I began the day wandering the streets of the small city where I lived in pursuit of two variables (acts and location) that belonged to the same expression (“acts of location”) but mysteriously so. I was looking for an event (in the world) that would index the moment the expression came into being, such that when one said “acts of location” sound or sight would confirm it. Moreover—I thought as I meandered—the event needed to occur between my body and the city. That is, I wanted to express, within the object world, a series of “acts of location” that needed only the body (and the world) in that moment of expression. Yet, I also wanted to find the variables of the expression as independent facts in the world, and, between them, to recognize some form of visible scarring that would indicate, not only that I’d found those facts, but their interrelation as well. The scarring would act like a body (though not mine) which one approached with a word that functioned like a name but didn’t have to be the name that necessarily belonged to that body but could be a name that the body put on for a time then took off to hand back to one. It needed to be a name that could be worn by most bodies, because the idea was that you’d find scarring everywhere, between every gesture and the space that manifested around it. I was trying to see location like I saw wind blowing the small branches of city trees. I tried to have it sync up with the incessant sparrowing I heard. I wanted location to be ordinary and for acts to be countable. However, I did not want “acts” to be sitting on top of “location” in such a way that one was metaphysically indisposed, having to pull the two apart as I was now doing. There had to be a pre-space, before the expression, where they were adjoined but not merged. An act was everything and location was everywhere, which made the whole thing hard to break down, but when you said “acts of location,” you didn’t think all possible things at once. Rather, you narrowed in on a feeling, a specific event that made a boundary in time. I was trying to walk through the city with this unfolding. I began northeasterly with pieces of paper on which I’d scribbled words like “houses” and “bird” and “cinema,” and carried those pieces to sites I thought of as “church,” “bus station,” and “art gallery,” leaving each piece in some kind of correspondence. I lay “houses” within “church” and pulled out my recorder. I hid “bird” behind a trash barrel at the “bus station,” then got on a bus. Somebody asked me what I was doing when I began making new slips for “acts” on the bus. I tore the paper with ceremony and hunkered down to make the folds. A person tried to grab one, but I retained it at the same time that I put “cinema” in his pocket. I thought he might fall to the floor and allow his face to open. I thought he might do something devotional. But, instead he stared and did not blink. You couldn’t understand it if you couldn’t ask about it and you couldn’t ask about it unless you revealed the “act” in his pocket. I walked into the “art gallery.” The ceramicist had her nests on the wall. They already had pieces of paper coming out of them, so there was no place to put my words. I still had “acts” to pass out, more than the “houses,” “bird,” and “cinema” of several hours ago. I had “fold”: I wanted fold to be an act of location and I wanted everybody to have a nook. Inside the nook, I felt, we could understand something that had always eluded us. We would know enclosure. But, that would be “place,” and place was not precisely location. I let the thought go. I grabbed something that was a hand and, also, another idea about “acts,” how acts are sometimes like “pocket notes” that you use to process an experience or work of art, how you might hang nests on a wall and nest in each of them fragments of a manuscript and let pieces of that book fall to the floor, such that within that sequence would be seven acts and seven pocket notes. However, though “the floor” could be argued as location, a fragment falling to it was not the “acts of location” we were looking for. The ceramicist wanted tequila before her opening. We didn’t know if going next door to drink it was making new location or just extending the old one. We didn’t know when our tequilas stopped belonging to the name on the bottle from which they were poured and became parts of the “bird” we uttered during our sips. There were always extra folds of birds of paper and you could move your finger along the length of them and have witnesses, and do this for minutes at a time never having to explain what you were doing nor the desired effect, because it was clear that these folds were the scarring that made people feel safe in public.
I’d been thinking, in the wake of being forbidden to partake of cinnamon and its chemical components, about the elliptical world of REM’s video and how—with all-over roving visibility fishing for & panning past all miniaturized existential horrors—it resembles the flash-forum of affective noise in which we “live” a.k.a. broadcast, & which is typified by Facebook:
Then got to thinking how in formal terms, one desires to make writing that reads like this: a spreading, multidirectional, obsessive field, in which zooming regress and encroachment are possible upon each divisive element: in twenty seconds of shooting, an infinity:
And then landed in the city of ravaged, souped-up eternality. Here are 16 outtakes from its Fall of 2010.
Unakin to the dogged determination of research leading in obedient step to professionalization, the navigation of cities and the production of poetry will always repay the errant seekings of curiosity off the Corso: look further, a second and a third time, for patterns, stances.
Especially in Rome….
“Understanding is a literal idea based on a geometrical notion of congruence, and tuning is a notion of a negotiated concord or agreement based on vernacular physical actions with visible outcomes like walking together….” —David Antin, A Conversation with David Antin, a dialogue conducted through electronic mail with Charles Bernstein
Rome, governance fabric punctured by synesthesia of historical stoppages, Bulb after Bulb. Disorientation of the day’s ratio that resists being placed definitively within or without the person.
In talk it is shared—tamed? The source text of translation is a magnet to which one must draw near enough to be pulled.
The city will be that magnet for each of us. Perhaps between each of us as well.
Wonders—after Chicago—how a city of rises and downslopes, pitches and edges pulls, also halts thought differently. Pulls hours otherwise. In the body, for starters.
To walk in a culture where a request for coordinates of a decent slice is a topic not for discussion but accompaniment, digression, & the inevitable co-losing of ways, as it was always only an experiment in sociability as opposed to expertise, never restricted either to an isolated age. Rubbing off: an outing to the fountain for private arias eking from its mouth whenever the buses and cars, between lights, abate; & taking the road, instead, of shapely wall that from bird’s eye perspective baroquely inclines otherwise.
Passion’s all in the curving away. In tandem, tuned to not imposed.
To transfer this process to allotments of language—& feel, of a sudden, compassion for the would-be geometers of the twentieth century, with their grids, their cubes and their squares!
Or why I had to make amends with the baroque: stone carved several & a half centuries ago for colloquy with this very cloud, vagula, blandula.
OVERSEAS OF ENLIGHTENMENT
Thinking tremolio: premodern conception of the mind as a substance, a vapor, which can take direct effect on the world.
That was philosophy as cognized in the 15th century, not a sheaf of writings but a way of being in the world. Fanciful following up: love of—love in?—knowledge. Tiny notebooks force one to redact:
I thank, therefore I swum.
I thunk, therefore I swam.
As a cognitive construct, a field of play, distinction coming down to white on white on white in its more or less vulnerable shades, pinkening, even in the unforeseeable eyes that have arrived to you by paths most angularly destined, magnetic. As an architecture, carefully quartered crown of bloodlike sweet garden food, roof low enough to touch above the aerosol histories and communiques, as after battle our needing above all to swim together in resources, in the grey quarter’s neighborly love for Pierpa’, free ices in peripheral alleys, basements resalvaged, post-cancerous courage, pulled. Fenestration open again like even the thin Roman bricks signifying human skin entrusted to a countervailing vita passeggera—and mirroring once again for revision the uncrowded self, the narrative loosed because longing to be tendered, pooling.
AN ARGUMENT AGAINST SPECIALIZATION
Al rovescio, as in a beginning. Afloat in a fresh lexicon the pale impulse to trace an anniversary (“turning”) for the initial tendering between of each term, coadamic & brave, pale rose as the fall that blooms against this wall, enamorous.
“Such a vertiginous multiplicity of historical lines of sight, through which entire worlds of concepts are constructed on the basis of few and scanty expressions, is further multiplied and rendered ambiguous by the exact uncertainty of philological inquiry, which seeks in vain scientifically to dominate material that is floating, open to question—a field, that is, where the evanescence of dead stuff sucks vigor from every proof.”
[“Tale molteplicità vertiginosa di visuali storiche, per cui interi mondi di concetti si costruiscono sull’appoggio di poche e scarne espressioni, è ancora moltiplicata e resa ambigua dall’incertezza propria dell’indagine filologica, che tenta invano di dominare scientificamente un materiale fluttuante, opinabile, un campo cioè dove l’evanescenza di cose morte toglie vigore ad ogni dimostrazione.”]
Spectacular tissue of sky shift from one garden brink to the next, cypressed. Plate after plate of variegating, archivebreaking deliciousness. Mental polaroids of a zillion preciousnesses of mutual unearthing scattered and released. So as to taste, to breathe. This near year; these heated, climatized, material pixels, vaporizable.
“Peripatetic historicism,” the philosopher/philologist/historian called it in his learned book. A route, not reliquary, to remembrance. The Italians being light years ahead of North America on memory, liminal and enfleshed.
Rome’s baroque colloquy with the void well highlit by current luna plus lumière (with the Tower of the City of Lights, notes J, echoed proleptically in the splayed legs of Bernini’s Navona fountain base [or at least that’s how my rococo makes retrospective prose of it: echoey prolepsis]) furnishes a delectable turning of corners, a delectable all-over score, still going forward, of increasing corner negotiations and curls toward the blank before, tuning.
“ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE & PARKING”
Contradictions or inevitabilities of development? In a city where the disparatest basements meet ancora & ancora.
Sidling through throngs of the flea market behind the 17th-century Janiculum walls in search of socks, mesh of all languages, of the salvaged objects of distances barely imaginable, obliging imagining, hearkening back to ingenuities of the moment before conspicuous consumption, and soundtrack of home for a rummager: idiom of street sales—
MANICOMIO 3 EURO
MADHOUSE 3 EUROS
IO MI RIFIUTO: PORTA PORTESE: ROBBA ORIGINALE
I REFUSE [I RENDER MYSELF REFUSE]: PORTESE PORTAL: ORIGINAL STUFFF
—accompanied by ninnanannalike calls in all possible accents, pulse of the day’s sales piercing, ecstatic in solicitation, satisfaction, memory of intermittent dependence on this, unflagging.
The death of the street, the silence of street song—gregarious lyric—reconjures wistful documentaries of the last century: a Sicilian sulfur miners’ song accompanied by thoughtscatterer, reperformed with a difference after the 1954 Lomax/Carpitella recording 50 years later:
And thanks to a commenter, the lyrics, which arrive at my understanding filtered by fifty percent through a dialect of Caltanissetta, dancing in this intermittence around forgetting—or literally, “disrecording.”
(Of one’s life itself, & family, fatherland, friends, the saints. Of everything but you.)
Mi scuordu, mi scurdà, scurdatu sugnu,
mi scuordu di la stessa vita mia.
Mi scurdavu lu bbeni di ma mamma,
era cchiù dduci, cchiù mègliu di tia.
Mi scurdavu lu bbeni di ma patri,
passa lu mari tri bboti pi mmia.
Mi scurdavu l’amici poi a me frati,
di li santi mi scuordu e no di tia.
& in English:
I forget, I forgot, I’ve forgotten (I’m forgotten),
I forget my very life.
Forgotten the goodnesses of my mother,
she was sweeter, better than you.
Forgotten the goodnesses of my father,
he crossed the sea three times for me.
Forgotten were my friends then kin;
The saints I forget and not you.
But the lines should not be broken thus; listening you will hear them otherwise. The act of forgetting as an act of language broken otherwise.
“Scacciapensieri”=”Jawharp,” or “Jew’s harp,” “Ozark harp”: literally, “thoughtdispeller.”
“Mi porti qualcosa di antico.”
Unconsciously and not through appearance, but through the voice? Lidia, in conversation to the soundtrack of noxious tremors in an out-of-order Vespa on the tram avenue, following discussions of “anxious futurism,” in reverse.
Encounter with the tall, unmarked and unXrayable cadaver next door from the 4th or 5th century AD wrapped in 800 pounds of lead burrito-style (probably for economic reasons—having no money for marble, nor for a lid, Gianni explains) providing the perfect sunkenness toward the end of daylight savings and the raising of hell by compound kids: 800 pounds of toil toward a future of total anonymity and stupefaction by one’s heirs: the hopeful holding on to dawn despite the weight of impending winter yet another lesson in presence, while the craving for extensions of summer & an apprehendable future continues to lace the days.
Is it possible to be bearer of what one’s balked at, studied inassimilably, in the absence of all design?
En route to hear actors vocalize traduced Homers and Bibles (progeny of Vico) in a painted theater off the Via del Paradiso (“c’è solo la via; non c’è il paradiso,” reports a waiter whom we’ve asked for help from a nearby stoop), strapieno: spectacular flock ruckus, uploaded in its archive of silence.
To define xenoglossia: the 12th-century Cupola of the Pentecost in St. Mark’s Basilica, abbagliante, dazzling, in the visual correlative of linguistic stupor, hemmed with coupled men and boys emanating from the holy spirit as silent murmurers of every language of earth at once as the Venetians knew it: Parthi, Medi, Elamitae, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontum, Asiatici, Phrygiam, Pamphiliam, Aegiptum, Libiam, Romani, Judei, Cretes, Arabes. A geography more nuanced in dissolution and union than that of Barbarians, Saracens, Moors, the vocabulary of totalitarian center and other, of seized “diritto”—“right.”
Che cosa sono le nuvole?/What are clouds?, a short from Capriccio all’italiana: Pasolini restages Othello as a puppet-world inside of a puppet-world which begins a riot among audience members, after which the murdered protagonist-puppets, Totò as Iago and Ninetto Davoli as the Moor in blackface, end up in a garbage dump where they discover the clouds.
What’s the truth? asks the Moor before the denouement; Iago bids him to listen to what’s in his head. “Sì sì, c’è qualcosa!” (“Yes, yes, there’s something there!”), Othello exclaims with that naïvete one finds only in Pasolini’s cherubic man-boys before Iago tells him shhh, not to name it, lest it dissolve.
Obsessive retellings of Babel & Pentecost in the sixteenth century: soundtrack of confusion to awakenings of the public sphere.
THE BOOK OF VERTIGO
According to Trajan: sublimity of illegible legibility or legible illegibility as imperial totem, beyond mortal or plebeian sights, craning their little necks against the blaze Rome makes, and the manic craftsmanship and centuries of unsung scholarship that have been vacuumed into its glintful spiral.
Parallel to the high Gothic devotional, to the internet as military strategy?
In which Roman light-in-hiding is repackaged and redistributed along the brinks of the objectively discernible as in some liminally representational yet general—yowl the dogs far off—allegory of opening.
WALL, FLORAL (FOR W.B.Y.)
Slapdashery in duration:
From inside the Aurelian walls, at the intersection where the Portal S. Sebastian gives onto the Antique Appian Way,
site of the private pied-à-terre, designed by the brilliant & tenaciously Fascist architect Luigi Moretti, 1940-43, of to-be-murdered Ardito Ettore Muti, Gim dagli occhi verdi, “the expression of Superhuman values, an impetus without weight, an offer without measure, a fistful of incense over ember, the scent of a pure soul” (sed Gabriele D’Annunzio), lined with watercolour lionskins, mosaics, decked out with she-wolf cage, et al.
From inside the purely psychological massive Aurelian walls that encroach upon the site of writing, 5 years’ slapdashery in the making, 271-275, a sixth built of prestanding monuments that were far better wrought—Juthungi and Vandals and pissed-off mint workers having made the Empire tender: the state of vulnerability taking monumental form.
From inside the fifth-century restorations and the sentry passages, museal, a cool eye castable on Smart cars flowing below through the arrow slits less encroached, out toward Mastroianni’s villa, or these duration capsules, indifferent, of floral Erlebnis.
Winter even here, where the clarity of drier skies brings with it the general foreshortening and scratching at form so we can locate stricter historical trajectories in the panorama, Hadrianic, Jesuit here, 19th-century bureaucratic there, as restorers sprinkle the march of mustached Garibaldini busts with bleach at dusk, without digression from each once-illustrious story vis-à-vis the swoon of soft light.
Bubbles in the panorama park: and the anxiety of perched consciousness that here we are living in yet another, of an order of months: watching again the admittedly decent adaptation of The Wings of the Dove, with its commercial filling in, opaque, of the contours of James’s every last floating it “swaying a little aloft as one of the objects in her poised basket”—as from Milly Theale’s perch in the Alps—while the days honeyed in costlessness at the end of gilding melt, prone in programming to pop mortally as the years of splendid daigomi, giant appliance trash lacking only remote control in some central Japan of the ‘90s Englished in optimism by government fund:
and the optimism of reassurance that only what is priceless can be cobbled, collective, of the immolated bubble which errs from every marble guarantee of the eternal.
Whoever dwells everywhere, Maximus, dwells nowhere at all.
—Martial, VII, Ixxiii.
Early in Clint Eastwood’s 1975 film The Eiger Sanction, his character, Dr. Hemlock, an art historian, collector, and retired government assassin, is summoned to a darkened room to meet with Dragon, the albino mastermind of the secret government agency C2, who mentions that a rare Pissarro will soon go on the black market. When Hemlock fails to bite, Dragon turns on the pressure, reminding the underpaid professor that his phenomenal art collection—now 21 world-class canvases kept in a secret vault below his otherwise unassuming Alpine hut—would “make interesting material for the internal revenue people,” and walking him through an imaginary auction of his holdings in which a particularly thuggish C2 nemesis of Hemlocks’s, Mr. Pope, winds up with one of the connoisseur’s precious canvases. This cruel coming to the point is a carefully chosen payback for Hemlock who, on being explained initially that the darkened room was necessary because of Dragon’s medical condition, had cut short their conversation with a cruel rhetorical question, aimed at what he took as an embodiment of the lame and increasingly untrustworthy state, from whose Cold War imperatives Hemlock wished to disaffiliate himself: “Does your physical disability preclude you from coming to the point?”
Two years earlier Leonard Henry and Jan Boon produced “Getting it Together: A Film on Larry Eigner, Poet.” Because Eigner’s speech was affected by his cerebral palsy, the filmmakers decided to have Allen Ginsberg do most of the reading, in some cases followed by Eigner. After one poem and a brief scene setting on Eigner by the narrator, Ginsberg offers his own framing of Eigner’s work:
“Ah, obviously the form of the verse is dictated by his physical condition of slow hesitancy and difficulty in maintaining his hand steady to write words. And as the words come swiftly through his mind he has to stop his whole thought process to write down a word while thoughts are going on still.”
Two temporalities, then, in Ginsberg’s reading—a fast time of thought, and a slow time of difficult key pressing. Eigner’s particular aesthetic, his version of an open field poetics, is produced by the irreconcilable conflict between them. He cannot come fully to the point because the physical labor of registering a single word is so great, and the time of his thinking necessarily so much faster, that his forlorn lexemes, out in their vast expanses of white pages, will always remain but romantic ruins of the richer internal thought processes out of which they emerge. When the transcript of this film was later published, Eigner added a note to Ginsberg’s statement, hinged on the word “obviously.” “Obvious,” it reads, “but not too good a guess” (ibid.).
On September 22, 1965 Eigner, then living in his parents’ house in Swampscott, Massachusetts, started one of his over 1700 poems, beginning with the line “those planes were loud.” First published in the 1980 chapbook Flat and Round, by Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press, Eigner’s poem would thus travel both 3000 miles across the country to Berkeley and 15 years into the future—from the beginning of escalation in Vietnam to Reagan’s first year in office—before its odd, recalcitrant temporality would claim readers’ attention. References to the sonic dimension of air travel were a common feature of Eigner’s poems. He lived less than ten miles away from Logan airport in Boston and undoubtedly heard planes low in the sky on final approach and takeoff. We think of Eigner, perhaps, as the most minutely focused of the New American poets—the most attuned to his immediate environment, an environment that consistently includes the language of its description, doubling back and complicating easy picturing. Both these features of his poetics—insistence on the contingent surroundings and their reflexive unfolding in language—suggest that the larger, exterior world of airports and transcontinental flight might seem alien to the second-to-second unfolding of perceptual effects among the trees in Swampscott. But there is also an outside to Eigner’s poetry, and it can help give us a richer sense of why its inside was, and remains, so singular.
If not quite at the pitch of the Cuban Missile of 1962, the Cold War was in 1965 nonetheless beginning again to simmer. Air and space were the domain, even the medium, in which this agitation registered most clearly. On March 18, the first person to walk in space had been a Soviet cosmonaut. A month earlier, U.S. bombers from aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin began operation Flaming Dart in Vietnam; a week later President Johnson authorized operation Rolling Thunder, an even larger scale bombing mission; then in April the U.S. began dropping napalm throughout Vietnam, where the Johnson administration now—that July—sent 50,000 additional troops, increasing the total to 125,000. In October, the U.S. would test a hydrogen bomb in the Aleutian Islands equal to 80,000 tons of dynamite. And, closer to home, on July 11, a U.S. surveillance aircraft crashed off Nantucket, killing 16 of the 19 crew aboard.
Developed in 1963, this plane, the EC121H Warning Star, was charged with monitoring the eastern seaboard; a sequence of the aircraft flew continuous missions over the Atlantic coast 24 hours a day for a decade. Producing photographic documents that would be beamed across the United States and interpreted by specialists at the North American Air Defense Combat Operations Center in Colorado Springs, the Warning Star sought out singularities in its assigned neighborhood, tracing in particular Russian aircraft and naval vessels cruising off the east coast of the U.S. While other jets of this same make provided surveillance for atomic testing in the Pacific, and for the war in Vietnam, this squad remained in a kind of permanent holding pattern whose center was less than 20 miles from Eigner at another local airport, Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts.2
“The plane sounds protective,” Eigner writes in a May 1960 poem. That October, an Eastern Air Lines flight landing at Logan airport crashed into the sea, killing 62 of the 72 passengers aboard. Eigner writes directly of the accident: “planes again hove by / the corridors light above / sirens, after the crash / this wall off toward the bay.”3 If Eigner’s house in Swampscott was nominally protected by the Warning Star, it was also, however, an around-the-clock center for a very different kind of information gathering. Connected by radio to the outside world, even introduced by radio to the field of poetry, news for Eigner both comes through the air and is often of the air: rockets and jets are launching satellites, dropping bombs, testing nuclear weapons, spewing exfoliates, and crashing into the sea close by. And yet “news” in Eigner’s poetry would seem to be a direct rejection of these kinds of drama, even when highlights of this drama occur within earshot. Rather, Eigner FM tended to register events that could not be noticed, let alone broadcast, by major stations, central among these what he calls “tides of the air” (419) or elsewhere “the inrolled / maps in the sky” (425). Eigner’s attention gravitates toward the air in part because it is an undomesticated, fluctuating space that will not permanently retain man’s physical or linguistic imprint: “no axiom exists / in the air” (428).4
But if air is the constantly mutating and refreshing medium of freedom, it is also the permeable membrane through which his research radio station gets linked to, even harnessed by, the rest of the world, which is why manned flight becomes such a crucial seam within Eigner’s poetics of air. Many of Eigner’s poems from the late 1950s and 60s explicitly reflect on space travel and the possibility of airborne nuclear destruction. But this engagement is typically understated, superimposed as one among several interpretive registers: “That the neighborhood might be covered / by one roof, occurred / this morning,” Eigner writes in a 1959 poem, morphing this image of a dome into a mushroom cloud with the lines, “And death when you don’t want it what you like / is a plain object // the long-trunked clouds / a weltered event” (305). Again, most long-trunked clouds and weltered events in Eigner’s poetry are less about singular tragic occurrences—like nuclear strikes—than about the ongoing perceptual possibilities of clouds transforming in time. But the fact that there is quiet commerce—or perhaps we should call it air loss—between the durational neighborhood diorama in which Eigner labors and the outer world of nuclear strikes and airline crashes helps us understand the degree to which the former is not so much a repression of the latter as it is a patient and radical re-modeling of it with the materials at hand. Or, to put it sonically rather than physically, the slow process poetics of air always available on Eigner FM was a dramaless, eventless broadcast that achieved its traction dialectically as a aural oozing below the frequency of administered news—even public radio.
Like Henry Darger taking daily meteorological data and comparing it to the weatherman’s predictions, or Georges Perec making the micro-occurrences of a single Parisian apartment building the whole story of a gargantuan novel, Eigner’s attention to his occasionally domed domain should also be understood as an intentional and carefully framed project. As Eigner himself put it: “In order to relax at all I had to keep my attention partly away from myself, had to seek a home, coziness in the world.”5 And yet this physiological constraint does not dictate the kind of attention Eigner will lavish on the surrounding world. And this is why he objects to a reading like Ginsberg’s that sees Eigner’s singular open field poetics as a direct mechanical consequence of his cerebral palsy. The type of exterior home Eigner will construct is not a given; nor is his patience, either in Swampscott or in Berkeley. The poem with which I began helps to draw all this out.
those planes were loud
the degree with my head down
half-way to my lap
what bird’s call
learned a flute
to match silence
and the sea’s sound
there’s nothing like music
in the street
out the opposite window
along through trees
a piano hoisted up-
n crickets afterwards
the hot night
still to draw
the passing earth
whirls out (671)
Here the external world of planes is a prompt—an alarm clock even—that as ambient sound often does for poets (think of Wordsworth) begins the focusing process: first, on a rare image of the speaker’s body, and then on a series of less dramatic, less loud, sonic occurrences that organize the neighborhood. The failed identification of a birdcall here is also a rejected identification with birds, say famously melodic nightingales, as idealized figures for poetics. Similarly, the role of the as yet unlearned flute would only be “to match silence / and the sea’s sound.” Another celebrated melody maker, producer of expressive musical figures, must for Eigner compete against the equally fascinating ground of silence (more Cagean than absolute) and sea murmur. Here as elsewhere in Eigner the received hierarchy of event over condition is first challenged and then exploded—as conditions themselves become micro-events. When Eigner writes that “there is nothing like music / in the street” he means not that literal music beyond his driveway would be the asymptote of excellence but that the actual sounds of the street—on which he’s just reflected—would be poorly described by analogies to music. And so flutes and bird songs are poor figures for the poet’s self-assigned role as reflexive transcriber of local audio effects. As he continues, the piano is similarly of interest not for the music that might come out of it, but for the sound its hoisting makes. In the distance fire fathers (or sires) a siren, and crickets fill the subsequent gap, as the poet both draws and draws from the earth, before drawing his poem to a temporary close, which the next poem of his street will quickly open again.
Eigner was not unknown at the time this poem was composed. And yet, his most sustained reception would occur at least a decade later, in the 1970s and 80s, when he was taken up by poets associated with Language writing. Barrett Watten published him in early issues of This, brought out a book of Eigner’s prose in 1978 (the long, elegant sentences of which casually explode Ginsgberg’s claim), and then wrote on Eigner in Total Syntax. Hejinian, as I mentioned, published her Tuumba press Eigner chapbook in 1980 and Ron Silliman dedicated his 1986 anthology of Language writing, In the American Tree, to Eigner. So there was both significant interest, and significant lag time: the odd temporalities of Swampscott in 1965 getting re-released, rebroadcast, in the atmosphere of Berkeley in the 1980s.
But it was not primarily time that caught the attention of the Language writers. Rather, Eigner was recuperated mostly for his rejection of a speech-based poetics. Following the blast of Robert Grenier’s “I HATE SPEECH,” the first line of Silliman’s introduction to In the American Tree, the rest of this essay proposed a re-reading of one wing of the New American poetry, now claimed as the radical wing, in which Creeley and Eigner became “two early ‘projectivists’ whose writing transcended the problematic constraints of that tendency.”6 But did the negation of speech in fact require 1777 poems over the course of roughly 50 years? Either it was a very eloquent and protracted renunciation, or speech kept breaking out, like small fires or insect infestations, on Eigner’s street, thereby requiring his continual attention, his patient acts of sequential shushing. Understood solely as the sanctioner of speech, then, Eigner’s poetics becomes that of the cranky octogenarian neighbor who has always just been woken up. And yet we see, even when he is actually woken up, as in the poem we just read, his poetry performs a range of far more specific sonic, temporal, and conceptual operations than can be conveyed by the raised finger to lips commemorative statue fashioned for him by Silliiman in his Language writing wax museum of literary history.
I’ve suggested some of these already; but by way of conclusion I’ll readdress this problem at larger scale by sketching, very roughly, another way of understanding Eigner historically, one in which his insistence on conditions rather than events might better register as the event it has already become in literary history. Eigner occupies an extreme position within New American poetry not just because he undermined a poetics of speech, but because, unlike Olson, the field of his field poetics was comparatively purged of diachronic references, of collage historicism, and was, instead, identified with an unfolding empirical situation—his Swampscott porch and the street scene beyond it over three decades—that he nonetheless refused to “capture” in pat vignettes. The project of his projectivism was at once to insist upon and destabilize this literal field, by testing relations between its fleeting effects—sonic, visual—and the field of the printed page, where Eigner’s lexemes invariably uncouple themselves from any simple, instrumental roll and begin to take on reflexive relationships only possible on this second field. But it is the dose of empiricism within this otherwise reflexive textuality, the continued, iterative framing in relation to the porch and its surround, that turns Eigner’s writing into such a conceptually unified and in fact singular project: an experimental research station, observation outpost, durational diorama.
What emerged from this diorama was, however, more than a subtly reflexive discourse on the depiction of space. Eigner’s attention to minor time, to “another / time / in fragments” (357)—to non-monumental unfolding, to a micro-temporality diametrically opposed to the would-be major events of Cold War time was in some ways the clearest and most compelling version of a larger project shared by most of the New American poets, in their various ways, through the poetics of daily life: O’Hara, Creeley, Olson, Whalen, Kyger, Baraka, Spicer, Mayer and, in fact, Silliman, among others. Silliman would put his and the larger project of Language writing negatively as the critiques of representation and speech rather than as the positive experimentation with the poetics of daily life because he saw the New American version of this later project as entailing a commitment to representation. But if daily life becomes not merely a spatial picture but a contestatory time, a time below the radar of history with a capital H, then we can begin to recognize a vast project of the New American poets that put them all, in different ways, in dialog with official modes of time keeping, and measuring more generally. More, and this is the rub for Silliman’s reading, we see a continuity rather than a break between New American poetry and Language writing. Both seek another time in fragments—a slowing down. If Language writing proposed a higher degree of reflexivity, still the implied liberation to be wrested from disjunction was not merely an anatomized space of representation, or the suddenly activated co-producer of meaning. No, disjunction was also a temporal project that sought authenticity in a micro-temporality of unfolding linguistic complexity that could be positioned against the rush of administered time.
We can see this now because for the last 25 years or so, since perhaps the late 1980s or early 1990s, since the end of the Cold War, let’s call it, experimental poetry has not been able to position the temporalities of daily life or disjunction as effective antidotes to administered time. While we can acknowledge that avant-garde devices of defamiliarization have half-lives, and thus cannot work their offices indefinitely, this process of exhaustion has been affected more radically from the outside—by the fact that time is now administered very differently from how it was from the 1950s to the 1980s. With the effective obliteration of the opposition between work and leisure, in short, the dialectical temporal frame that guided New American poetry and, yes, Language writing looses its traction. As bleak as this sounds, poetry’s just fine. I can’t tell you now how it’s survived and even prospered, which is another story; only that, with the temporalities of these now classic modes of daily life and disjunction now become the geologic recent past, it’s had to go in search of other times.
What’s left unsaid and undone could be a future too. — Les Wade
Last fall, Christian Hawkey invited a number of writers worldwide to participate in an experiment based on Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (trans. Marc Lowenthal, Wakefield Press, 2010, original French publication 1975). Over three days in October 1974, Perec sat in Place Saint-Sulpice, recording “everything” he saw, in an attempt to capture what he called the “infraordinary” — “what happens when nothing happens.” So, over the same three days in October of last year, less than a week before the one-year anniversary of Occupy Oakland, I made four visits to Oscar Grant Plaza, the location of the Occupy Oakland camps, General Assemblies, and many related actions. I was most interested in how one might even begin to describe/document a place (much less “exhaust” it) so laden with history and memory, not just any history, but a very raw and loaded history of violent contestations over the very public space I was now attempting to observe/record, histories increasingly under erasure as the city worked hard to remove any visible traces of Occupy’s presence in the plaza and downtown environs. Needless to say, the challenge to keep my writing aimed towards the “merely” descriptive/objective would be impossible, just as it would be difficult to document the “what’s-no-longer-there” that is still very much present and palpable in the landscape for those of us who experienced so much time, energy, and collective action at Oscar Grant Plaza.
Six months later, I typed up my notes, cut them into groups of 1-2 sentences, & then went back to Oscar Grant Plaza to “(de)compose” this report. During the middle of a “normal” downtown Oakland workday, I used my strap-on lecturn to perform a mobile site-specific “reading” of the fragments, sprinkling them on the lawn in order to re-order them, to disrupt the chronological, to further shuffle the observational notes already cut-through with all that has happened at OGP (& all it continues to represent) & yet is no longer visible to the kind of infraordinary optics Perec’s project attunes us toward. This is not to suggest that the banalities of everyday life & public space are somehow “less so” than the more extraordinary events of Occupy Oakland & its related offshoots & actions, but rather that the absence of the extraordinary — the events deemed worthy of writing about — still infuses the ‘merely’ ordinary with a kind of tangible vibration beyond what the simple practice of focused (“writerly”) attention already adds to the sensorium. In other words, there’s no longer any presence of Occupy to observe/write about at OGP, & yet I can’t not at all times write/think about Occupy at OGP.
Thus perhaps between every line — in the parataxic scissors cut between each sentence — breathes all that remains unsaid, unwritten, erased, yet still alive & potent, & in the same way, perhaps within the infraordinary of as-yet uncontested/unliberated spaces we might begin to see the potential for extraordinary possibilities.
Oakland : June 2013
[transcript of video text]
People continuing to enter Rotunda. Some big event. Somebody yelling across street in front of Rite Aid, seemingly to no one in particular. Two bikes locked up next to BART stairs. But – what kind of task – meaningless? vs. tasks with use value (cleaning dishes, serving food at the BBQs…). On screen is PDF of Perec’s “Approaches to What?” Said “Controlled burns & formally [formerly?] prohibited plant matter” then repeated it louder. One other person sitting on amphitheater steps, looks like B—, there was sound of loud voice speaking, first I thought he was on the phone, then someone further away, then kept looking around, now realize it’s him, talking to himself. Said “Controlled burns & formally [formerly] prohibited plant matter” then repeated it louder. Walk around perimeter of plaza to front steps. More trash than last night. Security car still parked on ‘stage’ but no one in it. What’s needed perhaps is finally to found our own anthropology, one that will speak about us, will look in ourselves for what so long we’ve pillaged from others… Sit on plaza steps, two people come up from BART and get on their bikes, one looks like X— from OO/FTP, he seems to recognize me too, but it’s dark, I say hey, he seems to say hey back or the other way around. Otherwise all quiet in plaza. If I turn 150 degrees to my right I can see the Frank Ogawa bust. Getting up to move locations. 8:30 pm.
Pass another guy in dark recess in front of whatever that building is, going through his things. Over to my right a few signs — tho again I know to look for them since I know they’re there, & curious why none over near where I sit. Another couple approaching, he’s white with shorts, in those awful feet-bootie shoes or whatever, in his hands a pair of what look to be climbing shoes. Black guy with black hoodie pulled tight over his head (to stay warm, it looks like) passes, asks me for a cigarette, then as he turns to walk away says, it’s not safe to have that thing out here (meaning my laptop I assume), then later, you could be the police. ‘Nothing’ going on. “Controlled burns & formally [formerly?] prohibited plant matter.” Black man walking slowly by, large green pack, 4 full plastic bags, backwards cap, sets all his shit down on bench. Guy still talking to himself, smoking cig, turns to look at me, wondering if he’s paranoid about me writing & watching. Almost stepped on dead rat, which I didn’t see til I had to turn around to pull PJ, who’d stopped to sniff it, thus pulling on her leash. Now walking behind me, towards BART. She has red hair & a shoulder bag. It’s like the crosswalk beeping never stops — since one way is always green, perhaps. Security cop texting across lawn. But where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space? (Not what but where). (Crosswalk light beeps go). Speakers over by ‘the plaza steps’ (of all the steps those are the steps) — Now out of view so I can’t describe. Noticeable difference b/t who walks thru plaza & who hangs out here. The latter seemingly w/ nowhere else to go. I have a subjective experience. Is that the endotic? Feeling this (writing) is boring — & not ‘good boring’ — & not ‘boring enough’ to become something else — What we need to question in bricks, concrete, glass… Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare. Getting colder. 8:58 pm. Late for the reading.
Crosswalk signal beeps green. Passing woman kicks bottle cap & it registers as sound, 20+ yards away. There’s a party horn in the distance, some kids at the bus stop talking shit, bicyclist goes past. BART is closed. Writing on laptop. Rat runs across lawn to oak tree. Security cop’s car was running. Why. So much depends / on the gray / metal fence / alongside the plaza. To my left sitting on lawn steps, black man w/ plaid flannel shirt, blue cap, with black woman, her sliver bag on ground. I take them to be a couple. The oak tree is lit up from beneath. Get to that later. I ask if he wants me to let them run on lawn so he can chase them, earn his $, he sez “I’m at work, not looking for work.” Sitting on bench alongside OGP lawn / facing south / slight breeze, overcast, colder “than usual” (?), wearing two layers & AK hoodie, jeans & boots. Rat scurries beneath my feet. Emji sits down next to me. 12:55 am.
Want to write that she’s ‘non-descript’ but only cuz they’re now out of view so I can’t describe. &/or maybe ‘non-descript’ means just that – once out of view, hard to recall anything to describe — nothing ‘stands out.’ But the endotic… Partly cloudy. Cold breeze rustling leaves on ground. Maple, I think — lightly brown, gives a little taste of autumn tho not much with the min-palms & oaks. Green tea resting on large concrete planter box to my right, strong smell of piss. ‘T-money’ on bench in black markers. Lots (?) of flies nearby, makes me look for garbage/attractions. This time around, red converse hi-tops, black tights rolled up calves (gray under), red shirt, black leather bag w chain or rhinestones, looks to be either side of 18 (?), walks by me a 3rd time & around corner. (But the humanist focus here? why ANTHROpology?). One approaching me, goes under bench. More arriving — most on lawn — some pecking — sod food? grass seed? They all leave in a flurry but one, who lingers then splits after the rest. Dogs stand up, are curious. Someone walking across plaza with slight limp, walking very fast then slows down. Rat runs out from under tree. Can’t tell if flowers still there. No one has features. Sorry this is so uninteresting. 2:48 pm. Unclear what event might be. Flip side of card is ad for “fashion forward show for the community” Oct 28 @ Oak Metro Opera House $40 turn the card back again to see an OO insignia in corner, above the FB & twitter logos. How phone makes for blinders (obvs). There’s an orange cone on its side 15 yds to my left. Writing with pencil that says THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS. No idea where they are parking cars downtown Sat night. Various lights no in surrounding buildings, but most if not all appear empty of people. Clear sky, cold but not freezing. Don’t recall how crowded any of these places got pre-OO around weekday lunch times, but always shut down on weekends. Have seen 3–4 private security cops. Presume they are protecting lawn & not policing behavior/’lifestyle crimes’. Tho I knew this already so perhaps am ‘seeing’ it now as such only for knowing — & knowing that it’s off limits currently — & that the fence only recently came down — Sprinkler on in 3 corners of lawn, of course brings to mind Lake Quan. Across lawn, next to the oak tree, flowers — shrine? — basket, some sort of vase, one plastic cup w flowers, spilled onto side, maybe a candle? Can see lights on inside 6 different CH windows but no evidence of anyone inside. Wondering if Radio is bugged upstairs. At what point do paranoia jokes become possible? White woman with nametag on black jacket walks by behind me. Small prop plane flies overhead. Man goes downstairs into BART station. They’ve each finished the small rawhides I gave them, it’s 5:15 & there are 10 windows open in City Hall, 25% of total, & the crosswalk is beeping go. Immediately fighting off the objective, as well as memory. White pickup goes by, reminding me that R— called earlier, ½ moon up in SE, vertical sign that reads (vertically) “Oakland City Center” — I’ve pissed there during GA, on building next to it a For Lease sign. I thought he was on the phone, then someone further away, then kept looking around, now realize it’s him. Dogs’ ears are up & rotate to follow sounds in multiple directions. I’ve not exhausted this place. 5:30, took 5 min. break on phone.
Tweet from M— about GA/OOFC but not clear what went down. There are 3 ‘floorlights’ shining up onto the bust of Frank Ogawa. Weird effects. 2 boys on bikes. No one has features. Cloud cover thinning so a bit sunlight, find myself squinting — & thus scowling? — w/o sunglasses, which I didn’t pack. Maybe ‘non-descript’ means just that – once out of view, hard to recall anything to describe — nothing ‘stands out.’ Passed woman w pink bike, Polynesian I believe, one shoe off, black sock, pink h2o bottle that looks like a child’s. 4 different sprinklers now on. Too cold to #makenothinghappen. At least not solo, not now. The amphitheater really does amplify sound, even tho it doesn’t look like it would. He’s got black hair, pants, bubble jacket, backpack, glasses, “it’s like watching the grass grow” he sez (to himself?) — (!) Dogs tied to handrail. Woman w pink bike sitting across corner of lawn, 2 women walk by, blues sneakers maroon pants, both w h2o bottles, green shoulder bag, jeans, red back pack, too far gone, that’s it, that’s — them? Mail truck drives by. Buster yawns. They both turn heads when someone drops something. Now 3 guys at gazebo. ‘Hanging out’ & shooting shit outside door. 5:05. Going to stand & move.
The couple continues on, chatting, she’s shorter than him, red shirt, her hair’s up, he’s got a h2o bottle, she says “no” but I can’t make out the rest, someone whistling in the distance, yelling, from where I sit I count 62 lights on in the plaza, plus 4 beneath oak & one turned off/not functioning. I’ve not yet exhausted this place. Kid walking by talking on phone. “Cartoons can take you places.” Man sleeping in same spot as last night, wrapped in blanket, lying flat on back on pavement next to lawn. “Sketchy” is not an objective description. Difference between bodies in public spaces in day and at night. Walk around CH to piss, through sliver of space between City Hall and Clay St parking garage can see sliver of moon. Flowers are still there. Writing as an aid to presence? Seeing? But then — toss the writing if/since it’s just a tool? Walked to amphitheater. Maybe he’s actually white or mixed, salt-n-pepper beard, my phone vibrates in my jacket pocket. PJ’s sniffing the air. 4:55. 2:44. Feel like I’m just getting started but ‘need to’ (‘should’) split.
Next to me on bench is colorful card for “The Sophisticated Hyphy Show.” & look at that — hosted by Shake Anderson. Asian guy returns, turns out he’s the security guy, gets in his car. Then comes over & asks to pet the dogs. Suddenly pigeons, at least 30. One approaching me, goes under bench. Bright Red shirt on kid — not a kid — man in 40s? — w blue backpack & weird mismatching tie, shirt untucked, long arms, brief eye contact — he half-signs? — is this parataxis? It’s now 1:56. “Get Up, Stand Up” on radio now — does not pass my attention that we’re at OGP listening to this — (who’s ‘we’ Are ‘we’ all ‘listening’ — in the same way?). Man sleeping in sleeping bag on pavement 2 feet from lawn. 2 of the security cops just stand, the other walks around, more social. He has white earphone in one ear. Walkie talkie strapped to belt on side hip. And how to describe what’s not here. It’s 2:18. Dude stops & I turn to watch dog roll on its back, as if scratching on the ‘ground’ — cement? plaza-street? — wrong order — I turn to look, man stops — either way, no causality — Security cops have black caps that read SECURITY in big white letters. Yet resistant to categorize. Sound of bus stopping, that burst of expressed air — brakes? Brief eye contact — he half-signs? — is this parataxis?
Wrong order — I turn to look, man stops — either way, no causality. Had been putting off describing woman sitting nearest me — at 90 degree angle, in red, occasionally talking on earpiece (?) phone – mic — ‘handless mic’ (?) but now she’s gone. Black woman w black jacket, gloves, & wool cap jogs up CH steps & goes inside. It’s not just the tents & camp that are gone, but the smell. My fingers hurt from so much writing. Just realized I am sitting about 10 yards from where I was arrested, almost exactly one year ago. For everything I write — SO WHAT? Why does it matter? Security cops have black caps that read SECURITY in big white letters. Large woman on large bike, smiling. Old Asian woman ‘shuffling’ — red rain jacket, with hood pulled tight around face. Breeze picks up, smell of piss stronger. Watching myself (‘watching’?) as I ‘decide’ who is & isn’t likely homeless among folks here — ‘Nothing’ going on. Woman walks by behind me. Single small bike locked up. Woman asks two other passersby for a light. They have one. Now — ‘back to normal’ — ? No pigeons, no tents. And what counts as ‘objective’ description — or, since I obvs don’t believe in ‘objectivity’ — something approximating ‘mere’ description. Sound of crosswalk signal — ok to cross. Using gender for short hand — why not just person — since for sake of ‘record’ doesn’t matter. Want to put pen down & ‘just’ observe, though then I’d likely daydream or check out. Man walks by reading his cellphone. Security guard talking to 2 other guys outside door. Oh, Running Wolf does have his sage stick burning. Want to write ‘hate that shit.’ Am wearing the same thing I wore this afternoon, tho I did bring another layer if it gets colder. Observation & documentation requires some degree of focus & presence but it’s not like I feel more alive. Dude bikes by CH. Have to text myself or I’ll forget —
What is presence. City Hall — no sign of people. I have a flask of bourbon in my backpack. Just noticed there are 5 flags on CH, not 3. So ‘little activity’ today — compared to what? Not sure if I’m ‘present’ but focus on description — even if ‘soft focus’ — does keep my mind off other shit — the shit week, stress of to-do, fatigue, depression — even now, just making a list doesn’t necessarily trigger them — fire truck sirens approaching. Parked in garage & walked down concrete stairs where I’ve pissed during GAs & nearby #OO actions. Couple is back, woman with red shirt now has h2o bottle, she sez “dude I get you” & “I feel so good right now.” They walk across the lawn, both in short sleeves. Noise amplified by reflection of City Hall, ‘amphitheater’ — sounds reverberated somehow. Dude w red bandana, masked up. Why. Observing myself being observed. Not the same as ‘self-consciousness’ — I’m object, just information, data. As if Perec’s model is the model to work from. “After” P — Am I ‘noticing’ anything? Noting? or just ‘jotting notes’. Why write self-reflection now — it’s happening, always, but not ‘part of the project’. There’s not really shadows here. 2:36. Something approximating ‘mere’ description. Cop car on 14th in front of Walgreens — sticks out as til now been ‘ignoring’ traffic. Get to that later. 2 boys, one woman. young. Leader does the talking. Woman trails behind, seems more aware of immediate surroundings. I’m not stoned, so I’m seeing/sensing this way & not that. Doubtful that these descriptions would give any reliable ‘picture’/map. Clock tower bell tolls 12:45. Emji’s standing & taking notes. There’s not really shadows here. But it’s not like I feel more alive. If you’ve not been to OGP, doubtful that these descriptions wd give any reliable ‘picture’/map. But it’s not like I feel more alive. 3 flags on City Hall — US flag, gold/green OAKLAND flag w/ oak tree and 1838 (?) & what looks like CA state flag — not enough wind. So much I’m leaving out — but not conscious of why choosing what — other than cops, bright clothes, loud sounds, pigeons fly by again, movement. Walking back to truck, pass alley where two women in full-length saris are smoking, what appears to be a pipe or joint, but can’t tell. Someone walks in front of City Hall. Man sleeping in same spot as last night, wrapped in blanket, lying flat on back on pavement next to lawn. No pigeons. No tents. 12:25.
Need to think about why avoiding people. So much minor activity / So much to describe / yet why choose what — in what order? Security cop texting across lawn. What is presence. Am I ‘noticing’ anything? Or just ‘jotting notes’. Looks like maybe some chalkupy — going to walk by before I split. Meanwhile crazy guy split — didn’t notice. Warming up (the weather, not me). Bus on 14th heading E, stops in front of Walgreens. Today — compared to what? Something about this weather, location, guy sleeping near me, the lawn. Immediately fighting off the objective, as well as memory. Guy bikes by behind me, trailing what looks to be a ladder about 12-15’ long, resting length-wise on an apparatus w/ wheels, a large ‘ski bag,’ odd silver/metal ‘fans’ hanging off ladder in back. Polly Jean & Buster here w/ me, leashes tied to bench, we’re facing west, sitting on plaza to north of lawn, near steps where we gathered pre-2nd raid and NYE pre/post Bring the Noise/FTP. They all leave in a flurry but one, who lingers then splits after the rest. Now — ‘back to normal’ — ? Private security guy alone in car parked on amphitheater ‘stage’. Have to remember to soften my gaze. Yet resistant to categorize in writing/describing — it’s shorthand — Reflection of passing car lights on glass doors to City Hall make them appear as if opening. Pigeons back. Dog barks behind me. And how to describe what’s not here. Going to stand & move.
Overcast, w dark orange glow. Getting colder. Black guy walking by, rat runs out in front of him, guy stomps foot and laughs “did you see that?” Grass is spotty — mostly green & trimmed/cut, but some lighter almost-yellow. Otherwise all quiet in plaza. Across 14th woman in a high-waisted long skirt, looks by the way she’s walking that she’s in uncomfortable heels. 12:39 — time goes by ‘quickly’ — compared to — ? Cliché but plaza does feel stagey. The security guards look bored. 2:04. Taking break to trade texts w/ J— about X.
I don’t recall rats at the camp but there must have been? Need to think how/why Perec’s ‘isn’t’/ ‘What he leaves out makes the music’. “14th & Bway” will always signify to me in very specific ways. Is that the endotic? My phone sez Berkeley considering ban on homelessness. Double long bus drives down 14 towards Bway, stops in front of Walgreens, another behind it. Still ‘putting off’ describing people. Observing myself being observed. Not the same as ‘self-consciousness’ — I’m object, just information, data. Banner hangs over front door: Oakland Fire Dept / Salutes / Fire Prevention Week. Sorry this is so uninteresting. Brief eye contact — he half-signs? — is this parataxis? OGP only exists as a potent site after the event. The rats are always larger than I think they … ‘should be’ — ? As if life reveals itself only by way of the spectacular… W/o the camp some of the cats ‘back to’ crazy hippies. Sod is fairly new — tho I knew this already so perhaps am ‘seeing’ it now as such only for knowing — & knowing that it’s off limits currently — & that the fence only recently came down — & that it might go up again pre-#O25 — nobody knows tho that’s the word —Hella pigeons, all clustered — maybe guy sitting there just threw them something? Plane overhead. Lone Asian woman now walking other way — ‘back’? — across plaza, white plastic bag swinging from left hand. 2 guys open door to green gazebo. Somebody coughs — a ‘hacking cough.’ Continually comparing this writing to similar models/styles. 8 Asian women walk by, in clusters of 2’s & 4’s — just off work? It’s 4:48. Holding Perec booklet between left forefinger & middle finger, left thumb holding notebook open. Noticed her — or decided of all the people to ‘write about’ (v ‘describe’?) her 1st cuz she strode on grass. Thought for a sec I saw Melvyn. Wanted to go talk w/ him, get a temp check. Black woman w shorts & holding plastic bag talking w/ security cop. Pigeon wings flapping — they’re gone. There’s Running Wolf. No sign of sage. Again, feels like this is uninteresting but it’s something to focus on. Tasks. The sound of my backpack zipper reminds me of camping — opening the tent ‘door’ — very slight breeze — more like the moderate chill in the air is just letting itself be known as such — as the night air around me. Have to text myself or I’ll forget — dogs seem bored — &/or I’m projecting. Kids gone from amphitheater. 2 men exit City H while I’m describing sign & flags but in both cases I miss seeing them ‘actually’ exit. How to describe what’s not here — not just the camp, but ‘everything’ that could be but isn’t. Sadness. Or: saudadé. Still curious why OPD never staged raids from down there. Lots of folks ‘lingering’ — hanging out? On or around ‘main steps’. Person of indeterminate gender walks by, swinging arms. So much minor activity / So much to describe / yet why choose what — in what order? Sound of bird or rat nearby.
Loud car engine draws my attention — then another — it’s a truck on Bway, now a large US Food semi going south on Bway. Asian man sweeping leaves out from of (closed) Rotisserie Deli. Red light flashing slowly on top of building one block or so ‘over’ (14th & Clay?). Taking break to trade texts w/ J— about XX. Unclear what event might be. Trying to figure out how to describe the music now — I think it was the trumpets that drew my attention to it. Then he splits to go on his rounds. Why write self-reflection now — it’s happening, always, but not ‘part of the project’. Now — ‘back to normal’ — ?
Dis-ease is useful to me, or the dis-abling of habituated practices of language. The idea of something not working, something not being sayable or reproducible, (re)printable, carries its own charge.
— Myung Mi Kim
Peoples who do not know each other should get to know each other in a hurry, like those who are about to struggle side by side.
— José Martí
What good is art when people everywhere don’t have enough to eat?
— M., member of Revolutionary Autonomous Communities,
a mutual aid food organization in Los Angeles
Seeing things, the alternative seeing of things, the seen and seeing alternative, which a certain deployment of crisis is meant to police, is the crisis of genuine disclosure and generative disruption.
— Fred Moten
• To make common currency uncommon.
• To make us strangers in a place we thought was home. To find spaces for listening inside strangeness.
• To refuse complacency and allow risk to alight inside our own bodies.
• Thinking is doing. Doing is thinking.
• We write discomfortably because we are probably wrong, yet compelled to learn. To learn from our errors.
• We are language workers in a workspace made of language. We are using language to push language into wild, unsettling, discomfortable forms. This process might be painful. This process might be joyous. This process will be infinite.
• Language and world are inseparable. Language and action are inseparable. We use language to think about the world: the world being language. We turn our minds and bodies to the language we are using: aware of the constant constraints and impositions of that language upon us. The language being the world, its multiple and multiplicitous brutalities. The perpetual brutalities of an unjust language. The perpetual possibilities of justice in language.
• We use the term “writing” to refer to a range of forms of aesthetic work and practice. If writing is a form of art, then we insist on the cohabitating inverse: art is a form of writing. We embrace the different materials and techniques that various forms of art-making and organizing entail: the discomfortable welcomes them all.
• Criticality is the seeing of the window and the frame and the smudges on the glass, as well as the landscape, cityscape, or humanscape outside the window. Criticality is the seeing of our own seeing, accounting for our own position, stance, perspective, history, infrastructure, substructure.
• Criticality is not optional.
• Discomfortable writing unsettles the complacent eye and opens it to the unexpected, the real and the hyper-real and the sub-real: the conditions of the world as it is and the potentials of the world as it might be.
• We reject the automatic. Automaticity is unquestioning acceptance of the conditions and brutalities of the world-as-it-is. To automatically act is to automatically collude.
• We embrace the everyday. Repetition, routine, and ritual also contain sparks of discomfortableness. The foundations of daily life are a springboard into the stratospheres of the discomfortable. The discomforts of daily life are the texture of our resistance.
• We are not averse to good rhythm, but we distrust language that is too fluid, too easeful, too smooth. Without the snags, the surface becomes slick and we slide into so-called comprehension without pausing to question or remember how much we do not know.
• Capital traffics in the smooth, the cool, the easy. Capital is not interested in reminding us that there is more to learn; in fact, capital colludes to soothe us into thinking we already know everything, to produce a sense of normality, expectedness, regularity in a world that is anything but.
• Capital is also famously obsessed with the new and the next. We insist that its aim is not learning, but consumption and assimilation, with its attendant leveling of difference. Discomfortable writing rejects assimilation, preferring to linger in moments of rupture, to dwell in the snags, seeing what we would not, could not see, seeing our own seeing.
• If our work does not question the terms of the status quo, it is the status quo. The murderous status quo. Our context is an avant-garde that has throughout history aligned itself with revolutionary political movements.
• It is our responsibility to make the world as we wish to experience it—to create the conditions of our resistance, our solidarity, and our irrepressible liberation even as we acknowledge the very real and concrete effects of living in a world where injustice is institutionalized and enforced via all kinds of subterranean and overt violence.
• We have no patience for the divide between art practice and political practice. We have endless patience for doing the hard imaginative and practical work of building a more humane and just world. We are here to dismantle the master’s house!
• Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Yvonne Rainer: “You can dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools, if you expose the tools.” Antena: “The master’s house began to collapse on its own long ago. Use any and all tools you can get your hands on and speed the process. Demolish the master’s house carefully enough to recycle the building materials and make tiny houses for everybody. With any leftover materials, we’ll make small books.”
• Discomfortable aesthetic work is necessary if we are to imagine and begin to build a new world. Art is more than graphics to accompany our slogans. Poetry can imagine new possibilities within language. Poetry and other non-conforming forms of writing can create discomfort, manifest expressions of our distress and dysfunction in the context of unjust structures. Our work is made of attempts and failures and further attempts: we will learn to think, dream, and imagine differently and it will not be easy. Our work is ongoing.
• All language is in conversation with other language. Writing is not a purely individual pursuit: it emerges out of communities, movements, relationships. We read and write in order to interact not only with other individuals but also with other formations, other systems of thought, other histories. We need to hear and experience things that are far outside our comfort zone. We need to question the very divisions between zones, between comforts, between persons.
• We want to invoke a curriculum of contemporary and historic discomfortable writing by people of color, feminist and queer authors, and by writers of all orientations and backgrounds who are queering language and dismantling systems of privilege. We believe in a pedagogy grounded in humility, open-source sharing, intellectual instigation and political activation.
• Our reading practices—and hence our editorial and programming and teaching practices—should reflect the demographics of the world. And if not the world, than at least our neighborhood, our corner of the world. Most corners of the world are more heterogeneous than might meet the unsuspecting eye.
• We advocate for books to be radically available: whether they live on the Internet, in libraries or bookstores, in homes, in kiosks on the street, in free boxes outside infoshops. Wherever. Whenever. For whomever.
• Discomfortable writing should exist in public. With bookstores closing their doors, and libraries shut down due to “austerity” measures, it is up to all of us to get these books into the world, where people can encounter them unexpectedly and be inspired by them. Make pamphlets! Write manifestos! Steal photocopies wherever possible and make books!
• Revolutionary rewritings need radical re-readers anywhere and everywhere. Open source is the only source.
• We stand (or sit resolutely) for the small, the tiny, the little, the under, the refused and the refuse, and also the oversized awkwardly gigantic in this svelte world of normalcies. We reject industrial, commercial models of literary production. We have an anti-industrial complex.
• While enthusiastically intellectual (and against rampant USAmerican anti-intellectualism), we are opposed to gates and their keepers and literary-academic elitism. We prefer to ask forgiveness rather than permission.
• We don’t accept or seek to proffer the same old definitions, strictures and restrictions of an inherited, white, USAmerican or European avant-garde. What constitutes “experimental” or “innovative” or “adventurous” work is structured by feeling, by sentiment, by history, by historical oppressions, by networks of communication and legacies of conflict. By place and time and context and the vastly textured skein of what it is to be a particular person in a particular place.
• There is no vacuum within which discomfortable practice can be judged. There is no judgment that can encompass the discomfortable.
• We use the term “discomfortable” to remind ourselves that this process might not feel good. Discomfortable writing makes us uneasy and functions in un-easy ways. Discomfortable writing makes demands, posits imperatives. To think differently, it is imperative that we find different language(s).
• We live in a slow space, an insistently snail’s pace. Our work with language is necessarily slow, effortful, considered, non-accidental, and not automatic. To work consistently in more than one language and between languages is slow and often awkward. To write something in one language and then take the time to translate it into another language means waiting, means collaborating, means multiple attempts. We believe in this slow process. Labor takes time and we believe in the time that it takes. Discomfortable time.
• We demand discomfortable time.
• Participation in a complex intellectual and political dialogue with many different kinds of readers/thinkers/speakers is a slower, less visible kind of change than other forms of agitation. We believe discomfortable language is its own form of activism or (dis)organizing—disorganizing the structures of institutionalized non-consensual domination and subservience that are embedded in the textures of our language.
• We believe discomfortable writing and speaking are in fact practiced all the time by all kinds of people. You don’t need a college degree to do discomfortable language. Often, the most discomfortable language has been marginalized for being “improper” or “lesser” or “slang.” All of these forms throw a wrench into the machine of language standardization and dominance.
• We reject the imperialism of English, its constructions and syntax. Discomfortable writing enthusiastically undermines the dominant structures of English and the structures of English-language dominance.
• Language justice work enables us to listen fluidly-not-fluidly to things we cannot readily hear: frequencies that are beyond our comprehension without the tools language justice provides. Discomfortable writing enables us to listen fluidly-not-fluidly to things we do not always attend: the scaffolding of the ways language functions to buttress ideology or silence dissent.
• The space of writing is a laboratory, a place to create unexpected combinations of like and unlike things and explore the results, a place to make attempts and embrace failures and extend investigations without regard to a clear sense of destination or outcome.
• We refuse to rest on our laurels. In fact, we don’t have any laurels! We have asses, and we are willing to work them off. We will be stubborn but not intransigent. We will be open to suggestion, persuasion, whim, and acceptance of the errors of our ways. We will look back and we will look forward.
• We are not post-anything. We are and we continue to be, without a clear break; we become complicit and resistant and insist on motion. We believe in interruption, stoppage, open-endedness. Nothing is over. Everything is over. We have barely begun. We are in the midst of the midst.
Myung Mi Kim, “Ear Turned Toward the Emergent,” Close Listening, Jacket2, February 19, 2012. https://jacket2.org/interviews/ear-turned-toward-emergent
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984. Text of “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” is available at: http://lists.econ.utah.edu/pipermail/margins-to-centre/2006-March/000794.html
José Martí, “Nuestra América,” originally published in La Revista Ilustrada de Nueva York, January 10, 1891 and El Partido Liberal, Mexico, January 30, 1891. http://www.analitica.com/bitblio/jmarti/nuestra_america.asp
Fred Moten, “necessity, immensity, and crisis (many edges/seeing things),” Floor Issue #1, 2011. http://floorjournal.com/2011/10/30/necessity-immensity-and-crisis-many-edgesseeing-things/
Revolutionary Autonomous Communities, conversation in MacArthur Park, June 16, 2013.
for Marianne Morris
When the state’s insufficiency cannot secure the good life.
When the state is unnatural and offers no perfection.
When home to dumb animals and gods,
interstate flies inscribe the orbit like irredeemable cargo.
The gods build houses in each district
but they can have houses here and there, high up
like eagles and low, moles. The gods accrue nature
around their houses like mantles, or padding.
This is polishing security. A digital garrison.
They put clips in their ears, their cars go fast
up the hills into the trees as the suspense burns.
They are in the same league as leopards
The gods live without each other, like wild animals.
Sufficiency is only perfect in the moment of the state.
A spoiled hand is no longer a hand
but dinner, the hermit obscene before his rocks and papers.
The state alone can be alone
without horror or confusion. Zoo tray
full of grubs and a rattler among
shows us appetite defying
conglomeration at the level of simple
and complex structures. He sucked the wound
the way they do on tv and got shot
in his teeth for common interest.
The state contains our diversity of needs
like a slipper, like a delphic knife.
In the produce aisle insufficiency gleams
a wax skin must be dusted with water.
• Wheat growing at the police station, brassica
• on the railway cuttings, an archaism.
• Hogmeat and corn bread, buried hams,
• hard tack and middlin’ meat. Only in extreme democracies
• are workmen participants: they speak with their mouths.
Insomniacs slip through the gym floor, rolled
a ball of rice, it’s all in the prefect’s letter.
Steady victuals. Sufficiency is a cold perfection.
A farmer gardened with rosacea
is beyond redemption
as he is beyond the Ludgate or the boated occipital.
The marketplace is the divine scene.
A thin girl smiles thinly at a thin boy’s
thin excuse to touch her. Their confederation
is neglectful and will come again
and again until the state is made,
bursting out like a star from a welter.
First get a house and a wife and an ox to draw
and the judiciary follows, cornfed in its balloon robes.
The house is the original scene.
I’m going to put you in my pocket,
which means to sell you.
80s woman unclips a large gold earring
to answer the phone. She is only a chatterbox,
less discrete than a man talks to a brick,
twisting the knot of her idion in hand
and burning hate mail in the afternoon.
She learns to rule by being ruled: dry goods are
his to win, hers to preserve. She boxes up.
Her natural urge to propagate herself is the origin
of the state, state duplex, state boxer.
Foxes lock on under picnic tables,
children twist out into smokeries
and are furnished with commemorative cups and bowls.
The state is a container of duplication,
conservator of the basic minimum.
The phrase ‘cardiac arrest’ conceals a stupid truth:
heart knackered like a punctured football,
the heart is a working component owned by the state.
Our bodies bound to morter and decay.
The property heart, waiting for use
alongside a pop gun and a silk handkerchief
eases the load on the ox hearts, their feelings
an electrical discharge as they tow and hoist.
Now the state’s insufficiency cannot secure the good life
the swollen heart, myopathic, sits on an altar
just free of dancing embers in the residual house.
As we relax our pulse beats
heavily on the sternum, where opening
a crab shell would make its wettest sound.
The element that can use its intelligence
to look ahead is by nature ruler and by nature master.
This is philosophy, self-canonized,
televising projections since dawn.
For alibi the philosopher-king appeals
to the public fact of his chemical castration.
With immortal cunning soul
tyrannizes the body, the father bullies kin,
intelligence tempers desire like a president
kneeling on the senatorial neck. Except
no president does, having made a reduction.
Kennelled by reason, a free body
is erect and useless, suited
for the life of a citizen, divided by war
and peace. The slave body is of course.
The use of slaves is not a form of knowledge
that has any great importance
or dignity. A morbid fat woman
whipped us a little, but only with buckbrush
and only around the ankles. It is diminutive
and feminising, deteriorates the squires
the house is the original scene of tyranny
as prophylactic against female hunger.
My father’s tyranny is imponderable
in the political realm: the red mist of a house burning temper
enables his own emancipation as he rolls in from the suburbs.
He is speaker of the house, house a pork barrel.
How he acquires human properties
is a skill for soldiers and hunters,
raking it in the year of jubilee,
taking dogs to the base of all trees,
forcing runners into muddy shallows.
To be muddled with lime is a sin against the clear
proportionality of his race now he’s
having trouble keeping anything down.
Slaves are tools made for action. Diptherial robotics,
cogs in their hipbones and tightly wired
phalanges nipping at bobbins. If shuttles
could fly and a plucker play a tune all
self-moved, then masters would have no needs
and the cabins, empty, become national trust.
Watch them dance to heaven like the tripods
of Hephaestus shuffling into the assembly of the gods.
However by nature you can
and therefore do belong to him.
You participate in reason so far as to recognize it
but not so as to possess it, for possession
is barred to you are possessed so thoroughly.
Your speech, approximate (I’ve put
the breaks in):
I ’members de time when my mammy was
alive, I was a small child,
afore dey took her to Reems Creek. All us chillens was
playin’ in de yard one night. Just a-
runnin’ and a-playin’ like chillen will. All
of a sudden Mammy come to de door
all ’cited. “Come in here dis minute,”
she say. “Just look up at what is a-happenin’.”
And, bless you life, de stars
were fallin’ just like rain. Mammy was
terrible scared, but we chillen weren’t
afraid, no we weren’t afraid. But Mammy,
she say every time a star fall,
somebody gonna die. Look like
a lot of folks gonna die from de looks of
dem stars. Everythin’ was just as bright as day.
You could a pick a pin up.
You know de stars don’t shine as bright
as dey did back den. Weren’t
long afore dey took my mammy away,
and I was left alone.
I make the dead work.
The element that can use its intelligence
to look ahead is by nature ruler and by nature master.
In the year of jubilee we will have transformation.
Money that grows on bushes, squirrels
and wild things, cotton for free
and good calico, shoes lined with dog fur.
Corn, rye and goober peas, mush and milk,
pepper pot from the cook shack
everyone down at the frolic and nothing partial
such as sleep, warmth, or skins.
Do I know this, your names, your prices.
THE POLICE EYE
The day bluelighted to an infirmary.
Take myself off to conjure
thoughts of dogs
rioted up a tree in the dark
and a silly rotten stick liquors up
the other hand. Fear is a powerful
inducement to club up: clear the backs
sentinelled, looking for freedom
portioned and in regard of: every rut
Ocado may be able to deliver.
I’m heavily pregnant. The horror film
I come into shot they come in crying ‘Meat, meat’
Rhiannon covered in puppy blood
a claw reaches in through the stable window but that’s
the part of the story nobody questions
is a threat to fealty on the island of the mighty.
At the return of relief
– all fields squarely – and the modern houses
I apply at a gate shackled by a deliberate block.
A paddock with deer, too docile and thick
among nettles and rusting gear
boiler pots and winches to make this
place than mortal foreboding. Eaters
nearby, scanned by the rolling monocle
that twitches its history of terror
from only one side of a monumental face.
No wilderness here, even for fodder
coruscating inside their commodity hides
their hips and shoulders move through ragout
the muscleman is hiding his pointed ears in the long grass.
Everything I see is the state. More dogs.
Man is an animal who needs a master
who is an animal who needs a master
that is an animal needs that master
who is a mastered animal, mastering
the animal of his master who is animals
and needing a master is an animal master
for the animals who need a master and a master
of animals is also an animal among animals
who need masters there is an animal
and masters for those animals are animals
who need a master who need a master
animal animal animal master animal.
The duty to obey. The duty waits it out,
down at the mouth and pitifully small indoors
and governed in lesions at the big-box stores
with a woman in pain as the standard bearer
who begs the latch as court-appointed carer: but she
represents no one juridically,
her talent’s symbol. And her nature
restrains her litter at two, as otherwise
she would have as many tits as a pig.
You think they’re numbered to match your eyes?
So quantity is a function of necessity, and
for grundnorm take the tyranny of the family.
The forest regards its infant oaks as luxuries,
silva lisp a word for tender:
the merciless criticism of everything existing.
The thumb is just long enough
to pleasure the mouth without choking.
Domestic Interlude 2
You remember the rowan tree, light
filled apart as clarity
swinging down became a fixation.
A multitude devised as one, brided as one
eventually but not yet.
Still summer with bright gold appearances.
Heavenly grasses. Work spread out
on the table
specie piling up with the ashes of letters
to map your body traditionally to own it.
Food. Irony. Music piped into the ears
that otherwise tripped over birdsong
and otherwise halted in the future.
were everywhere. No material
a likewise possibility. Great tips
and chords, even the bottlenose sighted
a celebratory sleeve for Curtis Mayfield
Spending money on other things like sweaters.
Some drinks in the distance
the muezzin and other dawns
blood loss. Occasional pinches.
To march, to peal and wish nakedly
feeling nothing and/or an excess
it came up at the cinema, there was a book in it.
Then there were the children
But not yet.
Rummaging. Appears on the doorstep,
extracted from her bicycle. Teapot hens
puffy for dawn in Paradise Park, slappy,
fish in the sink,
home a home for recording sessions.
Your body spread out under the pitching.
An excess of luxury soap. The thing
we both knew would be lost to each
if we vanished
And a building site, the plaster all blown
rendered and made good
breakfast up there, under the plants.
What kindness, circled
by your unprepossessing
Coming back, coming back
coming back and coming
back (wild combination)
Listening as the night-bloom
and the dealers in their parked cars
and the invisible man behind the partition
for baking, strumming. Squashing. Speaking
always with very great interest
how the multitudes devised one.
A retro design
beautifully done, lively. The children.
The house and its work. The children.
Where they came from. Suddenly
over time turns into history
too much to talk about
eating the bread I made in labour
they learn to speak, and then they speak
and everything they say begins to finish the puzzle for us which they are
I feel old now, the day
bright gold appearances of all your faces
this is what my life was, and becoming
how we wake up when we have been there
bracketed to your body traditionally
oh my profound heart
the days work and the nights of knowledge
which has turned out to be knowledge
of you everywhere, and there
The electors of Holland dance to bronze music,
spin the Victorian dynamo in the modified foodmart
chocka with maize, decaf peace, prosperity.
This so Fed-Ex home town commo
freeze the liquor licence with moral temperature:
children cluster and spatter the streets
with taffy goodbar, good in pastel
sugar shades of salt water. Give’m
enough spank to get the job done
take shelter in the urgent and compelling
which is a blank cheque drawn on endless government.
They will always hear your footsteps,
offering plausible deniability for food
and aching corporatist bullyboy spirits for hush money
in Kolleen Park, in Abu Nuwas.
The Free Companies are the scourge of Europe,
their ideal bivouac in motorland,
al fresco on Windmill Island, flush at Tulip Time
with republicanism and Jean Calvin.
The Duke of Ferrara held with no less effort
principality crated to the Great Dismal Swamp:
a day’s drive from Khartoum to Port Sudan,
check my look in the mirror,
lipstick blandishments go alchemized harrier
vanity up corporate warfareground and her precious
pins in L’Eggs and her precious deconfliction
hour in Calgon. Dominions
either accustomed to live under a prince, or to live in freedom,
the pin switch stay where you are with your hands.
Aere perennium the crater mouth
of mainstreet sidewalk of the stars’
general pow chicken and the starry ears.
God’s own infantry linked to
white-side seals, armed tap dancy
from the DeKlomp factory
to Route Irish via the BIAP.
For when Christian men, take not
their Christian Sovereign, for Gods Prophet;
they must either take their owne Dreames,
for the Prophecy they mean to bee governed by,
and the tumor of their own hearts
for the Spirit of God; or they must suffer
themselves to bee lead by some strange prince.
The prince. A theocon master of the universe
poured in China into plastic:
six kids, Roman Catholic, ex-Navy
who appreciates the smoke and bells
and the facilities (confession),
blooded on gays, wombs, cord banks,
Hillsdale’s volunteer firefighter
swimming through ice of an inland sea
in search of the dead, sniffy
oh my dear profiteer pater.
Blackfaced to a jungle dark medlar swelling
under the black peat of Camden and Currituck,
this is the dark sticks river, gallons charged with
forgetfulness and the memorandum of notification.
The ghosted native swings on a palindrome,
going oogedaboogeda from the loblolly bay.
The digital natives check in 140 characters,
walk-ups with grudges whose intel can be checked
by solidarios milites only at the hot
point of a drifted metal.
Dyed with tannins, fringed with berries
for the foraging mascot bears, the cloth stapler
a reversible feedbag and containment unit
for the pure fire of platonic eyes. On the MRE
boxes of sassafrass and pin cherry stand
two wet feet, the Peppa Pig water-wings
slipped off far back in the pocosin stage.
They unclamp the jinga trucks, lock
and load arrears for policy as the oaks burn
giant candles like heads with livid inflammatory hair.
They’re the biggest employer around here
so we can’t diss them, 250 folks
in the steel target factory and on the ranges.
Moyock / mock city near the Jeremiads
are arising, pistol in one hand trowel
in other for an archaeology
of third-country nationals (screwed to the pallets).
RU Ready High, SWAT tango studio teens
scream their gutless piercing illegal Twilight.
Milites ad adorem pacis peiora molintur quam in bello.
Wan. Snooted. Friendlies cast
with hundreds n thousands light the sky for relays.
This fake city as diorama: anatomical displays
showing the gestation of a mil-bird,
from broken avionics and the works
to berthing in foreign service, how we build a state
from components of foreign manufacture.
Teaching that there are three courses for those who wish to hold them: to ruin them, to reside with them, or to permit them to live under their own laws, drawing a tribute, and establishing within it an oligarchy which will keep it friendly to you.
and oceanliner for pirate practice
remote-control kill authority is the real thing
where the deer and the antelope play.
The Praetorian Guard in the summer of 69
drew targets for an extraction
plan by intrusive metal
and intrusive thoughts, while others
cashiered out and found themselves
at loose ends their venomous expertise. We are paid
to outsource blame, a poison ricochet
tamped to the market
instead of the congressional record
building a ‘coalition of the billing’
aka plucking the Durand Line like catgut.
That was a real ass-puckerer,
the Anabasis of Xenophon,
in a circle makes the red arc of an oil dash,
is shot-put, is hockey-sticks
in the comfortable lunge of the Black Bear.
Soapmakers and their sons for silver
have been made into knights,
sheep-dipped green badgers
who align teams as they align stars.
The warrior constellation winks his nakedness
turns lithium and gibbets to flesh
in a flash of an air asset, oh company dog.
The labourers descend from little birds
scuff up on the sandbox, go hoodless
to the Dry Sea / And come home via Qara Na’ur.
Our teams are not cooking meals
or moving supplies. They are taking bullets.
The prince, with little reluctance, takes the opportunity
of rebellion to punish the delinquents, clear out the suspects,
and to fortify himself in the weakest places,
the strategic chokepoints. You draw the shells
in coloured pencils cascade with rain-sounds
from their casing. This is the lethal finding,
drawn down straight from the imperial grotto:
he offends a minority only of the citizens from whom he takes lands and houses to give them to the new inhabitants; and those whom he offends, remaining poor and scattered, are never able to injure him; whilst the rest being uninjured are easily kept quiet, and at the same time are anxious not to err for fear it should happen to them as it has to those who have been despoiled.
When duty-honour calculations
are displaced by cost-profit and the benefit
shifts like oversight to the executive,
the acceptable face of pain gets masked up
and booted up till the money literally soars.
Jose Cuervo protecting the agave fields,
Zapata engineering the ammo stores:
they quadruple the army payout;
the bouge et gages du court seductress,
the outlivers have the correct figures
but the kickers a life without security
of finance, transport, interiors and health
made into an error against life set to zero.
So the lobby in Holland is marked out
for a private transport times event,
tradecraft walls swicker and rupple to a fervent
catacoustic grunge of election. Triple Canopy
swooning full cash for incredulity, for burning
the log-book and the model detonator.
Outside, through the shifting of the garrison
up and down all become acquainted with hardship
as a kind of burning.
Ramiro taken on pretence and executed
on the piazza at Cesena: the people at once
were satisfied and dismayed.
‘Cofer told him he would have flies on their eyeballs
within a week’. The recipe includes
only bad guys, cooling, stymied, deletable,
good fortune and great energy are needed to hold them
in a loving and deeply sexual embrace as
proof of the muj strategy with passion
fruit pudding ridge road.
Who leave out dog hits, we sniff
the traces, slip up on nitrates
and sink our dearly booted feet
into the hacksaws to cut the switch.
An own-goal, delivered in a handcart,
she wakes up to the smell of premonition
and her new heroic part. There is no uplift.
Disposable muscle and steel and packaging
of Hawkwood’s White Company blown up
to nightmare proportions.
The blades on the Bremer detail
who twitch like eyes remote in their sockets,
slid back behind plastic, routed to semtex
and get jumpy off the X
scoot, shoot, as the stovepipes, shirt rips
on a quick twist and miscalculate a flight risk
they aren’t nearly fast enough off
but swish, one says, behind order 17.
This ilke worthy knight hadde been also
Somtyme with the lord of Palatye
Agayng another hethen in Turkye.
And everemoore he hadde a sovereyn prys
Raven 23 pins down in Nisour Square,
drop tackle on a hard site,
budgets rattle in the offertory.
They stuff into the BearCat, carbines across their knees,
Von Steuben’s children
Set off in soft-skins, heat-sought
behind a dirt berm, unapologetic.
Evan Liberty among the tard venus
endorsing Camp Ganci, Father of these Ravens.
“And this failure was due to the Naussicaans
being…” he looked up as
he searched for the words, “…beamed away?”
POCKET LANDSCAPES – Trajan’s Monument to Poché
Standing amidst the cacophony of Rome’s Piazza Venezia, Trajan’s Column slips easily into the lively frenzy of tourist and city buses, excavation sites (both archaeological and infrastructural), and traffic (pedestrian, auto, and motorino). As anywhere in Rome, these networks of transit, commerce, and artifacts are layered as thickly above the streets as they are buried beneath them. Through this earth rich with aggregate imperial desires, Mussolini carved an axis connecting his Palazzo Venezia office (and underground bunker) with the Roman colosseum, revealing and dividing two sets of ancient cellular plazas, the Imperial Fora and the Republican Fora. Along this axis, anchored by the column, sits Trajan’s Market, an imperial complex carved into the side of one of Rome’s celebrated hills.
In the voids left by both Trajan and Mussolini, the bombast of imperial power feels equal in scale and determination. But while Mussolini’s cut through the strata of this city intentionally obliterates certain histories (the medieval) in favor of a singular view of history (imperial conquest), a reading of Trajan’s Column as material artifact offers an alternate condition where a simultaneity of locational reference and experience are contained and anchored by a single edifice (and its artifice). Trajan (emperor from 98 CE to 117 CE) remains notable for extending the frontier of the Empire to its farthest limits, orienting formerly “barbarian” lands towards Rome. The celebrated column was erected to commemorate Trajan’s conquest of Dacia (modern-day Romania), a calculated act of rational, if viscous, expansion, completely in keeping with the centralizing tendencies of Rome. However, the column also unwittingly acts as a monument to the simultaneity and opacity of place—a contrasting alternative to the hierarchical ethos of the dictum “All roads lead to Rome.”
The column embodies, epitomizes, and ultimately monumentalizes the contradiction between Rome’s desire to locate through centering and the persistence of the unknowable (but not placeless) space of the city. This material sense of the known vs. the unknown can be easily related to the multiple understandings of the architectural term poché. From an architectural perspective, poché includes not only the “pockets” of thickness contained within massive masonry walls, but also the types of functions that are sometimes buried within, such as staircases, servants’ quarters, secret corridors, etc. Because it is hidden, literally or experientially, poché denies an understanding of dimension, geometry, orientation, and ultimately of location itself. The drawing techniques found in Giambattista Nolli’s 1738 map of Rome clearly demonstrate several different understandings of this term. At the level of representation techniques, poché is the intense repetition of hand-engraved lines used as infill within an outlined form to produce a field of gray. In his famous plan of Rome, Nolli’s rendering of the Pantheon reveals a differentiation between two different tones of poché, the darker used to represent true mass or thickness such as the stone masonry of the Pantheon’s at moments 20-foot-thick walls. The lighter tone of poché is used almost everywhere else and ambiguously refers to a condition of opacity, which may be one of solid material thickness, or may indicate a conceptual thickness—spaces either unknown or off-limits to the public.
The experience of Trajan’s Column shifts between these different conditions of poché. The chiseling techniques used to excavate the stairs and apertures within the shaft create a chiaroscuro microlandscape of texture: at each moment where outside light pierces through the windows, an intense field of pattern much like Nolli’s engraving techniques is created. This association with landscape connects the thick marble drum to the quarries of its origin in Carrara. More significantly, within this extensively documented city, the interiority of the column is not only literally hidden from view, but exists as a material lacuna in the consciousness of Romans and tourists alike. Conceptually, the nomenclature of the “column” seems to register only as an architectural element, denying the possibility of internal habitable space. More mass than void, Trajan’s Column oscillates between architecture and architectural marker—between fissure and monolith.
While the slender column operates as a spatial marker like the myriad other obelisks, fountains, and statues that mark the center of so many of Rome’s piazzas, it could also be seen as a compression of all the material contained within its purview, as if it replicated the centripetal tendencies of the Empire, gathering and compressing so much mass from afar. Trajan’s Column shares a similar diagram as Hadrian’s Mausoleum (now the Castel Sant’ Angelo): a massive cylinder with internal helical ramp. But while Trajan constructed what would become the resting place of his ashes in 113 CE, 17 years before his second cousin’s mausoleum broke ground, it could be imagined as a dwarf-star version of the latter, condensing all the material of the grand earthen drum while maintaining the central void excavated to house the body of the Emperor. The variable densities implied here would offer a radically different take on Nolli’s map of Rome.
With this conceptual density locked within its marble walls, more than any other monument in Rome (and perhaps the world), Trajan’s Column operates as a monument to and tower of excavation. With the exception of the significant and much discussed act of stacking 20 drums of marble, each weighing 2 tons, the power and nuance of this monument is due to the successive removal and reduction of material—from the quarrying of the marble, to the voiding of the internal spiral stair, the carving of the 43 window apertures, and the chiseling of the bas-relief frieze. While assembly seems to connect to location through desire or will, excavation is more rooted in material acceptance and exigency—embodying the readiness to work with that which is found rather than imposing that which is desired (through the literal importation and assembly of disparate elements). In Bachelard’s subterranean space of the cellar, the act of excavation connects each individual location through the common medium of soil; here, the abstractions of geometry, geography, and distance are swallowed by the maw of the earth. What better way to connect the aspirations of the tower to the actuality of the earth (albeit an earth originally 250 miles away in Carrara), while its narrative describes the conquest of a landscape (and people) over a thousand miles away?
Figure 3: Every window of Trajan’s Column. Images: Andrew Riggsby
Like so many other archaeological spaces, the column offers a thick buffer against the harsh light and sound of the contemporary city, although here, rather than descending into the damp must of the historical dig, we instead spiral upward, simultaneously leaving the earth while becoming more aware of its cool, massive solidity. This projection of excavation out of the earth allows for a simultaneity of vision afforded by elevation (the ostensible raison d’etre of the column) and by perforation: it is a tunnel with a view. But the set of windows offers an experience quite different from the aerial one, as the column drum could be understood to operate as a thickened zoetrope, filtering out the gestalt of its context while assembling an animated coral-like aggregation of fragments, vignettes, and details. The overexposed cityscape of contemporary Rome is glimpsed through a radial mineral sponge—the baroque domes of Santa Maria di Loreto and Santissimo Nome di Maria, the turn-of-the-century classicism of the Altare della Patria (Il “Vittoriano”)—as jump cuts framed through the deep marble proscenia.
As the embrasure expands each window aperture from exterior graphic rectangle to capacious wedge of interior space, the pattern of chisel marks highlighted by the oblique light raking across the stone surfaces creates a set of miniature mineral landscapes. As these interior pocket grottos encounter the exterior bas-relief, itself an illustrated narrative of territory and its acquisition, they maneuver themselves into the gaps between soldiers’ bodies, stretching to stand in for a cavalryman’s shield, or morphing into the background of the relief’s vernacular architecture. At other moments, the specific location of a window aperture in relationship to the assembly of the columns’ giant stacked drums creates an intersection of window and seam, one slowly eroding into the next over the millennia. These local “aberrations” produce a set of similarly sized rectangular apertures, each uniquely modified according to its context within the unfolding story of conquest and within the tectonic assembly of the monument—so that an expert scholar of the column could locate his or her exact location within this speculative zoetrope based solely on the signature profile of each window aperture.
Rome itself operates both as a center of fait accompli rational planning celebrated by historians and as a subterranean labyrinth of fluid potentiality. The liquid association here is apt, as the massive earthen heterogeneity of this deeply layered city is in fact due to the walls of Rome operating as a mold into which the Tiber would deposit successive layers of material history, trapping and burying millennia of artifacts of all scales within this urban-scaled “cast.” The hidden spaces of the city—ancient aqueducts and sewers, the thickened double-shelled domes of the baroque, and the secretive spaces of sects and curiae, off-limits to the public—conspire to create an extensive complex of irrational, unknowable spaces equal to those more clearly hierarchically ordered. Trajan’s Column constitutes an appropriate, albeit unintentional, monument to the dual nature of this city—studied, interpreted, and idealized and yet persistently thick, opaque, and massy. While the column’s observation platform surveys and surveils through a rational understanding of territory, its material presence connects us to the less rational underworld extending just below the surface of that very terrain.
Epilogue – Trajan’s Hollow
Figure 8: Trajan’s Hollow, a revision of one drum of the original column. Image: Jason Kwong
This alternate reading of Trajan’s Column was extrapolated from the artifact left to us, existing quite independently of the possible desires of its architect, Appolodorus of Damascus. Trajan’s Hollow, an ongoing project initiated at the American Academy in Rome, attempts to extend this trajectory through a series of intensely material “reproductions” of the column, each exploring an aspect of the above agenda in a way the original could not. If the material of history could be used as a filter through which to reinterpret the current surrounding context, would our understanding of empire and territory shift? Although the “place” of the kingdom of Dacia was obliterated, or at least buried, by the gerrymandering of military and political conquest, misreading Trajan’s Column could introduce a porosity to the Roman notion of imperial space so that it might be infiltrated by the subjective space of the topos. This intense interiority, focused more toward experience than governable dichotomies of inside or outside, might offer a simultaneity of idealized abstractions and specific material events.
Gilbert Hage’s book 242 cm2 (Underexposed Books, 2012) presents twenty-two landscape photographs that were taken in 2006, in the aftermath of the latest Israeli war on Lebanon; each of these photographs is 242 cm2 in area and is titled “242 cm2.” Why did he title each thus? What made him consider that each of these photographs had to be in a one-to-one reproduction ratio in relation to its referent? Did he try to zoom in on them but failed to successfully do so notwithstanding that according to the technical specs of his camera, he should have been able to do it? Whether he tried to or not, one cannot zoom in on such objects—thus they are auratic natural objects!1 While moving away after taking one of these photographs, did Hage have a similar impulse to the one a spectator is likely to feel when having ostensibly concluded looking at Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors (1533) he or she moves away toward the right to leave the room in the National Gallery in London: to turn and look again at the object? Did he yield to the impulse? What would he have seen then if “242 cm2” is a rigorous title of the photograph that is 242 cm2 in area? If he could still at that distance discern the specific “small” piece of land he photographed, and distinguish it from the surrounding ostensibly largely similar landscape, he would have seen that that piece of land would have overlapped part of what was the adjoining area! Toward any of these 242 cm2 zones that Gilbert Hage photographed, one cannot move without either undergoing a lapse of consciousness only to find oneself at the right distance from it, the one from which it would occupy 242 cm2 of one’s field of vision; or becoming entranced, thus concurrently not moving, again since, irrespective of one’s movement, it continues to occupy 242 cm2 of one’s field of vision. As with an anamorphosis, where there is one point of view from which it becomes clear what the anamorphic stain or smudge is, there is a specific distance from which the part-object that is the referent of one of these Hage photographs (themselves part-objects: an image that can only be in a one-to-one reproduction ratio in relation to its referent functions as a part-object) appears to be fully part of the landscape, fitting seamlessly in it: the distance from which it covers exactly 242 cm2 of the field of vision (it is when standing at this distance to that spot that one may naively assume that one has taken a normal photograph in terms of its relation to its referent); at all other distances, it does not fit seamlessly in the landscape to which one has presumed it belongs, but is too small or too big for the relative size one expects it to have, either leaving a blank between it and the surrounding landscape (this blank acts as a frame) or else overlapping part of the latter (this sort of anomaly would have been easier to notice had the photographed area been, say, 10,424 cm2—how lucky Hage happened to be, or how intuitively prudent he was, to have photographed a smaller area!). Is Lebanon bigger than one of these 242 cm2 zones that Hage photographed? It is bigger than one of them from the reference frame of someone close enough to these zones; as one moves away (in trance) from them, while they continue to occupy 242 cm2 of one’s field of vision, the rest of Lebanon appears smaller and smaller, until, past a certain distance, it appears to be as small as and then, as one’s distance to them becomes even larger, smaller than the sum of these 242 cm2 zones that are ostensibly part of it, and then, as one’s distance to it becomes still larger, smaller than a single one of these 242 cm2 zones. Indeed, from a certain distance, Lebanon, with its 10,424 square kilometers, about which Lebanese nationalists (chief among them Bachir Gemayel, the one-time commander of the Lebanese Forces militia, who was imposed as president of Lebanon by the Israeli occupation forces only to be assassinated three weeks into his term) stood their ground and stuck to their guns, would look tinier than the various 242 cm2 zones Hage photographed in that country, since these maintain their size of 242 cm2 in the field of vision from any distance. I would term the referents of these Hage photos icons. Hence I consider that one would be well advised to look for icons in Lebanon less, if at all, in that country’s many Orthodox churches than in the referents of the photographs of Gilbert Hage’s book 242 cm2. Hage’s “242 cm2” photographs are indexical representations of icons, but they are not themselves icons2 (for the photographs of these 242 cm2 zones to prove to be themselves icons, they have to continue to occupy 242 cm2 of the field of vision irrespective of one’s movement toward or away from them; this is not the case with Hage’s photographs). Hage’s photographs of these 242 cm2 zones are far more deserving of becoming iconic, this time in the sense of “very famous and well known, and believed to represent a particular idea” (Macmillan Dictionary), than such frequently photographed and filmed touristic attractions as Raouche’s Pigeons’ Rock in Beirut and the cedars in Lebanon and on the Lebanese flag.
One can find Gilbert Hage’s book here at the artist’s website.
1. A line in my book What Were You Thinking? (Berlin: Berliner Künstlerprogramm/DAAD, 2011) appears to imply that black holes and their event horizons from the reference frame of an outside observer are the only natural objects that have aura: “If there is a natural object that has aura, it is the black hole and its event horizon from the reference frame of an outside observer” (pp. 27–28).
2. Were the referent of one of these 242 cm2 photos titled “242 cm2” to be filmed, the filmmaker has to specify on which screening format (for example the huge screen of an IMAX theater, a large TV screen or a small computer screen) it is to be shown exclusively or make different versions for the various screening formats so that the image of the object continues to be 242 cm2.
A Place for A Rose
Photograph by Frank J. Thomas, Pasadena Art Museum, 1969
In 1958, Jay DeFeo began work on The Rose. It is a monumental work of art that explodes from its center, evoking a feeling of deep time within a palpable present. Said to embody the entire history of art, beginning with the first bang of inspiration, the painting was originally called the The Death Rose, then The White Rose, and finally The Rose. While many of DeFeo’s works are part of a series, a triptych, or a pair, The Rose stands alone, embodying successive forms and evolving visions.
With a passion equal to religious fanaticism, DeFeo threw herself into the creation of The Rose, transfiguring herself and her environment through the practice of making. More than just a final product, The Rose exemplifies a manner of creation. In an oral history she gave in the 1970s, DeFeo is quoted as saying, “…when I started The Rose, I had no notion of the rose about it. The title came later. It was just a painting. All I knew about it was that it was going to have a center.”1
The central locus of The Rose served not only to anchor the painting itself but also the activity around it. In artwork by fellow artists in San Francisco at the time—Bruce Conner, Wallace Berman, and DeFeo’s husband, Wally Hedrick—The Rose appears as a constant backdrop to the events that unfolded in DeFeo and Hedrick’s apartment and the nearby gallery they ran called Six Gallery. In photos taken by friends, The Rose even acts as a second presence, another figure in the room with its own depth and emotion.
The painting itself is three dimensional and massive. The final version measures in at 128 7/8 x 92 1/4 x 11 inches and weighs close to a ton. It was built up over eight years through the continual application, removal, and reapplication of layers and layers of paint, until not only the canvas was completely covered, but areas of the walls and floors of the apartment as well. A small yellow piece of company stationary, from the local paint shop from which DeFeo bought her industrial grade paint, estimated that DeFeo purchased over five thousand dollars worth of white paint alone.2 It was the lead in that white paint that is sometimes blamed for the physical and psychological problems that afflicted DeFeo after she stopped working on The Rose.
Three trends define DeFeo’s art practice: it is personal; it shows the struggle of its creation; and it is fractured. All of these are present in the The Rose. But unlike some of her other works, The Rose grounds itself in its strong center. Like a photosensitive canvas for feelings, the painting captures the sentiment and history of DeFeo and the world around her, her own personal narrative becoming tangled up in the long history of the painting itself. The final iteration of The Rose is almost bulbous, as if the canvas is overburdened and needs to expunge some great desire or expression beyond the constraints of its surface, to push the envelope so to speak. In his essay, “Jay DeFeo: The Transcendental Rose,” Robert Berg suggests that we can see The Rose as a giant womb, pregnant with life and creation, a being about to be born. Despite its emotionally laden form, its representation was borne out of an almost technical act of creation: emotions and passions were applied, with the paint, to each successive layer simply through the passage of time connected to a daily practice of working on the canvas.
Scholarship on DeFeo’s work occasionally focuses on her status as a woman during the Beat Era or the religious undertones of her work. More common however, are the discussions that highlight her personal struggles after the completion of The Rose, as she endeavored to find a museum to purchase the painting after its removal from her Fillmore Street apartment in San Francisco. Had DeFeo been able to finish The Rose in time for the 1959/60 MOMA show, Sixteen Americans, her career might have taken off and her story might have been quite different. DeFeo could have nurtured a career in New York, traveling to museum openings and making new works of art, but that would have taken her away from her work on The Rose, which she wanted to finish before starting anything new.
Viewing The Rose next to photos of its earlier iterations, the final version seems to lack some of the vigor and vibrancy that permeated earlier incarnations. Rather than pregnant, it looks bloated, sagging in the middle. Rather than taking its final form as a completed piece, the moment in which the piece was finally finished, we can instead understand it as simply a place to stop, the last pass of many successive passes. When Hedrick and DeFeo were evicted from their apartment, the space to continue working on The Rose was simply no longer available, and the conditions that allowed for DeFeo’s eight years of focused practice on a single painting disappeared along with it.
Place, and more specifically, the centering of her art practice in long hours of work and the space of her apartment, was crucial to the creation of The Rose. Installed in the bay window of DeFeo’s Fillmore flat, the canvas was expanded early on, after which it filled the entire area of the bay window. The side lighting created by the placement of the canvas proved essential to how the painting developed and was appreciated. Museums that exhibit the piece today sometimes attempt to recreate the effects of that side lighting within the gallery. In order to remove The Rose from the Fillmore apartment, a section underneath the bay window had to be removed as well. In a short film Bruce Conner made of the day The Rose was removed, “The White Rose” (1967), one of the final images is of DeFeo sitting in the hole left by the removal of the giant canvas. Next to her is one of the old and dead Christmas trees that DeFeo collected, marking (or filling) the void left by the sudden removal of the painting.
Following DeFeo’s eviction, it was years before a new home was found for The Rose. It travelled first to Southern California, and then back to San Francisco, before making its way to New York. It was stored in obscure gallery spaces and even behind a false-wall in a conference room of the San Francisco Art Institute. Only years later did the Whitney Museum finally conserve and then acquire the painting.
There is something poignant about The Rose’s need for a home. In the numerous letters Jay DeFeo wrote to curators and art critics in the hope of finding a place for her masterpiece, the desperation is almost palpable.3 Where The Rose had first been a site for inspiration and artistic practice, it later became a burden. Unable to continue working on it, DeFeo was determined to find a place for it, perhaps as a means for letting it go.
DeFeo’s letters also express a feeling of dislocation in her own life as she struggled to ground her practice after years of focused attention on a single painting. In a series of letters DeFeo wrote to Bruce Conner, the well known artist and DeFeo’ close friend and colleague, she explains how her later works were hampered by the confined spaces of her living situation; walls got in the way of the big canvas she wanted to make.
Tracing some of the trajectories of DeFeo’s work through representations by the artists who knew her reveals the centrality of place in DeFeo’s work, and perhaps nowhere as much as with The Rose. This offers a kind of counter narrative to the constant roving that is so endemic of the Beat generation’s search for truth. Rather than looking here and there, DeFeo simply dove right into the intense labor of the right here, right now. It was a process highly dependent on place and a routine made possible only by returning to the same spot and the same canvas day after day.
The proximity of other artists in the area around her Fillmore apartment meant that DeFeo could, even from her spot in front of her painting, engage in a vibrant community of art practitioners. Not far from their apartment, DeFeo’s husband, Wally Hedrick, ran the famous Six Gallery. It was in the Six Gallery that Ginsberg first publicly read his poem “Howl.” DeFeo invited her friends and colleagues into her studio, and they, in turn, drew inspiration from her work and creativity. The results of these exchanges now make up part of the oeuvres of Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, and Wally Hedrick, all of whom have works that feature DeFeo and The Rose, often in relationship to one another.
In a set of photos by Wallace Berman, DeFeo is shown in front of an early stage of The Rose. The underlying cruciform of the painting is much more apparent than in later versions, mirrored in Berman’s photo by DeFeo’s own outstretched body. Because the light is not centered on DeFeo’s heart but at her head, The Rose also reads as a halo, an expansion from her mind, rather than her heart. Rather than fusing DeFeo and The Rose, Berman’s photo puts them into relation with one another, at times mirroring, at times embracing, depending on whether DeFeo is facing toward or away from The Rose.
There is another famous and poignant image of DeFeo and The Rose, this time captured by Bruce Conner in his film, “The White Rose,” mentioned above. The painting and the section below the bay window have just been removed and the canvas laid on the ground. Once the canvas had been covered with material to protect it for transport, DeFeo laid on top of it. The shot feels like a private moment just before the painting is taken away and suggests another reading of The Rose: a kind of death image. In a eulogy written for DeFeo in 1994, Bruce Conner wrote: “[The Rose] was a masterpiece of spirit and transformation that almost destroyed [DeFeo] through lead poisoning and its dominance over her relationship to the conscious world.” The destructive process of DeFeo’s work is also what gives The Rose its vitality. The process of revisiting the same objects again and again, in new media, with new light, of tearing things apart and then putting them back together again, suggests a kind of seeing and bringing things into being that is dynamic, destructive, and regenerative.
DeFeo is quoted as saying that you cannot understand her work except in its totality.4 In other words, it is not in any one image that we can find the artistic center of DeFeo’s oeuvre; rather it is in the space between them, within the place of her practice. To give expression to the intangible space that unites DeFeo’s work, during the showing of the Whitney Museum’s retrospective of Jay DeFeo at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2012), a famous drawing DeFeo made of her own eyes was placed across the gallery space from The Rose. The tension between the two pieces in the exhibit hall was palpable. The eyes are huge, and were made before she began work on The Rose. Visitors to the gallery were thus caught between the processes of seeing and making; the eyes of one canvas big enough to envisage the magnificence of the other. DeFeo’s work is precisely in the ether of the creative process, in the space between projects. The Rose, today, is just a frozen moment of a much longer practice of artistic creation.
Returning again to the work of Bruce Conner and his film “The White Rose,” several shots are dedicated to the footstool DeFeo sat on while working on The Rose. In the film, the footstool is the only furniture in the room. Caught in the light coming in through the windows on either side of The Rose, the scene looks as if it is from some bygone era; rustic, diminutive, and unchanging. As the camera moves closer to the footstool, we can see that it is caked with paint, remnants of the long hours spent working there. The small footstool looks weathered, and it is easy to imagine DeFeo returning to the spot marked by that seat, night and day, to work. In a 1994 essay about Jay DeFeo, Bruce Conner writes:
I asked for, and received, the footstool [DeFeo] used when painting the ROSE for seven years. She attached a note to the footstool. It said: For Bruce
(“we are not what
It is a final declaration of the importance of place at the heart of Jay DeFeo’s art practice, of the long hours painting, sitting, entering, and feeling center.
1. Quote taken the Oral History Interview of Jay DeFeo conducted by Paul Karlstrom; Session 3: January 23, 1976. Smithsonian Institute. Copied here from The Jay DeFeo Trust website: http://www.jaydefeo.org/therose.html#img/therose1_full.jpg.
2. Bancroft Library holdings: Bruce Connor collection.
3. These letters can be found in the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, within the holdings of Bruce Connors correspondences concerning Jay DeFeo’s “The Rose,” circa 1930-1996.
4. Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective. Whitney Museum exhibition on show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA), 2012.
5. 1994 essay on DeFeo [Became the text for the Kohn Turner Gallery Announcement of a show for Jay DeFeo “Drawings and Photo Collages from the 1970s.” The outside image being of the tripod].
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