Thursday, October 11, 2012


Thinking about Samuel Solomon's Life of Riley (Bad Press 2012) while reading through Yeats's "Introduction," the 1937 prefatory note composed for an edition of his complete works that never appeared, I found myself struck by the following claim: "A poet is justified not by the expression of himself, but by the public he finds or creates; a public made by others ready to his hand if he is a mere popular poet, but a new public, a new form of life, if he is a man of genius." Beyond calling out the extraordinary belatedness of recent critiques of self-expression at all times linked with an irrepressibly bourgeois desire to recuperate genius as an operative concept, this statement from Yeats is fascinating for its attention to the formation of publics. But rather than imagining a public as a social formation that one participates in building with others, we are offered here one of two options: if we are "mere" poets, we can move blindly along with an uninspired herd; or, if we are artists of genius, we can single-handedly construct a new form of life like some sort of megalomaniacal one-size-fits-all vision of good living. There are unquestionably other possibilities, i.e. aligning oneself with a broader, more lateralized collective effort to construct a "form of life," or ways of feeling and grasping, capable of meeting the confluence of demands disposed in the present. Solomon's Life of Riley angles toward such an alignment, each of the poems grounded in a strategic deference that subordinates the narrativized self to a more collective endeavor without surrendering, and arguably by way of, an otherwise self-indulgent lyric excess. We see this most clearly, I think, in the title poem, "Life of Riley," a short run of articulated lineated constructions that bear out, among other things, a generalized critique of the American Left:

each is claiming material conditions
for the analytical framework there won't be proof
of what is really happening if I'm not there
may I still care whether you COME OR NOT 
the real movement of history is also at and has
also been in the dead left which continues as material
force or only irrelevant reaction you would say that
I know you do all the time and then return to what 
we all know so much
why DON'T we just write it down?
we probably do mean the leadership of the most
oppressed and not merely of the oppressed 
workers and that fuckall anxiety about being right
is ours to share is a bad comfort he says
I hate it and love you but isn't it more
to hate the center since we don't all sin the same

On the terrain of organization, as a built thing that cuts from cover to cover, Life of Riley feels uneven,  reading at times like an accidental arrangement or sheaf of poems contingently assembled as a hasty response to an unanticipated emergency. Whether this seeming hastiness is staged or not, the unevenness of their arrangement lends these poems a sense of urgency appropriate to the objects of their attention. Topical concerns run up against more enduring problems, are filtered through them, i.e. "She Drives the Buick" where Queer soldier Bradley Manning's role in the proliferation of classified documents through WikiLeaks is juxtaposed against the problem of Russian pronationalistskiy under Putin:

How do you queer Marxists propagate?
Topical banquets of know-how launched tungsten.
          Bradley Manning or new Russian pronatalism
          forget to be that ugly but don't know how not to
          semi-conduct torture.

Come back to certain names with variations
to indicate the revulsion-complex, so
attraction, coolness, etc. of that person
his famous actions, sense of an unhinging
contingently controls his fame, made
necessary somehow. Then notice how the gay
bitch's verge wilts down into radical queer.

Little Miss Manning's a rich snobby old lady
she threatened to throw a glass of Rosé in my face
but quickly remembered here delicacy and simply
snickered she'd out me on the internet ... pointing
                                                like Maleficent —
(she knows me, she walked with me once upon a dream,
in fact in a childhood nightmare featuring a witch
who was also a wasp, counting children with her
sinister hand, stinging-finger pointed, what could be
more terrifying than counting children well I'm
scared!) — like Maleficent, then, we toss
each other heaps of appropriated shade, I mean,
what kind of man is that. I know you're thinking
this too, and that says most about me. We want
to be Miss Manning and the witch.

The poem is remarkable for its desubjectivizing subordination of lyric interest to an emergent social formation through a lyric mode of address. In a sense, the gesture appears to offer the ground for resubjectification — for a more affirmative and collaboratively built public or social formation. How do queer Marxists propagate? Rob Halpern comes to mind, as do New Narrative predecessors like Bruce Boone and Steve Abbott. And after Hot White Andy, what poem written in English today can deploy the word "tungsten" without immediately alluding to Keston Sutherland? As such, "She Drives the Buick" offers itself as an embodiment of solidarity that sacrifices the subject-oriented center of lyric utterance to a more dispersed and socially oriented desire capable of queering socialist activism and challenging the masculinist underpinnings of a long-since dead New Left that, in many instances, continue to endure. The desire to be, at one and the same time, "Miss Manning and the witch" is an expression of utopian longing but, if this is such an expression, it is one that refuses the crippling expectation of an impossible utopia. Envisioning the desirable — the wanted but not yet obtained or an achievement not yet accomplished — was likewise Yeats's understanding of the task of the poet, but for him this imagining could not be queered and, in his 1937 "Introduction" he even went so far as to imagine queerness itself as the enemy: "I say against all the faggots that it is our first business to paint, or describe, desirable people, places, states of mind." The claim is a hateful one, but against the hateful face value of this statement, perhaps it is the latent queerness in his own work that Yeats shrinks from here and lashes out against, an emergent quality that a poet like Samuel Solomon situates in the present as a necessary condition for any meaningful lyric consideration of social justice.