Sunday, August 14, 2011


There are few poets who labor as intensively and with as much consideration for and toward others as Michael Cross. Any number of names come to mind, dozens in fact who work with a commensurate measure of intensity and generosity, but I often find myself struck and humbled by Cross' ability to work so completely without any discernible horizon of expectation.

Editing is act says Barrett Watten and I have for some time now taken the totality of Cross' various practices — writing, reading, curating, publishing, thinking — as forms of editing, a paring down, as with a knife, to make use of only what is needed, what can be reasonably carried like the whole of a house on a single back. Before the contraction, when the confluence of technologies, resources and conditions invited the tendency toward gratuitous over-investment that generated vast bubbles built on air and crude ambition, Cross was, so far as I know, given to the sharp blade — excision, distillation — a desire perhaps to extrapolate dense resonating kernels from vast bodies of work, the reduction of bloated estates to tents over and against the cheap desire to peddle shacks as mansions.

Rifling through the second edition of Snow Sensitive Skin — a collaborative effort between Taylor Brady and Rob Halpern first brought out in 2007 by Cross' Atticus/Finch and just recently republished by Displaced Press — I was shocked and delighted to see a new preface provided by Cross who, as Tyrone Williams suggested in an XCP essay a couple years back, functioned as something of a silent collaborator in the building of the book, the original design and material production drawing the work somehow out of itself, the object itself embodying radical contradiction, at once an almost grotesquely opulent excess and an asphyxiating austerity. The force of this contradiction, its explosive yield toward the impossibility of a perfect vacuum (the perfect void is particle free) appears to inform the whole of Cross' investment in poetry, his own, as Brady himself acknowledges in a comment on Cross' Haecceities (Cuneiform Press 2010), referring to the work as a digging, not simply excavation but the radical evacuation of matter by matter and toward something:

What emerges for me in this digging — research as song, singing as search — is how densely the domain ... of these words is packed with sites of emergence, points at which the abstraction of meaning from song, law from custom, value from use, army from body, state from commune, first proposes itself as possibility, but has not yet installed itself as the inevitable ... To drive a wedge — to disenclose space — between these two powers, discovering the field of words' public illegality, is a central task for poetry, and this gap of historical closure's not-yet might be the waste margin in which to glean a new life in common with words.

What cuts can, I suppose, dig (certain digs cut to the bone, shear away the flesh that frames). Speaking first to Brady in his preface to Snow Sensitive Skin, Cross writes:

I first discovered Taylor Brady’s work after a memorable conversation at Small Press Traffic circa 2002. Brady made some trenchant comments about the work of noise—how distortion too falls prey to the whims of capital unless it succeeds in reconfiguring the frames of legibility around it: that to be noise it must remain noise. I was struck then by how decisively Brady honed in on the value of the negative, especially because, post-9/11, everyone wanted to make noise but nobody seemed to know how against the din of rhetoric and sophistry and predator drones washing over our impotent negations in waves of terror and abjection.

What I find crucial here is the attention to negativity, an interest which informs Cross' approach to writing no less than the other modalities of building he participates in. Although I find myself more than a little suspicious of writing practices that devote an inordinate amount of attention to questions of framing (management / administration) and illegibility (which might presuppose difficulty but is not itself difficulty as such), I think Cross — and no doubt Brady — are doing far more than, say, blindly transcribing and reframing. Thinking specifically about Cross' poetry, the work is absolutely discriminating, a deliberate thinking. Take "blitz" from "Throne," the last section of Haecceities:

porphyry bore a rebus that

lambent by a nacreous

glaze, mottled modular

nodes, each flayed

palm rapine and exly rackt

the vexierbild asks the filch

lucent by the drain's spate

of cocytus, Terrifier, eyes gleed

faced charis as an impasse

dehiscent that they will

aggregates where we find them

At the level of the intuitive, certainly at the level of affect, my first impulse (and you'll have to trust me on this) is to trust the work, suggesting there is something legible within it, however faintly. Difficult but not entirely illegible. The shards of normative syntactic formations and the somewhat alien but vaguely familiar fragments and word formations like "dehiscent" offer a gesture toward communicability, at once noise and not noise, an object both familiar and alien. The traces of familiarity offer a promise that creates the conditions for, or invites, a reading of the work — that is, the ghostlier presence of something distant but familiar in the work functions itself as a sort of frame or sign that invites further investigation. But what is most important is that here there is no sign or frame beyond what is already contained within the poem itself, this promise that something is there, that the work we are now engaging was built in good faith. In this way the poems saddle a horizon or threshold, holding in their grasp both a here and there, embodying precisely the same sort of explosive contradictory movement which, through the act of struggle which difficulty at all times presupposes, allows the work to offer an unspeakably essential something, this promise it grants, an imminent or sovereign quality.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Explosive displays of rage on the streets in various UK cities have kept astounding pace with the volatility of global financial markets. However accidental or not, the doubled character of this strikingly irrepressible and somewhat inexplicable volatility offers itself as a signal confluence, a juncture where the chaotic fluctuation of abstract value nakedly intersects with the unpredictable spontaneity of concrete violence.

Considering the confluence of forces that gave rise to the UK riots, Cris Cheek writes in an Aug 10th message to the Miami University UK Poetry list: "many things are converging in this moment in England (it seems to me). a lower than usual credibility for the police in the wake of News International and anti-cuts kettling, let alone the shooting of Mark Duggan . . . a diffused sense of fragility in financial systems . . . a specific sense of immanent cutting back in welfare state provision . . . it's summer and hot and people are bored and frustrated and those who can afford to are off on holidays . . . disillusion with all existing political parties . . . perhaps a sense that if the nation state is increasingly marginalized (if the benefit system goes and traditional law and order is broken and one's name is taken in vain and one's wages are taken for conflicts one has no connection to and does not condone . . .) then what other affiliations and resistance networks are desirable and sustainable . . ."

Friday, August 5, before news of S&P's downgrade of the US credit rating sent financial markets spiraling out of control, and well before the Tottenham vigil for Mark Duggan gave way to pandemic rioting throughout the UK, Sean Bonney posted "Letter on Riots and Doubt" at Abandoned Buildings:

Anyway, I’ve totally changed my method. A while ago I started wondering about the possibility of a poetry that only the enemy could understand. We both know what that means. But then, it might have been when I was walking around Piccadilly looking at the fires, that night in March, my view on that changed. The poetic moans of this century have been, for the most part, a banal patina of snobbery, vanity and sophistry: we’re in need of a new prosody and while I’m pretty sure a simple riot doesn’t qualify, your refusal to leave the seminar room definitely doesn’t. But then again, you are right to worry that I’m making a fetish of the riot form. “Non-violence is key to my moral views”, you say. “I am proud of the fact that I never invented weapons to kill”, you say. But what about that night when we electrocuted a number of dogs. Remember that? By both direct and alternating current? To prove the latter was safer? We’d taken a lot of MDMA that night, and for once we could admit we were neither kind, nor merciful, nor loving. But I’m getting off the point. The main problem with a riot is that all too easily it flips into a kind of negative intensity, that in the very act of breaking out of our commodity form we become more profoundly frozen within it. Externally at least we become the price of glass, or a pig’s overtime. But then again, I can only say that because there haven’t been any damn riots. Seriously, if we’re not setting fire to cars we’re nowhere. Think about this. The city gets hotter and deeper as the pressure soars. Electrons get squeezed out of atoms to produce a substance never seen on Earth. Under such extreme conditions, hydrogen behaves like liquid metal, conducting electricity as well as heat. If none of that happens, its a waste of time. Perhaps you think that doesn’t apply to you. What inexhaustible reserves we possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms, in the nightmare of their lives as slaves to the rich. Don’t pretend you know better. Remember, a poetry that only the enemy can understand. That's always assuming that we do, as they say, understand. Could we really arrive at a knowledge of poetry by studying the saliva of dogs? The metallic hydrogen sea is tens of thousands of miles deep.

While not falling into the claptrap of reading this statement retroactively as an overzealous endorsement of the rioting that now continues into its sixth day, the timing of the letter's publication is undeniably canny and worth acknowledging. Bonney's critique of riot as act and form is remarkably prescient, particularly when he writes: "The main problem with a riot is that all too easily it flips into a kind of negative intensity, that in the very act of breaking out of our commodity form we become more profoundly frozen within it." Rosa Luxemburg comes to mind, the extent to which the riots in the UK appear to reside hopelessly outside her utopian dialectic of spontaneity and organization. Bonney addresses the shortcomings of riot and warns against a fetishization of riot form, but his critique stops short of a wholesale rejection of riot, instead insisting on the absolute necessity of grasping the potentialities contained within the changing states of properties in flux (elemental and commodity, chemical and human). Otherwise, "its a waste of time." The tenor of the letter feels far more speculative than prescriptive but it somehow escapes a debilitating skepticism.

Photo: "Dalston Occupation" by Sean Bonney. Adapted as the cover for HAX

Likewise apropos, Francis Crot's HAX, a book I had the honor of publishing and which arrived, like Bonney's letter, on Friday, August 5. HAX is the London borough of Hackney and the cover of the book features a photograph by Bonney of a Hackney street corner, the intersection of Dalston Lane and Roseberry Place. The structures in the photograph have since been leveled to make way for a Crossrail Station in advance of the 2012 Olympics and, in anticipation of their demolition, the banner from the rooftop in the photograph reads, "Support the Occupation." In the wake of this week's riots, the words ring differently. The opening epigraph of HAX, culled from David Graeber's Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, similarly feels different, even chilling, in the wake of the riots:

"[...] 'utopia' first calls to mind the image of an ideal city, usually, with perfect geometry — the image seems to harken back originally to the royal military camp, a geometrical space which is entirely the emanation of a single, individual will, a fantasy of total control [...]"

A second epigraph appearing later in the book is taken from Sean Bonney's Black Water and reads, "hackney declare's WARR on tha city -- ." As a whole the book is an overdetermined instance of overcrowding or, perhaps more accurately, crowd out; a composite of conventionally set type against scanned images, typewritten passages, drawings, handwritten notes and missives, heavily annotated spreadsheets and documents. Crowd out (economics) = any reduction in private consumption or investment triggered by an increase in government borrowing or the fluctuation of unstable floating rates of exchange.

While as a book HAX is in many ways a fixed print object, Crot has constructed a web-based adjunct to the book that extends the work, lending itself to contingency and instantaneity, absorbing into itself the guerrilla excesses of riot. As overdetermined as the book, the HAX site includes fragments from messages to various lists, photographs, video clips, passages from blogs, lineated comments and verses, ripostes to various pundits and bloggers, links and other digital ephemera. One passage in quotes and attributed to "dh" (likely Danny Hayward) reads:

‘Senseless’, by the way, was a word first used to describe corpses. In the face of all this it seems to me that our first task has to be to identify every manifestation of intelligence and guile in every smashed shopfront and every last looted shoelace and nappy. How galling is it to think that the sum total of human passion and social solidarity might be leveraged against capital only to reinstall us in the position we occupied five years ago; and doesn’t the knowledge of what it was like five years ago (of the illimitably vacuous and poorly paid and insecure and atomising service sector jobs and the same old circus of morons on the television, justifying the slaughter and scourging the idle) become even more corruptly unbearable when it becomes not the knowledge of actual life but instead a horizon of return, a goal to be won through a massive expenditure of collective energy and desire? Isn’t the British capitalism of the self-aggrandising boom era in fact worse from the perspective of 2011 than it was at the time? For so many of us this must be so incontrovertibly true, but I haven’t yet seen anyone suggest that it might be on the minds or in the hearts of the male and female teenagers tearing their way down high-streets all over this fucking country, because so much of even the most ‘sympathetic’ writing of our journalist caste (that obnoxious eighteenth century term) is lividly insistent on treating these ‘underprivileged’ masses as bovine delinquents, capable of passively suffering and instinctively resisting, stuck in a perpetual present, lowing in touching, idiotic pain, and not at all different from the cattle in the slaughterhouse at the beginning of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality.

Another comment culled from Evan Calder Williams' blog Socialism &/or Barbarism quotes from an August 9th post titled "An open letter to those who condemn looting," the passage more or less congruent with Hayward's statement. In part two of the letter, posted separately earlier today, Williams remarks:

What is happening in London of late has been a lot of destruction. Buildings and cars have been smashed and burned. Nothing is being constructed. There is not a blueprint, plan, or program. One speaks of social negativity, and it shows itself in the destruction of a portion of what exists. It indexes a hatred: a hatred of police, of a city that keeps them shunted off to the side, of windows that guard things that cost too much too own, of being told you need to make your own way and getting arrested when you try to do so, of all those who look suspiciously at them when they pass because they wear hoods and have dark faces.

But this is not negation as such, even as it is part of the process of it. Negation, rather, is the removal of the relations that sustain a given order as it stands. Relations like property, law, and value. It is not obliteration, not a razing to the ground, but the placing of all under doubt and critique, often of a very material order. (Property shows itself highly resistant to arguments, no matter how well-worded.) It is an acid bath: privileging nothing, it removes the consistency that excuses the existence of things to see them as they are, see what stands, what falls, what has long been poisoning many.

The clear distinction Williams marks between "a razing to the ground" and "the placing of all under doubt" refers us back to Bonney's statement on riot and doubt, where the radical doubt ensconced in riot form trumps reductive accusations of criminality and vandalism.

The naive imagining of the riots as a consciously motivated form of anti-capitalist insurrection seems somehow as wrongheaded as the opportunistic reduction of these riots to baseless violence by mainstream journalists and government officials. But as Williams insists, the riots offer, if nothing else, an index, a metric, an invitation to not knowing against the self-assured, hyper-confident hand of law.

Somewhat lazily, I'm reminded of the 1992 LA Riots catalyzed by the acquittal of five police officers responsible for beating Rodney King into critical condition following a high speed chase. The language and logic deployed by US media during these riots was almost precisely the same as that deployed in mainstream comments on the UK riots. Indiscriminate violence. Thuggery. Opportunism. Senseless destruction. Pundits unabashedly mocked rioters for looting and setting their own neighborhoods ablaze (I recall more than a few journalists asking, "Why not take it to Hollywood?"). Catalysts are not a cause but an occasion, an invitation, an opportunity. The expectation that displays of rage should somehow maintain a fidelity to the trigger than ignites rather than the conditions that create seems, at best, hopelessly misinformed. And the expectation that such expressions of rage can be adequately understood through normative or dominant forms of reason are likewise foolish. Crot: "The city today lives on its nerves."

Friday, August 05, 2011


In a usefully lucid but far from reductive introduction to the Dorn issue of Hot Gun! Josh Stanley writes, "The work presented in this issue of Hot Gun! focuses on Dorn's anti-capitalism, emphasising the materialist and political aspects of Dorn's writing, which are linked to a highly metaphysical discourse." I take this editorial gesture as one committed to undoing the considerable violence performed by crudely depoliticized readings of Dorn's work, readings that persistently reduce Dorn's accomplishment to a species of formal innovation.

Gold is, of course, up — quadruple what it was before the meltdown. In her contribution to the Dorn feature, an essay on gnosticism and alchemy in Gunslinger, Reitha Pattison remarks, "The Western psyche is still largely at the mercy of the mineral realm." Nowhere too distant from swords and sandals.

Heading out for a few odds and ends yesterday my wife asked me to grab a copy of the local paper. Not to read — we cull most news from the web now — but for cleaning. And standing at the checkout, I couldn't help but take notice of a surprisingly bold front page story on the economy:

Companies are reluctant to hire until they're convinced enough customers are ready to buy their products or services. Corporate profits are booming, though, because companies laid off millions of workers, learned to operate more efficiently with smaller staffs and expanded in growing markets overseas.

The article continues:

So companies are waiting for consumers to spend, and consumers are waiting for companies to hire them or offer generous raises and job security. It's a tough cycle to break.

Most striking about the article is its cunning rhetorical construction. The unemployed and underemployed, uninsured or under-insured, are imagined as a community financially capable of intervening in the economic crisis. The article suggests working people and the working poor, following fast on the heels of an enduring foreclosure crisis and the collapse of a construction industry which hasn't yet recovered, can intelligently call the bluff of "booming" corporations and ameliorate stagnation simply by spending money. The logic is an impressively grotesque manipulation of the old and at all times destructive adage: "It takes money to make money." Dorn was especially attuned to these forms of cunning and manipulation. In an October 1987 editorial for Rolling Stock magazine he writes:

"Americans" are a weirdly subject people. They are often berated for not saving ... And yet again, immediately the economy slumps, they're accused of not buying enough. It's rather difficult, as a whole, to get pushed around more than that.

More than most, Dorn recognized the extent to which even the crudest mainstream punditry had a decisive impact on, and was itself produced by, consciousness. As such, and as Josh Stanley suggests in his introduction to Hot Gun!, Dorn's investigation of consciousness completely circumambulates the solipsistic situatedness of self as the ground zero of poetic inquiry, but without the wholesale disavowal of self characteristic of "innovative" poetries:

Dorn's concern in poetry was to recognise "the inch of space in time I have" and work out what I just now woke up from and what rubbish dump of history my living is going to be done in, noisily refusing the avoidance of self-knowledge: Dorn said we're all sinners — justification as a concept follows disgust.

To be so reminded is a privilege. The trick is not to lose sight, or as Amiri Baraka insists in "Doc-I-Meant," a 1999 essay written in memory of activist and poet Gaston Neal:

From Soul to Sold. For a profit, we abandon our deepest function as Prophets, to tell the world where it is and where it was and where it going.

This sense of "prophet," the antithesis of its contradictory homophone "profit," is one Dorn would have likely agreed with and it appears to be used in a way strikingly similar to Rimbaud's understanding of voyant in his 1871 "Lettres du voyant." In Rimbaud's usage the double-meaning of voyant is at all times retained so that a voyant is at once a prophet whose future-perfect imaginings allow him to stand as an instrument for gauging and calibrating this machine, this inch of space in time we have.

The Baraka essay comes to mind because I take it as an absolutely indispensable ars poetica that was composed relatively late in Baraka's writing life. The essay remains uncollected and has, so far as I know, received no critical attention. Composed prior to a wide range of crises — the dot-bomb, the increasing privatization of war, Enron, Tyco, Worldcom, the subprime mortgage crisis (Bear Stearns, AIG &c) and the collapse of the housing industry — the essay presciently calls our attention back to class struggle and the determinate character of the economic.

The direction of Baraka's gaze is fixed on the "un-new," as when he writes, "History, WISE 1 ' ... ban yr oom boom ba boom ... you in deep deep trouble ....'" For Baraka "The Word is the FIRST DRUM" — not was but is — and like Cornelius Cardew after his disavowal of atonal and aleatory forms of "avant-garde" composition, Baraka, possibly thinking back to his turn away from New York School poets and the contemporary art scene following the assassination of Malcolm X, insists: "Now it is abstract, in the main! Like Hieroglyphs under the weight of commerce becomes Hieratic. Drum Word, under the weight of middle passage and Homolocus Subsidere betraying the method to Slave Master obscures its ultimate Science and becomes abstract expressionism!" The insistence is against abstraction — against, that is extraction, reduction, extrapolation, anything that would compartmentalize and thereby allow one to deludedly imagine an interdependent component of the social whole as discreet, sovereign, imminent.

The Baraka essay appears in the Spring 2000 issue of Prosodia, the journal of the recently bankrupted New College of California. However strangely, the same issue features a memorial tribute to Dorn that begins with a stretch from Chemo Sabe followed by a touching comment from Tom Clark and ending with a well selected passage from Book II of Gunslinger:

Yet the sad fact is I is
part of the thing and can never leave it.
This alone constitutes
the reality of ghosts ...

There is no wholesale refusal of lyric subjectivity in Dorn; instead we find a persistent turning and a constant pressure that presupposes ghosts are more than a deceptive fiction, that every fetish commodity, including the self, contains within itself an elusive remainder — to say, perhaps, as Hegel did, the spirit is a bone, or what for Benjamin is aura; but more than this, against the destructive nostalgia that would have us believe newsprint is for more than cleaning windows, this I is the ineradicable trace of a freeze-dried self, at once hypostatically universal and cryogenically individual, the citizen, "the sad fact."