Plague Stages in the Plague Ground: Matthew Suss's Corrupted War Poem

by on Sep.14, 2011

[I wrote this a while back and forgot to post it:]

I’ve been reading the new issue of a journal called Noö. Lots of great stuff in here, for example Cartoon-poems by Bianca Stone and poems by Graham Foust, Gordon Massman and Matthew Suss.

Matthew Suss:

I don’t give a fuck. I talk to unicorns.
I talk to the dead for a very long time.
Someone give me your orange juice.
We do whatever the fuck we want.
Prop open the door with your pregnant gold retriever.
Some people can’t touch glitter without getting cut.
Smoke dust. Hail Satan.
I’m a spaceman tethered to the mother
ship, tripping on my minor depression.
My costume is my brain eating itself.
Some nights I can’t get Halloween enough.
To the points on the globe, I say next war, next war.
I keep the ghosts of birds in my breathing.
This is my body. This is the end. I’m going in.

I like how vibrant this montage is, and by “vibrant” I mean something more like “vibrating.” Like other art of “plague stages,” costumes and bodies intermingle.

The poem is a kind of assemblage of objects: golden retriever, unicorns, Satan, birds, globe, astronaut suits, a mother/ship. And implicitly: Soldier equipment. There is no interiority, just a costume that buzzes. The body is an assemblage (kind of like Basquiat’s paintings): why he needs to point out that this is his body. The body is a costume, or it’s a costume that “eats” its own body, “eats” itself.

I like how the costume is glitter that cuts and smoke. Masculinity as degraded costume drama. All masculinity is counterfeit masculinity – the kind one sees in war movies. I like how the glitter-cut is invoked, not as a description but as an observation about “some people” – it’s not an image so much as a cut, an un-suture. A corrupted body. A corrupted poem.

The “hail Satan” and unicorns establish the kind of degraded mixture of scary, fynny, ridiculous and beautiful you find in Kenneth Anger’s halloween-satanism:

And there’s this strange pregnancy motif running through the piece:The gold retriever is pregnant, the speaker is like an astronaut tied to a “mother/ship.” There is a vertigo-inducing change of scale. When we get to the brain that eats itself, I read it almost like a mother whose womb eats a child. The womb collapses.

The speaker is going “in” – a kind of war, his own text, his mother, his own body. But there is no real “in” there. It’s a poem where inside/outside is constantly undermined. The mountains are on TV, possibly covered in beautiful opium flowers. The inside is in the media. Since it’s a sequence (or “serial poem” as people used to call it), the finality of going in, of war, is undermined by being replayed. You go in but you find you’re also out. The poem will continue.

Instead of epiphany, you get a collapse. One might say that this is the “decadent childhood” of Feng Sun Chen’s “decadent pregnancy.” And like in Chen’s poem, the poem will emerge on the other side of the hole.

Also: How can you not love the use of The Doors? That constant soundtrack to Vietnam War movies. “The End” is never the end. It goes on.

This movie makes me appreciate The Doors again – as atrocity kitsch, as the theme song of America’s atrocity culture.


The way this poem is about war without treating it “critically” from a critical distance – as necessitated by so much of contemporary poetry and poetics – reminds me of one of the great books about war, Bataille’s “Blue of Noon,” where the narrator’s feverish debauchery merges with the onslaught of World War II. It ends:

Against this rising tide of murder, far more incisive than life (because blood is more resplendent in death than in life), it will be impossible to set anything but trivialities – the comic entreaties of old ladies. All things were surely doomed to conflagration, a mingling of flame and thunder, as pale as burning sulphur when it chokes you. Inordinate laughter was making my head spin. As I found myself confronting this catastrophe, I was filled with the black irony that accompanies the moment of seizure when no one can help screaming. The music ended; the rain had stopped. I slowly returned to the station. The train was assembled. For a while I walked up and own the platform before entering a compartment. The train lost no time in departing.”

In the foreword of the 1957 edition of this book, Bataille wrote: “How can we linger over books to which their authors have manifestly not been driven?”

In an era when poetry is supposed to be about critical distance (especially when dealing with war), Suss’s poem seems to be a poem that the author was “driven.”

12 comments for this entry:
  1. D. Oliver

    I’m really interested in this statement:

    “All masculinity is counterfeit masculinity – the kind one sees in war movies.”

    I’m doing some personal research on this topic. Any of your thoughts on this (in terms of the poem or otherwise) would be much appreciated.


  2. Johannes

    D.Oliver: What kind of things are you looking at?/Johannes

  3. Cory

    I really like this poem, it’s like Charlie Sheen on purpose. Rather, It’s like Charlie Sheen and everyone who gleefully watched him collapsed. I’m not being facetious. I might be being ill thought, though. In any case I like the poem, thanks for posting it.

  4. Johannes

    Good analogy. I love those Charlie Sheen statements.


  5. John Bloomberg-Rissman

    Johannes, if you haven’t seen it, this article on at Mute Magazine might be worth checking out …

  6. Johannes

    Looks great, thanks John B-R.

    I like this: “What we are talking about, extrapolating from Benjamin’s ideas, is a war of images. Not a bloodless ‘politics of representation/representation of politics’ – decoding and recoding – not mainly this anyway, but rather a concern with the force of images in and as themselves. Not in terms of how they can be interpreted, but in terms of what they do. Acting with force.”


  7. adam strauss

    This registers as sensible to me—-“All masculinity is counterfeit masculinity – the kind one sees in war movies”—-but I wish the non war-zone kind would be exposed as such too. Ugh but socialization, alas, is not a costume and instead seems to be friggin utterly of flesh and bone and sinew and, heck, even to be cellular: aka “””””””Naturally Correct.””””””” Is it the nation-state element that maybe lends itself to having combat-zone movie scenes be counterfeit?

  8. Johannes

    I don’t think this is a poem “about war” – to me it brings together war and “not war”. But I don’t believe in “exposing” masculinity. I don’t believe in that kind of privileged site, that kind of critique and certainly not poetry used as critique. Nothing bores me more than poem as critique. And I don’t think the movie scenes are counterfeit exactly. As Abu Ghraib (or the snuff tape of Saddam’s execution) showed, war and art exist in the same zone, not in opposition. / Johannes

  9. adam strauss

    I don’t understand this: “But I don’t believe in “exposing” masculinity. I don’t believe in that kind of privileged site.” Or maybe I mean, seriously? It seems like the sentences above suggest that there is no such thing–or rather that you do not believe there to be such a matrix–as masculine privileging; or conversely that to work to x-ray those dynamics is a silly luxury rather than necessary work.

    Am I tripping or is there a huge deliciousness of wonderful poems as critique: Black Arts Movement, Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, Blake, Stein etc.

    For me the mode of critique that bores me is the manifesto or the statement of poetics.

    How was Japan? Where there did you visit?

  10. Johannes

    I guess we have very different ideas about poetry. I’m not interested in “x-rays” . What I mean by the privileged site is that the poem posits a kind of place outside of the melee. I don’t think it’s a silly luxury, I just don’t think it’s interesting, it’s not where I’m at. I most certainly don’t read the Plath or Stein as “critiques”. Blake’s poems are visions, that’s a bit different from what I mean. Notley is like that too. Note: I don’t mean that poems should be apolitical!

    If you don’t like poetics statements and manifestos, why are you reading this site?

    Japan was great. We were just in Tokyo, mostly around the university area where the festival was, but also some excursions around town. We gave some readings and talked at the writer’s union about publishing and american poetry. We’re going to write some more posts about it next week when we’ve brought the images onto our computers. Some great poetry.


  11. adam strauss

    I don’t think Montevidayo can be reduced to being labeled a forum for manifestos! And I’m addicted to that which I supposedly don’t like: what I don’t like is likely more important for me than what I consciously adore!

    I very much agree that critique which places itself outside the problem, as clean from it, is dull/frustrating. But I don’t think critique has to work from this purified space! I’m a fan of writing critiques which posit me as the problem, which absolutely do not isolate the writer from the mess!

    The divide between vision and critique seems too neat to me; it seems that critique can be the catalyst for vision.

  12. Bill Knott

    thanks for link to Suss poems, they’re quite good