MAY 21, 2017
AT 15, I had an unforgettable dream in which Antonin Artaud gave a lecture in Rodez, the psychiatric hospital where he had, during the Nazi occupation of France, undergone ECT and undertook art therapy. In my dream, the lecture, whose theme was friendship, culminated in Artaud’s observation that, “I’ve never seen a man take off his skin and give it to another man, but that’s really what we’re doing when we inscribe the fly-leaf of a book and present it to a friend.” Then I helped Artaud escape from the asylum, which, once we were outside in the fresh and beautiful snow, turned out to have been my very strict and WASPy girls’ school. So in effect he rescued me as well as I him.
The memory of this dream popped up as I was reading Melissa Buzzeo’s The Devastation. Though the premise and setting are somewhat different and far more spartan and abstract, the essential elements of mutual aid in extremis, profound acts of friendship born of the desire to survive, extravagant but abject generosity, and the book-as-body in a gift economy permeate both the dream and the artifactual book whose skin-pages I now leaf through 46 years later: “Our skin comes off. This does not mean we touch. / Our hands break off; we have yet to reach bottom.”
What did I take off you
What did I give you
What is it that I left you
Your body made of rocks
Your body made of chemicals
A salvage, marked
Buzzeo’s writing in The Devastation — as in her previous books, For Want and Sound, Face, and What Began Us — is incandescent. Dealing with loss, with the use of language as a healing practice, and with catastrophe (both personal and communal) and its aftermaths, The Devastation has been described as “a literature of encounter,” as well as “lyric exploration[s] of relation and community,” manifesting a “great capacity for openness” at the intersection of “poetics and healing.” In an interview conducted by Bhanu Kapil, Buzzeo demonstrates the degree to which writing is, for her, a mode of survival. Hers is a generative poetics of generosity (enfolding all of generosity’s cognates, including “gender,” “genre,” “generation,” and “gentle”); she approaches truths, passionately and directly, as large philosophical questions.
Much beautiful writing has already greeted the beautiful writing in this book. Critics have praised and paraphrased, grasping the high stakes of the project and casting it in broader contexts. What’s left for me to say? In fact, this “left to say” is the conundrum of the book, but for reasons other than the one I’m facing here. The Devastation confronts both what is “left to say” after dystopian collapse and who is “left to say” — the subject that tells the tale.
The beds that we made
The cellular destruction
The embankment and the return
The broken gesture
Thus, in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s terms, the book foregrounds both the dictée, she who is spoken, and the diseuse, she who speaks.
The premise of the book is that all the water has been emptied out of all the oceans of the world, leaving a seabed of sludge-covered beings — lovers — who restore each other by “reach[ing out] and recoil[ing] in a gesture of extreme eroticism,” trying to clean each other, to nurse each other to some kind of recognizable subjectivity. The language of the past, with its pronouns, gender, and other markers of self-knowledge and self-division, has been carried off as well, but its rotting debris still covers everything, posing an obstacle to redemption. The new language stutters and twists in its reach toward itself:
I come to you without scales without language to the immeasurable part of you that I put beside water.
At the bottom of the sea there is nothing.
A book that could be but isn’t.
For the dead matter
For the matter that lives
And for the water
This premise is powerful and perplexing. How can a book about no-language (“[w]hen all is threadbare”) have words in it? How can it have so many words in it? Are the words descriptive or performative? Are they the utterances of the beings on the empty sea-bottom, reaching and recoiling, or the musings of a disembodied subjectivity, contemplating the extraordinary vision of devastation she has laid forth? Or are they the words of a lover calling out to an absent beloved from a lonely bed? The white-sheeted bed, the white sheet of the page, the muck of the oceanless seabed are enfolded into a universal image of loneliness:
Impoverished speech filling this empty bed
Of sediment and debris
In such overexposed light
How does one say
Plunged between the covers
Loose between the covers
And rocking to sleep
On somebody else’s boat
In somebody else’s sleep.
Our sea and nearness
And the rock of shell breaking over body
Over book betrayal
Over one language pulling out
In the inextricable memory of being
And I am quite near the sea
In the absence of address
And the body I make for you
How do we write about writing whose basic premise is a cry against — and a celebration of — the inadequacy of language? Buzzeo both poses the question and suggests a response:
That I no longer have a feeling for language. That it could be this or it could be that and is there abundance in all impoverishment. Without the other I mean the one to call it forth. And if so how to discard how to face this flight this wreckage this sun so behaved and frightened, slipped. I slipped that disc into your hand. You crawled to me. The space is larger.
There are three words whose meanings are implicitly redeemed through this writing; they don’t actually appear in the text in any significant way, but they occurred to me as important to reconsider in tandem with this book. While they have come to bear almost exclusively negative meanings in contemporary discourse, they used to encode — and perhaps could again — utopian promise:
I. Austerity. The word is now associated with governments imposing severe economic measures on their citizens, curtailing socially progressive programs that offer educational, medical, and housing assistance, making it difficult to achieve anything beyond what Giorgio Agamben has famously termed “bare life,” with even that threatened. Through Buzzeo’s impassioned reenvisioning of this bare life as one charged with “extreme eroticism” — as rhythmic gestures of “reaching and recoiling,” imitative of breathing, blood pulsation, neural firings, and other bioorganic movements — she restores austerity to its alternate sense of devotional practice, an attempt to hone libidinal/spiritual energy through focused repetition. Her minimally functional ex-sea creatures practice a spiritual discipline that may give rise to a new world. They do this not to obey a harsh external mandate, but because it is all they can do:
Why would this matter
A poverty of thought
II. Precarity. The word now refers to financially perilous living conditions, to being “one paycheck away from homelessness.” But the word’s origins in Latin precarius (“obtained by entreaty,” from prex, “prayer”) suggests the possibility of radical trust in extremis. Chilean poet and visual artist Cecilia Vicuña devises arrangements of tiny objects — a thrum of yarn, a pencil worn down to its stub, a dried flower, a bleached chicken bone —that she calls “precarios” (precarious things). The Devastation also urges the acceptance of minutiae as charm, a condensed utopia:
A bone so clean it is a shell
A below so bestowed
A belonging after
The sheet, the empty basin, the unsayable word, the “small parts bits” all talismanic crystallizations of grief and promise. The precarious status of Buzzeo’s survivors underscores their resilience. They bring to mind the skin a man gives to his friend for that friend’s — and his own — survival, the flyleaf of the book of life, where your nameless name is inscribed.
III. Destitution. This word now designates a complete lack of resources, a state of utter withoutness. Skin on bone. Nothing between. Etymologically, it is “abandoned, forsaken,” “placed (stare) away from (de)” what one needs — even “unplaced,” unrooted, without a place to be. How can this nihilistic word possibly be redeemed? In a tour-de-force essay on the poet John Wieners, Keston Sutherland proclaims that “[n]o poet in English was ever so destitute of a world.” Through a close reading of the poem “Physical Wanting” — which includes: “I write poems for little children / and imagine a world, fulfilled in reality” — Sutherland makes the case for the extreme vulnerability of the poet and his desired audience, the distance between himself and his desired world. The case is powerful, but what Sutherland does not explicitly address is the obvious devotion and love that undergirded Wieners’s life and work. When used in connection with Weiners, a poet whose beauty is inseparable from his abjection, the word “destitution” becomes beautiful. Like Wieners’s work, Buzzeo’s The Devastation takes on the promise of a fulfilled destitution, a barefoot dance of barely perceptible movement in the world’s decay and debris. In Buzzeo’s blunted, stunted dys/utopia, beauty is to be found in the most rudimentary gestures of intimacy and touch. From these bare elements, she reconstructs new selves, a new community:
That there would be space for each person. That no one is replaceable. That no one contains a light that could be shared stamped or silenced off.
Indeed, this text has no commitment to a “lyric I,” nor to its critique, except insofar as it embraces an implicit “we,” a still-ghostly “coming community” (Agamben):
there is no I that chooses.
There is no I that I choose
The text is likewise beyond any “objective correlative,” in that it need not subjugate any particular natural thing or process to quasi-imperialistic objectification. And it is also beyond metaphor, as it speaks in absolutes from deep within a disaster of existential proportions that is both global and discretely personal:
Sometimes you take from me slower. Hold something. (Hold long sigh memory breath) distinguish it from the rest. I let it fall. Once on the floor it will enter back into the concrete. I do not have this discernment. The brevity too split. The sun too piled. The scent too pallid. For now.
Without naïveté, with full knowledge of the limits and limitlessness of the project, Buzzeo aims to remove the pollutants that have encrusted our language, our very being, and to restore its eternal radiance. In Blake’s words, she “build[s] a heaven in hell’s despite.”
And another apocalyptic, dystopian bard, Will Alexander, offers an apt epigraph for closing: “The visible waters have perished from my thinking, so I am no longer susceptible to the powers of measurable failure.”