Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Note on Greenfield's Tracer

The ordinary meets the apocalyptic in Richard Greenfield’s Tracer, as mundane activities—reading the mail, household repairs, stopping by a garage sale, taking a hike—“leak autobiography” ("The Sign," 37) and the speaker confronts himself with the twin burdens of isolation and being American in a time of war and paranoia. As Andy Frazee notes in his review of the book, "Greenfield upends Whitman’s paradigm of personal and national self-making, reversing it into a question of how much of the self is self-made and how much is received or constituted by the culture." There always was a lonely side to Walt Whitman: his eagerness to merge with everyone and everything he sees suggests an anxiety about the insufficiency of ordinary human connection: the speaker in Leaves of Grass has no blood relations, no non-imaginary lovers, does not/cannot marry, has no fixed place of employment, has no identity smaller or more constant than "an American, a kosmos, one of the roughs."

The speaker in Greenfield’s book is a Whitman drained of optimism and thus all the more absorptive and spongelike; caught in a Beckettian updraft, he can't go on and does. Unable to disidentify with his own imperial self ("Self-hatred eventually coils upon itself" ["Rezone," 55], the speaker of these poems (many of them named for high-tech weapons systems: Maverick, Bastion, Hellfire) nevertheless, through a kind of caustic irony, attempts to dissolve the boundaries between himself (on "the outskirts," from "the fringe month") and the remote possibility of a reader.

One of my students reading the book yesterday reminded me of Greenfield's poem "Avenger," published in the first issue of the late lamented journal Soft Targets; a poem written for Tracer that does not appear in the published book. To my eyes the poem represents a transition or hinge between the romantic-in-spite-of-itself Carnage in the Lovetrees and the bleaker, more astringent Tracer. "Avenger" (another weapons system, I imagine) locates the "I" on an actual or apparent battlefield, whereas the violence haunting Tracer is all at a far distance, thus depriving its speaker (hereafter, "the Tracer") of even the ghost of heroism that, say, Whitman accrued to himself by nursing wounded Civil War soldiers. The "Avenger" stages a scene of complicity with imperial violence that, in context, reminds me of the feckless torturer-poet of Kent Johnson's poem "Get the Hood Back On".

In a move that Johnson might or might not approve of, the Tracer stands removed from overtly political gestures—he is neither righteous nor does he offer mea culpas. It's poetry itself—not the American poetry scene—that he wants to test for its capacity to be human, in spite of the incredible odds against it. That test of poetry, and of the romantic stance that Greenfield can't help but identify with poetry, is crystallized in the poem "Weapon Alpha," an ironic restaging of Wordsworth's famous "Boy of Winander":

I wanted to talk

Give it up, the voice said

The voice

was the brief mediation between the self and the absorbing blank cliffs

there would be no talking, only listening to whomever this other

that is the voice is


This was not a place; this was an event:

I was measured by it

little remained or time, but there was none other

to gauge besides me, remanded into what should be

forgotten (the stones would never remember)

I wanted to be not me

and there was no other there

without me, though I insisted in the falsity

no other was there—only the dispersal of

my own self

un-wildering where I went
In Wordsworth's poem, later incorporated into The Prelude, the doomed Boy shouts and hears nature respond, his sense of self magnified by its resonance with the voice of nature—though the poem suggests that what he hears, what most moves him, "Listening, [into] a gentle shock of mild surprise" is not "the voice / Of mountain-torrents" but "echoes loud / Redoubled and redoubled." For the Tracer, the voice is "Weapon Alpha" in the war for the self's dominion, and as such must be put into question or suspended so as to make listening to the Other (surely the diminished Nature of his world and ours, but also the political Other, racial and national Others, as well of course of the unconscious Other that je is). If there's any salvation for the Tracer it's in the otherness of poetry itself, and the possibility that the situation of the (Romantic) poem—the voice crying in the wilderness, hoping to absorb its mana—is not a place but an event.

Which word I can't help but read in its Badiouan sense, as that which inaugurates subjectivity in the realms of politics, science, love, or art, through the new subject's fidelity to it. In poetry, as Badiou's inaesthetics puts it, such fidelity is achieved either through Rimbaudian multiplication (so that the false authenticity of the self in effect cancels itself out to become the void-space from which a responsible subject might be born) or Mallarmean subtraction (there is no self and no world either, only words that are the antithesis of "voice," presenting the void directly). Tracer, then, represents a surprising shift toward Mallarme for this poet, who has written a book that articulates a rare American negativity, out of which something beyond the deadly equation ("Already I am we," ["Speaking For," 13]) of the reflexive self might emerge.

1 comment:

Kent Johnson said...

Aha. Now this sounds like a book worth getting.

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