WE WANT FREEDOM; I WANT TO BE FREE

2/2/17

“This is the heart of the American idea…” the radio croons. “One of my favorites is actually President Reagan . . . that’s the America that I know and love and believe so many of us want to belong to.” Trump’s not looking back to the 50s; he’s thinking of the 80s, when coke was queen and Letterman king. Trump’s interviews on late-night and day-time TV, and stories about him in the New York Post are more revealing than the Pussy-grabbing tape. Like the latter, they narrate the core issue: we’re not dealing with an ordinary human, folks. Trump’s the most advanced form of celebrity ever to occupy the Presidency. He’s a virtual entity that’s temporarily assumed human form. Celebrity, when regarded, as Cintra Wilson does, as a “grotesque crippling disease,” consumes the brains and bodies of those in inhabits. Many celebrities kill themselves, others die from too many pain-killers, or go insane. Trump’s madness is a symptom of 35 years of getting himself on TV. 15 minutes just isn’t enough for some of us; twice 15 years isn’t enough for a narcissistic (homicidal) few.

Trump isn’t the first celebrity President, of course. But he’s way up there.

The Hill:

President Trump hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office on Tuesday, The New York Times reports, an apparent nod to the populist sentiments of the new administration.

Trump’s rise has often been compared to the populist election of Jackson, including by some of the new president’s own team.

Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon called Trump’s inauguration speech on Friday “Jacksonian,” saying it struck the populist and patriotic tones Jackson was known for.

andrew_jackson_head

Check out the double-collar on this guy. Check out the hair. A romantic, like Napoleon… 

Bannon’s Jackson is the patriot who put Indians in their place (several thousand miles away) and opposed the central bank. Breitbart reports that

Jackson did all this while accomplishing something almost equally rare in the advancement of nations: he intentionally decentralized the government, vetoing wasteful infrastructure projects and sending them back to the states where they belonged.

Sounds like he approved the contemporary Republican opposition to Obamacare. As Raymond Williams observed, traditions unfold backwards in time; they are made in the present. Lacking this present reconstruction, that fail to exist in the present, therefore fail to be active traditions. Trump is not resuscitating ancient verities. I suspect that his Jackson is someone else, someone more “present-tense”: our first celebrity President. He would appreciate the simultaneous rise in fame and power exhibited by that half-literate land-speculator and militia leader who parlayed his spectacular victory in New Orleans into public office.

jackson-at-new-orleans

Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower did the same. But Reagan was Jacksonian in a new way. He wasn’t in the war, exactly, although he filmed the hell out of it; it was B-movies and cigarette commercials that put him before the public eye.

regan_cigsjpg

A culture-industry celebrity who parlayed his status in the virtual nation (plus strong ties to the anti-communist unions, later the Christian Right) into public office.

Trump outdid them both. His ability to catapult from Reality TV to within Electoral Advantage of the Presidency should tells us something about our relation to televised drama.  
doc6q772xwz0gk7vedc6n2
In Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Superman responds to Reagan’s warning. Trump regards himself as such a man.

See also Joseph Stalin (Wikipedia):

Like other Bolsheviks, he became commonly known by one of his revolutionary noms de guerre, of which “Stalin” was only the last. “Stalin” is based on the Russian word сталь stal, meaning “steel”, and the name as a whole is supposed to mean “man of steel”.[344] Prior nicknames included “Koba”, “Soselo”, “Ivanov” and many others.[345]

In bridge, that game of the New York elite since the Gilded Age (Dummies.com),

When a suit becomes the trump suit, any card in that trump suit potentially has special powers; any card in the trump suit can win a trick over any card of another suite

stupid-rat-creatures

WE WANT FREEDOM; I WANT TO BE FREE

2/1/17
In populist times, political battle-lines are redrawn: “old” arrangements (however new) partially erased. Borders blur; people switch foxholes; the terrain’s rearranged by new weaponry: heavy shells, grapeshot, gas. Populist moments challenge “official culture,” “politics as usual,” the “mainstream,” but what this means depends upon where you stand. The new culture wars are coming. Multiple terrains revised, others reactivated. Law v. order. Migrant v. resident. Environment v. resources. Love v. hate. Everyone enjoys the disorder (enjoyment v. fun).

In populist times, heroes emerge. Cowardly lions; bold Suffragettes. Anarchists give beautiful speeches; fat cats capture the headlines. “For every nine parts Moses, you need one part Jesus,” sings the radio’s vaudeville. “If you zoom out, this is a strategy that seems woven into the fabric of the cosmos,” the so-called rational voices croon.

bagge-lisa-leaps

Peter Bagge predicted this condition in Hate and related titles. His ordinary working-class partial dissenters suffer the contortions of cartoons. They don’t explode, except when they kill themselves. Alive, they bend and bulge, bounce, bubble, fold, collapse. Comic-book realities: bodies subject to extreme forms of fantasy. The airports are full, but it’s not the Thanksgiving rush.

In populist times, the spectacle overwhelms rational discourse. It wasn’t so rational to begin with; it just got worse. When, in the face of this, we fall for rationality, we justify the old regime. Already, numerous critiques of Trump stack him against Obama AND Shrub, legitimizing the latter. George W. Bush, a ‘normal’ president. The “alternative facts” mostly bend us; sometimes we break. A new puncture replaces the old, but leaves the tire weaker. Fortunately, human culture isn’t my bicycle. We get to do more than absorb our punctures. More kicks than pricks; more pricks than kicks: everything’s reversible.

How avoid the spectacle? The marvelous helps. A marvel is like a miracle, but made by us (the world), not god. The OED: “such as to excite wonder or astonishment (chiefly in a positive sense).” We need more of that in Trump’s Twitter Empire, I think. The marvelous distracts us with the glamour of our own creation. It may be rude; it may be graceful. The marvelous is like an angel of indecision that confronts us in the garden of our betrayal and delight.

bone-winter-soltice

 

Notes toward Understanding Donald Trump’s Market Populism (Part I)

The fourth estate increasingly acknowledges that Trump’s appeal owes more (everything?) to his evocation of emotions than any policy statements. Back in September, Domenico Montanaro argued that “Trump’s supporters aren’t with him because they want to hear the wonky details. They want someone to channel what they feel.” He concluded that disgust was the most important emotion. According to Thomas B. Edsall, Trump has “tapped into” an evolutionary (!!!) dynamic of disgust and purity . In New York Times editorial that’s almost as nonsensical as your average Republican debate, Edsall patches together observations by political scientists and evolutionary psychologists to conclude that anxious conservatives are motivated by a deep-seated desire for conformity to social norms. Trump is a political “alpha male” because he’s a marketing “genius” who knows how to communicate with fearful voters seeking an authoritarian leader who tells it like it is.

There are several problems with the liberal media’s approach to the Donald. For starters, taken as whole, the press response does little to diminish Trump’s standing. They’ve been pouring water on his duck’s back. Months ago, pundits on the left and right predicted that his campaign, which the candidate himself didn’t appear to be taking seriously, would soon flame out. The opposite happened; as he continued to lead in (largely meaningless) polls, the rest of the candidates attempted to “trump Trump.” As a result, his current closest rivals (Cruz and Rubio) increasingly resemble him. Those candidates who continued to pursue their own loopy paths (Fiorina, Carson, Paul) began to lose traction as the spectacle become Trumpified.

Following are a few observations that may help to explain the apparently irresistible rise of Donald Trump.

Populism is ubiquitous. Populism names that part of political discourse that is grounded in public feeling, otherwise known as common sense. Populism shouldn’t be confused with racism, fascism, or demagoguery. Racist, fascistic, and demagogic politicians often deploy populism, but it’s a mistake to regard them as enjoying privileged access to political feeling. All political candidates use emotional appeals. Some of the nation’s more progressive political leaders are widely acknowledged to be populists: Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, JFK… (Trump’s closest historical predecessors may well be tough-talking East Coaster Kennedy and the first true “market populist,” Bill Clinton.)  President Obama was populist on the campaign trail, as was Jimmy Carter. This doesn’t mean that politicians must necessarily be populist. Appeals to reason, technocratic authority, and objectivity can also be attractive. The problem emerges when reporters and analysts align populism with fear, aggression, and disgust, and associate these emotional states with right-wing agendas. This alignment strengthens right-wing populism. Public optimism (hope) and contentment (complacency) are regarded as weaker forces. “Progressives” (as the name suggests) are imagined to be motivated by these weaker feelings, and in the process are denied access to public feeling more generally. (This doesn’t say anything about the neoliberal’s embrace of technocratic rationality, which is another problem…)

In the U.S. two-party system, populist movements pose a greater threat to the party that endorses them then the party that opposes them. In the 1890s, the People’s Party was a genuine “third party”; it’s supporters included Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans. Ultimately, the People’s Party joined the Democrats to run William Jennings Bryan as a “fusion” candidate; Bryan lost. The merger failed because the populists were genuine in their opposition to the two-party system, and wouldn’t vote for a Democratic candidate, and because until the merger both mainstream parties had reviled the People’s party as full of anarchists and bums–that mud stuck, and strengthened Republican opposition. Something similar happened in 1912, when Roosevelt’s Progressive or “Bull Moose” party split the Republican vote, handing the election to Wilson. Remember Ross Perot? Running to the right of George H. W. Bush, he helped bring Bill Clinton to Washington. Today, the Republican party is suffering the consequences of it’s greedy effort to gobble up Tea Party opposition. In our fast-paced, historically myopic mediascape, it’s easy to forget that the Tea Party originally opposed the second President Bush. They formed in opposition to his fiscal irresponsibility and interventionism. Almost immediately, the Tea Party was bought out by the Republican establishment, which sought to incorporate it as a new, more ardent and fundamentally conservative “base.” Trump benefits from the chaos this caused. The good news is that any Democrat will probably beat him–Bernie Sanders has a chance. The bad news is that his spectacle will likely benefit the most mainstream elements in the Democratic Party, leading to a Clinton victory. (Katha Pollitt, for example, endorses H.C. as the more “electable” candidate. My opposition to Clinton stems from  my fear that, like her husband or Tony Blair, she’ll promote a “centrist” strategy that will continue many of the most pernicious aspects of neoliberaism.)

Trump’s “market populism” is not a political aberration. Despite a lack of political/military experience, Trump’s not ‘outside’ the political estabishment because the establishment is three-fourths spectacle. He televisual popularity, so often passed over without comment by the press, has everything to do with his front-runner status. In a public sphere that is almost entirely organized by mass media, the President IS a mediated image. The nation publicly conceded that point when it elected Reagan, the actor-President. Furthermore, the particular kind of celebrity that Trump presents is The success of The Apprentice is not remarkable in itself: it was only a variation of a currently popular genre, which casts the successful entrepreneur as public hero. In recent years, Hollywood’s invested heavily in biopics of billionaires: The Social Network, Steve Jobs, and so forth.  In the Gilded Age, they were termed “titans of industry”; today they’re called, more simply, “the job creators.” The postmodern synthesis of ‘big business” and populism (which, years ago, Tom Frank termed “market populism”) seems contradictory until you consider the common sense understanding of globalization. Titans are enormous, powerful, ‘larger-than-life’ figures who nonetheless can relate to mere humans. When competition over labor (jobs sent overseas) and resources (global climate change) was scaled up–from nation to globe, the creators and manipulators of the public imagination (the spectacle makers) promoted the concept that us mortals would need help from the titans in order to survive. Trump is no more of a savior than the Transformers or Marvel’s Avengers. He recently compared his proposed border wall to China’s great wall. His wall, he said, wasn’t nearly so big. The implication is obvious: by appearing so confident about his large-scale projects that he can refer to them modestly rather than ambitiously, he confers superhero status upon himself.

The People is a phantom. The “silent majority” is a ghost, or projection. This doesn’t mean that populism isn’t effective. It’s effective precisely because it’s misunderstood. The most troubling aspect of the commentary on Trump I began with is the use of verbs like “channel” and “tap into.” The implication being that somewhere “out there” in “heartland America” there were a lot of people who already felt disgusted, angry, xenophobic, etc. Yes, of course, such feelings existed–but they didn’t exist as people. They existed as feelings. Feelings are misunderstood when regarded as dormant or latent; they must be felt, named, acted upon in order for them to exist. The feeling wasn’t there until it was. When the mainstream media, in an effort to understand Trump’s popularity, imagines that he represents a segment of body politic that was always there but unnoticed, they produce the very thing they wish to understand.

As I said: preliminary notes. Part II applies some of these general observations to more specific aspects of the phenomena.

WATERSHED Poems

In the year following Michael Brown’s murder on 9 August 2014, I wrote poems that attempted to reconfigure events of police violence directed at people of color between the day Trayvon Martin was killed and Brown’s death. My accounts work against the mainstream press accounts, which tend to make the police and their private-sector stand-ins the narrative subjects, and the victims their objects. Drawing on news accounts, I flip the official script, revealing the unjustified, racist nature of state violence.

Brian Holmes recently created WATERSHEDS, an interactive map that uses some of the poems to chart police violence against people of color on the Mississippi watershed. In this context, the poems help to intensify his point: that Political Ecology begins when we say Black Lives Matter.

His project is available here.

Brian’s introduction to the map, and a pdf of my poems, is available on the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor’s Compass website.

Philip Levine’s Populist Poetics

Philip Levine died on 14 February 2015. Born in Detroit in 1928, he worked in the auto plants by the time he was fourteen. Advanced education altered his life’s course. He graduated from Wayne State, then earned an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1957. He worked a different kind of line after that, teaching writing at CSU-Fresno. As his Poetry Foundation biography states, “Though Levine did not return to live in Detroit, its people and economy would remain central concerns of his poetry.” His focus on Motor City sentiments caused him to be received, in the words of Ed Hirsch, as an “ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland.”

In an “appraisal” to accompany Levine’s obituary in the New York Times, Dwight Garner identifies the poetics that contribute to Hirsch’s summation. According to Garner, Levine’s contribution to his craft lay in his ability to write “short lines” that are “instantly identifiable” and posses “a muscular and deceptively simple sense of subterranean rhythm.” Put these observations together, you get the Levine we now remember: the writer of a democratic (Whitmanian) poetry for the Fordist Era. He conveyed the “people and economy” of Fordism in a style that was easy to understand: a rugged, working-class style, undermined (“subterranean”) or ironized by its rhythms.

So phrased, this view of Levine’s poetry misses its target somewhat. Garner’s essay, the Times obituary, and similar reminiscences mis-characterize some aspects of Levine’s work. Wordsworth and Williams, not Whitman, provide better models for his poetry. Its true that Levine’s rhythms are subtle and effective, but not because they undermine his proletarian machismo. His best moments are hardly ironic. On the contrary, Levine was often earnest to a fault. Much of his verse is hobbled by a too-sly humility. But just as frequently, his fidelity to traditional rhythms and the American idiom contributes to a welcome sincerity. I think it would be better to remember Levine as a kind of Motor City Romantic; a postmodern (post Williams) Wordsworth. He used modernist poetic techniques well, but his is more a Romantic than a Modernist in his efforts to sublimate (rather than objectify) the world he observed. It’s a mistake to think of him as an ironic writer or a realist; I think this view emerges as a kind of shorthand only because his subject matter was industrial. His actual approach is more like Wordsworth’s than Whitman’s. His sincerity does not tend toward an erotic dissolution of bodies, but a sublimation constructed out of objective details, recollected in tranquility.

In a blurb on the back of Levine’s New Selected Poems (1994), Peter Stitt (originally writing in The Georgia Review) gets it more right. He puts Levine in the “tradition of William Carlos Williams–eschewing opera in favor of jazz, the drawing room in favor of the kitchen, the silk-covered cushion in favor of the bus-station bench.” Stitt focuses on Levine’s modernism–his improvisations in the American idiom, his focus on ordinary, working-class settings. I situate this modernist impulse within a larger Romantic tradition; the result is a kind of populist proto-postmodernism.

Levine learned what poetry might be during the late 1940s and 1950s. During these decades, the New Critics stressed innovation within national traditions. They placed modern poems (Eliot, Frost, the Imagists) in the context of the English lyric tradition (Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, etc.). This approach was politicized in the 1950s, when it collided with an anti-modernist, anti-communist backlash perpetuated by some of the nation’s editors. (See Al Filreis’s Counter-revolution of the Word). Cold-War nationalism emerging to smash the modern aesthetics that had been by then appropriated by the Popular Front. In this context, Levine tilted left. As his Poetry Foundation biography has it, “he was fascinated by the events of the Spanish Civil War. . . Levine resolved ‘to find a voice for the voiceless.’”

It’s here that his Romanticism first surfaces. Numerous poems in Lyrical Ballads (1798) attempt to find such a voice. For example, in “The Female Vagrant” Wordsworth lends classical form to the most voiceless of his contemporaries. The woman’s story is her own but revised to accommodate the aesthetic framework dictated by traditional rhyme & meter:

By Derwent’s side my Father’s cottage stood,
(The Woman thus her artless story told)
One field, a flock, and what the neighbouring flood
Supplied, to him were more than mines of gold.
Light was my sleep; my days in transport roll’d:
With thoughtless joy I stretch’d along the shore
My father’s nets, or watched, when from the fold
High o’er the cliffs I led my fleecy store,
A dizzy depth below! his boat and twinkling oar. (Lyrical Ballads)

After noting the woman’s artlessness, Wordsworth lends her his own sensibility. He contributes not only his formal sensibility (his rhythms and diction), but his attention and emphasis. What is the rest of this opening stanza but an abbreviation of the first several books of The Prelude? Here are “days in transport roll’d,” “thoughtless joy,” and even a sublime encounter enacted by boat & cliff. There is clearly a democratic politics at work here, but its primarily organized through the choice of subject matter, rather than the text’s formal performance. A similar gesture often opens Levine’s poems, for similar reasons. For example, “These Streets,” in which the story of Ida Bellow is told to the poet by her daughter, conveyed via elegantly crafted tetrameter:

If I told you that the old woman

named Ida Bellow was shot to death

for no more than $5 and that a baby

of eighteen months saw it all from

where she wakened on the same bed

but can’t tell because she can’t speak,

you’d say I was making it up.

Like Wordsworth, he adapts his recollections of intense conversations with politically invisible subjects to his own formal, ‘poetic’ imperatives. Formally, his verse is a little looser; he eschews rhyme & allows numerous substitutions in the meter; but this is metrical verse, not Williams’ free verse or “variable foot.” Nor should it recall Whitman. Here the breath is constrained, not expanded. It is channeled into rhythms more classically exacting than Whitman’s–or Williams’.

Levine’s Romanticism is leavened by two modernist techniques, both of which clearly derive from Williams’ version of imagism. First, whereas Wordsworth immediately summarizes biographical details, Levine, like Williams, tends to focus upon descriptions of the immediate, ordinary material conditions. “These Streets” continues,

If I

took you by the hand and led you down

street after street until we arrived

at a door that seemed no different

from the rest and entered to behold

the flowered coverlet not yet washed

on the single iron bed, the calendar

stopped on the second Sunday in February,

the cluttered three-burner stove, the sink

of cracked dishes, the old wheelchair

Ida used to get around,

In these lines, the Romantic imperative to find a voice for the voiceless is sustained by describing the objective environment. We are presented not with a Whitman-like list of occupations, but an atmosphere grounded in situated particulars, such as one finds in many of the poems Williams wrote in the 1930s. For example, these lines from “View of a Lake”:

Where a

waste of cinders

slopes down to

the railroad and

the lake

stand three children

beside the weed-grown

chassis

of a wrecked car

(An Early Martyr and Other Poems, 1935)

Williams’ attention to ordinary materiality helped to guarantee a more general attitude of objectivity. Objective poetry does not eschew sentiment, but insists upon a stronger sense of boundaries between the lyrical subject and the objects of attention. Levine was just sixteen when Williams published The Wedge in 1944. Most of Williams’ introduction to the book concerns making poetry relevant in the face of “The war,” which he regarded as “the first and only thing in the world today.” He aligns himself with the disposed: “Up from the gutter, so to speak. Of necessity.” In this context he defines the poem as “a small (or large) machine made of words.” In a democratic society, poetry would be produced en masse. With a little training, anybody might make one. Williams cast this poetics in an industrial mold:

When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them–without distortion that would mar their exact significances–into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses.

Levine’s best poetry occurs when he understood this; his worst when he cuts too rapidly to the sublime “revelation,” a kind of short-circuit similar to that which Wordsworth performs in the opening lines of “The Female Vagrant.” One of the poems most frequently cited in various obituaries, biographies and reminiscences, “The Fox,” demonstrates Levine at his most Romantic. The poem begins with a baldly stated conceit:

I think I must have lived

once before, not as a man or woman

but as a small, quick fox pursued

through fields of grass & grain

by ladies & gentlemen on horseback.

This is Levine’s (post) anti-modernism; the poem is an idyll, a dream. The fantasy unfolds along elegantly executed trimeter and tetrameter lines. Levine “industrialized” this approach by putting it into a Fordist framework. The fox as Romantic genius easily morphs into a CIO-style celebration of working-class machismo:

My anger is sudden and total,

for I am a man to whom anger

usually comes slowly, spreading

like a fever along my shoulders

and back and turning my stomach

to a stone, but this fox anger

is lyrical and complete, as I stand […]

This is Levine’s populism. It animates the Fordist macho body in a manner similar to Brando’s performance in On the Waterfront (1954). It is not at all ironic; its sincerity is saturated by the fantasy of a coherent self, “lyrical and complete.” The body comes apart in anger, but completes itself in the metaphor; the whole thing is carefully orchestrated, like an opera.

I much prefer the improvisatory, idiomatic, exploratory, objective Levine; the poet who, like Williams or his contemporary Edward Dorn, “knows his place” in relation to the object of his attentions. The best passages of one of Levine’s most consciously imagist poems, “Make It New,” maintain a modernist balance between subjects. The poet and an African-American laborer named Cal spend several days breaking up the curbing along US 24.

“Go slow, man!” but I

was into it. Now, at noon,

we sit under a tree

sharing my lunch.

The poem ends with genuine irony when the poet recollects his young self’s nationalism, here embodied in the gusto with which he applies himself to his task. He works while Cal sleeps; eventually,

a car hisses down the road;

it’s Teddy, the Captain, come

to tell us it’s raining

[. . .]

–we aren’t

ever gonna make Monroe.

The full realization of his embodiment of white supremacy ends the poem (which is also marred by sentimental descriptions of Cal): a fully realized example of white macho New Left countercultural expression. Whitman’s an inevitable predecessor in this context, but only as short-hand. Whitman was optimistic about capitalism’s democratic leveling. He celebrated the arrival of generic man, man in the abstract. Whitman was not wrong; the abstract man could & would produce more abolitionist subjects, queerer subjects. But you won’t understand Levine by reading Whitman.

Of all of Levine’s poems, the best is probably the last one in his New Selected Poems: “A Walk with Tom Jefferson.” His approach to his subject and his idiomatic rhythms recall Williams’ later meditations, such as “To Daphne and Virginia” and “The Host” in The Desert Music (1954). The poem begins with a description of the post-Fordist city:

 Between the freeway

and the gray conning towers

of the ballpark, miles

of mostly vacant lots, once

a neighborhood of small

two-storey wooden houses–

Over sixteen pages, Levine recounts a tour of post-industrial Detroit provided by Tom Jefferson, who he discovers farming among the ruins. They reminisce and ruminate upon a past that somehow led to the present. Strikes and riots are discussed. Tom’s theology is discussed at length; it is grounded in a practical self-reliance. “Making do” is Jefferson’s signature phrase. After the poet walks Tom home, he continues wandering, reflecting on the ignorance he discovers in his own recollections:

We were not

idle hands. Still a kid

when I worked nights

on the milling machines

at Cadillac transmission,

another kid just up

from West Virginia asked me

what was we making,

and I answered, I’m making

2.25 an hour,

don’t know what you’re

making, and he had

to correct me, gently, what was

we making out of

this here metal, and I didn’t know.

The more vulnerable Levine is more interesting. In this poem and several others he receives voicelessness rather than (or while also) giving a voice to his others.

A similar aesthetics can be found in many of Levine’s Black contemporaries. His work should be read in relation to poems by Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Haki Madhubuti. The mixture of romanticism and modernism, of sentiment and objectivity, is often quite similar. But that will have to wait for a future post.

4 Poems Out of Ferguson

In response to the killing of Michael Brown on 9 August 2014 I decided to compose a collection of poems about the affective structure of police violence against Black Americans. The poems document a small number of the deaths that occurred in the two-and-a-half years between Trayvon Martin’s murder on 26 February 2012 & Brown’s.

The poems are composed using a “objectivist” formula derived from Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony. First, I collected all the relevant hits from Google searches on the death in question. Little is publicly known about most of these events. Usually, there are no more than 10-30 reports published on-line, the majority of which repeat & amplify (or diminish) aspects of other reports. I gathered all of the available reports into a single word-processing document.

My next step was to synthesize the reports by constructing a timeline that follows the dead person’s trajectory. This required a major reordering of narrative structures & consumed a majority of my time. Most reports, derived from police press releases & local news websites, develop “law & order” narratives that feature the police as omniscient/heroic subjects. I reorganized the totality of details offered by the various reports into a “plot” that occurred in the lived time of the person (or persons) who died in the encounter.

My next step was to eliminate all the overlap–most stories included the same events, varying only in minor details. I included as many specific details as possible, while describing each action only once. Actions or details repeated by multiple sources were guaranteed a place in the final text, while ones briefly mentioned were occasionally omitted.

I used various media to reconstruct the events. Wishing to provide a setting for the actions (most reports offer little scenic background) I turned to Google maps and street views to clarify distances & deepen the focus. Many reports produced by local TV stations included videos, some of which were produced by the police. Squad car cameras, bystander cellphone videos & surveillance footage increasingly serve not only as a supplement to but as a source of ‘eye-witness’ testimony. I made use of all such sources (provided they were available on-line); when using source texts, I tried to preserve their idioms & jargons, while eliminating the passivity & redundancy of journalistic prose.

Lines are developed according to my system of “harmolodics”: free verse improvisation in which aesthetic & ideological swerves toward truth receive equal weight when making considerations of meter, melody, idiom & so forth.

4 of the first 50 poems can be downloaded here: 4 poems out of Ferguson.

 

This Thin Memory A-Ha

Eric Elshtain chose a fine title for his book, This Thin Memory A-Ha.We say “A-Ha” when something’s revealed. The exclamation may indicate a object–found it!–or a moment of enlightenment–the little bulb over the head that accompanies a personal enlightenment. Elshtain’s title reflects upon the thinness of these moments. It calls attention to how quickly we forget what we thought we’d found. Memories of our “a-ha” moments are thin.It also suggests the moments when we dimly remember what we’ve learned. The weak memory of lesson’s learned, as when we feel haunted by prior resolutions, commitments, or understandings.

The entire book meditates on the dual feelings of surprise and recollection. Elshtain does not treat these seemingly antithetical states as alternating modes of experience, but as overlapping resonances that structure lyrical epiphanies. I use this word because the merger of expectancy and repetition Elshtain explores derives in large part from the Christian celebration of Ephiphany: a ritual that commemorates the first manifestation of Christ. Looking back to looking forward. The European poetry tradition (along with others) includes a long history of experiments with lyrical epiphanies. The metaphysical poets, the romantics, the moderns: each movement established a new relation between lyric form and the moment when a truth is grasped. My sense of the ‘contemporary poetry scene’ isn’t strong enough for me to say with any certainty whether or not many twenty-first century poets care about the lyric epiphany, but I suspect that many do.  My guess is that many cherish the aesthetic experience (they like the feeling when some essence is intuitively grasped) but would be skeptical of the concept, with its emphasis on essence, intuition, enlightenment.

Elshtain is skeptical, but not because he doubts the concept. He believes in philosophy, rationality, the unconscious and grand narratives. He’s not out to satirize, sabotage or otherwise deconstruct the lyric epiphany. But he doesn’t think they’re easy to come by. He acknowledges a myriad of false starts, stutters, missteps and hesitations. Ultimately, he’s attempting to reconstruct a relationship between lyrical forms and moments when intuition reverses into truth.

The primordial representation of the title phrase is the ocean wave. Each a minor surprise—A-ha!—as it breaks to slither ashore; each a “thin memory” as it withdraws into the sand and sea. In “Averting the Way Inside a Tide,” the poet meditates on the failure to memorize a wave: “How could I ever have / the middle of your memory? [. . .] idealized fluids’ un-erotic swerve?” Nature is motion beyond recollection; it’s a movement we can’t know precisely because it’s “un-erotic.” It transmits affects–a pulse, a crash, a retreat and re-absorption–but without meaning. Nature as drive: the inhuman, unceasing push-pull.

Like many writers before him, Elshtain regards the seashore as a thresh-hold: a liminal zone where human knowledge touches (not quite connecting with) meaning’s limits. Stephen Crane, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop come to mind. Like them, Elshtain explores this zone as an analogy for the poet’s effort to compose at the edges of intelligibility. The poet balances reason and rhythm, as the seashore balances our world with the other. In “Ocean’s Preposition,” the poet, swimming in coastal waters, encounters an octopus:

The octopus locked itself to a spell of leg

and lightninged from moss and bronze

to pulsing red before briefing me–

one billowing writ saying “See!”

The “billowing writ” is also the poet’s gesture. The poem calls attention to its subject by obscuring it with ink. This makes the otherworldly creature a kind of fluctuating mirror; the writer catches a glimpse of himself in the creature’s ability to displace its presence, to make itself obscure. The poem ends with these lines:

Coral brained me for deigning a finger

into the inky deceit; the only signature left

of the elusion.

Note the difference between the event–the swimmer jabs his finger into the ink, striking coral–and the metaphorically dense and alliterative language that describes it. The poet, like the octopus, composes a “billowing writ” that shows itself off in order to make us miss the encounter with the other it describes. Elshtain never forgets the poem’s capacity to generate an “inky deceit.” But this gesture, while ostensibly “poetic” brings us closer to the natural event. “Signature” and “elusion” are not gestures that belong to humans alone. The cephalopod is here to reminds us that deceit, including ‘written’ forms of it, doesn’t require sophisticated psyches. Sophisticated camouflage–therefore aesthetics–is not an exclusively human gesture. In another poem about the same encounter Elshtain uses the phrase “legendary unfunny slug” such that it refers to either poet or octopus.

We get to this epiphany through a combination of naturalism and aestheticism. On the one hand, the naturalist’s description of real-time phenomenon; on  the other, the craftsman’s consideration of form. The first depends upon humble, sincere explorations of phenomena; the second upon wit (metaphor and allusion) and rhythm (the beat, the rhymes, assonance and alliteration). Consider the opening stanzas of “When You Punctuate the Equilibrium”:

only then the men smile over the coelacanth,

cover themselves with sea-made

clays. Suddenly shells will be patchworks of male

and female; our world will be

loaded between rock-beds and will avoid the

flood by being flood; there will be no

more swimming with stones; no more death

circles for wind to wear off the rocks.

Poetry as philosophy. The poem begins with a proposition: human knowledge is predicated upon the “punctuation” of an imagined time of flux and equality, an age without distinctions. A psychological structure projected onto a poetic history of events. Each subsequent phrase tests the proposition against another kind of phenomenon, as they appear in the natural world. First we get the coelacanth. In 1938 this “living fossil” was discovered in the Indian Ocean by Rhodes university ichthyologist, J.L.B. Smith. One “smiles” over this ugly old fish only when regarding it as a confirmation via negation of evolutionary theory. Soon we get Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, a “punctuation of the equilibrium” because it genders shells. The stanzas conclude with an allusion to Charybdis, once a sea monster living under rocks on the Strait of Messina, now the meteorological outcome of wind & rock. These examples are knitted though enjambment. Many individual lines are miniature poems: “and female; our world will be,” “flood by being flood; there will be no,” “circles for wind to wear off the rocks.”

The poem concludes with these lines:

Convince yourself you have a backbone

while I invent another device that

hisses at extinctions; I shiver because that is my

inheritance. Gather your optical

illusions into one last attraction so we’ll never

know whether your down was up,

or your up with just another sham.

Fierce writing. A snarl, a sob.In the present now, we anxiously remind ourselves that “backbone” and fear are the animal in man. These encounters with our bodies’ own waves are gathered into “one last attraction”–an epiphany–that impacts us by swerving away from truth. We are left with reverberations. The past discovered by the present, the present discovered in the past.

I’ve focused on the ecological, but Elshtain tackles politics, both public and domestic, as well. In these poems he mixes slang with theory. Here are the opening stanzas of “Ended Seriously Loco”:

and way off the register

it did having

involved corpses

in their own portrayal.

Rendered hypothetical

blues quantified history’s

long-ships; maundered the brassy oaths

kinked the secret code having kicked

K to reach unity, humped

the edges of citizenship

In this poem, the American state does its “having” “way off the register” (which also refers to the radio), through lynch mobs, the photographs of which bring into documentary time the brutality of slave ships otherwise “quantified” in the blues. (Elshtain knows the blues well, as a verse form and subjective stance.) It’s the contemporary police state that, “having kicked” the Klan in the 60s, now “hump[s] / the edge of citizenship” by stopping, searching, arresting and shooting black men. The poem ends “seriously loco,”

having blazoned culture

in its brag having fattened

on twenty-eight anthems

sung way off and

written, hammered,

codicils to the people’s will.

Note the Objectivist density, reminiscent of Louis Zukofsky’s or Basil Bunting’s verse. Slowly but surely the wave washes back upon itself, “fattened” calves, “anthems / sung way off [key]’ and “codicils to the people’s will” that are not just “written” but “hammered” returns us to the inhuman rhythms of American racism, via its European cousins. Again the swerve away, following aesthetic intuitions, yields the epiphany, the painful “braining” that turns reflection toward glimpse.

Eric Elshtain. This Thin Memory A-Ha. Chicago: Verge Books, 2014.