22 January 2017
One of the most exciting things about the poetry being written out of the last several years of political struggle is that so much of it carries an effortless, vernacular awareness rich with the complex overlay of histories in the present. In the best of this poetry, these histories—of feminist, anti-capitalist, or anti-racist struggles—are given shapes and forms that feel new without feeling “avant-garde.” It is often remarkably frank, and not necessarily “difficult.” It is notably free of the traps of the 80s and 90s that invited some critics to think about left militancy as an either / or between anti-capitalism and identity politics. It doesn’t come with the once-obligatory Adornian attitude of agonized critical agency. And perhaps most interesting of all, this poetry makes startling analogies between the reproduction of poetic experience – as genre, as beauty, as human openness– and the reproduction of the conditions of capitalist accumulation. Much of it is being written by women.
The poetry I discuss below is intuiting ways of thinking about the confusing and draining relationship between the “productive” use of labor power and unproductive labor paid out by revenue, that labor which falls outside the circuits of the accumulation of capital. Given the kinds of work poets do to keep writing – teaching, service work etc. – this work hovers on a boundary between being merely exploitative and dehumanizing, and being actually generative of surplus value for a capitalist employer. It is poetry consonant with Aaron Benanav’s concept of surplus populations, of deindustrialization, secular decline, and the increasingly precarious character of all “gig” work. In each of these three poets, the pathos (and the comedy) of questions of social reproduction leads to startling and beautiful modes of what we might call a new poetic militancy.
My first example comes from Anne Boyer’s 2015 volume, Garments Against Women
. The book as a whole is an unremitting interrogation of the conditions of writing while a single mother, writing while a woman, writing without access to much money, writing while undergoing treatment for cancer. In a poem toward the end of the book, called “Not Writing,” Boyer describes the many genres in which she says she is not participating:
I am not writing anything anyone has requested of me or is waiting on, not a poetics essay or any other sort of essay, not a roundtable response, not interview responses, not writing prompts for younger writers, not my thoughts about critical theory or popular songs.
I am not writing a history of these times or of past times or of any future times and not even the history of these visions which are with me all day and all of the night.
Throughout the book, Boyer works heroically to un-name what she is doing, so as not to get captured by
employed in the academy
So what is she writing?
The book’s final poem (its title poem) gives a brief but powerful answer. Its ironic, un-capitalized hero, Robert Walser, is tagged for his precarious existence, his dwindling literary reputation, and for the miniature, encrypted “pencil zone” in which he wrote while in an asylum. The poem begins:
the walserian monument. a walserian wedding.
walserian joie de vivre. a walserian ship at not-
sail. The maybe floating of a walserian upon
their back inside a possible stream. walserian
#motto YSRWTLO (“you shouldn’t really
want to live once”). A clerk’s antinomy.
As with the prose poem I cited above, Boyer swiftly, acidly runs through variations on a modifier’s noun and sucks the air out of them – with one exception, the clerk’s riposte to the hashtag #YOLO (“you only live once”). That’s the beginning of the poem’s surpassing of its joke – the moment when the withdrawn clerk, the asylum inmate, tells the middle-class kids of the future that we have more to live for than one life might allow. It is extremely painful. But it enables a leap from “Bartleby” to Moby-Dick,
to the possibility that within the inhaled, miniature space of bitter Walserian “joie de vivre,” the space of no-genre, there is something else:
a catalogue of whales that is a catalogue
of whale bones inside a catalogue of garments
against women that could never be novel itself.
I experience these three tiny lines as a kind of a life-devouring charm, that once activated draws the whole wide web of the whale trade down into a miniature, Walserian space, and uses the fresh vacuum to recall the feminine uses to which the products of whaling were put, and then, further, to recall the violating, feminized labor that went into making those products, especially clothes, and finally to take that vast trade, cut down to size, and suck it out through a pinhole called never-be-a-novel. If that’s what a novel is built out of, these lines intone, if that’s what your epics are built out of, then I don’t want to write a novel, or “the” novel. The poem suggests, at the moment of the book’s close, that the history of the labor that went into sustaining the circuits of production that themselves are convertible into narrative – that this still mostly untold history now overwhelms the genre of the novel itself, that “the novel” can have no value until the conditions of its production have been miniaturized and cataloged and weighed as a set of costs. In un-genre-ing her writing, Boyer hopes to stage a link between the lost, waged labor of women making garments and the present tense of the militant and unproductive labor of writing.
In a poem called “I Grade Online Humanities Tests,” from her 2015 volume Steal It Back
, Sandra Simonds takes a real-time measure of the labor that goes into writing a poem, by writing a poem in the interstices of her paid labor. It starts like this:
I Grade Online Humanities Tests
at McDonald’s where there are no black people
and there’s a multiple choice question
or white people about Don Quixote
or Asian or Indian people I don’t want to be around
people I want to be here where there is
free wireless I do not want to sit at the Christian
coffee shop nor the public
library No I want religion to blow itself up
My sister converted to Catholicism
I do not want to sit at Starbucks
I like McDonald’s coffee because it is cheap
and watery I like how it tastes
The labor of grading these multiple-choice tests, you won’t be surprised to learn, is tedious – so the poet decides to multitask by reading some poems, though her work keeps inserting itself into her reading. The poet’s field of attention expands to include other people in the McDonald’s, and she adds to the crosscut interplay between her own thoughts and the texts of the exams the voices of her car mechanic, and her mechanic’s wife, whom the poet imagines threatening to kill her. Social relationships feel unboundaried and potentially off the rails – especially the relationships between heterosexual men and women: a man comes by, asks to use her computer, logs on to Facebook, friends her, leaves his phone number on her page, and she clicks “like.” She changes her mind about the value of the James Franco poem she is reading in a literary journal. And then the poem comes to a painful conclusion with two obverse meditations on beauty and ugliness – first, she notices
a young boy, maybe 8 or 10
in a booth across from me
is telling his mamma his daddy’s new girlfriend is ugly
“She’s ugly, mamma” and trying to comfort her
Then she modulates into the voice of her mechanic, then her mechanic’s wife, then into a charged meditation on physical beauty when it’s twinned with political and moral ugliness:
Do you want to meet in the Home Depot
parking lot? I don’t think this is a good
If I find you with him I’ll kill him
and I’ll kill you and no one will
know where your body But your husband
isn’t ugly he is beautiful leaning over to look at himself
in pond water or leaning over
masculinity itself leaning over the family
he has made for himself and the pond
is male because he owns the pond
and the guns are male because he owns the guns
and what’s happening is male because he owns the factors
that go into the car is male because he owns the police
and Home Depot is male because he owns and owns
and owns and all he can do is own
everything that will rot
This ferocious associative chain then pivots to the helpless little boy, who along with his siblings gets the poem’s last words:
and then in the background
the little boy’s like “She’s ugly, mommy
She’s so ugly mommy” and the mom
is like “Is she? Is she ugly?” And I think the mom
is ugly even though I don’t want her to be
and the other kids at the booth
are drinking milk and they are chubby
and eating fries and saying
“Yeah she’s ugly
Yeah mommy she’s so ugly
You wouldn’t want to meet her
because she’s so ugly”
Where Boyer’s recent work aims to put a spanner in the works of the reproduction of the genres by which women are allowed to become recognizable, Simonds’s work, hurls itself into the rhythms of underpaid academic labor, including its rhythms of distraction, in order to test the viability of the category and the experience of beauty. But it’s spoiled, she finds – pockmarked by the sexism of beautiful men, the ugliness of suffering women, the threat of objectification and violence she faces herself – all those failures of humanness and solidarity whose overcoming, the poem suggests, would take more time and energy than her work allows. To reproduce oneself teaching in the humanities today is to work a shoreless Sargasso Sea.
My last example is from the poet Jasmine Gibson’s 2015 chapbook Drapetomania
. That word, “drapetomania,” is a pseudoscientific term from the 19th century US, coined by racist whites to describe a mental illness that led slaves to attempt to flee captivity. The poems in Gibson’s chapbook cycle elliptically around this word, slyly composing a body of work that say, why yes, it is crazy to want to be free; or, my desire to be free is going to make me crazy ...
The poem I’d like to think about is called “Henrietta Lacks.” Lacks, you may know, was a black woman whose genetic material was taken from her cervix wtithout her knowledge or consent shortly before she died of cancer in a Johns Hopkins hospital in 1951. Her cell line, known the world over as the HeLa line, was the first so-called “immortal” cell line, since cells cultured from the line could survive exceptionally long. This cell line was proven immensely productive for bioscience, and immensely profitable, as well – there are thousands of patents based off the HeLa line. You will not be shocked to learn that, despite placards belatedly erected in her honor, and films made about the episode, and a science high school named after her, Lacks’s descendants have never been remunerated for any of the profits made from Henrietta’s body.
Here is the poem.
The lining is all gone
Full of ulcers and bondage slavery
Think of it as an inheritance
The kind that runs by blood
And air that will never reach your heart
And exit out of the cadaver’s hands
That have now become a part of your
I never said I didn’t navel gaze, I just
Said I forgot what pines smell like
The brain is swimming
In a pond on Pluto
The body is shutting down and you are not allowed to leave this potluck
The heart palpitates
While you wonder how you’ll have to fight with your co-workers over
who gets to take their lunch break
First and ¿como tienes pelo malo?
Sugar makes me clot
And ache for a child
Poetry is very much like schizophrenia
For my fixations on the fear of a hysterectomy meant to rectify any inner forgiveness
And the voices of guilt that hugs the lines
I am learning to be vulnerable
The poem’s present broaches terms with a painful, deep past; to take the measure of political and bodily suffering without collapsing under its weight; to find a path for the experience of sexuality and desire that doesn’t lead right to pain; to meet the body’s hardened, even cataleptic response to the suffering that predates it with that difficult strategy, softening.
The poem’s laboratorial spaces left behind by Henrietta Lacks’s body become a figure for historical exploitation and devaluation, a physical location in which “ulcers and bondage slavery” are heaped atop each other. As “an inheritance” that “runs by blood,” and as the source of a metonymic chain that run from the poet’s heart to a “cadaver’s hands” and back to the poet’s own “extremities,” Lacks’s body triggers an imaginative conjoining with the poet’s body. After the eight lines in which this painful historical proximity is established, the poet pivots over to a wry contemporary vernacular in which she gradually outlines a picture of her alienation from her own body, first wryly – “I never said I didn’t navel gaze” – and then with deepening social anxiety – “The body is shutting down and you are not allowed to leave this potluck” – and finally with a breathtaking return to the figure of blood, now menstrual blood. Medical worry and the desire for life are twined, in “sugar makes me clot” and the “ache for a child,” and these opposites –with the wild splay of the brain that’s both at a party and at the far end of the solar system –make her think not only about her body’s but her poetry’s
juxtapositions, which alike approach the condition of “schizophrenia,” partly because they toggle back and forth under the conditions of a very particular fear: the fear that her awareness of the presence of the deep past in her daily present will make it impossible for her to unclench. She is afraid she’ll succumb to the desire to become a good little worker. She doesn’t want to give up, and that is what Henrietta lacks – the prospect of long life, the hope of a future, the possibility of having a body whose value is not derived from extraction.
Where Boyer took un-writing genre as her figure and her strategy for a counter-exploitative practice, and where Simonds took ugly beauty as her figure for the scotched solidarity blocking poetry’s best possibilities, Gibson imagines poetry’s possibilities through the intersection of her body and a history that predates her but shapes her. For a woman confronting histories in which the material of the bodies of the descendants of slaves, no longer useful as hyperexploited labor, can nonetheless immortally generate a whole range of inconceivable revenues, how strange is it really to notice at a work party that her brain is swimming in a pond on Pluto?
In a postscript to his 2009 volume Disaster Suites
, the poet Rob Halpern writes that, “I hope these poems don’t persist. Or rather, I hope the conditions that make them readable do not.” I sense a similar hope in Boyer’s work, and Simonds’s, and Gibson’s: a willingness to imagine the illegibility of the work they’ve done – not because they aim at lexical or hermeneutic difficulty, or because they’re trying to ensure that their poems won’t become easy to consume, like commodities, but because they sense, in the interstices of late capital’s reproduction, that the limits of the system are coming into view.