Strange Meetings in the Necropastoral (and in Wisconsin)5: Harryette Mullen's Muse & Druge, Tom Hibbard's "Glory of Public Employees"

by on Mar.09, 2011

Fi Jae Lee, Everything Ascending into Heaven Smells Rotten

In past posts, I’ve argued for the political nature of the Necropastoral through three case studies: of Wilfred Owen, Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl, and Aime Cesaire. Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Strange Meeting’ gave me the model for thinking about the necrotic, decomposing, hole-y membrane of the Necropastoral as a meeting place for strange political meetings—that is, unstable, queer, spectral meetings unanticipated and unprescribed by conventional political rubrics. In this post I want to look how Strange Meetings are entailed in Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge and in Tom Hibbard’s “The Glory of Public Employees” about the ongoing protests in Wisconsin.

On Muse & Drudge

1. I do not want to argue that Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge is a necropastoral, exactly, although, to paraphrase Marvin Bell, it is a necropastoral inexactly, inexactness being one measure of the necropastoral itself, the balance that won’t zero, the membrane that serves both as medium and material, the deformation zone, the text as a site which passes itself through itself. Mullen’s work is not as Gothic nor as herbaciously inclined as most of the Necropastoral, but it is a kind of bios where bodies are media registering the waxing and waning, accumulating and debriding material of the text. Moreover, like the Necropastoral, Muse & Drudge is a flexing membrane, a hyperpermeable and permeated membrane, a paradoxical, non-binary zone which refuses to be economical but generates doubling, impossible spectres.

This phenomena is present right from its double title, Muse & Drudge, with its non-verbal yet pronounceable, semantic code symbol– the &—a relic of archaic typography and calligraphy which arises spectrally here to knot the antithetical nouns ‘Muse’ and ‘Drudge’ into a lumpy, variegated assemblage—the ampersand a kind of broken Moebius, a kind of upended, interrupted, distended continguity. Wikipedia informs us that the Ampersand is a ‘ligature’ of the Latin word ‘et’—it is a tie, a yoke, a bondage, it yokes [by violence] together. “The word ampersand is a conflation of the phrase “and per se and”, meaning “and [the symbol which] by itself [is] and”.

Ampersand: And per se and: The symbol which by itself is and. But how can anything be by itself ‘and’? What is this ligature, this occult quality of ‘andness’ which needs not yoke anything to be a yoke, which is nothing in itself but ‘and’?

The violence which yokes. The ligature.

2. sepia bronze mahogany/say froggy jump salty/jelly in a vise/buttered up broke ice.

I want to propose that the Poem, not just Muse & Drudge but any poem, and not just any poem but Art itself, and certainly the Necropastoral, is the occult ampersand, that which is in itself and, and per se and, pure medium, a place where binaries meet and reverse places, mingle statuses, incompletely saturate and split, more Moebius strip than equal sign, more hash mark than Moebius strip, enfiguring a constant draining and accruing of material across its libidinous band, its slippery starved and gorged interior throat/exterior flank.

Art’s ampersand is a kind of accelerated and distended present/tense, the violence of yoking together which cannot mask over a splitting, a non-identity; this occult activity is both suspended from linear historical time and heterogeneously distributes it, linking, synching, breaking, splitting. This coefficient of anachronism creates a constantly mutating contiguity in place of absolute order, value, stability, precedence.

3. Or, as Muse & Drudge unreels,
my last nerve’s lucid music
sure chewed up the juicy fruit
you must don’t like my peaches
there’s some left on my tree

you’ve had my thrills
a reefer tub of gin
don’t mess with me I’m evil
I’m in your sin

clipped bird eclipsed moon
soon no memory of you
no drive or desire survives
you flutter invisible still

I quote this opening passage to demonstrate the fluxing non-pattern of sound and syntax which breaks and reforms units of sense, nonsense, immersion and distance in variegated, unstable ways, proposing occult contiguities and coercions, an ampersanding of sound which splits apart to erase itself or hint at a persistence. In the first quatrain, ‘my last nerve’s lucid music/sure chewed up the juicy fruit/you must not like my peaches/there’s some left on my tree.’ Here the spectre of the stanza itself both suggests contiguity and fragmentation, something that splits and joins into couplets, but couplets which do not join to each other except through the occult resemblance of their sound/tonal pattern, rather than their sense. In the first couplet, the nerve produces elevated, lucid music, something produced without organs, absolute music, something like Keats’ unheard melodies, perhaps; yet this is a production of one’s last nerve, the final gesture before total expenditure of anger, breakage, breakdown. In the second line, the lucid music turns antic and embodied, perhaps it ‘chewed up the juicy fruit’, made the jaw work and the mouth water, and dived quickly from high to low, ‘lucid music’ to a chewing gum. Value here is accruing and dispersing, dipping in status from lucid music to jaw boning, even as it becomes more material, oozes from bodiless music to juice. The next two lines rewrite the saucy blues imprecation ‘If you don’t want my peaches/don’t shake my tree’ as an almost economic consideration, the lucid music and the juicy fruit’s logic of accrual now reversed across the chiasmus of the couplets into a retrospection and a counting up of excess which is also a kind of rejection of value.: a waste. This stanza makes a ligature, an ampersand in which the ‘my’ speaker contemplates devaluement and excess, but also in which the juice (juissance) is stored back up in the fruit to begin the lucid release of music again.

4. black dream you came
sleep chilled stuttering spirit
drunk on apple ripple
still in my dark unmarked grave

How does Mullen speak of the occult, apersandic quality of her own work, its violent yoking, its ligature, its broken Moebius strip, and how might this be read back against her macrocosmic sense of the work as a medium yoking writer to reader? In thinking about literacy itself, Mullen reconfigures text as a rank collection pool which fracks you up with its erratic draining and filling, erratic doubling up and pooling:
When I read the words of African Americans who were slaves, I feel at once my continuity and discontinuity with the past, which I imagine is similar to that of the unborn reader who might encounter my work in some possible future. There is another kind of experience I sometimes have when reading the words of authors who never imagined that someone ike me might be included in the potential audience for their work, as when I read in Circlot’s Dictionary of Symbols that a “Negro” symbolizes the beast in the human. When I read words never meant for me, or anyone like me—words that exclude me, or anyone like me, as a possible reader—then I feel simultaneously my exclusion and my inclusion as a literate black woman, the unimagined reader of the text.”

An unimagined reader is a kind of spectre, produced, occultly, by a text which cannot imagine her and yet calls her into being by an ampersanding assemblage of continuities and discontinuities, a vertiginous pulsing cluster of exclusions and inclusions. The blubbering aspect of Muse & Drudge, its ampersanding violent, gibbering, gibbeting, ligatured production, might be seen as the signature of this violent yoking pulsation and withdrawal: it’s rank it cranks you up/crash you’re fracked you suck/shucks you’re wack you be/all you cracked up to be.” But this shattering discontinuity, this violence and cracking can also sometime produce a stuttering, shimmering, pulsating production which is its own kind of spectral presence: “breaks wet thigh high stepper/bodacious butt shakes/rebellious riddem/older than black pepper.”

Mullen has also written, “[…] One reason I have avoided a singular style or voice for my poetry is the possibility of including a diverse audience of readers attracted to different poems and different aspects of the work. I try to leave room for unknown readers whom I can only imagine.” Unlike the unity of the natural mind and the heterogeneity fracks up value in Johnson’s model, it is the fracking in Muse & Drudge that yokes by violence a diffused, non-singular chorus of spectral speakers and a cluster of variegated potential readers each yoked by violence to different intensities of the text, simultaneously and heterogeneously assembled with Art’s ‘and per se and,’ Art’s ligature, Art’s broken Moebius strip, Art’s distended Ampersand.

Strange Meeting in Wisconsin: on Tom Hibbard’s “Glory of Public Employees”
Wisconsin poet Tom Hibbard has written a poem about the protests in Madison which figures just this kind of &, just this kind of illicit, proliferant, ampersanding link between the living and the dead. First the dead are called up in a collective, non-individualized spectral body, itself conjured up as the double of the (Necropastorally) proliferant of ‘snow’, its ‘more and more’, its plural ‘piles’:

on the steps of the state Capitol
in Madison, Wisconsin
and more snow fell
and more snow and more
plowed into mighty piles
the dead came out of their graves
they said “yes, that’s right

“the dead” are the doubles of the snow; the snow seems to produce the proliferant dead, who in turn produce their plural voice (and voice their plural approval). Next, this non-individualized, collective body of the dead produces another in the series of spectral doubles: the non-individualized, collective body of the police:

then the police arrived
and said, “this is a day of glory

“the police” are the dead’s double, arriving on the scene just as the dead have, and they echo the dead’s sentiment of approval. A strange meeting in the snowy Necropastoral if there ever was one! The collective “police” now envision a collective vision of “all the children” and “some people”:

look at all the children walking around
“some people from platteville
“some people from minnesota

What’s interesting (and Necropastoral) about this poem is not just the way each collective body produces a proliferation of collectivities, and the way in which the dead and the living meet strange, but also the way in which the quotation marks are continually suspended by the activity of the poem, resisting closure and proliferating/remarking themselves at the beginning of the lines. These statements want to stay open as long as possible. Also, the proliferation of the collective bodies also causes time to dilate: “this is a day of glory,” “this day will last forever/like the stone granite of the Capitol.” This long day, made up of glory and granite, is imagined (impossibly, anachronistically) as a continuous anniversary:

on the anniversary of working people
in the general celebration
of poverty and sadness

Here the abstract nouns “poverty and sadness” provide a silty substratum to the granite body of the poem, it’s final, downbeat line. These amorphous, sinking, boggy nouns will be as eternal as the day; they are the spectral double of glory and granite. It’s (perhaps) a pessimistic conclusion after the (literally) rising, uplifting poem, but also one predicted by its economy of collective nouns which cannot be split into individuals. The bodies of poverty and sadness also cannot be split; they are a collective body as well, an eternal body, a bog body, a corpse body, where the dead, the police, the students, the children come from and where they are going, the poem’s eternal anniversary, the place where its strange meeting will be commemorated and also repeated. Its position in the poem as the last line marks it as almost subterranean, a substratum, gloomy afterlife for the poem, but also a kind of Necropastoral persistence and self-perpetuation, a source and a site for future Strange Meetings. That’s the grave/pit, it’s pitted, and it’s where the poetry is (quoth Owen): in the Pity.

Conclusions so far:

Proliferating, but never self-same; proliferating a crowd-body; serving as a medium for proliferating collective bodies which themselves turn inside out and host proliferating collective bodies; as a corpse does worms; worms which make the outside the inside and the inside the outside (Andy Warhol); the crowd-body as the epithelial lining of the rotunda, the rotunda as the epithelial lining of the Capitol dome; making a hole in granite; breathing underground in an anti-life which could be immortal (if you consider the symbiosis of worm and corpse as a kind of subterreanean renewable resource): Surfacing in new forms to pierce the apparent present tense with Anachronism; the dead re- and de-animating the living; the living re- and de-animating the granite; generating and hypergenerating and overproducing the collective bodies that cannot be outlawed because they are outside and beneath the law (but might crawl through the law!); Antigonish; A Necropastoral: A site for proliferating non-continuous persistent unstable ephemeral occultly powerful Strange Meetings:

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Redness, Vibration, and the ‘Strange Meetings’ of All About My Mother - Montevidayo

    […] hole-y membrane of the Necropastoral as a meeting place for strange political meetings,” Joyelle describes the ampersand in the work of Harryette Mullen as “a kind of broken Moebius, a kind of upended, […]

  2. Jared Randall

    Harryette’s work is such a great example of proliferation and persistence. Where does stuff go when it dies from public view? That it runs down the walls, collects and mingles and grows unthinkable new organisms, unintended bodies, hopeful worms turning the insides out…timely connection with Wisconsin.

  3. Ornament/Excess/Fat - Montevidayo

    […] And the other day, Joyelle wrote about the blubbery quality of Haryette Mullen’s poetry: I do not want to argue that Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge is a necropastoral, exactly, […]