Friday, January 09, 2009


When the conflict in Gaza first erupted almost two weeks ago I found myself turning back to Snow Sensitive Skin, the collaborative book-length work by Rob Halpern and Taylor Brady dedicated to those that died during the Israeli bombing of Beirut in the summer of 2006. The book, drawing its title from a recording of the same name released by Franz Hautzinger's ensemble Oriental Space, acknowledges Mazen Kerbaj's "Starry Night," a piece Kerbaj performed on trumpet to the accompaniment of Israeli bombs raining over Beirut. Like Oriental Space's "Snow Sensitive Skin" and Kerbaj's "Starry Night," the collaborative effort between Halpern and Brady appears to be improvisational. Written during the conflict, the poem is an immediate response to the conflict and, more broadly, a mediation on war dedicated not only to the dead but to "the promise of demilitarized time."

Embedded in the work is the lyric force of a deeply utopian impulse that seems to struggle against the powerlessness of distance and politico-economic disenfranchisement. Like Kerbaj who plays his horn to the sound of falling bombs, the poets are not in a position to physically bring a halt to the bombing, nor do they have the economic power or political sway to do so. Nor are they in a position to stand aside. As the poem unfolds one is alerted to Halpern and Brady's awareness of cultural production as a political force. For them this force is either complicit in the slaughter of war or a force capable of creating the conditions of opposition, even in moments of apparent powerlessness, precisely in spite of apparent powerlessness. But for Halpern and Brady the vexed relation between the aesthetic and the political, the work of poetry and the work of war, is more and indeed something beyond this either/or. The poem attempts to name or speak this beyond or excess, this outside which resides beyond the logic of either/or, aspiring through incongruent semantic juxtapositions and improvisational textual meditations to point toward the mass of contradictions that generate both a desire to end war and also the utopian desire that insists on an art not reducible to bumper-sticker slogan or hack editorial in a time of war:

not into me but into the unforseen
negations of enclosure opposition
being no logic of opposites no
disclosure and nothing's more real
than what we still can't see the events
we're living can't say no to what
separates this place from itself my
body from its own negatives
whose labor's as precise as the wall
we don't need to build a place out-
side the place of mask within this
narrow strip these fake estates

It is an utterly unnamable veiled logic, the grund upon which the logic of either/or resides and depends, that seems to interest Halpern and Brady — "and nothing's more real / than what we still can't see". Halpern and Brady aspire to see this, the what-we-still-can't-see.

The poem is split into seven discrete sections, each beginning with an epigraph that advances an argument, a problem that stands at the point of intersection between conflict, aggression and aesthetic production. Each section articulates with one another, accordion-like, through the nagging presence of a real that can't be seen and is utterly unnameable but which is also the persistent lynchpin of the problematique within which art stands in opposition to action, theory in opposition to practice. This contradiction is bluntly summarized in the epigraph to the sixth section of the poem, a passage from the blog Mazen Kerbaj maintained as bombs fell on Beirut in 2006:

anyways, music and drawing are the only things keeping me going these days.... i always said that i regret not being an adult during the war to see if you can do something in these situations. now i feel bad to draw or play music while people are burning. i convince myself by saying it is my only way to resist. that i have to witness. that it is very important. but i am not very convinced.

But it is not merely the appeal to art or music as modes of witness — as forms of crisis intervention — that trouble Kerbaj. It is the character of cultural production as one witnesses suffering, the impulse to stylize one's testimony as it is constructed in a moment of horror. Kerbaj continues:

i try to be a witness.... in my own way.... i cannot stop saying after a bomb: "yeah, this one was huge. i'll leave a long silence then make a small sound to balance the track." this is totally crazy!

Immediately after this epigraph, on the following page and nowhere near the end of the poem (a point not to be missed or mistaken as false ending), Halpern and Brady write:

So here we've come to the end of something that can
Only be called ourselves having already survived their
Deaths erred on each antagonism systematically drained
Of whatever potential to crush the terms that crush it.

The "survival" here is twofold. The speakers have survived the deaths of others (near or far) but they have also survived deaths "erred" on antagonisms neutralized by the very forces that generate antagonism. In other words, it is the force that generates antagonism and also absorbs and neutralizes the antagonisms it generates which the speakers have survived. This survival is at one and the same time a defeat and a achievement. However slight, there is a space of hope, of hitherto unimagined possibility, couched within the rhetorical complexity of this otherwise rigidly pessimistic statement.

Again and again Halpern and Brady circumnavigate the logic that would pit art against political action, theory against praxis, the aesthetic against the political, questioning the very terms of these oppositions at a time of war, at precisely the moment these binaries are most forcefully mobilized and deployed.

The book — exquisitely edited, designed and printed by Michael Cross and published through his Atticus/Finch press — is out of print. But as bombs fall on Gaza and the flow of power and humanitarian aid to its citizens continues to be blocked or impeded — and as "Joe the Plumber," a figure central to the rhetorical force of the McCaine/Palin campaign, prepares to head to Israel and cover the conflict as a war correspondent for conservative website — the need for work like Snow Sensitive Skin to be available to readers is great, if not — as I'm inclined to insist — urgent.