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.