By Barbara Clair Freeman. (Counterpath Press, 2009)


If, as Joshua Clover recently framed it during a meeting of the 95 Cent Skool, one of poetry’s current tasks lies in searching out modes of response to the dematerialization of labor in some places and attendant hyper-materialization in others, and if one mode of response might attempt the making-present of hyper-materialized labor conditions and bodies while another might explore or sound out spaces of absence in dematerialized locations, Barbara Claire Freeman’s Incivilities goes far towards helping us understand the ways poetry might maintain an uneasy relationship between these modes, how poetry might do both. “In the closed car you / pass through ruins,” the emptiness of contemporary California, empire, subjectivity: the poems in Incivilities trace the violent histories such emptiness is, of course, stuffed full with, the economic and historical logics that birth empty contemporary moments over and over, where “the boss declares he won’t introduce / evidence about the cave-in while listening / devices dropped into the bore hold yield silence—.” And so the work here moves uneasily between a constructed visible and blurry invisible, between gorgeous, tumbling lines of torqued articulation and fragmented quotation from iconic documents of U.S. history (the Gettysburg Address, George Washington’s Inaugural Addresses, The Massachusetts Slaves’ Petition.) Something in the book’s multitude of formal parries, its restless turning from one mode to another, feels desperate—a throwing of the self, of poetry, against the impossibility of sufficient response. A mute lyric cry: “But I / am given / a body.”  This problem is beautifully problematized in the long poem “Apocryphon,” which takes up the question of transmission, reaching out towards a possibility of one person, in poetry, communicating with another one: subjects among the ruins, even though “I am not certain you will be / able to open this attachment or if / our platforms are compatible.” Appearing almost exactly in the middle of the book and drawing on Gnostic scriptures and Sappho’s fragment 31, “Apocryphon” functions as a counterpoint to the appearance of “known” texts interrogated elsewhere, holding open, with some force, a space of not-knowing, erasure and loss, while elsewhere there’s an insistence on the attempt to re-know, through re-visitation, the haunted materials that comprise a given body. This basic conflict powers the project. Poem after poem jams the haunted text against what’s become legible as a history domination likes to tell about itself, or the abstraction of the market against real bodies policed at borders. Incivilities never lets poetry off the hook as full cultural participant, a product of history like anything else, as embedded as everyone else, a problem that may also be a rich source of possibility and transformation: “My poems can be found in recent or forthcoming editions of the 15,000 / Volumes loaded at Monticello, the largest in America, hand-collected / With ammunition.”

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