A Swarm of Bees in High Court

Tonya M. Foster



Saturday, September 5th, 2015

“black performance has always been the ongoing improvisation of a kind of lyricism of the surplus&#8212invagination, rupture, collision, augmentation.”
—Fred Moten, In the Break

A long nocturne, Tonya Foster’s long-awaited debut collection A Swarm of Bees in High Court roves in and out of the dream of Harlem. This rich cityscape, pregnant with so much history and tension, floats through the consciousness of the poetic speaker, whose sleeplessness leads her into a series of meditations on memory, desire, and daily life. Her worries, dissatisfactions, and poignant joys take flight into song through the sonic pleasure of her word play and permutations.

A collection of thirteen pieces which includes a closing praxis statement on her text, the book progresses through a sleepless night, past dawn, and into day. Composed often in tercets, Foster’s work turns sleeplessness into an occasion for gathering the city’s subtle voices, braiding them into the agonistic “swarm” of experience that composes human sites. And what are the swarming “bees” at work in her text? The b’s of being, of being black, the big B of Blackness, of blood, birth, and sometimes bullets or basketball. Her fine array posits Harlem into a living, dreaming apiary of Blackness and life, dripping with dreams and difficult realities.

I discover a visceral delight in Foster’s permutations, the way that she rewrites and syntactically reiterates her lines with cleverly placed commas, parentheses, and dashes—all of which serve to push the phrase into a multivalent array of possibilities. In her opening poem, “Harlem Nocturn/e/s,” she begins with two loose tercets on the page:

As always, there is
our black robe.Our tock-tockclocks
(y)our ga(i)t(e)s and g(r)avel.

As always, there is
this hill we climb—(y)our thicket
of (st)roll and (st)utter.

Visually, the use of the parenthetical letters imbricate dual readings into her phrases—such as your/our gates/gaits and gavel/gravel—through which emerge two distinctly different worlds of meaning. A split but simultaneous address appears—of them and us, “your” and “our” world. Some move with gaits, a personalized walk with its own unique rhythm. Others move through “gates,” implicating a social structure in which some have mobility and others don’t, as dictated by the penal court system’s “gavel.” One aspect of the way Foster’s text “swarms” is how she adroitly maintains these multiplicities, keeping them literally in view on the page through her punctuated re-visions.

These visual interruptions and semantic permutations demonstrate Foster’s strong connection to black radical traditions of experimentation that highlight complexity and play as critical discourse. Described by poet and theorist Fred Moten as dwelling “in the cut” or “in the break,” this mode of philosophic engagement operates by creating an excess in meaning. Operating often through improvisation or interruption, these excesses (what he terms breaks or cuts) highlight the impossible material and historical circumstances of blackness, requiring us to attend to the traces of bodies in its performance. In short, to dwell in the break is to inject a historical and complex self into an overdetermined frame of view. Moten describes how “the emergence from political, economic, and sexual objection of the radical materiality and syntax that animates black performances indicates a freedom drive that is expressed always and everywhere throughout their graphic (re)production” (7). Foster’s work is an excellent instantiation of dwelling “in the cut” of language; her use of parentheses and slashes offer hermeneutical excesses in her work, make visible the same freedom drive that Moten describes.

By creating these multiple readings throughout the text, Foster invites us to inhabit and negotiate an array of realities, through which I come to recognize an essential conjecture. What do we hear here? And who hears that here? Lived sites are not static certainties, but buzzy propositions that whorl into view as inhabited instantiations. Her poems demonstrate how site and text shift, depending on what dominates our listening and view. In “Harlem Nocturn/e/s 2,” Foster makes explicit this essential conjecture in sites and bodies when she meditates on being and origins.

is from always Is,
here from ancestral t/heres, know
from have always in/own/ed.

Is “from” always
the cardinal hive through which our
looking flies?

Is “from” always
the lodestone which aligns/mis
aligns meaning, love?

Is “from” always,
though in us, between us? The
sheet and shi(f)t(s) we t/read?

I read an overdetermined type of being in the capitalized shift from “is” to “Is.” The latter recognizes archetypes that tread with a weighty inescapability, of being “here from ancestral t/heres.” I see a similar aspect in her use of “from,” which suggests a dual reorganization of the subject; one that writes futures and possibilities based on assumptions of origins and pasts. This “from” indicates a closed structure for blackness&#8212but Foster’s use of the interrogative indicates that this system need not be fixed or closed; to query at it supposes a possibility of expansion, an unnamed otherwise, which her use of interrupting parentheses likewise model.

Foster’s work is also notable for how it explores the complexities of black female subjectivity and desire. One of the most impressive pieces of her collection, “In/Somniloquies,” begins with her poetic speaker up late and sleepless, watching bad reality tv while her male lover sleeps beside her. The poem moves into a meditation on growing from girlhood into womanhood, initiated by red (“blood butterflied across the seat and white of summer culottes”) into black:

Black as tar. Black as
being. Black as boots, as
hollows, as (w)holes. “Your

black ass, tar black ass,
know better.” Cowboy’s voices in
tones from livid stoops.

She examines how a variety of voices try to tell her speaker about being a woman. These voices include other women, such as “Her mother: I’d / like to hear this. What do you / know about a man?” (19) and aunt, “You can’t be eatin’ / like you don’t mind trading a / baby for red beans” (31) and men, such as the “cowboy’s voices” from the stoop that shout out at her. Importantly, her speaker is not a passive agent in this melange of voices that speak into her. She desires, and that desire is edged.

But need is the swarm
that some women learn to feed
from their flesh of self.

Beside her, the dark
husk murmurs. What to do? Love
what could destroy you?

The clarity of the poetic voice in these lines carry an intensity of feeling that communicates the subject’s vulnerability. Moments like this are just as sophisticated as Foster’s more overt moments of language play and demonstrate her dedication to exploring a full range of being and emoting in her work’s “swarm.”

I was further impressed with the way that Foster’s collection examined the complex intra-gender dynamics between black women while also commenting on relationships with black men. The other women in “In/Somniloquies”are nurturing and shaming, chastising and competitive. In her poem “High Court,” the phrase “blind puddle” slowly comes to stand in for black masculinity in a slow permutation that devastates.

Blind puddle that was
little boy’s blood, cold water
and Mr. Clean clean.

“Blind puddle that was
chance for movie chivalry”&#8212
sunlight drives this thought.

posit the boy, strutting man-
to-be-been, the gones.

imagine sinews, tendons.

Tongue your wasness.

The “blind puddle” initially indicates a cleaned wet spot on the ground, the remnant that was “little boy’s blood” which now reeks of “Mr. Clean,” the mopping agent. Significantly, there is no little boy, just the “was” of his body&#8212a cold wet trace. This “blind puddle” continues on from boyhood and becomes a “chance for movie chivalry,” or a fantasy projection of masculinity. Next, Foster moves explicitly into the construction of black masculinity: “posit the boy.” To posit is to offer a statement that is assumed to prove true. In just two short lines, the erased boy does in fact prove to be erased. His future is embedded in his re-naming as the “blind puddle.” He is the “man-/ -to-be-been, the gones.”

With a necessary national conversation stoked by the ongoing police killings of scores of unarmed black men and boys swirling in the air, Foster’s tercets cut through me. While invoking black masculinity as an erasure&#8212a blind puddle&#8212she also insists on the corporeality of the unseen, erased bodies; she commands us to “imagine sinews, tendons.” And what are we left with? A blankness interrupts the final line of her last tercet, which finally concludes “Tongue your wasness.” Her use of “your” here is fascinating and devastating. Is she addressing the initial little boy here? Is his ghost lapping at the bleached puddle now? I was deeply moved by the way her poems long after black men while also extinguishing the easy fictions/projections we frequently cast onto those we desire. Throughout her book, black men appear as threatening, desirable, cherished, murdered and disappeared.

Just as Tonya Foster’s speaker is sleepless, her collection A Swarm of Bees in High Court offers us a new waking dream of Harlem, one pregnant with its heat, streets, and contentious voices. It verges, folds, and concatenates with an excess of living voices and possibilities. I prefer the “cut” of Foster’s Harlem of complex inheritances. Her work challenges me to walk with her through the deep cuts of life at its most affirming, heart rent, and bitter levels. She turns away from the fantasy of an urban utopia to offer instead a site of various, sometimes frustrated desires, of tenderness and a truly living black community.

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Ban en Banlieue

Bhanu Kapil

Nightboat Books


Sunday, June 7th, 2015

Trying to offer a clear critical comment on Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue is particularly challenging because it so stridently seeks to side-step the rational, hierarchical, closed-system imaginations which generate race riots, which churn women’s bodies into sexual fodder and carcasses tossed out of vans, which demand that we see mental illness as an individual disorder rather than as a human soul crying out amidst inhuman cultural paroxysms. “Centered” around a race riot in 1979 London, Kapil’s text belies the notion of fixed centers or single origins of cultural violence. Instead, she offers a variety of emotional, psychological, and spiritual loci around which her text coalesces. To cry out. To fail. To rise like diesel smoke in a hot summer wind.

And now I feel I must start again. The impressive psychological density that Kapil’s book opens in me requires me to try and offer a better statement, a different statement. This book is a series of mirrors folded towards each other, and they all admit night. Even as I bend my head over my keyboard to type, my inadequacy to critically represent this text rises over me. It’s impossible. I’m not sure how Kapil had the wherewithal to write it. I can see how she had to adopt such varied strategies of returns, of beginning otherwise, of writing differently with her body, in order to continue the text. I also feel, though, that I’m somehow perhaps the best (critical) body to speak to it. I have the illusion that I understand something. And so, I feel I must start again, to try again&#8212

:: A synopsis. 

A young black/brown girl named Ban walks home from school. She hears the distant sounds of a race riot’s inception. She lies down on the ground in London to die. She is imaginary but she is also a real body, one always verging through her ((corpse)). I write corpse in double parens because Ban is perhaps already a corpse&#8212the foul body we have cast away from us: as a black girl&#8212read as a black girl&#8212she is already a cast away. aBANdoned… Ban. She inhabits Kapil, or Kapil seeks to infiltrate her through a series of intuitively-based writing exercises and performances. These are some of her reflections and notes. 

An extension of Schizophrene (Nightboat, 2011), which first introduced readers to the body of Ban, Ban en Banlieue furthers Kapil’s concerns with the ways women’s bodies are written over or snuffed out as they attempt to speak. Let me try again. I can’t help but note my passive sentence construction, my disembodied “objectivity.” This book furthers Kapil’s refutations, her cries against how male social orders snuff out women’s voices by destroying our bodies when we try to speak. Her book refuses to perform “elegantly” in traditional terms&#8212it is fractured, she withholds. We leap with her from the UK to Colorado to Seattle to India to a flight over Greenland, et cetera. I have a hard time knowing “when” I am in the text. In the “present” moment? In a distant childhood? In 1979? They fall together, all these different times. They permeate. I also feel the roots of her debut collection, A Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey Street Press, 2001)&#8212in which 12 questions are answered repeatedly by numerous women across three continents. Across these various books, I see how Kapil’s desires to represent are also desires to illustrate the failures in representation by presenting a concatenation of voices and views. 

Let me try again. The book is organized into five sections: Contents, [13 Errors for Ban], Auto-sacrifice (Notes), End-Notes, and Butcher’s Block Appendix. As an indicator of what lays ahead, the Contents also describe sections that cannot appear in the text, such as her performances. 

Body outline on ground ringed by candles/flowers at the site where Jyoti Singh Pandey lay for 40 minutes in December 2012, raped then thrown from the bus and gutted with a steel pipe. I walk&#8212naked, barefoot, red&#8212from the cinema in South Delhi where she watched The Life of Pi. Then caught a bus. To this spot. The anti-rape protestors make a circle around my body when I lie down. What do they receive? An image. But what happens next? How does the energy of a performance mix with the energy of the memorial? How does the image support the work that is being done in other areas? Which hormones does it produce? New Delhi, India, 2014. (16)

In reading about this performance, I feel how Ban en Banlieue produces a different pyscho-somatic density as a “reading” experience. Its fragments and sections drag me along vectors into what cannot be contained in pages and words. It takes me into bodies. This book is so big, I think. And then I need to sit and drink some water, to clear my head. I feel heavy magma churn in my chest while considering the outline of Jyoti’s eviscerated body on the hot ground. I imagine other bodies, the ones without the benefit of names. 

Kapil’s Contents also point to sections that Kapil decided to delete, such as “Stories.”

No, I don’t think so. I wrote a companion series or sequence of childhood stories to lie next to Ban, but when it was time to publish them, here (in section 3), I pressed the delete button and stored them in another file. (9)

This gesture is quite indicative of the way Ban en Banlieue coalesces: some parts fall out, cannot appear, or are erased. Their vacuity is remarked upon as a necessary contribution. Kapil makes it clear she’s responding to other internal parameters with these authorial/editorial decisions: she isn’t here to tell us stories, but to “discharge” this psycho-emotional mass that Ban has become inside her body, inside the cultural body. We grieve or don’t grieve over these absentings. A young girl lies down on the floor to die. Do we imagine her together.  

:: A narration of a haunting.

Kapil opens by invoking Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. On the very first page, she writes

Two weeks later, exhausted, trying to write [re-write] Ban, as I do every day, I lean over to the bookshelf and brush [touch] Dictee, a book I have not read in many years. I close my eyes then open them, my finger on page 4. A volt of violet [orange] fire goes through my body when I read these words: “Now the weight of the uppermost back of her head, pressing downward. It stretches evenly, the entire skull expanding tightly all sides the front of her head. She gasps from its pressure, its contracting motion.” In this way, Cha’s “dead tongue” licks the work. (7)

Experimental filmmaker, performance artist, and writer, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha was raped and murdered in New York. For some reason I originally wrote strangled to death. Let me try again. She was only 31 years old and DICTEE had just been published when her corpse was found. Cha’s film and art work seek to manifest what cannot be said. I think of Cha’s video piece “Mouth,” in which we observe a mouth slowly opening and closing over the sounds of static white noise. I think of Cha’s recently released collection EXILEE, of her ground breaking epic DICTEE, which meditates on matriarchal lineages, murdered women, confessions, women’s bodies caught on film: the light cast off of them and chemically captured. Ban is a type of Cha, I see. There’s a brutal symmetry between their bodies’ outlines. 

:: An “intense autobiography”&#8212

Ban is and is not Bhanu. They blur. Ban died when she was nine years old during a race riot in London. And yet, “Towards the end of her life, in her early forties, still very beautiful despite her age, dark brown hair knotted with paintbrushes in a tatty bun above C7, the last bone of the spine as it goes down through the neck, Ban returned to India, where her ancestors were from, and lay down, as close as she could get, next to the border with Pakistan” (56). This echoes  Kapil’s performance in New Delhi, or perhaps houses a performance Kapil failed to perform. In another section, Kapil describes how after her father slapped her hard across the face, “I became Ban” (55). 

The “Bhanu”/Ban elisions recompose “auto/biography.” Who is writing? This is and is not about Ban, for Ban cannot be captured. She is a phantom body on the ground. “Bhanu” similarly rises and falls from view. I regularly get the impression that perhaps this text is writing itself. Kapil is transcribing, tracing, translating&#8212not composing&#8212it. Her Auto-Sacrifice (Notes) make it clear that she also does not know where she’s headed. That is not a negative statement. Kapil is sliding down a nerve, a flash of “pink lightning” she follows as she writes. Her resultant notes read as a series of attempts, of cascading retrievals. 

3. What is Ban? 

Ban is a mixture of dog shit and bitument (ash) scraped off the soles of running shoes: Puma, Reebok, Adidas. 

Looping the city, Ban is a warp of smoke. 

To summarize, she is parts of something re-mixed as air: integral, rigid air, circa 1972-1979. She’s a girl. A black girl in an era when, in solidarity, Caribbean and Asian Brits self-defined as black. A black (brown) girl encountered in the earliest hour of a race or riot, or what will become one by nightfall. (30)

Ban is multifarious. She drifts. She is BANal. An anal retention, a mass. And also, psychotically, socially unremarkable. One dead body&#8212imagined or not&#8212in a long series of dead female bodies. She’s hard to hold onto. She’s a project, a narrative, but also a body on the ground. There are, sadly, many Bans.

In tracing Ban for us, I see, too, how Kapil annotates herself. Their two bodies mix and meet. Can we read her (the multiple her) otherwise than through the vector of a black body, of that curling smoke? Kapil’s father slaps her across the face. “I became Ban.”

:: An exegesis of a text in erasure, a text that refuses to be captured and written.

Kapil leaves us with remnants. Her Auto-Sacrifice (Notes) section, which is the bulk of the text, is a series of prose pieces culled from years of notebooks. The work emerges as revisitations on a single, roving theme. She invites us to imagine memory like a grid, how she hangs these remnants upon it in order to build a structure, to capture the smokey body of Ban. “How do you caption smoke?” (23).

:: A novel in which the narrative behaves like a continuously re-blooming stain on the asphalt.

:: An anachronicle of social madness. *

:: A sane response.  

:: An absent body. 

* Did I make this word up? An anachronistic chronicle. A narration that refutes timestamps, that makes me wonder where the then of the story lives.

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Life in a Box is a Pretty Life

Dawn Lundy Martin

Nightboat Books


Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

In Dawn Lundy Martin’s challenging, evocative, necessary new book Life in a Box is a Pretty Life (Nightboat Books), she offers smart, frank, actual living thought that seeks to destabilize and illustrate some of the ways that black female subjectivity continues to be framed by mis/conceptions and mis/representations of the black female body. And what do we really know about the black female body? Though never explicitly posited in her book, this question floats as a central premise around her pieces and requires us to consider the ways that representational violence, colonial history, and ongoing gender and racial prejudice continue to shape psychic realities today. Through her strong engagement with visual arts, Martin also furthers the incredible dialogue that authors such as Tisa Bryant, Deborah Richards, Urayoán Noel, and Roberto Tejada are also contributing to around aesthetics, representation, power, and the construction of knowledge.

A book-length work in hybrid prose and lyric sections, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life is not always “pretty.” With section titles like “WITHOUT KNOWING THE SLIGHTEST THING ABOUT WAR, I FIND MYSELF AN INSTRUMENT OF LABOR, INVESTIGATION, AND EXPERIMENT” and “IT WILL BE HEARBY OBSERVED THAT NIGGAS GET SHOT IN THE FACE FOR THAT MENACING, THREATENING LOOK!” the book can run rough over you in parts. But it needs to. By doing so, Martin’s poetry questions the basis by which we expect particular modes of pleasure from art. We can see how she elects this stance by opening her collection with an epigraph from artist Kara Walker: “What strikes me is how easy it is to commit atrocities.” The “easy” Walker alludes to reflects the “common sense” attitudes that ideologies masquerade under when un-interrogated. Walker’s own art practice challenges the aestheticization of racial violence by forcing her viewers to confront these qualities in an art context, removing the “ease” in “pleasure” when we view her work. Walker’s black and white cutouts charm with their beautifully delineated silhouettes. They also horrify viewers through their graphic depictions of violence, such as a child being choked or hanged. Her works regularly implicate the viewer by exploring the racialized dynamic between their gaze and the black body, which was perhaps best expressed in a recent interview she gave on the way the public responded to her gigantic sugar sphinx, “A Subtlety, Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.” (See this interview with Walker in the LA Times.)

We can see a similar stance of unapologetic presentation and assertion in Martin’s book. “I will not sing to you,” Martin writes. “I refuse to sing to you” (68). And though Martin isn’t always as graphically explicit as Walker’s work can be in depicting the historical violences she’s responding to, the pain of having to contend with the same historic framework is evident throughout Life in a Box is a Pretty Life. Martin refuses lyric lushness in favor of svelte statements, fragments, and questions. What emerges reads as intensely personal, and often necessarily elliptical. But the difficulty of inhabiting the box is always evident.

When I, a lad, swelling and succumbed, no one spoke to me—dripping. They tell me, I should lurk, shoulders cast forward, bullish. Shoulders pelt into braced maw. She sent me a mauve dream, and I thought the words “cracked open.” All the wolves—what we might produce in shadows for fawns. (18)

The intensive use of commas in the first two sentences create a stuttering yet deliberative momentum. The “I” is constantly modified—”a lad,” “swelling and succumbed,” “dripping.” Phantom-like others emerge as pronouns who intervene: “she” sends a dream, “they” speak, and the speaker’s body—whether in accord or rebellion—takes on new shapes. It “lurks” and becomes “bullish.” A powerful atmosphere of complexity, self-consciousness and adjustment, and threat emerge—like “wolves,” interrupted.

The box that Martin’s title alludes to could be many things, but its shadowy power is persistently made evident. Whether the sexual box of the female body or the conceptual boxes we create in order to tick off categories, the box frames and focuses our attention while also isolating our view. Martin’s work insists that these various “boxes” are vitally, complexly inhabited. Life persists within (and perhaps in spite of) the frame. The first section of the book, “MO[DERN] [FRAME] OR A PHILOSOPHICAL TREATISE ON WHAT REMAINS BETWEEN HISTORY AND THE LIVING BREATHING BLACK HUMAN FEMALE” invokes Carrie Mae Weems’ “Framed by Modernism” photo series. A trio of portraits, the images capture Weems with painter John Colescott, who had asked her to take his picture. Taken in Colescott’s studio, the photos present Colescott fully dressed and in the center of the frame, while, upstage and to the right, Weems leans in the corner, nude. Her nakedness and pose imply that she serves as the painter’s model, but his back is turned to her in order to face the camera. In two of the shots, he covers his face in apparent shame while she slouches against the wall. Her interior life is not available to us, unlike Colescott’s evident anguish. She remains a cipher, relegated to the corner. The question emerges: can we truly see the artist (Weems) in the context of this framing? Can we know the black female subject by gazing at her body?

Like Weems, Martin also places herself within the frame and in view—but what are we capable of seeing? What can we see? How are we participating in what we have already seen? The incredible challenge of her work is that she trusts us to recognize the cipher of black female constructions, permitting us to roam with her as she inhabits and navigates through them. Martin demonstrates how frankly challenging it is to live in this described space—to arrive in medias res with a prehistory. She describes this experience as a “presence” or “haunting”:

You are yourself and no other physical being is there, yet a feeling or sensation emerges as if from nowhere. Like the Negress. The black female body not in repose, instead walking or clickity clack. It knocks at the doors, which is the surface of existence. (1)

This ghosting is problematically productive. “What would we do with her? How would we know ourselves?” What might happen if this body were mobilized, activated, given full reign to roam and roam past the frame? As a racialized female subject, I can appreciate this query. There is no blank field of being—not for anyone—but the power and paradox of race/gender frames can be incredibly stifling. How often is Martin “read” before we really read her work?

Martin demonstrates the psychological impact of having to dwell within such social frames while smartly juxtaposing them with some of the historical facets creating this dynamic.

I was illustrative, an example angled toward proof. I was biologically female but that was of no use. Whose holes are these, begs one. Another dives into the being and refuses to come out. This is the invalid position. A wakening in the spirit of another.

The Irish, the
Iberian, and the

Negro are of
type. Less
petting and
disciplining is
needed; fewer
academies and
more work
benches. (60)

By stating that she “was illustrative,” Martin makes apparent the way the simple fact of her being is often encountered as motivated towards other ends—clearly not her own. She moves from this meditation into a piece of recovered eugenics commentary, presented as a slim ribbon cutting down the page. The sources for these reclaimed and repurposed texts are left obscured to us, but in them we can see the prior motivations that seek to transform the speaker into an “example angled toward proof.” In them we also see some of the lines of the box she must inhabit, now brought into sharp clarity.

The breaks in Martin’s work also re-iterate and transform the violence of occupying a room with a prehistory that was written into you and knotted there. We experience this as readers when violence seems placeless, arriving without a coherent context. For example, in one passage a man—without provocation—suddenly grabs and throws out a cocktail drink from the speaker’s hand. Elsewhere, she describes the sound “of breaking the arm / on a small fall in your own house, / a respiratory failure, wound opening like a little mouth” (61). These moments reflect the way daily interactions and encounters generate a lived psychic reality, finally emerging as an intense atmosphere of uncertainty and threat she frequently wades through. And in this way history sways on.

If the work sounds challenging, it is. Life in a Box is a Pretty Life refuses easy characterizations of blackness or performances of outrage. It dwells in a visceral, highly self-conscious but also disarming space of confrontation.

Where are my hands and feet?

Where are the lights?

In here! In here! I’m right before your eyes!

Fuh fu&#8212

f-f fawblueredtwinkle (80)

In the box, can the speaker even know the outlines and extent of her own body? Her knowledge of herself becomes contested. Where are her limbs? Her hands and feet? And despite the speaker’s assertions that she is “right before your eyes,” she breaks down into incomprehensibility—a guttural slide into a flash of light in the darkness. A twinkle.

I have always found Dawn Lundy Martin a challenging and vital voice. Moreover, her work vigorously thinks highly of its readers, rewarding them with thoughtful, complex insights in her juxtapositions and shifts. Life in a Box is a Pretty Life is a welcome work of intricate emotional and intellectual clarity. In it, Martin suggests that though our understanding of the forces shaping the world we inhabit may be fragmentary, we persist in and in spite of them.

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Things To Do With Your Mouth

Divya Victor

Les Figues Press


Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

Recently released by Les Figues press, Divya Victor’s Things To Do With Your Mouth examines hysteria and psychoanalytic theory, exploring how bodies are fragmented, dismembered, and silenced when they enter the symbolic order. Victor’s appropriations, permutations, and repetitions serve to explode the basis by which hysteric’s bodies and psyches have been perceived as damaged and in need of a “cure.” Victor subverts the way normative meanings are constructed by fragmenting case studies, interrupting interrogations, and saturating us with an excess of body parts and excretions, torturous directives, and biblical curses. By fragmenting and overloading these texts with descriptive excesses, she unleashes the female, sometimes child, “hysterical” being from the knowledge systems that otherwise seek to diagnose, medicalize, and constrain her. If Victor’s writing sounds harrowing&#8212it is. But it is also terrifically magnetic, glowing with intelligence, elegance, and control. Through her efforts, she discovers a formidable new type of life in this space&#8212her witty juxtapositions unveil a surprising humor, one that illuminates darkly. I hear a distinct giggle from the charnel house of meaning.

Composed in four sections, her work is bookended with a foreword and afterword, composed by Vincent Dachy and CA Conrad respectively. These writers’ statements serve to accentuate and comment on a key conundrum of Victor’s text: how should we as readers consume it? Given that her challenge is to subvert the way that power construes meaning, how are we to re-construct something else from the fragments, excesses, and tortured bodies populating Victor’s work? Perhaps we must simply make peace with the fact that the psychological devastation Victor examines simply cannot be fully remedied or ameliorated. As CA Conrad writes, “Divya Victor has not planed these surfaces, nor has she merely collected and recollected. All food is appropriated from cycles of all food. The pain is inherent, and sufficient to maintain an engine of trauma.” For those readers that might seek to accuse Victor of perpetuating psychic violence, Conrad further suggests that this violence has already infiltrated all aspects of our current mode of being. That doesn’t mean that Victor is simply mirroring this sad fact back to us: she’s offering a strategy to survive within it&#8212and that survival requires admitting this trauma, of recycling and digesting it otherwise. “Things will become tricky,” Dachy writes. And they certainly do. We must unmake the dismembered bodies we’ve been forced to inhabit. We have to find new ways to string ourselves together, to find out what else our mouths may do.

“Part One&#8212Put Flesh On A String,” opens with an epigraph from Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic, which details how a hysteric’s “cure” led her body to spew forth fragments of itself after being made to sit in a bath “ten to twelve hours a day, for ten whole months.” By the end of the treatment

membranous tissues like pieces of damp parchment…peel away with some slight discomfort, and these were passed daily with urine; the right ureter also peeled away and came out whole in the same way

Reading this recount, one immediately has to wonder what constituted a “cure.” To what state was this hysteric relieved of her condition? Victor’s text examines the rhetoric of examinations and health, opening with a series of questions:

what is the matter with you?

where does it hurt?

how are we feeling today?

The next page immediately puts this mode of inquiry into conversation with power, discipline, and the psyche:

when was your last confession?

She incorporates other rhetorics, such as legal documents, recipes, and parenting tips, identifying the way in which these modalities collude to enforce a system in which a body must express itself to and simultaneously be constrained by authority. In one of the most effective series of this section, she intervenes in what seems like a parenting tip for keeping a child from obsessively rocking–she interrupts the advice by including a near exhaustive list of synonyms for each action and object in the sentence. Within one particular piece, the italicized portion reads “take a heavy afghan and fold it into quarters to concentrate the weight. Put it on your child at night and see if it stops the rocking and sleeplessness.” Victor’s additions radically transform it:

take, lay hold of, get hold of, grasp, grip, clasp, clutch, grab, remove, pull, drawn, withdraw, fish, extract, quote, cite, excerpt, derive, abstract, copy, cull, drink, imbibe, consume, swallow, eat, ingest, capture, seize, catch, arrest, apprehend, take into custody, carry off, abduct, steal, remove, appropriate, make off with, pilfer, filch, swipe, snaffle, or pinch, a heavy, weighty, heft, substantial, ponderous, solid, dense, leaden, burdensome, hulking, overweight, fat, obese, corpulent, large, bulky, stout, stocky, portly, plump, paunchy, fleshy, tubby, beefy, porky, pudgy, forceful, hard, strong, violent, powerful, vigorous, mighty, hefty, sharp, smart, severe, arduous, hard, physical, laborious, difficult, strenuous, demanding, tough, onerous, back-breaking, grueling, toilsome, burdensome, demanding, challenging, difficult, formidable, weighty, worrisome, stressful, trying, crushing, oppressive, dense, thick, soupy, murky, and impenetrable, afghan

Victor’s explosion of this sentence, composed in a centered prose block, creates a section that runs over two and one-half pages in length.

Mirroring how these unruly bodies were restrained and contained until they spewed forth excesses, Victor’s text offers up monstrous panoplies which are structured in tempo, tightly controlled through a recognizable procedure orchestrating her approach. Her lists of synonyms create a new rhythm that intervene in the original statement. Where the original intention of power’s interventions on the hysteric’s body was to contain and control it, Victor’s intervention into the parenting advice makes it excessive and unwieldy, such that its original intent or meaning becomes lost to us. We become fascinated by the series of synonyms, finding pleasure in all the varieties of ways we can say something, noticing the shades of differences between them. Her poetic response fascinatingly mirrors the physiological response of the hysteric’s body in Foucault’s account: Victor offers excesses that slip forth and entrance us by exceeding our expectations of what might happen.

“Part Two&#8212Gag” opens with a long epigraph adapted from J. H. Chajes’ scholarly work, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism. It describes how witches were treated according to certain medieval-era Judaic practices, highlighting how these accused women’s mouths were a central target for abuse.

Before executing these women, the murdering fearful (“faithful”) would allow the accused woman to atone if she told them a way to stop her dead comrades from eating flesh from their graves. The fear was that these women continued to have the use of their mouths after they died.

This “problem” of women’s mouths and bodies is explored in two sections. The first, “Dora and Flora: An Analysis of a Turn of the Case,” is a mash-up of Sigmund Freud’s notorious study of “Dora,” the young hysteric he failed to cure, Flora from Henry James’s novella Turn of the Screw, and biblical language describing women. Both Dora and Flora are victims of sexual abuse and are silenced by their families. Victor’s interventions into Freud’s “Dora” case furthers a lineage of feminist authors and scholars who have also sought to redress the power dynamics of Freud’s account. This feminist lineage is made overt in the second section, “Touching Feeling,” in which prominent feminist scholars are listed, overtaking the male figures that often dominate social thought. Men are included in this section, too, but are far outnumbered by the sheer volume of women intellectuals, whom Victor names alphabetically. Furthermore, these theorists and authors are coupled with different body parts and actions. It begins

Julia Kristeva spits on my Achilles tendon while my Adam’s apple combs lice from Adrienne Rich’s wigs as she gossips about my Alcock’s canal when my artery of Adamkiewicz sidles up to Anne McClintock as she burrows into my Bachmann’s bundle while it curls up with Annette Kolodny as she comes and coils over my Bartholin’s gland while by Blatson’s plexus pets B. Ruby Rich as she braids friendship bracelets with my Long thoracic nerves of Bell

This weaving highlights the way intellectual discussions inform Victor’s views on the body’s relationship to language and power. The social order writes into being the way that we conceive and make sense of our anatomies, which has lived consequences&#8212medical history points to how this was worked for women’s detriment. Historically, a “hysteric” was imagined as having a loose uterus floating through her body, which disrupted her psyche. By coupling these theorists with body parts and actions, Victor argues that body and theory are inseparable. She suggests this by giving a meaty, corporeal agency to the theorists: McClintock burrows into her Bachmann’s bundle, an anatomical aspect of the heart. Furthermore, the repetitiousness of Victor’s structures also enact a form of aesthetic digestion for this excess, a means of processing and re-ordering the components she sets in play. And through these repetitions, there’s a different type of pleasure and wit that emerges in how we immediately recognize the logic of the work (in this particular case, alphabetical) and expectantly read on to discover how Victor will continue or whether she will bend from her self-imposed rules.

Let me repeat this sentiment in case it caught you by surprise: there is great pleasure in reading this text. I found myself reading to see how Victor would surprise and engage me next within the seemingly impossible parameters of her study in abjection and power. It wasn’t a pleasure in the content of her work, per se. Many of the descriptions of dismembered body parts and fluids were troubling. Any pleasure seems to skirt on dangerous territory&#8212the danger that we are again fetishizing and making an abstract object out of women’s pain. However, this other sort of pleasure was a surprising feature of the work which animated it differently, allowing me to find strange new delight out of these violated bodies and their torture. I found a new pleasure with the language itself. I also felt licensed to this pleasure at the root level of language because it was grounded in Victor’s efforts to liberate the hysteric from her previous prison of meaning.

There are other pleasures, too. For instance, there’s also a clever gallows wit in the work. In “Part Four&#8212Answer,” for example, Victor utilizes the rhetoric of assessment, offering a repetitive study in violence on the verso and a question with space to answer on the recto. The section “Piercings,” begins

Can you put a cord through his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? Can you tie it with a rope through the nose or pierce its jaw with a spike? Can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? Can you put a hook into his nose or bore his jaw through with a thorn?

Facing this monstrous litany, the opposite page has a single query: “How might this affect your schedule today?”

To suggest that Victor laughs in the charnel house of meaning perhaps implies a deep nihilism in the work. I don’t necessarily feel that to be the case. If a nihilist laughs, it is perhaps because they believe in and relinquish themselves to their absolute powerlessness, which emerges as an absurdity. Victor, however, generates pleasures in her power&#8212her rhetorical control over modes that have previously worked to oppress and reshape “hysterical” bodies. This is a fascinating, tightly wound work, elegantly wielding form to her theory.

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Janice Lee

Penny-Ante Editions


Friday, November 29th, 2013

A mysterious package containing a strange Bible is delivered to a village and brings with it an immense sense of wretched misery and despair. A pair of exhausted lovers continuously—agonizingly—falls out of love. A young girl is abused by careless, angry elders and the butcher develops a hideous rash. A prose exploration of suffering and time, Janice Lee’s latest collection Damnation moves with poetic elegance and intensity, utilizing narrative elements to examine how dailiness can house biblical Judgment. In her text, the apocalypse is hardly a break with history or the catastrophic launching of a new order. It is instead the profuse stagnation of what we are already trapped in: Damnation is persistence.

Lee’s Damnation is not a “fun” or “entertaining” read, but it is magnetic and immersive. Whether or not you are coming off the edge of a personal tragedy or various exasperating tribulations, Damnation will certainly speak to you if you have ever spoken the language of pain. A terrifyingly beautiful work that writes to and from Bela Tarr’s 1988 film of the same name, Lee’s text describes a devastated village overrun by an apocalypse that either refuses to arrive or has already consumed it. The rural denizens simply continue to make do, with only the rare individual even imagining an escape. People drink, make dispassionate love, and argue elliptically with one another. A corpse is discovered in a well. Sad cows walk across perpetually muddy fields.

The book makes explicit Lee’s indebtedness to Tarr’s work. Aside from sharing the same title, it opens with a 5-page critical preface written by film scholar and Cal Arts faculty member Jon Wagner, who expounds on the links between Lee’s text and Tarr’s film. Following Lee’s text, the book includes an afterword by Lee’s frequent collaborator, Jared Woodland, and an appendix that features hand-drawn film stills of two of Tarr’s films—Damnation and Sátántangó.

Though these additions, mostly critical in nature, may deepen the reader’s appreciation of the richly citational aspects of Lee’s project, I preferred to engage her text naively—without reading these critical accoutrements or viewing Tarr’s films. On its own, Lee’s book creates a rich world that doesn’t quite pleasure in its squalid sorrows, but it certainly dwells deeply in them. For example, one aspect of this strange Bible’s arrival to the town is that the villagers respond as though they are besieged by noise:

In a place where people both fear and revere the Word, it is also believed that certain words can manifest themselves in this place and cause real pain and illness upon its bearers. […]

So, the village becomes a noisy place, and even those without fear resort to wearing ear plugs too […] (19)

The imagined noise becomes actual as the villagers isolate themselves, playing their radios and televisions loudly in order to drown out other unwanted sounds. The noise infiltrates them, infecting them with (or perhaps reflecting) a deep spiritual poverty—a clattering relentlessness that diminishes their daily lives. Lee returns our attention to this noise at various moments, the most harrowing of which examines a young girl’s emotional state before she decides to abuse and possibly murder a cat.

We can hear the cat meowing in fear but we can not see it. Our eyes adjust to the darkness slowly. Inside, it seems like we’re sheltered from the noise of the incessant rain, but then the other noises manifest more sharply. You must remain in the present. And the noises travel through different contemplative forks, in a space with no words, only gestures and meowing, and mouths that open and close without speaking. (67)

Though I read the text as its own object, in hindsight I can see cinematic elements in Lee’s work. Rather than focusing on the overlapping thematic concerns of Lee’s or Tarr’s Damnation, I feel Lee’s work incorporates a subtle stylistic gesture that, while having strong echoes with cinema, is only operant in language. Though Lee makes strong use of visual imagery, the “cinematic” elements of the text operate on the level of subjective positioning. She moves adroitly from immersive narration—in which we fully occupy a character’s point of view—to more spectatorial vantage points. The excerpt above, for example, describes how “we” can hear a cat meowing and how “our” eyes adjust to the darkness. Lee then moves to an abstracted consideration of how sound follows thought before entering the young girl’s point of view.

She can remember the multitude of times she was brought down by her mother, sisters, teacher. She can remember how it felt like to stand there quietly, solemnly, eyes pointed towards the floor, and the adults pecking away at her body, she using the entirety of her will to keep from flinching, to keep from crying. Their cavernous faces would engulf her and she would still refuse to close her eyes, refuse to live in darkness. And then the grief she saved for herself would vanish. (68)

These precise, subtle shifts draw our attention to our act of perception while also immersing us in the psychological experiences of the characters she renders. Film invites our immersion, just as texts invite us to forget that we are reading. Lee’s references to “us” remind us of the doubled nature of these art forms—of how we inhabit others while continuing to inhabit ourselves. Language’s ability to precisely present another’s thoughts, however, is unique. Where cinema can create an atmosphere for a feeling, Lee is able to offer distinct content—a thought and its history.

Lee is impressively patient while exploring these psychological states, despite the relative brevity of each section. She focuses dedicated attention to small moments for each character caught in individual sorrows: even her cows plod carefully. The shortest piece is just one question long, while the longest pieces hardly break 3 pages. Tarr’s film, on the other hand, is known for his extensive use of the long take. Where other directors have used the long take in order to express virtuosity, such as in the impressive opening shot of Touch of Evil, or to create intimate tension, as in many of Ozu’s films, Tarr’s drifting long takes make the viewer conscious of an intense relentless with which perception unfolds. His takes feel as though they may never cease, creating subtle expectation, tension, and exhaustion in the viewer.

As an homage and response to Tarr’s film, Lee’s text is particularly notable for the way that she renders this experience of persistence through a series of short prose bursts. One of the ways that she is able to create a sense of persistence or duration is through her masterful use of voice. By presenting dialogue without attributions and in bullet points, Lee helps us see how these voices emerge out of a vacuum and fail to really engage each other. They become part of the noise plaguing the town.

•  Anything that God takes part in is the most horrific thing you’ve ever imagined. 

•  I can’t get on board with such a thought. 

•  So don’t.

•  But you said it. It’s out in the open now. It’s in my head. 

•  That’s not my problem, it’s yours.
•  Some friend you are. 

•  I’m not your friend. (85)

The fact that a Bible brings this spiritual plague down upon the villagers fascinates me. I don’t see this as an anti-religious gesture, but as an analog for our contemporary, ironic condition. The villagers’ faith in the word exacerbates their suffering by offering them a structure—a narration—for understanding their malaise. Judgment is coming. However, they also simultaneously don’t believe in the systems that structure their emptiness. They cease going to church. God seems horrible to them. Their former faith haunts them. They constantly feel that they’re all wrong. They sense there could be a savior, perhaps, but one who is here to crush them.

The emotional desperation that Damnation wallows in suggests there’s little hope. What is commonly considered a great human trait—that of perseverance—in practice emerges as our curse. However, as spiritually destitute as the book’s characters are, there’s a desperate beauty in their perseverance. Their endurance isn’t willful. It simply exists. They have no way to elect it for themselves. Much of Damnation’s magnetism comes from the way that their persistence sensitizes the characters to the squalor of their condition. It’s a terrifically hard text to put down.

If there isn’t much hope in the text, there is, however, intense beauty. Suffering is so delicious and awful. Lee’s book raises some wonderfully provocative questions about our condition: if we are damned, perhaps it is because we know what we have lost but we have the capacity to continue without it? If that’s the case, what use to us is salvation if we must trudge through damnation first?

If you’ve been hurt, if you feel the world is squalid, if you’ve suffered, if you wonder if there’s an end to blackness, if you’ve tasted from the bitter brew, if you want to absolve yourself by bathing in ashes, then go read Janice Lee’s Damnation.

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The Story of My Accident is Ours

Rachel Levitsky



Saturday, May 18th, 2013

Just released by Futurepoem, Rachel Levitsky’s The Story of My Accident Is Ours blends the novel, essay, and serial form into a rich site for assaying the human social condition. Composed in “chapters” and privileging paragraphs as units of thought, Levitsky writes about (read that as “around,” not “on”) a great Accident in order to explore how social being is contrived and inhabited. Her project reads like a philosophical meditation on public spheres and the body as she seeks to trace how intimacy and self-understanding emerge in our late-State-manufactured context. The philosophical sensibility springs from her coolly detached neutrality and distant standpoint, which allow her to detail the broader machinations of the world’s social structures with a calm, orderly precision: “the State made ecstatic way for the industry and its products, lubricating pipes, opening ports, stimulating sales” (52). This is not a dry treatise, however. The stakes feel infinitely high, the writing slowly spinning towards finding a way forward, a means for understanding and navigating our new situation, this post-Accident space.

And what of this Accident? Levitsky begs off ever telling us precisely what the accident is or was. It is presented as the great unnamed event that she&#8212and everyone else&#8212must reckon with as an inheritance.

It’s not over when I wake up, but I wake up anyway.

It is a mistake.

It’s clear I don’t know how to live in this world. (70)

By choosing to describe the Accident in this way, Levitsky invokes a sense of an event without having to delve into History, per se. The Accident emerges as a total experience&#8212a condition as much as it is also a moment. And as the rest of the text contends, this Accident isn’t just hers, but ours. It happened and happens to all of us.

As a reader, it was clear to me that the Accident is the calamity of society. Her text pores over and considers how we are composed, or “wake” into, the world that is already happening around us. Levitsky describes how “it was in thinking about our names that I began to tell this story. It therefore follows to reason that thinking about names is the one true origin of my accident” (10). In this way, she suggests how the Accident frames us. It operates similar to the way an identity relates to a name…personal social being, the body outlined in language. Thus opens her exploration of The Story.

By writing around rather than on, by describing consequences and the shapes that spring from, Levitsky writes abstractly but with a strong sense of social engagement. These qualities, along with the self-reflexive prose form, indicate her indebtedness to New Narrative’s explorations into subjectivity, community, and language. However, unlike key New Narrative works, such as Bruce Boone’s Century of Clouds or even Pamela Lu’s Pamela: A Novel, the sense of coterie or intimate community is here replaced with an intriguingly generalized social body. The Story of My Accident is Ours is simultaneously invested in exploring the social and personal without offering historical context, personal details, or other identifiable markers of person and place. For example, the first chapter begins

We woke into the world—
All at once and all one way like characters you’d see in a science fiction movie, without parents, cloned for the purpose of replacing the organs of the rich, or jailed indefinitely and repeatedly for our childrearing ability. We had the appearance of arriving whole, the sets of our features predetermined and complete. (3)

Throughout the text, identities crystallize into four positions: “I,” “we,” “he” and a collective called “the Spiritualists.” Though Boone and Lu also resist naming names, there’s a site&#8212and time&#8212specificity to their work that helps place it in a larger, particularized social framework. The grand “we” that Levitsky invokes clearly operates in a contemporary, urban, first world-ish mode of State legibility without being pinned down to an identifiable or particular geopolitical landscape. “We” could be in Los Angeles, Seoul, Mexico City, or Dublin. “We” could also be in Dubai, Istanbul, or Qatar. The text’s lack of geopolitical specificity suggests that this “world”—which operates as though it were the whole “world”—is terrifically uniform. Implicit in this gesture is the suggestion that specific details aren’t required or necessary for identifying the “world” “we” live in now—we are all “we” in precisely the shared way that “we woke into the world.”

Where queer, feminist, and cultural studies advances have made strong—and terrifically necessary—claims about the ethics of attending to particular contingencies and employing fine grained analysis for social critique, Levitsky instead opts for the seemingly universalist gesture of abstraction. But as stated earlier, the way this semblance of universality emerges is a central interest of her work. Universalism abets the erasure of differences and negates minoritized social positions. It pours a smooth gloss over the varied plenitude of human experience. Some would say it is a means for subjugation. Can abstraction be used otherwise? What if this World, the new first world context I described earlier, were the social totality and constructed all possibilities for everyone’s being? By writing from within this framework, Levitsky tries to discover the social/personal moebius’s end. Her turn towards abstraction is in fact an ethical gesture. Where other New Narrative texts invoke abstraction as a way of creating an alternative type of privacy, a particular sphere, Levitksy uses it as a tool for examining our publicum. If we woke into the world “all at once and all one way,” her project seeks to explore the dimensions of this type of being, enunciating how such structures require our cooperation while also sussing out that participation’s limits.

There are some dangers with this abstracted approach in that it requires the reader’s committed engagement. Some may find the work potentially dry, even academic. The drama of the piece isn’t based in surprising plot points or startling images, but in what eludes full understanding, the language that constantly hasn’t yet been found. The Story of My Accident is Ours is for those readers who adore the rich sentence, the way it furls precisely along a train of thought, its tone as clear as a bell. It’s for those who aren’t afraid of the deep, the patient meditation, those who refuse to be in a hurry.

Furthermore, through abstraction, Levitksy accomplishes quite a stunning feat—of creating an intimate voice without being personal.

When you find him, I am shy.
No, when I find him I forget why I needed to find him. No.

When I find him, I am glad for just a moment, then I am shy. I feel
that he is hunched over.

I don’t have a graceful way with him.
I do my best. (79)

The tenderness of the feelings and her declarative, simple narration of them seem artless and open. Her intense self-consciousness, her desire to document each of her feelings as they happen to her, transforms into an utter transparency that is voided of personality or any other individual markers: “I am glad for just a moment, then I am shy.” If there were a way to get to a nude self&#8212one that was fully embodied and social and also all of us at once&#8212this may be it. The work springs from a singular body and being, but the locatable details constituting the individual are effaced. This raises an intriguing implication: if differences and contingencies are absent in the text, it is perhaps because they are also erased from visibility in this understanding of the world. And what are the consequences for this type of being? That is precisely The Story of The Accident she seeks to tell.

I am struck by the ways The Story of My Accident is Ours operates like a traumatic text in how it explores the calamity that reconfigures her and which she returns to again and again. One aspect of trauma is the way it exceeds our descriptive capacities. In Levitsky’s case, the Accident remains an aporia, but one around which the world is completely constructed. I read strong resonances here with Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene’s efforts to examine the psychological fallout of India’s Partition. Where Kapil’s strategy was to dive into incredibly discrete moments of lived time, Levitsky turns towards an abstracted mode of inquiry and reflection. By doing so, Levitksy suggests that the details of such events are not as significant as their structural afterburn, the way they shape how we must contend with what follows. Unlike other conceptual projects that draw their energy from re-presenting traumatic or traumatizing language in new contexts, Levitksy turns away from the traumatic moment itself to look instead to life afterwards…The Story of The Accident as survivance.

The strong reflexivity of the text also implies that a central conundrum regarding the possibilities structuring our social condition is our terrific belatedness, *not* arrival.

I often wonder what it was that drove me, and by me, I want to explain, someone like me, toward that imminent disaster, for I am neither self-destructive nor suicidal. Most of us were neither of those things. Occasionally, one postures, urged on by the loneliness, but even we who do, fools as we are, can soon acknowledge the error in our ways, one born of misreading our loneliness, which most often results in our deep embarrassment over our behavior that was caused by said confusion.

Still, it wasn’t an impulse toward suicide or self-destruction that led me to my accident. I should say “The Accident” because officially, it is not mine alone. I have to think of it, rather, as disorientation. (65)

In constantly poring over her reflections, following out every nuance and grain in her thought, Levitsky implies that the human condition always contends with being after the fact. Arriving mid-stream, we are therefore disorientated. We don’t know how to live in this world. We are all made the same: we awake bereft and confused.

But we aren’t without hope. I felt an immense generosity in the work, in how Levitsky invites us to observe how she works through these snarls and teases these conundrums out. The Story of My Accident Is Ours as an orientating text. My use of the term orientate draws from Sara Ahmed’s 2006 study, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, in which Ahmed describes how “orientations shape not only how we inhabit space, but how we apprehend this world of shared inhabitance, as well as ‘who’ or ‘what’ we direct our energy and attention toward” (3). Levitsky is deeply engaged with precisely these projects–of examining how we apprehend this world, our shared inhabitance, the ways we relate to one another.

The Story of My Accident is Ours as a map. As a meditative beacon. As a moral compass seeking out its true north. This book is timely, urgent, a necessary response poured out of a body and to be pored over.

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Danielle Pafunda

Dusie Press


Sunday, December 16th, 2012

I am not a mother. I have friends who are, and I marvel at them. I marvel&#8212not just at their ability to nurture and care for another completely helpless lifeform, nor how they reconfigure their social relationships, sense of self, way of being, etc…. I marvel at the way their bodies’ biological processes transform to accommodate another life, how the mechanics and magic of biology collide in reproduction.

But to marvel suggests that this is all rather neat and sweet. Even my use of the word “mechanics” implies a clean precision. My friends who have carried and borne children assure me that there is nastiness involved. To be a mother is to re-learn the experience of having a body. They have been baptized by the vomit, sputum, pus, blood, and hosts of other secretions produced by their flesh&#8212and by caring so intimately for another&#8212into making peace with their corporeal, elemental, messy reality. And the mother body is not only a mother body. It has its own desires. It persists.

Danielle Pafunda’s latest collection, Manhater, sears us with her exploration of this base, potentially reproductive body. Composed in three sections privileging syntactically coherent sentences often broken into stanzaic measures, Manhater opens with a series exploring “Mommy V” in order to dig into the monstrous modalities of abject feminine-ish subjectivities. Her pieces move with a lyric intensity across larger narrative-inflected structures that in toto create a gestural sense of setting, character, and action. Manhater’s heroines spring from a dense knot of (frustrated) physical desires and legibility. They live in their bodies, which at turns betray and rule them, or, at the very least, conspire to dictate how they are perceived.

In Pafunda’s insistence on the grotesque through strongly gendered frameworks for consideration, her work will invariably get read as another foray into the Gurlesque. Pafunda strokes at and strums gender constructions, exposing the mossy dungeon that holds this consensual social structure up. Manhater also delights in biological excess, waste, and darker affects like ugliness and a delightful sort of spite. It is her particular play with the grotesque that, in my mind, moves excitingly towards something like a zombie poetics. The Gurlesque as an aesthetic has had its vocal critics who approach it almost solely from a gender framework. Many of its practitioners have also insisted on this lens. But by doing so, I think that we are missing out on how the Gurlesque’s strident and overarching insistence on corporeality extends beyond one axis of cultural consideration. It’s hungrier than we think.

And what is a zombie? The dead/not dead, the body brought to its alarming biological conclusion, yet one that perniciously continues. Mobilized by desire, it terrifies because it cannot be satisfied; it embodies a voraciousness that has transformed into negations. It’s a gaping wound, a walking threat, powerfully full in its vacancy. Gender is encoded into the body, but it is precisely that&#8212an encoding. Through her use of the grotesque, Pafunda invites us to recognize how these social rhetorics seek to pin down or limit the flesh, which stubbornly remains.

Near a rotted stump,
I rotted for you.
I moved like swill.

(“The Desire Spectrum is Dead to Me Now” 51)

The body decays but it also continues to desire. It rots for you, and it “can’t have an orgasm / large enough to solve my problems” (46).

The “women” of Manhater dwell in and persist in their corporeality. They are functional zombies in their alterity, abjection, the messiness of their bodies and the white-burn of their longing&#8212sexual and otherwise. And as “women,” Pafunda’s book asks, aren’t they already non-human, more-than, and other? Pafunda does away with an Irigaray-an notion of doubling and fullness in feminine alterity, opting for a black metal gothic that conjures up ancient ancestors like Grendel’s mother.

Manhater is book-ended by two larger poems in series, each one longer than ten sections. “Mommy V” and “The Desire Spectrum is Dead to Me Now” are particularly interesting to read in conversation with each other; “Mommy V” is written in third person while “Desire Spectrum” is in the lyric first. Both poems feature women in relation to their desires and partner(s). By moving from the third person to the first, Pafunda presents these women as inscrutable objects before moving to outline an interior subjectivity. Both vantages revel in the grotesque. “Mommy V” begins, “Mommy must eat. Must with her long-handled spoon / dig a meal’s worth out of this barren fuckscape” (11). In this opening couplet, Pafunda presents Mommy V through her desires&#8212the imperative “must”&#8212and the great difficulty of achieving any satisfaction in the “fuckscape” where she dwells. She’s described with a zoological simplicity that reinforces how Mommy is at home in her fecundity and escapes our full comprehension.

The heart in Mommy’s chest chiggers.
She’s alive with vermin, venison, pests.
She catches a beetle in her mouth, holds it
cool, silent between her teeth. Alert. (15)

Mommy V’s mommy-ness is central to her, but also incidental. She doesn’t “mother” in any culturally conventional sense of the word, but in a strictly biological sense. She factually springs forth life.

I see zombies in Pafunda’s book, but perhaps I should amend this to speak more generally of the undead. Vampires are just dressier zombies, anyway. That said, there’s nothing B-film-ish about Pafunda’s undead. They are darkling strange, on the other side of recognition. Mommy V certainly has some vampiric qualities: “She’s looking for a likely bleed, a gush suck” (12). Part animal and all appetite, she stands “each hoof weighted, as tho’ against the storm,” just outside any neat category of understanding. Even her age varies depending on her mood.

Mommy V can pass for eight, eighteen, crone. When she’s hungry, she goes forty. She goes mousetail and saddlebag. No one looks. But when she’s bored, she goes young. Ten, twelve. (25)

The bottom line: do not mess with this mommy. This mommy is one tough body, a bitch moved by her gut, by a sex drive that loves to climax but hates sex.

Where Mommy V was silent, elemental, and impervious to our scrutiny, the “I” of “The Desire Spectrum is Dead to Me Now” is verbose, posturing, and deliciously spiteful “[b]ecause it’s spring you dumb fuck” (60). “Which of these do you want in your mouth?” the poem begins, followed by a list of sadistic sex toys: “Petroleum hack cake, wire hanger, / rusted piston, or silicone stopgap?” (43). Generally addressed to “ex-lovers” whom the heroine has beef with, she is not above a little sardonic self-reflectiveness&#8212″What did I think? My hole was magic?” (44). Her aim, though, isn’t just to chastise or rant against these ex-lovers, but to exorcise them from her being.

I have a problem. It’s rodent.

It’s a problem with whiskers.
It’s lice-ridden. The problem is lice
and I’m picking them off each thread.

I’m lining them up on the burner
to turn the dial to seven. (46)

These various ex-lovers are pernicious, though. They “gave me a disease like lyme disease / which you put in my thigh with your straw” (48). And despite her best efforts, she persists in a frustrating codependency with them.

I didn’t actually give you the money.

You took it out of my pity-pocket,
my netted-over last chance.

I was hungry, and in need of transport,.
I purchased a carpet that led to other things.

Down a dark hall,
Around a forehead splitting cornice.
Where a fungus spilled from my skin.

And that’s how we were nearly wed. (63)

I keep using the pronoun “she,” but it’s never absolutely apparent that the “I” of this poem has a fixed gendered body. Though the speaker mentions various feminizing qualities, such as “my breast,” and displays a general cock-hungriness or willingness to “open my legs to accommodate,” the speaker also insists “I was never a girl” (57). What does become apparent, regardless the gender of the speaker, is that she emerges in tandem with the exes&#8212they are mutually constitutive. What would she be without them? She emerges out of her efforts to negate them&#8212out of the debased positions she finds herself in relation to them and thanks to them…but she also created them:

Here are some things
I did to make you, ex-lover.

I scraped the frog’s moist skull
until its white wiggle came severed,
sweet and plain and baby-shaped
swung from my chemical tweezer.

I wore slick stuff panties.
I dressed like a haint. I mean
I dressed like a hare. My dress
like an animal in the road

whipping between my legs. (57)

Here, the speaker conjures the lovers into being out of two sorcerous performances: excavating a frog’s skull and playing femme.

The middle section of the book makes use of two running tropes&#8212plates and disease. Almost each poem’s title begins with the phrase “In This Plate,” which brings to mind photographs or images presented in turn-of-the-century medical studies and anthropological surveys. Pafunda’s poaching of medical terms such as diagnosis, illness, and “traumadome,” invites us to recall the long history of the female body as a site of mystery, scrutiny, diagnosis and disorder. The speaker’s illness is presented in tandem with her debasement, which she colludes in.

I drink Windex
my mother serves to me.
I eat apocalypse steak,
I have a bitch seizure.

Of course my rhinestone collar
keeps me from swallowing my tongue. (34)

Her mother serves up these poisons, suggesting a hereditary or, at the very least, culturally-enforced problematic practice. This incarnation of a mother brings to mind a different sort of Oedipal relation. Here, the mother poisons her progeny… perhaps considered a potential sexual rival? No motives are offered. I wonder if to “mother,” according to this poem, isn’t to inaugurate the younger body into the prisonhouse of womanhood as culturally writ. Regardless, the speaker is ostensibly powerless to escape this inheritance. She chooses to “drink” and “eat.” Her rhinestone collar prevents her from being murdered outright, propping her up in this cycle of gorgeous grotesquery.

It’s in those moments of recognizing her speaker’s collusion that Pafunda’s work highlights a key aspect of their design. As much as these poems rail against the structures that have shaped their speakers, their power comes from fully inhabiting that debasement, however uncomfortable or torturous it may be. In that, we can see the full promise of the grotesque at work: it sparkles with masochistic pleasure, reveling in a dark carnival paid for by the powers it detests. But what, I have to wonder, is that midnight circus birthing?

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Chris Vitiello

Ahsahta Press

Monday, August 20th, 2012

Taken from a conceptual poetry standpoint, Chris Vitiello’s newest book Obedience, out from Ahsahta press, offers a strongly humanist rejoinder to the institutional dominance of uncreative writing. Conceived of as one long project in statements that ask to be read a variety of ways, Vitiello’s text turns the “conceptual” in conceptual poetry to an explicit interest in philosophy and reason. This turn is apparent in his interest in statements, meaning, and mirroring&#8212all of which suggest a strong engagement with and response to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein’s work explores the possibility of a logically perfect language, one in which a sentence can mean something quite definite. His short treatise works in grinding detail through how such a language could operate, and develops propositionally from one statement to the next. In such a project, the boundaries of language and of logic are coterminous for Wittgenstein, and our position as rational agents is immutably at the center of these realms.

Though Vitiello also develops his project through a strong preference for statements, his conceptual structures side-step the progress/telos-driven developmental notion of logic upheld by Wittgenstein’s rationality. What emerges is a surprisingly luminous study in the limitations of language and logic for apprehending the world. In Obedience, our perceptual field is simultaneously acknowledged and enhanced through Vitiello’s re-calibrated use of statements.

Obedience extends Vitiello’s interest in the relationship between structures of knowledge and language, and how these relations impact our behavior and perceptual being in the world. Where his first book, Nouns Swarm A Verb (XUrban Books, 1999), and even aspects of his second Irresponsibility (Ahsahta, 2008), rather playfully worked through the semblance of understanding/domination over content implicit in list structures&#8212particularly appendices, indexes, alphabetical word counts, etc.&#8212his latest project deepens into a deconstructive analysis of how various language/rationale structures operate internally. This deepened engagement with such structures of knowledge unfolds across the duration of the text rather than through a pointed moment of critique: I found myself having cascading moments of soft insight as Vitiello’s statements washed over me, and it was often through reflecting on various aspects of the text that his overall project became more apparent.

This isn’t to suggest that Obedience is an obtuse text. Because of his previous association with Washington DC, I personally can’t help but see a bit of a DC punk-mentality at work in his antagonism&#8212or at the very least, skepticism&#8212toward the rational structures that shape our social world. We live in a rather declarative age, where statements are motivated by a terrifically provocative efficiency. There’s a punkishly contrarian approach to Vitiello’s statements that refuses directive efficiency. Stylistically, there’s more elegance than aggression at work here: more Ian Svenonius rather than Ian MacKaye.

Obedience is a vast collection of “facts” interspersed with some commands.

Names are what they name
Everything is outside of this
Little white lies are not lies
Reflexes are not decisions
A bud is a thing
Say your name aloud

I write “fact” because from a Wittgensteinian standpoint, a fact is a far more complex construct than we generally apprehend in our workaday world. In his introduction to Tractatus, logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell writes that for Wittgenstein, “in order that a certain sentence should assert a certain fact there must, however the language may be constructed, be something in common between the structure of the sentence and the structure of the fact” (xx). This prerequisite of mirrored resonances between syntactical and reasoning structures sets a higher bar for discerning a “fact” or “truth” than our general usage of such terms allows. But this is within a truly logically-derived language universe. Vitiello’s aims are to deconstruct such coterminous boundaries. For example, the absence of periods to create his statements makes each phrase float with a kind of aphoristic buoyancy. Their various meanings bounce softly against each other rather than build into a pointed duration or linear structure.

From a readerly perspective, such phrases invite a softened attention, and teach me to practice a sort of ambient reading habit along the lines of Tan Lin’s work towards inattentiveness in BlipSoak01 (but without the visual ruptures and jagged visual breaks/interventions that Lin employs). By working within the confines of the statement, Vitiello gently explodes the certainty of their truth-making potential and leads us to indeterminate (though still enclosed) possibilities for deriving meaning.

The contents of Vitiello’s statements also make it clear that the construction of meaning and reading practices are a central interest in Obedience. His statements move between observational comments about the natural world (“Water cannot defy gravity”) to more philosophically/metaphysically charged assertions such as “Limits are an experiential verge.” Many of his statements express a strong interest in semiotics. (The statements below were gathered from throughout the text.)

Your usage of words depletes no resource or supply
Each word is a book
A word is never alone
Language is judgment

And in another section:

Hear these words without saying them

See these words without reading them

These statements encourage us to acknowledge the system of language we move in, while also drawing our attention to how actual physical practices (our eyes scanning across text, for instance) transform into different cognitive possibilities. These interests are shaped by semiotics and post-structuralist theories in a manner that I found rather elegant. Obedience quite gently reminds us that meaning is relational, contingent, springing always within a system. There’s a beautiful flowering in Vitiello’s approach, but also a structured insistence in this understanding.

Lest it seem I’m overemphasizing the conceptual aspects of Obedience, I want to take a moment to note that Vitiello dedicated Obedience to “THIS.” THIS. This tiny referent in fact opens up into a veritable cosmos of possibilities. “This” stands in for all that is abstracted and close by, yet outside of us. Close, but not us (“You don’t have this”). How utterly fascinating. Vitiello’s dedication invites me to wonder if our “obedience” isn’t simply to the perceptual means by which we attend to all of “this”? “This” possibly being the general meaning-making endeavor of being human? And through Vitiello’s conceptual turn, I find genuine affirmation in “this.” “This simply is”

Vitiello’s inclusion of the occasional command&#8212some of which are impossible to actually obey (“Prove this,” “List the words you cannot recall in the space below this line,” and “Be a noun” being some of my favorites)&#8212draws our attention via juxtaposition to the implicit command at work within the declarative structures of the other statements. Furthermore, the lack of page numbers and the ability to flip the book and read it in both directions also work to draw attention to the way that our reading habits are framed and enforced by material considerations. For a book titled Obedience, these material and visual disruptions are particularly interesting: they gesture at a different sort of reading practice. However, though we are invited to engage with the book differently, our engagements are still determined&#8212or obey&#8212the possibilities licensed by the book’s structure.

For example, there are occasional “buttons” that read “GO ON” overtop a right-facing arrow at various moments in the text. These “buttons” are given their own page, and are therefore a visually arresting feature of the book. When I encounter these pages, I’m pressed onwards. I’m invited to flip through Obedience, but I’m not necessarily invited to page through it backwards. These arrows also support a key standardized aspect of reading&#8212of moving left to right, from front to back. The limits of my perceptual possibilities are therefore made visible to me through Vitiello’s interest in highlighting the structures of engagement in his book. And though the relative “flatness” of his text&#8212one page is never presented as more “meaningful” or valuable than another&#8212suggests an openness or indeterminacy of meaning, what I subtly encounter are in fact limits and boundaries.

Vitiello also draws our attention to the prevalence of dichotomies as conceptual frameworks for understanding. Though this is hardly a new insight thanks to post-structural, gender, and critical race theoreticians, Vitiello makes use of the material aspects of the book in an elegant and provocative way to draw our attention anew to this structure. The book effectually has two covers&#8212a blue one and a pink one, and the text can be read both right side up and upside down if one flips the book over. The text always appears “right side up” recto, with a mirrored, upside down text appearing verso. The way the pages appear, with the left side upside down, and the lines balanced across the gutter makes for a sort of textual Rorschach inkblot or perhaps even a human brain, with each page suggesting a hemisphere. As one moves through the book, it is clear that Vitiello and the Ahsahta designers worked carefully to create a visual symmetry across the gutter of the page. With this presentation, I had to ask myself if Vitiello was presenting a new version of a yin/yang, a visual gambit towards implying some sort of new linguistic harmony in the writing? The yin/yang notion quickly tumbled into other questions&#8212what’s being united or split? From a taoist perspective, is Obedience a call for us to obey the universal principle of encounter, transformation, and balance?

The book’s two “sides” mirror each other not just in their visual presentation, but also their content. The statements on one side are in some way a version or retelling or resonating pronouncement of what appears on the opposite side. I’ve had to “flip” one side of the text to present it here, but please read the // as the gutter of the page.

This takes you // Give yourself over to this
All words are things and are therefore nouns // All words are nouns

Given the differences between the sides, the term “mirroring” only works if we allow ourselves to imagine the dark side of that mirror&#8212a space like Alice’s looking glass. A space for alternatives and transformations rather than re-statements. And what should we take as the bridge-point between these possibilities?

At one point, Vitiello writes that “A fact statement is a seesaw.” The seesaw is an intriguing image to conjure up in a text interested in balance, dichotomies, and meaning. What I felt to be a crucial (read crux) moment of Obedience was when a single “I” appears in the middle of the blue section. The “I” literally stands at the center of these mirrored texts and works as a fulcrum around which Obedience pivots. Furthermore, just under (or above, depending on one’s orientation) this “I” are statements on tautologies: “A tautology cannot be false” and “Tautology contains the only truth.” I read strong echoes between Tractatus’s project and Vitiello’s response: in a logically perfect language, everything is true that can be uttered. Intriguingly, through his poetic attention to language, Vitiello is able draw new emphasis to our location in such structures. Like Wittgenstein, Vitiello seems to assert that our engagement with the world is always perceptually bounded, and that regardless our social, geographic, or even historical locations, we always stand in the center of our cognition: “The proposition is a picture of reality. / The proposition is a model of the reality as we think it is” (Tractatus 4.01, emphasis mine).

However, Vitiello presents the single “I” opposite the statement “Any fraction of 1 is that fraction.” Is the implication here that we are not divisible, or that we are so continuously and thoroughly ourselves throughout ourselves that we are always whole? Or is “I” offered as the counterpoint to this “truth statement,” that the individual “I” is always wholly divisible and fraction-able? Through these “mirrored” statements, such little wormholes of consideration open up throughout this text. In this regard, it is a nearly infinite book, conceptually. Forget Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes, Obedience might be the biggest poem ever written.

Contemporary conceptual poetry tends toward strong associations with un-creativity, appropriation, repetition, and the mechanistic potentialities of language. Such projects perhaps open up alternative or even aberrant possibilities for meaning, but are at heart terrifically anti-humanist in their effort to unseat texts from their authors and free production from interpretive engagements. The lightning rods embedded in such projects are always that, regardless of their production, they enter into and circulate within meaning-making communities. In Vitiello’s Obedience, however, I found a surprisingly humanist take on the conceptual turn through his attentiveness to how we read and make sense of texts. Yes, we are at the mercy of potentially rigidified conceptual structures. But isn’t the work of conceptual poetry to draw our attention to this? In Vitiello’s hands, this stance is surprisingly beautiful and lively. Whether one feels that beauty to be an opiate or a liberatory gesture, I’ll leave up to his readers. Regardless, Vitiello’s newest work makes a strong contribution to such conversations, and I’m excited to see what comes next.

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All the Garbage of the World, Unite!

Kim Hyesoon

Action Books


Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Action Books recently released a new collection of work by South Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi. Titled All the Garbage of the World, Unite! the collection is indeed a cry for us to struggle against&#8212while also dwelling and finding glory in&#8212the minor corridors, abjected detritus, and mundanely overlooked interstices of life. In Kim’s vigorous hands, these spaces are ferocious, strange and gaspingly alive.

I turned to this collection with a highly motivated curiosity. I wanted to see what a contemporary Korean female poet might be interested in, with the assumption that race and immigration&#8212key preoccupations in a lot of contemporary diasporic Korean writing&#8212would not be of central concern for a native author. Perhaps I hoped to see a version of what someone a bit like me might have become had my parents never immigrated. As gratifying as it is to see numerous Korean American poets getting published (Myung Mi Kim, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, Lee Herrick, Ishle Park, Cathy Park Hong, Sunyoung Shin, Ed Bok Lee, to name a few) I’ve found that many Korean American writers working today, myself included, have been primarily interested in wrestling with the psychological fallout of inheriting a cultural legacy structured by the Korean War, displacement, and racialization processes at work upon us here in the colonial center. There are exceptions&#8212Brian Kim Stefans, for example, has never written explicitly about such themes. However, regardless of our aesthetic inclinations, I have noticed that Korean American literature generally has been caught in a particular refrain, one in which these wounds are worked over and over. This isn’t to denigrate the writing&#8212if we are trapped in a refrain, it is clearly because we still need to work this out&#8212but I wanted to see what possibilities looked like outside of this structure of being. And though there have been some anthologies of translated Korean poetry, there are few translations devoted to a single author’s work&#8212at the moment, I can only think of Ko Un and a small collection of Yi Sang’s work. The fact that this is the second collection of Kim’s poetry that Choi has translated into English makes Kim’s contribution to US-based audience’s understandings of contemporary Korean writing particularly weighty.

The war is old news in Korea, and the country’s division is simply the uncomfortable mundane reality they must live with. Kim’s poetry is more interested in exploring the psycho-spiritual consequences of daily life when one is madly sensitized to the commotion of Being that surrounds and permeates us. For Kim, simply eating a bowl of strawberries transforms into a drama of suddenly intimate encounters:

A full plate of tongues arrived.

They quivered like the tongues of the choir members
as they sang the hymns.

Your tongue is placed on top of my tongue.

Our tongues are getting goose bumps.


A running motif in Kim’s poetry is how an unconventional observation quickly transforms into a physical confrontation&#8212the strawberries rub against her, call to her, enter and writhe through her. This is hardly happenstance, and in fact reflects Kim’s resolutely feminist politics: the body is a central agent of the imagination and site of productive, if not always reproductive, mystery.

However, western feminists may have some difficulty making sense of how Kim continually concedes to these violent intrusions. In her poems, though she often complains about these forces and how they work upon her, Kim barely fights them or escapes. For example, in “The Cold,” Kim writes how the act of being gazed upon entraps her in a cold, two-dimensional realm.

We gazed at each other from a different world
It was as though I were in a black and white photo that you were looking at

It is always cold inside your photo
The cough-trees stood coughing along with the river


There was an avalanche inside my heart, so I trembled for over an hour

As the cough-trees quivered and shook off clumps of snow
the shards of ice bounced out of the exposed valley

I sat on the frozen bench of the wind against my bare face, my lips shivering

I wanted to get of of the photo that you are looking at

I was initially tempted to read Kim’s concessions to these encounters as modeling a violently egalitarian vision of being, one that puts Kim on level with and in communion with the psychic milieu around her. However, I think that such a reading could impose a westernized framework for a recognizably radical feminist response upon her poetry. Furthermore, Kim herself is clearly not comfortable with having to live in these spaces. The poem ends with her stating that she “wanted to get out.” Most Korean American literature might be caught in a refrain, but I see a different refrain at work in Kim’s writing&#8212despite her upset and suffering due to the violence around her, she persistently concedes to it. Her poetry seems bent towards describing a psycho-environmental violence that she internalizes and must live with.

When I wrote earlier that the war is old news for Koreans, I don’t mean to suggest that it is buried or inconsequential. I had to ask myself why Kim’s world appeared so unsettled and strange. For example, in her poem “A Breezy Prison Breezes” commuting by train transforms into a prison;

Just because there is a window, a wind is blowing, and starlight is leaking
I don’t know I’m in prison
After work when I lie down in my sleeping prison
all the prisoners outside of the outside of the prisons run to me
and tie up my body with the redred blood-paths

10-hour-long 10 year-long 100 year-long prison

The easy answer would be to suggest that something about South Korea’s rapid industrialization and digitalization (South Korea has the highest internet speeds in the world and is one of the most wired cultures, globally) has led to isolating and dehumanizing social structures that Kim is especially attuned to. However, her insistence on a particularly physical (read: quasi-organic) experience of this monstrous world belies any simplistic argument for postmodern alienation. Kim also doesn’t write about these experiences as reductively destructive&#8212rather, they are the unsteady space in which she ardently survives. This attitude struck me as a necessary response to the fallout of the radical transformations Korea has undergone in only the past century. The fact that Korea went from Hermit Kingdom to annexed, occupied territory, to active battleground and divided nation without completely being torn apart is astounding. Where the war for Korean Americans is often a lost point of origin in our self understanding, I venture to say that for Kim, the war is one of many traumas that has been swallowed up by the terrain and shudders with deep psychological reverberations that she captures in her work. Her radical feminism therefore emerges in her insistent wholeness&#8212her continuity with this space as experienced through her body. Readers not so familiar with Korea’s history will certainly still recognize these reverberations in pieces like “Tearfarming,” which describes an ice princess caught in an endless cycle of suffering:

As I heard the ice princess for the first time beneath the snow-covered mountain, my mind hazed over. Even if I live for a thousand years, her wretched scream will linger in my heart. After I met her restless and painful expression, even in my waking hours, I stared at the ice princess with the icy tears streaming out of her eyes. I’m becoming so thirsty that I could drink a thousand, ten thousand buckets of ice princess’ tears.

To suggest acceptance as a radical response might seem strange, but that stance depends on one’s cultural framework. The more I sat with All the Garbage of the World, Unite!, the more I felt that there was a deep han in her writing: han, that ineffably Korean cultural trait that is perhaps best described as a Job-ish long-suffering that drowns one in bitterness, anger, and melancholy that condense together into a red glory beyond tears. The closest analogue I could come to in a western context is Spinoza’s sense of “sad passions,” but they are still radically different from each other: han doesn’t act to stupefy or disempower&#8212it’s an intensely physical/spiritual response to being disempowered. I saw han most clearly in Kim’s poem, “To Swallow a Tornado,” which begins

Have you ever swallowed a tornado?
A tornado is supposed to be swallowed through your backbone
My body flips over
my hair becomes as stiff as frozen laundry
and I feel goose bumps down my backbone

With han, one can only open oneself to suffering, take it all in, swallow it down.

Am I wind’s home
or a tornado’s ghost?
When the wind’s path that is as cold as a snake
rises up from the deep place
my arms and legs flutter like the bamboo leaves on the day a typhoon arrives
and when my tears splattersplatter everywhere
a sad song comes up like a whirlwind from the inside of my body
Someone please come and hold my bow-like body
that keeps getting bent back

In the wake of han, the self takes on a new locus for its identity; Kim wonders if she has become “wind’s home.” The body transforms into a hollow that this tornado of emotion works through, registering only its effects and never its origins. Tellingly, there is no possibility of not swallowing a tornado or escaping it. It’s as neat as fate, and one must accept it if one is to survive. All Kim requests is for someone to hold her together while she is bent awry.

As dire and destructive as han may seem from the outside, it is a way of being, which I felt that Kim aptly demonstrated in her final poem, “Manhole Humanity.” In this long poem in series, the hole is offered up as at once a vacuity and fullness, fetid and clinically serene. The hole is as vehemently physical (“My hair holes! / Creases of my stomach / hair-like cilia in my nostrils”) as it is abstracted.

Hole, the heart of all things.
Hole, my country, my matter, my toasty-warm god.
Hole, stay eternal! All things endure a life of nuisance through small uteruses then die for the sake of the eternal life of a big uterus. Dear queen ant’s many uteruses packed inside that high mountain: my eating and breathing has to do with my worship of the hole. This is my lifelong commemorative hole rite.

Kim invites us to recognize our hole-yness, the vast melange that fills and evacuates us, consumes and is consumed by our being. The hole is Kim’s invitation to us to enter into a new mode of han, one in which we dance.

Dance is the sadness called upon by the music of my hole.
Dance is the cry that is called upon by the music rising up through my hole.
I dance like a pair of starved pink shoes that show up after midnight in the street.
I have come out of the hole, but my body is wearing a hole, the hole endlessly proliferates!

Garbage of the world, unite, indeed.

A final element of Kim’s work that I found of great interest was how various spiritual/religious structures came together. South Korea has been an intensely fertile ground for Christian missionaries and more neon crosses line Seoul’s skyscape than mosque turrets in Istanbul. Kim offers up a unique response to her religious tableau: though there are minor Christian references, her poetry generally conjures up a zen carnivalesque. One moment in “Manhole Humanity,” rewrites the biblical Fall and offers instead a vision of a buddhist-like empty fullness, tinged with Kim’s unique vigor.

One side of the apple bursts and gets sucked through the lips of the naked first woman. The original woman’s yellow teeth and smelly tongue begin to grind the apple into small bits. Cold wind, suns, apple blossoms, the gentle strokes of rain on my cheeks all get sucked into a wormhole. The apple doesn’t know where it’s going, but it follows the general theory of relativity and gets swept down a funnel. A legend spreads, that time-travel becomes possible if you go through the funnel. A legend spreads, that if you leave here and arrive in the distant past and kill the lethal snake, I will get to stay in the vast spaciousness, the time of being unborn. In order to digest this hole, an adequate amount of yin mass is needed. Digestive juices are quickly produced inside the hole.

Empty my hole. Amylase enzyme. Vesta digestive aid. The hole secretes digestive juices and mixes them with whatever it sends down. After it ingests the apple, the pitiful hole gulps for more towards the emptiness. It flails about like a snail that has fallen into the sea.

Being nearly illiterate in Korean and a barely-perfunctory speaker of the language, I cannot intelligently address how well Choi’s translation captured Kim’s work, but I was struck by some of Choi’s choices, such as the doubling of certain words&#8212″limplimp” and “splattersplatter”&#8212in mapping a few Korean language tics onto the English language. While initially this doubling was terrifically “noisy” to my eyes, across the work it transformed into a visual means for emphasizing the physical insistence in Kim’s poetry. The only piece in which I felt some working knowledge of Korean might have been helpful was the poem “Double-p How Creepy,” in which the double-p Kim refers to is the appearance of two Korean letters side by side. Without some familiarity of these letters, &#4360, Kim’s invitation to “squeeze hard and have some honey, a gift from pappa, when I opened the lid of the beehive the wigglewiggling larvae filled each hexagonal cell” loses its visually metaphoric resonance. However, Choi attempts to navigate this divide in translation with phrases like “I even hate soappy laundry because I hate pp.” The extra “p” in soapy stands in for the fact that English readers would never know that “laundry” in Korean contains a double-p. Though the original wordplay is effaced, a new one emerges instead. I did notice that Choi elected the phrase as the primary unit of measure for line breaks. With Choi’s consistently minimal use of punctuation, however, this strategy sometimes broke down when she attempted more fluidity across lines:

You first, my first, firsts that part forever.
I approached you as if
I were meeting you tonight for the first time
and had lost my first.


My impression is that Choi privileged clarity of images and emotions over any rhythmic soundplay in Kim’s work, and given the differences between the two languages, I was impressed by Choi’s phrasing, which I found to be quite earthy and direct.

Though there are incredible transformations in Kim’s poetry, I found it to be nothing like the neo-American-surrealism that is so popular among mainstream-ing contemporary work. And whether we are attuned to it or not, there are terrifically resonant historical sub-terrains in this mode of writing. There are genuine, deeply dire consequences to the transactions Kim describes in her engagements with the world. She is not trying to be trendy&#8212she is trying to live.

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Cara Benson



Saturday, December 17th, 2011

“the locus of agency is always an assemblage”

—Jane Bennett

It’s been 468 years since the publication of Copernicus’s On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres, and just over 400 years since Galileo first observed that Jupiter had its own moons. These two discoveries not only confirmed the heliocentric make up of the solar system, but also offered the first glimmers into the vast complexity of the physical universe. We have since learned that we live in a cosmos populated by numerous systems and subsystems, each with its own structures and heterarchies. At the time of these discoveries, the known world, with us safely nestled in the center of God’s concern, was suddenly overturned and humanity thrust from the center to its cold peripheries.

Though contemporary industrial and consumerist practices still betray our strong anthropocentric bias in which “our” needs trump other species’, the rising tide of environmentalist discourse inflecting public debate suggests that we are truly beginning to adopt a more equivalent relation to the world around us. The upside of this equivalence has awakened in us a new respect for difference across life forms. In this new configuration, life generally has come to occupy the sacred greatness once solely ascribed to reason and humanity. We’ve exchanged our cosmic centrality for a new version of wonder—one that replaces magnanimity with marvel. That we are one of a plenitude is both strange and beautiful. Anyone who has observed Sir David Attenborough’s documentary series, The Blue Planet, for example, will recognize this phenomenon.

Generally, to ascribe to life (not just human, but all forms), implies a more ethical mode of being. Many people refuse to eat meat out of respect for animal life. Some even strain their drinking water to avoid inadvertently swallowing a bug. This stance claims a higher morality, a grander ethics than a strictly anthropocentric system of values can allow. But can even this frame be expanded upon? Is life the end of our purview?

I say all this by way of introducing what I feel are the pressing considerations underpinning Cara Benson’s newest book, (made). Benson is not a physicist, but her book invites us to reconsider the conceptual frames with which we structure the universe and our relation to it. In (made), Benson’s radical ecopoetics proposes that the values we attribute to life—such as agency and sentience—cannot be affirmed without recognizing their construction within and among a vibrantly active, dense universe. Time, thought, matter, sentiment—all appear with equal consideration in the turning planes of her pages to suggest the world as a gathering, full and ordered according to a logic of burgeoning and decay. Nouns appear like gravitational depressions in psychological fields, concavities around which other feelings and associations collect. And we of that collection, too.

Primarily a gathering of prose pieces, (made) begins with an epigraph from A.R. Ammon’s Garbage: “…within limits the made thing accepts / its revelation and dissolution….” Drawing her inspiration from a text that sought to reclaim linguistic and social refuse as the life force of poetry, Benson offers a renewed take on how the made materials of the world press upon us and populate our psyches as surely as our own thoughts. Rather than looking at waste, however, Benson is also interested in the thingness of a matter, of its being and imprint in the world: “Long pricker fingers stretch their hold on a yard winding through the unwanted growth. Threat, all unexpected grip.” The growing plant (implied), is an active participant in its environment; it shapes the world it also inhabits. The landscape is literally in the plant’s “grip.” By transforming the verb, “prick” into its adjective form, “pricker,” actions become attributes of materials, revealing how object’s conspire with and contribute to their surroundings. Benson insists that landscapes—whether physical, psychological—are made.

In this sense, Benson resonates strongly with philosopher Jane Bennett, who espouses a “vital materialism” that questions the last frontier of western binarist thought: organic/inorganic, subject/thing. What Bennet proposes is not some New Age animism of the world around us, but a radical reconsideration of what constitutes being. Where I feel Benson and Bennett intersect most is in their understanding of the environment. In an interview for GAM, Bennett writes that

a landscape possesses an efficacy of its own, a liveliness intermeshed with human agency. Clearly, the scape of the land is more than a geo-physical surface upon which events play out. Clearly, a particular configuration of plants, buildings, mounds, winds, rocks, moods does not operate simply as a tableau for actions whose impetus comes from elsewhere.

Benson might respond that the universe is made, collaboratively and continuously, and that this making is both dependent upon and oblivious to our contribution: “The cross-country mile. The tea was had roadside while semis and cycles hurt us with their dusty abandonments minute minute minute. An interlocked figurine, infrastructure. We’re just the suit-makers.”

Revelation and dissolution operate like twin parameters for Benson’s collection, whose primary structures depend upon emotional harmonics, the density of the observable world, Benson’s mind’s plea. We can see these poles at work in the tension created by her text’s appearance on the page—the pieces resist normative relationships between “title” and “poem,” with most prose blocks followed by a single word or phrase, printed in super large script. These “titles” (for lack of a better word) press on the prose, casting their own associational, sometimes definitional, shadows over the writing.

Ignition, then.

The spark that starts the going itself gone. Sacrificial combustion. A hot alphabet soup spells over the sun starved night. Usual bull nostril spout, bound muse, gods fill linguistically while townies try their two-doors. Tourists, too. Babies only all of us. What travel will come. What standstill. Such ruckus amok. Such rendering.


The gestural and initially obscure logic at work between each sentence necessitates my adopting a phenomenological approach. “Clay” floats in the margins of my field of vision while reading the text. Such a humble matter–earthly, inert, shaped by hand and fired into use. Another way of considering it: what remains when “the spark that starts the going itself gone.” Yet another: clay, the material that stops when made. Clay, fire, then something else. “Ignition, then.” This “then” leads into an end, a silence. Perhaps clay’s silence. Revelation leads to dissolution when such strong associational readings lose purchase: “bound muse,” “babies only all of us.”

By inviting such reading strategies, Benson perhaps seeks to enact the sort of dynamic dissolution between self and landscape, object and subject, that an ecopoetics of vital materialism calls us to. Intriguingly, I found that her approach differs from the collaborative meaning-making exercises invited by other “open” texts. Benson’s nouns have a deliberative insistence, much like her “titles” on the page, that reckon with their referential materiality. They are resolutely present. From a conceptual perspective, I found this incredibly engaging. From a readerly perspective, though, I found that there are dangers: when her lists come too quickly or densely, as in a few other sections, the reading experience transformed into a dense array that ejected me from the work. How patient and present was I willing to be? Sometimes more so than others. When it works, though, Benson is aptly mirroring the mystery–the absurdity of human logic–in the dynamic fields of experience and matter.

Here’s a short excerpt from another page. I feel echoes of Stein’s Tender Buttons in Benson’s leaps, the beautiful, human asymmetry in her metaphorical logic.

Fawn, love. Nighttime is for touch. Milk neck. Cotton belly. Ocean, ocean.
Draped lace words, scarlet. Grant light.


Benson’s imagination isn’t as domesticated as Stein’s, though. As an ecopoetical venture, (made) vaults, pulls “inversion hemisphere to atmosphere to anthill.” Seasons change, even geologic epochs accrue, over the course of the book. I find that Stein’s cubist sensibilities worked for presenting how the mind’s dynamic processes take hold of a static object. However, time, aside from a sense of duration, drops out of Stein’s work. Benson’s insistence, however subtle, on time’s dynamic characteristics, reflects the complexities of our material and perceptual realities. Things change.

Furthermore, Benson is not the sole thinking and feeling agent in the work. Other minds and lives mingle together, casting their own dramas into the sky.

Companions settle themselves in a rosy embrace. A hug off the horizon while her face-mask covers desire too cold to be discovered. What she can’t hold, she’ll havoc. A bathtub of surprise silk waiting.

One pink baby writhing in linen.
One colon working.

In this piece, Benson creates micro-narratives in her intercutting of statements and images. The threat embedded in her use of the word “havoc” manifests more clearly in the images of a baby, “writhing in linen,” followed by “one colon working.” It’s a potentially familial drama, intimate but also rendered abstractly through the lack of any detailed or personal signifiers. Despite this abstraction, human emotions don’t drop out of the frame; Benson’s diction (particularly “havoc” and “writhing”) insists upon the immediacy of feelings.

I recognize that my reading of the abstracted drama above hinges on a potential mis-reading of “one colon working,” which also refers to Ammons’s penchant for using the colon in Garbage. However, the colon, in Ammons’s work, was a way of marking a relation, however arbitrary it seemed. And this might lead us to ask Benson, what holds these ideas in concert? Is the “colon” truly working? I feel that the better question would rather be, not is the colon working, but are we?

Unlike Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, (made) doesn’t offer a promise of regular structures to assist in creating a systematic coherence across the work or to better assist in performing its project. There’s an unruly, arbitrary willfulness in the pages–some of which were blank or had only one word–that refutes any expectations of what ought to follow next. In this unruliness, however, (made) also reads like an intensely personal book, one that collates her notes and personal observations unedited for us, offering perhaps a glimpse into how one mind’s folds casts and recasts the world around it: “Goose Down. Misanthrope in line at the electronics store. Rugged vitamins. Filamentary comment. Aurora borealis of the parking lot.” Importantly, as comforting as it may be to encounter another’s thoughts in a densely packed world, the subjective mind appears simply as another denizen of the spotted universe, given no more weight or credence than what it observes.

I can see how, objectively, (made)’s project could be terrifically deflating regarding the human condition. Such a stance could lead to an absolute nihilism in which all human action is meaningless. We are, and we are among many. What is the meaning in being of a plenitude?

Bobbed sunflower head heavy from the yearning fulfilled. What effort to make love to such a star. Yellow sight, beholden to those who reven in brief, yet luminous day-night. […]

[…] What to survive. Morning arrives.

The beauty of (made) is that it doesn’t even bother with such questions. If it asks anything, it is to leave questioning aside and to observe, to feel the broad calamity of being around us. The universe is infinitely full, full beyond reckoning. Just look at how we are surrounded, held.

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