Performative Criticism and Against Conceptual Poetry

Ron Silliman

Counterpath Press


Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

I recently participated in a panel discussion on the topic of performative criticism at REVERSE, the Copenhagen International Poetry Festival held at their LiteraturHaus. My co-panelists were Danish-Norwegian critic Susanne Christensen, Swedish critic and poet Magnus William-Olsson, and Danish writer Kamilla Löftström. The conversation was reasonably lively, focusing on performative criticism as a critical phenomenon, most often seen in the wild: critics deploying what could be called, for lack of a better handle, themself as part of their critical apparatus. The choice of the grammatically incorrect singular is of course intentional, for the self that is critically performed is a self whose unity comes forth in the purported disjunct (or performed disjunctification) between the person and the critic (or the author as I and the authorial I). So far, so postmodern-y good. There’s a certain metafictional-metaphysical comfort in publicly playing the torsion between oneself and one’s self.1 The notes of contention were duly supplied by me, who disapproves of the meta, no matter how performatively messy.

Whereas the others had spent some time dissecting, theorizing, and engaging the notion (n.b., Magnus William-Olsson has likened the critical symposium as a genre to the meal, whose community “has its basis not in conversation, but in listening’s mutuality”2), I was primarily there as an exhibit. I acquit myself well enough in this regard, serving as that kind of ambivalent proof that means one thing in the hands of the prosecutor, another for the defense. But as the benefit of travel is to bring back boxes of unfamiliar chocolate (impolitely appreciated) and snaps of unseen scenery (politely unappreciated), this serves that (again, the singularity is meant). Performative criticism as such: not the performance of the critic, though there is that, but the performance as criticism. For purposes of today, we can leave aside the body in this regard, and just consider a textual exhibit.

Against Conceptual Poetry is a book-length poem, a lineation of a 2011 conversation between WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, then under house arrest, and Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, and other powerful money and media personalities. According to the Note that precedes the poem, the conversation was to discuss ideas for Schmidt’s then forthcoming, The New Digital World, later published as The New Digital Age, “the project was still being characterized with a spatial rather than temporal metaphor.” (viii) Silliman continues this move via his overtly poetic lineation of the conversation, for what poetry has as its donné, like listening and conversation, is the temporality of a good meal, that is to say, one must have one’s courses. As courses are also things that are taught.

ASSANGE: and I went to
thirty different schools, so I’ve seen
plenty of Lord of the Flies

ASSANGE: …But no, I think that
the instincts human beings have are
actually much better than the societies
that we have. (70)

It occurs to me here that the distinction between the spatial and the temporal with regard to the digital, or, for that matter, the digital as informational, is as an outmoded a segregation as Edward Snowden’s sense of self and State. In other words, time = space, space = time given that we encounter and engage (and what’s the difference) our metadata-driven environs only within a bandwidth that exists in a conflation of time/space and is experienced as such. So that the twitterfeed Time @it_happened (“Updates on the present”), which tweets times (“It’s 11:08.” “It’s 3:23.”) is a perfect example of, not the contingency of time and space, or their relativity, but their absolute conflation. What does this have to do with Snowden and the Government? In a minute.

Silliman’s book is moreover framed by annotations, the temporal equivalent of the footnote’s spatial aside. A prefatory Note is afterworded by a Notes explicating the footnotes throughout, everything from Footnote 5’s straightforward “Internet service providers” clarification of the line “do you decide which ISPs5“… to the more straightforwardly polemical Footnote 39 “Arguable. WikiLeaks had been active in exposing political assassinations and other extra-judicial killing in Kenya…” addendum to the lines, “…Something I am certain about / is that we changed the outcome / of the Kenyan election in 2007.39” These notes also serve as overt textual contextualizations, to further clarify the political intent of the poem itself, as if it needed further clarification. Or as if, which is rather more telling, the polemics within the poem might be misinterpreted, or as if truth-telling is still the purview of poetry, and that truth will be told, if only sotto voce.

Long stanzas that make positivist political claims are often punctuated by short affective stanzas, a call and response that can turn gravitas gamine relatively quickly, such that Assange’s chronicle of WikiLeak’s transition from elite whistleblowing entity “to a worldwide household name with 84% / name recognition worldwide” is met with:

COHEN: Wow. (134)

Wow could be seen as punctum, but it’s the punctum of perceived affect, which cannot be punctum because the punch is too-signaled. Similarly, there is the circular logic presented in this choral round:

SHIELDS: But it’s also not verifying facts.

SCHMIDT: But that’s the core question.

ASSANGE: It’s not about verifying facts.

MALCOMSON: Well that’s that


COHEN: That’s another argument.


ASSANGE: We have published…

MALCOMSON: It’s about verifying documents
not about verifying truth… (165)

But of course it is about verifying truth, though it’s a more poetic than political truth. Or equally political and poetic. For the poetic truth being that postmodernism, and Language poetry, as the quintessentially postmodern poetry, needed (needs?) the polemic, and the structure of the polemic, in order to preserve a claim to poetic legitimacy.3 Because legitimacy outside poetry would save poetry from being the fundamentally illegitimate thing it was since the postmodern discovery that language itself was illegitimate. Ergo, the proper politic or the political affect. Effect, if you squint just so.

Which reminds me of Susanne Christensen’s tag line on her blog: “All night we’ve been talking to liars / And it´s all right, just not in the style of tigers.” Because Silliman never questions that the individual identity of the speaker determines the length of the stanza, or the line: there’s no enjambment between named entities, no matter how otherwise comaraderly they are or how their sentiments or agendas align. Thus, no stanza extends beyond its orating voice, and the players are kept within their ideological frames as individual agents with agencies that need to be explicated by the Poet as the point of greatest singularity—to wit, the interlineation provided most directly by poetic lineation. In short, it’s no collective autobiography except ideologically. Edward Snowden was asked why he ratted out the NSA, and he said something heartfelt about his family (military) and his disappointment (Obama). The interesting ideological obscenity here being that it was expected that he would have (and indeed he did have) an individual beef with the State, that it was not enough that the State was spying, that there had to be a personal reason why—an affective response.

In 2013, Cal Bedient wrote an essay titled “Against Conceptualism: Defending the Poetry of Affect” for the Boston Review, arguing that conceptualism’s unoriginal sin was its faithlessness to strong emotion, which Bedient ties to the possibility of militancy. Leaving aside the pre-Conceptual (as in Art) error in Bedient’s analysis, that affect adheres in the objet and not in the d’art, and the pre-Copernican (as in Cosmology) mistake that it is the Author who turns the tides, and that utopianism is the province of poets. Or avant gardism, which is another historical/performative fallacy: realism is the steak the a-g historically trades in, utopianism is just sizzle—and a particularly American sizzle at that. For it is in this affective mode that Silliman’s book performs a Language-poem critique of American conceptualism as Against Conceptual Poetry performs Language poetry’s belief in poetry’s redemptive properties—in its preserve. A preserve, of course, is a jam, as well as a place where the wild are kept cordoned off as if they might be yet in the wild. Against Conceptual Poetry is not a conceptual poem. A conceptual poem does not make its own arguments. A conceptual poem does not thumb the scale on its political or poetical reception. A good conceptual poem is too dumb to persuade anyone of anything. But Against Conceptual Poetry is not supposed to be a conceptual poem. It’s a performance of poetry, as if poetry ought should have a politic, when all it has, at this ideological moment, is its performance. Or, as the poet once said: “Oh, I want to dance with somebody / I want to feel the heat with somebody / Yeah, I want to dance with somebody / With somebody who loves me.”


1 This is to be distinguished from the notion of “displaying” the torsion, as if by showing there is a suggestion that such a thing could be hidden, or as if by revealing there is an implication that this play is not otherwise obvious.

2 Which leads one to wonder whether listening is ever mutual, or could ever participate in real mutuality. It seems to me either gift or grab, i.e., either one listens without expectation of return, as an act of pure generosity (the ideal reading, e.g.), or one is tendering one’s ears. This is the difference between the (dialogic) monologue of Twitter, which leans towards gift, and the three-way oration of Facebook, which leans towards grab. There is also a distinction between these listening/gifts and listening/grabs and the analogic version noted by Fran Liebowitz, who said that the opposite of listening is waiting.

3 Language poetry was a poetry of political argument, not the least of which was the argument for the meta: as much as Language poets gave the nod to the hapless deconstructionist, ever grasping at ever moving mots (in your eye), there remained (for most) a dancer’s steel lock on the spot. The spot being the idée fixe on display, such as the superiority of Marxism, for ongoing example, versus the de of deconstruction. This articulation of the meta (see framing devices, or de vices, ante) ever so belies any full fidelity to the reader as meaning-maker. Though perhaps that’s unfair: the move in Language poetry was not that the reader was necessarily co-equal to the poet, but was at least an active bottom.

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Heimrad Bäcker

Ugly Duckling Presse


Friday, January 3rd, 2014

Translation by Patrick Greaney
Afterword by Charles Bernstein

Have you ever killed anyone?

This was the question a journalist recently reported asking a convicted serial killer. Not to drag biography into it, but criminal lawyers know better than to ask such stupid questions. For, not to drag cogitography into it, but who amongst us has not killed someone, or, better still, anyone. Assuming, as we must assume, the proper collective historical perspective.

But first, to drag biography into it: Heimrad Bäcker was an Austrian artist, poet, and editor. Born in 1925, Bäcker was a propaganda officer in the Hitler Youth; at 18, he joined the Nazi Party. In 1968, Bäcker began collecting quotations and documentary materials about the Shoah, presenting these materials as concrete and visual poetry. Seascape, a brief documentary account of a U-boat’s failure to rescue three Norwegian sailors, was originally published as a single-themed edition of Bäcker’s journal neue texte, then included in a self-selected book of collected works, published in limited edition. For his part, he deemed the work a piece of concrete poetry. Ugly Duckling Presse has published it in another two limited editions, 500 bound by the Presse ($25), 26 bound in boards by Paper Dragon Books ($125).

We can start then with the proposition that Ugly Duckling Presse has presented this lovely book object as a thoughtfully concretized material object, for one thing the National Socialists well understood was that materiality is inseparable from animus. As a contemplative aside, this, in the person of Leni Riefenstahl, was the great art lesson of the time: that aesthetics could not be segregate from ethics as a formed and formal proposition. Along with Duchamp, Riefenstahl altered the landscape of all art après. Bäcker, then, may be also understood as one who understood both their art lessons. The thing, and not for nothing can we use das Ding here, is art because it works as art within the context of art, and the thing as art always speaks as a thing about its event-culture. Fountain works perfectly as a pissoir, which of course renders a public service. While all art is inherently excremental, the readymade captures the aura of excrescence that mass-produces art for appreciation by the cognoscenti and pissing-on by the masses. Fountain in particular thus bears eloquent witness to Hegel’s observation that the penis is Nature’s naïve conjunction of “the organ of its highest fulfillment, the organ of generation, with the organ of urination.” Switch out art for poetry and we can stop nattering on about what is or isn’t poetry and return to our retinal proclivities and attendant camps.

The double vaulted pages of Seascape, coupled with its creamy thick paper and letterpress gray typeface, Century font, ReichTM paper throughout, could be no other way. All text is as text: the formal citation that appeared in the original exhibit document is transcribed along with the more informational portion. Charles Bernstein’s afterword sits as a single folded broadsheet of gray-backed cardstock, tucked in an envelope slitted (or tipped, as you wish) in a back flap. The book’s pages are (hand) bound by a single gray cord that runs between two holes punched on the left hand side. The cover includes the work as part of UDP’s Lost Literature series (#11). The poems themselves are largely data, beginning with the subtitle:

B. 36. War log, size: DIN A3

to poems reiterating the ongoing theme of ongoing weather, such as:

0800Quad AL 0175, SW 4/5,
heavy rain, moderate
seas, poor

And the turn, the narrative bit that is to give allegorical heft to the rest, the reported sighting of a Norwegian motor tanker, the John P. Pedersen, “drifting under sail,” three survivors lying within, who stated that:

their ship had been torpedoed 28 days before. I turned
down their request to be taken aboard, provisioned the
boat with food and water and gave them the course and
distance to the Icelandic coast. Boat and crew were in
a state that, in view of the prevailing weather, offered
hardly any prospect of rescue.

And the denouement, a simple citation (“Reference: IMT (International Military Tribunal: Nuremberg, 1949), Vol. XIV, 340-41; Vol. XXV, 623-25.”) in which it is revealed that these clips are taken (were taken?) from documentary evidence introduced in the trials.

Thus we have the creamy fetish of the wide open seas, a Weltgeschichte of negative space, and the empty vaginal folds of the uncut pages, implying that something more generative could have come from the excremental narrative at hand. All in all, a lovely and useless object.i So far, so good.

As a historical aside, the text in Seascape was taken more specifically from documentary evidence introduced against Erich Raeder, Admiral of the Third Reich, charged with waging a war of aggression and violating international law in conducting his U-boat war. Raeder’s defense was that the navy was a military operation, and that any reduction in restrictions on naval warfare was justified as a response to enemy actions. Third Reich Vice Admiral Schulte-Mönting, commander of the Norwegian North Coast, testified in Raeder’s defense. The Seascape incident was used to impeach Schulte-Mönting’s claim that the navy fought a “clean war.”

Or, as I found in the Nuremberg trial transcripts themselves (not included in Seascape itself):

SCHULTE-MONTING: I observe that the commanding officer did what he could, in view of the weather which he described when he said that in view of the bad weather he could not rescue them. He threw provisions to them in a sack and gave them the course to the coast. I do not know what there is about that that is inhumane. If he had left without giving them food and the course, then you might make that accusation.
MAJOR JONES: But he could have taken them aboard, you know. These were three men who did…
SCHULTE-MONTING: No, I believe you cannot judge that. Only the commanding officer himself can judge that, the man in charge of the U-boat. I would have to look at the weather, because it says here “Medium swell.” That could also..
MAJOR JONES: But you see here the U-boat commander must have spoken to these people and physically it must have been possible to take them aboard, but he left them to their fate, you know, knowing quite well he was leaving them to die.
SCHULTE-MONTING: No, not at all. Then he would not have needed to give them any food and to give them the course to the coast. What makes you think that they had to die? By the way…
MAJOR JONES: The last sentence is a clear indication that the U-boat captain knew he was leaving them to die. I am suggesting to you that he could have taken them aboard and should have done so if he had the elements of humanity in him.
SCHULTE-MONTING: No; I do not know the condition of the U-boat, whether the boat was in a position to take prisoners on board. I believe that you have never seen conditions on a U-boat; otherwise you would not judge it like that. Considering that the crew of a U-boat is under water for weeks and uses every last bit of space and is exposed to the greatest dangers day and night, one cannot simply say that it would have been a humane act to take these additional men aboard. Besides, the commander himself says there was hardly a chance of rescue in view of the prevailing weatherii

There is no indication in Bäcker’s work as to when the incident occurred, though a quick search shows that the Pedersen was sunk on May 20, 1941, about 160 miles south of the tip of Greenland. There were two lifeboats launched, 16 survivors in one and 21 in the other. The boat with 16 survivors was found three days later by a Danish rescue ship and taken to Reykjavik; the other lifeboat, according to British Navel records, was never found.iii The Norwegian tanker was auxiliary to the British Royal Fleet, and was carrying 9100 tons of Admiralty fuel oil at the time of its sinking.

It is unclear whether the ships’ sailors (regardless of nationality) would have been considered non-civilians, even if they were non-combatants, under the 1929 Geneva and 1899/1907 Hague Conventions. In any case, the 1929 version of the Geneva Conventions mandated that wounded or sick enemy combatants who fall in the hands of the enemy should be treated as prisoners of war (chp. 1, art. 2), and non-combatants were to be treated humanely in all circumstances (art. 3). The 1910 Brussels Conventions more broadly required the captain of any vessel to “assist” any shipwrecked person. According to the 1929 Geneva provisions, there is an affirmative duty to “lend help and support” the shipwrecked, which, as noted in a 1960 Commentary to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, contains “an implicit obligation to collect them.” This obligation was made explicit in 1949, though submarines and “fast torpedo-boats” were given special dispensation relative to rescue duties because of the limited nature of their equipment and accommodations. “Generally speaking, if a warship is forced to leave shipwrecked persons to their fate, it will endeavor to provide them with the means to enable them to await rescue or reach the coast: life-boats, food, water, a compass, charts, etc.”iv

As a further aside, there was the Laconia incident in September 1942 in which a U-boat torpedoed the civilian vessel; when area U-boats began to provide rescue operations, they were attacked by a US bomber. The U-boats were then ordered to stop rescuing civilians, thus initiating officially unrestricted submarine warfare for Germany—although the Germans argued that the Americans had been engaging in unrestricted warfare since the beginning of the war. To cut a bit to the case’s chase, Admiral Raeder was acquitted of the specific charge of unrestricted submarine warfare based on affidavit evidence by the then-commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, acknowledging that the United States had engaged in unrestricted submarine warfare from the beginning. Convicted of the charges of war crimes and of waging a war of aggression, Raeder was sentenced to life, his subsequent request to be executed denied.

Note that this has not been so much a poetry review as such to date, but a rather linear historical exegesis, and a complication of guilt. To digress for a moment, let us consider in this context the relatively recent publication of Joseph Kaplan’s Kill List, in which a number of contemporary poets were described as either “rich” or “comfortable,” the titular implication being that come the rebellion, these individuals would be targeted for assassination by, presumably, the proletariat. Leaving aside the Bolshevik-belt gag of the work, and its function as a piece of primary institutional critique, what was interesting was how quickly ideology engulfed the imaginary in its reception. There was a dutiful outcry on social media about the poem and its particulars, including some pained individual protests against being labeled as rich/comfortable. But as Brecht knew, the ones who protest their innocence are the guiltiest of all, and as Obama knows, kill lists are by rights idiosyncratic, and as history proves, death is inevitable in service of revolution. So what is objected to in the objection is precisely animated by a bourgeois sense of individual entitlement, that is to say, that death ought be deserved, or at least comprehensible. This was the error that Simone Weil fell into in 1940 when she protested the Nazi prohibition against Jews teaching with her three-part objection: 1) such a ban was idiotic; 2) she was not Jewish; and 3) she didn’t want to teach anyway.

Back to poetics. As noted, Bernstein’s afterword is slotted in a slit, raising the question of whether pocket change changes the pants. Throughout his deft disquisition of Seascape as a piece of “after writing,” i.e., prose that cannot place itself “before,” i.e., “the writing of witness, that which places itself before, in front of, the event,” Bernstein repeats his resistance to characterizing the piece as poetry. It is an Adorno-born resistance: to characterize the work as poetry would be, in Bernstein’s words, “to accept that barbarism is before us, staring us in the face.” Bernstein thus preserves a special place for poetry as potential redeemer; despite its smutted face, the angelus novus, as Benjamin opined, “must look just so.” Aber warum?

In this, my argument is not with Bernstein’s reading—in this, all allegorical readings are as all allegorical readings—but rather with its conservatism. To slightly rephrase the lesson harrowed on our Western backs by Wittgenstein, there is not aesthetics without ethics, there is not ethics without aesthetics. There’s no preservation of poetry in any case, especially not this one: poetry is not reserved for morality or ethics, if there is a difference, and what would that difference be? The aesthetic point of Un coup des dès, the most obvious Continental precursor to Seascape, was whether the captain will cast his dice into the abyss, knowing that such a toss is meaningless, a tribute to pure chance. In Mallarmé’s preface to Un coup de des, he said that his verses demanded their surrounding silences to void narrative and suspend time. And this is precisely what the abyssal and creamy Seascape does: showing the moment when the die is cast without hope. Not out of a desire for this or that histoire (written, as always, in retrospect) but because one must, in the end, always cast the die. It could be asided here that coup also is a blow, as you know, as in de grâce, which may be also a mercy killing. In other words, what do we make of fate where there is no futurity?

At the end of his afterword, Bernstein writes, “Ich bin ein Norwegian.” What Kennedy more fully said was: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.'” So we have the problem of the citizen, as noted by Arendt and dilated upon by Agamben. If I am a Norwegian, I am yet a citizen, yet an ally. I deserve a certain form of treatment because of my citizenship. For that is the boat that cannot, must not, be sunk, according to this formulation. But we know how torpedoes go, and how Das Boot is in a storm. The allegory provoked by Seascape is thus perhaps less the humanity or inhumanity of Captain Flacksenberg’s actions, but Bäcker’s poetry therein. Bernstein’s afterword begins. “to write prose after Auschwitz is barbaric.” But surely the question of poetry after Auschwitz over-composes the point: the point of Seascape is that it is absolutely poetic.v

And absolutely fetishistic: there is a poetic sort of comfort in the press of the letterpress in this book-object, in the creamy heft of the pages, in the way the work flirts with a kind of Nazi-porn that makes the work that much more problematic. The rough definition of the pervert is that he knows what le grand Autre wants—how to reach the big O of the big other, as it were. There is something of that erectile quality here: we are to trill at the sign of the swastika, as if that sign is not a sign of civilization but a sign of barbarism. And by this same token, the prettiness of this particular poésie is its pockmarked preservation. A preservation sealed not just by the lushness of the book-object, but also by the imprimatur of ideological (aesthetic + ethic) purity provided by the construct of the Afterword as last word: the absolution that can only be provided for the Western audience by having a famous American Jewish poet judge the text a judgment. Of guilt, natürlich.

In this sense, Seascape works as a demonstration of the dispositif in the expanded Foucault con Agamben sense, where disquisitions of juridical and philosophical propositions have seamlessly confounded with the apparatuses of literature and Producing here, a poetry that cannot be even recognized as poetry, just as the art of Riefenstahl cannot be recognized as art. In other words, the sign of the Nazi renders all that occurs under the sign of the Nazi an atrocity. But in this Arendt was right, the sign of the Nazi is (and this is its truly pedestrian horror) the sign of a government. And the sign of wartime.vii As well, as here, the sign of the individual signature, which is also the sign of the poem. We put our hand to all of it, and why not? After all, as Foucault noted (and he was not wrong about this), you are either a symptom or are available as a symptom. Given the ambiguities properly left open by Seascape, a poem of particularly post-war indeterminacy.viii

In other words, clearly Adorno was wrong, there was most certainly poetry after Auschwitz, a veritable North Sea’s worth.ix We’re drowning in the stuff. Thus, the next question becomes what is the poetry of Auschwitz.x The poetry of Bäcker and beyond, the dispositif of all manner of adrift&#8212or, put another way, especially today, perhaps the ideal is to say: Ich bin ein Musselman. But, if one is very brave indeed, to simply and stupidly repeat: Ich bin ein Berliner.

i A fetishization duly embraced by The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet: “Oh how we are fawning over Seascape by Heimrad Bäcker… More on the fawn later on.

ii, at p. 341. As another aside, I am not sure what Bernstein means in his afterward when he describes the “original of which SEASCAPE is an echo” as being neither the transcript nor the captain’s diary as these are “themselves commentaries.” It seems Bernstein is considering the event as such to be the only original, but there is no event sans document—which is one of the lessons in M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong. It’s not a nice lesson.

iii The missing lifeboat had contained 13 Norwegians, 2 Dutch, 2 Swedish, and 4 British crew, including the master.

iv, pp. 89-90, 130-131.

v Shifting the focus from barbarism (a discussion of incivility) to aestheticism (a discussion of the civilized), perhaps dodges the bullet-laden question of formalism in de jure citizenship. The aesthetic citizen is not necessarily a Volk, yet not quite an outsider, bearing something more akin to a cosmopolitanism that, duly effete, rests on exposure and appreciation rather than authenticity and its dopey twin, fidelity.

vi The French writer Franck Liebovici has developed a poetics of the dispositif as part of his “poetics of documents,” detailed in his book, Des documents poetiques. (Al Dante/Questions Théoriques Collection: Paris, 2007). As described by Christophe Hanne, Liebovici’s document poem is a document that is intentionally created “to respond to a new need for information of another kind,” i.e., a document that functions poetically insofar as poetry is language that functions in and as an aura of something more than the spare utility or communicability of its language. Christophe Hanne. Nos dispositifs poetiques. (Questions théoriques Collection: Paris, 2010), pp. 177-178. Stupidly demonstrated here when setting Seascape into its Anglicized (i.e., un-compounded) initials, SS.

vii It is perhaps a comfort to consider this particular wartime so very different from another wartime. Or, alternatively, that there could be acts of warfare that are innocent under the rules of warfare. Or, alternatively, that guilt cannot be painted with so broad a brush, even if the brush belongs to the victors. The refusal to entertain these other propositions is perhaps part of the dispositif of war itself. A bit of which is that war is presented as a by-product of other dispositifs, rather than one in itself.

viii I’m not sure if the argument about prose versus poetry is inherently interesting, although it may be of interest insofar as poetry had maintained (and here is where Bernstein comes in), a kind of moral preserve as part of its historical mandate. A preserve yet clung to by a passel of present-day poets, including those who would reserve avant garde poetics for the proper sort of politics, which they are happy to identify for you and explain to you, and those who oxymoronically damn the workings of capital viz poetry within the confines of Facebook or any other capitalized platform without personally blinking, or those who take the spread-footed stance, commonly seen at less aestheticized urinals, as they explicate what is and what is not poetry as they see it. Of course, we could just call the whole thing conceptual, and call it over. For the only real problem or puzzle in Kaplan’s list is that it is so very exclusive. All or none, as they say.

ix Part of Adorno’s error might lie in what he considered poetry; given his own aesthetic preferences for a high modernist Wahrheitsgehalt, where the object itself contains the conditions of its dialectical truth-telling. When Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia (1945), “The increasing impossibility of the representation of what is historical speaks to the extinction of art,” he was right enough, but then again wrong. Just as we have now our zombie poetries.

x How might poetry of Auschwitz differ from the poetry of the Shoah, for example, or the Holocaust, which may be two different things?

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What Makes Us

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

Seven American Deaths and Disasters
Kenneth Goldsmith
powerHouse Books, 2013

Manchester: August 16th & 17th 1819
John Seed
Intercapillary Editions, 2013

As Marjorie Perloff has repeatedly noted, much of contemporary lyric poetry is prose by another name—there is nothing beyond lineation that commends it to the poetic tradition. She may be wrong insofar as there is also the persistent presence of affect, which is, as Calvin Bedient has recently chronicled, also integral to the tradition, especially the expanded lyric tradition. (In his recent Boston Review article, Bedient argues for the affective “something more” running through everyone from Bishop to Artaud, a spectrum with its own uncanny frisson.) But, beyond this affective imperative, the kind of current work Perloff describes is essentially arbitrary. It has no formal properties other than persistent lineation, largely left-hand justification and a typically idiosyncratic sense of meter that roughly translates to something like ear-feel. Contrary to Bedient’s charge that conceptualism is feeling-less work, conceptual poetry, or poetry that involves formal constraint, is not a priori devoid of affect (leaving aside the easy Cagean riposte that boredom is also an affective affect), but is poetry that is resolutely devoid of arbitrariness. I.e., conceptualism is against the arbitrary as a formal matter. (N.b., chance is a formal property that is manifestly not arbitrary, as you doubtless agree.) For the fact of the matter is, all poetic “content” is arbitrary. Content meaning the stuff we stuff our poems with, the petit histories or leveled landscapes, or, in the case of our more dutiful sons and daughters, those exhortations to greatness or survival despite or because of the fierce subjektiver Geist that looks so good on spokespeople for the marginalized. We will witness what we believe matters, if not to us, to people like us. Ideology works most optimally when we bear frictionless witness, as Eileen Myles has often opined, through us on behalf of others like us. Us, keeping us real.

For what it’s worth, my conceptual aesthetic does not serve my affect: it does not convey my feelings about this or that to the world. I am not you, I am not even Us. My feelings about this or that viz the world are unimportant, only of interest, only occasionally, only to me. My poetry is not a means of emotive conveyance from me to you, each to his reach. It is a platform for you. You feel or not, as you like—a statement about rape, whether a flat juridical declarative or a two-line gag—is up to you to digest in whatever symbolic or imaginative order you like. That is, of course, ideologically like you. And thus, my form of conceptualism serves as a platform for poetry as such. Or the possibility, perhaps, of poetry as such. This is by way of throat-clearing—the cogito equivalent of the institutional affective trope of setting the authorial stage for the poem one is about to read (i.e., this is how I feel about my poem and now we will see how you feel about my poem and whether our feelings may, for some transcendental instant, commix in that melancholic partial way which reminds us of the swannish beauty of language, that is to say, ever dying, never dead).

So it is in this sense unsurprising that all the inches for and against, but mainly about, conceptualism of late tend to focus on the producer and not the product. Or at least not the text object product. This is the fetishization of the body of the Poet (as talismanic substitute for the poet’s soul—note the constant mentions of our relentlessly attractive attire, unremarkable in other venues of cultural capital), where the corpus of the worker substitutes for the corpus of the oeuvre. A fetishization that is as inevitable as it is vaguely tedious because what it does is leapfrog over the work at hand. No one could be happier than those who swallow the bait about not reading conceptual poetry, for they conveniently miss the corollary that one might at least think about it. It, again, referring to the text product. And, as Hume might note, one’s thinking tends towards a tisane of one’s passions. Or, as Bedient would put it, affect.

Though, as I like to say, less affect, more product. Because, in this point of terminal poetry, all we have are productions. Put another way, Proust is not some person, but an extended-play memoir, and that’s the only material that matters: the historical Proust, like the historical Jesus, could have been a prig or a pederast, a poufter or just a blowhard, and we are yet left with the dilations and desiccations of chez Proust. After all, it’s not history I’m after. As an aside, I may be suggesting that the fetishized personae of the Poet is also a poem, or at least a poetic product. But turning to the text products at hand:

Seven American Deaths and Disasters by American poet Kenneth Goldsmith (powerhouse Books, 2013) takes its overtly Warholian theme as tone and attunes it to the subject of the Poet in History, resulting in a heavily-curated culling of transcribed media accounts of seven significant American cultural moments. Let’s parse this. Significant meaning significant to the Poet. The Poet is articulated as such via generic product attributes presented to the consumer, such as the authorial name on the spine and pertinent inside parts, and the biography presented on the dust flap (as befits the future not-to-be). And the Poet as more subjectively or affectively articulated in the Afterword, neatly foreshadowed by the book’s epigraph, which is Wittgenstein’s aphorism, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” The Afterword embraces this necessary provincialism: “all seven events depicted here were ones that I lived through which changed me, and a nation, forever.”

Thick Whitmanesque sentiment is spread as far and wide as the country itself—from the Poet’s bare-breasted “As I stood silently on the corner of Bleeker Street and Sixth Avenue watching the towers fall…” to the selection of TV channels covering the Event (local = New York), and by “cover” I mean taking torn threads of information and tatting them together into a tale that can be, and will be, told. We think we know the story but we only know the Event in retrospect. In other words, the story of September 11th for certain Americans does not, cannot, in its facts convey the “something more” that real poetry conveys—as evidenced in the anchors’ groping for coherence, which presupposes perspective, which comes only slowly, only aestheticization.

Ugh! Oh! I mean that’s…that’s…that’s…
That would that would that would And you
have to wonder how that
Let’s just think about this logically.
There is no logic.
Oh my God!
uhuha hijacked airairairliner.

The transcriptions are Reznikoffian topiaries: as such, commercials are included in the John F. Kennedy assassination, and omitted in the September 11th coverage, which is broken Empire-like, into Roman-numerated subsections. Columbine is represented by a declassified 911 call, and is the only piece that has no media inter-mediation. It is simply a cri de coeur, at sharp odds with any argument that media’s own violence acclimated those particular killers. The Poet’s Technical Notes state that the Space Shuttle Challenger reportage switches over from television to radio, suggesting a dematerialization of the medium mirroring the dematerialization of the spaceship. Song lyrics are included in the Lennon and JFK assassinations, serving as contrapuntal punctum in the latter, paratextual pathos in the former. There are no Michael Jackson songs interlarded in his Totengesang, which is presented as a tragedy, or, more accurately, a comedy, for only in comedy is the personae able to become a person. Nostalgia, it seems, is concomitant with shock. Too, it could be noted that all channels are in American English. History, as we all know, is still mainly temporal tourism.

Each death and disaster is set in a different font, and these fonts are a marked part of the materiality of the matter at hand. From the Establishment Times Roman serif of the JFK chapter to the Optima of the Challenger chapter to the Ariel of the WTC chapter, we receive our language, as we now receive language, visually and contextually—Optima is ironic or poignant only after we know that the spaceship, that romantic futur-ideal, went kablooey!—just as Times Roman does not have the same authority post-Camelot, post-Nixon (not newsworthy to the Poet), and Ariel is Plath-perfect for any aestheticized suicide. If, as Boris Groys has argued, Bin Laden was primarily a video artist, the Twin Towers were his great finished/unfinished masterwork, his La Porte de L’Enfer. Contrarily, the Iraq War has no punctum, and is therefore not a poetic Event.

In sum, there is a shape to the world as we read it, just as we engineer the receipt of our readymade subjectivities. Goldsmith crafts his poetry as a matter of history, as elegantly demonstrated in his White House performance, where the canonical trajectory from Whitman to Crane to Goldsmith became a fait accompli. Later, we can discuss institutionalization and the rather adolescent desire for purity. For us to be like us.

By comparison, Manchester: August 16th & 17th 1819 by British poet John Seed (IntercapillaryEditions, 2013), a comparatively overlooked volume, makes History Poetry. After the Napoleonic Wars, England was beset with a host of domestic problems, from unemployment to famine; suffrage was restricted in the north. The Peterloo Massacre involved cavalry charging into a crowd demanding parliamentary reform, with predictable results. In a directly Reznikoffian mode, Seed turns eyewitness accounts into a long political-historical poem. Originally written in 1973, the manuscript disappeared in the drawer of a potential publisher, only to pop up again in 2012. There is in this an opportunity to reflect upon the different temporal climates of a work’s reception: what may have read as revolution-sympathetic poetry of the people in the early ‘70s, might be seen as conceptualist elitism and exploitation in 2013. But maybe not. Or at least not so fast. For again, the emphasis here is on the act of witnessing—this time, direct—evidencing its original orators’ belief in the thing itself that is already always absent from media’s waffling accounts. Which may be the difference between the readership contemplated by overtly affective poetry (modernist and postmodernist) and the other kind (conceptualist).

I heard the bugle sound—
I saw the cavalry
charge forward
sword in hand
upon the multitude.


a woman
had been standing
ten or twelve yards in front:
as the troops passed
her body was left,
to all appearances,

and there remained
until the close of business…

I.e., as moving and monumental as poetry is rumoured to be, for what is Poetry, what is Art, but the witnessing of a moment that causes one to say stay—no matter how unpleasant or insignificant the subject matter. See Guernica (a two-year old child was the first Peterloo casualty), watch The Clock (is there not a feeling running through the stream of tocks?). Seed, also author of numerous books of poetry, including the two-volume Pictures from Mayhew, states in his Afterword that his is and has historically been an Objectivist project. However, in this latest book, he also cites conceptualism as an aesthetic context. The afterword, then, in both text products, becomes the final poem—the Sonnet 154—in which the Poet plays at an answer to the call for the master. But in Seed’s book, the answer has to do with the search for punctum, rather than punctum as given. So when Seed rhetorically wonders, “Can a poem have a punctum?” The only response is perhaps a Duchampian: is it possible for a poem not to have a punctum? This is important, for this is the difference between a poetry that relies exclusively on ontology, and one that demands ontology plus logic, two different donnés, each to its reach, each necessary for a poetry of intellectual and affective integrity. Otherwise we might as well post gifs of cute kitties and dead babies and call it a day.

However, as luck and the dominant cultural winds would have it, the editorial staff of the Los Angeles Times, announced on July 28, 2013 that the paper was hosting a one-time call for poetry. The best submissions of “Op-poetry,” selected by the Opinion Editors, who, after all, know a thing or two about rhetoric, will run in the paper’s August 25th edition. After noting what will not be permitted (the pornographic or otherwise offensive), and providing a whimsical list of possible form/content combinations, the Editors advise: “And be sure that, after reading your poem, we know where you stand on the issue you’re writing about.”

And that, my pets, is the difference between History, which is a matter of opinion, and Poetry, which is a matter of materiality. The materiality of language, dumb language, moves as we play our language games, and when we do not know how the game will out, then this the matter we may not speak about. I have nothing to say of rape, of torture, of hate, or at least not of these things to date, and I am not saying it, and this too is poetry as I know it. Or product placement.

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The Epic Post-Easter Basket

Joey Yearous-Algozin

Troll Thread Collective

Sunday, April 7th, 2013

The Epic Post-Easter Basket: The title of none of Joey Yearsus-Algozin’s works under consideration, all of which may be found here: at the Troll Thread Collective.

Recently, which is where I left my glasses, I wrote a small note for Harriet* about what I’ve been reading recently, in which the poetry of Joey Yeasous-Algozin was highlighted. This is what is known as critical cross-pollination. That is to say, in my imagination, the world of poetry is an ever-expanding field, populated by many different kinds of poetry and poetry-lovers, some of whom read here, some of whom read there, all flitting gaily about, dropping names, trailing stingers, and leaving the brightly-colored traces of their readings in the sticky hearts and minds of yet other busy readers. I should also add that in my imagination, the women are all strong and the men, uniformly, pretty. And strong and pretty is Joey Yeasous-Algozin, who publishes as part of the Troll Thread Collective.

One of Yearous-Algozin’s ongoing concerns is The Lazarus Project, a series of poetry books that are downloadable (gratis) or printable (cost), according to your taste. The series takes mediated accounts, primarily cinematic or otherwise transcribed, of death and destruction and revives them by way of incessant reanimation. Reanimation tactics include lists of names of the dead, followed by the same list as beginning to move, and the piling on of bodies, followed by an itemized account of those bodies coming back to life. It should be prefatorily noted that The Lazarus Project was also a 2008 thriller in which criminal Ben is executed by way of lethal injection, then gets a hallucinatory second chance within the confines of an errant psychiatric institution, and is as well the website of a non-profit North Carolina organization at which visitors may post memories of those lost to overdose. This is a tip: with Yearous-Algozin’s poetry, we are in the place where the Imaginary is Real,* or as Real as anything else, and all are imbricated within a symbolic mode of production and reception that cannot be ignored as part of the poetry itself. It’s the sugar that the acid of legend and song used to sit on.

Thus, the volume The Lazarus Project: Night and Fog is a narrative recitation of that part of the 1955 French documentary film in which the atrocities of Auschwitz were described, though this time genocide’s over-determinations are given a manically happy ending:

Moving over a rich field of flowers; the table, the barrels and open crates no longer hold the dried skin, bins of dried skin, and cakes of soap made from bodies and the human heads and shriveled corpses as the dried skin and bins of dried skin and cakes of soap made from bodies and the shriveled corpses and human heads that were on the table and packed into barrels and open crates come back to life



At the moment, pictures are taken a few moments before extermination.

Moving over a rich field of flowers; pictures are no longer taken moments before extermination as those whose pictures were taken moments before extermination come back to life

“At the moment” then signifying the terminus as a spot in time that is as a prick in its fabric, the pointless of death; while the “moving over a rich field of flowers” smoothes the pucker, and does so through the force of repetition and accretion. Too, portraying the Shoah sans image underscores the way this text rejects any point as potential punctum. Throughout The Lazarus Project, Yearous-Algozin manages a neat tightrope-trope of persistently subliminated subjectivity: the structural desire of the subject to quash death qua death, a universal and singular desire, is maintained coeval to the need for death to give the subject a structured animus, that singularly universal endeavor of getting up in the morning no matter what, no matter where. Put another way, Lazarus was God’s own parlor trick—after all, simply bestowing life everlasting is not only much duller than dying then reviving, but it lacks the panache of a punchline. Philosopher Alenka Zupančič has argued that whereas tragedy is the dialectical movement from the individual to the universal (Oedipus to his Complex), the comic is the dialectical shift from the universal to the individual (Fogel to McLovin). The rules do not apply in the comic universe; the rules constitute the tragic. The unarticulated subject in Yearous-Algozin’s project is a comic subject, betraying as it does the subject’s deepest desire that death be as immaterial and temporary as when Tom massacres Jerry or, in the brilliant reveals of the Three Stooges, who cast the great pitch and moment of our demise as just another bit of shtick: “One move out of you, and I’ll kill you.” “If you do, I’ll never talk to you again.” Death—it’s the fun drive.*

But maybe it is a tragicomic subject as well, for in The Lazarus Project: Nine Eleven, media narrative accounts of the September 2001 attack, cast in the recent past tense (“Terrorists struck the United States Tuesday morning in harrowing, widespread attacks that included at least three commercial jet crashes into significant buildings.”) are interspersed with an alphabetic reanimation of the names of the dead (“The body of Gordon M. Aamoth Jr. begins to move / The body of Marie Rose Abad begins to move / The body of Edelmiro Abad begins to move / The body of Andrew Cross Abate begins to move…”). As the media accounts begin to pile on adjectives (“one of the most horrifying attacks ever”) and ancillary details (“the twin 110-story towers”), the body count rises with the bodies. But the bodies, though individually named, remain as listed, scripted, scrolled as the unnamed corpses of Auschwitz, while the New York narratives dilate and contract in form and content—they breathe in a way the bodies yet can’t. Suggesting that the real animation occurs in the flatter, more received representation, that perhaps Clement Greenberg was right that the thinner medium (in that case, Abstract Expressionism, in this case, of mainstream media) is the more expressive in terms of its medium-specificity and reflexivity. Reportage contains, quite literally. Put another way, the report as such is a means of framing the containment of the Real, of hiding the radicalism of mimesis by passing it off as simply realistic.

This is not infrathin any more, it’s just skin, pocked with pores. So The Lazarus Project: Alien vs. Predator, is and is not the 2004 film in which the two “creepiest creatures from two epic thrillers face off in the ultimate showdown,”* as the book’s cover is the face sheet of a 2004 House subcommittee hearing titled “Alien Removals under Operation Predator.” While its contents are, if not a face off, contain at least one apparent bureaucratic about-face:

And with that the Alien is shot as it comes over the roof’s edge
And with that the Alien comes back to life
And with that Bertha’s wheels grind to life, spilling Aliens and crushing
them under its treads
And with that the Alien’s crushed under Bertha’s tires come back to life
And with that one of the Aliens is pulverized by the falling debris, but the
others survive
And with that the Alien that did not survive comes back to life


Members of the public are
encouraged to call

The larger poetic argument in this is on its face: both productions serve the same ticklish nightmares that make us want buckets of buttered popcorn in the dark. The law is structured like the unconscious.

The Lazarus Project: Heaven is composed of three sections: “One” is an alphabetized list of the names of the dead of the Jonestown Massacre followed by the phrase, “drank from the vat with the Green C on it.” “Two” is a transcription of Reverend Jim Jones’ remarks at the death-scene, including some talk of reincarnation and revival; “Three” is the same list of names followed by the phrase, “returned from the other side.” It should be noted that there is no period (terminus) at the end of these sentences, or any of The Lazarus Project’s sentences of death or animation (unlike the sentences of narrated history, such as the 9/11 accounts). To this reader, the three sections work as a triptych, which is a trinity, which represents the three states of matter: solid, liquid, gas. We can note that flesh is that oh-too-solid thing, that language then acts as lubricant, speech putting the salve in salvation and the prey in prayer, and gas is that which rises and what makes bodies bloat. Just like the hundreds of Jonestown corpses, a fact duly noted by those choppered in who could not save the day. And although there have been many movies about Jonestown, the mediation in Heaven does not appear to be directly cinematic, and may be a reference instead to the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s 1998 album “Strung Out in Heaven.” Or maybe not, though there is something in the rhythms of this Heaven that would play well in the former band’s jangly Stones-Velvet Underground tones.

Yearous-Algozin’s other work includes: 9/11 911 Calls in 911 Pt. Font, as big and bold and beautiful as the scream it sounds, no page large enough to hold any one letter, which happens to be the size of tragedy as it is found. Too, as critic Patrick Greaney has recently alerted me, artist Ian Wilson once wrote: “Conceptual art presented in a typeface larger than 12 points causes a reference to a place other than the consciousness of the reader.”* The 911-point font appropriately dislodges the 911 calls from their site-specificity (site being a matter of both history and geography), and puts them squarely into the register of the Event, which is the oddly ahistorical historical moment, or what we might call epic poetry. To be reductive, epic poetry concerns itself with the subjectification of the object (the battle, Achilles’ shield, e.g.), while the lyric is involved in the objectification of the subject (you know who you are). See comic/tragic above.

The subjectification of the object in Yearous-Algozin’s work may be compared in this sense to the objectification of the subject in Steve Zultanski’s recent book, Agony (BookThug), the first volume of a trilogy of confessional poems. As described, Agony uses “semi-rigorous mathematical and logical constraints to view the author’s life and body.” And so, after setting out a series of facts regarding the average number of tears shed in a human lifetime and average human physiognomy and general actuarial information:

And so, so far, in my lifetime, I’ve shed about 45.181% of my body’s water in tears.

Since tears are mostly water.

Let me see here.

We can assume that if, instead of crying now and again, at moments in which my emotions are particularly pitched, I cried all my tears at once, in one single feat of spasmodic emotional courage, I would dehydrate myself.

This is perhaps why feelings are so constant, so as not to be simultaneous, which would end in dehydration.

We can see that this movement is a progression of the lyric into what some might call the conceptual lyric, where the “I,” as object-self, still serves as the poetic fulcrum, as POV, or, more particularly, the point of focus, the lens through and with which one views, i.e., lyric’s real Copernican compass. As such, its pleasures are nestled in the subversive, itself a literary and poetic tradition epitomized by the confessional poem itself. In other words, Zultanski’s book articulates within the transgressive register that has institutionalized these kinds of poetry-books. The book as such is important here because the object-self needs an object-container. Whereas the subjectification of the object found in Yearous-Algozin’s works has no comforts of precedent beyond the contemporary. There is no object, or at least not necessarily, for the point of focus shifts and creeps, and only exists by way of the desire on the part of the receiver to hear what’s being said. Flipping Althusser on his head, the citizen forces the cop to call. Print on demand, as it were, is the printing of the demand. And the demand is new, or, more significantly, now. While we may profitably argue whether the exhortation to “make it new” is anything more than a hoary appellation, and maybe it is, and maybe this is the beauty of it, each of these approaches does make it now. And one makes it very unpleasant indeed. But then perhaps this is the difference between the epic and the lyric registers. The epic forces the mimetic hand, holding up too strong a mirror to the fact and fancy of imitation, where the lyric relies on the imaginary to soften its contours even as it insists on its emotional bona fides. So that while conceptualism, which can hardly be deemed a single thing now, has been criticized as being insufficiently poetic, perhaps the problem was that it was merely insufficiently lyric. And over-sufficiently epic. And, as such, uncomfortably overblown. First time farce, second time tragedy.


As I’ve also mentioned elsewhere, the hive that is the Troll Thread Collective* is publishing some of the most dangerous and dumb poetry around. I don’t want to over-explicate my use of either term, but it should be understood that dangerous needs be dumb, for articulation—that is to say, the saying of the thing directly—leads more or less inevitably to comprehension, which tends towards understanding, which is the precursor to empathy, which plods towards acceptance, which is what has happened most famously in the Netherlands. And, as Camus knew, there is no circle of hell lower than the Netherlands.


* Poetry’s blog, an explicatory endnote that makes us both look fairly coy.

* Let’s agree that by the Real we are not stupidly referring to something considered as a single-spotted or even de rigueur prismatic reality, but rather something more stupidly understood as that inchoate this that we are just trying to wrap our heads around. The silence stuffed between the words, so to speak.

* Speaking in Freudian terms. Put another way, the incessant reanimation in these works also enacts the psychoanalytic argument that the death drive is the transcendent drive, the one that compels production of that which will, with luck, serve our immortality. Of course, the incessant reanimation also enacts the fact that in death, difference is simply repetition.

* As described by Netflix.

* Ian Wilson. “Conceptual Art,” Artforum. Vol. 22, Issue 6 (February 1984) p. 60.

* Metaphors don’t die, they just dry on the sills of summer windows.

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Body Sweats

Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven

MIT Press


Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

Please click HERE for a PDF review of Body Sweats.

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Craig Dworkin

Roof Books


Saturday, May 12th, 2012

Motes is a perfect little book of poetry. “Little” book, not by way of diminution, but as large praise, for Dworkin’s work here is of a piece, and each small piece is prism-pure in its exactitude. And exactitude, as is its way, is a matter both of shattering and of infinitesimal degrees. Proof of the former later; evidence of the latter is manifest and manifold. As an aside, I cannot say of this book as I like to say by way of parenthesis, “In other words,” for in Motes, there are no other words. No other words that matter, certainly, for the materiality of these words are the gears and works of words themselves. In this, Dworkin refutes the misconception that conceptual works need not be read. Some do not necessarily need to be read, but all—by which I mean all good—conceptual work should be read, and some quite closely. For its part, Motes must be read with both ends of the telescope. As in tragedy, the universal is compacted into the individual, and the beam in one’s own eye must be cast out before properly perceiving the mote in the eye of another. In other words, the conceptual gesture here is to shuck the grosser communicative pleasures of language so that purer delights may be discerned. Ergo, Motes = mots. All bons, in all senses, save the common.

Some of these precise pleasures seem bright children’s riddles:

for four days later

A lisping “Thursday,” the fourth day of the week, also known on college campuses (according to Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, as “Thirsty Thursday,” the new start of the weekend), the for/four thus not only serving as a homophonic repetition but also creating a kind of collapsible mirror effect of “Thirsty = Thursday” = “Thirsty Thursday.”

Some bilangue puns, pulled like faces in a lady’s mirror:

winters itself

“Hiver” = “winter” in French, “s” being the elided reflexive pronoun se, elided as “h” is mute in “hiver.”

how sad for
these birds

Some small unpackings, as with a valise:

Godiva, go.

Die Walküre, die.

Some reconfigurings, like knick-knacks on a mantle:

I brought the bought wooden box from there.

Some returning détournements:

in marcel duchamps’ sad young man on a train I am that man

Some lyric assays like asides:

split little puppet pulpits tilted spilling dew

Some Rauschenberg-like combines:

l’oiseau chante
avec ses doights

unfledged crook-spur waterfowl yell
-owing in the shallows’ fallow laps

There is the temptation to keep retyping, and to refuse to decode, as each revisiting reveals more figures hidden in the carpet, more ways that language can and will play, given the slightest illumination. And decoding renders the readings more immanent than one either wants or suspects them to be. All right, one more:

four old
eating birds

So that caught = aught (8), = aught (0); aught = (from ought) possession, possessed of; to possess something and to be possessed of it is to consume that thing = eating. “To bird” = to catch birds; “to bird” birds would reduce them to aught. Why “four” ? Caught = quatre. Ergo, “why four?” = whyfore? I am still working on “old,” looking for an etymologic link with “aught,” though am fairly delighted to discover that “auld” = “auld lang syne” = New Year Eve, which was moved at one early Christian moment to the Feast of the Annunciation, a most significant angelic flight and attendant proclamation, as well as by my discerning a discerning connection between “alere” (to feed, nourish) and “old,” which puts a bright red ribbon on the whole string of things.

As noted, the desire to refuse to interpret comes from the fact that any interpretation feels reductive, not in the fine transmutative way, as in a sauce, but in the way of the pruned, the pre-digested. For her part, Marjorie Perloff has cited Motes as an example of the new conceptual lyric, rightly likening some of the poems to Tender Buttons and describing Dworkin as having a “Jamesian aesthetic.” (For her excellent essay, which I refuse to reduce: Which meets in a line from Stein: “And then there is using everything.” T’wit:


Wherein the figure of a cello can be considered as a collapsed ellipse, wherein a collapsed ellipse is an ellipsis wherein the “c” in cello would be followed by an apostrophe because the “h” in “hello” would be ellipsed…you really should sit for this.

And while Perloff is right to find the lyric impulse here, an impulse that is conservative in the conservationist sense, one that shows its dilations by way of its contractions, Motes reminds me moreover that Dworkin’s work reminds me of Cornell boxes: the same structural fidelity, the same sense of the visibly unpacked, which is related to the visual, but not exhausted by it. Just as many of these must be muttered in order to activate their mutations, thus proving Motes a Joycean verbiovocovisual trove as well as a series of objets retrouvè. The former facing, Janus-like, the Brazilian mid-century poesia concreta, and its shared concerns with Symbolist synaesthesia as well as its devotions to poetic minimalism, the latter the solidly conceptualist dedication to the machine in the ghost, or, in Dworkin’s own prognostic words: “So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.” There is too in this work a literalism that insists on the dumb materiality of language itself, so words work as watchworks, not toward a greater sense of having said something, but toward the sense of saying itself. Such that the need to sound these poems in order to sense them also addresses the problem put by Perloff and Dworkin in their co-edited The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound, that the current critical attention to what a poem “says” may be, literally, at the cost of “saying” the poem, of the essential orality of poetry, and, possibly, language.

But if the work can be termed truly conceptual, and if conceptual, as I argue, allegorical, is there an allegorical register to be had? And this is where things take another turn, for Dworkin here appears to be working in a post-conceptual frame in which the object refuses all claims beyond its claim as an aestheticized object. For if conceptual writing tends to eschew the beauty of the literary object in favor of its role as extra-textual signifier, or, in Dworkin’s words, in conceptualism it is the idea of the piece that is paramount, post-conceptualism would change the game: it is only the beauty of language that matters. As matter. Not its signification—there’s no communication each to each, but rather the brute fact of communication itself. So the work registers a dumb materiality, as if the explication was machine-made, the product of John Searle’s Chinese room, in which Chinese ideograms are fed to a language processor and responses fashioned that, while grammatically correct and coded with linguistic sense, have no intentionality (and thus no real intelligibility, i.e., display no real “understanding”) because they do not come from any “one” who comprehends Chinese. So that to the extent language is, language does:


And surely this is enough. But let’s broaden our claim. In “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Cixious famously included Joyce as a prime example of écriture feminine, of transformative and transmigratory language, language freed from the bounds of linguistic—and thus conceptual—statis. In this spirit, I would like to nominate Craig Dworkin for inclusion in the Wesleyan University Press series of American Women Poets in the 21st Century (eds. Claudia Rankine & Lisa Sewell), for insofar as the works therein evidence a preoccupation with “interrogation of the boundaries between genres,” with readings that resist situational analysis, and with further resistance of “the binary of ‘the one,’ and ‘the other,'” Dworkin’s work does this and then some—and if there is to be an écriture féministe beyond that which is merely féminine, then surely it is this—

lesbians every
couple of year

Insofar as language works purely conceptually (or post-conceptually) in Motes, it cleaves sense and non-sense. (Non-sense as that which is legible, just not feasible.) If the mark of the feminist, as opposed to the feminine, is to serve as the mark, not of the Woman (which, as we all know, n’existe pas), but of the mark of the mark—of the moment in which sex becomes symbolic (when it is only symbolic of sex), then a feminist poetics must be a poetics that insists on the stupidity of symbolism attached to signification. The sign signs, or sings, or what have you, but says nothing, lacking understanding or intentionality beyond the fact of its function as sign. For it is this desire for something greater which is the beam to be cast out in order to see the real beauty of the mote.

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Mouth: Eats Color&#8212Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-Translations, & Originals

Sawako Nakayasu with Chika Sagawa

Rogue Factorial


Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

One of the things that you don’t know about me (will this make us closer or drive us further apart?) is my love of Dante in translation. But only in translation. I can’t read Italian, so I can’t say that I love Dante, any more than Dante could claim to love Place (we are inert to each other). But I read the translations like a glutton at a buffet—there’s one for each part of the palate: Singleton’s for a narrative stroll, Carson’s coarser Celtic turns for a jeu de maux, the Hollanders for rigor and statelier play, and creaky Ciardi for when I wonder why I was so dour at thirteen. One of the ancillary pleasures of reading translations is the translator’s introduction, in which the translator invariably defends translation as a matter of translation. Translation, in other words, being the hopeless and hopelessly optimistic effort to communicate the thing that may not be communicated. Leaving aside the easy case—there is, for example, no word in English for the sound of the separation of skin from flesh, such as, I am told, there is in Japanese–there is the harder nut, where words seem to mean the same thing, betraying in their seductive and false fungibility, the infra-thin difference between inhabiting the bon and mal mot. (The latter would be a joke in Swedish.) And so, translators are a uniformly fretful bunch, caught in the content-impossibility of their task. Though, like contented sado-masochists, they have perfected the single gesture of expatiation and inculpation. And like lucky voyeurs, we may be witness to this: in the London Review of Books, Julian Barnes recently used Lydia Davis’ translation of Madame Bovary, and her associated public slaggings on prior translations, to perambulate the well-ploughed grounds of translation itself. Oh, it’s a very good read, indeed.

That is to say, full of gossipy pleasures plus the kind of armchair participatory satisfaction usually felt (one imagines) by followers of televised sports. And while my reading French allows me the luxury of whistling and booing the above game, Sawkao Nakayasu-Chika Sagawa’s book both opens and forecloses such flabby participation. For Nakayasu, a poet of our time, has collaborated with Sagawa who has been dead for some time, but was a poet of the modernist period, a time possibly closer to our own than the more recent post-modern past. For although it cannot be said with mathematical precision, it is true as a rule that everybody loves their grandmother. The moderns reveled in the possibly libratory freedoms of free-ranging authority the postmoderns found so disappointing/embarrassing, which we find simply acts as matters of fact. (There is great relief in stasis.) Mouth: Eats Color is a book of poems about a book of poems, its translations and translations of translations turn and detourn and are intercut with new and rehashed information to no end save another stanzic ending. Though I don’t know as I agree with the “anti-” qualifier in the title, as it seems that the concept of a kind of translation which is against-translation, like that expression which is against-expression (see Dworkin & Goldsmith), is very much for translation as such. For, strictly logically speaking, the negation of something is also proof positive of its predicate existence. (For a brilliant poem on/not on/about/not about translation, see Caroline Bergvall’s “Via,” composed of all the first lines from all the translations of Dante’s Inferno in the British Library, by date of publication.) In other words, Nakayasu and Sagawa work here in French, English, and Japanese, revisiting certain pieces with a particular kind of fidelity, spinning off on others with another kind of faithfulness. I say Nakayasu and Sagawa both because that is how the title goes, and as the process used by Nakayasu to establish collaboration is as conceptual as it goes:

Now that you are back, one of the things that is very interesting about Nakayasu and Sagawa’s book is how it confounds history: not only relative to the multi-lingual stance taken based on the time Sagawa originally wrote, a time in which Japanese modernists were, like their European counterparts, very hot on the polysemous (this involved signification via various Japanese scripts as well as other languages, an affective register lost to the mealier-mouthed among us), but to the time of this writing, as noted above. So Nakayasu used Google language tools to compose some of the “Promenades” pieces which wend their way through the book, torquing the French and Chinese by feeding them through the internet machine, and deployed what she calls (by way of an email to me) a “keyboard hiccup,” typing while thinking in English on a keyboard set to Japanese, then translating the results into English. (I’ve done the same using symbol fonts, such as Wingnuts, but these results are more transubstantiation than hiccough. This is the third register of medieval materiality, where a thing is transformed—i.e., rendered legible in its other instantiation—only by way of the grace of the Geist.) The techno-melts fold in nicely with the modernist mash, oddly leavening the whole. (Japanese modernists liked to incorporate French, while l’ecriture chinoise was favored by a number of French modernists, such as Claudel, who used it allegorically, in addition to Pound’s ideograms, which worked in the collage as a kind of second space, given that the characters often functioned in a kind of constellatory description versus a strict immediate transcription.) (For Japanese modernism in the 1920’s, see William O. Gardener’s Advertising Tower; for the ideogram, see Marjorie Perloff’s essay, “Refiguring the Poundian Ideogram: From Blanco/Branco to the Galáxias.”
) (I’m not sure why I say oddly, though it opens up another discussion as to the pains and pleasures of reading in translation, wherein happiness is found at that point at which the text is both familiar and foreign enough. Both are matters of cognition and recognition: the translated text should be understandable as a text and understandable as a text that is not entirely at home. In other words, I want something “Italian” left hanging about my Dante.) And it is this sense of leavening which also underscores the possibility of smoothing the lines on translation’s lovely brow. For in this, our conceptualist age, translation is not a matter of difference and repetition, but of simultaneity. The poems in Mouth: Eats Color are all faithful unto themselves. You have doubtless noted that this review has not quoted a single one of the poems in the book. To quote any one of the poems in the book would be to select one as more something something than another, like picking my Dante du jour and forcing it on you. Or to identify the pieces as versions or inversions of some phantom originary work. Alternatively, I could have cited a series of single lines or pieces to illustrate how each moves and mutates through the book, but this would be a show of showing rather than telling. For the larger point is that these are all poems. Not translations. Not variations on a thing or theme. In other words, each work is its own piece in which the fact of translation, however defined, however infidel or true-blue to whatever Platonic notion of communication (there is this thing X which is conceived in language #1 as A and may be rendered in language #2 as B, which is to say, a kind of equivalency, such that x = a = b, where we all kind of know that metaphors, like all language shifts, are matters of addition and subtraction) is not a matter of mutation but metamorphosis. There is this poem. There is another poem. There are similarities between them, arguably no more or less than may be found in any other linked collection. The piling-on here works as a matter of simultaneity, not difference, not repetition. (Where was it said recently that all poetry is a matter of equivalencies? It was a wrongheaded statement, of course, but interesting as betraying a fundamental belief in fungibility, or the numbing aggregate effect of snowflakes.) (Just as my parentheticals in this are not parenthetical, but paratextual asides.) Like a jealous spouse or second-rate deity, translation loves to examine its partners for signs of cheating. Once we embrace the faith of the faithless, however, we are left with the even more optimistic hope of an open communion.

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Chris Alexander

Truck Books


Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Like any good conceptual work, the description of Panda (KFP) by Chris Alexander can be taken at its website-word:

Two and a half years in the making, this book-length poem assembles thousands of fan responses, brief summaries and descriptions of the title character from DreamWorks Animation’s 2008 movie “Kung Fu Panda,” an exhaustive catalog of product tie-ins and derivative works in the Kung Fu Panda franchise, and technical specs for the AMD Opteron, the microprocessor that powered the animation firm’s computers during the movie’s production.

Multilingual text with appropriated images.

(The sequel, available here ($8.00 for book, download for free), is “The Denovelization of Kung Fu Panda,” in which the DreamWorks/HarperCollins novelization of Kung Fu Panda is textually inverted and a glut of images from KFP1 inserted.)

In the 4th Council of Constantinople (869), it was announced that hereinafter the Image should be venerated equally with the Word, and that the Images of saints and the Blessed Mother were also the proper subject of veneration. This was the birth of allegory. And the aesthetic and ethical antecedent to KFP, which is a chronicle of veneration, a pilgrim’s progress from the account of the Birth to the accounts of the faithful (laity and clerk) to an accounting of relics (properly subdivided by type), culminating in an account of the mysteries of der Heilige Geist (in the machine). Too, the Word as such is represented: “The entire script for Kung Fu Panda online.” (49) Moreover, like the Gospels, the descriptions of KFP serve as Venn diagrams, overlapping, but with differing details—up to the believer, really, to determine what is salient and what is not. Are the father’s noodles a key to the kingdom (le nom du père), or another false prohibition (le non du père)? The believer believes yes and no, represented by various degrees of facebook devotion/identification:

Amanda Tedeschi Panda. Panda. Panda. Panda. Panda. Panda. Panda. Panda. Panda. Panda. Panda. Panda. Panda. Panda., oh yea!
November 19 at 11:05 am • Report

Tunahan Sefa Aydin I love you panda and I am panda &#58 &#41 &#58 &#41 &#58 &#41
October 22 at 10:21 am • Report

Lauren McNabb cest le j’m apple panda…aurjordui mecredi hehe
June 17 at 5:36 pm • Report

Lidwina Amanda Wong O love Kungfu, I love Panda, I love it all, so cute, so touching story!!!
June 5 at 9:34 am• Report
Jonathan Bourque likes this (40-42)

Among the catalogue arias are the three varieties of relics: bodily, those items which were once part of KFP, such as the Kung Fu Panda Po’s Dream Early Concept 2 Limited Edition Giclee Print (104); contact, those items which have come into contact with KFP, such as Kung Fu Panda and “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success” by Deepak Chopra (100); and transubstantive, those items which share in the body of KFP by virtue of being infused with the Spirit of KFP, such as McDonald’s Happy Meal Kung Fu Panda Figures Set of Four by Kung Fu Panda (102). Note the presence of the signatory in the last—”by Kung Fu Panda”—invoking that apparatus by which the Law casts the Source into being. (This authority is also how I become an author, for I am nothing without my apparatus.) Too, KFP demonstrates the medieval notion of the scala naturae or great chain of being, where culture (“A panda who promotes obesity and eating too much”) is revealed to be the better part of nature (“A panda who is pretty damn cute”), nature culture’s support (“The fact that it’s about a Panda Bear, should have told you this is not a Serious Kung Fu movie” (21)), the divine plan being one of harmony and self-preservation via brand promotion and product-placement:

McDonald’s Kung Fu Panda Feast of Fury. McD’s will also continue to not only try to get kids more active via its Happy Meal promotions, but also make them mini-activists. As part of its Kung Fu Panda promotion, it will partner with Conservation International. (178)

The aforementioned animus behind the animation is revealed to be the many-in-one of the Advanced Micro Devices’ Opteron Processor, “the Preferred Processor Provider for DreamWorks Animation.” (206) There are pages of text in Chinese, unreadable to this reader, some of which seemed to be screen credits. There was a dispute among medieval theologians about whether the Holy Word should be accessible to the laity—some thought yes, as the keys to salvation should be hung low. Some thought no, as the divine was, by its nature, not meant to be understood by the common man. KFP trucks with the latter notion, one which popped up later in Mallarmé, for the hermetic text is, like a frozen shipwreck, something that can only be cracked on its own turf. Contrarily and simultaneously, KFP also panders to the former theory, providing pages of images to be venerated as such, as well as the image of the image, an accounting of the offshot videos, games, school supplies, animate and inert plush figures and plastic figurines, and a walk through of the PSP, which cages its coaching in the second-person, present and absent: “Stumble. When you land, immediately start to fight off the bad guys…After you fight them off, you’ll have your first boss encounter, A Worthy Foe.” (141) It is the language of the crusade to the crusader, that damp whisper in the ear that indicates a fight for the right. As such, KFP is the very model of an epic poem, a lengthy work “concerning events of a heroic or important nature to the culture of the time.” (Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.)

Put still another way, if we can draw parallels between the gesture of the contemporary erasing (Rauschenberg : de Kooning; Bervin : Shakespeare) or defacing (Duchamp: da Vinci; Place : de Beauvoir) his predecessor, Alexander may be seen as inverting Damien Hirst. Hirst’s famous diamond skull work is mistakenly identified as a 2007 piece consisting of a diamond-encrusted platinum skull, titled “For the Love of God.” But this is not Hirst’s art work, for the work of art here lies in its working, its production and multiplication, the bread and loves trick that Hirst has subsequently performed and continues to perpetuate. The skull itself is virtually unmarketable, and so Hirst has, in the sly manner of many pilgrims, bought and sold the skull himself to himself (as part of an anonymous consortium), for what it’s worth (the sale is likely false). Some thought this was the real art, a media art performance of the sale and subsequent Sotheby’s exhibition/auction of Hirst’s work, prices suitably jacked up. But this seems too small, too postmodern-ironic, missing the real deal. For the real art lies in the art of the real, the distribution of the sensible, so to speak, in the Diamond Skull cufflinks ($9995); keyrings (₤7.70); brooches (₤5.80); miniatures ($24.95); prints (₤10,500); signed prints (₤8,400) posters (₤31), signed posters (₤205-310); t-shirts ($125 ebay—buy instantly); books (“For The Love of God: The Making of the Diamond Skull” by Damian Hirst, $200 hardcover); viewings (€10 adult at the Palazzo Vecchio in 2010)—the relics of the corpus sanctus that continue to be circulated and gazed upon, whose production is not reproduction, but production itself. After all, there were no originary Diamond Skull Christmas ornaments, but why not? The material is thus proved immaterial in equal measure, and all parts of the sacred image (consecration being a matter of some cost, though, as they say, price is no object—not materially) being equally sanctified.

Are these callow comparisons? It rather depends on whether one believes in content or containers. Structural containers, that is, for this is the very scaffold of belief, set in bas-relief. Is it funny? No more so than any fundamentalism. The postmodernist believed that there was no master narrative as imagined by modernism (emancipation oder idealism), just petit histoires from which other grand narratives could be spun (global capitalism), the conceptualist believes that narrativity is as poetry is, that is to say, as such. Here’s the stuff, do what you will. It will change, as will you, for it is your will that will make it whatever it happens to be—to you. Put another way, as Nietzsche noted, science is no more beholden to truth than God. Perhaps less so, as science can turn on a dime, and believes only in itself, whereas God is stubbornly resistant to change and believes in us, as demonstrated by the fact that we hear God. Or we don’t hear God, which is no proof of God’s non-existence, given the order of things and the nature of divinity. In other words, in conceptualism, the interpellation is reversed: it is not the hailing that calls me into being (pace Althusser), but I who cause the hailing that calls the police officer into being as law enforcement as sich. That is to say, truth is for those who can’t handle uncertainty. For the rest of us, there is the catalogue and the story of Kung Fu Panda—”a important message about believing in oneself the power that comes from within.” ( Put another way:

Panda was great.

I feel for this panda. (47)

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P.O.T.I.C.H.E. or Poetry Of The Immanent Corpus Hers Eternal

Monday, June 27th, 2011

Click HERE for a PDF review of P.O.T.I.C.H.E.

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Money Shot

Rae Armantrout

Wesleyan University Press


Thursday, April 14th, 2011

There is great and there is graceful. One does not always lead to or implicate the other, and there is the danger of de trop in both. For that matter, a poet should not be great, for greatness, or, for that matter, grace, can only lie in poetry. To borrow from Swift, Celia shits. As did Swift. And for that matter, poetry is also excretory, i.e., the given and the made. Still, there are those deeply happy times when all is in good measure, and the sweet spot is hit, or kissed, as you wish. And when the making becomes its own argument for the perpetration of something as essentially excessive as poetry. So it is with Money Shot. The book is not, save temporally, a follow-up to Versed (2009), which had the authority of autobiography, an authority to which many aspire, and more simply sign on for. Rather Money Shot is its own bank shot, all balls going right in the side (or breast) pocket. Note the measure of brutality in the breaking metaphor, for actual grace, like real life, is brutal, eviscerate.

They’re sexy
because they’re needy
which degrades them.

They’re sexy because
they don’t need you.

They’re sexy because they pretend
not to need you,

but they’re lying,
which degrades them.

They’re beneath you
and it’s hot.

They’re across the boarder,
rhymes with dancer—

they don’t need
to understand.

They’re content to be
(not mean),

which degrades them
and is sweet.

They want to be
the thing-in-itself

and the thing-for-you—

Miss Thing—

but can’t.

They want to be you,
but can’t,

which is so hot.

(“Soft Money”)

To be on point is to be terribly accurate, to be à point, to be bloody on the inside. The topological torques and warm red insides displayed in “Soft Money” are formally and thematically constant in this collection, as the typically short-line pieces plate-spin themes of fiscal emergency (circa early 21st c), imminent (and protracted) demise, sex (homespun and on demand), and the various procedures and apparatuses (material and linguistic) that dictate our everyday lives. While the poems seem to have been written while the US was in the fresher throes of its most recent collapse, what Armantrout duly and astringently underscores is that it’s not the crisis that’s new, just our endless surprise at the news (“What makes us human / is our tendency to point.” (“Working Models”)). Similarly, the aforementioned processes and apparatuses prove to be not only the stuff of what passes for eternity—eternity having, like everything else, a general shelf life—but the raw material of the Symbolic order.

Someone “just like me”
Is born
In the future
And I don’t feel a thing?

Like only goes so far.


The Symbolic Order being just so much sausage-casing, in any case. (“I write things down / to show others / later / or to show myself / that I am not alone with / my experience.” (“With”)) Though it must be noted in the register of materiality that the formal matter of language also includes its permutational properties and the practice that generates. Such that “Bubble Wrap” (“Want to turn on CNN, / see if there’ve been any/ disasters?”), for example, proves to be that with which you pack and in which we exist, like the housing bubble, primed to burst, like the boy in the bubble, pervious to all manner of ordinary pollution, like the bubble-clouds of our es-emplastic inter-net and inter-personal fancies. I’m conflating Imagination and Fancy here, pace Coleridge: Coleridge cast the Imagination as the es-emplastic active cognitive force, that which unifies the phenomenological stuff through pure will, regardless of the fixtures of memory or experience; the Fancy is passive, a receptacle of what’s cast in it, incapable of synthesis or the great thematic. But I think Armantrout might agree there’s not much between them these days, not with the way the screen-mirror works to make us in our own image: our imagined self is tethered to the stuff of us, stuff gathered and gleaned for public consumption, and yet is not bound to anything but its own self-reflective, self-generated view of what that stuff might make. The perceived self being in this sense the only real (or at least provable) deal, because that is the self that the world then mirrors back, an act of mutual regard that is not unlike the way capital works to make and unmake itself, rising and falling with the regularity of all empires. And so I see on facebook that I am a person to whom daily deals in Los Angeles might appeal (true) and who may be interested in GPS cat-tracking (false—though there is a bit of a pussy-theme), and who appears to be more or less popular, judging by the well-wishers on what may or may not be my birthday (true and false, for there’s no fact of me that’s pure facticity); I see on facebook that I am writing this on Rae Armantrout’s birthday (maybe true—who knows?). (“Custom content feed. // Let me tell you something personal. / As a child, I worried about quicksand. / I don’t know why I mention this.” (“Ground”)) “I” am because my facebook friends know “me.”

Put another way, Freud observed that the power of the phallus lies in its being hidden; Lacan pointed out that the phallus cannot help but be hidden, because it does not exist, save symbolically. The “money shot” in pornography is at once the proof that porn is “real” (men apparently can’t fake an orgasm, just as women can’t fake a raise) and that the penis is not the phallus. The penis thus stopped via the money shot is “Real” in the Lacanian sense of being simply meat that responds, like other meat, to both friction and fictions. The “money shot” in our economy similarly betrays the Real kernaled in our financial fantasies (also frictional), and for those of you who have forgotten, Lacan’s formula for fantasy is $ <> a, that is to say, the barred subject (the subject that is incomplete in itself) creates and is created by the <> the lozenge, the punched-out point, that lies between the $, and the objet petit a, that desire which is only the desire for (and of) desire that the $ insists could lead to fulfillment, but which is only insofar as it cannot be fulfilled because it does not exist save in its inexistence. In other words: “in the fantasy-scene the desire is not fulfilled, ‘satisfied’, but constituted (given its objects, and so on)&#8212 through fantasy, we learn ‘how to desire’.” (Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Desire. (London: Verso, 1989), p. 118.) Note that desire in Lacan, as in Armantrout, is considered an “economy.” Economies are to be husbanded, kept from and for the wife. Note how through this act of citation, I betray both my access to, and lack of, real authority (just as husband : wife). Note how Armantrout refers to all the authors around her as indiscriminately conspiratorial and constitutive: “outside / a child yells “Mom-my!” / again and again.” (“Human”); “In the departure gate, / the bag atop her bag spells / “Paradise”…” (“Cancellation”); “You are here” (from “Paragraph”). The child as author to the adult—the adult overhearing the child, who becomes an adult by way of comparison; the adult who is interlocuted as “Mommy” by virtue of the child’s call; the adult who remembers having been a child and yelling “Mom-my,” in the two-syllables of genuine need. The departure gate as ironic author—”Paradise” is a bag, not lost, not Edenic. The quotidian observation that I am where I am—that which acts as author of all authority, reminding me of my inability to escape the a priori—for whatever else I am, whatever category, I am, first, here. Note how the problem with all this authorship, this surfeit of authority, these various demands on us to make something of them becomes, for reader of signifiers, what to pay attention to (“You confuse / the image of a fungus // with the image of a dick / in my poem // (understandably)” (“The Gift”))—and where does this spendthrift attention end:

For I so loved the world

that I set up
my only son

to be arrested.


I.e., God, like other kinds of capital (and castration), is the fantasy that stops, the kind that says put your hands up and nobody move. And what Goethe knows and Armantrout shows is that this sort of stop is always the stop of a stopper, that is to say, something that acts as a plug—temporary, but with the tang of real Time. After all, what is Christ but eternity’s stop-gap? For his part, Faust went straight to hell once he said “stop,” i.e., tried to get a stay, just as the market will go skyward if it has its obliterating way (“can make a heaven of hell,” etc). Or, as Armantrout pouts: “Immediacy is retro / says Lytle.” (“Paragraph”) But remember: You are here.  There’s nothing saved by way of memory, for everything around you has already been, as you will be, spent. It is fate that will dilate.

As is obligatory to note, Armantrout is master/mistress of the short line. She’s best in this, however, with the short line that reads like a long line because it is less short than it is accordioned, i.e., sharper when compressed and rounder as expanded in the breath. Throughout the book, lines seem to be tossed exactly and easily, like someone juggling chainsaws, which, in principle, is no different from juggling soft squishy balls. Though one must be careful, or at least intentional, when putting balls adjacent to chainsaws. The best bad review of Versed (to be fair, there were only 2) on amazon was: “I read Versed in a bookstore, and I can’t figure out for the life of me why anyone would want to pay money for it.” Money Shot counters that money is, as it turns out, no object. It’s not money what needs to be paid to Armantrout (though she would doubtless object), but a pound of the softer, fleshier stuff, the sweetmeat of all our careful frightened attentions. Where else would you be?

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