POETRY CHRONICLE 2015: A Maxwell, Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clover, Juliana Spahr, Fred Moten, Emily Wilson
On books opposed to “too much arrangement in the head” (Fred Moten)
1. Much of A Maxwell’s Candor is the Brightest Shield (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014) is atomic in composition. The book is a selection of (for the most part) epigrammatic poems previously distributed out of the public view in hand-made pamphlets for friends during the last fifteen years - so beautifully unassuming is the man and poet (a poet who suppresses his first name). The poems are often strings of discrete, quick, confident short items indifferent to gravitas. “Poetry as the cult of urgency,” reads one fragment, but this poet isn’t having any. Maxwell is of two minds: one cultivates the decisive-sounding epigram, the other is hostile to conclusions, closed quotes. That the two intelligences exist together is a wonder. The infiltation of mind #1 by #2 cajoles me into putting aside my resistance to a poetry of commentary. Somehow Maxwell gives his statements some rootage in themselves and in one another. They are not just standing on the surface of language like glass animals. I like it that mind #2 says, “I will not individuate without regret” and “This gay clover // and I won’t close the quote.” Again:
I’m not chaste. I’ll make proofs to love it [“decreation”],
to court allied waste, or make love disinterestedly
to save the community interest.
What makes Maxwell’s assured terseness effective is his feeling for scraps that “escape / the flames and shoot out into the air, spinning.” He is hostile (if so agreeable a man can be hostile) to “inventory managers” and a culture of fungibility, with which he correctly aligns conceptual art. His grasshopper leaps (you can’t capture me!) from one crisp perspective to another are instinct with a “scoundrel vitality” and bear a tacit “invitation / To disagree.” A long series of one- or two-liners is of course an especially unforgiving form (witness Lisa Robertson’s unsatisfactory repetition in her new book, Cinema of the Present, of the single-line format superbly deployed in R’s Boat); but Maxwell’s success rate is high. A wild gene enlivens many of his statements, who knows where they will go and end? “Puzzling over some Lucretian postulate one finds nothing comes from nothing absent god’s will, but could he mean anything, a swaddled abstraction, like the wild ponies of Assateague, or you, love?” Again, “I’ll be blue. / I’ll be the blue hydrangea.” Paradoxically crisp smudgings, as in Kitaj; a tricky meandering, as if among screens and boxes, as in Merce Cunningham - these help to define Maxwell’s modernity. His clavichord art is purest in the collections that use a numerated form (“Life X” and “Ottolineal”):
. . . the wings are prosthetic, and attach at the port of the
Your person is not fixed to its world.
He calls it a ‘necessary accident’.
Maxwell’s theme is the responsibility of being mobile, variable, attentive, loving:
—I’m gayer than I was yesterday.
—I married a lovely girl
—I’m alive with possibilities.
Candor is a shield against officialdom, folly, and brutality. Maxwell’s Candor may be the coolest book of 2014.
2. Jasper Bernes’ touch in We Are Nothing and So Can You (Commune Editions, 2015) is not light but gouging. His brand of responsibility specializes in a dystopian satire of capitalism’s exchange of potential for production, of labor for others’ profit. Bernes is on fire with the radical theme of modernity: egalitarianism. “Every inch of the city / Tagged up with inequalities.” In a strategy of continually refreshing the reader’s attention, We Are Nothing and So Can You, alternates lineated poems with italicized prose poems, all of them sans title (the collection is one poem, and not, not synthesized). The verse is less successful than the prose. It is one thing to blackball poetic elegance, another to forego understatement (e.g, “the mushroom cloud / announces the end of another season”). The longer sentences plow on in total indifference to rhythm and occasionally even to readability. Language in verse is, after all, famously most effective when disbudded. Bernes might cite Juvenal: “Who is so tolerant of the Unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself.” But his prose poems go all out in a more subtle way and don’t need such an excuse. They have genius. Their garroting coherence, their combustions of disappointment in revolutionary activity (“the barricades bedecked with painted eyes / Blinded by the real look of things”) and of irony and intransigence regarding the herding mode of capitalist production (though Bernes says he hates all modes of production), their fluxuous, fluent style and powered-on narrative forms, can be devastating. They are not especially short but can be sampled here:
We had been barricaded inside the Louvre for a length of time you could not measure in time. Sandbags, maybe, or candles. Something gravitational. Or wind, you could measure it with miles of wind unwinding through the galleries. Most of the fighting was in the west, where the lights were on, where the paramilitaries fed on delicacies looted from the markets. At first there had been some fighting on the north side, all the furniture of empire shot to pieces, catching fire. But once we put the fire out, the police were gone. They had run out of bullets or patience or they had stolen all the things they wanted, while we barricaded that side of the museum, with the vast, plumed wreckage of the Occident. . . .
Or would we? Were we not the ones who – in the swerves and gaps of history – transform general will into a kind of general was, into the dailies and rushes of counterfact, the epic fail, man-nation? Or would the 500 years of experiment find at its limits not just capitalism or class society but the human form, not just the speaking ape but all the carbonated sacs of self-reproducing logos that foamed out of that old terrible constancy? . . . Would it have been meaningless, then - the communist impulse, invariant baseline of those final human centuries, banished and expelled, crushed and restructured and dusting the bedsheets of the hospital ward . . . Shouldn’t we have simply hastened on the end, cheered on the hot, whirring metals of the computers in the basement?” (Ellipses mine.)
The prose poems have a European gravity. They are smart, imaginative, rhetorically whiplash, adept, formidable, relentless, astringent. They make We Are Nothing and So Can You a mind-burn, a language-burn.
3. In Red Epic (Commune Editions, 2015), Joshua Clover is torn - no, not torn, but strategically divided - between a display of revolutionary bravura (“seize the fucking banks”) and the nearly Chaplinesque predicament of making his way circularly “through a thicket of signs.” The striking phrase may echo Octavio Paz’s little book The Monkey Grammarian (1972): “I inhabit my demolitions . . . lost in a thicket of signs . . . stains.” In Red Epic, the suspicion that “You are merely a repetition amid repetitions,” to quote Paz again, encourages some miming repetition in the lines and licenses some sharp-edged disillusioned flippancy. Clover is too witty not to have a good time: “The longest social experiment in history / Has been abandoned nobody liked it anyway, the cigarettes were awful”; again, “my century from dada to Prada . . . Meaning flows backward from the period so the century ends before it begins . . . Century where I salted my heart with the money of the absolute!” (“LTCM”). Clover’s ear is almost maniacally precise. His prosodic mastery is his night vision goggles. His diction, too, is pitch perfect. The work is vital and then some, but it doesn’t oversell. An exceptional power and subtlety of mind never let up, not even in a ditty about Andrew Joron, “Little Object Andy,” and his sorrowful theremin (“O to be haunted / To be Lautreamonted”). Clover is a sort of Ashbery who really cares that nothing comes from nothing; also a sort of O’Hara - another clever and talkative city boy, but this one may well lose his lunch at the next sight of a shipping container. The poems are full of metros and trains, which Clover confesses to love, but are they going or coming? ”In the poem beginning “Stop it with your strategies,” which ironically follows the step-down lines, “The poets are reading / Machiavelli when they should be / reading Clausewitz,” the early 19th century Prussian general who was all about strategy, Clover writes: “People are departing or arriving, it’s impossible to tell / By looking, like the duckrabbit that so amused the twentieth century / Philosophers.” “Why do things keep on / because reasons” (“Questions of the Contemporary”). Because of money, mostly. Is money to have the only say forever? Clover dismisses the opinion that the red era is kaput. Baudrillard’s, for instance, typically inclined toward the void: “the golden age of relations of force and dialectical contradictions has to go [and] that is too bad. . . . What is lost in our ‘interactivist’ sociality is precisely . . . the possibility of a determinate negation of the objective conditions. There are no ‘objective conditions’ any more.” To the contrary, says Clover in the untitled poem beginning “In the city it was warmer”:
End of empire waisted gowns and all this beauty listen hate
Grand narratives all you want but shopping is still a total system
Therefore total war or the adventure never begins
Such an “adventure” would of course not be pretty. Clover’s speaks of it in lines set (like others in the book) in exact joinery against the inevitable turmoil:
will die when this happens
poetry will be renewed
in the blood of the negative
“and dreadfully much else”
But Clover is too alive to things, too temperamentally buoyant, to burgle the present on behalf of an ideational future. He’s absorbed in a frightful lot of contemporary stuff. He also expresses fondness for friends and places (well, Le Marais, and maybe Berkeley). He likes to charm, and does. Watch these steps. At the same time, he makes you run to keep up with him, as in the following untitled prose poem:
We lived in a cloud of recklessness south of Market in a house with an accent when he said Taylorism it sounded like terrorism we lived in a cloud of restlessness and felt ourselves to be adrift east of China west of France south of Market north of Chance we lived in a fog of remorselessness in a long wave in a K-wave we sang I’m going back to Cali to Cali to Calligrammes we saw the world through world-colored glasses it was a situation known as snowglobalization down there south of the Market in a cloud of recklessness on a sea of credit and correlation in the winter of the long wave in the deep sea swell of the Market and the candidates threw roses and we ate the roses in the jaws of the present as we once ate Robespierre’s raspberries
Red Epic is a wow of a book.
4. Juliana Spahr completes the triplet of Commune Editions’ exceptionally brilliant debut season. Spahr moves toward prose, like Clover and Bernes, but is turned away at the entrance: papers not in order. The style conveys a disgusted and disenchanted indifference to arrangement in the head. The “prose” lines rumble on iron casters and gain a fearful momentum. The phrases sometimes repeat as if unable to detach themselves from the viscous material they critique, namely “the time of the oil wars,” while the poems may freely switch back and forth among several tracks of information or narrative. Spahr is one of those who “have lost their country and in their heart it feels as if they have lost something big.” She comes at you straight-on about it, in an in your face way. Though she appears to think nothing of her strong, strange moves, giving them a knocked-on-the-head quality, she knows exactly what she is doing - knows their strategic and expressive value. (She reads the poems out with a determined and stirring drive but without expression.) No frills, no fraudulence. The poetry is set at a (slightly to startlingly) staggered angle from the literal. An acid example from “Tradition”:
All day long, like a lion I lie where I will with not really me
and I bestow upon not really me
refractive index testing oils and wood preservatives.
I lie with not really me all day long,
and so I bequeath not really me a honeyed wine of flame
retardants and fire preventing agents.
I make a milk like nectar,
a honeyed nectar of capacitor dialectrics, dyes, and electrical
And from “It’s All Good, It’s All Fucked,” the longest poem:
I remember saying to Non-revolution once, after I said I so want to fuck right now, I said, you smell good to me. These are the mundane things one says in these moments, the moments when one cannot say you smell like sweat, urine, sage, pot, rotting food, hay and it is all good to me in this moment. All I could say was I want to fuck you and you smell good to me.
Spahr’s mischievous, edgy aplomb (amped up above its levels in her earlier books) is fun, if you like, but you don’t want to mess with this person. It isn’t that she’s fierce; she chooses not to be (you almost wish she could have that relief); but her work is wired, remorselessly honest, and more upset than any other words than her own would know how to say:
We fought because we became through fight. . . . I am unsure of my metaphors. Were we wolves? Were we even a we? Were we lovers or were we just a brief hook up? Was Non-Revolution the hard dancing one sometimes does to feel less middle aged? Does it even matter?
In this time of “the black cloud that is the slow constant burn of the oil wars,” of “shopping for particulate masks on the internet,” of “Occupying airstrips, helicopter pads, oil storage areas, docks,” of “Hot fireballs” and the BP dead (each of whom is named in a roll call done in mechanical iambic pentameter), of “Salutations to engine oil additive of Agrevo E,” of “greenhouse flowers of Monsanto,” of copters overhead and motorcycles blocking intersections, of “a fight party: Marxist vs. Nihilist,” of being “turnt to mere vandals at moments,” of “Selfies and all. Turnt” – in this time that imprints itself oh so stingingly on Spahr, love is a necessary recourse, love for not just her son but also the “we” of her fellow agitators, indeed an open-ended love:
I found a list of the most popular baby names for various countries in 2015, the year in which I am writing this poem. I made a list, one male and one female from each list. Then I alphabetized it. And I put these names in this poem one by one. I got to O.
But Olivia, Saanvi, Santiago, Seoyeon, Sofia, Yui, and Zeynep I
love you too
- and of course she is tender toward revolution itself, that non-, that bum romance (as it turned out in Oakland), that after you’ve gone, babe, after you’ve gone away.
5. Fred Moten’s The Little Edges - a beautifully designed oversized book from Wesleyan - is not exactly Moten Lite compared to the recent The Feel Trio but it is having a good time. Some of it consists of poems addressed to friends and occasions (the title appears internally in the phrase “the little edges of occasions,” but “little” and “edges” are sprinkled throughout). With its jazz exuberance, the book has the maverick spirit of one of its heroes, the multi-media artist Ralph Lemon: no hierarchy, much fluidity, no care-ridden pursuit of time, just (to echo Lemon’s words) bold, wild, delirious genius. “Dancing is what we make of falling,” is the note; “Music is what we make of music’s absence.” The cruelties of racial mistreatment are barely evident - the oppression of black people isn’t flipped off. Carefreeness is the best defense: “my baby’s black representational space is the south / dakota hills” – how’s that for an “edge”? The poem “mudede waters like josé munificent,” with its muddied references to Los Angeles, more or less gives the tone (a tone that resists capture), as in the lines:
you the from thing. shake your grove thing till
we’re reunited at the angels’ library. An annual
fade announced off fenian fenelonian fanonian
tranche but also that flange and quequenian la
as a rainbow of saints, my legacy is elegant but
found. aw, just appreciate/the little things I do.
the unusual threads and thrends are like doves.
The words play off one another like the instruments in a jazz trio, as marked by the agitant triplet “fenian fenelonian fanonian.” The semantics count, but the music counts more. (In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, Moten’s study of “a ‘sexual cut’ of castration by way of aurality, one that carries with it the transferential mark of . . . [a] previous materiality and maternity of otherwise occluded sensuality, otherwise occluded sound, otherwise occluded content” [p. 180], opens up The Little Edges, and vice versa.) Even when Moten is just thinking aloud, which is rare, he’s got “it,” the thing that keeps you reading. The poems are simultaneously edgy as to “langue” and comfortable with Brother love, erotic love, the love of music, and the love of airy poetic structures with lines falling through them like showers. An improvised idiolect spices and crosses dialect. “Thrends” - as in threnos, lamentation - are here only little soft things flown, at least until the blues has its say: “it’s hard to want, it’s so violent and beautiful.” In Moten’s hands, or flying out of them, a poem is a “newly born instrument as a whole bunch of differences.” His substitute for thinking on the future is what jumps: “who recognize the //// future don’t wait on us . . . , [they] decide they just ain’t gon’ wait. they miss something, they missing something, our liveness in reverb” (“wait for it”). Again: “we violate the auction block // experiment. we pirates of ourselves and others . . . // . . . we the cargo. are you my treasure? you all / I need” (“the gramsci monument”). (Well, here’s a smiling flip off.) Which is to say that the program as regards the future is just to move, have some moves, move on out, in contrast to the people who, in New York on January 4, 1969 (Moten gets specific) remained in a stalled subway for four hours, stranding 50,000 people in the system, for lack of an official telling them to leave. So let’s get “off so hard we [get] off everywhere. Our breathing empties the air with fullness. . . . The refuge is open and can’t be safe” (“test”). In truth, everything “travels,” is “other than itself and / it sells itself that way.” Thus “we’ve been / ourselves so differently.” Moten is intent above all on not being anybody’s “Project.” Anarchistically whimsical and erotic, his writing consolidates the spirit of jazz well beyond the aim and resources of a Langston Hughes or even an Amiri Baraka. But like Baraka he’s a teacher; he instructs as well as delights. “My reasons turn your snows to green.”
6. Emily Wilson focuses exclusively on what these other poets, with the qualified exception of Spahr, exclude: intimate experience of the outdoors. Wilson’s previous books, The Keep (2001) and Micrographia (2009), now read like primers to the much tougher naturalistic education of her new book, The Great Medieval Yellows (Canarium Books, 2015). “Might I disturb you?” Wilson asks in Keep. In the new collection, she doesn’t ask, she just disturbs. She comes at you with “implicate” poems that buffet the picturing faculty and severely ration the conceptual faculty - offering, instead, poems like the plant ‘art’ / that holds in place / hairstreak on / sheer tusk of mauve / delphinium / artless / brute appointment.” The poet’s mind and seemingly her face press close up to roots, lichens, parts of plants that you may never have heard of. She’s like a naturalist’s magnifying glass equipped with a formidable vocabulary (“forb,” ‘sintered,” “nematode,” “bredes,” “volvelle,” “polypodium,” and so on); her writing is “all protruded edge.” The poems rarely affect a breathing rhythm but instead conduct a stiff, stern progress: witness “Loose flotillas of snow in / dark junipers buttoned up / and down the joint stalks / round and round spalled / willed and will-less of one / equilibrium met in reasoned parts / teased together to uphold / certain routes to the windlass. . . .” The poet’s subjects become her descriptive “exact prey” - at least there is an air of exactitude in the “neutral tones,” the often adjectival style. Tenderness is never Wilson’s note; she’s no sentimentalist of nature. Instead, she’s intent on unfolding the matter at hand, much as her subjects are. The reader is afforded no “place to stand / in the open,” despite putatively “blown exposures.” Hope for such may spring up at the outset of “Parliament of Birds,” the only poem in relatively airy double space: “The tree is rendered fit for them just so // Attendant branches spaced apart in a plane.” But the poem then shunts abruptly to “Do not overslip the tinted wings, the sing - // Ularly curving beaks, vents and peppered // Corsets.” One notes that “-slip” and “tinted,” “wings” and “sing,” “pep-” and “sets,” come in pairs: here is a poet with an active ear. But the suddenly “thick” description may throw one off. The metaphor of ladies with attendants is complicated by both slits (“vents”) and the unlikely “Corsets,” with “-slip” punningly attending. Do not overslip: we are invited to peek at what lies under. Not to overlook is Wilson’s undertaking. But looking is entangled in imagining, as even more in the continuation: “Corsets [or is it the wings? Surely not the beaks or vent] sporting the town illusion we / Have come to abide in all the soldier-colored / Tufts competing in the abstruse copper / Rules so each is dutiful through its own / Enveloping hand-pixeled scape.” A nature poet has to “abide” the civil, uncivil world of towns and soldiers - a fact slipped in along with the possible sexual story of soldiers and corsets. In all, an overloaded description, a sort of new metaphysical poetry. Wilson is fascinated by the multiform in nature, and mimics it in her art. In the absence of syntactic, rhythmic, and punctuational easings, the poems need to urge, “Stay with me,” as in those Hollywood movies and TV dramas where a seriously injured person is at risk of fading out. The surprise is that, after a beat or two, the first two lines of “Parliament of Birds” prove disappointingly understandable, so conditioned is the reader by that point in the book to enduring Wilson’s wholly original moves – a mark of her achievement. The poems could be saying, “Whine and balk, reader, if you must, but you have had it easy for too long. Poetry isn’t a teat. Neither is nature.” Wilson makes readers know that nature is thornily complicate and intricate. If this is Romanticism, it’s been doused with an astringent. “Digitated Lemon,” about a “plain monstrosity” of a lemon (“thoughts in terror grow”), shows a disposition to befriend nature’s vegetable gothic, Romanticism’s ugly sublime. Wilson is sometimes drawn to vegetation’s “intricate barbarities,” like those “told in the waiting room.” And the poems are in their own degree rather monstrous. The nicest poems in the book part just a slit to let in more general considerations - in “The Garden,” for instance, “so / strains the eye / away from what / it wants: what / does it want? / what wants it?” But such contemplative mercies are in short supply; there are few after the early pages. Well, well, Reader, have your reading habits grown a bit soft in the tummy? Here’s a challenge.
1. In an interview conducted by Adam Fitzerald for the Literary Hub (Lithub.com, August 6, 2015), Moten speaks of “venial and murderously neurotic” expressions of anti-blackness that he prefers to deal with on a personal level so as not to “spend so much time on the annoyances that I don’t do what it is I’m trying to do.”