A Manifesto for Discomfortable Writing

(Outside, glorious illusions) – An Antena Collaboration









 

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.

Sources

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.

necessity, immensity, and crisis (many edges/seeing things)

There’s a more than critical criticism that’s like seeing things—a gift of having been given to love things and how things look and how and what things see. It’s not that you don’t see crisis—cell blocks made out of the general meadow, and all the luxurious destitution and ge(n)ocidal meanness, the theft of beauty and water, the policing of everyday people and their everyday chances. It’s just that all this always seems so small and contingent against the inescapable backdrop of constant escape—which is the other crisis, that is before the first crisis, calling it into being and question. The ones who stay in that running away study and celebrate its violently ludic authenticity, the historicity that sends us into the old-new division and collection of words and sets, passing on and through, as incessant staging and preparation. This necessity and immensity of the alternative surrounds and aerates the contained, contingent fixity of the standard.

The alternative, and the ones who stand (in) for it, can only be defended in what Mario Pedrosá calls its “experimental exercise,” which happens everyday, and in the recognition of its exercise, which is what I think Marx refers to when he speaks, in “Communism and Private Property,” of the everyday engagement in criticism that is an essential part of a communist way of life, and which sometimes he more than critically enacts when he engages in critique, in the elaboration of a general theory of crisis, and in the urgent address of specific instances of crisis. Questions concerning the theory and actuality of crisis are no less urgent now because crisis is always with us. Seeing things doesn’t hide the crisis that critique discloses; rather, it locates it more precisely, within a general tendency for upheaval that it constitutes. 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.

The crisis of deprivation on a global scale is a function of policing that responds to a global ecologic of generation that regulative power brutally (mis)understands as a crisis of law. This is to say that crisis is not only a function of policing but that it has a policing function; it is also to say that crisis is ongoing, generative resistance to the regulation, the policing, that it generates. This poor description of the interplay of policing and crisis is trying reverently to disclose a reversal that already animates Policing the Crisis, the classic attendance of Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts to the range and force of the generative social and aesthetic upheaval of the alternative in England since World War II. Hall and his fellows analyze the ideological manufacture of crisis as a mode of interpretive regulation. The racialization of already extant criminal activity allows its epidermalized “novelty” to be interpreted as crisis. But the criminalization of that activity, in its relation to the normalization of modes of propriation whose brutality and scale dwarf any and every instance of “mugging,” is the real problem because, in the end, it was never about this or that instance or collection of instances of law breaking; it was, rather, about the social self-defense of jurisgenerative capacity of which mugging can be said to be a particular manifestation, noteworthy not because of its brutality or venality or degeneracy but only because its enactment of self-defense through (re)propriative acts are susceptible to a condition in which they reinforce the brutal axioms of ownership and exception.

Criticism, the capacity to see things in their branching and unfolding and generative differentiation, attends to generation while critique, as Marx deploys it, attends to the regulation and policing of generation and while degenerate critique, which seems to be deployed today almost everywhere in the normal human sciences, is driven by its own implicit claims of national identity or political subjectivity that have themselves been made subject to a force, and been understood by way of a logic, of degeneration implying a mystery of loss and of what was lost. Here’s where the neoliberal lament regarding “the crisis of democracy” (which was, according to Samuel Huntington and his fellows, a function of there being too much democracy) can be understood as the animating trace of certain folks, claiming to be on the left, whose lament of the current loss of “our democracy” is driven by nostalgic fantasies of a democracy that supposedly was held within the structure of, rather than resistance to, American exclusion. It’s not coincidence that this convenient repression of American exclusion is usually accompanied by an assertion of American exception which either takes the form of an invocation of “our” best intentions or, more pragmatically, as the assertion of a right to do just about anything in the name of national defense, whose complete detachment from imperial aggression is sanctioned by the serial invocation of crisis.

When people respond to the suppression of the alternative—and Hall and his fellows brilliantly illuminate how state interpretation of the alternative as crisis is a fundamental element of that suppression—the word riot is deployed in order to augment that suppression; but when suppression of the alternative is more (im)properly understood as a response to the alternative it also becomes possible to understand that with regard to the insistent previousness of the alternative it is more accurate to say, over Sly Stone’s growl or Joe Strummer’s sneer, that there is, and already has been, a riot going on. This is about the anoriginary force of tumultuous derangement, a generative sociopoesis given in and as everyday sensuality. To rise to the defense of this sacred, ordinary, generative violence—to protect it from the ongoing murder—is often to risk a kind of appropriation of the very propriative force one seeks to combat with an otherwise animating fugitivity. Such uprising can take the form of burnin’ and lootin’ but, even more easily, such appropriation can take the form of a critical account of the justificatory causes of burnin’ and lootin’. Meanwhile, what always remains or, more precisely, what must be understood as the irreducible remainder that animates such physical acts as well as such critical accounts, are everyday and everynight things. It’s not about the looting of loot or the assault of persons who take shape as shops and wares, or about the insurgents’ loss of or exclusion from citizenship or belonging that supposedly makes the former inevitable; it is, rather, all about insurgence as the performative declaration of what we are and what we have and what we give. Put another way, the seemingly infinite production of crisis finds its limit in the infinite rehearsal of generative capacity, in the open field of a generative grammar, in the fecundity of a range of generative principles, all of which reveal the sclerotic constraints that are fostered by an empiricist attitude whose structuring force in the determination of Anglo-American intellectual identity can be traced back to a certain valorization of the grasp, and the philosophical nomination of the possessive individual to the office of manager of the enclosure, by way of the bloody fingerprints of a transcendental subject who is unable or unwilling to see things but who can neither let things go nor pass things on.

The riot that’s goin’ on is a party for self-defense. The question concerning its causes, its sources, shouldn’t be left to liberal or neoliberal pundits and prime ministers, even when their more or less racist and ageist elitism leads them to say, with a kind of ignorant and imprecise accuracy, that the causes are cultural. What they don’t mean is that culture is the imprecise word we give to regenerative resources of insurgent social life. There’s another way of living that exhausts imposed arrangements. It’s where and how people fight. When seemingly random and unorganized acts of self-defense erupt against the violence of the state and capital, the only important question is how to maintain their connection to the social field they are meant to defend. This is a question concerning the corrosive, reconstructive force of certain practices that Michael Herzfeld thinks of in terms of “cultural intimacy—the recognition of those aspects of a cultural identity that are considered a source of external embarrassment but that nevertheless provide insiders with their assurance of common sociality, the familiarity with the bases of power that may at one moment assure the disenfranchised a degree of creative irreverence and at the next moment reinforce the effectiveness of intimidation.” But what if we begin to consider, against the grain and over the edge of whatever combination of the critique of authenticity and the appeal to upright, paralytic sovereign recitations of the citizen consumer, that the social poetics Herzfeld is after is an undercommon intellectual project that begins to emerge precisely when the distinction between insiders and outsiders breaks down, when a certain kind of communal claim is made in a certain kind of walking down certain city streets, and when that claim is given in and as an active disruption of the nation-state, in and as a kind of masque in which the very habits of the damned are taken on and, thereby, altered in their free, constant and already given alteration. Meanwhile, we confront the emergence of new black acts—of the kind E. P. Thompson describes in Whigs and Hunters—now outlawing autonomous cybersocial organization for self-defense emerge under the self-regulating cover of the ones who internalize the embarrassment they refuse, the generativity non-citizens claim.

The notion that crisis lies in the ever more brutal interdiction of our capacity to represent or be represented by the normal is as seductive, in its way, as the notion that such interdiction is the necessary response to our incapacity for such representation. Their joint power is held in the fact that whether abnormality is a function of external imposition or of internal malady it can only be understood as pathological. Such power is put in its accidental place, however, by the ones who see, who imaginatively misunderstand, the crisis as our constant disruption of the normal, whose honor is given in and protected by its representations, with the ante-representational generativity that it spurns and craves. This is the crisis that is always with us; this is the crisis that must be policed not just by the lethal physical brutality of the state and capital but also by the equally deadly production of a discourse that serially asserts that the crisis that has befallen us must overwhelm the crisis that we are; that crisis follows rather than prompts our incorporative exclusion.

There’s a connection between poetry and violence that Amiri Baraka, among others, began to explore by way of these terms and which now needs to be re-explored in the full awareness that Baraka’s movement extended, rather than disavowed, that antinomian opening of the field that can be traced back through Charles Olson and Sun Ra, Emily Dickinson and Harriet Jacobs, Anne Hutchinson and Tituba, and beyond. The poetics of the open field, especially when performed in the narrow cell, was always tied to the sociopoetics of riot, of generative differentiation as a kind of self-care, of expropriative disruption as a kind of self-defense, of seeing things as a performed social theory of mind. Baraka took it out, and sometimes tried to take it home, which drove it through him and even further out, in the name of an enformant poetics, spreading the news and the new in the giving and taking of form, as lemons, and people, piled on steps, disarrayed inappropriately against every propriative and counter-propriative intention that claims to have put them there. We still enact, because we desire and cannot live without, the immense poetry of war, by which Wallace Stevens meant and didn’t mean a poetics of social pregnancy, the international, anti-national embarrassment of seeing things and making things. The poetics of the alternative is funereal and venereal, surviving in denotative self-defense and the righteous distortions it enacts in rough advent. There’s a This is England poetics, a Luv ‘n Haight poetics, miving without moving in and against the brutal smallness of imposed needs and nationalized histories with the kind of out lyricism that only comes from being constrained to be somewhere else, that will have already come from the other side to keep on going, that had already come with those of us who are the other things we see.

8.19.11

 

Seat Assignment

Improvising with materials close at hand, Seat Assignment consists of photographs, video, and digital images all made while in flight using only a camera phone. The project began spontaneously on a flight in March 2010 and is ongoing. At present, over 2500 photographs and video, made on more than 40 different flights, constitute the raw material of my project.

While in the lavatory on a domestic flight in March 2010, I spontaneously put a tissue paper toilet cover seat cover over my head and took a picture in the mirror. The image evoked 15th-century Flemish portraiture. I decided to add more images made in this mode and a few months ago I decided to take advantage of a long-haul flight from San Francisco to Auckland, guessing that there were likely to be long periods of time when no one was using the lavatory on the 14-hour flight. I made several forays to the bathroom from my aisle seat, and by the time we landed I had a large group of new photographs entitled Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style. I was wearing a thin black scarf that I sometimes hung up on the wall behind me to create the deep black ground that is typical of these portraits. There is no special illumination in use other than the lavatory’s own lights and all the images are shot hand-held with the camera phone.

From the outset, I’ve been aware that what motivates Seat Assignment is the challenge of trying to make under circumstances that seemingly lack any richness or potential. Much of my work stems from the mundane and the everyday, and from my optimism that there is always more of interest around us than we think. What can I make under such constraints? Is there really always more than meets the eye? What kind of immensity can be born of necessity, within this framework? But the longer I work on Seat Assignment, the more I realize it’s also a response to the pairing of anxiety and wonderment that underpin the very experience of flying: one part of the mind swept away in the time travel fantasy of the situation (I can become 15th-century Flemish in a 21st-century lavatory as I teleport from coast to coast!), the other part thinking, as I take my seat, “These could be the 200 people that I’m going to die together with.” In that sense, this project is also born of necessity: making is a necessary response that keeps at bay too many thoughts of the immensity of what is beyond the plane, beyond the seat I sit in, and beyond myself.

 

Sun and Necessity

Sun, o sun, roaring day and night, is it you who sucks the wind into the trees at dawn as you rise, etc.? The sun is moving time, burning in the sky. With its gravitational pull it drags the past into its flames. But there’s a countervailing force by which the light escapes. The past is cast into the present, which draws it in and then has to figure out what to do with it. Innumerable futures, all uncontained, each capable of reconfiguring the world, none fully imaginable, remain possible. The plum blossoms are out. I’m waiting for a sound, and it comes, almost immediately: a whistle, four notes of some melody. It’s audible through a moment of relative silence between the cranking and crashing of the garbage collectors at work, whistled by one of them. To exist at a micro level, drawing and drawn to the bark of the plum tree and its shadow, thrown by the early morning light, and to metamorphic rocks and anti colonies and salt and a thistle and shingles and complex social life of an urban neighborhood, and to do so freely, uncategorized as a human: this might be a description of an incipient condition—beginning (by synthesizing)—or of a late one. There’s a vague, perhaps tragic, undertow, but its effects are less alarming than amusing—discomfiture, or embarrassment, or the pleasure of a successful joke. “‘What regiment is your son with?’ a lady was asked. She replied: ‘With the 42nd Murderers’ [‘Mörder’—instead of ‘Mörser,’ ‘Mortars’].”1 Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life is a book about bumbling, an unfolding comedy of errors—or a tragicomedy, perhaps: in its anecdotes, confessions, and analyses we can discern bits of a fragmented tragedy, awkwardly encountered by the book’s diverse personnae, or just barely avoided, with further experience of it merely deferred. “I entered a house and offered my right hand to my hostess. In a most curious way I contrived in doing so to undo the bow that held her loose morning-gown together.”2 Standards of respectability are irrelevant to the creative process. Leo X. Lee leans against the right fender of the old Toyota and absent-mindedly begins scratching a face into the worn burgundy paint with the car key. It follows the contours of a pock mark in the fender and the faded color around it. Russell Wright has the hood up and is trying to angle a wrench into place behind the radiator. Leo pockets the key. “You resent having to fix cars when you ought to be practicing?” “Machines. Music. You got to have different centers of gravity.” Russell Wright gives a laugh. “Guess that’s my woman problem, though.” “What’s going on with Rosa-Jane?” “I try to see her regularly. I feel sort of responsible.” Russell Wright likes to play around with words, he likes suffixes. “Profligate, prolific, productive, professional—might be a lot of connections,” he says. “Pro-vincial—that’s what we’re gonna be if we can’t get gigs outside of Oakland,” says Leo. Russell Wright closes the hood and steps back. “Okay then.” Leo drops Russell off at 49th Street and drives downtown to the Oakland MAP. The sun burns to excess. It is not simply causative, it produces (as Elizabeth Grosz says of chance) a “superfluity…of causes, the profusion of causes, which no longer produces singular or even complex effects but generates events, which have a temporal continuity quite separate from that of their ‘causes.’”3 Along with forces of causation come forces of attraction. They pull and complicate. Love and hate, which seem so often products of chance rather than intention, are really only false simplifiers (even as it is false to simplify them). The sun draws life out. It’s the first day of March. The plum trees are in bloom along the edge of the parking lot. The sun is an attractor, as is the shade. Chance adds to the world’s array of attractors, novelty rearranges the social centers of gravity. The dialectical turbulence and flow in which intentionality and the unpredictable, plans of action and the inadvertent and contingent and unprecedented, displace one another are what keep the future open. Statewide protest rallies are planned for March 4: “March Forth on March Fourth” say the posters and flyers that students and union workers have been distributing. Just as quickly as they are pasted or pinned or taped or stapled to telephone poles and walls and bulletin boards and fences on the university campus, the campus police tear them down. Meanwhile, casual acts of passive resistance make use of anti-gravitational forces to make their case and effect their goal. “Not to notice the accoutrements of […] power, not even to glance at the royal robes, not to bother to look at the king—to glance away from these matters of state—is to begin to undo their hold….”4 “I get that,” Flip says. “But the Oakland MAP going to be marching forth, that be right.” “Okay then.” Leo X. Lee plays an A. “Let’s have discord,” he says. Leo X. Lee is nervous. “As usual,” says QJ. Leo plays the A again. “Flip—A flat.” “Where?” “G string.” Flip looks at the guitar neck and then plucks the note. “Okay—Matthew, B flat and Carlotta, you play a B. Flip, another A flat and sustain it this time. On 4.” Leo waves jabs his right forefinger into the air and on the fourth beat the chord resounds. “Shit,” says QJ. “Okay. Now stick to that one tone, but move it around—play the pitch wherever you can find it on your instrument. Make it rock. And after a minute or so, QJ, you come in—high hat only.” “That chord is fuckin’ meta,” says Diego as he walks out of the room. The goal-oriented impulse in humans is destined never to be fulfilled. Or, rather, it is already fulfilled, but humans tend not to know this. As Nietzsche says, “[I]n the end there is no goal; we are always already at it. The fulfilled moment does not lie in the future, but is always there already…. Life does not follow the principle of linear accumulation and progressive enhancement, but instead revolves in a cycle of expiring and expanding. … For this reason, life is always already at its goal or remains equally remote from it, which ultimately amounts to one and the same thing.”5 Yes, but one has to make this into more than vulgar fatalism’s account of the human condition or stoicism’s call to resignation. A pedestrian—a girl in a gray hoodie and short skirt—appears just one event (say a skateboarding boy leaps over a log, robs a bird’s nest of an egg while still afloat over his board, hits the board again on his right foot, and kicks a cop in the balls with his left) prior to her turning into the narrow allow that leads from the parking lot to College Avenue. Everyday life isn’t a gap in the real, it’s not a dead zone in the arena of power. Familiar narratives go largely unnoticed, something that people inhabit for varying lengths of time or that they pass through like circus clowns chasing each other into the tent, under the trapeze, and around the rings until they come on the lions and bolt. The pull of something carnivalesque converges with the pull of commerce. In the process a glitch has arisen in the operating system along the western side of sidewalk. A crowd blocks the way. The amblers, the lunch-hour hospital technicians turning into Café Roma, the neighborhood residents picking up cleaning from C & C, the people hurrying somewhere north or south with their eyes to the ground, the panhandlers (selling copies of the Quaker tabloid Street Spirit for $1 each or selling nothing but their own pathos), all more or less unconsciously aware of each other, all maintaining a modicum of safety and civility so that they can move along and not stumble or collide. But in front of Ici, whose interior is badly laid out and too small for the number of clients its expensive, “hand-crafted” ice cream attracts, a crowd collects, forming a line that clogs the narrow sidewalk. Pedestrians are forced to step into the traffic-congested street, ducking around parked cars, and avoiding passing ones—a white PT Cruiser, a blue Honda civic, several gray cars, a burgundy Prius, a red sports car—and a pick up truck, a brown UPS truck, an alternatingly sighing and grumbling city bus sounding as disgruntled as I (selfishly, or, worse, self-righteously) feel having to make my way through or around the crowd of people waiting for ice cream and completely indifferent to pedestrians’ attempts to get by. Everyday life swirls around absorptive narratives of no great interest whose importance and meaning and even genius are to be found in their for the most part trivial details. Saint Augustine regarded time as a theological perplexity; Shakespeare (and of course myriad other poets, humanists, and artists) considered it a problem for beauty and for the individual in relation to the pull of his or her ultimate mortality.

S T O R M

STORM CENTURY TURNING IN A CITY

The snow having just fallen he thought of how easily we move into these cities, some other century, and call it the same moral string: the poverty, the gaslight, the showcase, the admonitions, the sleep.  Sitting on the purple-hearted chairs and tables one looks out on the snow shelving bicycles and televisions.  Sees another person quietly fall.  The polish family upstairs is running a daycare in their two-bedroom apartment and there are children who have no respect for the sky.  She thought of herself as the black draw of a new moon and he said these entitlements are strangling growth.  She thought of herself as a child stenographer but grew frustrated with the men who thought it a sign of vitality to never speak still.  If I can stand why can’t these prisoners.   If I can walk why can’t these cripples face up to the miracle.  He says I am tired of these new-to-the-city stories because they disguise something much more severe, self-destructive, rifling the background of laughter.  She liked the sound of rebel but felt it lost force and sentience in the jungle where it had hidden out for years.  The plumber may come tomorrow.  She takes to putting on private plays and to going to the theater.  Something changes in him and she tries to point to it by reading shorter stories out loud in the living room where they sleep.  It takes him two days to get across the room to where she was standing and by then only a pale honesty remained without the wrought, beautiful grain of judgment.  Fed on debt and the dead time they have created, we are left to be exceptions.  As a clerk, his lateness is constant but varies each day and he prefers not to speak, for himself.  Fallen in the promised snow he is just not the man he wanted his blood to speak.  Shake your last-time look, young man or you will be another century’s socket.  See me now so I can trust you with this money.

 

STORM COMING TO MEET YOU

Unbearable is every start towards you.  The things I would have said.  Sand with a dull knife carve, pounding shores and the millions of lips raised in the retreat.  The things I would have said live on and we must feed them with unfocused eyes, lights bleeding.  Cerro Rico is a hollow mountain that is hollow because its veins are dry once glittering with moon harvest and the mercury trembling within their limbs when they returned home to the unborn.  A good strong back is good enough for a few years in the mines and then they wonder off into the rubber trees, filled their stomachs with dirt.  I have found myself into someone else’s pain once again: sugar canes, salt planes, and asthmatic dressings of gauze.  Losing skin the lepers hurt like air leaving.  You were a doctor but couldn’t heal the bottlenecked atriums in your lungs.  Your name translates roughly into hey, listen, man.  Put your face on the walls of our libraries.  Barthes said to be a lover is to desire affirmation.  When I got out of work and came to meet you were already a woman underground.  What do I know about your own private contortions and these sturdy northern legs built out of the silver they hauled in blessed hulls to the no-land.  Hidden under guns I can tell you there were the ghost seeds of orchids.  Wild oats.  Our veins glow through the long sleep of our skin.

 

STORM AS MEDICAL EXPERIMENT

It has recently been acknowledged by the US state department that sanctioned experiments were carried out between prostitutes and inmates which involved syphilis and penicillin and the risky and unethical behavior of what might turn out where pangea was stretched and blown like a glass tulip stem in cloud fire.  Have I made this more beautiful, she said to the qui’che prisoner, who was only too happy to be close to a woman in the dark.  Who was only too happy to see his wife the next day among the mestizo guards and explain how well this new treatment was working.  When we work the distance we make it into art.  When we keep the distance we call it health.  The afternoon rains wrestled with the raccoons in the roofs, bent metal into standing voices.  The guards go on strike because they are asked to live like prisoners in the breed pools.  Unfortunate, really, how beautiful this splitting jungle has become.  She left while the children were sleeping.  The dirt floor is a palm.  Pressure front are these tremors of a host, waves building off shore.  When he came back, he brought me pansies, which he said were once known as love-in-idleness.

 

STORM OF SPRING AT INDIAN ROCK

I am paying myself out in storms.  Cool air come into the open kitchen where our feet were bare and overlapping.  But why do I spend so much time thinking of your return, as a full voice on the phone, or, even more, as a nightfallen heart beating within the cautious range of my hand.  You cultivate what you hide and then hide yourself.  How would you know that I am just a fragile line in the real?  I wonder if spring is love for you in this twisted garden of air or is it just gold pollen on lips.  We made it this far but the rush is nowhere going.  So I try to stay taut, to keep bending my line into war, as if strength were enough to match the blood in the world.  And when we are alone, do we take this time to find some middle way between the betrayals of democracy, magic, and revolutionary vanguard?  What now can I use to reinvent myself and why do I keep writing about the same bare scraps lying about when young mothers cover their faces with rubble, fear the long clutch of adoption.  Tell the children the truth.  Maybe these heartwilds have all been solipsistic, apostrophes for waiting out a bitter, contestable love.  Dream with me.  The mind must declare itself.  Forget your commissions, reconciliation is truth as it burns into the long blind pauses of an interview: unending and unappropriable.  The pursuit of it begins us again in the nights where no one can find us calling out our difference from the day.  You tell me what comedy of years, a traveling circus or spaghetti meal on highwire.  The fool is hurt life on a stem, a bright vagabond against the snowy mountains.  By the time we make it to the square the undercover men hurling rocks from horses disappear into the crowd.  A voice holds open the ground.

 

STORM WHAT LILY SAYS

What grows in these parts of you.  So much time you spend writing your poetry, runs in the hills.  On a post: learn how to protect your home from wild embers.  Boxing, he says, is a misunderstanding of the world’s antagonisms.  Poverty sharing blows with poverty.  O, dear.  I don’t care for boxing and try to interrupt your pronouncements with little words.  How can the ocean look so hard at a distance.  I want to spend my life.  Faraway, but contiguous.  There is this fear of taking on your persuasions, sympathies I cannot bear.  I watch as you look down at the canyon wall full of manzanitas, lichen, and dried thistles and give in to an eroding tumble and crawl, crashing through someone’s property.  I will not follow.  You fall into a flock of hooks.  How will you get out.  Later, in the shower, you will rinse off the blood, reliving the brambles hanging thin hot lines.  A barbarousness.  Your legs will sing uncovered while we boil water and try to sort out the train horns from the barges in the bay, talking Etta’s love that has come along.  At last.  The night where I looked into you.

 

STORM ARE YOU THE MOMENTUM

I ask because I feel more vulnerable than ever to history these days.  Everyone says I am doing the best I can.  Every morning it is a sick frenzy reading articles in bastard news, rifling for small details of struggle amidst the cruel entertainment.  Mr. Mayor, what do you know about violence?  Shock treatment.  Infertilization.  One in four on the bathroom stall, a rape.  Close the doors, raise money to keep the talent.  Shut it down.  My body is the best comment on the world.  People say go where the momentum is.  You don’t have to wait until you die.  I used to envy a close friend who moved to Italy because she hated the falseness and cruelty of America, fell in love with a shipbuilder, and lived off the romance for a couple years.  The fatigue set in and he convinced her other people should be involved.  She stayed home when he left for weeks and began losing her hair.  I told her there is no other country.  I asked her if she still knew of winter music, the kind made by hot air forcing itself through pipes and organs.  And now, these drums in public parks.  Miniature cities with hospitals, libraries of moonlight.  Enough to feed them.

 


 

 

From Lafayette to Tahrir Square

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

William Carlos Williams, Asphodel, That Greeny Flower>

 

I wanted to stay on Pennsylvania Avenue. I wanted that proximity. My first night in DC, I walked the three blocks from my hotel to the White House and stood outside. Everything glowed. I was surprised that I could walk all the way up to the fence. That I could loiter. Behind me there were protestors. I wondered if there were always protestors. Tonight, February 2, 2011,  it was a protest in support of Egypt. There were police on horseback standing behind the protestors. It was the White House, me, the protestors, and then the police. The order surprised me.

I spent much of the night watching the news. I don’t have a television at home, but put me in a hotel room and I’ll go wild for it. Everything’s different on television. People look different. Products look different. And the news is a show. I tried to find the local news to hear about the protest a few blocks away, but maybe there isn’t local news in DC. Maybe national news is local news. International news is local news. So I watched CNN, I watched the protests in Egypt. I listened to people chanting and gathering and promising to stay.

I spent most of the next day at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. I went through the bookfair, attended some panels, caught up with friends. It was a different world. There was no Egypt here. I wondered if some of the writers staying in the hotel were upstairs in their rooms, watching the news. I would ask people, “Did you see the news today?” As if the news is something to be seen, not read, not heard. The whole day went by without reference to the way the world was changing. There were readings and parties that night, but I went back to my hotel. To my secret viewing station.

The next day was more of the same. Panels, readings, books. The world of the conference. One of the things I love about working with writers is that the conversations usually make sense to me. In a previous world, I worked with accountants. Also with sales people. Lovely people. But the conversations didn’t make as much sense. And here I was amongst my colleagues. Not having conversations.

Can we really get the news from poetry? Can we really affect change? Be unacknowledged legislators? It didn’t seem like it. It seemed like we were distracted. Self-involved. I went out for dinner. At the table next to me was a group of UNICEF staff. High level staff. I ate my kofta and learned about sewerage treatment and open defecation rates. Someone even pulled out a laptop and showed a series of slides. This wasn’t a business meeting. These were colleagues talking about their work. They weren’t talking about Egypt either. It made me feel better.

I still needed the news, and it seemed I wasn’t going to get it through poetry or UNICEF. So back to the television. I was sitting on the bed, going through the schedule for the next day.

 

Line breaks.

In the news.

Anderson Cooper was speaking in line breaks.

 

Repetition.

Fear has been defeated, they’ll tell you. There’s no turning back.

Details.

Dug up rocks, bandaged bodies.

Abstraction.

They speak about freedom and fairness and justice.

Variation.

Fear has been defeated. There’s no turning back.

 

It wasn’t announced as a poem. On screen there was a photo collage of images from the last eleven days. Bloodied faces. Bloodied flags.

Peacefully protesting. Their lives on the line.

A man holding a rock with his peace-sign fingers, smiling.

This was the news. He was telling us the news in a poem. He broke form. Found a new way to communicate. Or reverted to an old way. This was the news. This was what I’d been waiting for. For the form to break. For us to become uncontained. We didn’t manage it in the safety of the conference. But Anderson Cooper managed it in Cairo. And CNN news directors managed it too.

How do you express the extraordinary using the ordinary? That’s one of the challenges of poetry. To unstrange the strange. To strange the unstrange. On February 4, 10:57pm, I understood the news a little better. I listened more carefully. I was reminded that poetry is not a luxury. That it is necessary. That it is the way we speak when we are most endangered.