"Dedicated Experiments in the Deadness of Form": Toby Altman on Nate Hoks

by on Aug.11, 2013

One version of Hamlet

Nate Hoks is a cowboy of the in and out (burger).
Let’s start with an outrageous claim about modernity: Hamlet begins on a wall. This is probably important: one of the things we learn over the play’s long action is that bodies and walls are not so different. If the play has a thesis, it is: walls are necessary. What is inside—the body; the city; the self—must be protected, militarized, quarantined. (In this sense, Hamlet is an ode to the prophylactic). If the play has an animating impulse, it is nostalgia: for a lost regime of bodily openness and political security, when unregulated contact with the outside was possible. But the orchard is tainted, and the open body of the King, violently shut: “a…tetter bark’d about, / Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust, / All my smooth body.”

Hamlet Sr. is not the only one of us obsessed with smooth skin—I, for instance, apply lotion with archive fever. Modernity is, as Hamlet predicts, a matter of boundaries and border patrols: compulsively returning to division and loss—or, the loss which is division. What this compulsion means will depend, in part, on your politics. It might seem like melancholic return to the scene of trauma. Or it might seem like the foundational act of revolutionary rupture. Andre Breton, for instance, insists the primary project of his Marxist surrealism will be a reunification of sensual and physical worlds:

“[Surrealism] expresses…a desire…to bring about an ever clearer and at the same time ever more passionate consciousness of the world perceived by the senses….I say we have attempted to present interior reality and exterior reality as two elements in process of unification, of finally becoming one.”

Surrealist poetry is—or should be—experimental in a scientific sense: a way of making knowledge (happen); research into the real. Surrealism is a technology for solving modernity: designed to resolve (dissolve) in and out.

Breton belongs to a period of revolutionary optimism which seems today, well, cruel. How can surrealist science remain viable in a historical moment that has, as it were, no future? This is, broadly, the question posed by Nathan Hoks’ new book The Narrow Circle published this summer by Penguin through the National Poetry Series. The book is separated into two sections—“The Interior” and “The Exterior.” But, the title of the book quietly insist that this division is at best narrow; as Blake writes in the book’s epigraph: “They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up. / And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle.” Nate’s poems use the historical resources of surrealism to recuperate the infinity latent in the real: the unstable, excessive and grotesque, which dissolves the distinction between in and out. “What is a circle?” he asks in the book’s closing lines: “A way to be erased.”

“Finally you feel fully washed of your self,” Nate writes in the first poem, “Flight to the Interior”—as though announcing the book’s program and promise. How the poems wash you: they emerge from the body; they proceed through microscopic investigation of its processes. Here, in “Spiral of the Interior,” Hoks describes a headache:

my teeth are pulling at the frontal lobe. A look forms in the middle of my face. Another face forms in the bottom of the lake. Personality sprouts like weeds along the shore. At last Nathan Hoks is becoming a purple streak.

Virginia Woolf notes, “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache.” Let’s say pain usually resides beyond the reach of language, in the deep cavities of the body. What makes this poem electric is the way it excavates that deep interior with the ordinary, quotidian stuff of the external world: lakes, weeds, the color purple. Metaphor makes pain speak: the poem quietly insists that the body we know is metaphor. Surrealism gives us the body undressed: no-body and every-body; unspeakable and quotidian.

But are these poems political, asks Gene Tanta, and wags his finger.
But Gene, the question already commits us to a progressive, utopian notion of the poet’s office. Let’s say (since Michael Robbins has been here, and liberally marked the terrain—dog-like) that the avant-garde is, increasingly, an institutional, institutionalized genre. One genre among others—and, therefore, deprived of its particular claim to justice or necessity. Then let’s ask, what is it good for? and answer with the song: absolutely nothing. I mean “nothing” in Auden’s double sense: the avant-garde will be useful now precisely in its deadness, its failure, its imminence with the capitalist and patriarchal orders it claims to oppose.

This is, in a sense, Nate’s business. These poems—for all their strange, convulsive imagery—march down the page in regular, easy lines; the sentences are crisp, declarative. Here’s the opening of “Operation White Out”:

My friend John is always carrying on
About the laundry detergent. His neighbors
Have built tall fences. When he walks
Into a party the host turns up the music.
I try to cheer him up, invite him over
For jelly donuts. His sullen face bothers
My dogs. His bloodshot eyes seem to drip
On their egg-white fur…

If the avant-garde has consistently found a reservoir of political possibility in formal disturbance, Nate’s poems are dedicated experiments in the deadness of form. Even as the strangeness of his imagery amplifies, the form remains blithe, undisturbed. The preserve of his surrealism is everyday speech; its subject, the routine world of laundry detergent, donuts, and bodies. This will be one version of matrimony between art and life. No longer a revolutionary, concerned with transforming the real, the poet becomes a scientist, a mirror, plumbing and representing the intimate details of domestic reality. This poet’s voice is the sound of the real, in its intimate chiming. This poet’s body is the real as it surges past itself. This is what the real does. It strikes itself in ecstatic violence, and ruptures the ready distinctions between in and out, body and world; it squashes and shreds the self, like so:

Nathan Hoks is a millipede
With a thousand eyes, sparkling shards
Of glass stabbing at our footwear.
He should be squashed.
He should be flayed.
He should be torn from himself
And made to watch the writing arms
Strewn across the concrete floor.
He should be born before we talk about him like this.

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