Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Johnson, Kent. Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War. Austin, TX: Effing Press, 2005.

At first blush, Kent Johnson’s Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz may appear to be an excoriation of American experimental poetry. Take, for instance, the poem “When I First Read Ange Mlinko.” The speaker states that “no matter how self-/ reflexive I get” the four “often-raped/ kids” who were eventually “incinerated in a mud compound by a missile fired from a pilotless drone…will/ still/ be/ dead.” Certainly, this passage recriminates Mlinko and writers like her as ineffectual (at best) in the face of modern warfare. Moreover, we find the speaker of the poem “Baghdad” posing the rhetorical question: “why do you seem like American experimental poets going nowhere/ on little exercise bikes?” Obviously, taken outside the context of the entire collection, neither of these examples does much to negate any anti-experimental assertions.

But to simply relegate Johnson’s collection to a negative critique of “experimental” writers would be to misconstrue its central argument. To understand, one must consider seriously Johnson’s critique of Charles Bernstein’s “Enough!” in Lyric Poetry’s afterword. What Johnson takes issue with is not so much Bernstein’s aesthetic that champions “ambiguity, complexity, and skepticism,” but the fact that the latter seems to have conflated aesthetics and ethics[1]: promoting LANGUAGE-based poetries as the most efficacious route to undermining the “moral arrogance of the Bush administration,” while simultaneously denigrating a more straight-forward poetic as “righteous” and “detestable.” It would appear, according to Johnson, that Bernstein’s call for an “open-ended process” that fosters “finding” and “thinking” when addressing America foreign policies does not likewise translate into the aesthetic realm. For all intents and purposes, Johnson’s target is the hypocrisy of some “avant-garde” writers, not a particular avant-aesthetic; otherwise, Johnson would be as short-sighted as Bernstein.

The poem “Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, or: ‘Get the Hood Back On’,” provides the reader with an actualization of Johnson’s egalitarian approach. In each paragraph, an American citizen addresses a Iraqi prisoner: they tell him who they are (e.g. a pregnant nineteen year old, an assistant manager from Wal-Mart, a member of the 700 Club, etc.) and what each intends to do with their respective foils before a Military Intelligence interrogation (e.g. “hold a pistol to your head,” “shove a fifteen inch dildo down your throat,” etc.). The last of these characters is “an American poet” who is:
Twentyish, early to mid-thirtyish, fortyish to seventyish, I’ve had poems on the Poets Against the War website, and in American Poetry Review and Chain, among other magazines, and I have a blog, and I really dig Arab music, and I read Adorno and Spivak, and I’m really progressive…I’m going to be completely candid with you: I’m going to box your ears with two big books of poems, one of them experimental and the other more plain speech-like, both of them hardbound and from leading academic presses, until your brain swells to the size of a basketball and you die like the fucking lion for real.
To make the Iraqi prisoner’s brain “swell to the size of a basketball,” the poet uses both “experimental” and “plain speech-like” poetry books to smash in his head. The poem’s parallelism posits a complicity between, not just differing poetic camps, but between poets and average American citizens, between American citizens and the guards at Abu-Ghraib, and between American citizens and the Bush Administration’s foreign policies.

The paragraph ends with the poet saying: “Well, we did our best; sorry we couldn’t have done better…I want you to take this self-righteous poem, soak it in this bedpan of crude oil, and shove it down your pleading, screaming throat.” And this is Johnson’s real target: the utility of poetry in a country where 300 million Americans, more or less, idly sit by and watch as our military rapes another country 7000 miles away. In this case, the poet’s “best” is an affirmation of torture. Yet not to worry: while the incinerated kids might “still/ be/ dead,” the poet can rest easy knowing that he can still waddle “downstairs, and/ thr[o]w/ a match/ on the fuel-soaked/ brisquets” for his family’s nightly barbeque. The American poet, regardless of aesthetic leaning, more often than not leads a life insulated from the atrocities of the modern world where (s)he can write whimsically of “the tulip flowering/ by the jacarandas in the dying light” without needing to be troubled by bodies burning in “a geyser of fire” (unless, of course, it helps them to write an “edgy” poem).

What, then, is one to do? Stop writing poetry (whether it be “experimental” or “plain speech-like”)? It would seem that the Adornian epigraph to the collection provides us with a hint as to how to proceed: “I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric…[But] literature must resist this verdict.” In the face of the insurmountable, then, poetry must “resist,” even if the odds are always already against it. But merely to resist is not enough. In Minima Moralia, Adorno writes:
The dialectic…was a mode of discussion whereby dogmatic assertions were shaken and…the lesser word made the stronger…But as a means of proving oneself right it was also from the first an instrument of domination…unconcerned with content, serviceable to those who could pay…Its truth or untruth, therefore, is not inherent in the method itself, but in its intention in the historical process.
Poetry, like dialectics, can be thought of in a similar fashion. If the “intention” of poetry is to upend “dogmatic assertions” and make “the lesser word…stronger,” then poetry “must resist the verdict” of its death; yet, if the “intention” of poetry is to act as “an instrument of domination,” and at the availability of only “those who [can] pay" (i.e. act as a bully pulpit to level negative critiques, or marginalize another aesthetic), then poetry, regardless of aesthetic, must be carried swiftly off to its death.

[1] Or, more appropriately speaking, Bernstein attempts to stabilize a center in both his aesthetics and ethics when such a center, vis-a-vis his poetics, is inherently unstable.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Leon, Jon. Hit Wave. New York, NY: Kitchen Press, 2008.

Primarily composed of two long sections of prose, Jon Leon’s chapbook Hit Wave employs an absurdist-satire that recalls Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. “1982,” the first major section of the collection, documents the artistic and careerist pursuits of an unnamed speaker as he attempts to reconcile himself to the fact “that poetry was now industry.” The piece’s narrator saturates the reader with a continuous stream of events, book titles, sexual exploits, alcohol-drug consumption, and faux-artistic revolutions that unwittingly imbricate him in the system he claims to oppose “during a political awakening that would remain with [him] as [he] attempted an avant coup in 2004.” Take, for instance, the following paragraph, which functions as a microcosm of the work as a whole:
While writing Long Hot Summer in Atlanta I went through a string of glossy women a la Eva Herzigova. Though I lived like a wretch my charisma was irresistible. I remember sitting in a restaurant in the East Village thinking about a plot error and how Carre sitting across from me looked like Noelle, a girl I’d met on the terrace at Zane’s and who’d said she modeled for Wayne Maser.
Throughout “1982,” book titles, such as “Long Hot Summer,” operate as signifiers emptied of specificity, vis-à-vis the writing therein, and instead act as contextual markers for the speaker’s extracurricular exploits: in this case, “a string of glossy women a la Eva Herzigova.” Of course, since the creation and publication of these books are detached from particular dates, readers are left without any sense of how the events before or after the current description relate. The one constant that does relate each event to one another is the speaker’s self-aggrandizing narcissism; the writing and “artistic” endeavors become window-dressing for caricature. In fact, the sheer volume of titles the speaker references (32 that he either writes, creates, publishes, reads, or watches) transforms the egalitarian Whitmanian catalogue into a solipsistic undertaking in which he falls prey to “the pleasure that only international prestige can offer.” Furthermore, the interchangeability of female names (i.e. “Carrie sitting across from me looked like Noelle”) evidences the rampant misogyny that pervades the text, wherein “a string of glossy women” serve as fulfillment for the narrator’s “sexual deviousness.”

All of these actions and attitudes are rationalized by the speaker through the lens of the misunderstood genius:
A lot of people didn’t like me. Most of them were poets. They called me names like proletarian, idealist, romantic, handsome. Fools I thought. Why would people sell themselves short and not just live the life of pure creative glamour. It is easy for me, to others it was a mirage. The real geniuses of history were the ones brave enough to be it. I couldn’t understand their criticisms to be anything but jealousy.
And this, it would seem, encapsulates Hit Wave’s conceptual focus: the manner in which misguided identity formation can so easily, especially in today’s cultural-environment of hyper-self-promotion, devolve into a carte blanche justification for dismissal of the other in order to foster megalomania; or stated in Leon’s words, extolling “the life of pure creative glamour” at the expense of “poets” and “fools.” In many regards, then, “1982” functions as a cautionary or moralistic tale. Yet unlike a Horatio Alger story in which the main character’s ambition results in an unassuming assimilation into bourgeois existence, the main character in Jon Leon’s story does not seek assimilation, but a recklessly autonomous existence that revels in inflicting “severe sickness and humiliation” upon “those people who ignored me.” To this extent, Leon does not provide a (much needed) model with which to combat Alger’s capitalist propaganda, but through caricature, unwittingly provides a nihilistic counterpoint that confirms the worst fears of those who resist that which resides outside of the hegemonic order.

Svalina, Mathias. The Viral Lease. Brooklyn, NY: Small Anchor Press, 2008.

The Viral Lease is a chapbook length lyric poem that re-imagines both language and the body within a disjunctive framework where the reader is told to discard that which “your parents/ left dangling/ from your throat,” so that “words [may] breath shadows”; or stated in another way, the poem attempts to reformulate standard narratives by severing the normative, associative links we create between words within discrete syntactical units, as well as the relationship between individual images. Take, for instance, the follow lines:
Underwater eyes
wring from blasphemes

in the quiet
of hallways.

Heirs burst
with stairwells.
While contemplated in isolation, “underwater eyes” could literally refer to someone’s (or something’s) eyes while underwater, but complications arise when analyzed within its grammatical context. Specifically, what is the relationship between “blasphemes” and “eyes,” and how does one “wring” the latter from the former? The poem does not provide this information for the reader, thus we must foster an absurdist image and, at least temporarily, submit ourselves to its plausibility if we are to make “sense” of the phrase. Adding an additional layer of complexity to the couplet is the fact that the syntax of the sentence succeeds in displacing the agency normally attributed to the verb “wring”: a subject “wrings” the object of the verb “from” the object of the preposition (i.e. “He wrings water from a rag”). In the case of the above excerpt, there is no object of the verb and thus the lines reorganize agency so that “underwater eyes” are now complicit in their own extraction.

But beyond the reversals taking place within a given image, the interrelationship between images is also problematized. What can we, as readers, claim to know about the narrative or semantic correspondence between “underwater eyes” and the “heirs” that are “bursting” two stanzas later? On the surface, little connects the two, but what does is of utmost importance: the confining passageways of an unreferenced building (i.e. “hallways” and “stairwells”). While the disparate nature of the images forces us to make an associative leap from one image to the next, the relative similarity between “hallways” and “stairwells” aides in bridging that gap, although not fully; while a connection can be made, there is room for associative-slippage between each reading or between different readers.

The question, then, becomes: why does the poem enact this particularly oblique poetic? Is this only a matter of writing in antithesis of what one’s “parents/ left dangling/ from [one’s] throat”? Not in the least. The poem, it would appear, claims the stakes are a bit more elevated than simple oedipal relations. In fact, the poetic is a war-cry (“Give me the war”), and the war takes place not only on the page (“Sheaves of war”), but on the body (“The war has broken/ & bruised wider// than eyes.”). But if this poetic signals a conflict, carrying “the bodies/ from the classrooms,/ limp arms dangling” has left the speaker disillusioned and oscillating between a call-to-arms and self-doubt. Specifically, we find this ambivalence in a brief but salient confession midway through the poem: “I am writing you a letter// in the weather reports/ & my every prediction is wrong”; additionally, this sense of resignation redoubles itself when the speaker states: “the viral lease,/ the verses we hear// are nevers.” As the end of the poem approaches and we wait for one last chance at salvation (or at least the hope for future salvation), it soon becomes apparent that there will be no such thing. The poem concludes by collapsing into the “nevers” ever more violently as we are “broken by the throat’s/ red gag,// broken by the bomb.”

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Word Rolls