Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Saturday, July 4, 2015

For Ornette Coleman

Mourning Song
for Ornette Coleman

A song crowned of crows.
A fold of notes inside a rose.
Notes broken on the road.
White horn, hover lower.

Grammar of sound
sung a crow tone low.
Broken vowels hovering
above the horn’s road.

Over a field a lone
crow flies low.
Song not gone.
Song still blown.

Horn’s tones
at dusk blow
shelter from the rust.
Each note a road.

No compass
of chords. Only
horn’s ache.
A crow moon aloft, forlorn.

Go with a stone’s throw.
A "moment’s gnosis"
making prayer
from dark chords.

There is a law in what I play.
The shape of chords to come.
Earth horn re-homed.
A white horn blows alone.

Under low stone
deep groan of horn.
A chord is nothing
but the sound of a man.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Robert Adamson's "Net Needle"

Australian poet Robert Adamson’s work is nowhere near as well recognized in America as it deserves to be. The author of twenty books, beginning with 1970’s Canticles on the Skin, and including most recently The Goldfinches of Baghdad, The Kingfisher’s Soul, and Reading the River: Selected Poems, he has also won every literary award his country can bestow on a poet, among them the Christopher Brennan Prize for lifetime achievement, the Patrick White Award, and The Age Book of the Year Award for The Goldfinches of Baghdad (also published by Flood).

Adamson came up the hard way, through a school of brute knocks, spending many of his teenage years incarcerated (as related in his powerful memoir Inside Out). It was in Long Bay Penitentiary he first discovered the works of Shelley and fomented the audacious desire to become a poet. Later, he found Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry and in time became friends with both Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley (his poem to the latter, “Inside Robert Creeley’s Collected Poems,” from The Kingfisher’s Soul, is essential reading). This led to both poets traveling to Australia for memorable events. Duncan’s visit inspired an entire chapter, “Eros,” in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello.

These singular acts of generosity mark Adamson’s own work as well. His poems sustain themselves on a remarkable wavelength of deep receptivity to what Duncan called “the ability to respond.” For over 40 years now, Adamson has been writing incredibly supple lyrics whose investments in the romantic imagination are perfectly balanced by the precision of his investigative focus on both the inner world of memory and desire and the outer realm’s thrilling ornithological kaleidoscope.

Net Needle, his newest book, is a work of extraordinary vibrancy. A mixture of autobiographical recollections from Adamson’s youth – moments from prison, learning the craft of net making from the local fishermen – along with powerful “versions” of celebrated European masters like Trakl, Reverdy, and Rimbaud, and a continuation of his life-long attentions to the fantastic birds of Australia, these poems hum with a precise music. I don’t think I’ve read another poet so intimately attuned to the ways of the avian. There’s absolutely nothing sentimental in these highly detailed accounts of birds, no reducing them to symbols of human ambition and failure. They live their own enigmatic lives in Net Needle, as in “Harsh Song”:

a feathery
sussuration –
half song,
ratchet, or
a snake’s
the roof
of its
mouth –
a smoker’s
exhalation –
in the grapevine.

The delicacy here, the astonishing discretion, owes something to William Carlos Williams, perhaps, but is entirely its own, fully realized and miraculous. Because discretion lies at the heart of witnessing, as the poet knows. And in Adamson’s poems, nature’s mysteries are never forced into the open, never uncovered by a pile-on of qualifiers; rather, they come into being through a form of intense attention. To enter into, rather than unmask, the flight of the kingfisher, or the kookaburra catching snakes, is the poem’s desire. These acts of poetic restoration occur on a small scale, but generate an enormous and enlivening eco-poetic charge, one that places Adamson squarely in the company of John Clare, Lorine Niedecker, and W.S. Graham.

Adamson is never vatic, though. His concentrated gaze condenses from myriad details an uncanny and beautifully faithful image of how all these things vibrate and flow. Not mere images then, but the procession itself, these poems offer a marvelous lightness and ease of perception. They seem to float alongside as well as within their subjects, joining language to vision.

Net Needle weaves together a luminous directness with a hard won simplicity. It gives us the very grain of the English language, its exacting measures, its eschewal of adornment, its rhythm that is also a way of seeing, as Zukofsky knew. For longtime readers of Adamson’s work, the re-lineation of “The Kingfisher’s Soul” will delight and move. The poem has opened out. Can a kingfisher have a soul? Or rather, is the soul a kind of kingfisher, diving fiercely above the river, a missile of incarnate desire, a ravenous muscle that drives bright plumage into flight, into love?

In the old days I used to think art
That was purely imagined could fly higher

Than anything real. Now I feel a small fluttering
Bird in my own pulse, a connection to the sky.
Back then a part of me was only half alive:

The poems in Net Needle are so fully alive they fly off the page. And some of them, like “Net Maker” and “Spinoza,” are as perfect as any I have ever read. What is a “net needle’? Simply a device for repairing a fishing net.

Their hands
darting through mesh, holding bone

net needles, maybe a special half-needle
carved from tortoise shell ...

they wove everything they knew
into the mesh, along with the love they had,

or had lost

Whether loved or lost, the net re-gathers it, without judgment. The net is woven to sift everything and cherish it.

Friday, February 20, 2015

What Work Isn't: On Philip Levine

Philip Levine’s death last week has prompted, for a poet, that is, an unusual number of public tributes. I’ve read several in the NY Times and heard two separate eulogies on NPR. My pal Robert Archambeau has written a very eloquent elegy for Levine at his blog. All fine and well, but neither Mark Strand nor Allen Grossman, both of whom died last year and both indisputably finer poets than Levine, received this kind of attention on their passing. Of the three of these, Grossman was the Master. But his work is difficult, full of gnostic intricacies, compared to Levine’s prosaic banality and sentimentality. The poet of work, he’s been called, for mining a brief period of time in his life, before he spent over 30 years teaching.

Of course teaching is work and hard work, too, if very different. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two I did my share of hard labor on shop floors, on assembly lines, in a shipyard and a paint factory and behind broiling friers. So I know what “work” is. I also know the kind of work that involves long hours spent behind a desk, grading papers, analyzing insurance data, writing code, or reading screenplays. For Levine work seems to take place only in an industrial sphere. It’s the work only men do. Or used to. Is there any mention of the domestic labor women have done for ages in a Levine poem? I’d like to know, sincerely, but I seem to have sold off all his books, alas.

Radio producers and journalists know a meme when they see one: here’s a poet who wrote about work – the idol before which all Americans bow down to and worship – and he wrote about it in simple, straightforward language. He wrote about it in a way that elevated the worker and praised him for his stoicism and his wounds. He wrote about it in a way that was not too far removed from a WPA or WWII propaganda pamphlet. “Brother, Can You Spare a Rhyme?” He wrote about the alienation and suffering of a certain kind of work – labor in Detroit’s car plants, shop floor environments my father and his friends worked on – and he wrote about it with a certain pathos but without ever managing somehow to offer any powerful criticism of the forces that kept this system in place.

When Levine’s The Simple Truth came out in 1995, I gave it a glowing review, comparing him, grandiosely, absurdly, to Francois Villon, Cesar Vallejo and Nazim Hikmet. This gaseous praise merited a prickly letter to the editor from Anselm Hollo and marked the beginning of our friendship, along with a transformation of my views about what poetry is. Which became for me a different kind of work than what Levine undertook.

Marjorie Perloff is still right. Levine represents Exhibit A in how experience gets ground into poetry through the most simplistic formula. A string of descriptive anecdotes rounded out by an epiphany? At least, that’s how I remember her famous and very accurate put-down, How can a poet claim to write about work and not critique the system that enslaves men and women everywhere? Jeremy Prynne, for all his bristling apostasy and hermeneutical obscurity, is a greater poet of “work” than Phillip Levine ever was. Because Levine, finally, was not a poet of ideas – a notion he would no doubt gladly ascribe too. His own work ethic blinded him to the reality of work.

His famous poem “What Work Is” is not about work as such, but a valentine to his brother, an aspiring opera singer. There’s some overcooked irony about a Jew wanting to sing Wagner in it, too, but finally it’s a poem about discipline and aspiration rather than work. A poem about wanting to escape the jail of work for the freedom of art. The scandal of Philip Levine – and the reason for his lionization – is that he has no clue what work is. To read a Levine poem about work gives one the impression that workers suffer because of mysterious unnamed forces or mere human malice and caprice. Work degrades the soul, demeans the person, exhausts the body. That’s what work is. Levine gets part of that right -- how work strips a person of their dignity -- but has no idea and has never bothered to ponder why work is. This failure to probe deeper mars his late poetry considerably, yet has managed to endear him to many readers. Still, in his early work, in books like Names of the Lost, for instance, he was capable of striking a powerful and elegaic tone.

Post-script: after further reflection and reading some thoughtful comments by readers of this post on Facebook I've toned down the rhetoric in this entry, which was needlessly harsh, and revised it somewhat. My overall point is not to castigate Levine for bad poetry -- though his late work does suffer from mannerism -- but rather a kind of bad faith. If the subject of a poem about the travails of work only portrays its sufferers as downtrodden figures deserving of our sympathy, without condemning the system that produces that suffering then these figures become mere fetishes, stand-ins for dishonest emotion.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Remembering Anselm Hollo

Homage to the Raven
i.m. Anselm Hollo

“And now what time is it”?
asks the raven at the end
of the world.

Time to get with the program!

Here on planet Earth
the program demands
we transmit every message
through the fraying vocab
for belonging.

But look, says the raven.
I, too, am frayed.
Fading into the inky
blackness of my wings
where song is a structure
for the ruins of time

my croak a kind of white
melody ascendant
the spiral glyph of M31
its arms of light
a cosmic call sign
flashing plenitude
& emptiness.

“Like Marx or Helen’s ankles
at the gates of dusk”
quoth the raven.

Adios, all you “guests of space”
soon to be remanded
to an infinity of un-
troubled dust.

But my poems refuse
to get with the program.
They will destroy
entropy forever.

from SONG X, Talisman House, 2014
first pub. in SPOKE 2.1 (2014)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Poetry Roundup 2014

This is not a “best of” list since the very idea of arranging yearly readings fetishizes the new and builds obnoxious hierarchies; it also reinforces spurious notions of critical omniscience. Most year-end Best Of lists are less about critical acumen than the dominant market forces of Big Publishing or Hollywood studios and the ways in which the circulation of the eternal same flourishes. It depresses me when I read a review of the same middlebrow novel over and over and over in The Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, NYRB, LRB, etc. This is why a review publication like Rain Taxi is invaluable for its devoted attention to the small press scene, where so much vital literature is being published. The public relations machine of Big Pub produces an overwhelming and monotonous conformity and a banal chorus of yea-sayers. Anyway, I don’t spend my time on all that. It’s not so much that I’m a snob. I just a have a different set of priorities. So “best” poetry is a silly category, finally. There’s too much poetry in any given year to take in and far too little of it that comes my way. I can’t pretend to even have been aware of a very small percentage of the work circulating through the poetry sphere. A few of these titles were not published in 2014 but this is the year I discovered them, so they’re new to me.

Robert Adamson | Net’s Needle | Flood Editions

Ed Barrett | toward blue peninsula | Pressed Wafer

Daniel Bouchard | Art + Nature | Ugly Duckling

Amy Catanzano | Starlight in Two Million: A Neo-Scientific Novella | Noemi Press

Thomas Devaney | Calamity Jane | Furniture Press

Joseph Donahue | Red Flash on a Black Field | Black Square

Rachel Blau DuPlessis | Interstices | Subpress

Joel Felix | Limbs of the Apple Tree Never Die | Verge

Allen Grossman | Descartes’ Loneliness | New Directions

Fanny Howe | Second Childhood | Greywolf

Pierre Joris | Barzakh: Poems 2000-2012 | Black Widow Press

Pierre Joris | Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry | FSG

Hank Lazer | N24 | little read leaves textile

Jackson MacLow | Complete Light Poems | Chax Press (Jan 2015)

Joseph Massey | To Keep Time | Omnidawn

Jennifer Moxley | The Open Secret | Flood Editions

David Need | Rilke’s Roses | Horse and Buggy Press

Fred Moten | The Feel Trio | Letter Machine

Jeffrey Pethybridge | Striven, the Bright Treatise | Noemi Press

Karen Randall | Extruded Gilgamesh: an introspection & Inanna: of the Entangled Ligatures & the Dearth of Thin Ink | Propolis Press

Claudia Rankine | Citizen | Greywolf

Robert Seydel | Songs of S. | Siglio/Ugly Duckling

Harvey Shapiro | A Momentary Glory: Last Poems | Wesleyan

Lissa Wolsak | Of Beings Alone | Nomados

Jay Wright | Disorientations: Groundings | Flood Editions

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In Praise of Fanny Howe

Dear friend Fanny Howe has been announced as a finalist in this year's National Book Award for her latest volume of poems, Second Childhood. It's an exciting moment for all of us who love her work. Below is an essay of mine that first took shape as a talk in 2012 for the New Gnostics Panel at the University of Louisville. It was published online at Talisman then in an expanded version for Kevin Gallagher's SpoKe magazine as part of a special feature on Fanny's work, including essays and reflections by Ruth Lepson, David Need, Donna Hollenberg, Mark Lamoureaux, and Bill Corbett.

The Failure of Logos and The Fate of Spirit: Fanny Howe’s Gnostic Angel

The question of how poets take up the fate of spirit after 1945 is a complicated one. Given the catastrophic history of the 20th Century, where spirit hovers above the ashes, as Wittgenstein says, many poets working in the postmodernist or late avant-garde vein have shied away from engaging with theological matters directly. They recognize that, like language, spirit has also been damaged by disaster. Lacking recourse to an intact metaphysical tradition, they must be content with a broken discourse. The concerns with spirit that occupied a previous generation (and continue to vex those who would appeal to the government-in-exile of timeless transcendental values) migrate after the war into the question of how to redeem historical disaster and alleviate human suffering. In what follows here I will read the poetry of Fanny Howe, the most spiritually vital poet now writing, through the critical work of Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, both of whom sought, in divergent ways, to redeem spirit by redeeming history. Howe’s work rejuvenates history by staking a fragile claim, not on logos itself, the incarnated Word, but on a tenuous, yet powerful, faith in logos. She does this, I argue, through a counter-intuitive turn to the gnostic.

What Raymond Williams said of “nature” could be applied with equal justice to “spirit.” It is one of the most overdetermined words in the language, admitting to such varied usage as to be practically meaningless. Yet the one thing these usages of spirit share in common is the designation of a non-material essence or property, either transcendental, in the theological sense; belonging to an intuitive order of perception, in the poetic sense; or describing an innate attribute, drive, or feature of character or mind in the psychological sense. Spirit is a word that serves many masters. Above all, it designates an interiority that is both autopoetic and self-reflexive.

Hegel uses it to indicate the ways in which subjective intellect or feeling informs the common values of a group before articulating itself through the historical process by which the World-at-Large recognizes its own totality; a kind of pan-cultural self-reflexivity. Dialectics propels spirit along through its successive stages of identity, through ever widening spheres of self-consciousness, toward the culmination of history brought about by the tiered negational movements which alone can articulate Absolute Spirit. This is history on the grand scale, a massively self-assured teleological metaphysics.

By the time this tradition is transmitted to Theodor Adorno the necessity for standing it on its head has become clear. The rivalry for dominance between fascist, totalitarian, and capitalist systems that led to two world wars and unspeakable atrocities destroyed the elegant dream of a self-realized and unified World Spirit. Adorno’s use of spirit derives from the classic German Idealist tradition, but is dialectically turned in such a way as to oppose the idea of spirit as a vehicle for world history or unifying social totality. What spirit signifies for Adorno is “inwardness,” a category of subjective experience that has become increasingly emptied out to the degree to which the autonomous subject has lost any purchase on its own experience. This inwardness, Adorno, says, poses a problem for art since it is at once “the mirage of an inner kingdom” that has become empty of content and yet without which “art is scarcely imaginable” (AT 116). To meet this challenge, art must become enigmatic, or endarkened, says Adorno. It must “do justice to contingency,” which can be read as another word for history, “by probing in the darkness of the trajectory of its own necessity. The more truly art follows this trajectory, the less self-transparent art is. It makes itself dark” (AT 115). This endarkenement pushes back against the synthesizing propensities of spiritualization and its inevitable drift toward abstraction and totalization.

In the work of Fanny Howe, this darkening takes the form of what she calls “bewilderment,” the loss of a spiritual horizon, a disorientation that leaves one stranded. “Bewilderment,” she writes, is an “error and errancy,” “a blindness to experience,” and a “whirling … that is central to the natural way for the poet” (WD 6, 7, 18). Bewilderment might also be messianic, in the sense used by Giorgio Agamben: it’s the sudden plunge into now-time, the time of the now, which he also describes as the truer, or inner, meaning of parousia. Echoing Heidegger, for whom being was constituted by time, Agamben writes that “the time of the messiah is the time that we ourselves are, the dynamic time where, for the first time, we grasp the time that is ours, grasp that we are nothing but that time” (C 12). This insistence on the Nowness of time is, in fact, the real Second Coming, which is not an event outside of time, but the entrance into a fuller sense of being made possible only through the intervention of the now-time.

As Adorno sees it, art must embrace such bewilderment, acknowledging its own doubtful position in the spiritual wilderness. To become truly redemptive, he claims, art must act so that “the spirit in it throws itself away” (AT 118). This radical self-canceling “holds true to the shudder, but not by regression to it. Rather, art is its legacy. The spirit of artworks produces the shudder by externalizing it in objects” (AT 188). That is, art replicates the originary shudder of recognition and displacement in the work itself, which, endarkened and estranging, disrupts spirit’s recidivist move to totality. In this sense, all artworks are caesuras, ritual scissions which cut open the illusory fabric binding social relations to their ideological structures. If spirit for Hegel is rational self-consciousness coupled to a restless pursuit of self-negation and overcoming that stems from the desire for achieving an absolute self-realization, then for Adorno spirit's vitality must always remain oppositional. This opposition takes the form of failure by refuting art’s affirmational character and insisting instead on the limits of art, after Auschwitz, to any longer represent anything but its own collapse. Art must find the shards of redemption amid the rubble.

A poetry that would speak of spirit, then, must first of all speak of its own failure. This is Beckett’s stance. For Beckett, the history of the 20th Century has destroyed the power of traditional aesthetic forms. As he relates in a 1961 interview:

"It only means that there will be a new form; and that this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else. The form and the chaos remain separate. The latter is not reduced to the former. That is why the form itself becomes a preoccupation, because it exists as a problem separate from the material it accommodates. To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now (qtd. in Bair, 523)."

A poetics of failure involves a rejection of aesthetics as such. It is built around a form of writing that incorporates the logic of failure, which is that writing can never be adequate to experience.

But if failure means recognizing the limits of the poem, it also represents a stubborn persistence in the poem’s ability to signify even after its ruination. True failure begins with the recognition that speech is always already crippled. That poetry itself is a species of disability and the struggle to pronounce its own condition from out of a deep aphasia. Failure, then, carries a kenotic value, as I will discuss in greater detail in a moment. It empties itself out not to make room, as it were, for a new meaning, but to show that meaning itself is an empty category. It is not what we thought it was. Not knowledge as such, in the positive sense of acquired information, but a negational gnosis, a not-knowing that is the occasion for the most profound unsettling. But besides a commitment to marking the insufficiency of language to forge a grammar of being, failure signifies the embrace of the broken, of the fragment. It names the desire for a redemption that is non-transcendental and non-teleological. The poem of failure commits to its own poverty, seeking the fragments that have lodged in the ruins of history.

As Walter Benjamin notes, what can saves history from the catastrophe of reification is to write in an allegorical form of transmission that exhibits the fissures within it. The failed poem is the poem that commits to those fissures. A materialist historian, he writes, or a poet, I might add:

"Stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the time of the now which is shot through with chips of Messianic time (Illum 263)."

To write the time of the now is the work which Fanny Howe’s poetry undertakes. She is singular among her contemporaries for the way she engages both with matters of spirit and the wreckage of the house theology has built for it. Her work negotiates the messy terrain between affirmation and ruin by asking what it might mean for a poet to declare herself, as she puts it, a holy atheist. Is it the same thing as being a post-metaphysical poet? One who writes to a god after the death of God? (Howe’s approach is not to be confused with the vulgar atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who make a fetish of rationalism, thereby proving Max Weber’s point about how “the disenchantment of the world” has led to catastrophe). One of Howe’s great achievements is that she recognizes that a failed world requires a gnostic poetics to redeem it. It is a poetics of total exposure and vulnerability in which the fate of the soul is always at stake, because the body’s fragility is equally at stake.

Despite an extraordinarily prolific output comprised, at last count, of fifteen books of poetry, elven novels, and three essay collections, her work is far less well known than it deserves to be. Though praised by her peers, Howe’s received scant critical attention. One reason for this, I’d venture, is her subject matter: the lives of the spirit, as the title of one of her books has it. Romana Huk’s terrific 2009 essay on The Wedding Dress does a lot to redress this deficiency. According to Huk, the challenge Howe’s work presents to readers of experimental poetry is that of a richly informed poetic theology that draws on “devastatingly secularized theories about language” (SL 658). Howe maps these theories onto gnostic modalities that encompass both the a-theistic and what Richard Kearney has called the ana-theistic.

In Howe’s work, gnostic, or heretical, faith, announces itself as a commitment to an open-ended process of discovery, a refusal of closure, and a willingness to undergo, or suffer, estrangement and difference for the sake of a spiritual thirst for justice that may be unquenchable. Such a knowing is not arrived at through reason, but by experience; an experience of a gnostic logos with the poem as its vehicle of transmission. To ask how logos became gnostic is to trace how the alien god of the ancient Gnostics has migrated into the alien word of postmodern poetics. Howe’s poetry works to build a home in our un-homed-ness as Adorno might put it. How to dwell in uncanniness. The alien god of the Gnostics is not the evil demiurge who imprisoned the soul in matter, but the thought that, as Derrida writes, “welcomes alterity into logos” (Anatheism, 5). For Hans Jonas, who put modern gnosis on the map, gnosis is “concerned with the secrets of salvation; knowledge is not just theoretical information about things but is itself … charged with performing a function in the bringing about of salvation” (GR 36).

The sage of New Haven Harold Bloom maintains that gnosis is “not rational knowledge but like poetic knowledge … [it] alters both knower and known without blending them into a unity” (A 4-5). Bloom is clear that gnosis is not to be confused with clarity. It is uncanny, enigmatic. “It emphasizes that transition is more real than being” (A 13). But Bloom’s vision of gnosis, rendered with more force than persuasion through his readings of Emerson, Crane, and Stevens is finally little more than an expression of a desire for poetic mastery, a kind of patralogical will to the Oversoul, rather than a surrender to the mystery of being one finds in say Simone Weil, who is an important figure for Howe. Finally, Stef Aupers reminds us that: “Epistemologically, gnostic knowledge does not arise from a reality ‘out there’… it instead relies on an ‘inner source’—on personal experience, imagination, or intuition” (RBC 688-89). What’s central to all three of these views is the privileged role granted to poetic imagination, which can bring about a radical new cognition not predicated on empirical methodologies, but arrived at by epistemological disruption, a forcible intrusion from within – a gnosis of embodied logos. This is one way to understand gnostic poetics today and it is how we need to read it in Howe’s urgent and harrowing work.

Howe’s own comments on ancient Gnosticism are instructive. In her essay “Contemporary Logos,” she revisits the argument between the Gnostic Marcion and the Platonist Philo. Marcion rejected Yahweh as a “false representation of the disappeared God,” writes Howe, looking instead to the serpent of Eden, with its promise of knowledge, as the exiled alien God, forever other and outside (WD 74). Logos may be our source, she says, but in our finitude we are alienated from it, a situation she goes on to link to the predicament shared by many of Samuel Beckett’s characters. Howe’s poem, “The Source,” from her 2003 collection, Gone, speaks to the estrangement of the logos, but rather than resigning to estrangement she finds in it a form of welcome or hospitality.

The source
I thought was Arctic

the good Platonic

Up the pole
was soaked film

an electric elevation
onto a fishy platform

and waves on two sides greenly welcoming

The sunwater poured on holy atheism

It was light that powered out

my ego or my heart
before ending with a letter (G 46).

In this enigmatic yet inviting poem, Howe seems to be rethinking her relationship to Logos as Source. Once thought of as Arctic, Platonic – half-rhymed words that provide a sense of a higher reality’s remoteness, sealed off by hierarchical tiers – the divine now becomes electric, fishy, lit by sunwater – in a word, earthy. “The Source” traces the signature move in Howe’s work: a turn from the transcendent to the immanent. A disavowal of the heavenly and an embracing of the body. A turn away from the thought of a source that powers the heart from outside to the recognition that the poem, after all, ends with a letter, a material sign. “The Source” marks Howe as a gnostic Catholic, abandoned by The Word yet unapologetically devoted to an idea of logos, with a small “l,” not as a stabilizing force, but as a alienated posture from which to re-think and unwork orthodox systems of belief. Her poetry re-articulates the grounds of faith as a radical doubt, an uncertainty about the estranged status of the word, which is no longer to be found radiating from on high, but right here, among the ordinary things of the everyday, abject, impoverished, in crisis. Howe’s willingness to inhabit the house of alienated spirit is a poetic testing of faith not unlike George Oppen’s dedicated testing of the basis of the real. “Doubt,” she writes, “allows God to live” (WD 120). Gnostic poetics is the faith of doubt, the commitment to uncertainty and its confusions.

Howe’s work asks us to consider not only the theological value of heresy – the way it disrupts prevailing orthodoxies and calcified doctrines – but heresy as a force for progressive social change. Her gnosis is a feminist one: rooted in the experience of being a woman it challenges the gender politics that sets the agenda for both things of the spirit and things of the body. As Rachel Blau DuPlessis has recently noted: “there are no genderless subjects in any relationship structuring literary culture” (PP 3). Nor are there any in religious culture, either, I might add. So we need to think of Howe’s work as a specifically gendered form of gnosis, along the lines mapped out by both feminist and liberation theologies, which speak to the poor and the disenfranchised, whose work is to reclaim a space for the marginal and the oppressed. Space doesn’t permit me to do anything more than gesture at this, but it’s crucial for understanding how Howe’s poetics of gnostic theology is also a poetics of social justice. For Howe, life’s urgency calls from every moment: “Every experience,” she writes, “that is personal is simultaneously an experience that is supernatural” (WD 19). But this urgency is countered by the realization which she recalls in her memoir, The Winter Sun, that “the prevailing writers (Kerouac, Rexroth, Corso) were all male, leaving the women to shuffle barefoot around masculine territory” (WS 64).

Despite these struggles to find a voice, or because of them, Howe’s poetry attains the simplicity and clarity of fable or fairy tale – charged with a luminous directness whose straightforward diction retains a beguiling air of mystery, a sense that words themselves are potential sites for the miraculous, events in which grace might take form as speech. Laid out in short, clipped, yet lilting lines, and full of slanted end rhymes, they create a contrapuntal music between the declarative and the aphoristic. This is from her serial poem, “Servitude” (1988):

Torn from the language of my childhood
When I was cut to size
And it was done, I leaned down
To where the clay turns soft
Like this I splurged on liturgy
It gave me a migraine to read the word GOD
In water lights, in everything good
Instead I saw stones
Happy Ohs, the vowels and holes
Of planetary silence (V 79).

The splurge on liturgy (typical of Howe’s delicious assonance) results in piercing pain. Such a triumphalist economy of divine expenditure won’t answer to her needs. Only stones and voids and silence can provide the “oh” that is the sign and call of both spiritual distress and the surprise of astonishment and pleasure. “Oh” may be the secret core of gnosis.

This desire to be both distressed and astonished is perhaps most forcefully articulated in Howe’s manifesto, “Bewilderment” (from the 2003 collection of essays The Wedding Dress). Huk has discussed this collection with considerable insight, but I want to touch briefly on it here in order to outline just how radical Howe’s theological investments in atheism really are. As she puts it: “The atheist is no less an inquirer than a believer” (WD 10). What the atheist desires most is a language – a logos – capable of dealing with the vast confusion of experience. She names this confusion bewilderment. “Bewilderment is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability … [it] circumnavigates … the empty but ultimate referent” (WD 15, 20). Bewilderment is a radical de-centering, a self-emptying out that exposes the self to the other. It invites in difference, rather than seeking after the identical. Huk comments that bewilderment is about “losing one’s way,” abandoning “familiar models of progress and self-expression” and “decentering the self.”

As Howe herself states: “[bewilderment] breaks open the lock of dualism … and peers out into space” (WD 15). To become bewildered is to undergo dethronement, or in Adornian terms, endarkenment. It is a negation of the aesthetic through kenosis, a forsaking of the transcendental logos for a gnostic logos residing in the body. Kenosis is the doctrine, first declared by Paul (in Phillippians 2:5), that Christ put off his divinity to become mortal, the logos made flesh, and so accomplished a second fall into history and suffering. As Graham Ward explains it, kenosis is both “a radical reading of Hegel’s notion of negativity” and “language in crisis” (RMP 235, 36). Drawing on the theological writings of Hans Urs von Baltasar, Ward outlines a radical conception of kenosis:

"Kenosis, then, is not the act of the Son, it is the disposition of love within the Trinitarian community. It is a community constituted by differences which desire the other … obedience to that desire to abandon oneself is the nature of one’s calling or mission – for the going out or the mission is always the act of love towards the other (RMP 242)."

In its spiritual nakedness, Howe’s poetry exemplifies this desire to abandon oneself for the sake of the other. The poem becomes a vehicle for evacuation, not out of one’s will, but toward a submission of the will to alterity itself.

To give just one brief example of how kenosis and embodiment are gnostically intertwined in Howe’s work I will look at a poem from The Quietist (1992):

Zero built a nest
In my navel. Incurable
Longing. Blood too –

From violent actions
It’s a nest belonging to one>br> But zero uses it
And its pleasure is its own (SP 141).

Zero performs an exemplary function here as heretical/gnostic agent, acting as the figure for both fullness and emptiness (registered moreover by the explicitly female body, its omphalos the site of parturition and evacuation). Zero is the postmodern gnostic trope par excellence. It’s promiscuous with heresy, with the “the happy Oh of vowels and ohs.” But it’s also, as Howe notes, what the Zohar calls “point Zero,” or God (WD 47). Signifying both fullness and emptiness then, zero is the “bewilderment” of opening to a profound vulnerability, a desire for redemption achieved through a commitment to uncertainty. Bewilderment in Howe performs a liturgy of emptying out in order to keep faith with the anxiety of not knowing, which finally produces a deep empathy. As the sign which evacuates itself, zero is the radiant performance of its own kenosis, the exemplary sign of weak theological power, the Pauline trope of logos tou starous – “the logos on the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18) which marks one strand of Christian theology (the other being the militant theology of glory, which focuses on the ascent of humanity into heaven). Cross theology tends to Christ’s descent from divinity into the suffering of human history and accordingly emphasizes humility and service to the poor. It has been re-framed by postmodern theologian John Caputo as “weak theology,” which he characterizes as a stripping away of God’s omnipotence, his sovereign power, which is replaced, not by the God of negative theology but by a suffering God, a God in pain, as Zizek calls him (though it’s worth noting that Caputo will have no truck with Zizek). Simone Weil describes this process beautifully:

"God wears himself out through the infinite thickness of time and space in order to reach the soul and to captivate it … we are what is furthest from God, situated at the extreme limit from which it is not absolutely possible to come back to him. In our being, God is torn. We are the crucifixion of God (GG 140-41)."

The idea of a vulnerable, suffering, abject God allows weak theology to intervene in the suffering of history, much as Benjamin conceived of a weak messianic force that was powerless to effect the future but just sufficient to redeem the past.

Howe’s notion of zero asks us to think of it cinematically, as a superimposition shot, in which “a nest belonging to one” is also used by zero. It’s a position resonant with what Richard Kearney calls anatheism: the return to God after God. Anatheism imagines a post-metaphysical turn toward the idea of a God who neither is nor is-not, but is located in a third category, that of the May-Be or the messianic. This "God Who May Be" (as the title of Kearny’s 1993 book has it) is a God who, as he reveals himself to Moses through the Burning Bush, “flares up and withdraws, promising always to return, to become again ... who resists quietism as much as zealotry… an Exodic God whose exile marks him as both outside and on the way … who obviates the extremes of atheistic and theistic dogmatism in the name of a still small voice that whispers and cries in the wilderness” (QG 170). It is God’s abjection that redeems him and us because, unlike triumphalist theology and its insistence on transcendence, abjection does not blindly refuse the horrors of history or the challenges of how to meet the suffering other. “The anatheist moment,” Kearney writes, “is one available to anyone who experiences instants of deep disorientation, doubt, or dread, when we are no longer sure who we are or where we are going” (A 5). In other words, endarkened. In other words, bewildered. The anatheist moment is that time during anyone who has suffered the failure of logos can still find the resources to bear witness to the fate of spirit after Auschwitz. This failure registers itself in the quest for a not-knowing, a knowing otherwise, a gnostic commitment to the ruins of the word that stakes it faith in the power of language through a constitutive doubt. In the post-Auschwitz era, such a commitment is imperative. The poet, like Benjamin’s historical materialist, is obligated to free history from the myths the present constructs around it. As Jacques Derrida puts it, the para-theological intervention of the messianic “mandates that we interrupt the ordinary course of things, time and history here-now; it is inseparable from an affirmation of otherness and justice” (GD 251). This is what Howe’s work achieves as well. By staging the poem as a continual agon that contests the viability of its own terms it uses failure to work out its salvation.

Howe’s work remind us that prayer, like poetry, is a peculiar form of language that stages intervention as the failure of logos. The condition of prayer is not that it should be answered, only that it be continually put forth as a question. This kind of failure is the admission of poetry’s essential poverty. Rather than seeking to legislate the world, it asks how can I start again? Kenotic prayer, like kenotic poetry, insures its survival by means of its failure. Logos becomes body, the word made flesh, not so that the body is redeemed but so that logos may experience a fall and be humbled. In the same way that Meister Eckhart prays to God to be free of God, Fanny Howe prays to the poem to be free of the poem. As she writes in one of the sections of her 2003 masterwork, “The Passion”:

I hate therefore
The word “prayer”
Since every word is one

The angel must be laughing
Crouched to examine the pink flower
Petals bending over a thorn and pen (G 83).

If each word is a prayer, then each word is messianic. A moment of speaking that is angelic, that is, an intervention into the now, a cutting into time from outside of time that leads us back to this moment. As Henri Nouwen observes, “Prayer is dying to all that we consider to be our own” (RP 21-22). In his hermetic essay from 1933, “Agesilaus Santander,” Walter Benjamin writes: “The Kabbalah relates that, at every moment, God creates a whole host of new angels, whose only task before they return to the void is to appear before His throne for a moment and sing His praises” (SW 712). Benjamin’s notion of the angelic is temporal. In his famous description of Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” his angel of history gazes on the debris of the past as it surges forward into the future. The angel’s task is not to save the future, but rather to redeem the past by making it visible as the past. This sudden moment of illumination breaks the chain of historical determinism. The term for this moment in Christian theology is grace. In my reading of Howe’s gnostic poetics, kenosis produces gnosis which in turn, gives way, perhaps, to a moment of grace. Another overdetermined, yet utterly necessary, word. Howe’s laughing angel seems to recognize that the predicament of spirit is that the wound and the record of the wound – the thorn and the pen – are co-constitutive, inextricably bound together in the condition of time we call mortality. Otherwise known as being alive.

Perhaps to acknowledge this condition of the wound is only to declare oneself outside of mainstream proscriptions for faith. Faith posits itself as the enemy of doubt, but without doubt, what is faith? Ernest Bloch remarks that “the best thing about religion is that it creates heretics … what is decisive is to transcend without transcendence” (AC n.p.). This is a faith for the faithless, in Simon Critchley’s exquisite phrase. “The faith of the faithless,” he writes, “reveals the true nature of faith: the rigorous activity of the subject that proclaims itself into being at each instant without guarantees of security, and which seeks to abide with the infinite demand of love. Faith is the enactment of the self in relation to an infinite demand that both exceeds my power and yet requires all my power” (FF 18). Such a faithless, heretical form of transcendence is what Howe’s gnostic poetics strives for. “God cannot be reduced to the word God,” she states, and yet, at the same time, she claims “we may not know if there is a God or not, but we do know that there is a word” (WD 81). Gnostic poetry’s desire is for the strange materiality of that word.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1999.

Agamben, Giorgio. The Church and The Kingdom. Trans. Leyland De La Durantaye. London: Seagull Books, 2012.

Aupers, Stef, et al. “Cybergnosis: Technology, Religion, and the Sacred.” Religion: Beyond a Concept. NY: Fordham UP, 2008.

Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1990.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. NY: Schocken, 1969.

---. Selected Writings, vol. 2, part 2. Ed. Michael W. Jennings, H. Eiland & G. Smith. Trans. Rodney Livingstone, et al. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard UP, 1999.

Bloch, Ernest. Atheism without Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom. Trans. J.T. Swann. London: Verso, 2009.

Bloom, Harold. Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982.

Caputo, John. The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2006.

Critchley. Simon. The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology. London: Verso, 2012.

Derrida, Jacques. Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx. Ed. Michael Sprinker. London: Verso, 1999.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukfosky, Olson, Creeley and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry. Iowa City: Iowa UP, 2012.

Howe, Fanny. The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life. Berkeley: California UP, 2003.

---. Gone. Berkeley: California UP, 2003.

---. Selected Poems. Berkeley: California UP, 2000.

--- The Vineyard. Providence RI: Lost Roads, 1988.

---. The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2009.

Huk, Romana. “A single liturgy”: Fanny Howe’s The Wedding Dress. Christianity and Literature. v. 58, n. 4 (Summer 2009): 657-693.

Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.

Kearney, Richard. Anatheism: The Return to God after God. NY: Columbia UP, 2010.

---. “The God Who May Be.” Questioning God. John Caputo et al, editors. Bloomington. Indiana UP, 2001.

Nouwen, Henri. The Road to Peace: Writings on Peace and Justice. Ed. John Dear. Maryknowll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002.

Ward, Graham. “Kenosis and Naming: Beyond Analogy and Towards allegoria amoris.” Religion, Modernity and Postmodernity. Ed. Paul Hellas et al. Oxford UK: Blackwell, 1998.

Weil. Simone. Gravity and Grace. Trans. Arthur Wills. Lincoln, NE: Nebraska UP, 1997.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Damage Report: Stallone, Robocop, and The Wounded Warrior

On Late Stallone

The pseudo-melancholy of late Stallone in recent films like The Expendables and Escape Plan points to a small but important shift in how aging American masculinity is represented on the screen. Whereas Sly used to stand as an exemplar of the Reagan era “hard body,” as Susan Jeffords put it, he has now cannily reinvented himself as a new kind of iconic figurehead – the aging hero, battered by loss, yet still determinedly loyal to his comrades and his code, fighting the good fight against insuperable odds or a corrupt system or regime.

Physically he has become even more beautiful, that is, more ugly and battered. The voice has dropped even lower – every word is uttered basso profundo, as though he had found a way to reduce the Book of Genesis to the intonation of a few grunted monosyllables. Stallone’s perpetual hangdog features – the drooping eyelids, surrounded by scar tissue (real or make up?), the thick sensual mouth, often wrapped around a cigar – have become exaggerated with age and signify a comfortable, if grotesquely nostalgic view of American manhood post-9/11. He no longer asserts his dominance directly, but instead asks us to take him in, a stray dog buffeted about by the radical changes to the cultural status of maleness. “Save the Dinosaurs” might be his bumper sticker. His leathery carapace acts as a kind of armor – both deflecting danger and making him, by dint of all his wrinkles, even more vulnerable. Poor Sly – always so forlorn and laconic.

In these late films he has come into his perverse own as an exemplar of minimalism. Not unlike two other genuine masters of acting minimalism in cinema, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, he has found a way to turn his liabilities as an actor into his greatest asset. Rocky and Rambo were figures whose besieged grandeur derived from how the system they trusted in betrayed them. This is the core of the Stallone brand and he has figured out how to keep selling this decayed aura through the current form of weak cultural anxieties. But the real genius of Sylvester Stallone is that he has become the high priest presiding over his own funeral. The Expendables is a plea for the utterly dispensable.

Post-script: The title, The Expendables, conjures up images of sacrifice, or even a kind of noble nihilism, but of course nobody but the baddies die in these films. It's all a comic fist-pumping brofest. A far cry from one of the best films about war ever made, John Ford's magnificent They Were Expendable (1946). In Ford's vision the best men are routinely slaughtered in the line of duty.

As the Duke puts it in a moving funeral scene, after the US troops have been beaten down in the Phillippines:

"Serviceman is supposed to have a funeral. That's a tribute to the way he spent his life. Escort, firing squad, wrapped in the flag he served under and died for. In a war you gotta forgot those things and get buried the best way you can. You all knew Squarehead Larson and Slug Mahan. They were just a couple of bluejackets who did their job and did it well. Squarehead Larson -- he was the best cook in the Navy. He loved the old Arizona. Now they're both gone. Slug -- he was always quoting verse, bits of poetry. So here's one for him. It's about the only one I know"

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you 'grave for me:
Here he lies where he long'd to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

The New Robocop

The new Robocop lacks the razor-sharp satirical edge that made Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film such a delight. It also lacks the pathos. In the original Robocop Murphy, as he begins to reclaim his humanity, finds himself devastated and utterly alone, his wife and son having been told he’s dead. His predicament is more than one of the usual anti-hero’s existential alienation – having lost both his family and his very body he’s condemned to a posthumous existence. He is a man who has outlived himself.

This Robocop, rather absurdly, yet cunningly, places family at its emotional center. Instead of recoiling in horror from what her husband has become – a mere stand-in for himself, a grotesque remnant, straight out of a horror film – the wife (played by Abbie Cornish of the appealing, defiantly upturned nose) adopts a fiercely loyal “stand by your man” attitude. What’s compelling about this approach is that the idea of Robocop has been made over into a rather effective allegory about returning vets who’ve undergone traumatic injury or prosthetic surgery in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a palliative Robocop. It offers the impossible dream of redeeming both the shattered body and the families who have been broken apart by ten years of useless war in the Middle East.

This is emphasized in two key scenes: the first, before we even see the unveiled (and grossly dismembered) Robocop, who is now little more than a head and a pair of lungs, is set in a clinic where a guitarist with a prosthetic hand magically learns how to play again (the music is Joaqin Rodrigo’s “Concierto for Aranjuez,” a clear signal to NPR-liberals). The second takes place in the closing shot of the film, where the reunited family stands resolutely inside their doorway as the camera dollies back, standing tall together, come what may, even though the hero/father is permanently maimed, imprisoned in a monstrous metal body, incapable of anything but feeling the harrowing absence of human touch.

The romantic appeal of the new Robocop is that no matter the damage inflicted by trauma, by the state, by technology, by the colonization of the body, there remains some spark of soul and humanity that cannot be subdued. This is the stuff of Hollywood and humanist dreams. Spirit will always triumph over fate. But as Jake Barnes more astutely surmises at the end of The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”