Sun, o sun, roaring day and night, is it you who sucks the wind into the trees at dawn as you rise, etc.? The sun is moving time, burning in the sky. With its gravitational pull it drags the past into its flames. But there’s a countervailing force by which the light escapes. The past is cast into the present, which draws it in and then has to figure out what to do with it. Innumerable futures, all uncontained, each capable of reconfiguring the world, none fully imaginable, remain possible. The plum blossoms are out. I’m waiting for a sound, and it comes, almost immediately: a whistle, four notes of some melody. It’s audible through a moment of relative silence between the cranking and crashing of the garbage collectors at work, whistled by one of them. To exist at a micro level, drawing and drawn to the bark of the plum tree and its shadow, thrown by the early morning light, and to metamorphic rocks and anti colonies and salt and a thistle and shingles and complex social life of an urban neighborhood, and to do so freely, uncategorized as a human: this might be a description of an incipient condition—beginning (by synthesizing)—or of a late one. There’s a vague, perhaps tragic, undertow, but its effects are less alarming than amusing—discomfiture, or embarrassment, or the pleasure of a successful joke. “‘What regiment is your son with?’ a lady was asked. She replied: ‘With the 42nd Murderers’ [‘Mörder’—instead of ‘Mörser,’ ‘Mortars’].”1 Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life is a book about bumbling, an unfolding comedy of errors—or a tragicomedy, perhaps: in its anecdotes, confessions, and analyses we can discern bits of a fragmented tragedy, awkwardly encountered by the book’s diverse personnae, or just barely avoided, with further experience of it merely deferred. “I entered a house and offered my right hand to my hostess. In a most curious way I contrived in doing so to undo the bow that held her loose morning-gown together.”2 Standards of respectability are irrelevant to the creative process. Leo X. Lee leans against the right fender of the old Toyota and absent-mindedly begins scratching a face into the worn burgundy paint with the car key. It follows the contours of a pock mark in the fender and the faded color around it. Russell Wright has the hood up and is trying to angle a wrench into place behind the radiator. Leo pockets the key. “You resent having to fix cars when you ought to be practicing?” “Machines. Music. You got to have different centers of gravity.” Russell Wright gives a laugh. “Guess that’s my woman problem, though.” “What’s going on with Rosa-Jane?” “I try to see her regularly. I feel sort of responsible.” Russell Wright likes to play around with words, he likes suffixes. “Profligate, prolific, productive, professional—might be a lot of connections,” he says. “Pro-vincial—that’s what we’re gonna be if we can’t get gigs outside of Oakland,” says Leo. Russell Wright closes the hood and steps back. “Okay then.” Leo drops Russell off at 49th Street and drives downtown to the Oakland MAP. The sun burns to excess. It is not simply causative, it produces (as Elizabeth Grosz says of chance) a “superfluity…of causes, the profusion of causes, which no longer produces singular or even complex effects but generates events, which have a temporal continuity quite separate from that of their ‘causes.’”3 Along with forces of causation come forces of attraction. They pull and complicate. Love and hate, which seem so often products of chance rather than intention, are really only false simplifiers (even as it is false to simplify them). The sun draws life out. It’s the first day of March. The plum trees are in bloom along the edge of the parking lot. The sun is an attractor, as is the shade. Chance adds to the world’s array of attractors, novelty rearranges the social centers of gravity. The dialectical turbulence and flow in which intentionality and the unpredictable, plans of action and the inadvertent and contingent and unprecedented, displace one another are what keep the future open. Statewide protest rallies are planned for March 4: “March Forth on March Fourth” say the posters and flyers that students and union workers have been distributing. Just as quickly as they are pasted or pinned or taped or stapled to telephone poles and walls and bulletin boards and fences on the university campus, the campus police tear them down. Meanwhile, casual acts of passive resistance make use of anti-gravitational forces to make their case and effect their goal. “Not to notice the accoutrements of […] power, not even to glance at the royal robes, not to bother to look at the king—to glance away from these matters of state—is to begin to undo their hold….”4 “I get that,” Flip says. “But the Oakland MAP going to be marching forth, that be right.” “Okay then.” Leo X. Lee plays an A. “Let’s have discord,” he says. Leo X. Lee is nervous. “As usual,” says QJ. Leo plays the A again. “Flip—A flat.” “Where?” “G string.” Flip looks at the guitar neck and then plucks the note. “Okay—Matthew, B flat and Carlotta, you play a B. Flip, another A flat and sustain it this time. On 4.” Leo waves jabs his right forefinger into the air and on the fourth beat the chord resounds. “Shit,” says QJ. “Okay. Now stick to that one tone, but move it around—play the pitch wherever you can find it on your instrument. Make it rock. And after a minute or so, QJ, you come in—high hat only.” “That chord is fuckin’ meta,” says Diego as he walks out of the room. The goal-oriented impulse in humans is destined never to be fulfilled. Or, rather, it is already fulfilled, but humans tend not to know this. As Nietzsche says, “[I]n the end there is no goal; we are always already at it. The fulfilled moment does not lie in the future, but is always there already…. Life does not follow the principle of linear accumulation and progressive enhancement, but instead revolves in a cycle of expiring and expanding. … For this reason, life is always already at its goal or remains equally remote from it, which ultimately amounts to one and the same thing.”5 Yes, but one has to make this into more than vulgar fatalism’s account of the human condition or stoicism’s call to resignation. A pedestrian—a girl in a gray hoodie and short skirt—appears just one event (say a skateboarding boy leaps over a log, robs a bird’s nest of an egg while still afloat over his board, hits the board again on his right foot, and kicks a cop in the balls with his left) prior to her turning into the narrow allow that leads from the parking lot to College Avenue. Everyday life isn’t a gap in the real, it’s not a dead zone in the arena of power. Familiar narratives go largely unnoticed, something that people inhabit for varying lengths of time or that they pass through like circus clowns chasing each other into the tent, under the trapeze, and around the rings until they come on the lions and bolt. The pull of something carnivalesque converges with the pull of commerce. In the process a glitch has arisen in the operating system along the western side of sidewalk. A crowd blocks the way. The amblers, the lunch-hour hospital technicians turning into Café Roma, the neighborhood residents picking up cleaning from C & C, the people hurrying somewhere north or south with their eyes to the ground, the panhandlers (selling copies of the Quaker tabloid Street Spirit for $1 each or selling nothing but their own pathos), all more or less unconsciously aware of each other, all maintaining a modicum of safety and civility so that they can move along and not stumble or collide. But in front of Ici, whose interior is badly laid out and too small for the number of clients its expensive, “hand-crafted” ice cream attracts, a crowd collects, forming a line that clogs the narrow sidewalk. Pedestrians are forced to step into the traffic-congested street, ducking around parked cars, and avoiding passing ones—a white PT Cruiser, a blue Honda civic, several gray cars, a burgundy Prius, a red sports car—and a pick up truck, a brown UPS truck, an alternatingly sighing and grumbling city bus sounding as disgruntled as I (selfishly, or, worse, self-righteously) feel having to make my way through or around the crowd of people waiting for ice cream and completely indifferent to pedestrians’ attempts to get by. Everyday life swirls around absorptive narratives of no great interest whose importance and meaning and even genius are to be found in their for the most part trivial details. Saint Augustine regarded time as a theological perplexity; Shakespeare (and of course myriad other poets, humanists, and artists) considered it a problem for beauty and for the individual in relation to the pull of his or her ultimate mortality.
When he got home later that night he poured himself another drink, sat down at his kitchen table, and began to do what he called working on his writing. What he wanted to write was a description of the project that he had done in the small room. How each day he had held the pose of a person who was torturing someone or who was being tortured by someone. His source for each pose had been a series of photographs that had been found on the internet, photographs taken in a military prison called “The Hard Site.” As he reenacted the poses he had not distinguished between who tortured and who was tortured. He had let both shape his body. What he had wanted to write was about his decision to do this project, to put his body into the position of particular others, that indexical other without whom no one can be. About his attempt to think of his life as part of a series of complex, passionate, antagonistic, and necessary set of relations to others who act and are acted upon. He was attempting to think about how his passivity contributed to all this, even when doing nothing might have seemed the opposite of contributing. And also about his reservations around this project, this different kind of contribution, about its ineffectiveness. About the limits of art done in isolation. About the limits of art.
But as he typed he became more and more aware of how every time he leaked a sentence out of his body it contained not just his thoughts and ideas and attempts at documentation and description, but also the residue of failure, of a mortifying and paralyzing shame. He was trying to describe something that might be artful, might have something to say about the political moment, but yet could live safely in a room loaned out to him by an arts organization dedicated to the parsing our of aesthetic experiences for a nominal cover charge, but it kept going wrong. It was as if he was no longer free to imagine anything in which he did not also imagine the torture done without his consent but in his name and with his passive support.
Still, he soldiered on though the night, doing what he thought was working on his writing, swirling the ice cubes in his drink, swabbing his leaking blisters with pieces of toilet paper, going to the bathroom to shit or get more toilet paper or insert a homeopathic suppository. He listened as in the distance the day’s first train rumbled along the raised subway line two blocks over. He heard a whistle blow. He raised himself up from the table, evenly balanced on his legs, torso bent at the waist, so that his hands rested on his knees, his head bent at the neck and lifted, feeling a tingling in his face. He could hear the noise his body was making, standing bent over perfectly still, not moving, not even as the room became light.
But the noise his body was making was also not only his body. At first he thought he was hearing things. But then he heard from the basement the whizzing burr of hard-drive fans and diesel engines running at high volume, intermixed with the occasional crisp jangling of metal keys and it was too loud and too rhythmic to ignore. He lurched to the couch and one by one dragged each cushion and pillow and blanket and dog bed and throw rug and soft sculpture and tossed them down the stairs and into the basement. Then he stage-dived down the stairs, landing in the midst of a giant ruckus.
There was a nervous click-clicking noise that jittered in and out of a thick soup of hissing and booming, bomb-runs of pounding, deep-earth bass, punctuated by what sounded like clapping or the slapping of skin. There were angry and ecstatic guitar solos, trap drums playing taps, brass trumpets playing reveille. Musicians kept appearing and joining in, some blowing their horns from a great distance, others using joysticks or satellite communication systems to control their computers and samplers and sound processors and circuit-bent video game consoles. DJs spun and scratched the dented hubcaps of half-exploded armed personnel carriers, the hillbilly armor attached to sprawling networks of scrapped wiring and repurposed military hardware, the improvised exclamatory devices screeching into the general din and frenzy.
In the wings, to the extent that there could be said to be wings to a basement, there suddenly were what seemed like tens of thousands of extras. Everyone had a costume, or rather were themselves, wearing what they wear, with combat boots, dog tags, cargo pants, tight or loose-fitting dresses, tasteful work shoes, hipster jackets, and all the variations that could be imagined among such a throng. They began running in from the sides in circles, at the same time thrusting their hips and making airborne chest-to-chest collisions and air-stroking their cocks. They would at moments form a chorus line that snaked through the basement and with interlocked arms they kicked to the music, stopping now and then to give each other high-fives and thumbs-ups and to simulate a series of heretofore classified but since wikileaked enhanced interrogation techniques. There was slapping, singing, sweating, smiling. Kicking, whooping, twisting, posing. All with or without consent, with or without blushing, timed to the insistent beat of the band.
At first, he just sat there befuddled. He did not ask if what was happening was real or if it was the product of parasites and alcohol and sodium channel inhibitors and adrenal glands of animals and gin and downloaded photographs and depressing statistics all mixing up in his stomach and then into his brain. He just sat there, trying to relax and breathe into the soft site he’d made with the pillows and the cushions. But soon it was as if the woven and laminated fibers in his shoulders and back would not let him merely sit and watch, but instead thrust him up and out of his pose and into the dancing fray, as if this might become some kind of remedy for all the leaking, the tightening, the freezing of muscles and mind.
So his body leaped up and joined in an elaborate line dance where they thrust their elbows out and spun their fists around in front of their breastplates, then thrust their thumbs back over their shoulders with a forward and back motion, each in their own disjointed time and imprecision. Some were now lurching around in combat-booted counterpoint to the music, as if experimenting with the different way the shoulders and the ass jut in or out when the hands are cuffed in front or in back, the legs trailing behind. First their shoulders caved forward and then their shoulders pulled back, their chest caved in between each spasm of the shoulder as they moved, again and again. Others ran in place, like cartoon characters, interrupting this every few seconds by making sudden contractions of the psoas, reaching down to slap the floor with their hands, then bouncing back up into running across the stage, all the while singing in a low monotone:
Where’dya put the body
Where’dya put the body body
Where’dya put the put the body body baby
Where’dya put the body body
Where’dya where’dya put the body
Where’dya where’dya put the put the put the body baby
Except it wasn’t a stage, but a basement. Except it wasn’t a basement, but a rehearsal space lent to him by the small nonprofit arts organization. Not a rehearsal space, but an interrogation room. Not an interrogation room, but a soundstage for filmed re-enactments. Not a soundstage but a fake Baghdadi neighborhood staged for counter-insurgency training exercises. Not a fake neighborhood but an intersection in the Financial District on the night of March 23, 2003. Not an intersection but the holding cell funded by the Department of Homeland Security for counter-terrorist efforts, holding 2,438 protestors in a nearby warehouse rented for this very purpose. Not a warehouse-turned-holding cell but a warehouse-turned-club where the after-party takes place. Not an after-party but an opening at a well-funded art museum. Not an opening but a fundraiser for the small nonprofit arts organization. Not a fundraiser but an academic conference on politics and aesthetics. Not a conference but a boardroom meeting on tax-deductible philanthropic donations to nonprofit arts organizations. Not a boardroom but a bedroom, after an argument between lovers. Not a bedroom but a bunker, dug into the cold, cold ground. Not a bunker but a book, each line redacted except for the numbers. Not a book, but the fire made from its burning pages.
Except the fire was painted on an enormous screen, propped across the back horizon, so that the set gave off an ambience that is part desert war-scape and part reality TV game show, with all kinds of online ballot measures available for viewer participation for those who could face the prospect of clicking the icon to vote combatants off the show. There were blips of heat on the screen that could be double-clicked, sending flares up into the night sky so that the audience could better see the action, except there’s no audience, since all this is happening now and everyone’s knee-deep in it, not just watching but embedded participants. Even tapping his feet to the catchy rhythms was participation. Even rolling his eyes to the absurdity of it all was participation. Even pressing a piece of toilet paper against his cheek to collect the fluid leaking from his face was participation, since now the giant toilet paper roll, filled with all the fluid and all that shits out of all of us, was unrolling, unfurling, and scrolling across the bottom of the screen, a real-time news ticker for all who will have tuned in to follow the lyrics and sing along with the bouncing bomb:
Didya put the body in the bag
Didya put the body in the bag bag
Didya put the body in the body bag baby
Didya put the body in the body bag bag didya
Didya put the put the body body in the bag bag
Didya put the body in the bag baby didya didya
The musicians were now making sounds like Dopplerized armored vehicles speeding by a riot at a heavy metal concert, with yelling and chants and whistling and catcalls, in what seemed like a hundredfold languages, a riotous wash of voices shouting in protest or singing on an assembly line or marching, running, breaking glass, as there then commenced lifting and unfolding and crease-fingering, the sniffing of pits and pockets, checking for ticks and leakages, floor-rashes and knee-bruising, swabbing with toilet paper and rubbing with ice, wiping clean and hiding the hurt, before gearing up again to climb the twelve foot high and three foot thick reinforced concrete Bremer walls that surrounded the basement, smiling for the closed-circuit security cameras scanning the theater of operations in order to document and file all that’s done in our name, and then dancing and swinging their arms, some vertically and some horizontally, as if signaling to an invisible fleet of stealth helicopters where to land.
It was a big production, with a budget of $1,229,735,801,934.00. Weekend reservists repelled from the copters hovering above as others made the raise the roof position to receive and pass along any number of bodies leaping and falling from above, in what the contract calls the performance of several air transportations, as their diamond dog tags glistened in the pulsing strobe lights, which were meant to induce sleep-deprivation, bewilderment, and increased motivations for compliance. And so they bent and leaned and leapt and fell into the rifle-hot flesh of the pillowed and cushioned and moldy drywalled mosh pit, lifting others onto the back and swaying with them, giving over weight and impulse upon impact, all with or without groans or eye-rolling.
Meanwhile, he had piled the saw horses into a pyramid and then climbed up into the rope support network and squatted down, balancing on the front of his feet, his head forward and down, spine straight and aligned, right arm pulled back, and from this position could see more and more people arriving and using their assault rifles or night-scope sniper rifles or prosthetic arms and legs or their helmets or combat boots and frantically breaking up the concrete basement floor and digging into the ground, singing, we’re gonna find the poison, we’re gonna find the poison, while others lined up, each pushing a mop, the right hand on top of the left, both hands on the handle, arms bent at a 90 degree angle, scrubbing vigorously back and forth, shoulders hunched, bent at the waist just enough to put pressure on the mop heads to clean up the evidence leaking from his face, singing:
Sop it up, mop it up, soak it in your cloth
Never burn your mouth on another man’s broth
Mop it up, sop it up, classify, redact
Swab it up, zip it up, keep it all ice-packed
Then, finally, if there can be said to be a finality to any of this, there were approximately 919,967 performers lined up in a seemingly endless chorus line facing inward at mad angles, instruments and weapons and tools dropped to the ground, arms linked or amputated stumps pressed up against one another, all singing in a spooky half-whisper, half-hum, we’re gonna find the poison, we’re gonna find the poison. Sweat dripped down their backs and faces and they cast their gaze around the gathered thousands, breathing and looking, breathing and looking.
Pausing, breathing, sweating, looking. The helicopter sounds fading into the sounds of the world outside, if there can be said to be an outside, sounds of cars, trucks, convoys, people, chatter.
And as the music began to swell again, as if into a final number to end all final numbers, they all walked two steps forward and then one back, then two steps forward and one back again. Two forward, pause, one back, two forward, pause, one back.
They stutter-stepped and swayed towards and away from one another, moving forward and then rocking back, stopping and starting, aligned and misaligned in their breathing and their movements, singing softly:
Two steps forward, one step back
Pulled by desire and by fear held back
Two steps forward, one step back
Pulled by connection, by ambivalence back
Two steps forward, one back, pushed by righteous anger and pushed back by the fear of failure.
Two steps forward, one back, compelled by need and held back by the fear of commitment. Two steps forward, one back, attracted to the pack and repulsed by its unpredictable sloppiness.
Pausing, breathing, hands into fists. Rocking, breathing, swaying, looking. Silent laughing or teeth grinding or glowing inner radiance or the biting of the inside of the lower lip.
Two steps forward, one back.
He could hear his heart beating. He could hear everyone’s heart.
Two steps forward, feeling the struggle-force well up within, then one step back to get ready.
We are always getting ready. But we keep moving slowly in this manner, even if it takes us the entire night to get wherever we’re going, or a day and a night, or a week or month or year or lifetime.
He’s walking forward, two steps towards the center, one back, and you are walking forward, swaying forward and back in the same manner, rocking back and then forward again, and all the thousands of singers, dancers, performers, musicians, artists, soldiers, and walking dead, arms locked and high kicking to the boom-boom bap, tap-tap-tap, two steps forward, one step back.
We’re all moving, getting ready but moving all the same, towards the messy entanglement that awaits us when we are ready to finally dive in.
STORM CENTURY TURNING IN A CITY
The snow having just fallen he thought of how easily we move into these cities, some other century, and call it the same moral string: the poverty, the gaslight, the showcase, the admonitions, the sleep. Sitting on the purple-hearted chairs and tables one looks out on the snow shelving bicycles and televisions. Sees another person quietly fall. The polish family upstairs is running a daycare in their two-bedroom apartment and there are children who have no respect for the sky. She thought of herself as the black draw of a new moon and he said these entitlements are strangling growth. She thought of herself as a child stenographer but grew frustrated with the men who thought it a sign of vitality to never speak still. If I can stand why can’t these prisoners. If I can walk why can’t these cripples face up to the miracle. He says I am tired of these new-to-the-city stories because they disguise something much more severe, self-destructive, rifling the background of laughter. She liked the sound of rebel but felt it lost force and sentience in the jungle where it had hidden out for years. The plumber may come tomorrow. She takes to putting on private plays and to going to the theater. Something changes in him and she tries to point to it by reading shorter stories out loud in the living room where they sleep. It takes him two days to get across the room to where she was standing and by then only a pale honesty remained without the wrought, beautiful grain of judgment. Fed on debt and the dead time they have created, we are left to be exceptions. As a clerk, his lateness is constant but varies each day and he prefers not to speak, for himself. Fallen in the promised snow he is just not the man he wanted his blood to speak. Shake your last-time look, young man or you will be another century’s socket. See me now so I can trust you with this money.
STORM COMING TO MEET YOU
Unbearable is every start towards you. The things I would have said. Sand with a dull knife carve, pounding shores and the millions of lips raised in the retreat. The things I would have said live on and we must feed them with unfocused eyes, lights bleeding. Cerro Rico is a hollow mountain that is hollow because its veins are dry once glittering with moon harvest and the mercury trembling within their limbs when they returned home to the unborn. A good strong back is good enough for a few years in the mines and then they wonder off into the rubber trees, filled their stomachs with dirt. I have found myself into someone else’s pain once again: sugar canes, salt planes, and asthmatic dressings of gauze. Losing skin the lepers hurt like air leaving. You were a doctor but couldn’t heal the bottlenecked atriums in your lungs. Your name translates roughly into hey, listen, man. Put your face on the walls of our libraries. Barthes said to be a lover is to desire affirmation. When I got out of work and came to meet you were already a woman underground. What do I know about your own private contortions and these sturdy northern legs built out of the silver they hauled in blessed hulls to the no-land. Hidden under guns I can tell you there were the ghost seeds of orchids. Wild oats. Our veins glow through the long sleep of our skin.
STORM AS MEDICAL EXPERIMENT
It has recently been acknowledged by the US state department that sanctioned experiments were carried out between prostitutes and inmates which involved syphilis and penicillin and the risky and unethical behavior of what might turn out where pangea was stretched and blown like a glass tulip stem in cloud fire. Have I made this more beautiful, she said to the qui’che prisoner, who was only too happy to be close to a woman in the dark. Who was only too happy to see his wife the next day among the mestizo guards and explain how well this new treatment was working. When we work the distance we make it into art. When we keep the distance we call it health. The afternoon rains wrestled with the raccoons in the roofs, bent metal into standing voices. The guards go on strike because they are asked to live like prisoners in the breed pools. Unfortunate, really, how beautiful this splitting jungle has become. She left while the children were sleeping. The dirt floor is a palm. Pressure front are these tremors of a host, waves building off shore. When he came back, he brought me pansies, which he said were once known as love-in-idleness.
STORM OF SPRING AT INDIAN ROCK
I am paying myself out in storms. Cool air come into the open kitchen where our feet were bare and overlapping. But why do I spend so much time thinking of your return, as a full voice on the phone, or, even more, as a nightfallen heart beating within the cautious range of my hand. You cultivate what you hide and then hide yourself. How would you know that I am just a fragile line in the real? I wonder if spring is love for you in this twisted garden of air or is it just gold pollen on lips. We made it this far but the rush is nowhere going. So I try to stay taut, to keep bending my line into war, as if strength were enough to match the blood in the world. And when we are alone, do we take this time to find some middle way between the betrayals of democracy, magic, and revolutionary vanguard? What now can I use to reinvent myself and why do I keep writing about the same bare scraps lying about when young mothers cover their faces with rubble, fear the long clutch of adoption. Tell the children the truth. Maybe these heartwilds have all been solipsistic, apostrophes for waiting out a bitter, contestable love. Dream with me. The mind must declare itself. Forget your commissions, reconciliation is truth as it burns into the long blind pauses of an interview: unending and unappropriable. The pursuit of it begins us again in the nights where no one can find us calling out our difference from the day. You tell me what comedy of years, a traveling circus or spaghetti meal on highwire. The fool is hurt life on a stem, a bright vagabond against the snowy mountains. By the time we make it to the square the undercover men hurling rocks from horses disappear into the crowd. A voice holds open the ground.
STORM WHAT LILY SAYS
What grows in these parts of you. So much time you spend writing your poetry, runs in the hills. On a post: learn how to protect your home from wild embers. Boxing, he says, is a misunderstanding of the world’s antagonisms. Poverty sharing blows with poverty. O, dear. I don’t care for boxing and try to interrupt your pronouncements with little words. How can the ocean look so hard at a distance. I want to spend my life. Faraway, but contiguous. There is this fear of taking on your persuasions, sympathies I cannot bear. I watch as you look down at the canyon wall full of manzanitas, lichen, and dried thistles and give in to an eroding tumble and crawl, crashing through someone’s property. I will not follow. You fall into a flock of hooks. How will you get out. Later, in the shower, you will rinse off the blood, reliving the brambles hanging thin hot lines. A barbarousness. Your legs will sing uncovered while we boil water and try to sort out the train horns from the barges in the bay, talking Etta’s love that has come along. At last. The night where I looked into you.
STORM ARE YOU THE MOMENTUM
I ask because I feel more vulnerable than ever to history these days. Everyone says I am doing the best I can. Every morning it is a sick frenzy reading articles in bastard news, rifling for small details of struggle amidst the cruel entertainment. Mr. Mayor, what do you know about violence? Shock treatment. Infertilization. One in four on the bathroom stall, a rape. Close the doors, raise money to keep the talent. Shut it down. My body is the best comment on the world. People say go where the momentum is. You don’t have to wait until you die. I used to envy a close friend who moved to Italy because she hated the falseness and cruelty of America, fell in love with a shipbuilder, and lived off the romance for a couple years. The fatigue set in and he convinced her other people should be involved. She stayed home when he left for weeks and began losing her hair. I told her there is no other country. I asked her if she still knew of winter music, the kind made by hot air forcing itself through pipes and organs. And now, these drums in public parks. Miniature cities with hospitals, libraries of moonlight. Enough to feed them.
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
William Carlos Williams, Asphodel, That Greeny Flower>
I wanted to stay on Pennsylvania Avenue. I wanted that proximity. My first night in DC, I walked the three blocks from my hotel to the White House and stood outside. Everything glowed. I was surprised that I could walk all the way up to the fence. That I could loiter. Behind me there were protestors. I wondered if there were always protestors. Tonight, February 2, 2011, it was a protest in support of Egypt. There were police on horseback standing behind the protestors. It was the White House, me, the protestors, and then the police. The order surprised me.
I spent much of the night watching the news. I don’t have a television at home, but put me in a hotel room and I’ll go wild for it. Everything’s different on television. People look different. Products look different. And the news is a show. I tried to find the local news to hear about the protest a few blocks away, but maybe there isn’t local news in DC. Maybe national news is local news. International news is local news. So I watched CNN, I watched the protests in Egypt. I listened to people chanting and gathering and promising to stay.
I spent most of the next day at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. I went through the bookfair, attended some panels, caught up with friends. It was a different world. There was no Egypt here. I wondered if some of the writers staying in the hotel were upstairs in their rooms, watching the news. I would ask people, “Did you see the news today?” As if the news is something to be seen, not read, not heard. The whole day went by without reference to the way the world was changing. There were readings and parties that night, but I went back to my hotel. To my secret viewing station.
The next day was more of the same. Panels, readings, books. The world of the conference. One of the things I love about working with writers is that the conversations usually make sense to me. In a previous world, I worked with accountants. Also with sales people. Lovely people. But the conversations didn’t make as much sense. And here I was amongst my colleagues. Not having conversations.
Can we really get the news from poetry? Can we really affect change? Be unacknowledged legislators? It didn’t seem like it. It seemed like we were distracted. Self-involved. I went out for dinner. At the table next to me was a group of UNICEF staff. High level staff. I ate my kofta and learned about sewerage treatment and open defecation rates. Someone even pulled out a laptop and showed a series of slides. This wasn’t a business meeting. These were colleagues talking about their work. They weren’t talking about Egypt either. It made me feel better.
I still needed the news, and it seemed I wasn’t going to get it through poetry or UNICEF. So back to the television. I was sitting on the bed, going through the schedule for the next day.
In the news.
Anderson Cooper was speaking in line breaks.
Fear has been defeated, they’ll tell you. There’s no turning back.
Dug up rocks, bandaged bodies.
They speak about freedom and fairness and justice.
Fear has been defeated. There’s no turning back.
It wasn’t announced as a poem. On screen there was a photo collage of images from the last eleven days. Bloodied faces. Bloodied flags.
Peacefully protesting. Their lives on the line.
A man holding a rock with his peace-sign fingers, smiling.
This was the news. He was telling us the news in a poem. He broke form. Found a new way to communicate. Or reverted to an old way. This was the news. This was what I’d been waiting for. For the form to break. For us to become uncontained. We didn’t manage it in the safety of the conference. But Anderson Cooper managed it in Cairo. And CNN news directors managed it too.
How do you express the extraordinary using the ordinary? That’s one of the challenges of poetry. To unstrange the strange. To strange the unstrange. On February 4, 10:57pm, I understood the news a little better. I listened more carefully. I was reminded that poetry is not a luxury. That it is necessary. That it is the way we speak when we are most endangered.
A Response to Floor
Translated by Koichiro Yamauchi and Steve Redford
1. When is the aesthetic necessary, either for the actor or the environment in which this aesthetic practice occurs? Why is a specific practice necessary?
To put the magma of difficult-to-express things and concepts into a form, in order to bring that form into existence, the compelling force that a certain practice embodies is necessary. This is not a practice that engages that which has become expressible. The question is how we can try to change invisible lava in a state of pre-expression into visible rocks. For the expressionist, I believe, there is an aesthetic absolute temperature at which the reaction occurs.
2. Given the endless production of exploitative, instrumental, and profitable “needs,” how can aesthetic practice serve as a place, ground, or set of relations in which necessities are formed in response to these unbearable productions of “needs”?
My poetry writing was triggered by an experience I had seeing an avant-garde theatrical company perform inside a tent. They put up a tent in a vacant lot in my town, called in the audience, and, at a fast tempo, vigorously spit out their poetic lines. . . . When the background set came down at the end of their performance, the town I’d seen every day of my life looked like a completely different world. Day after day, putting together an ensemble—no matter how big or small—of space, ground, and relationship. Then, in some fashion, destroying it oneself. . . . After all the ebb and flow of generation and ruin, the counter-picture of an “exploitative, instrumental, profitable” society will, no question, be projected. Therefore, the “place, ground, or set of relations” will always be—far more than a pursuit of thorough realism—an ensemble full of social ironies.
3. If necessity is the mother of invention, does beauty’s parentage also involve immensity? Is the relationship (confluence, tension, disparity) between necessity and immensity a generating force for art today?
Given the advancement of the internet and other technologies, we now live in an era when every one of us has the power to send out messages. The increase in and diversity of technological “applications” surely provide us with increased possibilities; however, they inevitably induce us to dismiss the importance of “beauty’s parentage,” and to adapt to a flat homogeneity=identity that discourages readers from arousing their own awareness. There may be no difference between eras in regard to this, but I think that, if we want to produce art for our time, we need an imagination that enables us to unite beauty’s important origin with facts past and present, and to resist the intensely informationized time-flow.
4. How can the aesthetic generate, maintain, or put in tension a plurality of necessities? What place does necessity take within the immensity of the multiple? Is incommensurability a necessity today?
I think there is a power that naturally arises from the depths of a text that can rock an existing aesthetic—and, at times, destroy it.
5. When is difficulty a necessary experience or form of resistance? What kinds of resistance can the aesthetic offer within the immensity of current crises?
Unleashing the unfathomed, absolute power of beauty, one which can neither be shaken nor denied, naturally becomes an act to oppose the conventions of an “exploitative, instrumental, and profitable” society.
6. How does art elaborate the necessity of public life, resources, and spaces? When the commons have become constricted, instrumentalized, or obliterated, can aesthetic practices recover or define some kind of common potential?
If the artist devotes himself to his art with a certain ferocity, if he spends body and soul for his art, he will want to leave proof that he has lived in this world. The desire to survive history and time, to become the next-door neighbor to death, heightens the potential of a living person.
7. What is the role of aesthetic practice in affecting the real needs and suffering of others which exceed our existing frameworks for identity, political formation, social relation, etc.? Another way of asking this: how does necessity respond to the immensity of history, truth, and the intractable demands of the other?
Every communication inevitably possesses both sharable and unsharable propositions. That’s why we need to turn our detection needles to both categories; otherwise, we cannot carry out a genuinely aesthetic practice. In regard to my own writing of poetry, I think it is the act of drawing out the blood of words with the very tip of a double-edge.
8. If aesthetic practices bear within themselves, and create, notions of history, how can these histories be understood as divergent immensities / necessities?
If, as the Japanese dictum “On-koh-chi-shin”* suggests, it’s always good to take lessons from the past, if we can assume that an aesthetic practice exists within a particular historical perspective, then the essential relationship between time and beauty will certainly give us a sensitivity that allows us to go beyond the mere potential to pursue a broad array of future avenues.