One of my favorite recent chapbooks is Dorothea Lasky’s Poetry Is Not a Project (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010), a witty, serious, feeling meditation on the limitations of self-legislated administered poetic “projects,” by which Lasky seems to mean mainly “works governed by procedures or rules or pre-set ideas or actions for generating ‘poetry.’” A lot of writing has been and will be generated this way — good, bad, and mediocre. As Lasky herself notes, a number of her poetry “idols” — Bernadette Mayer, French surrealists — were project-meisters. About the matter of poetic projects, I am, as about many things, agnostic — a diagnostic mark, some might say, of my lack of commitment, my being on the wrong team. As someone partial some days to Keats’s proclamation that, “if poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all,” I find Lasky’s hostility to projects salutary. The ghost of Taylorite factory production haunts some “projects,” which can seem a kind of lunging for a productive stimulus in default of any actual demand. (Let’s leave aside, for the moment, inspiration or intuition or necessity: ah, those unobsolete 18th-century terms.) As Lasky observes, the concept or “project” behind project-generated poems often surpasses the poems in interest and vigor, so one might well wonder: why bother with the “poems,” the outputs, the superfluous products of most “projects,” at all?
There are of course, as Lasky implicitly concedes, brilliant works that might be categorized as “projects”: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is a complex tour de force of vertiginous listening, inquiry, and delicate registration (not to mention intermedial composition); Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus pointedly, imaginatively sounds out and reconfigures the poetics and politics of violent racist inventory and curation; Christian Bök’s Eunoia manifests a neo-Oulipian dazzle in its lipogrammatic “chapters”; Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution and Engine Empire undertake stunning ventures in world-building and imaginative creolization; Inger Christensen’s Alphabet (translated from the Danish by Susanna Nied) mobilizes the Fibonacci sequence (an algorithm) as the generative logic of a gorgeous hymn to creation and destruction. I could go on; many have. The point here is: By their fruits ye shall know them, and the fruits of poetic projects are sometimes extraordinarily fine.
This brief catalog could lead me to a discussion of the relation of will to poetry, of intent to writing — a discussion I won’t pursue here. But three recent books (beyond those named above) have made me think about and feel intensely what poetic projects in our moment might and might not be — their horizons and possibilities. Poetry both is and is not a project, if we liberate “project” from its contemporary procedural (and sometimes careerist) associations and think of poetry as a projecting forth, something thrown forward into a given, multiple, and transformable world. In this sense, to write and to publish poetry is an extraordinarily optimistic thing, a generous act, manifesting a faith in the ongoingness of a world of transmission, reception, creation, and possible transformation.
One feels the force of this generosity, and a semi-covert optimism, even as — precisely as — these three books outline a terrain of precarity, anxiety, and trauma. These books take a hard look at and take the measure of their differing occasions. Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women gives us a portrait of an artist writing, not writing, thinking, sewing, stressing, as she navigates the mind-numbing corridors of officialdom, as she cooks, daydreams, and drives her daughter around the roads and parking lots of Kansas. Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue sustains a complex inquiry — autobiographical, historical, political-economical, material, postcolonial — into a figure, place, and body denominated “Ban,” who is (among many other things) “a brown girl on the floor of the world,” a girl lying down amid a race riot in the suburbs of London. Juliana Spahr’s That Winter the Wolf Came locates itself amid financial disaster, petroleum extraction, and Occupy Oakland, weaving together ecological meditation, political critique, and lyric inquiry. Each book is a powerful, intricately made thing; each book indexes the often distressed conditions of its own making; each book speaks, then, to the question of what poiesis — making of any kind (of poems, books, lives, families, solidarity) — might require and might yet be.
One of the most exciting recent critical works on literary form and possibility — on what the project of poiesis as making or shaping might be — comes from Anahid Nersessian in her book Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment. Drawing mainly on romantic-period writing (Shelley, Coleridge, Helen Maria Williams, Hazlitt, Kant), Nersessian’s book is deeply informed by discussions of “the Anthropocene” (our own epoch, arguably inaugurated by the industrial revolution, marking the human impact on geology and ecosystems) and by contemporary reckonings with conditions and limits — the matter of living together in a constrained world of limited resources. Nersessian proposes “formal practices of limitation and adjustment,” exploring poiesis as a complex co-forming in and of the world — a politically engaged and optimistic yet not radical-revolutionary aesthetic. Here one might think of Percy Bysshe Shelley, self-styled “Democrat, Philanthropist, and Atheist,” hymnist of the French Revolution, passionately responding to hostile critics in his preface to Prometheus Unbound that he does indeed have “a passion for reforming the world”:
Let this opportunity be conceded to me of acknowledging that I have what a Scotch philosopher characteristically terms a “passion for reforming the world:” what passion incited him to write and publish his book he omits to explain.
Modernity has offered us many things, not least a set of rationales for shaming poets who wanted (and who want) to reform the world, who thought (and think) that poetry might make things happen, who strove (and strive) to extend the domain of “what happens” to include such microscopic, barely perceptible events as a change of mood as well as such world-historical events as the French Revolution or mass extinction in the Anthropocene. The grotesque shifts in scale in that last sentence are precisely my point. We don’t always know in advance what matters, and to whom, and to recognize that — to rethink that — is an ongoing project. If modernity is, as Jürgen Habermas had it, an unfinished project, then negative capability (the Keatsian willingness not to know in advance, to be “capable of being in uncertainties”) is an unfinishable project — or rather, an important and renewable resource.
Boyer, Kapil, and Spahr manifest, to different degrees, a discomfort with and at times a violent refusal of “poetry” — certainly of “literature,” and of any dream of a purportedly autonomous literary aesthetic. For “literature is against us,” as Boyer writes — against women and against the poor (Boyer’s primary “us”); against colonized peoples; against black and brown peoples; against immigrants; against non-binary writers; against anyone who isn’t already imagined in, or willing to align with, the collectivities and subject positions to which official “literature” has traditionally addressed itself. As Kapil writes in Ban en Banlieue, “I want a literature that is not made from literature.”
(Obviously I am suspending, as Boyer and Kapil certainly do, the question of whether these books are “poetry” — just as I earlier suspended the question of whether “poetry” is a “project.” I mean to keep these questions suspended throughout this essay, and indeed beyond, because the space for encountering, essaying, assaying, and shaping that these and kindred works open is the space of responsiveness I wish to dwell in and sponsor and test.)
There is a long tradition of literature against literature, of poetry against poetry, of renunciation and critique: and Boyer, Kapil, and Spahr emerge from and contribute to that experimental tradition. They also raise the bar — aesthetically, intellectually, politically. One could see these books as experimental projects in life-writing, and also as examples of “autotheory” (as Maggie Nelson, following Paul Preciado, calls her recent book The Argonauts). We could see these writers as poet-venturers in a longer history of poiesis, writing not poetry “in a restricted sense,” as Shelley put it (meaning metrical verse in recognizable forms), but rather poetry “in a general sense,” complex acts of making which need not be in verse. There is an argument to be made, in fact, that the proponents of the “New Sentence,” a preoccupation of some Language Poets in the 1980s, have found their best exponents a full generation or two later, in such writers as Boyer and Kapil, whose poetries are built primarily out of sentences. Kapil writes of Ban: “This is a bank for sentences.”
What does poetry sentence us to? What might it sentence forth, sentiently?
Boyer’s book — about which I’ve written elsewhere — offers a savage, sometimes hilariously downbeat, peculiarly friendly poetics of precarity: emotional, financial, physical. She takes the risk of launching Garments Against Women with a clinical, anesthetized discourse, “The Animal Model of Inescapable Shock,” a series of paragraphs that lays out just that, in excruciatingly benumbed sentences. This studied neutrality, this polemically “objective” stance, could itself be understood as a stylistic mode proper to a shocked, traumatized female animal — the mice dragged across “electrified grid(s)” in the lab pointing to Boyer herself, analyzed in “the infinite laboratory called ‘conditions,’” among which is “Capital.”
Boyer is a flâneur not of 19th-century Paris nor even of Kansas (where she lives) but of her own mind. The book registers many things, not least the specific material conditions conducive to, and inimical to, writing, sewing, and by extension any kind of making at all. It is difficult to convey the experience of reading Boyer without quoting vast swaths. There is great pressure and decision in her sentences and paragraphs, the force of a mind thinking and unspooling and backtracking. The power of the book seeps into you, as an ambient drip. The reiterative textures of much experimental writing are here mobilized toward powerfully and surprisingly emotional ends.
In its cumulatively mesmerizing weave, we come to realize that Boyer is writing toward a poetics of care, one that doesn’t abjure the registering of envy, depression, embarrassment, abjection, failure. The most painfully tender passages in the book arise in exchanges with her young daughter, as in the mediated report of a dismal shoe-shopping expedition (there is not enough money for the desired shoes), which ends in tears, the daughter saying to her mother:
“I am still a child and learning to control my impulses and emotions. you have had many years of dreams and realities to learn from so there is no excuse for you to cry.” she paused. “do you have enough dreams?” she finally asked.
Wordsworth said poetry was “the history or science of feeling.” Garments Against Women is an absorbing book about what the scholar Sianne Ngai famously called “ugly feelings” — such “unprestigious” and “negative affects” as envy, anxiety, disgust, paranoia. And Boyer is indeed envious, as well as embarrassed, embarrassing, culpably dreamy, cracked. “It is all this self-expression that makes me so ashamed,” she writes. “I was too sad to slug in the face.” “I said that maybe everyone I knew was embarrassed by me. I went on being embarrassing.”
It wouldn’t be quite right to say that Garments Against Women is leavened by its mordant humor (viz. such titles as “Ma Vie en Bling: A Memoir”). The book is made precisely out of this weave of pathos, resentment, tenderness, wit; out of a yes/no, neither this/nor that, anti/pro toggling of a woman measuring out, sounding out, what she wants against the background noise of what she’s supposed to want and what she doesn’t have. Boyer writes in “A Woman Shopping” about the notional book she is supposedly not writing: “This book would be a book also about the history of literature and literature’s uses against women, also against literature and for it, also against shopping and for it. […] It will be a book about envy and a book about barely visible things.”
From one angle, this book is a sustained meditation on “making” itself: bad, failed, imperfect making, with occasional flashes of beauty, pleasure, good-enough use, and reuse. Boyer is very good at tracking circuits and failed circuitry — of emotion, of efforts to make (books, clothes, dinner). Writing and sewing offer her — and us — imperfect and even hostile garments, botched things in a botched world.
In her vexed romance with sewing, shopping, and thrifting, she occasionally and powerfully connects objects back to makers: in a wrap dress bought at the Salvation Army she detects “the odor of the extraordinary seamstress Louise Jones,” whose name she discovers on the dress’s label. Such thrilling moments are both documentary and theoretical, involving material attentiveness, sensual imagination, and a performative uncongealing of the “congealed labor time” that Marx said dwelled in, and was disguised by, every commodity.
Boyer is writing a poetry “against information,” which involves her in an analytic of information, of what informs us, forms in us, forms us, what is admissible, and what is not: “Many kinds of inadmissible information are inadmissible because they provoke a feeling of pity, guilt, or contempt.” Boyer offers a wizardly, bleakly funny anatomy of shame, contempt, resentment: the book refuses the partition of “thought” and “feeling,” and contributes to the growing literature on the politics of feeling.
Boyer explores a poetics and politics of freedom, the linkages between “happiness” and “freedom” (two obsessively reiterated keywords here), and between their perversions: the obligation to be happy and to perform one’s freedom. Garments Against Women is a declaration of dependence, of interdependence, of hapless enmeshment: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness getting their thorough scouring and transvaluation. If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.
I am now constrained to abundance, “happiness” or its absence/infirmity.
To feel deeply, or to admit to feeling deeply, is also inadmissible, though not as inadmissible as to admit to having been un-free.
There are many things I do not like to read, mostly accounts of the lives of the free.
Why is Boyer “un-free”? She has debts, she is invaded by bad feelings, toxins seep into her life, love goes awry, she watches the news. She expends herself on care, not least care for her young daughter, a care that falls outside the normative monetized and monetizable calculus of value. She is, in other words, a female human being in 21st-century America. She is also a writer, resisting mandates to be “productive” while also desiring to write, wanting recognition, fellowship, both as writer and as sentient creature: “Where is the true impermeable community?”
In Garments Against Women, “not writing” threatens to become, as it were, Boyer’s métier — as it has for so many, the mute inglorious Miltons of the past and our present. In the terrific poem, “What Is ‘Not Writing’?” Boyer offers a bravura counter-reckoning, an arithmetic of negated productivity, productive negation:
There are years, days, hours, minutes, weeks, moments, and other measures of time spent in the production of ‘not writing.’ Not writing is working, and when not working at paid work working at unpaid work like caring for others, and when not at unpaid work like caring, caring also for a human body […] and when not reading and learning also making things (like garments, food, plants, artworks , decorative items)
There is illness and injury which has produced a great deal of not writing. There is cynicism, disappointment, political outrage, heartbreak, resentment, and realistic thinking which has produced a great deal of not writing. There is reproduction which has been like illness and injury and taken up many hours with not writing.
There is shopping, which is a woman shopping.
Among many things to register here, one might highlight the slyly pointed ferocity of the placement in the second passage above of the unmarked phrase, “realistic thinking.”
Boyer implicitly takes up Hannah Arendt’s injunction “to think what we are doing” and torques it, tracking as well how we are feeling and regulating feeling. It is no accident that Boyer takes her epigraph from Mary Wollstonecraft: the great feminist thinker doubly smeared in life and after her death for daring to live a life of erotic as well as intellectual passion. Mary Wollstonecraft’s own daughter, Mary Shelley, knew very well just how “literature” might be “against us”: her greatest novel features a highly sensitive and literate creature who is nevertheless violently excluded from human fellowship.
From one monster to, perhaps, another; and from one project to another:
“What is Ban?” asks the poet Bhanu Kapil, in her disturbing, moving book Ban en Banlieue. “Ban” is, Kapil writes, “the parts of something re-mixed as air: integral, rigid air, circa 1972-1979. She’s a girl. A black girl in an era when, in solidarity, Caribbean and Asian Brits self-defined as black.” She materializes in Kapil’s work through a set of performances, notebooks, pilgrimages, embodiments: variously “a mixture of dog shit and bitumen (ash) scraped off the soles of running shoes,” “a warp of smoke,” “ivy-asphalt/glass-girl combinations,” daffodils and mirrors arranged on a city street, the artist’s body: “I want to lie down in the place I am from: on the street I am from.” “Ban” was also, it emerges, one of the poet’s childhood nicknames.
“Ban” is — becomes — many things. But she is above all else a girl lying on the street, an auto-sacrifice, a suicide, a self-protectively stilled and prone body, “a black (brown) girl,” “lying on the floor of the world […] lying on the floor of England” at the moment she hears glass shattering. That sound signals, it will unfold, a specific race riot of April 23, 1979, in Hayes, Middlesex, a suburb of London, “[t]he outskirts of London: les banlieues.”
Ban speaks to Kapil’s longstanding interest in the monster, the immigrant, materiality, (supposed) madness. The titles of her previous books evoke her theoretical dispositions: Humanimal: A Project for Future Children. The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. Schizophrene. Incubation: A Space for Monsters. Through Ban, Kapil is writing not only about “social death” — the systematic denial of humanity to, for example, prisoners, slaves, or concentration camp inmates — but also about a never-having-been: a creature who never quite lived, perhaps an immigrant, perhaps a monster, ultimately neither. A charcoaled outline of a girl dying and already dead: “Some bodies don’t somatize.”
Ban is situated between poetry and performance, between writing and ritual; the book emerges as well as a kind of durational default, the rejectimenta of an abandoned novel. The book appears as a series of notes and paratexts: endnotes and cancelled epigraphs, autobiographical vignettes (“Five Fictions for Ban”), social reportage, lists of “performances and installations,” “Notes Toward a Race Riot Scene,” further notes on rituals and performances undertaken in London, New York City, California, Colorado, and India. This material is all part of the “work,” the project, we might say, of Ban.
Ban is in part a record of the difficulty, the impossibility, of finding a form for Ban:
Ban is a desiccating form on a sidewalk […] I should have written the alien body as a set of fragments, a ghazal with an omega mouth and a healing cry; instead I went with historical fiction, the narrative of a riot that had receded by 1983, to be overlain by other riots. The riot is a charnel ground in this sense.
The project fails at every instant and you can make a book out of that and I do, in the same time that it takes other people to write their second novel that is optioned by Knopf and which details the world they grew up in, just as I am — detailing — which is to say: scouring/burnishing — the world I grew up in too.
Kapil puts one kind of project against another: excoriation — “scouring/burnishing” — is here her métier; her project is clearly not that of the ostentatiously successful realist immigrant novel. Ban itself announces its failure as a book, its failure as normative literature: it presents itself as the notes around a novel which this book first aspired to be, the novel which Kapil does not, cannot, give us: a realist novel about a brown girl in a race riot.
How to think about this “failure”? Is it apotropaic, designed to ward off a critical judgment of failure? A preemptive honesty? One sees this motif in Boyer’s work as well. It is powerful — both disarming and arming. (Note: Do men write about failure in this way?) Is this the writer’s failure? In the words of Ezra Pound — a perhaps obscene invocation — is it that Kapil “cannot make it cohere”? Or that she won’t? Or that coherence is itself obscene, off-stage, beyond: banlieue?
One core, submerged, but centrally horrific element of this book is the way the ongoing project of Ban eerily predicts emerging Ban-figures — as if Ban were an image of violent abnegation vibrating across lands and times, for the brown [black] girl lying on the floor of the world is not bound to one place or time. Kapil keeps her notebooks from 2009 to 2012 — thinking and struggling with this work. In December 2012 a young woman in New Delhi is raped and left for dead, entrails streaming from her body on the street: “What was in the work — as an image — had appeared beyond it — as a scene.”
At that moment, I stopped writing Ban.
And there I lay on the ground.
And this was the part of the project that could not be completed in the same place that the project was held […] I knew that if I did this, if I continued to write — like this — then I myself — would not be able — to return.
Poetry is not a project.
And yet poetry is not not a project.
Here the ethic of Ban’s form — its ethos and its morality — comes to the fore: the project of Ban must shift in the making, lest the writer of Ban, and the commitments animating Ban, be lost. For what, for whom, is this writing? For Ban. Love Note for Ban. Anamorphia for Ban. Race Drops for Ban. Embryology for Ban. Autobiography, theory, travel journal, performance note, pilgrimage, remembrance, urban inquiry, photo-reliquary, elegy (for, among others, the peace activist Blair Peach, killed in the riot of April 23, 1979): Ban en Banlieue encompasses yet is not reducible to these.
Ban resists normative, premature attempts at assessment: is it “good”? Kapil’s book puts me in mind of Theodor Adorno’s dictum from Minima Moralia, “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly” (Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen). Yet her book also puts pressure on that aphorism: for perhaps wrong life can be lived less wrongly if not rightly. (Such a proposal would likely earn Adorno’s contempt, as a typically American weaseling, an effort to avoid and evade the totality of the situation of “the now” of “life.” So be it. What is poetry to offer if not a pluralization of the horizons of the now? Poiesis: form as adjustment. Not acceptance, not quiescence, but actual, transformable making toward the not-yet-known.) Kapil subjects herself to Ban, becomes Ban, enacts and refuses autobiography through Ban, “but Ban, in a sense, was waiting for me, in the darkness of the border, no longer proximal but centered, arms waving in a blur, waiting with everything that was wrong.”
Woven into this writing venture — the venture of life — is a sense of being in, writing toward, the wrong audience, the wrong space: “My mistake is that I perform works intended for a European audience — in California — and that I do not have the courage or means to go home.” Elsewhere, Kapil makes perfectly clear that while “home” is England, she’s not English: “What, for example, is born in England, but is never, not even on a cloudy day, English?” Kapil writes in part out of, against, the resurgence of the British Far Right (both in the ’70s and ’80s and now); how might this resonate for US as well as other Anglophone audiences? Are our readerly intersectionalities, so to speak, sufficiently transnational (yet)? “What would I have written — what would have become of these materials — had I stayed in the UK?” Kapil thus sounds out the complexities and vulnerabilities of a postcolonial literature testing its locations and destinations. This is one of many dimensions of Kapil’s ongoing project — a postcolonial, deeply theorized poetics grounded in an analytic distinct from, yet related to, Boyer’s orientation to economic and gender critique (recall, for example, Boyer’s females/mice in the Lab called “Capital”).
Kapil refuses the logic of mere persistence and moves toward “presence.” Thus curation and performance art, Ana Mendieta and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, are her muses as much as other poets and novelists and Hindu epics. One infers from various acknowledgments that forms of healing bodywork also offer models and occasions for her art. Nersessian’s book helps me to read Kapil’s, because the unfolding fragments making up Ban — slowly dilating into a more discursive prose before retracting into a more notational mode — suggest precisely the work of “form-as-adjustment”: a form discovered, arrived at, adjusted to, out of very difficult conditions, a form adequate to those sensorimotor and political conditions.
Kapil has of course thought about all this — her book is as much auto-theoretical as it is auto-sacrificial. For her, juxtaposition is precisely not about automatic resonance or reverberant collage: “One thing next to another doesn’t mean they touch.” And further, “[y]ou can be a hybrid and not share a body with anything else. Thus, the different parts of ‘Ban’ do not touch.” There is, she writes (quoting the writer Gail Scott), an “abyss between sentences.” Kapil will not give us the rich integrative satisfactions of the realist novel and she more than tells us why.
In her endnotes, Kapil writes, “I feel ashamed that I could not make Ban an amazing book.” As I hope is clear, this is in many ways an amazing book. The rawness of Kapil’s profession of shame marks for me a vulnerability I would wish to turn away from: why would you write that, having written Ban? My reaction is a perfect symptom of the turning-away this book refuses, even as Ban marks and transforms the many moments in which Kapil had to stop, refuse, regroup, rethink “how to make (from this) (from these things): a form. A charnel: ground.” Kapil’s is a poiesis of necessary extremity, of politicized vulnerability: “I’m writing about a person’s attempt to maintain a level of psychic intensity at all costs.” This book does indeed “unfold the electrical mat of my nervous system” — and much else.
If Kapil’s book is a network of notes around an ungrievable grievous place (“utopia” signaling, etymologically, “no place”), Juliana Spahr’s That Winter the Wolf Came traces a trajectory and sounds out a time, an epoch, not quite a “season in hell” (Rimbaud) but a season (“that winter”) in exuberant, anxious protest, a season of uprisings we collectively denominate “Occupy.” The book follows a gorgeous arc that might be called melancholy if that weren’t already over-poeticized and typically depoliticized as a term. “That winter we just rhymed and rhymed on. Together.” Indeed Spahr offers a politicized melancholy which asserts itself against defeatism.
Spahr’s book unspools around the songline:
[I]n this time song holds loss. And this is a time of loss […] Songs in their most popular versions tend to be epiphanic, gorgeous with swelling chord changes, full of lament too. And this song, like many, expresses the desire to be near someone who is now lost. It travels as something layered, infiltrated, unconfused with its refusals to make a simple sense. I want to give you this song sung in a bar in Oakland one night during the ongoing oil wars. (“Transitory, Momentary”)
The line itself, humming through sentences and permutations of sentences, is her unit, her subject, her object — as in this opening poem, which features a deft modulation from Brent geese flying to Brent crude oil: “The Brent geese fly in long low wavering lines on their migration” — an image of Spahr’s own poiesis.
Spahr is a crafty weaver/waverer of lines, a permuter and transmuter, orchestrating into sinuous verse paragraphs the flow of the migratory lines of geese, the lines of her poetry, and how “the police move slowly, methodically in a line.”
That Winter the Wolf Came is a book about Occupy that largely eschews the term “Occupy”: “I do not want to use the word occupy. I am trying to figure something out. Something I do not yet understand about my physical body, my real financial, medical, and social needs.” Spahr presents herself, polemically, as unremarkable, one among others; in this she echoes Boyer’s interest in being “ordinary.”
My body is unremarkable, not at all singular, as I walk up to join these other bodies, and it remains unremarkable, not at all singular, as it walks with others, takes off into the street when others do, usually after someone yells block up block up into a megaphone.
Spahr’s is an art of entanglement and enmeshment, enacted via form: through lines, stanzas, verse paragraphs. Entanglement, enmeshment: these words could connote the cozy, the intimate, but should also connote a horizon of violence; you can’t kettle a bunch of protestors without getting close. An oil spill kills the creatures it slicks. You can’t but eat and breathe a complex often poisonous biochemical life. As Spahr writes in a remarkable poem about mothering, about tending the not-me, the “not really me”:
Later I pass the breast cup to not really me,
a breast cup filled with sound insulation panels and imitation wood
with a little nectar and sweetness.
And then not really me drinks it and then complains a little,
rebuking me, for my cakes of nuts and raisins
are cakes of extraction of crude petroleum and natural gas,
for my apples are filled with televisions and windshield wiper blades.
The Song of Songs — “Sustain me with cakes of raisins, refresh me with apples: for I am sick with love” — is here infiltrated in its very substance, as are we, by contemporary commodities, petro-products.
This is a book about vulnerable creaturely life and our petroscene, a book of poetry both rejecting and embracing poetry and “tradition” — or rather refunctioning tradition as “mothering,” a kind of care:
I hold out my hand.
I hand over
and I pass on.
I hold out my hand.
I hold out my hand.
I hand over
and I pass on.
Some call this mothering. (“Tradition”)
Spahr is a political formalist, or rather a politicized formalizer, one who gives form to the emerging, to emergency in its broadest sense. Here one can see how Spahr’s project aligns with but also diverges from Boyer’s and Kapil’s: Spahr is more interested in old-school poetic tropes and techniques like apostrophe, refrain, and verse timing. In “Brent Crude,” the variations in oil pricing offer her a modulating, structuring principle — pricing over time a kind of perfect capitalist refrain and punctum:
The Brent Crude Oil Spot price was 101.84, when the first of a series of meetings are held at a park. I stand at the back during these meetings and hold my son’s hand as he jumps in mud puddles […] The Brent Crude Oil Spot price is 112.11 when the police come the first time.
A pointedly mobilized iambic pentameter powers another powerful, disturbing poem, “Dynamic Positioning” (about the Deepwater Horizon explosion and resulting BP oil spill disaster of April 2010).
Spahr makes a minimal yet powerful wager that form can adjust to — and do justice to — the currents of our moment: “sometimes art can hold the oil wars and all that they mean and might yet mean within.” This extraordinary wager is combined with polemically modest, minimal, and “minor” claims, even as her accumulations of apparently mere observations scale up into higher-order assertions of poetico-political entanglement.
What I have to offer here is nothing revolutionary. They [the geese] learn the map from their parents, or through culture rather than through genetics. It is just an observation, a small observation that sometimes art can hold the oil wars and all that they mean and might yet mean within. Just as sometimes there are seven stanzas in a song. And just as sometimes there is a refrain between each stanza.
Toward the end of the book, she writes:
This is where I am now, writing this story of the most minor of uprisings. A story about how when I entered into this one for a brief period of time I agreed to experience all the emotions and I realized that there was a good chance that one of them would be sadness. Minor sadness, I had hoped. What I have now, even though minor, is a sadness that has made it hard for me to concentrate.
Spahr’s emphasis on the minor, on her “anxious body,” her “nervous,” unheroic self and engagements, is a big bold claim, and often a sly fuck you to the heroic tradition of revolution.
In a book preoccupied (pre-Occupy’d) with questions of (not-quite) revolution, Spahr casts “Non-Revolution” as the provisional beloved, a sexy, earthy, tangy, promiscuous, intensely desired desire machine. Of “Non-Revolution’s body,” Spahr writes,
[S]omething about Non-Revolution’s smell and body had gotten into me […] it was like something so excellent I could not get enough of it.
I wanted to be there all the time, to be inside every moment, to always be on the lips of Non-Revolution and whomever Non-Revolution was touching with their tongue, whatever parts of bodies of Mexico City, Santiago, El Alto, Madrid, Cairo, Suez, Istanbul, Yenagoa.
Spahr has long written a poetry that confounded boundaries — between poetry and prose, erotics and politics, “private” and “public.” This is a moving and exciting book, its power undimmed and in fact propelled by its sadness, because hers is a deeply felt yet also “limited” (to invoke Nersessian again) sadness, a sadness alert to the “ever more about to be” that romantic writers also hoped for. Indeed Spahr takes her epigraph from Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy,” a coruscating poem that has inspired left-wing radicals for two centuries:
When one fled past, a maniac maid,
And her name was Hope, she said:
What Spahr pointedly does not proceed to quote are Shelley’s next lines:
But she looked more like Despair,
And she cried out in the air:
A potentially crazy Hope sustained against the spectre of Despair: this is Spahr’s project, and it was — in another key — Shelley’s. From Shelley — one of Marx’s favorite poets—to our own moment: there is of course by now a long “revolutionary tradition” (Arendt again) that Spahr and her comrades at Commune Editions know very well — Joshua Clover’s Red Epic is another reckoning with it.
I found this book touching, endearing, winning, often thrilling — hardly the first adjectives one associates with revolutionary work: but perhaps they should be the qualities a revolutionized (non)revolution, a rethought utopia, should draw on and sponsor. Spahr makes one feel so — her book, for all its sensitivity to “minor” registers, for all its “minor sadness(es),” is also majorly inspiring and exhilarating: in the etymological sense of causing one to breathe in, and to exhale, (new) air.
I have been discussing three books, their projects, and more broadly the project of poetry. I’d like to turn now to the third term in my title, “choratope.” Sitting with these books and their complexities — of body, place, sound; sôma, topos, phônê — I began to consider this notion of a “choratope” as an analytic for poetic projects: and here I riff on Mikhail Bakhtin’s influential concept of “the chronotope,” the space-time configuration of and in a literary work. One might think of “the chronotope” as the abstract a priori for any world-building — in a novel, a play, a movie, a videogame. (Bakhtin spoke, for example, of “the castle” and “the road” as two important chronotopes; he also spoke of adventure-time, biographical-time, and so on, as differing historico-formal templates for fictional universes.)
In the term choratope, I am proposing something a bit different, a kind of echolocation, a sounding out, that poiesis in particular is equipped to do. Choratope: from the Greek “Khôra,” denotes a location, place, or spot, and more specifically could specify that territory of the Greek polis outside the city proper; it conjures a clearing, receptacle, or site; it can also evoke one’s country or nation. (Think of the extensive range of meanings of, say, “land” or “ground.”) “Khôra” has a long and complicated philosophical career (from Plato through Heidegger to Derrida and Kristeva); it evokes as well the uterus, the feminine, a “matrix.” Both related to and beyond the city, the “chora,” for Kristeva, is the underlining of symbolic order. It specifies for her the domain of the semiotic, which pierces language in its bodily specificities: the cry, the laugh, the wail. The second component of choratope — topos — is Greek for “place,” abbreviated from tópos koinós, “common place.” The term is analogous to the Latin locus and conjures both a spatial location and a “commonplace” in rhetoric or literary art. Chora/topos: both components evoke, then, some dimension of “place,” but with slightly different connotations — in what I hope might be a productive almost-redundancy: a resonance, a discrepant reverberance. Choratope: A sounding out of place; poetry as sonar project, acoustic co-location, exploratory reverberance, whose resonances and dissonances and interferences are formed and reformed en route.
I came to the term “choratope” when thinking of the ritual (re)placing in Kapil, and of the potentially liberatory songs streaming through Boyer’s and especially Spahr’s work. Boyer has some killing lines about M.I.A. (“the anarchist pop star”), for example, and celebrates dance music: “My favorite arts are the ones that can move your body or make a new world.” For her part, Spahr captures a moment at a public assembly “as we all begin to call out I love Michael Jackson one by one and then the sound guy puts on Smooth Criminal and everyone then rushes the stage, dancing hard.” Spahr’s work is choratopic at the level of syntax as well as theme, “calling,” and voicing the core tropes and iterative movements of her poetics.
For “chora” also connotes, in English, its close homonym chorus. A strong preoccupation of all these books is the question of the collective, the group, the crowd — whether gathered in violence, in solidarity, in confusion, in labor, in dance, in consumption, in ebullience, in song, in Michael Jackson, in chants (“Hey hey ho ho”), in Occupy mic-checks, or in abstractions (“women,” “blacks,” “citizens,” “refugees”).
Lyric is famously the genre of solo, solitary voice. But a dialectical and historical conception of lyric (whether grounded in an awareness of ancient Greek choral lyric or in Adorno’s and other Marxists’ sense of modern lyric as social precisely in its apparent withdrawal from the social) impresses upon us the sociality of lyric: a sociality explored most impressively and recently by such poets and thinkers as Fred Moten and Claudia Rankine and Spahr herself.
As in her previous This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, Spahr works in That Winter a subtle line between single and plural voicings, pivoting with ease between “I” and “we” as her subject. Important here: The medium of this collective movement, this oscillation between solo and collective voicing, is itself figured as poetry, a kind of collective rhyming, a choral speaking “together,” a dispersed erotics “in which the we stood in for the beloved”:
That winter we just rhymed and rhymed on. Together. Using words
Together. That winter everything suddenly written in our pentameters, our alexandrines, our heroic couplets, which was often an associational sentence-based quiet line, one indebted to lyric in which the we stood in for the beloved and yet there was almost never a description of this beloved, no listing of their red lips, their firm breasts, their smooth skin, leaving a sort of generic atmosphere.
I could tell you of the other things too.
A European influence.
A Middle Eastern influence. (“Went Looking and Found Coyotes”)
Spahr gives us a winter idyll, a provisional moment of communal poiesis itself aware of other transnational “influences.”
The crowd in this moment. Complicated, but still joyous, transitory, momentary, experiencing this one moment of freedom before what we know is to come because we know history and we know the crowd will not win.
We were with instead. But not just any old sort of with, but with each other in the hatred of capitalism. And if I was a poet of many centuries previous, I’d call that the sweetest wine of the beloved.
Spahr can be bald — “hatred of capitalism” and so on. Then again, so could Blake and Shelley. She knows how hippy-dopey she can seem, and sound: “I was so classic, so clichéd those months.” Another word for cliché: commonplace (recall the topos in choratopos). This is a poetry dedicated to an emergent, precarious commons — of action, feeling, thought, of tradition as handing over, making it “together,” hand in hand. As a poet Spahr is given to conceits so literal they threaten to collapse into bathos: lung-possessing creatures all breathing together, the ecstatic political moment as erotic, the poetic line become a line of protesters or geese or police, the expanding list as evocation of all creatures in the world. What is impressive is how she brings this off, her incremental pulsing compositions emerging as gorgeously patient end-runs around cynicism, premature sophistication, been there done that. The combination of rigor and tenderness is extraordinary.
Again, “choratope” specifies for me the sounding-out of place that these books undertake. And indeed, all these books — in good experimental fashion — offer a poetics as well as poems, a meditation on making as well as made things. Kapil orients us to the body in place, a body in one spot and then another spot, a body sometimes moving and sometimes still and stilled. This body, this imaged and created “Ban,” is typically (Kapil tells us) an assemblage of disparate materials — not “matter out of place” (as anthropologist Mary Douglas famously defined “dirt”) but “matter ritually placed,” by Kapil, by her hands, her person, in her words. Part of the force of Ban is its creation, we might say, of a Ban-choratope: Hayes and Southall, April 23, 1979; Uxbridge Road, London, 2012; Loveland, Colorado, 2012; South Delhi, India, 2014; “It is the last day. I am 23. My husband is 24. It is 1895. It is 1431. It is 1972. We have been married for five months.” As Kapil writes, “A foreign body is a frequency.” Her work passionately receives and transmits and amplifies its frequencies into a reverberating space: Ban.
Spahr’s work sounds out the question and location of voicing itself: solo/choral, local/global, national/transnational, human/nonhuman/transpecific. “It’s All Good, It’s All Fucked” stages the phrases of its title precisely as an inner refrain the poet chants to herself, uncertain and exhilarated, hopeful and despondent, as the charged season of “minor uprisings” gives way to disappointment. The poem tracks the transmutation of that titular refrain-line into another possibility, that of “Non-Revolution” — which has “revolution as a possibility in their name but it is a modified and thus negated possibility so as to suggest they are possibly neither good nor fucked.”
The absolutism of the “It’s All This Or That” coexists with, and subtly turns toward (“verse” is, etymologically, a “turning”), the horizon of what is merely, crucially, “possibly,” just so. Spahr thus floats her refrains on a vast ocean of revolutionary theory and specific historical experience, condensing complex ideological positions into song lines. For a while Spahr becomes one who “now goes around muttering fuck all y’all,” a refrain for this later moment of disappointment, resentment, blockage — which, movingly, a younger activist friend talks her through: con-verse. Again, what Spahr is doing here, it seems to me, is conducting a choratopic sounding out of an experiential trajectory — how excitement modulates into sadness, hope toward despair, yet not quite: “I begin walking, determined, head down.”
Spahr’s book begins with a meditation on song (“in this time song holds loss”) and ends with a similar, pointed turn, as we modulate toward a layered, experienced sadness.
I put on my earphones and click on the app that imitates the radio. A country song about abandonment is playing, about laying down on the bathroom floor, about wasting all those tears. […] The song is simple in its structure. Three chords, of course. Two four line stanzas and one half stanza […] The poem begins and ends with the singer crying on the bathroom floor but the song resolves it too. I’m through with all the crying the song states, even though the song gets all its power from being about the soft crying after being left standing on the street corner. I begin walking, determined, head down.
To hear the clichéd crying, the patterns we all know, and to feel their power; to hear one kind of song and make another; to register how “the song resolves it” and hold that yet move toward other resolutions; to transmute supposedly familiar songs into lyrical-critical materials; to feel out the difference between feelings and given forms; to abjure outworn songs for new patternings of solo and collective; to take song as prompt for thought and not only refrain; to be “through with crying” and embrace “determination” without abandoning the cry: here is a manifesto of and in form, not only in propositional content. Here the project of Spahr’s book suspends itself. And in the pun in “determined,” we get a glorious Marxian horizon for poiesis, the poet living in a social order “determined in the last instance by the economic,” yet also determined to move complicatedly into a co-made emerging present we call the future.
And what of this future, for poetries and projects? Let us return to the work with which I began, Dorothea Lasky’s Poetry Is Not a Project. Lasky ends her chapbook thus: “There’s a lot we have to do in this new century to make our world better and to make our world better for poets. Let’s start first by valuing poems over projects.” I can neither agree nor disagree with this — not least because Boyer, Kapil, and Spahr remind me of the force of Lasky’s final claim: “Because poems, the way they are created and the way they exist, can, in a small way, remind the world of what’s still possible.” As Spahr writes: “Sometimes it feels like it is over and it’s not.” In negation, possibility. If winter comes, can spring be far behind? So Shelley asked, and the question remains open. What is required to sound out our shifting season, our moment? What forms, what materials, what choratopic sensors, antennae? How even to define “our moment”? The Anthropocene? Late capitalism? The drone era? Middle age? A gust of wind? A passing cloud? A slap, a kiss, shattering glass? Where are the songs of spring, of springs transforming? As Wallace Stevens might have said, these are the poems of our changing climate.
Maureen N. McLane is the author of four books of poetry, including Mz N: the serial (FSG, 2016).