Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Oni Buchanan, _Must a Violence_

I HAVE NOT read Oni Buchanan's two (? I think) previous books, although I seem to recall reading a selection of her poems in Legitimate Dangers, which was, what, seven years ago?

You know, for a book that inspired a fair amount of caustic comment at the time, Legitimate Dangers is holding up nicely. If you bought the most recent book of everyone in the volume, you would have more good books than bad ones, I think.

Must a Violence would be one of the good ones.

The third of the collection's five parts consists entirely of one longish (16 pages) poem, "Little Pig," addressed to a guinea pig.  The voice seems very young at times, innocent, even naïve: "Ring that little bell with your nose, Little Pig! / There's a bell there, and it's hanging down like that / so that you can ring it!" Before long, though, another note begins to be heard; the guinea pig chews on newspaper (lining its cage?), "enough to make a Little Pig / sick with all that ink and horrible / meaning," the paper's columns full of "total indecency and complete disregard for other / living things." The speaker, one begins to feel, is looking to the pig to find some evidence that creation is not depraved to the core--or that, for the speaker, caring for the pig is a lonely act to prove to herself that someone can care about something, lovingly and unselfishly. It's a lot to ask of a little pig--and the poem knows that it is, which makes the whole all the more poignant.

"Little Pig" seems central to the book in multiple ways. There are other poems about animals or pets, for one thing. "The Wild Rabbit" is addressed to Sergei, an utterly domesticated rabbit, implicitly posing the question of whether loving and caring for Sergei has made him rather other than nature intended him to be. "If You Love an Animal," which has the same Joan of Arc innocence-as-armor tone that we hear later in "Little Pig," looks at first like advice for pet owners, but soon the reader hears, underneath the insistence that we treat our pets humanely, an equally urgent call that we treat each other humanely.

That indirectness is another way in which "Little Pig" seems central to the collection. As the speaker in that poem is concentrating on the pig while a storm of outrage at the world rumbles in the back of her thoughts, so in many of these poems the mind's powers of attention and invention become a way of keeping present pain at bay. In "No Blue Morpho," the speaker's disappointment that the beautiful butterfly is not landing on her arm turns into an ever-expanding arabesque of description of the butterfly's beauty. The mind of the child being punished in "This Here Minute" finds ways to compensate for the company and comfort of which he or she is being deprived; the broken-hearted person on the eastbound airplane in "Younger and Younger" so deeply contemplates what she sees from her window that perhaps healing can begin.

There's an anger-flavored sadness in the book, but it never comes fully into view. In "This World," for instance, as in Elizabeth Bishop's "At the Fishhouses," the images seem to compose a complicated history that won't be uttered. "Must a Violence"--the most powerful poem here--looks like an exercise in anaphora, but soon turns terrifying. It left me shaken.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Jon Woodward, _Uncanny Valley_

WOODWARD'S PREVIOUS BOOK, Rain (2006), is an outstanding contemporary example of how very precise, even sui generis formal constraints  can generate poetry that feels spontaneous and emotionally urgent. His 2012 book, Uncanny Valley, does not superficially have much in common with Rain, save in the vital respects that it too is willing to explore new formal resources and that it too packs  an emotional wallop.

The title poem, for instance, includes couplets, marked by a vertical line, that "Are repeated (as a pair) / As many times as the reader desires, / From zero to 255, before continuing." This reader settled for one repetition, occasionally two, but even taking so little advantage of my opportunity as that made a discernible difference. The looping effect sometimes generated a little anxiety, as in Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, but other times led to a peculiar meditative calm; similarly, the images, which seem to involve a car accident on a desert highway, sometimes felt painfully immediate, sometimes far away.

It turns out that "Uncanny Valley" is also the text (libretto?) for a musical composition by John Gibson, for piano and electronics, which Woodward and poet/pianist Oni Buchanan have been performing around the country lately. For the curious:

Part 1

Part 2

In a musical setting, the looping had a Steve Reich-like effect, as in Different Trains or The Cave, balanced on much the same tipping point between reassuring and disturbing.

"Unhappy Valley" is the most striking thing in the book, but it's in excellent company. "Huge Dragonflies" uses the repetition device but in a more determinate way; "Heard, Half-Awake, August 14, 2009" not only brings in the possibility of leaving the number of repetitions up to the reader, but also experiments with slight garbling of a line's phonemes, a trick that reappears in "Uncanny Valley," a bit of ostranenie that turns presumably ordinary phrases into transmissions from a remote galaxy.

The book's other long-ish poem, "Priscilla Lioness," has some traits in common with "Uncanny Valley"--lions, for one thing (a section about lions mysteriously inserts itself in "Valley"), opportunities for readerly participation (Jorie Graham/Mad Libs style blanks, some already filled in), and above all the atmosphere of sun-drenched catastrophe, pity and fear kept at arm's length but pushing back hard.

It may be that my favorite poem in the book, though, is the short and strange "Between Identical Cities (A Reminder)," which walks a line between release and containment, between being bound and being free.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Giorgio Agamben, _The Church and the Kingdom_

I SAW A print ad for this and ordered it on Amazon--had I actually seen it first, I might not have taken the plunge and purchased it, for it is not really a whole new book by Agamben, but a sort of special bibliophile item.

It contains a lecture--more a sermon, really--delivered by Agamben at Nôtre Dame in Paris in 2009.  This text covers about forty pages with generous white space, but about twenty of those forty pages are devoted to color photographs by Alice Attie, "made from folded and twisted reproductions of paintings in books" (to quote her note), all the paintings involving Christian iconography.

The photos are striking and reward scrutiny, but even so the volume is a kind of coffee-table book for people with tiny coffee-tables (it measures eight inches by five-and-a-half-inches). There must be, I imagine, a more economical way to get a hold of this Agamben text.

But the text is certainly worth getting a hold of. Note the ambiguity of the title: which kingdom, the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of this world? Well, that's the whole point. Agamben sees the church's history turning on a collective decision to stop assuming the next world was imminent and to make itself as comfortable as it could in this one.

He makes the point, as he does so often, with a jaw-dropping bit of philology.  "Parish," our old familiar world for a community of Christians, turns out to derive from a Greek work that mean "sojourners in a foreign land"--that is, way back in  the pre-Constantine days, a community of Christians called itself by a name signifying that, as many a hymn had it, this old world was not their home.

These early Christians were living in what Agamben calls "messianic time," characterized by a certain kind of attention, a certain kind of openness to transformation--"the dynamic time where, for the first time, we grasp time, grasp the time that is ours, grasp that we are nothing but that time"--a sense of possibility that faded like the stars of morning into the light of common day.

As was bound to happen, I suppose... but Agamben makes one feel what was lost.

Oddly enough, and like as not only because I happened to read the two of them consecutively, Agamben here reminded me of Badiou in Metapolitics.  1989 was perhaps a different kind of falling out of "messianic time" (the philosophy of history is "an essentially Christian discipline" says Agamben, "even in Marx"), and Badiou's call to keep justice and emancipatory politics in our thinking and our acting seems another version of the call Agamben says the church stopped heeding.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Alain Badiou, _Metapolitics_, concluded

I AM GLAD I read this, despite its taking me a while, and despite having some reservations about his conclusions.

And despite my simply being unable to follow the last chapter, which Badiou signals in his preface is "the most important essay in the book." The mathematical terminology simply defeated me. Here is an example: "If we call [sigma] the fixed infinite cardinality of the situation, and [epsilon] the cardinality that measures the power of the State, then apart from politics, we have no means of knowing anything other than; [epsilon] is superior to [sigma]." (Sorry about the brackets--I don't know how to make my computer type Greek characters.) Not knowing what fixed infinite cardinality is, nor how a situation could be said to have it, I got badly lost here.

Even so, I felt Badiou was addressing the most urgent of political questions, to wit, where does the revolution live if we are now post-Marxist, or at least post-Communist? I was struck by Badiou's statement of the problem in the essay "Politics Unbound":

Why do the most heroic popular uprisings, the most persistent wars of liberation, the most indisputable mobilisations in the name of justice and liberty end--even if this is something beyond the confines of their own internalised sequence--in opaque statist constructions wherein none of the factors that gave meaning and possibility to their historical genesis is decipherable?

The quick answer that this question typically gets--that capitalism with democratic elections and  the classic set of civil liberties must be the best of all possible societies--Badiou refuses to settle for:

Those who imagine themselves being able to settle these questions with a few evasive replies on totalitarian ideology would be more convincing if only it were not so apparent that they had simply abandoned the idea of justice and the emancipation of humanity and had joined the eternal cohort of conservatives bent on preserving the "lesser evil."

These are the good folks he later calls "Thermidoreans." The Thermidoreans, in the account we usually get of the French Revolution, get credit for ending the "Reign of Terror," but Badiou reminds us the Thermidoreans were no slouches at terror themselves, perfectly willing to break heads and kill to preserve property, law, and order. There were post-1989 Thermidoreans, he suggests, as willing as their 1794 predecessors to declare the search for justice and emancipation over. But, he insists, we have to keep looking.

These questions can only be clarified by affirming the hypothesis according to which emancipatory politics, however rare and sequential it may be, does indeed exist, lest we start to resemble a doctor who, unable to comprehend the workings of cancer, ultimately declares it better to stick to herbal teas, crystal therapy or prayers to the Virgin Mary.

As we keep looking, where do we look? We ought not to identify this emancipatory politics with the state: "Contrary to what was previously maintained, politics conceived in this way would, in a certain manner, be the movement of thought and action that frees itself from dominant statist subjectivity and that proposes, summons and organises projects that cannot be reflected or represented by those norms under which the State operates " ("A Speculative Disquisition").

Nor with a party: "As we have been repeating for years, the question worth highlighting is one of a politics without party, which in no sense means unorganised, but rather one organised through the intellectual discipline of political processes, and not according to a form correlated with that of the State" ("Rancière and Politics").

So much for what it is not, but what about what it is?  Here is where I wish I had gotten a bit further beyond trigonometry than I did and could grasp that last chapter.

Some of the examples Badiou cites give one pause--Saint-Just, okay, but the Cultural Revolution (98)?  Really? Then again, I live in the United States, that paragon of democracy and human rights, and haven't we done as bad or worse to other peoples and our own as was done during the Cultural Revolution? And quite recently, too?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Alain Badiou, _Metapolitics_, further notes

I PICKED THIS up partly on general principles, making the effort to at least sample various leading contemporary thinkers and so on, and partly because on checking the table of contents I saw that Badiou devotes two chapters to Jacques Rancière, whom I have been reading a fair amount of lately.

The three books by Rancière I have read, however, are devoted to matters aesthetic and literary, and Badiou is writing of Rancière's political thinking, so I was less well-prepared for Badiou-on-Rancière than I had hoped.

Still, and interestingly, Badiou's description of Rancière's politico-philosophical writings accords nicely with the aesthetic writings as well.

Rancière, Badiou writes, is "well-versed at detecting abolished or diverted strata of statements which lie beneath established discourses" and at "making their signifying energy circulate anew." He does this not by locating a "primordial ground" or "founding site," though.

What he discovers is a discourse plotted and held in the aftermath of an event, a sort of social flash of lightning, a brief and local invention, both prior to and coextensive with domination and its burdens.  This invention circulates horizontally rather than vertically, for it constitutes the surfacing of a latent force of the dominated, and amounts to a demonstration that this force, which in most cases is diverted from its true course, is what drives the machinations of the dominators. (108-09)

Mutatis mutandis, this will work as a statement about how what Rancière calls the aesthetic regime of art announces itself towards the end of the 18th century (a "social flash of lightning") within the mimetic regime of art, nourished by energies the mimetic regime could not or would not acknowledge ("the surfacing of a latent force of the dominated"), redefines art's audience ("circulates horizontally rather than vertically"), and continues to make itself felt in our time, with commodification ever and always at its heels, trying to tame and market it ("the machinations of the dominators").

Badiou sees Rancière's politics and his own as strikingly similar, at least superficially, a similarity that makes it necessary that Badiou "set out the radical discord between us, which so many similarities conceal [...]". Rancière, Badiou, should make more explicit what he thinks about the State and about the figure of the militant, and should recognize that philosophy emerges from politics, not the other way around. Rancière could stand to be a bit more (Sylvain) Lazarus-ien, in short.

But Rancière has at least avoided falling into the pit of Thermidoreanism.  Which I will have to take up in a final note.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Andrezej Gasiorek, Alice Reeve-Tucker, & Nathan Waddell, eds, _Wyndham Lewis and the Cultures of Modernity_

A WORTHWHILE COLLECTION of essays by many hands on our man Wyndham, anchored on either end by heavyweight-class Lewis scholars Paul Edwards and Alan Munton, with strong pieces in between by old hands Scott Klein (Lewis on Charlie Chaplin) and Gasiorek himself (Lewis's cultural & aesthetic criticism of the 1930s).

The real treat of the volume for me, though, was the pieces by people whose scholarship I was encountering for the first time--Michael Hallam on Lewis's relationships with maverick feminists Rebecca West and Naomi Mitchison, Ian Patterson on John Rodker (model for a striking character in The Apes of God), Jodie Greenwood taking on Lawrence Rainey's Institutions of Modernism (and prevailing, I'd say), Alexander Ruch on Lewis and the state patronage that came to him late in his career, co-editors Reeve-Tucker and Waddell comparing Lewis on the "Youth-cult" to Waugh on the Bright Young People.

I can't double-check, having already sent the book back to its home at a university in Alabama, but I think nearly all of the contributors were at English universities.  Not surprising, since the project seems to have originated there, but it made me think that relatively few American scholars do the kind of investigation these people are doing.

In recent decades, the ordinary pattern for a lit-crit dissertation in the U.S. is to devote a chapter to a proposition about literature and (for example) gender, sexuality, imperialism, commodification, or some combination, drawing on two or three prominent theory people, then to have three chapters on texts by different authors, each establishing your proposition in some way. And this is a practical way to go about getting a doctorate, after all, as the writer shows he or she can do what literary scholars are supposed to do (master theory, closely analyze texts) and can easily break out chapters or parts of chapters for conference papers and articles.

The disadvantage--perhaps--is that, were the writer to do The Apes of God as one of his or her close-reading chapters (hard to imagine, actually, but this is just an example), he or she would probably not read a lot else by Lewis, or much of the secondary literature on Lewis besides what was explicitly devoted to Apes, and would certainly not bother digging very far into who this John Rodker (say) that Lewis so viciously caricatures as Julius Ratner actually was.

There is a certain kind of deep-mining literary scholarship, in other words, that we in the U.S. just do not seem to do any longer.

Because of the triumph of theory? Because there is just no new info to turn up on, say, Jane Austen or James Joyce? Because the juicier professional rewards lie elsewhere?

Well...I don't know. But I'm grateful to the editors for getting something like this into print.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Teju Cole, _Open City_

I THINK SOMEONE has already compared this to Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge--if no one has, it's high time someone did, because both give us an extensively educated young man of rarified sensibility adrift in the modern metropolis, oscillating between self-absorption and minute observation of his environment, without much in the way of commitment or connection to the world or even his own future.

I guess that describes a lot of novels, doesn't? Rilke's Malte And Cole's Julius seem especially kindred, somehow, nonetheless. Both soak up high culture like a sponge; both are drawn from elsewhere to a world-city; both are prone to flights of lyrical prose; both seem adrift, even though Julius apparently has a vocation (psychiatry). Open City begins and ends by discussing migratory birds, and Malte and Julius both seem likely to wind up somewhere else, but for now ils se promènent, principalement ils se promènent, situationists without portfolio.

For a brief moment, after he is the victim of an urban outrage, I feared that Julius was about to turn out less Rilke's Malte than Bellow's Sammler, old world culture and decency roughed up by new world brutality--but he's young, and he shakes it off.

We don't know what's to become of him, really--the novel is essentially plotless, but in a good way.  An old teacher of mine explained that it is important that Notebooks begins when Malte is 28, for 28 is the age at which the hero of the classical bildungsroman attained clarity, found a calling, married, and became the good burger he was meant to be. Malte is 28, but still at sea. So is Julius, even as he approaches completion of his psychiatry residency, and that seems to suit this novel perfectly.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

George Saunders, _Tenth of December_

I DETECT MELLOWING. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. I, for one, do not at all mind if writers get a bit wiser, gentler, more forgiving as they mature. And seeing as, professionally speaking, Saunders is happily circumstanced these days--in his acknowledgments, he thanks the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations and his editor at the New Yorker--it would hardly work for his fiction to suggest that all is vice, folly, desperation, dust and ashes.


Saunders is a satirist, and if your stories consistently represent people doing the right thing, rising to the occasion despite their inherent flaws and unpropitious circumstances, aren't you at least going to get a stern note from the satirists' union?  The characters in "Victory Lap" and "Tenth of December," which bookend the collection, overcome fear and their own despair to do the right thing; the main characters in "Escape from Spiderhead" and "My Chivalric Fiasco" do the right thing, even though it costs the latter his job and the former his life.  Even in the stories where matters are left somewhat in suspense, hope gleams: the father-diarist in "The Semplica Girl Diaries" seems ready to face the dire consequences of his young daughter having done the right thing, the family of the desperate returned Iraq war vet in "Home" seem on the cusp of doing the right thing, and even the envy-ridden, far-from-likable Al Roosten seems about to bite the bullet and do the right thing.

I mean... if you have as much faith in humanity as Saunders seems to have, can you still be a satirist?

Then again, Saunders remains America's laureate of Marx's concept of alienated labor. The father-diarist describes his work to the father of the girl whose birthday party his own daughter is attending, and the other father comments, "well, huh, amazing the strange arcane things our culture requires some of us to do, degrading things, things that offer no tangible benefit to anyone, how do they expect people to continue to even hold their heads up?" There's the genius of Saunders--all of his characters have that sort of job, have to deal with bosses who represent the workplace as family yet will squeeze their employees any conceivable way, have to strain every nerve to provide something that can approximate for their families the kind of life they see on TV.

Even uncannier is his ability to imitate the mismatched syntax and the leaden phrases borrowed from motivational speakers with which his characters try to understand their lives.

"The Semplica Girls Diaries" exemplifies both virtues, adding the irony that even while the father-diarist fights down his cold-sweat status anxiety, dreams up ever-more-unlikely scenarios in which his family escapes to calm prosperity, and struggles to articulate his reality in the cliché-clotted discourse his education has furnished him with, there are people much worse off than he--specifically, the "Semplica Girls," young women from Asia and eastern Europe who have let themselves be neurologically altered so as to serve as ornaments for suburban American lawns. When his daughter takes pity on the Semplica girls and frees them, he will be contractually stuck with the titanic bill, and without the status the dangling women confer--yet the last lines suggest his decency is not yet extinguished:

     Empty rack out in the yard, looking strange in the midnight.
     Note to self: call Greenway, have them take ugly thing away.

Even the hypocritical, manipulative middle-manager of "Exhortation," who seems irredeemable, ends his memo by quoting Julian of Norwich, and you think, well... maybe there's hope for him, too.

But once satire is hopeful,  it is turning into something else. Saunders may be in transition to a whole 'nother kind of thing. Will his Brideshead Revisited be next?

Monday, April 1, 2013

Arielle Greenberg & Rachel Zucker, _Home/Birth: A Poemic_

THE STORY GOES that Queen Victoria so loved Alice in Wonderland that she particularly asked to see the author's next book, and was taken aback when it turned out to An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, Charles Dodgson--that is, "Lewis Carroll"--being by profession a mathematician. I picked up Home/Birth because I liked Greenberg's poetry collection My Kafka Century, and like Victoria I was in for a surprise. I rallied nicely, though, read the book, and enjoyed it... which is probably more than Victoria could say.

Home/Birth is a conversation, interspersed with poems, between Greenberg and Rachel Zucker, another poet, on the subject of giving birth at home, with a midwife and a doula, rather than at a hospital, with a doctor and nurses. They both speak from experience, and are both committed advocates of home birth--as the subtitle suggests, the book is a polemic with some of the focus and momentum of poetry.

Accordingly, there is no back-and-forth, pro-and-con movement in the conversation; neither speaker is identified by name, so we have more the effect of two streams running parallel down a hill, sometimes converging, sometimes finding separate paths, or two voices in counterpoint, two melodies complementing each other.

Arranging the book this way might  be a disadvantage for some; since it has no index and no chapter titles, a reader couldn't simply zip to the info on, say, epidurals, or waterbirth.  The advantage, which is immense, is that the book is actually interesting to read, a compelling page-turner, not only for its facts, not only for its conviction, but also for the bone-deep, blood-thick friendship through joy and pain to which it testifies. The book is "about" home birth, but it is just as much about the intertwined histories and sisterly bond of these two women, a wonder to behold even through the indirect means of this text.

Besides, do we really need to have the "con" of home birth?  We all know what it is, and Greenberg and Zucker mention it several times: "what if something happens?" Every page of Home/Birth flashed me back to the births of our daughters, way back in 1985 and 1990, which did both occur in a hospital, and both times "something happened," so we wound up glad to be where we were. But do I know the same things would have "happened" had we been at home?  I don't. Might the frenetic atmosphere of the hospital, the Pitocin, the beeping machines, the strangeness and artificiality of the surroundings, have had something to do with what "happened"? It might well have.

I also found myself wondering--prompted by their names, I suppose, or reading the book during Passover--are Zucker and Greenberg Jewish? There's a glancing reference late in the book to the preference for home birth among Orthodox Jewish women, but Jewishness isn't braided into the cultural identity themes of the book, as hippie-dom and witch-hood are. Come to think of it, though... that's pretty Jewish right there. As are the complicated relationships with their mothers.  "My mother did Lamaze," one writes, and they chortle as they might over their progenitors' collection of Kahlil Gibran books. Then there's this bombshell: "my mother and I haven't talked since Willa was born." What?! Why not?? I felt like asking the book. But I could anticipate the reply: "Bubbeleh, don't ask."