Sunday, August 14, 2005

What's going to happen in Gaza tomorrow? I am hoping for a political miracle: that the expected violence from the hardline settler faction will not materialize, that the withdrawal will be peaceful, that this is the beginning of the end of the deadlocked suffering both sides have inflicted on each other and themselves. Is it unreasonable to hope for such miracles? How can we not?

Rage, self-immolating rage, coupled with sick (nauseated/nauseating) humor, is the primary affect of Kent Johnson's Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War. The title contains the whole program: standing behind Adorno's infamous saying is Benjamin's moral paradox, "There is no document of civilization that is not also a document of barbarism." This book is indisputably both: a document of a very particular, one might even say mandarin, aspect of American civilization (both a "high" civilization, as "lyric poetry" suggests, but also in a more daiy sense, simply life as it is lived, throwing a match on charcoal briquets) and a document of the barbarism that precedes, sustains, and most terribly, comes after such civilization: the barbarism we accept in the name of continuing our "way of life." It is an absolutely untenable posiiton that most of us inhabit at the cost of ideological blinders or cognitive dissonance—the latter often manifesting in the poetry which I believe Johnson's work is just a more extreme, naked version of. Isn't the contempt and self-hatred that so often manifests in discourse around contemporary poetry, often enough in the poems themselves, not only the rage of those without the cultural capital of, say, a filmmaker (but look what most of them do with it! but look, as I just did, at Miranda July's new film Me, You, and Everybody We Know, a film not about the war yet indisputably contemporary, evocative of the pain of unflourishing, in ourselves and our neighbors) but the rage of those who cannot find an audience that might listen and be changed, that might learn to hope and act. That this is Kent's position is manifested most obviously in the now notrious Afterword in which he denounces Charles Bernstein's attack on the Poets Against the War anthology/site as being insufficiently challenging to linguistic norms: Kent is offended by their insistence on business as usual, that is, their commitment to remaining poets as they are. And so Kent's book is addressed, suffocatingly, to himself; I think many of those enraged or repulsed by the book identify with the exruciating moral position that he occupies and see him setting himself up as a self-righteous accuser, a misprision made more likely, maybe inevitable, by his use of so many proper names, most notably in the "Mandrake" poem (a parodically overwrought new form, intended perhaps to gesture at the futility of trying to resolve moral/political dilemmas with new poetic forms), "The New York School (or: I Grew Ever More Intense)." The poem is an unresolved dialectic of documents in which canonical and semi-canonical NY School poets are transformed, literally, into hygiene products ("flowers") against an Orientalist backdrop that cannot but fail to erase the stink of the "fruits," italicized passages of eyewitness accounts of horrors and suffering perpetrated by the U.S. and its proxies (though there are some curious transpositions). The last paragraph imagines a "lucky" Japaense poet collecting mushrooms with his son in the forest, who sentimentally asks himself, "How is it possible the years have gone by like they have and that I will never get them back? How is it that this world is full of sufferinng and hurt? ... I guess I've been pretty lucky after all, enjoying the pleasures of calligrapy and sake in all the surplus time the labor of others has more or less made for me. Some of us are like rain, and others of us are like the thirsty grounnd, and others of us are like parasitical mushrooms, especially poets, and that's just the way things have come to be. The truth is that I felt like running back down the hill as fast as my legs would take me, shrieking, seeking I do not know what." The path out of poetry? The path from poetry to politics—effective politics? Can poetry survive outside of its forest? Should it? This powerful, unsettling, maddening book raises these and many more questions—questions that I think most poets of any value have already been asking for a while now, these questions that stick in our throats. But Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz is a valuable document nonetheless. It could not have been produced at any other time but now.


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