Complicit with Water: On Rosie Stockton’s “Permanent Volta”
By Olivia DurifOctober 19, 2021
Permanent Volta by Rosie Stockton
“When we talked about leakiness in college, is it possible I was just very repressed?” Stockton asks coyly at the beginning of our interview in June. I laughed, but it was an honest question. “I was interested in leakiness and excess and felt I was always overflowing the forms I was meant to be contained in,” Stockton elaborates. “But I think I wanted to exceed the forms without fully understanding them.”
Published earlier this year by Nightboat Books, Permanent Volta is Rosie Stockton’s first book of poetry. The book, among many things, is a testament to Stockton’s desire to understand the forms they want to exceed. If Stockton once built a rickety ark, smiling as it flooded beneath their feet, Permanent Volta is an expertly built ship. After the ship’s completion, Stockton takes an ax to the floorboards and lets it flood. As Stockton puts it, “better to destroy the boat, my aching trees / than patch the sinking hole.”
The sonnet is Stockton’s built-to-destroy form of choice. “It’s such a tight-bounded form with a notorious literary history,” Stockton explains. “It produces a hegemonic form of courtly love that requires a desiring subject and the love object. It’s the formula that underpins a whole Western history of romantic love. And, of course, there is history of poets trying to tinker with and grapple with it.”
Permanent Volta’s title reveals one way Stockton is grappling with form. Typically, a sonnet is a 14-line poem. Around line nine, a volta or “turn” adds complexity to the narrative. In the final couplet, the tension is resolved.
“Romantic love teaches us that we are bounded individuals, that the highest form of love is the couple, and that we should value stability and permanence above all. Under this framework, we are discouraged from inviting change into our relationships.” Stockton explains how capitalism, as a structure, demands forms like the couple and the nuclear family because they are efficient at producing and reproducing workers and consumers. “These systems are set up to discourage a constant turn — a radical acceptance of change or flux in response to how power structures shape our lives. I understand the sonnet as a literary form that encourages and disciplines these contracts.”
What if, Stockton asks, we refused resolution? What if we built a world dedicated to constant change? In the poem “Genre Riot,” the book’s call-to-arms, Stockton writes: “I know that things can get bigger, / big enough to clash / this discord, it will be endless.”
To embody permanent flux, or a permanent volta, Stockton taps into a feeling they relate to writer Jackie Wang’s take on oceanic feeling. In her essay “Communist Affect and Oceanic Feeling,” Wang explores the psychoanalytic concept of the oceanic — a mystic sense of connection to the universe which Freud associated with infancy and underdevelopment in adults. Wang, however, understands this feeling of interconnection as an experience of joy, rather than a symptom of stunted selfhood. In this way, oceanic feeling might be “a point of departure for new socialities and potential models that do not rely on discrete selves.” What if, Wang asks, oceanic feeling — an understanding of selfhood rooted in connection, rather than differentiation — could unlock our capacity for communal forms of being?
Stockton’s book is oceanic on many levels. There’s liquid everywhere: boats flood, dams break. In “Enfance IV,” the speaker, irreverent and vulnerable, proclaims: “I was once historically good / I bled in all the right places / I covered my tracks.” To be good is to hide our messes, but we know from the past tense of the poem that the days of goodness are gone. The speaker offers an alternative: “Once I bled like a sea would / Under a full moon in a coastal shack / It was so animal politics didn’t matter.” It’s better to be bad, the speaker winks, to find our role models (the ocean, the animal) in forces greater than human shame.
At different points in the book, water is metaphorical, literal, and exemplary. In “Genre Riot,” the reader feels like they’re in a mosh pit, or the meeting place of a protest as the speaker demands — (from the stage? a whispering voice in the crowd?) — “let our handles blur / let the latent slogan roll / become complicit with water.”
To be complicit with water, while potentially empowering, is also complicated. “Complicity works in several ways here,” Stockton tells me. “Following Wang’s essay, I associate the oceanic with deep interconnectedness — refusing the idea that we are separable beings — that communal forms of life insist on,” Stockton tells me. “The ocean is also made up of haunted waters, carrying the foundational racial violences of settler colonialism and slavery that made capitalism and modernity possible.” What does it mean to connect with dark waters — a force at once revelatory and complicit? How can we love in a way that contests how power is solidified in insidious ways, marked by racial and gendered domination?
“Even in my pull towards this oceanic potential,” Stockton responds, “I’m writing within and against my own complicity in the systems that produce me, but also reaching towards resistance. I try in the poems to push against the logic of my own world-building, to find a way out of it while also coming up against my constraints.”
Stockton wants to imagine a world that enables a collective life characterized by pleasure, luxury, and joy for all, but they aren’t interested in building it alone. Stockton beckons their reader to invent the future, so that the one we end up with might actually reflect our desires and our needs. “let’s dream up what comes next—” Stockton writes. “rambunctious dust, an orchestral clash, / and they will know us / flooded with presence.”
Engaging with oceanic feeling, Stockton exceeds the borders of the sonnet and the confines of forms we could easily take as given. The idea of “permanent volta” feels like a paradox, Stockton tells me, because it breaks what we think of as common sense. While capitalism is fueled by our belief that permanent change is a paradox, life reveals something different — resolution is always being challenged. Just look at the ocean.
In “Material Memory,” Stockton writes: “somewhere / along the highway / the pastoral / went on strike.” In Western traditions of nature writing — the pastoral, transcendentalism — the white lyric subject is the protagonist of the “pure” natural world, observing nature as if from outside of it. As a white poet, Stockton understands their complicity in the tradition of the pastoral and the violent myth of purity it relies on. “In the poems,” Stockton tells me, “I was driven by ways to articulate a demystification of the split between self and other, nature and built infrastructure, by feeling it in my body and relationships and politics.”
The revelation of our connection to the world can be terrifying. Stockton writes within our material reality of climate change. It’s a dark place to be. While the ocean is a force both empowering and haunted, it is also vulnerable. In Stockton’s poetry, the queer subject — figured as “unnatural” by normative standards — offers a way to connect with our haunted and precarious world. Categories of nature and infrastructure clash and intertwine, woven with images of human pleasure, care, and kink. In “Serenity Post,” “a detoxed pomegranate branch bends under its blossoms / spectacular & paranoid, the perennial flowers mask up, / multiplying like plastic, floating on camouflaged fences.”
“Whenever I am gardening, I think about how earthworms don’t have binary sexes … that’s so beyond what our Western categories could ever imagine! I think about ‘nature’ itself as always existing beyond categories of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural.’” Through Stockton’s poems, we can see plants, animals, and natural forces as role models for a way of being known beyond identity categories. “Where you are sun, I train my vines around you. / I name you morning glory.”
“I mean, nature is just so kinky,” Stockton blurts out. “I just think about how, in my backyard, there were these morning glory vines growing really fast. I remember I had this rusted-out chair that I didn’t move for a few weeks, and when I went to move it, the vines had wrapped around it so intensely — they had bound it so intensely — that it tipped over. That feels very clear to me!”
In “Blur Me Out,” the speaker tries to quench their desire alone: “i’ve been up all night / trying to figure out how to want / loud enough to tie myself up.” But it isn’t long before they submit to needing someone else: “autonomous bottom seeking / non-sovereign top,” the second stanza continues: “spit up into me / so my digestive track / can get a full night’s sleep.” The speaker’s imagined lover can satisfy a need beyond sex. Already the speaker has given up being an individual. Meanwhile “the stars’ algorithm / churn out millions / squeezing lightyears.” Relying on another body brings the speaker closer to the cosmos, to time itself.
In the fourth stanza, the lover is no longer imaginary, but firmly rooted in the present tense: “i am all submitted to you.” By the fifth stanza, it feels like the speaker has been with their lover a long time, or long enough to have constructed ideas about their relationship, philosophies about the life they inhabit together. “we found each other under here / so we return the symbols we bought / we concoct new drives and partial objects.” At the end of the poem, the speaker attempts to name the experience of being with their lover, and the poem becomes an ode to a love that spills over the container of the couple, “where we are mother of each other / where we are brothers / baby birding disobedience.” But, the speaker can’t quite name what this love is made of: “but here call it stardust, call it umami, / call me nobody, blur me out.”
“The desire to be blurred out feels so loving,” Stockton tells me. “It might look, from a dominant perspective, like an act of self-annihilation or violence, but that’s not what it is. ‘Blur me out’ means make me illegible, unrepresentable. It’s loving but about power play, making containers to explore dynamics of domination and submission: annihilate me, destroy my systems, I want to be dissolved.” “Blur me out” is a way to explore Wang’s oceanic feeling — a way of living life not as a bound, independent self, but — the opposite! — as a being who is thoroughly used, loved, mortal, cosmic. Call it stardust.
For Stockton, learning from nature doesn’t require whittling life away to its essence but, rather, taking joy in life’s excesses. “Think about how ridiculously flashy and gorgeous flowers are,” Stockton implores. “But all parts of the flower are actually a specific technology for spreading seed and reproducing in particular conditions. They are expertly designed, totally streamlined, yet utterly opulent and overwrought. Their existence is so in opposition to the logics of austerity we associate with survival.”
Stockton believes in luxury and abundance as a way to oppose the efficiency that capitalism requires to function. “I think of queerness as associated with tropes of excess, luxury, or laziness — the refusal to engage with normative modes of how we reproduce ourselves and our loved ones under capitalism.”
“For a long time I moved through life with a sense of scarcity and restraint in the face of systems of capitalist domination that offered consumerism as the antidote to emptiness. I was interested in refusal, withdrawal with regards to language, consumption, and intimacy,” Stockton says. “Now, I imagine autonomy not through the logic of retreat, but as the logic of excess. I’m interested in exploring new modes of refusing this mentality of scarcity through practices of abundance and inefficiency, rather than accumulation. I think those are separate logics.”
Maybe this is the real provocation of Stockton’s work, the paradox. A right to luxury for all people outside of capitalism. Stockton would never proclaim that they have the blueprint we need to build this future. Rather, their work reminds us that we must learn how the systems that produce us function and how we are complicit in them. Only then can we destroy them. Stockton reminds us, too, that our resistance and pleasure both insist on welcoming change on an oceanic scale. In “Serenity Post,” Stockton writes:
discarding all threshold, possessed
out of possession, i adjust my sense
of what is coming, to what is already here —
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