by Joyelle McSweeney on Jul.24, 2014
[Michael Martin Shea is a poet and 2014 Fulbright Fellow to Argentina. His research interests include ecopoetics, political theory, Latin American poetry, and contemporary American avant-gardes. This essay is part of a larger project that attempts to historicize the Necropastoral, both philosophically and aesthetically. He lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.]
Like my dad always says, “There’s more than one way to necropasotral.” And if we can think of the necropastoral as a mode of reading, (Joyelle calls it a “reframing”), then it follows that, like any critical praxis, there are theoretical underpinnings, forerunners, sleeper-ideas that prefigure and inform the current moment. The ones who furnished the war-room with all these fancy snacks. The most obvious, of course, is Raymond Williams’ The Country and The City, but I’m more interested in the work of Giorgio Agamben and his theorization on the state of exception.
Agamben’s work draws from his analysis of the logic of sovereignty as articulated by Carl Schmitt (the, ahem, Nazi thinker)—that sovereignty is given by the power to suspend or supersede the law, or, in other words, to create a state of exception. Sovereign violence is the prime example—I mean, y’all heard about these drone strikes? But this leads to a paradox: if the sovereign can suspend the law, then the sovereign is above the law at the same time as his/her existence as sovereign is constituted by the prior existence of the law. Sovereignty is marked by being both outside the law’s domain and inscribed at its center.
Of course, this is the case all the time—this logic upholds the juridical society by marking the law’s “threshold or limit concept,” so long as the state of exception is fundamentally different from the normal case. What Agamben is really interested in is when the state of exception and the rule become one—his example, surprise, is Nazi Germany. With the law suspended in toto, the threshold of the law begins to disappear.And when this happens, it reveals the fundamental locus of sovereign power as residing in the presumed displacement of physical life for the achievement of political life. Or, in other words, the law is thought to exist to turn bare life, flesh, material being into the good life, the intellectual life, the enlightened; what the state of exception demonstrates is that this displacement is a false construction—the bios, the bodies, were there all along. They were always what the law depended on and acted on, that which necessitated the creation of the law and sustained the law as the object of sovereign violence, its legitimizing threat. And now that the state of exception has become the rule, the primacy of the body, its vulnerability as a political object, is front-and-center. Or, to let Agamben say it himself:
At once excluding bare life from and capturing it within the political order, the state of exception actually constituted, in its very separateness, the hidden foundation on which the entire political system rested. When its borders begin to be blurred, the bare life that dwelt there frees itself in the city and becomes both subject and object of the conflicts of the political order.
If this sounds familiar, it might be because the pastoral relies on the same logic of displacement—a fantasy of a bodiless, deathless existence. The good life. It’s a projection that claims bare life, violence, disease—it all lies over there (in the city, outside the law) when, really, the call is already coming from inside the house. And likewise, the necropastoral is a similar blurring of the already-false lines, making that inside/outside logic explicit and, in the process, re-centering our focus on the body, on death, on corruption, on everything we thought we excluded. But more than drawing simple parallels, I want to make a point about Necro-P as a politically expedient mode of reading and creating texts. Agamben goes on to argue that post-9/11 conditions have essentially allowed for the creation of a permanent state of emergency, demonstrated by suicide bombings, extra-juridical killings, airport scanners, indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay, NSA data collection—not to mention the various other aspects of biopower already in-play. And from this, it follows that the necropastoral is not so much an aesthetic of deracinated window-dressings (we can say “drone strikes” too!) as it is a theoretically solvent response to the ubiquity of this exploded dialectic, to the incessancy of our bodily existence as the “medium for infection, saturation, death.” In fact, if we are forced into a world where the exception is the rule and our bodies are collateral, then an art of celebrating the fall of our false exclusions can even be seen as a re-appropriation of power: this time, we’re the ones exploding the illusion. Or rather, yes, the necropastoral is a mode of aesthetic decadence, but it’s also an appropriately politicized rejection of a pastoral mirage that, in the words of Williams, “served to cover and to evade the actual and bitter contradictions of the time.”
A Lemonade-Genius, Tart and Incisive, Sold by the Sip: On _A Mammal’s Notebook: The Writings of Erik Satie”
by Joyelle McSweeney on Jul.21, 2014
When I wish:
…I live in France
“in the days of Charlemagne.”
thanks to a friend of mine who is a Wizard…
(Return to the Past)
We haven’t yet made it to the Dog Days of summer and yet it is time for something completely different—A Mammal’s Notebook: The Writings of Erik Satie, edited and introduced by Ornella Volta, translated by Antony Melville, and just out from Atlas Press, London. This volume, like Satie, aka ‘The Velvet Gentleman”, is good-looking, hilarious, charming, insane, snippy and visionary, all at once.
Volta, a Satie scholar who established and oversees his archives and runs the Satie museum in Paris, notes “Satie still seems, even now, contemporary, because the problems he brought to light remain unresolved.” In the wake of Wagnerism, those problems included how to wave away self-seriousness and bring lightness, exuberance, play, modern flexibility into modern musical composition. Satie’s innovations were nimble, direct, cussed, literally childish, and endlessly inventive, and feel, to this day, fresh, completely free and freeing. First, he writes very short pieces, often quoting and satirizing both friends and enemies (Satie is truly contemporary in the quantities (and quality) of his frenemies). Next, he titles them after decidedly un-serious, anti-musical and/or formally paradoxical topics—Desiccated Embryos, Bothersome Globs, Sports & Recreations, Three Compositions in the Shape of a Pear, etc. Next, he annotates his extremely brief pieces with hilarious indications to the performer—“As if you were congested”; “Almost invisible”; “Be an hour late”; “Corpulentus” ; “On yellowing velvet”; etc. The brief, stanzaic texts which accompany many of the compositions have the barmy precision (Volta’s word) of Crevel (and/or Paul Legault’s playlets) (or Mallarme’s translations of English nursery rhymes) (or Stein) and are plenteous and delightful. In a piece for children, which reads half-Tzara, half-Richard-Scarry–
3. Steps of a Grand Staircase
It is a grand staircase, very grand.
It has more than a thousand steps, all made of ivory.
It is very beautiful.
No one dares to use it for fear of spoiling it.
The King himself has never used it.
To leave his room, he jumps out of the window.
And often he says:
“I love this staircase so much I am going to have it stuffed.”
The King is right, isn’t he?
In addition to these charming texts to accompany compositions and the vitally bonkers performance indications, A Mammal’s Notebook includes hilarious lectures, complete with loopy loaded ellipses which anticipate Jack Smith (note: all ellipses in the below passage Satie’s):
A critic’s brain is a store,–
— a department store
You can find anything there: –orthopaedics,– sciences, –bed-linen, –arts, –travelling rugs—a wide range of furniture,–French and foreign writing paper;–
–woolens,– hats, –sports, —walking-sticks, –optician’s,– perfumery,–etcetera
The critic knows everything, —….. sees everything, –hears everything,— touches everything,…
moves everything around….., eats anything….., confuses everything…….– & thinks nothing of it…..
What a man!!…..
Tell the world!!!……
All our wares are guaranteed!!!……
In hot weather,–
All the merchandise is kept inside!!!
Inside the critic!!!!!
This is the kind of delightful, crazy jousting we find throughout Satie’s compositions, verbal, textual, or otherwise. The maddening elliptical pacing is like a tonal, Loony-Tunes powder keg being tossed back and forth between speaker and audience. One imagines ‘the critic’ fuming alongside on tiny shoes like Yosemite Sam, about to provide the flame that explodes the proceedings.
In addition to the lectures, notes, annotations and libretti, (texts not to be read aloud, texts to be danced, sung, etc), and texts written for publications, the most intriguing ‘specimens’ in this mammal’s notebook are two further uncategorizable texts. First, the “Catalogue of Erik Satie’s Musical and Literary Works with Comments by the Same Gentleman”, which I take to be a collaboration between Volta and Satie: a timeline of the composer’s life work with notes retrieved from Satie’s manuscripts and inserted alongside the dated texts, such as, regarding Medusa’s Snare:
This is a play of pure fantasy… with no reality.
Do not see it as anything else.
The role of Baron Medusa is a sort of portrait… Even a portrait of me… a full-length portrait of me.
This catalogue is a dotty and engrossing piece of collaboration between the scholar and her subject and I’m delighted by the little spark of occult flame that jumps across, as Satie appears to provide the scholarly annotation for his own life. Satie is also quoted as writing, of himself, “His music is senseless & makes people laugh & shrug their shoulders.”
But the final, mysterious wealth of this book is the nearly indescribable “Private Advertisements”—selections from a collection of 4,000 cards which were found in Satie’s apartment after his death. These close set, printed or hand written cards read like cryptic advertisements, musical scores or even architectural renderings. These are impossible to truly quote here—“Forge-on-the-Bubble/The White Pine Inn:/Manor & Farm/ (1253)/Entirely in cast iron/Gift of the Devil to his Godson”—but suggest an endlessly ingenious mind following a path of inspiration truly beyond what contemporary genres or media could accommodate—are these scores? cards for a player piano? computer programs? advertisements? parts of a Darger-like novel? The novel of the 19th century dying into the 20th? I think also of the endlessly inventive work of Ray Johnson, whose inexhaustibly playful correspondence art has just now been reissued by Siglio in gorgeous large editions, & might be read alongside Satie’s.
Volta’s frontmatter and annotations record the life of an artist always slipping in and out of synch with his contemporaries, prefiguring and racing ahead of them, claimed as this one’s forbear, that one’s follower, leader to this group, émigré from that. I almost picture a figure like Ray Johnson, or like Chaplin’s tramp in Modern Times who enters the clockwork wrongways and so is shot out by the machinery into force-driven, yet farcical, free, plastic, elastic space. Perhaps this paradox describes the way Satie participates in and even generates the musical language of his time while also seeming thrown completely wide of it, making work for future aliens and holothurians to play back with delight.
WHITE MATERIAL: Obscene Whiteness as an Occidental Residue in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgive
by Joyelle McSweeney on Jun.26, 2014
In his post yesterday, Johannes made an interesting observation in passing on the Thai setting of Nicholas Winding Refn’s widely reviled Only God Forgives:
Like Sylvia Plath’s “Fever 103″ it takes place in the orient, where imperialism discovered modern beauty in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Xanadu, Coleridge built an opium den…
One of the film’s obscenities is the obscenely patent Orientalism of Refn’s mise-en-scene. The film unfolds in a claustrophobic Bangkok-as-‘Chinatown’ , on sets reminiscent of The Lady From Shanghai, Death of a Chinese Bookie, and Polanski’s iconic so-named film in which Chinatown stands in for Hollywood’s Heart of Darkness, complete with reddish-green lights, drug haze, voyeuristic, curtained chambers, catwalks and corridors, sightlines which don’t match up, and theatrical spaces like operas, burlesque stages, go-go cages, boxing rings and nightclubs. The obscene is that which should remain hidden but is not; in Refn’s film, the latent racism of Orientalist tropes so common in Western film is right out there into the open, neither ironized nor dressed up as Keanu-ish spiritualism for the benefit of the Western individual’s soul.
An effect of this Orientalist palette is to make the white figures seem particularly artificial. More than ‘American’, they read to me as white; the phrase ‘white material’ comes to mind, after the semi-autobiographical Claire Denis film about French colonists in North Africa. The mother character, played by Kristen Scott Thomas, is not only a sexed-up outre Mommy MacBeth, part-Real Housewife, part -Freudian bingo card, but she is in whiteface with blonde extensions, golden dusting powder that simulates clublight or the mandate of Heaven, an impractical manicure, and elaborately painted on eyemakeup that obscures any kind of ‘natural’ eye.
Why is it significant that Refn’s protagonists are in whiteface? [In Refn’s previous, not-reviled Drive, blondissima Ryan Gosling wears a white and gold jacket to drive this point home.] Refn’s mise-en-scene re-renders whiteness not as an originary, natural term from which all other terms are derived and against which they fail to measure up, as in Imperialist logic, but as an artificial mask made from dusting powder, hair extentions, eyeshadow, hairdye, Western suits, acrylic nails, foiled tips. These toxic, inhuman substances truly are the ‘white materials’. In the context of Western imperialism and colonialism, structural violence comes from the West, from the Heart of Whiteness. Evil, which only God can forgive, is a white material which can be piled up or smeared on in various configurations and manifestations.
Finally, as Johannes’s observation indicates, so much of the Modernism which is so beloved to me carries with it the trace of colonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism and Orientalism. A chief offender is my beloved Artaud, whose Theater of Cruelty (ahem) derives from his febrile, Paris-World-Fair impressions of Balinese dance. I recognize the racism inherent in this theatrical encounter, and I hope I do not replicate this relationship of colonization in my writing or reading. Yet if I am not willing to discard Artaud’s body of work, I am also not willing to divorce this racial element from his work. Instead I keep it always in view when I think about Artaud, because it becomes a site where Art’s violence, its unwholesomeness, its predatory tendencies, as well as its theatricality, its artifice, its relationship to Evil, comes into view—that is, where Art becomes obscene.
by Joyelle McSweeney on Dec.13, 2013
It’s cold in the Rust Belt. The children have disappeared, but they have littered the house with their alt manifestations: Mumins—white, gelatinous manifestations of cold. Mylings, half baby, half breast. Parasites and hosts. Mamifestations. Cold, mammary, scandinavian breath-collects in the fairy hollows, lumpy fairy cairns. Carrion comfort. The mumins are not wraithlike but plump. They look like spores and lungs. They will ludicrously digest you through the lung.
HERE IN THE BLACK FATHERMILK OF LONELINESS
At the end of the year, stumped in snow, I want to write about an exhibit I did not see, an exhibit which ran in Hong Kong this summer. It was curated by Cosmin Costinas and Inti Guerrero and based at their gallery, Para Site. It featured 27 artists, mostly based in Hong Kong. The title of this exhibit reads like it was scraped up in the future as a specimen from the inside of my cranium when I am a dead human 6,000 years ago:
I.WISH I. HADLIVEDATHOUSANDYEARSAGO.
As the lengthy millipedinous title with its jointed, segmented abdomen suggests, this exhibit was many things, but it could be summarized as a portrait of Hong Kong in the plague year of 2003: the year of the invasion of Iraq was eclipsed by the the SARS epidemic which was then trancepted by mutable superstar Leslie Cheung’s leap from the 23rd floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel.
The plague year: 2003. The plague year, 1894, the year the plague bacillus was isolated in Hong Kong, like ghost gold in the bank, ‘confirming’ racist hyopthesis and funding the bad currency of the ‘yellow peril’ for a century to come[i]. Isolates and contamination. Alien exclusions. Mutations and killer apps. The plague year, 1665, when the Great Plague struck london. Daniel Defoe was 5 during the plague, which did not stop him from publishing his ‘Journal of the Plague Year’ in 1722, a fradulent first-person account culled, probably, from the diary of his Uncle Foe. The fake is the real. The fraud is vicious and virulent. Counterfeit money costs more. The black market’s steepness reveals the real cost of death and life. The value of a star explodes and cannot be zero’d-out. On the heart-scale. On the black market.
A NEW QUARANTINE WILL TAKE MY PLACE
The magnitude of Leslie Cheung’s life and death probably cannot be grasped by one who did not exist in Asia in the gilt penumbra of his stardom, soaked in his nutritive Cantopop. For this American cinephile, his incredible beauty, his tenderness and violence, his mutability, this way he IS image. The strange, greeny, gelatinous light-eating corpse-garment, Film, seems to have evolved for him, for his image, for his cheekbone, his hairline, his face. His suicide contaminated Hong Kong with a viscera and drove Hongkongers to disobey the quarantine to congregate in grief. A grief congress, drenched in fame. A drought of fame. A plague of fame. A counterepedimiology. A group show. Unparaphrasable. It must be spelled out, term by term, in spirit writing. A journaloftheplagueyear: fearghostrebels. SARSleslieandthestoryofhongkong.
In the elevation and evisceration of Cheung; in the condemnation and quarantining of Hong Kong, in the caricatured visage of the Asian male, at once weak and viscious, whose swarm-body can barely be individuated from the hyperinstrumental group body of the ‘yellow peril’; in the historical identity of Hong Kong as a valuable disputed territory and a conduit for capital; in the role of Asian bodies as specimens and contaminants in the Western imaginary in recent centuries—all these themes are animated, pierced, denatured, re-mounted in the various works which made up this exhibit. Gender becomes denatured in the title of Ai Wei Wei’s ‘with milk’, a kind of black fathermilk involving 65 tons of milk and 15 tons of coffee, produced by this very male artist. ‘with milk’ more directly references the milk-powder scandal, involving the contamination of baby formula with melamine in 2008, and the resulting fallout, whereby a crackdown on formula-exportation through and from Hong Kong created a blackmarket favoring very wealthy and/or connected Chinese families. As always, the obscene father Ai Wei Wei provides/fails to provide nourishment through an act of Bataillean expenditure. Continue reading “A Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, ghosts, rebels. SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong story” »
by Joyelle McSweeney on Nov.20, 2013
I am in a strange position because while I am certainly ‘avant garde’ in terms of my affinities with the historical avant garde I feel I cannot be avant-garde because my affinities are historical.
That is, I am a Futurist, but I am a Futurist of 1909 rather than a Futurist who believes or anticipates a Future as envisioned by, say, TED talk panelists or believers in the progressive motion of literature as a reinforcement of political/capitalist bona fides.
My favorite part of the Futurist Manifesto is where they imagine themselves benighted and about to be consumed by cannibal teens.
They will find us at last one winter’s night in the depths of the country in a sad hangar echoing with the notes of the monotonous rain, crouched near our trembling aeroplanes, warming our hands at the wretched fire which our books of today will make when they flame gaily beneath the glittering flight of their pictures.
They will crowd around us, panting with anguish and disappointment, and exasperated by our proud indefatigable courage, will hurl themselves forward to kill us, with all the more hatred as their hearts will be drunk with love and admiration for us. And strong healthy Injustice will shine radiantly from their eyes. For art can only be violence, cruelty, injustice.
Futurism set itself up against decadence, but to be Futurist in 2013 is to be decadent, moving backwards. It is indeed strange to feel time folding, to be in 2013 thinking like 1913. Why has time folded. Why is it no longer moving forward. Why am I not a avant-garde. Why am I not avant. Am I a rear-gardist or just an asynchronous, a bad soldier.
After her reading last night, the brilliant Sylvia Guerra shared that me that she is working on a new book based on Lautreamont, one which ‘writes around’ Lautreamont.
Why is she asynchronous not looking forward to a neatly progressing time why is time folding why do we need Decadence again.
I believe it’s because after the horrors of the 20th century Decadence is the deeper vision. It is no longer ‘escapist’ or ‘merely shocking’. After the horrors of the 20th century constantly re-reeling in media and repeating themselves in new depredations across the globe, Decadence takes on the work of truth, truth’s firey destructiveness. Everything is burning. Man’s default mode is cruelty and exploitation, outrageous depredation and deprivation. We have to go backwards to find an art form that does not hide this truth under ideologies of progress or purity. The TED-talkathon, which infects every part of our political and cultural environ, amounts to a new Victorianism, the imperialistic export of progress. We must be Decadent again.
by Joyelle McSweeney on Oct.17, 2013
This new Kill List poem by Josef Kaplan is easily the best work of conceptual poetry I’ve seen in a long time. I’m an expressionist, not a conceptualist. But let’s face it, conceptualism, as Inger Christensen would say, ‘exists’. This particular conceptualist poem works for me because it invites us to consider an idea, and invites us to turn that idea over and over for as long as the idea interests us. Then it invites us to delete the idea. This is a great poem for FaceBook, for conversations heatedly engaged upon and then abandoned because other pressures such as the need to sleep or shop or nuke a burrito became more compelling. The deleting is part of the ‘reading’. This concept will self-destruct. Unlike a drone.
As for the concept: we are introduced to the phrase Kill List, which for most nice liberal American poetry readers will conjure ideas of drone warfare or revolutionary violence or the opposite of a no-kill shelter or some kind of fatal indexing. Then the poem presents us with 68 pages of alphabetized poets’ names, grouped in sets of four, each identified as ‘rich’ or ‘comfortable’. Like, ‘Caroline Bergvall is rich’ and ‘Jim Behrle is comfortable’.
One senses that this ranking of the poets into the dubious bourgeois or ultra-bourgeois categories is the bait we’re supposed to gobble up. And yet. I just read Inger Christensen’s Alphabet, in Susana Nied’s translation, last week with some students, and I can’t help but focus on that ‘is’.
‘Kill List’ could be read as a litany, it could be reading off a library shelf. The indexical adjustments of ‘comfortable’ and ‘rich’ have a nice, well, ‘comfortable’ sixties feel to them, a now- out-of-touchness, a vagueness. Like ‘don’t trust anyone over thirty’– as expressions of acute political crisis, kind of sweet. In our current context, these could be financial terms or refer to perceived social assets or even how interested the author feels in these poets–or it could be random. As 2 goes into four (ie the binary of rich/comfortable into the 4 line stanza), there is also the alphabetical order itself. Sweet old alphabetical order. Humans made you, and humans love you. But nothing humans make is innocent. Not even orders of knowledge. Moreover we are invited to read these 68 pages as a computer would, scanning for names (names are the only element that changes), data mining an index for names we recognize. Like a drone-operator or a drone. Attention or recognition here is itself weaponized.
This is where I link Kill List to Inger Christensen. Re-reading Alphabet, I was very taken by the poem’s smoothness. It has the smoothness of a big fat bomber high up in the strangelove sky. As it glides, we glide, we can see the whole horizon line of the earth, cities and species and chemicals all becoming visual in the reading-scape of the poem. [nb, I think Kill List is a very retinal poem, since consuming its well-designed pages, its nicely serifed, landscaped font, is so very easy. It’s so easy to consume this book, to be an early adaptor of the predator’s visual viewpoint. After all, computers as we know them were developed in the 20th c. for work on the H-Bomb, for calculating shock waves. The Internet, as we know, is a military installation]. As each noun in Christensen’s poem comes into view, the poem remarks it ‘exists’. But I also felt this word ‘exists’ could function as meaning the opposite– each of these things ‘exists’ at the exact moment it leaves the planet. Alphabet is as much a cold war poem, ‘existing’ in the split second between the dropping of a nuclear bomb and its impact, as Kill List is a drone war poem. Both invite us to think about how poetry ‘exists’ under the aeriel penumbra of war. Both make us realize how puny ‘existence’ is, how puny ‘is’ is. The incommensurateness between the title’s reference to the supposed ‘inhumanity’ of drone warfare (I think drone warfare is humanity itself) and the poem itself might be the point of this poem.
No order of knowledge is neutral because it is tainted with human’s killer instinct. We like to call ourselves ‘sapiens’ because we draw up the very best kill lists and the very best robots or enlistees or acolytes to carry them out. As the very smart J. Robert Oppenheimer remarked, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Or, nuclear bombs exist. I myself am drone.
Maybe Adam’s MFA thesis in the garden of Eden, naming all the animals, was the first Kill List in western culture. Everything that can be brought into the order of human knowledge is also on the demolition list.
by Joyelle McSweeney on Oct.11, 2013
As I’ve been transmitting through the ectoplasm, my play, “Dead Youth, or, The Leaks” is being given a staged reading by Fiona Templeton’s performance group, The Relationship, this Monday, Oct 14, at 6:30, at the New Ohio Theatre in the Village. I would love for people to come out, because the event is intended to memorialize Leslie Scalapino, of whose stage-works Templeton is the major interpreter. Of course I am incredibly grateful to Fiona Templeton, E. Tracy Grinell, and Caroline Bergvall for selecting my work for this prize in honor of Leslie Scalapino, and I also feel like a sister-in-arms with the army of 400 women who wrote plays to memorialize Leslie.
I’ve described my play’s relationship to Leslie Scalapino’s body of work, here, but I thought I would include an excerpt from the play to give you some flavor of what’s in store on Monday. This is a little aria delivered by Julian Assange in the second act of the play; it raises the farcical energy to such a level that it becomes an almost tensile material by which Abdi Wali Abdulqadir Muse (the teenage Somalian ‘pirate’) can board the stolen container ship on which the play is set and set the main plot in motion. (The plot involves helping Muse avoid incarceration in Terre Haute, IN. Well, that’s one plot.)
From Dead Youth, or, The Leaks:
JULIAN ASSANGE (patting the shoulder of DEAD YOUTH, calming them, distributing pills, talking a kind of soothing patter).
Hello, I am Julian Assange, I’ve been assassinated by my mother.
My mother was divine. A divine assassination.
She edited and improved me.
She shot me full of gold.
Protected me, gilt me, guided me, hid me, and bought me a Commodore 64
Now I endeavor to be a golden like my mother
to radiate hot pixels of information
to cell-divide forever
to stage a pussy riot, to offer teens of all nations
hot gobblets of information
pus-gold and liberating, the rays of my inflammation.
These pets you see gathered around me are little runts
I’ve collected from the NICU ward in Memorial Hospital in South Bend
Indiana. Poor things were born
addicted to oxycodone, oxycontin, valium and other narcotics.
Born like princesses with lotus feet. Only things fit them
are Nikes and IV’s. Poor things are asleep.
I had to save them from the cuddler army of 54 retiree
church organists, an invasive species.
I carry in this box a little code to feed them on.
sorry a little comb, they’re bees.
Please help yourself before helping others, little species
little protégées. It’s on demand!
It’s all you can eat on repeat forever.
in the event of two similar die-offs, the greater of two die-offs is
still similar. Infinity resembles infinity to the dead.
That’s why they need a mom like me
and how I can be one: resemblance
is a magick power. I copy my mother
& live here in drag like a mortal.
I just don’t have a normal mortal motor.
I’m an abnormal mater!
But unlike cancer, I have a motive.
It’s to keep these teens alive on the Internet.
I feed them like roses, I feed them privacee.
My motive is indetectible to you
because you don’t want to see it.
But my moralitee is a rare and strong growth.
It configures a colonee.
It grows in night vision.
It thrives on unnatural light.
by Joyelle McSweeney on Sep.13, 2013
[It’s been suggested that I preface this. Well, I think the world is drenched with grief and I think poetry is the map of the grief, continually mapping and remapping itself and saturating and resaturating itself with ink and image and sound and damage and contaminants until something else breaks through. Another viscousness or viciousness. Not necessarily better, but next, or again. I don’t know whether there’s really a way out of the anthropocene with its lethal logics but I do think that Poetry is anthropocenic (though inhuman?) and has a lethal (ill-?)logic and is therefore up to the challenge of going up against the anthropocene, just as a bacterium with a porcine vector can go up against a person with a gun. I guess I do want the world to end and reboot without us. This ars poetica is made from the contaminants that influence my writing: technology, hacking, corpse jewlery, corporate hegemony, environmental degradation, dread, ecstasy, haruscopy and augury, fashion, art, etymology, sacrificial rites and the classical world, those doomed and doomy bastards.]
ARS POETICA, or, I wanted to unlock my phone
I wanted to unlock my phone.
I wanted to unlock the geode. I wanted to press it to my skull. I wanted to go right through the temple. Bedazzle my occipital. Be dazzled like a jeweled vagina or an improved corpse.
Incipio. And you can come in now. Bedazzled like a victim or an improved phone.
Nuncio, you’re fired now go home.
Get back on that fucking U-boat you rowed in on and float.
After I gave birth, an immediate labial tuck.
Cataract surgery, a backing track, and a ticket for checked luggage sutured to my gut.
I took exception.
I woke up a walking garment.
My innards for a pennant, a permanent crest or crown
crimped and crenellated, filleting my brow and my baby for a pigskin clutch. Accouchement.
On a couch, we rowed like dead Etruscans for the afterlife, clutching
thick slick magazines and
the handgrenade named for the pomegranate.
Bon chance, bon chance, shit out of luck, up shit creek on a
leaky horseshoe hung up the wrong way
twin emblems of closeness: horseshoes, handgrenades.
In that pink slick (Grenadine)
rode the drowners
pulled from the Seine with a seine net. With a purse seine.
And set up in the Paris morgue as in a marble parlor
A bejeweled purse, a lime sluice, a pearled vagina, a pullulating designer
dog, in puttees, the puttied vault of the sky, the ovulating
cranial crate which was about to be wider as it
split at its eyeteeth
It was a civic duty to visit them on Sundays
amid the gropeurs and pick pockets
To copiously paw and snuff the nose-wrinckling tissues
To bring them back into the human family.
To try to identify them by face, clothes, or posture
That piece of shit is not my father.
The bodies hit the ground in a fusillade like fuselage
You cannot hear this sound except on a snuff site
You have to go out as shame to hear this report
more like handgrenades than like pomegranates
with their little list of Hadean jewels inside
twisted inventories for the Christies auction
nextbodies texting their nobiles
fifty and two hundred bodies hitting the ground like exploding
I wanted to go live there
I wanted to go live in shame
as blood floods the vaulted chasm
I block the run-off-channels and snuff up the charnel-chum
I wanted to stop the clock
I wanted to give my brain a tuck
I wanted my brain to fold over.
I wanted to close the incision with cat gut and tungsten.
I wanted to hack my own phone.
Edison wanted to make a light bulb.
Franklin wanted to make a kight light up at night.
They both needed a conductor.
Franklin used his son’s arm.
Edison used the groin hair of a sacred goat, later slaughtered.
gh gh gh
you can’t even say it it’s voiceless
you can’t even hear this sound unless you hit the snuff site
so rank it rankles
too rank for superfund
I wanted to defund it
I wanted to give my head a kick.
I wanted my brain to double over, holding its gut.
In the train compartment. Its tank top riding up
to expose its kidneys to a kick
up the luggage compartment.
to stuff it up a suitcase
like a prettier girl I could waste on a snuff site.
The thread of life narrow as a jeweled thong for the bride
disappearing up the crack
reaching through the crack to hug the waist
to find the egress
up the ass of the egret
into the afterlife
the birds we are wasting in Iraq and Iran
know the only route to the afterlife
Bereft of sense
I don’t want to make sense
But I want to make something
as it leaves the body
the cloth of Veronica which wiped the face of Christ
producing the fake known as the Shroud of Turin
Fake like a purse is fake and flashy
and sold on folding tables or a sheet
grab it and run
when the heat comes
it cuts the air above the android in his android suit.
The bull is wearing his bull suit.
To cook what’s inside like a sacrifice.
Oxygen cocktail. Interior force.
I wanted to wear the fake mask of Christ.
I wanted to wipe the face of the crisis with my heat.
I wanted to make a mask of sweat, urine, sucrose, and dopamine.
I wanted to grow chesthair in the mirror.
It’s breezey today and the leaves flash their asses.
Something hangs down under the line of the short shorts.
Something like hell-fruit: lemurian pomegranate.
The puddled cloth, the placket of blood
like a garment for the flagstones
below the smashed skull
sewn on the bias
the seam lies flat
as a cellphone in the street
after it snapped the precious picture
the picture more precious than a skull
that smashed up screen makes a star in the sky like
panties in a vending machine
coolant pools which smirk and leak
an attempt to build a thermonuclear barrier at the beach
going to the beach
catching the fish
under the flagstones
sandals made of a tank tread rubbed with fish guts
a gun firing
a tracer whistling
the house folding
a satellite crashing into the Indian Ocean
as air douses his hand of guilt
stacked flat and veronica-ing
like a hiccupping GIF
a mortgage or flat tummy
a smart fabric tensing infinitely
into the air like the gut of a gull
that’s hauling a plastic reel
so thin it’s not a live anymore
so thin it can slip through the net of the sky
through the purse-seine up the Seine
and become the parenthesis for the next event
so thin it talcs the air with boanmeal
as in a nursery
ashmeal moanmeal veronica powder
by Joyelle McSweeney on Jul.31, 2013
1. Tim Jones-Yelvington and I built a battle-wagon made of sound. It is made of both of our words, Tim’s lungs, trachea, and soft -palate, Tim’s sense of sound as glamorous decor and still more glamorous weaponry, my interest in the vulnerability of Irish epic heroes, my rage and grief for Bradley Manning, my rage at the US governments many crimes and alibis. This is what it sounds like.
2. This amazing invention made me think more about what Sound is, the force of Sound, what force it may be said to have. I am interested in the mess and muck of sound, its glamorous necro-force, the way it forces itself like the sea that changes through the aperture of the human body and into the soft tissue of the human brain. I see this muck and murk as a not-quite rational fabric, propagating its waves through us, forcing upon us its own occult connections , ie assonance, rhythm, rhyme, hijacking the brain from its finer work of manufacturing such high-grade Cartesian products as self-hood and thought and forcing it instead to go ‘ding-dong’. Sound is violence. It causes its own seachange.
3. Outside realism, rationality, exposition, or depiction, there is something that cannot be named or paraphrased, there is something else. We might provisonally call it Death, or, the Real. Black, flexing, occult, fatal, seductive, violent, forceful, demonic, oozy, performed, as in Shakespeare’s plays, not in soliloquoy but multivocally before dream corpses and trick caskets, capable of forcing change, forcing the future to arrive: this is what sound is to me, and this is why I make my body and my writing a medium for sound. We don’t need to look back to Shakespeare to find these occult wriggling and bizzarre moments, moments which at once calls the nerves and brainstem to attention and demote the higher seats of logical thought:
Jimmie’s got a goil
Jimmys got a goil and
she coitinly can shimmie
when you see her shake
when you see her shake a
shimmie how you wish that you was jimmie.
I first (and last) read this poem about 25 years ago in middle school and it has stayed with me, intact, for its bumpy burlesque music, its twisting motion. Jimmy’s goil’s shimmy invades the whole poem, making the poem perform dangerous whip curves and moebius strips and turning continuously perverting the sounds of language—goil to a gutteral ‘gurl’ to by gulpled in the lusty gutter, that ‘i’ gets its own syllable, like foil, a glittery luster. The poem is a gesture and a garment with no body underneath. But it leads us to unclean thoughts—the poet’s thoughts: thoughts of leaving the self, for I to be an other—and finally to fatal thoughts:
talk about your Sal-
talk about your Salo
-mes but gimmie Jimmie’s gal.
Here, although Jimmie’s gal is preferred at the end and Salome supposedly rejected, Salome can’t be divorced from the goil; once she enters the poem, her steps are matched to the goil’s; Sal Sal Sal. Salome stands for sin, for murder and betrayal, as does, after all, Jimmie’s gal. The twirling shape of the poem now resembles Salome’s veils, thrown off to show the allure, not of a conventional human body, but of fatality and crime underneath. But there is no Salome without her veils; it is her veils, and not her body, that hold allure; the shimmie is the goil; sound in this poem is the shimmie’s fatal (and only!) body.
This poem with its gladsome gal-salome, its wriggly salamandinre form and its blackly occult engine recalls another infamously catchy poem, Plath’s Lady Lazarus. In this poem, the body is a garment—‘the clothes the grave cave ate’—and that garment is made of sound. This Ariel-minded poet first recounts one of her many deaths, one of her many sea-changes, in the language of Ariel’s song: “I rocked shut/As a seashell./ They had to call and call/And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls”. After this alarming claim the poem takes on its ding-dong Seussy swiftness:
Dying/ Is an art,/ like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real./I guess you could say I’ve a call./It’s easy enough to do it in a cell. It’s easy enough to do it and stay put./It’s the theatrical/Comeback in broad day/To the same place, the same face/ the same brute/Amused shout: ‘A miracle!’ That knocks me out. –
These brief lines move like a rickety Coney- Island rollercoaster chuffing us off to the Sublime. As with cumming’s poem, assonantal distortions provide the glamorous vertiginousness. We begin with ‘el’ but that ‘el’ becomes sprained: “else”, “well”, “hell”, “real”. The long ‘e’ of ‘real’ takes longer in the mouth and represents that little hop before the rhymes start blinkering out, returning, going hectic and haywire: real to ‘call’, call to ‘cell’, ‘cell to ‘theatrical’, and, after a long wait, ‘A miracle’. The ‘c’s (the sea’s!) soften and harden, close and open around a vowel that changes shape like a tiny breathing mouth. There is something uncanny in that undead, mewling vowel and its little valve of opening ‘c’ and ‘l’ sounds. That something is the punctum, the wound, the magnet, the death drive, the ‘knockout in broad daylight’ which we all should love and ‘beware’. The poem’s speedy virtuosic tercets are its shimmie, its brief body, its fatal veils with nothing as safe as a body underneath: “ I am your opus/I am your valuable/the pure gold baby/that melts to a shriek.”
4. Sound’s effects, sound’s stupid and contagious ‘ding dongs’ are not poetry’s decorations, a matter of dry tradition or technique, or, god forbid, something that must ‘follow’ sense or ‘serve’ the poem in any way. Sound is ART, breaking through the conventions of the poem as commodity, as polite and sanitized exchange, revolting the poem, shimmiing, it, sea changing it, making it spill its black unparaphrasable guts and rework the poem as a black site where the individual-serving-size self with its rationalized self-image doesn’t actually want to go. Sound may seem to give a poem unity but it is also the place where something non-rational, even inhuman takes over the poem, a compulsion, a forcefulness as ready to shake it to death or flip it into the afterlife as stroke it to sleep with dulcet, sinister tones. It would be a mistake, however, to associate Sound’s irrationality, it’s nonsense power with the a-political. For Sound’s irrational force, its appetites, its drives, its greed, its bloodthirstiness, its pratfalls and its violence are politics itself. In an introduction to his 1926 volume is 5, e.e. cummings wrote,
At least my theory of technique, if I have one, is very far from original; nor is it complicated. I can express it in fifteen words, by quoting The Eternal Question And Immortal Answer of burlesk, viz.”Would you hit a woman with a child? – No, I’d hit her with a brick.” Like the burlesk comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.
Sound’s burlesk action, its precision, is violent; it is violence; it moves through real bodies, touching them all. It calls and responds. It carries with it all the hilarious energy of hitting a pregnant woman, hitting a woman with a brick. Rather than removing us from the exquisite composition of the Shakesperean play, from the political anhendonia of this anthropocenic, teratogenic moment, Sound is the occult black force running through, over, and across all the seemingly sane bodies of the stage or state. Sound amplifies what nice society tries to hide. Sound is hilarity, it is desire, it is revulsion, it is pettiness, lust, vanity, even ill-conceived expenditure and generosity; Sound is Violence’s motion, its machine and its garment, its contact and its diminition, its ‘reply all’ and ‘delete all’, as it saturates the troposphere with its fatal force, its rich, strange toxins, its unbearable climates, its sea-change.
by Joyelle McSweeney on Jul.26, 2013
Comrades, I have read a book of such maddeningly delightful savour that I must urge you to immediately devour it with all possible haste and candelabra-infused solemnity. Perhaps by the light of a ‘candelabra-app’.
Let us begin with a nice thick slice of this peculiar cake, which tastes hauntingly of velvet curtain, exultation and despair:
I suffer an illustrious degeneration; I love pain, beauty and cruelty, especially the latter, that serves to destroy a world abandoned to evil. I constantly imagine the sensation of physical suffering, of the organic lesion.
So opens ‘Life of the Damned’, a 1925 poem by the Venezuelan poet José Antonio Ramos Sucre [1890-1930], as translated by Guillermo Parra for the recent (and first!) English edition of Ramos Sucre’s Selected Works. In his own time and for decades thereafter, you will be surprised to learn, Ramos Sucre’s was a decidedly unfashionable flavor, since his robustly decadent, Symbolism-infused work put him at odds with both traditionalist and modernist trends. But oh, my foes, and oh, my friends, it gives a lovely light!
I was anxiously fleeing, with sore feet, through the hinterlands. The snow flurry was dampening the black ground.
I was hoping to save myself in the forest of birches, incurved by the squall.
I was able to hide in the antrum caused by the uprooting of a tree. I composed the manifested roots so as to defend myself from the brown bear, and scattered the bats with shouts and hand claps.
I was bewildered by the blow I had received on my head. I was suffering hallucinations and nightmares in the hiding place. I understood I would escape them by running further. […]
Ramos Sucre’s work is thick with phrases, sentences as exquisitely arranged as a funeral bouquet. I want to lay down on this lily-bier forever! The logic is somehow olfactory, with one phrase opening into and infusing the next with its odorous stain, like lily-sperm dug deep into a plaque of velvet. And yet there is a momentum to these lines. I feel rapt by the footfalls of the phrases, and as my ankle is snared by the surprising word orders (“incurved by the squall” and, later, “long, amplective reeds”) I feel myself almost transformed into an Ovidian figure, becoming one with the landscape even as I flee into it. Rather than escape, unbearable transfiguration into the vernal embrace of the poem must follow.
Ramos Sucre has enjoyed/endured an almost ludicrously uneven reputation in Venezuela, mocked or ignored for decades before being revived by the mid-century avant-garde. In this fine volume, English-language readers will have the pleasure of grasping Ramos Sucre’s ghostly hand through a nest of competing versions: the opening preface by Rubi Guerra describes the myriad of fictional Ramos Sucre’s haunting Venezuelan novels and plays, while the Prologue by the great poet-critic Francisco Pérez Perdomo gives a trenchant overview of Ramos Sucre’s avidity, severity and commitment to the decadent and symbolist principles of his art. Pérez Perdomo quotes one of Ramos Sucre’s aphorisms, not collected here: “Evil is an author of beauty. Tragedy, the memory of misfortune, is the superior art. Evil introduces surprise, innovation in this routine world. Without evil, we would reach uniformity, we would succumb to idiocy.” He also offers a practical description of Ramos Sucre’s innovations which will help readers come to their own relationship with Ramos Sucre’s work through Guillermo Parra’s thrilling and scrupulously correct-feeling translations. The tone of Parra’s English seems to me an exact complement to the piercing, uncompromising gaze with which Ramos Sucre charges the reader on the back of the book. Attention, Artists of the Future!:
The assault of a boreal race announces the millennium of the eclipse. I insinuate myself in the throng of the victors and reprimand the uncivil excess and joviality. My intrepidity at the threshold of death and the insistence of Virgil confer upon me the privilege of an immune life.
YES! Read the heroically assembled and translated Selected Works of José Antonio Ramos Sucre and experience a re-dedication to the diabolical Art-life we have all grasped so desperately amid the tear-gas and tasings of the victors, the idiocy of the prosperity gospel. Let the remains of 2013 ignite in a crepuscular monument to José Antonio Ramos Sucre, to Guillermo Parra, to Bill Lavender and the apparently defunct ( O slain! Slain by capitalist administrators!) University of New Orleans Press for publishing this vital and necessary work. This is success in life.
by Joyelle McSweeney on Jun.28, 2013
Hola poetry fanboies!
Sitting on my “desk” (laminated folding table) today are three books sure to perk up your whole life/fashion/poetry outlook for this weekend and your life, comparable to when Roseanna Arquette becomes infected by poetry in the form of personal ads in Desperately Seeking Susan, and goes on to become a Madonna impersonator. Get into the groove!
Two nights ago our bookcase fell over and this volume flew into my hands! This poetry pops with manic muscular focus, an attempt to topo-map the world in its dismaying linguistic everything-at-once. Nicholas Grindell translates Rinck’s German in such a way that German keeps landing its pervy wallops through the mongrel screen of English:
that was the height of ice. kudos caspar david.
cathedral carved inside of it, thawing its way
down her wet throat. breathrobbing.
a vertical bottleneck. within it
halls and chambers, beneath it water, black
with cold. very cold, very black. turkey hens
are on the roam, invisible but for their core,
like a coffee bean in motion. but don’t
be deceived, the turky hen’s still there,
it just can’t be seen. the whole thing’s fatal.
I like the jack-knifing of syntax around the slalom of those line breaks, the way the phrases butt against each other and spill out of the line, the way the poem swings around and looks at itself, by turns serious and ludicrous. Slang and philosophical statement try to fit inside the same tube dress of the lyric. This shoving of opposites into the same micromini is of course the sublime. Sublime fatality. The momentum of the carcrash and the strange dispensation of the suspension of time at the moment of Impact.
One thing I know about Carina Finn, my dear friend and former student: the girl can go on. She has a Stein-like philosophical trajectory of mind and at minimum two millenia of hi-lo-pop culture to back her argufying up. When she philosophizes I see molecular diagrams of sugar rings linking into new and tasty non-nourishing foodstuffs of the future, a map of the future that can hardly called human. So I was surprised to receive Lemonworld and discover not her essayistic mode (which I adore) but these individual lyrics like a sachet of PopRocks– so tiny and tight they could pass through all the boundaries made to protect us:
CREATURE FROM THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS
cherries, ribbons, and rainbows go all to bits b/c
the devil makes us sin where the wild girls live.
velvet-turbaned socialite stuffed with triangle
cobra kryptonite, you’re flagged for deletion on the
cemetary drive &
everyone’s hoping for hell except me.
To quote Sir Patti Smith: “People say beware. But I don’t care!” I love the jittery compulsion of these poems, the desire to spark, smite and be over. Could they be more compressed? They could be forced into alexandrines and ridden like a drunken boat. But if that boat was steered by Carina it would include a yukele and be floating in some pond in Central Park being toasted by a thicket of bankers. This book is basically that.
Words can get up and do things, with the persistence and perfidity of roundworms. Poetry makes things happen, where it matters– in the gut. For me, reading Clayton and Annette Smith’s 2001 translation of Cesaire’s Notebook was a revelation. I think of this as THE masterpiece of Surrrealism, the utmost, utmost example of what this artform can be in its political mode AND its artistic mode. As Arnold’s introduction to this new edition suggests, the traume-poem took many forms during Césaire’s lifetime, edited, expanded, and cut back down to reflect his developing political outlook. The earliest magazine version, translated for this new edition, could be seen as the barest, or the most concentrated version. Those of us who are fanboies for the 2001 translation might miss the crazy frame stanzas, including the opening lines “Beat it, I said to him, you cop, you lousy pig, beat it, I detest the flunkies of order and the cockchafers of hope!”. Some of the 70’s-isms of the earlier translation (“I say right on!” is replaced by “I say hurray!”—a little AA Milne for me) have been sanitized, and the bewitching repiton ‘Au bout du petit matin bourgeonnant’ is now translated not as ‘At the end of daybreak’ but ‘At the end of first light’ which is less violent, paradoxical, and revolutionary feeling, if a little more lyrical. Still, the new edition is a dream and a fan-boi must. The translation is en face; Arnold’s introduction is pellmell and info-packed, like a dazzling confab at the watercooler outside a stuffy seminar room, where the real education goes down; and the whole shape of the thing is a little clearer in this earlier form. The embarassing Breton introduction, historically important as it may be, is also not included here. You may lose the ‘right-on’ force of the 2001 edition, but you still get all the hits, plenty of knock-out obscure botanical terminology, and the showstopping scene in which a slave-ship self-viscerates, discharging its now liberated undead cargo into an unreal excremental dream-freedom:
Je dis hurrah ! La vielle négritude progressivement se cadavérise
l’horizon se défait, recule et s’élargit
et voici parmi des déchiquètements de nuages la fulgurance d’un signe
le négrier craque de toute part… Son ventre se convulse et résonne…
L’affreux ténia de sa cargaison ronge les boyaux fétides de l’étrange
nourrisson des mers !
I say hurray! The old negritude progressively cadavers itself
the horizon breaks, recoils and expands
and through the shredding of clouds the flashing of a sign
the slave ship cracks from one end to the other… Its belly convulses and resounds…
The ghastly tapeworm of its cargo gnaws the fetid guts of the strange suckling of the sea!
This image changed my life, my thinking about poetry and its political potential. You must change your life. Buy this book.
A Blood-Shot Ruby: The Disappeared & “Mouth of Hell” by María Negroni, translated by Michelle Gil-Montero
by Joyelle McSweeney on Jun.20, 2013
[…]In these wastelands of intimacy and exile, I find nothing, not even the blood-shot ruby I swiped as a child from my father’s icy dream. Wide terrain between two blue oceans: my biography and my park of monsters, who I’ve despised, envied, admired, and loved, deep down, terribly.
[Nada veo en esos páramos de intimidad y destierro. Ni siquiera el rubí sangriento que robé en la infancia al sueño helado de mi padre. Largo territorio que insiste entre dos mares azules: mi biografía, mi parque de monstruos que odié, envidié, admiré, amé, en el fondo, tanto.]
María Negroni’s Mouth of Hell is well emblematized by that ‘blood-shot ruby’, not worshipped but ‘swiped’. This little volume is like a decadent novella, an intake of breath before a heroine’s death-aria, a continuously restaged opening scene. It burns with Pater’s infamous “gem-like flame”, an intensity stoked by infernal paradox, throwing a mysterious, self-consuming light. The series is made of extremely brief prose poems, set in little vitrine-like boxes. The poems themselves seem to have plucked words out of the blank air and to arrange them in strange tableaux in which language itself acts paradoxically (or insanely). In Negroni’s hand, language may lounge and rage, collapse and expand, at once languid and acute:
Strange impatience of horses. Jumbled crossbows, arquebusses. Some sort of luxurious circus or royal company. It’s always like this, the beginning of a new militia: the hardest men, the most virile and beautiful, the best disposed to sexual combat, to wrestling one-on-one with death. Often a hand bedecked with rings. Short in the way of chivalry. Conclaves drag on, and that deft sadness of acrobats.
Such acrobatics among the syllables, and the larger acrobatic of replacing a long winding sentence with a sudden, opaque emblem (“Often a hand bedecked with rings.”) is even more astonishing when one recalls that this is a work of translation; Michelle Gil-Montero is in fact, invisibly and before your lying eyes, double-looping this Latinate reverie into a bewitched, bewitching English.
Mouth of Hell is a book about a place, but that place is both singular and several, actual and allusive. To put it briefly, this book, which seems hovering on the precipice of an event about to occur, is actually tremulous with retrospection: it re-inhabits a roguish mid-twentieth century [Argentinian] novel, Bomarzo by Manuel Mujica Láinez, which itself reimagines a 16th century [Italian] duke who built himself a park-of-monsters or grotesqueries. Translator Gil-Montero informs us that Negroni’s entire sequence takes place at the moment of the literary character’s death. But the tremulous temporal coordinates of this work– stretched across time and occurring in an instant, looking radically back to earlier works while occupying a fast-elapsing present tense– also enact trauma, and, particularly, the temporal trauma of Latin America’s lost generations, and specifically, of course, Argentina’s disappeared.
The disappeared are both a living memory and a non-thought, an erased generation whose death and gravesites may, in many cases, never be known. The subtraction of this generation makes all subsequent time aberrant, non-linear, glitched, abhorrent. In this sense their loss is truly traumatic, an event which can never be over because its exact parameters and coordinates can never be known. This is an event whose magnitude can never be bounded, not only because there is in many cases no historical record but because the loss is of a magnitude beyond accounting. There can also, of course, be no retribution, no redemption or reparation of this loss, no way of assuaging or lessening its unthinkable magnitude.
In this sense the paradoxical dimensionality of los desaparecidos forms the flexing, vertiginous field of this book. Their paradoxically present absence is both superimposed on the sequences and seems to occur as its outer limit, the non-place of blackness and erasure the sequence is driving towards. Thus the speaker is at times bereft, marooned, expressing an adjacency to an action that seems to be happening elsewhere, and at times occupies a position of conviviality with a ghost-like “She”. Often these contradictions happen on facing pages. On page 60,
The rush of words comes unannounced: all at once, jacked into flight like a heraldic bird, mystery feathered in shadow. In this pandemonium of pomp and poverty, as if these past could pardon us, a silver presence : a fistful of cantos to measure the span from sword to soul. All lined up, indelible geometry like lightsome ships set for the great journey.
Across the gutter on page 61, “Surrounded by deep night, after hurrying through the earthly day, they falter. Place and date have fallen back quietly. Place and date have fallen back quietly. Of their private fictions, nothing remains but an almost-island, the saga of a labyrinth with no outcome.”
Yet even in this latter vision, hope finds a way to spark, in however inverted a proportion: “The enamored splinter refuses to surrender.” And so we feel weirdly hopeful, as if we have come into a flickering gathering place of the lost—even if this means joining the lost in the grave.
Mouth of Hell has been designed by Andrew Shuta in a slim, compact edition with a startling blood-red ruby cover and with the complete English and Spanish texts arranged in separate series within. It is as transporting, contradictory, beautiful and troubling as any journey toward this most infernal of thresholds should be.
by Joyelle McSweeney on Jun.14, 2013
A few weeks ago I wrote a play called “Dead Youth, or, the Leaks”, which is basically a knifed-up (in/per)version of The Tempest. It features characters that may or may not be Julian Assange, Henrietta Lacks, teenage Somalian ‘pirate’ Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, and a female Antoine de Saint-Exupery, all adrift on a hijacked container ship, pulled toward Magnetic Island by mysterious currents of dark energy. But as I imagine my play, the critical factors of identity-stabilization—gender, race, aliveness or deadness, whether one is in fact a ‘real person’—are all soluble. In fact the titular character, Dead Youth, is elastically posthumous, multinational, decomposing, erotic, multibodied, plural.
In thinking about my play, the phrase ‘soluble personhood’ came to mind… I realized that I was thinking about the possibility that what we normally demarcate as a ‘person’ might be in fact be less securely bounded. That rather than a homeland security of the self, there might be a soluble personhood—a black-lit spectrum of ways in which one supposed ‘person’ might occupy another’s literal and spectral space, become imbricated, a coefficient, a parasite or a saint… On the most conventionally acceptable ethical pole this might be called ‘empathy’, on the most conventionally unacceptable a kind of possession or military/imperial occupation. I have been thinking about this as a model for thinking about both living in the world and the act of writing, the radical act of co-identification that is not always benign, benevolent, ethical, but which radically re-situates the space of ‘event’ in an occult, contradictory, irreal “dark” space… dark in the physics sense of that term…a site we don’t have the coordinates of, an anticause which might issue radical effects…
For me there is an (imperfect, and therefore energy-shedding) analogy for this somewhere in the matter of privacy vs secrecy as it pertains to leaks and drones. The drone is the supposed non-cause which only has effects. It moves around the planet like a leak, and then, like a dream deferred, it explodes. Only once it has its effect is it deduced as a cause. Relatedly, the TOR-encryption system utilized by Manning and Assange is an elaborate strategy of movement and envelopment. Importantly, the encryption doesn’t encrypt the ‘secret content’ of the leak; instead, the successive onion-like layers of encryption wrap around the content and direct how the content is moved around the Internet through so many nodes and portals that its journey can’t be recreated to find the source of the leak.( Indeed, the very verb hidden in the noun ‘leak’ gestures towards this shadowy/shameful/obscene action, this movement.)
TOR-encryption is interesting to me because the content of the message is of no interest to the hackers that built this system; only the motion is, the jackets of code that distend and obscure the event of transmission and make it irreal; then, once it arrives, it lyses its content, sheds effects so, so real that it’s reality-changing. Analogously, the much vaunted territory of ‘interiority’, so important to conventional personhood and its handmaiden, literature, becomes chimerical when reconceived from a framework of solubility. One idea, one body, one gender, one ethnicity, one language contains another, another which may also be, a la Heisenberg, a nothing, until it can’t survive it anymore.
I realize one keystone for my thinking about soluble personhood is Leslie Scalapino’s Dahlia’s Iris: Secret Autobiography + Fiction¸the over-nomination of the title accurately forecasting the oversaturation of the book itself with genres, persons, plots. A lot goes on in this busy brain of a book, including a detective plot, but I was stopped in my tracks by what happens on page 27 when the reader is suddenly given some irreal information about one of the protagonists, the Detective Grace Abe:
Grace had changed. Four years earlier a meeting of occurrences had precipitated, or suddenly there was a man who had been a marine dead who was in her. She would be running out, it would be him running. But she would never leave her body or her own mind when he was there. He’d been Special Forces, an assassin when he was alive; she hadn’t known him but she would feel the presence of his activities, ‘ghosts of actions she had done’ which were apparently his, or hers. Though she hadn’t acted (when he had killed someone, before entering her).
First addicted to Ibogaine, a drug used by Indian hunters, causing illness of vomiting followed by elation and an utter lucidity in hunting, she’d spiraled with the marine being there erratically. Then addicted to a Peruvian drug derived from frogs, the secretion applied to burn marks on one’s chest or arms […] She changed. The marine who really was a particular unknown person, did not return.
Yet there were still flickers as if she’d known people before, whom she was now seeing. […]
As in the entire oeuvre of Alice Notley, here one figure is a medium for the dead but the effect is neither consistently revelatory nor tolerable, neither stable nor totally eradicable. Is Grace ‘hosting’ the marine or at war with him? She does violence to her ‘self’ in an effort to burn him out, or maybe in an effort to mimic his own drug addictions or chemical warfare in Vietnam. Thus she might be most fully ‘embodying’ the marine and accepting his occupation when she is mimicking him and using her own body to stage the event of violence against him. Scalapino’s typically charming and frustrating prose flickers across the lines, the graceful comma or the unexpected ‘or’ often doing the linking of two quite disparate or unbearable thoughts. “She would be running out, it would be him running.” As this sentence suggests, solubility and fluidity is not a lovely thing; one entity is drained, another filled, both poisoned, both killed. Everything is adulterated. Although the ‘marine’ supposedly does not return, he does somehow return as after-effects, irreal re-cognitions.
And yet, I find this passage incredibly liberating; I feel a self-re-cognition everytime I re-turn to it. This is what it feels like to be in the world, to be a figure at once perpetrating an occupation and suffering one, to be bearing in one’s ‘self’ the virtual violence of everyplace. What I buy, eat, wear, use is a violence on myself and others. I cannot think of exceptions. Meanwhile I host a radical array of others, of ideas, images, griefs, fantasies, disappointments, which seem to occupy the part of ‘me’ that other people think of as their ‘selves’. So I’m carrying all this violence around, doing it to my ‘self’, all the time. I wish I didn’t have a self and could just be passed out in the puddle like Narcissus. It’s debriding and decomposing and sad this solubility, but sometimes often spectacular, a drug. I think of Lucas De Lima’s lucidly surreal elegy on the death of his friend, Ana Maria, by alligator attack, an irreal project of solubility which requires of occupation of the poet-space by many spectral and real and irreal bodies and species. Lucas enfigures this co-habitation when he writes:
My beak returns to Ana Maria’s throat. Feeding.
On cloudy nights when she dies again I have to perform such dives—
It is not a hacker we pursue
Or a wireless connection to bathe in
We want a waterfall in the Space we digitize together
I maximize windows when Ana Maria throws a seed at me
Keep MySpace blank for her
This occupation may be a consensual one on the part of the poet but it is a painful one, a grief-engorged one, an intolerable one, an unsurvivable one, as one death is transferred into the body of another, what Lucas might call ‘conviviality’, or I might call co-morbidity. We might call solubility a survival strategy for life in the Anthropocene if survival itself weren’t such a debatable goal, and if we weren’t already dead.