What is Contemporary Poetry?

by on Apr.05, 2013

Recently a lot of people – a lot of them younger, a lot of them people with a fiction background who apparently used to think poetry was boring and a lot of Swedish and foreign poets – have asked me to tell them what contemporary poetry I read or I think they should read. Well, people often ask me to talk about contemporary US poetry, but so much that I love is in translation and I prefer to see US poetry in connection to other places. So here are some books of contemporary poetry I feel you need to read. I’ve excluded all Action Books and books that I have translated (all of which it goes without saying, you should read and read and read until you vomit!), but these are the books that really matter in contemporary poetry in my opinion:

The Drug of Art by Ivan Blatny (Ugly Duckling) – selection from a Czech poet, whose work ranges from Eastern European modernist poetry to the great late stuff, a glorious interlingual mish-mash. Read some poems here.

Raul Zurita, Dreams for Kurosawa – amazing visionary dream poems by one of the world’s great living poets. I love all his books: Prugatory, Songs for his Disappeared Love, Anti-Paradise etc. Here he is reading at Notre Dame.

Percussion Grenade by Joyelle McSweeney – Seth Oelbaum recently called Joyelle one of the three greatest living US poets, and that’s probably right. This is Joyelle’s best, most rambunctious, radical and necropastoral jam. (Also check out her new prose book Salamandrine: 8 Gothics.). Here’s something Joyelle recently wrote about the play, “Contagious Knives,” which is part of the book. Here’s a recent review in HTMLGiant. And another.

Chelsea Minnis, Poemland – Contemporary American poetry who blends fashion and ultra-violence. I love all of her books. This one is didactic in the best possible sense. I think she was also in Seth’s “top three.” It was also Minnis whose work first prompted Arielle Greenberg to coin the phrase “gurlesque,” a controversial and insightful concept that is now being hotly debated all over the Swedish newspapers, journals and webzines (here for example) due to Maria Margareta Österholm’s book of criticism, The Girl Laboratory in Pieces: Swedish Prose 1980-2005 (we published a translation of the intro here).

Alice Notley, Descent of Alette – It’s of course notoriously impossible to say who’s the “top three poets” in any country, but Notley has certainly been one of the best US poets over the past 20+ years. I love most of her books, but for me Alette – a feminist, visionary epic set in the subway of Reagan’s America (thus increasingly realistic, correct) – is probably still the best, the one I teach most often and the one I always recommend to people from other countries who want to know about the best contemporary US poetry.

Ronaldo Wilson’s Poems of the Black Object – African-American poet writes brutal, grotesque, gorgeous poems in prose and in pretty lyrics. I wrote this post about him a while back. This book really moved me.

Maroosa di Giorgio, The History of Violets – Aerie, mysterious necropastorals saturated by art, flowers and violence by the late Uruguayan super star (in the Warhol sense of that word). Swedish readers might see the incredibly close connection to Swedish poet Ann Jäderlund, the superstar of Sweden.

OK, I said I was going to ignore Action Books, but really I can’t talk about contemporary poetry without mentioning Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, who is really one of the greatest living poets. She’s got two books out with Action Books and a few more on the way, and one chapbook from Tinfish, all translated by Don Mee Choi. Here’s something Lisa Flowers wrote about her. She too partakes with some of the gurlesque/necropastoral vibes I’ve mentioned above. THere’s a whole bunch of awesome poets in South Korea right now, though they have not yet been translated to English (we’re working on it).

OK, that’s my quick post for the day. I’ve no doubt missed some great ones but this is a pretty good image of my idea of the greatest “contemporary US” poetry, or at least a start.

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West Memphis, Witch Hunters, and the Cult of the Violent Femme

by on Mar.24, 2013

Rather than rehashing issues of exculpatory evidence and procedural travesties in the still-unsolved triple-child-homicide and triple-wrongful-conviction that is the case of of West Memphis Three Six, Joyelle’s and Johannes’s recent essays chart some interesting new territory — see “Metallica, The West Memphis Three, and the Narcissism of the Law” and “‘Paradise Lost’: Violent Femmes, Hysterical Masculinity and the Threat of Art (pt 1).” In a future post, I’d like to engage Joyelle’s observations — specifically “Art’s occult movements, its paradoxically linked power and obscurity,” and the ability of Narrative to “exercise a ‘real’ force” not only on the historical record but on the bodies of its “characters” — via an examination of the power of Magic(k)al Narratives, in the absence of inculpatory evidence, to secure from spell-bound juries what Marianne Moore might have called “real convictions for imaginary crimes.”[1] The following touches on those ideas, but only in my attempt to discuss the “strange sexuality” that Johannes sees in the West Memphis case, as well his notion of “the threat of Violent Femme,” both of which I examine in the context of the imagined sexual violence in the case as well as Prosecutors’ (conjoined-) twin obsessions with inversions of religious rites and perversions of sexuality — obsessions that are by no means limited to the not-so-metaphorical witch trial in West Memphis, of course, but that enjoy a history of at least a couple thousand years even in the narrow context of persecution / prosecution.

I should also note that Joyelle and Johannes both tend to write from the perspective of discussing Art / Literature, while I am presently doomed to see everything in terms of the plodding banality of crime; the only Art I discuss anymore, or so it seems, being the aforementioned Prosecutorial Magic, and the only “literature” the most depressing collection of nonfiction tomes on crime, particularly sex crimes, as well as (or, rather, including) our species’ long history of persecuting those among us whom we believe are “beyond redemption,” etc.


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"A cursory tracing of infection patterns": Jeremy Behreandt on Aase Berg's Dark Matter and "American kitschy-grotesque aesthetic"

by on Mar.13, 2013

Jeremy Behreandt has an excellent review of Dark Matter by Aase Berg up on Heavy Feather Review.In it he makes some really interesting comments about the matter-mind conflict in the poem and how this might relate to the deformative language:

In Berg’s language, which deploys neologism and bizarre grammar, one is invited to practice new logics or analogies. If the ghost is born of the dark material machine, does it inherit the machine’s characteristics in its genes? If yes, and the dark matter is opaque and inscrutable, then the consciousness can learn nothing of itself by studying its parent empirically. If no, then the consciousness is an orphan, a “deformity, an aberration…a slit in the structure.” It is lost in the hostile world and to itself. Rather than accepting Descartes’ comfortable Cogito ergo sum, Berg explodes the disjunct between mind and body into grotesque, unforeseen conclusions. An architectural or geological formation may have a face or faces, a name or names, corruptible bodily organs or erupting limbs as much as a human may not. Flesh is machine, mineral is flesh, figure is indistinguishable from ground. This yields powerful imagery in Dark Matter, such as “Here runs a visible underground border, a fistulation toward Mare Imbrium. I thrust the muscle latch toward the machines that throb there in the wound” from “In Dovre Slate Mill.” Or “Here the tendons weave a cathedral of signs from Pangea’s hidden core. Here the cranium glows in the memory of the machine’s facial features” from “Cryptogram.”

It has always struck me about this book how “figure is indistinguishable from ground” and this review brings this issue into an interesting conversation about matter.

Behreandt also raises the question of how I/Black Ocean have framed this translation:

Of course, one must remain mindful that the American audience receives Dark Matter through the interpretive framing of Johannes Görannson. If Berg writes, “Come Leatherface, my love, glide into the face of the secret’s bestial longing” and never again makes mention of Leatherface, both Gorannson’s introduction and the copy on the back cover, while acknowledging numerous sources, emphasize Berg’s allusion to and alteration of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It makes this reviewer wonder if the American kitschy-grotesque aesthetic, as it codifies its discourse and forms its canon, is promoting an edgy, hip Dark Matter that is in constellation with Bataille while keeping mum on the Dark Matter in constellation with Novalis (whose verse serves as an epigraph for the book), the Dark Matter which frequently addresses traditional philosophic questions on idealism vs. materialism, artificial vs. natural, reason vs. will, being vs. becoming, unity vs. strife.

I think that’s a fair question. (continue reading…)

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Believe the Hype: Rauan Klassnik's The Moon's Jaw

by on Mar.04, 2013

In the wound of a stabbed cosmos, Rauan Klassnik’s moon–kin to Plath’s moon bald and wild–bucks against despair. A melted copy of La jetée, the ashes of the cult of Diana, the live-dead fingernail, fragments from the holocausts that feed us. Scabbed————Lobsided——Cunning & Swift——, Klassnik is not afraid of the cinema. Anytime we devour the queen, we will be forced to vomit her back up, a clean saint out of our foaming mouths. A pretty swell in the music.

Moon's Jaw hi res Cover

We’re not afraid of the cinema. Which houses all our night-mares. We’re not afraid. Marble, Tequila, Rotted, Flapping. The myth of biological sex, the myth of biological stability [l]ike cathedral meat. Wrapped in a thin red towel.

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Believe the New Sensations: Salamun, Aase Berg, Peter Richards and the "Overjoy" of Poetry

by on Mar.04, 2013

“Imagine the sinhome not as figure but as ground: a potent, non-neutral ground, a giant stain. This would square well with the vaginal connotations of the sinthome, in patriarchy a wound that is also a space.” (Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature)

I’m reading Tomaz Salamun’s book On the Tracks of Wild Game (first published in the 70s in Slovenia, recently published in translation by Ugly Duckling). I fucking love this book. So weird and unsettling but beautiful:

I was pulled under water. I swam back to the surface
as a dark blue
gleaming blossom. It’s terrifying to be
a lower. The world came to a halt. I bloomed quietly
like velvet, as if forever.

(from Plato, Islam, Barnett Newman)

The poems are these volatile zones shot through with violence and tenderness, zones of transformation, ambient zones that takes over the reader, takes us in like “dark blue gleaming blossom.”



In his reading of Peter Richards’ Helsinki (Action Books, 2011) in Jacket2, “Devisable Matter and Sheer Overjoy” (great title), Christopher Condrich keeps emphasizing two elements: the sense of a placeless, volatile place and a near-narrative that is more the “vestiges of narrative” than a traditional narrative. Within the space set up in the poem, his reading “shapeshifts and morphs.” (continue reading…)

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The Violence of Style: Larry Levis, Sylvia Plath, Mark Levine etc

by on Feb.05, 2013

I want to continue thinking about the kind of relationship between masculinity, violence and art that I broached in my last post, about the West Memphis 3 and “violent femmes”. This is of course something I’ve written about frequently in my own poetry (luckily I write about things I don’t understand, so I can continue). I’m interested in how the identification of violence and masculinity in poetry; and also how this relates to the foreign, the ethnic. But mostly what I’m going to talk about here is how violence is said to be “masculine” in fact comes off as “feminine” in many ways inside art, and how this relates to “style”, and in fact “too much” style, or “inflation” as I’ve called it elsewhere.

In older posts I documented how the “early” Larry Levis and cohorts were dismissed for their “glut” of poetry that was surrealist – violent, slapstick bodies, foreign/translation-influenced, sensationalistic – and how they “moved on” to write poetry that was about grief-as-interiority, “narrative” memories, but strangely almost paralyzed in their quietism. You can get a good sense of this violent early poems by the title of his first book, “Wrecking Crew.”

I get a gun and go
shoot an airplane full of holes,
and stare at the thing on the runway
until its covered with rust.
This takes years.
I turn forty somewhere, waiting
for the jet underneath me to
clear its throat of burned

I think it’s also pretty important that this “early” poetry was Plath-influenced in exactly these regards. The other day on Facebook, Brian Henry posted the following quote from Helen Vendler’s famous essay on Sylvia Plath:

Poems like ‘Daddy’ and ‘Lady Lazarus’ are in one sense demonically intelligent, (continue reading…)

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In Defense of Extreme Difference: Some Thoughts on Peripheries, Cannibalism, La Pocha Nostra, and the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics’ 8th Encuentro

by on Jan.28, 2013

Last week I had the privilege of attending an artistic/activist/academic conference I didn’t know could exist in the hyper-fragmented world we live in.  Unlike most conferences I’ve attended, the Hemispheric Institute’s eight-day smorgasbord here in São Paulo invigorated as much as it exhausted me.  Beyond lectures and roundtables, the conference also offered teach-ins and work groups in addition to the intense schedule of the performances themselves.  Actually, in my work group we even created our own performances.  For me the conference was an experience in “extreme culture”—a term used by Guillermo Gómez-Peña, one of the artists who epitomizes the border-defying, periphery-prizing spirit of the Hemi (as it is affectionately called).  I think poets of the Montevidayan variety, in particular, stake a claim in the extremities and peripheries being celebrated at the Hemi Encuentro.  It’s one of those art spaces where people constantly use the word “poetics” without ever mentioning poets or poetry.

Maybe &Now would be US poetry’s equivalent to the Hemi Encuentro, except without what I consider to be one of the latter’s extreme aspects:  its ambitiously politicized continental scope, as reflected in how much the event tends to provincialize the US.  While the talks were translated from or into Portuguese, Spanish, and English, the performances conducted in Portuguese or Spanish were left untranslated.  My work group, where I talked about horse bestiality as an expression of gender, was in Portuguese.  This marginalization of the lingua franca, I think, partly reflects a commitment to countering US-American hegemony.  People at the conference were very conscious about the imposition of the term “performance” as a US-American export.

Yet, I think the inherent radicalness of much contemporary performance art—or arte accíon as some Latin Americans call it—provides organic reasons for the Hemi’s decentering of the US.  Such an anti-colonial impulse, I’d argue, is vital to the making of provocative art, or art that resists being boxed in and made legible as mere representation, seeking a process and practice-based disorientation of bodies instead of the identity politics being viciously co-opted by the state/market (see Craig Santos Perez on the White House’s selection of inaugural poet Richard Blanco). (continue reading…)

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Sugar Books: Kirsten Hudson's 'Artificial Sweetness' and Johannes Goransson's Cutter's Feminism

by on Jan.14, 2013

Every once in a while you stumble on an artist who is articulating (or disarticulating) a set of ideas, materials, genres and media in a way so viscerally perfect for your needs that the experience is pharmaceutical and you want to turn your friends on to it immediately. Well friends, I would like to share the work of Australian artist Kirsten Hudson.

Hudson’s work, by her own description, is a series of works in “video, print, and sugar”. Sugar’s status as an imperial commodity historically derived from slave labor, and, in its artificial form, a carcinogenic corporate product of mandatory consumption; its sickliness, sharpness and stickiness; its coding for women, children, and vapidity;  its power to radically denature the body’s metabolism; and its quite mutable and distinct physical states, make it an excellent and dismaying medium for Hudson to work with in her various sculptures, prints and installations (brilliantly, her website, Artificial Sweetness, seems to generate houseflies, death’s attendants, and the shoddy housewife’s, as well– and also plays the ‘Nutcracker”s celeste motif, a sonic manifestation of sugar.) The pieces themselves manifest (and destroy, possibly digest) sugar in different ways, until it seems as if the  body has been turned inside out– sugar is used against hte body, and the body is used against sugar:

In these two performance stills, a cotton candy gown is eaten away, registering violence against the female body who performs the dress, and now appears to be a mass of ravaged tissue, while in fact performing its own demise. Other works in this series include lumps of sugar entitled ‘lump: my autobiography” and a pink chandelier made of fondant equalling the excess weight Hudson carried since losing her stillborn baby.

Hudson’s ‘repulsive‘ interest in the multisensory pathways of sugar derives from the philosophical mission of her work. In the essay, “Taste My Sorrow”, she writes

As an example of art-making that embraces a fully fleshy empathic imagination, […] Taste My Sorrow -my ongoing series of video, print and sugar-based works– […] seeks to trigger a pre-discursive, pre-cognitive, pre-language affectthat momentarily allows the viewer to be amidst rather than stand before the “otherness” of a body in/of trauma. By proposing the possibility of “being amidst”, I do not pretend that it is desirable or even possible to reduce the “Other’s” trauma to one’s own singular subjective understanding or experience of trauma. Instead I use the possibility of “being amidst” as a sensorial alternativeto the primacy of vision. So rather than enacting a totalising panoramic “knowing” gaze that classifies and segregates the traumatised “other” (Levinas1989), I propose an empathic imagination as a way of “being with” thetraumatised “Other” that accepts the ambiguity, ambivalence and “unknowability” of what has led to, or resulted in, a body in/of trauma.”

Kirsten Hudson’s work, in addition to its own ‘botched’ fertility, provides set of images and concepts which helps me think about Johannes Goransson’s entire work, basically, including his upcoming work, Sugar Book. All his work is made of spectacular, debriding series in which each part burns up and provides a wound we can poke our attention through to see the next installment in the series. Not only do his work host incredible (well, actually, credible) violence, but they do a kind of cutter’s violence to themselves, cutting away the thin white wrist skin of the paper to get at the infection that runs underneath as busy as a freeway in a city that shits movies:

I am supposed to find a killer but I am feverish in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles tastes like iron in my mouth.

Maybe I’m dying of a disease brought home to me from my daughters. They are conduits of contagion. They bring the outside into the inside and the inside into the outside. They stand by the stairs and stare at me. They have dark dark hair and blue eyes. Their dresses look clean but their mouths are soiled.

We live inside The Meadow. That’s not its true name of the hotel but that’s what I call it because of the lamb masks.

Infection: white cells. White skin. Black masks. Irony is a crowbar in the teeth. Sugar races in the streets, metabolism burns the strip mall down. Race, gender, violence– the mouth of the poem is stuffed with girls, and the girls in the poem are stuffed with contagion. The face of the poem is stuffed with mask, and the masks are stuffed with race. The poem destroys itself by being read. The Sugar Book  must be consumed, cuts and degrades the teeth, hygiene is deplorable in this abbatoir-cum-motel, a space where the ‘gender wars’ deploy themselves in an ominbody, city, book, family, cuttering, dilation and cutterage, & montage & frottage, decapitation, reanimation. The Internet tells me

“Sugar Melting Point Varies Because Sugar Doesn’t Melt; It Decomposes”

This is what makes Johannes a feminist.

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The Visionary Kitsch of the 1980s (Michael Strunge, poetry, pop music, Ian Curtis etc)

by on Dec.30, 2012

Recently I’ve been thinking about the 1980s a lot. Well recently I’ve started to work on a kind of memoir of Sweden in the 1980s which is really more like a work of cultural history, hopefully in the line of a lot of Greil Marcus’s books.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the Danish poet Michael Strunge (1958-1986), a legendary 80s poet whose visionary poetry I read frequently and devotedly in the late 80s when I started to write poetry. He committed suicide in 1986 and that was part of his Rimbaud-like, Romantic image.

I was trying to find the book I read back then, Kristallskeppet (“The Chrystal Ship”), a selected poems in Swedish translation, but I can’t seem to find it anywhere, which is sad because it’s like my first book of poetry I ever owned (but luckily some Danes sent me some of his poems over facebook). As that title suggests, his poetry is full of sci-fi-ish visions of the city, fitting in very well with the kitsch-related stuff I’ve been posting on this blog – how kitsch not a lack, but an excess, related to Romanticism, how it’s about the poetic in an age of industrialism. It also engaged quite strikingly with the youth/pop culture of the era, including direct references to David Bowie and Ian Curtis.

Here are some quick excerpts very roughly translated (hopefully not too many huge errors, my Danish is shaky):

from “Elegy for Ian Curtis + may 1980”

Your voice was like that:

Smoky nights with unovercome childhood,
unhealed wounds behind the glass armor.
Plaster that tears so impossibly slowly
that the wound is experiences as a wound.

Your depression was clean and free for the worldangst.
You could see your own cancer growth
and did not want to cut it off,
you knew
that the cancer is the strongest
is death the closest and inhabits it.

So rather choose death’s naked honesty
than this hypocritical life,
where pain was a sign of life
but live became a sign of pain.
Skinlessness is the highest nakedness and death.

(continue reading…)

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From "Wrecking Crew" to "Maturity" in American Poetry: Larry Levis #2

by on Dec.28, 2012

I was intrigued a few weeks ago when in response to my first Larry Levis post, Milford gave a little history lesson of late 60s early 70s poetry: How supposedly Merwin had influenced a lot of poets to write deep image poetry, generating a “glut” of surrealist-ish poetry, which was then abandoned as those very same poets moved on to write personal narratives of interiority and sentimentality. Milford suggested that Levis’s own writing trajectory follows this path.
I was intrigued by this not just because I liked Wrecking Crew – the Levis book I quoted from – but also because I wondered what would make somebody abandon this very lively, spasmodic poetry in favor of the type of personal narratives that so much of American poetry seemed to be about when I started writing poetry (in the late 80s).

I’m also interested in how that “glut” (too many poets, writing too much poetry etc) reflects our own current “glut” of excess, our “plague ground” as Joyelle put it way back when this debate began. There are of course tons of similarities – the expansion of the number of authors (through MFAs, GI bill etc), an interest in translation, an interest in “surrealism” (by which it might just mean non-American-based poetry).
(continue reading…)

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Fassbinder's Berlin and Franz's Angels

by on Dec.12, 2012

For years, I’ve been meaning to watch Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, and I finally got around to it last summer. Quite a few critics have called it one of the best films ever made, and I agree, though it does have an unfair advantage, being more than fourteen hours long. Should it even be called a film, and not a TV show? It was produced for German television, after all.

It’s a debate that goes back since it was first produced. Sontag was adamant that is was a film, not a TV series. She even argued it should be seen in one viewing if possible — which would be quiet a feat. Others have been as adamant in the other direction.

I think it’s best comparable to Eisenstein’s gloriously weird Ivan the Terrible, with its two separate but adjoining halves. Both are histories with a deliberately staged quality, both bring together elements of “high art” (artistic shots, for example) with “low art” (both are dramatic as hell), and both films are incredibly stylistically diverse (the epilogue in Fassbinder’s film seems to almost have been made by a different filmmaker).

Susan Sontag in her famous review of the film said that it had achieved something in cinema that had never been done before: because of its extreme length, it has, she argued, the elasticity of a novel, with some scenes and scenarios being drawn out almost to the breaking point, and others snapping closed in only a few minutes.
(continue reading…)

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Some Readings/Wmagazine is the New Family Bible (Weil, Sontag, Jacobs)

by on Nov.26, 2012

super linda

(Hi. wrote this some weeks back.)

Wmagazine is the New Family Bible

/a fairy tale

It was good timing that our New Yorker prescription ran out and not so long after the magazine W took its place and started circulation within our home (wife went on an obsessed internet survey-binge and amassed some free stuff: tea, soaps, lady things, Martha Stewart’s magazine and W). The first issue was some kind of super-size-me-up binder full of mid-evil pixiegoth housewifery, featuring among other awesome things, Super Linda.

O dread

Our daughter, at 5, now comes home from school, asks for a snack (“I just want candy”) and hangs out in the sun room, flipping through the magazine. One of the twins was reading it the other night while watching Jeopardy (or maybe it was The Rifleman). It should be said though (mom) that other than that first issue (which has mysteriously disappeared, boys will be boys will be girls etc.) there is not much in terms of visible nipple-crotch-ass nudity going on.

(continue reading…)

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On Loaded Guns 2: Emily Dickinson, Black Civil War soldiers, and Shane McCrae's Blood

by on Nov.16, 2012

I often make a plea here and in my classes for ‘occult reading practices’—reading practices that search out occult influences moving among texts, influences that work anachronistically or telepathically or across a medium of diabolical ‘sympathy’, influence itself as a kind of ectoplasm, an uncanny, distorting, magnetic and often duplicitous material. While I was reading Shane McCrae’s Blood (due out this Spring from Noemi Press; a sequence from this book is also available as “In Canaan”, a chapbook from Rescue Press), a second poem kept arising like a haint in my mind, so that I felt that Shane’s book and this phantom poem were tugging each other into spectral presence like linked emanations. That second poem was Emily Dickinson’s 754,  “My Life had stood–a Loaded gun–”. Dickinson’s poem lit up McCrae’s work with klieg lights, and McCrae’s poems reanimated Dickinson’s poem with an anachronistic power which, ironically, flooded the earlier poem both with the historical context of its composition during the Civil War and with the violence which preceded and followed it, all the violence of mankind spasming along axes of ferocious power.

“The history of blackness is testament to the fact that objects can and do resist,” writes Fred Moten in the introduction to his world-splitting work, In the Break.

Blackness, the extended movement of a specific upheaval, on ongoing irruption that anarranges every line—is a strain that pressures the assumption of the equivalence of personhood and subjectivity. While subjectivity is defined by the subject’s possession of itself and its objects, it is troubled by a dispossessive force objects exert such that the subject seems to be possessed—infused, deformed—by the object it possesses. […..] [Saidiya] Hartman shows how narrative always echoes and redoubles the dramatic interenactment of ‘contentment and abjection,’ and she explores the massive discours of the cut, of rememberment, and redress, that we always here in narratives where blackness marks simultaneously both the performance of object and performance of humanity.

As Moten’s introduction continues, he examines the “Aunt Hester” episode from Frederick Douglass’s Autobiography as a place in which the ‘shrieks’ of the slave’s body under torture stand in for the natal scene which would typically anchor an autobiography; under the derangement of history-as-violence, blackness comes into being as “an ongoing irruption that anarranges every line”—as violence converted into long, continuous, confounding, immortal shriek which passes from body to body.

Shane McCrae’s book begins in ambiguity and vertigo; its title ‘Blood’ could refer to the sureties of the bloodline which secures inheritence and generations, but in the context of this book, which records so intensely the repetitive violence by which black voices and bodies are stitched into historical time, recasts that blood as violence’s red body which pushes itself into the space of black bodies.  The book carries the dedication, “For my father, for his parents, for their parents,” a reverse-lineage which claims a multitude of referents working backwards in time, but its parallelism also has a kind of repetitiveness to it, as if the parents and fathers were repeating across time, coming back into present and future time.

In fact this is the thrust of McCrae’s book, providing lyric testimonies to the constitutive violence of periods of history which we must all too ruefully own as “American”—testimonies of rape, murder, kidnapping and imprisonment pre-Civil War, testimonies of Black soldiers made to fight during the Civil War, testimonies of lynchings and separations, and finally an intertemporal elegy that seems to yoke together and bring into immanence figures from no-one-specific-or-else-every time. In all these testimonies, McCrae’s use of short phrase and fragment, repetition of names, and plaintive shifts of address underscore the sameness and repetition of the dispossessions suffered by the speakers, the “strain”, “trouble”, deformation and damage undergone by these people forced to simultaneously undertake “the performance of object and the performance of humanity.”

The result of this unbearable doubleness (which adds up, simultaneously to more than two and less than zero) is that the black body becomes a medium into which violence can spasm and through which it can move. One poem, at the beginning of the book, voices a female slave’s desperation: (continue reading…)

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