokes and then there are jokes and I often find myself fascinated by those incredible and often disingenuously deployed jokes that cut below the radar, the slap in the face that goes wholly unregistered because our ability to name the violence cannot keep pace with the shape-shifting contour of the violence. In the poem "AIPAC" (acronym for the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee) from Citizen Cain (Salt 2011), Benjamin Friedlander writes:

OK here's a joke:
A lady approaches her rabbi and tells him,

Rabbi, obesity is a trend
that is prevalent In fact,
I blame Chinese food on Christmas

every day
the wine symbolizes blood
at sunset Saturday

eating Christian babies for their streetwear
Jewish dolls for Jewish children Just click
on Law

of Return
on Investment (ROI), Le Roi David
King David vinyl transfer

The amount of work the poem performs here, the astounding range of the interrelated details and information contained within it, mirrors the vertiginality of the overdetermined conditions and transgressions that too often escape naming. The language of investment and finance bucks up against an increasing Sinophobia in the West, pandemic obesity, web-based consumer practices, tensions between Jewish and black communities in the US, urban violence and the enduring vestiges of anti-Semitic representations stretching back to the medieval period (i.e. Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln).

Le Roi is no doubt Leroi — Leroi Jones — a poet Friedlander confronts earlier in Citizen Cain through his lineated critique of "Somebody Blew Up America." Like Jones / Baraka, the territory Friedlander treads here is delicate, his poem presumably responding to several particularly provocative and now well known lines by Baraka (i.e. "Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion | And cracking they sides at the notion"). Toward the end of Friedlander's riposte we find Baraka choking:

Did you know, for example, that stuttering affects
many more men than women?

This is why women chew slowly
and men eat steak. Now make a fist

and place the thumb side of your fist
against Amiri Baraka's upper abdomen, below the ribcage

and above the navel. Grasp your fist
with your other hand and press into

the upper abdomen with a quick upward
thrust. Do not squeeze Amiri Baraka;

confine the force of your thrust to your hands.
Repeat until the terrorists are expelled.

These instructions are, of course, for the Heimlich Maneuver — to dislodge the terrorists stuck in the poet's throat. The unheimlich, or unheimlichkeit, also comes to mind. Heim. Home. To be without and to bring it back so by way of expelling a colonial presence. Curiously, however, heimlich in contemporary German usage also suggests stealth or, in cruder colloquial usage, sneakiness, a bone chilling fact which no doubt ratchets up the tension coursing through Friedlander's riposte to Baraka (we think in terms of terrorist cells). In this application of the Heimlich Maneuver we find a desire for Homeland Security which is not Homeland Security, a desire for Baraka — one of the most influential and outspoken poets opposed to the War on Terror — to come to terms with a culturally interiorized and fundamentally ineradicable alterity which ought to be always already at home in itself among others.

While it is mischievously tempting, at least for me, to recklessly read Friedlander's response to Baraka as a poetic echoing of the enduring tensions that characterized something like the Crown Heights Riot, Friedlander's bold appeal to the Heimlich Maneuver indicates his approach to Baraka is incredibly nuanced. When Baraka invokes the state of Israel in "Somebody Blew Up America," his attention is presumably fixed on the complex, deeply troubling and virtually inextricable relationship between US and Israeli governments. Friedlander is no less critical than Baraka of US-Israeli relations (cf. comments on former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the poem "Fucked Relationships Archive," which ends, "No more f-words, just 'aith' | A spoken word for ministry"), but what Friedlander appears to identify in Baraka's poem is an unchecked antisemitism that sneaks in through the backdoor. Plenty of others have taken issue with this, nearly to the point of exhaustion and often to the exclusion of the poem's productive political thrust in the face of overwhelming ideological repression. But, if I'm not putting too much pressure on this appeal to the Heimlich in Friedlander's response, the call here is for a more fully developed and responsible consideration of 911 — not to dismiss Baraka out of hand but to eliminate the destructive elements in his view of the political landscape "until the terrorists are expelled."

In an especially useful essay commenting on Franz Rosenzweig's aesthetic theory and the decidedly Jewish character of theories of the uncanny, Leora Batnitzky writes, "Like so many of his German speaking contemporaries, including Sigmund Freud, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Martin Buber, Rosenzweig connects being wrenched away from one's 'homey place' [Heim] to a feeling of Unheimlichkeit. Unlike his contemporaries, including Buber, Rosenzweig maintains that the feeling of uncanniness not only expresses a general insight into human existence, but is a particularly Jewish contribution to the understanding of human existence." Batnitzky later relates that, in Rosenzweig's formulation, "Because of its unique relation to God's revelation, the Jewish community is wrenched away from its homeland [Heimat] and thereby produces a feeling of Unheimlichkeit in the Heim of others."

Whether or not we accept this particular theorization of the uncanny, there can be no question that a certain uncanniness pervades every page of Citizen Cain. And the scope of Friedlander's poetry extends well beyond any disagreement he might have with Baraka, outward to the forms of unheimlichkeit produced, exacerbated and mediated by the vertiginous and fundamentally unstable flow of web-based information. This in conjunction with a larger sense of homelessness that situates any Odyssean homecoming as the work of a comforting but nonetheless misguided fantasy.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

FROM CAMBRIDGE WITH LOVE

Or not. But probably. There appears to be a gross excess of love radiating outward from Cambridge, Brighton, London and possibly other articulated loci of poetic production in the UK. A package just in of recent publications wrapped in the Autumn 2010 issue of Naked Punch: Engaged Review of Contemporary Art, the number containing a feature on Brighton poetry, including poems by Chinc Blume, John Tiplady, Richard Parker and Michael Kindellan and an interview with Keston Sutherland by Zoe Sutherland, Danny Hayward and Jonty Tiplady. This from Kindellan's "Terra form A":

Calculate that it begins with the simple problem
that if the Earth ceases to support life, and human
life does not continue elsewhere, all economic
activity will also cease. There are several ways
to estimate the value of Earth. Assign the Earth
its home components, that everything lives, at least
is not value. All life is little overvalued high risk,
so avoid estimations. One way to avoid this systematic
inflation of the price of life compared to others
is to estimate the cost of replacing Earth
compared to costing another planet with compatible
orbit. And if the work were nearly complete, ask
how much is comfort going to cost, competitively,
which is also the total of barely natural, nearby and
at issue. Plus transport.

The coordinates are hard to nail down — there are no satellite photos, no military maps to mark out with any measure of precision the shape and interrelatedness of poetry communities in the UK — but the University of Sussex in Brighton, with Sutherland as an organizing nodal point, seems to have taken up where the University of Essex left off, its connectedness to Cambridge, as though an express line cuts across from one to the other. Sutherland on love, in response to a question from Tiplady:

I think I can remember feeling that I was too much dependent on love. Not too much dependent on any particular individual's love, not anaclitically tied to a mother or a substitute or something, but that the pitch of dependency on a no doubt at least partly idealised love was ludicrously high in my poetry, and that whilst this was in a sense its essential wager, it was liable in the longer term to be unsustainable for me because it would wreak terrible damages on my life and my writing. I am now becoming very dramatic but I think this is true. The question then might be that if this is really an excess and not just a valorised and spectacular excess, but an excess which is too much to bear, and there I hear Prynne in that expression of mine, then by what measure can you reduce the significance of love in your life, so as not only to be able to stay alive but still to be able to honour its centrality and its foundation in your existence.

Then, commenting on his poem "The Proxy Inhumanity Of Forklifts," Sutherland says, "That once something is deducted from universalism by whatever measure, love is then inhuman ... The moment we deduct anything from universalism, we get inhuman love." It is easy, I suppose, to write about love irresponsibly, or devote rudderless attentions to it out of lonesomeness or frustration or a deep and driven wanting of some thing or situation furiously unavailable. Prynne's "Discursive Commentary" on George Herbert's "Love [III]" (Cambridge 2011) dedicates the whole of its attention across 92 pages to "Love" and to love. Prynne's analysis begins with a series of glosses delineating the loadedness of signal words and phrases in the Herbert poem. The first word glossed is, of course, "love":

In Germanic as in Celtic the Indo-European word for love thus assumed the meaning 'free', so that another word meaning 'desire' took its place; Proto-Germanic *lubo, Sanskrit lubhyati, '(he) desires eagerly'; compare Latin libens, lubens, 'willing, acting with pleasure', Old English leof, 'dear', lufu, 'love' (Beowulf 1758; 1728); Latin cognates are words based on liber, 'free, set free, unconstrained'.

Conceit is not constraint. The question of love persists almost unconstrained, as in Finite Love by the Two Brothers (Critical Documents in collaboration with Bad Press 2010), which the authors (rumored to be Justin Katko and Jow Walton) refer to as "Love Poetry" dedicated to friends:

The dream was over, and although he understood that with the half of his mind that had paused to wonder why he had begun the sentence, he knew that the letters had to go on and on to the end ... like the glass circling and circling the ouija board ... an order of ritual that would cease only when the green gulls, finishing their last flight, circled for the final time and landed, breaking their legs on the sheet of thick plate glass stretched two feet above the ground. Oh, the surprise on their faces when the gas jets lit beneath the glass and they sizzled their way to eternity. That's all it is.

Katko — with Ryan Dobran, Ian Heames, Laura Kilbride, Luke Roberts and Mike Wallace-Hadrill — curated the inaugural year of the Cambridge Reading Series (CRS), each of the thirteen events accompanied by a pamphlet and punctuated by an anthology titled THAT MERCILESS AND MERCENARY GANG OF COLD-BLOODED SLAVES AND ASSASSINS, CALLED, IN THE ORDINARY PROSTITUTION OF LANGUAGE, FRIENDS. Referring to the publication as an anthology might be troubling, but at the very least this hastily produced, photocopied selection offers a provisional road map or textual instance of community formation. In addition to poetry from CRS organizers, the publication includes work by Johnny Liron, Joe Luna, Marianne Morris, Sophie Robinson, Stamina Teacup & Julia Bashmore, Caitlan Doherty, Gareth Durasow, Mahmoud Elbarasi, Peter Gizzi (poet-in-residence at Cambridge), Danny Hayward, Frances Kruk, Francesca Lisette, Jaya Savage, Connie Scozzaro, James Staniforth, Joshua Samuel Strauss, Will Stuart, Jefferson Toal, Rosa Van Hensbergen, Tomas Weber and Adam Weg. Cover art is provided by Sean Bonney.

Aside from a table of contents, some acknowledgments and a brief run of biographical notes, there's very little framing — that is, beyond the likely less-than-accidental appearance of these poets between two covers, there is no introduction or afterword that announces a community, a poetics or any unifying principle at all beyond perhaps, as the title suggests, friendship. The insistence of this work against career and professionalization is incredibly affirming (here I come back to the preface of Finite Love titled "Reasons Not to Publish," worth quoting at length:

(1) to evade some alert, punitive power, like an oppressive state. (2) Paranoia. (3) We undervalue our texts; for instance, we take them for something unreadable, or occurring in abundant natural deposits. (4) The texts are injurious personal literature. (5) We forget that we have written the texts, or give away our manuscripts. (6) We want total control over who sees our texts. (7) The texts are morally corrupt. (8) We desire and have no reliable access to anonymity/pseudonymity. (9) To be nearby to e.g. clarify. (10) We want our peers working in a similar mode to flourish (or more generally, want them to take receipt of the visibility back-flow, whatever it is). (11) We are reluctant to obviously improve on the work of yet-living elder writers. (12) To withhold something from an object of criticism; perhaps attention/drive/dignity/interim knowledge of its weak points. (13) As industrial action, perhaps secondary ... (19) To prevent lock-in. (20) The work's not yet begun. (21) Conviction that 'finished' criteria do not exist. (22) We await a formal moment. For example, the texts are occasional verse composed in advance of the foreseeable. (23) We have waited too long. For example, the texts now serve interests that oppose us, or the nature of virtue has changed. (24) People will dislike, misunderstand or feel intimidated by the text; in particular, ones we love. (25) Our verba macks mightier than our res, our expression outwits our content. We are concerned that our texts will punch above their weight, will be more persuasive than they deserve to be ... (30) Memento mori: we want to remind ourselves they will not outlive our lives. (31) More generally, we don't trust ourselves to be as virtuous after we publish the texts. (32) Even more generally, any apprehension relating to the personal effects of fame/failure, or of critical attention/neglect ... (34) We don't wish to distract our friends or allies, who have better shit to be doing ...

But against this self-reflexive and even self-flagellating catalog of reasons not to publish the work is published, an astounding contradiction that throws the very question of publication into overwhelming uncertainty (i.e. In relation to career and professional advancement, what exactly qualifies as publication? Are these hastily produced textual objects publications in any formal sense? How do these print objects frustrate the distance between the public and the private? Where do the intellectually militarized boundaries of coterie end and the trembling limits of humility or affection begin? In the title poem of Commitment (Bad Press and Critical Documents) Marianne Morris writes:

COMMITMENT: stand here screaming like
a flaming proselyte pig happy in translucent muck
that glows when you plug me in. The representativity
of the representation in so far as it is representable
is hilarious.
IF semantic trips through ambiguity
yield sign anarchy THEN we're out
out of a job we never had anyway
and listening pule vigorous devout
Gaga's call to individuality

The poem begins with an epigraph from Henry Reynolds' Mythomystes (1632): "And yet to speake a troth, I cannot herein blame the diseased world so much, as I do the infelicity of that sacred Art of Poesy; which like the soueraigne prescriptions of a Galen or Hypocrates, ordered and dispensed by illiterate Empyricks or dogleeches, must needes (as the best phisicks ill handled) proue but so much variety of poyson instead of cure." The epigraph is crucial, calling out the same apprehensions, reservations and trepidation addressed in the Two Brothers' preface to Finite Love — a recognition of the stakes in the work and the cost to all of work produced in bad faith.

___________________________________________


ADDITIONAL PUBLICATIONS:

Marianne Morris, Luke Roberts, Sophie Robinson, Josh Stanley. Untitled Colossal Parlour Odes. Bad Press 2011. Josh Stanley, "Ode":

and our minds will go back to their perennial corruption
from which no escape premised on moral
decisiveness and only compulsive will eating all in all
underpins sustain philosophical going on
in hope, inevitably beautiful as it turns on itself like a
childish pelican to show itself less all you can eat

And in the same collection Luke Roberts, a passage from "Colossal Boredom Swan Song":

I spoke warmly and my speech turned into a wing
and the wing broke my arms, and my arm continued to sing.
Dear cowards, the sea dries up and you remain. The presses
are idle and the censor's lunch is so long and dream-like
you trouble nothing, not even my heart.

Mike Wallace-Hadrill. Nettle Range Bladefear. ©_© Press 2009. Letterpress chapbook printed "on a Miller and Richard Albion press serial | number 4993 built in 1898, which still works | beautifully." From the book:

Vox gameshark bow at charge about won't nest
below this level let's fall in less than three hamfist
fruitful subsong, fold to tract. Fairlight erotic plot
frequency were in blank skin attack envelope were

position referral
µ-opioid smash and grab nuit
blanche mother snake. How shine when she turbo
cannot, gear itch up. Overwing petal scram syrinx
fleet at suck, babel dive nucleate field will seeding.

Came out warning chevron also did breach adverse
camber, hazard embryo daydream hold shy focus
fast. Unmediate sewage calypso sync invidious 2.0
ever had she never sex for evidence, split fatigue.

Ryan Dobran. Ding Ding. Critical Documents 2009.

Josh Stanley. Contranight Escha Black. Critical Documents 2010.

Pamphlets from the Cambridge Reading Series, all of which can be downloaded from the CRS site. Each of the pamphlets features the work of two poets and brief but incisive commentaries on those poets by the organizers.

Friday, May 06, 2011

HERIBERTO YÉPEZ ON HYBRIDITY

Just now coming round to Heriberto Yépez's usefully aggressive definition of "hybrid" for a cross-cultural poetics "dictionary." The definition seems wonderfully congruent with Keith Tuma's recent essay "After the Bubble" (Chicago Review 55:3/4):

HYBRID. Postmodernism’s key notion, maybe the notion that sustains most postmodernism’s quackery. Through the illusion of hybridism contradiction is obscured, turned commodity. Not able to recognize and accept the other in its complete otherness, we turn it into hybrid, i.e., half me, similar to Us. (Not Other). Not Either/Or but always proper. Property. Not completely stranger. ‘Mixed’. In denial of otherness we constructed ‘hybrid’. We have naturalized the ‘hybrid’ category so much, that the mere mention of this category as purely cultural, artificial, contextualized (in imperialistic epistemology) seems a ‘menace’, an evil return to ‘Nationalism’ or ‘Pure’. Using the ‘hybrid’ category we have remained Hegelian. We arrive to syntheses. (Isn’t that wonderful, daddy?) We prevent radical dialectics to take place. ‘Hybrid’ has taken control of cultural industries, such as music where fusion has become institutionalized. Such happens also in the arts and writing communities, where being ‘hybrid’ is the key to enter. And become “trend”. In the same way, ‘activism’ is replacing ‘revolution’, ‘hybrid’ replaced ‘contradiction’—and denies the real relationship between One and the Other. Otherness. Hybrid is sameness. Hybrid tends to become Happy Hybrid. That’s why the hybrid category plays so well in ‘postmodern’ discourse. A capitalistic notion to kill rupture. No negation anymore! Let settle down with hybridism, ok? Don’t even talk about resistance. But resistance is what really takes place where hybridism is now used. Resistance doesn’t mean borders or ‘essences’ are not transgressed. To the contrary. It means participants enter into a strong relationship. A magnetic field where attraction and repellence both take place. Resistance is all about magnetism. And the hybrid category is all about denying resistance.

Beyond what I recognize as a misreading of the Hegelian dialectic (like economic determination in the last instance, the end of history never arrives; nor is the moment of aufhebung reducible to the simple notion of a crudely transubstantiating synthesis), Yépez's clear insistence that the illusion of hybridity masks and reifies contradiction arrives as a breath of less polluted air at a moment when productively antagonistic differences are absorbed, willed to the outskirts or wholly disappeared under the mantle of hybridity. In other words, the manic production of cuddly labradoodles will never yield an efficacious poetics that adequately assuages the murderous rage of grossly mistreated pit bulls.

However embarrassing, I was totally unaware of Yépez's work until Donald Wellman addressed it at the March 2010 Olson conference in Worcester, Mass. Thinking through Yépez's study of Olson, El imperio de la neomemoria (Almadia 2007), Wellman's talk was something of a provocation oriented toward addressing Olson's potential complicity in US economic and cultural hegemony. The talk created quite a stir, generating as a result an exceptionally productive and in fact essential conversation. During the talk Wellman offered his own generous translation of a couple passages from Yépez's Olson study, one which is specifically apropos to Yépez's thoughts on hybridity:

Olson mixes himself with the other. He bases his knowledge of the other in his own self knowledge. From Dahlberg, Pound and Cagli, he went on, shortly after, to Frances Boldereff and Robert Creeley. If the work of Olson refers centrally to expansion in the direction of the other, toward the fusion and appropriation of it, this incorporation also works at the limits of his own personal existence. Olson devours the other, he consumes it to support his own life and, at the same time, he is devoured by his catch. The whale who devours Job. Olson is fundamentally a cannibal. And he is also the cannibalized.

This is no doubt one among many readings of Olson and I don't think Yépez is calling for an out-of-hand dismissal of Olson. But the reading Yépez offers calls into question Olson's (occasional) preference for hybridity. Take, for example, Olson's invitation to Ed Dorn to take up the narrative of "Jim Beckwith" (James Beckwourth). Born into slavery in Virginia, Beckwourth was paternally of Irish and English extraction and maternally African-American. Beckwourth's father, Sir Jennings Beckwourth, moved west in 1809, taking his son with him. Later a fur trapper and mountain man, James Beckwourth lived among the Crow population for several years, taking up Crow practices and behaviors. Framed by Olson as "our kind" of "You-liss-seas," Beckwourth is for Olson the embodiment of hybridity and migration, a figure that effectively absorbs and synthesizes the antagonism of encounter as he moves across the landscape. Ed Dorn tacitly refused to take up Olson's invitation to investigate Beckwourth, privileging instead figures associated with the rapid and monopolizing circulation of culture and capital, figures like Daniel Drew, Howard Hughes and Walt Disney, figures Dorn believed signified a more accurate and no doubt less attractive "national soul" grounded in insatiable accumulation rather than hybridity. Here Dorn and Yépez are in agreement.