One cannot hide from that which never sets—
finding poetry and wars hidden in plain sightFor the unknown dead and wounded civilians, prisoners, refugees of the American and American proxy Wars aboard and the Three Wars on Americans in AmericaThe government under pretext of security and progress, liberated us from our land, resources, culture, dignity and future. They violated every treaty they ever made with us. I use the word "liberated" loosely and sarcastically, in the same vein that I view the use of the words "collateral damage" when they kill innocent men, women and children.They describe people defending their homelands as terrorists, savages and hostiles . . .My words reach out to the non-Indian: Look now before it is too late—see what is being done to others in your name and see what destruction you sanction when you say nothing.—Leonard Peltier, Annual Message January 2004
———(Leonard Peltier is now serving 31st year as an internationally recognized Political Prisoner of the United States Government)
Never was anything more wanted than, to-day, and here in the States, the poet of the modern is wanted . . . At all times, perhaps, the central point in any nation, and that whence it sways others, is its national literature, especially its archetypal poems. Above all previous lands, a great original literature is surely to become the justification and reliance, (in some respects the sole reliance) of American democracy . . .I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness of heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ'd in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings) nor is humanity itself believ'd in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the litterateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, &c., the most dismal phantoms I now of, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage. From deceit in the spirit, the mother of all false deeds, the offspring is already incalculable. An acute and candid person, in the revenue department in Washington, who is led in the course of his employment to regularly visit the cities north, south and west, to investigate frauds, has talk'd with me much of his discoveries. The depravity of our business class is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration; and the judiciary is tainted. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only to kill time. In business, (this all-devouring modern word, business) the one object alone is pecuniary gain . . . The best class we show is but a mob of fashionably dressed speculators and vulgarians . . . It is as though we were somehow endowed with a vast and more thoroughly appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.—Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas, 1871
While all looked on and cheered the Emperor’s New Clothes, and spoke among themselves how they must get some as much like them as they could afford, a small child stepped past the guards and the Emperor, seeing him, bade him come closer.Ah! The great Majesty and Tolerance of the Emperor for even the smallest in his realm! The crowd was thrilled with this meeting of Great Compassion and Love for the People with the small Figure of Innocence."Is there something you would like to ask me? Do you have a poem to recite for me?" asked the Great Emperor."Yes," said the small child. "I want to know why you are riding a horse without any clothes on."
"The real war will never get written in the books:" —Walt Whitman
"What is not in the open street is false, derived that is to say literature" —Henry Miller
Author's note: Two books I highly recommend reading on poetry and war in the United States are Walt Whitman's magnificent Civil War sections in Specimen Days, which I had hoped to write about here and will sometime; and Kent Johnson's Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz. It is reviewed here and I reviewed it for Eileen Tabios' journal Galatea Resurrects.
One of the first views I glimpsed of Milwaukee from a speeding car was a large green sign with huge white letters that read:
It was stunning to see so bluntly stated the blood kinship of the two. Their sharing in part the same building (this was years prior to the now famous Calatrava "Wings"), was a concise, concrete culmination of civilization in all its civic glory. A sublime apotheosis attained, expressed in clean well-lit modern architecture and a four word, two line poem the equal of any epic.
The sign also triggered a funny memory. When my brother Jed and I were in London, we slept during the September nights with several hundred others in piles of insulating leaves in Hyde Park. If the night was especially damp, we'd climb a good thickly leaved tree and sleep with others among the branches. During the non-pastoral days, we walked all over the city, taking in the sights, smoking opiated hash and eating bread and cheese. A favorite haunt on rainy days was the British Museum. Like the former British Empire, one wondered if the sun ever set upon it. The rooms stuffed to the gills with objects of all times and places seemed to be endless. Something as significant as the Rosetta Stone would seem but a very modest "find" stashed offhandedly among the looming Egyptian Antiquities. One barely noticed it, though reading about it had been a great event in one of my earlier lives. Without my realizing it, the sheer volume of splendour had been steadily jading my senses. I felt like the grandfather of a friend, who in her words, "couldn't tell the difference between a chandelier and a chamber pot."
One day, which seemed to have gotten lost in the sands of time among the endless rooms of clocks we had been moving through in a stoned trance, I had a great vision. It was of thousands of British soldiers rioting in a city in India, with flames bursting from buildings, people screaming and running, and fleeing hordes of looters. Even though it was in India, certain areas reminded me of Detroit. In the lurid light, it was hard to tell looters and soldiers apart, until one realized they were all the same. Following this revelation, I saw in swift succession a series of views of bruised and battered, dirty uniformed and bewigged British soldiers cleaning and packing with the utmost dainty gloved care thousands of precious clocks, all of them to be sent to these very rooms we had lost a day of our lives in.
The sudden juxtaposition of Detroit looters, "criminals" and "arsonists", with the British soldiers of Empire daintily packaging all their "legitimate" "spoils of war" for shipping to the noble British museum—as opposed to the transport of hot tvs to be stacked inside a ghetto tenement—got me laughing so hard I thought I would choke on my windpipe. My brother and a guard had to pound me on the back and drag me to a safe chair. After that I could barely set foot in the museum again—all I could think of was endless rooms of displays of looted tvs, carefully labeled and sorted by model and type, and ghetto rooms in Detroit filled with the world's most elaborate clocks. The insanity of it wouldn't leave my thoughts—that in war it is a noble endeavor of Empire to do what in peacetime will get a civilian shot or imprisoned.
And why? Because an object, a thing, whether a "priceless" painting or a cuckoo clock of rare carving, a tv set or videogame, is worth more, has more "cultural capital", than another ‘thing"—a human being.
Years later, standing in the crowd in the State Museum in Amsterdam looking at a Rembrandt, I saw a man suddenly run straight at the famous painting and begin slashing at it with a knife. What his motives were I don't know. But I did wonder if he was protesting having been reduced to a valueless thing by all the State apparti of Institutions and media. Rather than look on the public mask of the faceless powers daily annihilating him, he chose an act of "terrorism"—or what I call "tearerism" in making some of my collages—to try to bring his living face face to face with what is hidden behind the mask of Institutionalized art, power, media.
"For now we see as through a glass, darkly. Now I know in part, but then shall I know in full, fully as also I am known." Perhaps he was thinking of that, I do not know.
In 1909's "The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism", the 20th century's ur-Manifesto, F.T. Marinetti unleashes a roaring, ravenous rhetoric (his former symbolism on speed), hymning himself in the role of a racing car driver whose machine is more beautiful than The Victory of Samothrace. Intoxicated by the "absolute . . . of eternal, omnipresent of speed", the danger-loving poet declaims that "(e)xcept in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece . . . We will glorify war—the world's only hygiene . . .We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind . . . '
Art as aggression glorifying war will destroy the art museum—so what does one do with the masterpieces of aggressive character? Is it possible for them to maintain "eternal, omniscient speed"? Or do they in turn have to be destroyed, relegated to the junkyard in the beauty of unending struggle? Is there to be no honoring, honorable, restful memorial for them as there is for war itself?
The Victory of Samothrace proved wingedly swifter than the racing car however, in the paradox of "eternal" speeds—having its agents simply purchase and put the living artists' aggressive masterpieces alongside itself in the museums. After all, what artist is going to destroy the museum he or she is inhabiting themselves?
While the presence of the living enlivens the environs of the famous dead and the fabled "anonymous" of the museums, the quiet halls of the War Memorial remain the home of the dead alone.
A destroyed or captured art museum leaks loot in rivulets, streams, flash floods. A War Memorial in any condition yields nothing of any great value. The dead, unlike the living, unlike art objects, have no price on their heads.In the dining room nobody, except Lieutenant Dub, was asleep. Quartermaster Vanek, who had received from brigade headquarters at Sanok a new schedule relating to supplies, was studying it carefully, and he discovered that the nearer the troops got to the front, the less food they were given. He could not help laughing at one paragraph in the schedule which prohibited the use of saffron and ginger in the preparation of soup for the rank and file. The schedule also contained a remark to the effect that bones were to be collected and sent to the base for transfer to divisional stores. This was rather vague, as it did not specify whether it referred to human bones or those of other cattle which had been slaughtered.—Jaroslav Hasek, The Good Soldier Schweik
In "conquered" Baghdad in early April 2003, while Americans soldiers enjoyed pornos and liquers in Saddam's palaces, the real aggressive art work was going on. Looters (preplanned?) went in and out of the art museums like a strike force "securing" and commandeering an entire mega-mall protected only by the proverbial sleeping security guard. Out flew priceless items, including tile fragments of the world's oldest extant poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh. In the cradling arms of a looter, poetry found once again its oldest companion, war.
Poetry, like the Victory of Samothrace, is far faster than Marinetti's machines. The only reason Homer's annihilated Troy was found to have actually existed was by means of its epic, which had kept pace through time and so met up with 19th century archeology. 21st century technologies now make use of the continuously retranslated poem, still seeking to prove which of many long dead cities found with its help is the Troy of Homer, the dwelling of this or that warrior, king, queen, tyrant, poet. Humans may let go the old myths, but paradoxically set poetry-guided machines to find the traces and fragments of the time of their reality. The Futurist machines become engaged in poetry's time machine, like Fellini's Satyricon, which he called "a science-fiction film set in the past".
Whether for or against the First World War, the poets and artists of Marinetti's time responded with an international revolution in new forms, new contents, new understandings, ideas of being an artist/poet. To name but a very few:
The Italian Futurists had not only Marinetti's "Parole in Liberta" in Visual/Sound poetry, but also Russolo's work with Noise, and Manifestos and works in Cinema, Architecture, Photography and Tactilism. Their Performance Art and Theater, performed to huge, rioting, mainly working class crowds have the highly concentrated exploding energy and very brief duration of American Hard Core Music's anti-Reagan songs of the early 1980s. Writing at the front, Apollinaire created the Visual Poetry of his Calligrammes. The Russian Futurists, anti-War and pro-Revolution, created Zaum (Trans-rational) poetry drawing on Pentecostal and Shamanic "speaking in tongues" to be transcribed by artists' other than the poet's handwriting and made into handmade books using a wide variety of everyday scrap materials. The energies of Russian "folk" materials transformed by life in the cities and expressed in Russian Futurism and Malevich's Suprematism joined forces with the Revolution to destroy the society and culture of the Czars and participate in the creation of a new one.
Aligned with no movement, a soldier at the front under a non-stop moment-to-moment suspended death sentence, the poet Giuseppe Ungaretti created his own form of Minimalism. A very short poem stood a better chance of being "completed" before death than even one of one standard verse. The extreme compression finds an incredible opening:M'illumino
The English Vorticists also experimented with typographies, and Pound and Eliot began collaging and montaging various ancient, new, translated and untranslated forms to search for fragments with which to create an order in the chaos. Unlike many of their peers, they look not to the future, but to the past. With fellow expatriate Gertrude Stein, they are committed to both formal innovation and a deep social conservatism, a belief in and support of elites. Concentrated among the elite, formal innovation can be safely entrusted to the specialists, the formalists.
The anti-war poets and artists, though, created Dada, the most extremely radical movement in all directions, artistic, social, psychological, spiritual, and political, allying with the Far Left in Berlin during the 1919 Civil War. Dada hurled itself into the world like an international guerilla anti-Terror (State Terror in all its Institutions) terrorist of non-lethal means, taking on a unique character in each city it found a home in with just a few or even one local practioner. The great Japanese Zen master, poet and essayist Shinkichi Takahashi, was Japan's self-proclaimed first –and for a while only--Dadaist poet and agitator in his youth.
In his diary for 5th March 1917 Hugo Ball, one of the original Zurich Dadas, writes:The human figure is progressively disappearing from pictorial art, and no object is present except in fragmentary form. This is one more proof that the human countenance has become ugly and outworn, and that the things which surround us have become objects of revulsion. The next step is for poetry to discard language as painting has discarded the object, and for similar reasons. Nothing like this has existed before.
Even in Zaum there are still fragments of words, neologisms, some remains of contact with the original language. In Ball's abstract phonetic poetry, whose influence has traveled via Lettrisme into the present, all this is abandoned in favor of a poetry of sounds without any desire to be understood in terms of words of any time period. This is different from Italian Futurism, Zaum and Lettrisme, which have Utopian energies directed to alternative/future languages, and make use of Visual Poetry as/in their notations. Dada notations still use conventional, albeit distorted typographically, letterings.
(In the 1940's, the great English Sound/Visual poet Bob Cobbing began making visual poetry without any lexical notations at all, and later began performing anything as a "text" for sound poetry—the surfaces of a rock held in the hand for example. Walking together, he and I used to sound out poetry and songs made by side walk cracks and the movements of tree shadows on them and separately from them. This abandons not simply language, as Ball's poetry does, but the need for any form of human-made "text" of notations.)
On the evening of 25th June, 1917, dressed in a costume which made him look like an obelisk with flapping wings at the neck surmounted by a cylindrical hat, (an anti-"winged victory"), Ball was carried on stage at the Cabaret Voltaire and began chanting: "gadji beri mamba glandridi laula lonni cadori". By loosening the bonds of language to such an extent, Ball opened up the door for the widespread use of chance in Dada composition, both verbally and visually as explored first in the works of Tristan Tzara and Jean (Hans) Arp.
While Tzara and Arp cut out words and forms and let them fall randomly to create poems and images and reliefs, Kurt Schwitters went further. Using materials found "by chance" in the streets and anywhere and everywhere, Schwitters uses letterings, words, colors, forms, textures, weights, thicknesses, to make arrangements as multi-sensual collages/collage-poems. In sound poetry, he uses letters and syllables as though they are the painter's materials of lines, colors, forms, arranging them also in a collaged manner.
Schwitters' attitude towards chance is much more complex than the other Dadas'. Chance may appear to be so to the perceiver, the finder of the object—but not to the object. "There is no such thing as chance. A door may happen to fall shut, but this is not by chance. It is a conscious experience of the door, the door, the door."
The strange subversiveness of Schwitter's thought and work can be seen by placing this statement next to Mallarme's canonical "Un coup de des n'abolira jamais la chance" ("A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance"). The throw of the dice never abolishes chance—but for whom? The poet, the perceiver. What about for the dice?
Mallarme's poem, usually considered the first modern visual poem, has vast white areas of silence, and Mallarme is also famous for stating the still very much alive high modernist/formalist desire to "purify the language of the tribe". Again, like chance, it is the poet's perception of purity that is meant, The roles (not just the rolls) of the dice, of language, of the tribe, from their points of view, are not of interest.
For Schwitters, the door does not let one think it shut by chance—it keeps on "repeating itself" so to speak, a combination of echoing and shutting over and over again. The door is left open so to speak for the voice of an otherness, its own.
For Schwitters the otherness is the found materials he makes use of. Rather than "purifying" language, Schwitters makes a refusal of such an elitist perspective by using refuse, dirty trash, thrown away useless, broken things, as materials for language. In terms of an ecology of poetry and art, he is a recycler, while Mallarme and his descendents tend to be great litterers, since in purifying language of course one is throwing out tons of "trash"! Poetic justice is having itself a great laugh! What the highminded heap in the streets other beings make homes of—indeed Schwitters three times due to the interventions of the Nazis and War built his famous Merzbau, a structure made of refuse into which one could enter and begin climbing among a myriad displays of objects, poems, paintings, enigmas.
Even the act of finding, which "leaves things open to chance", may not necessarily be by chance on the part of the thing which is "found". I work in many ways much like Schwitters in my artwork and writing and life in general, and often there is the sense that things find one as much as one finds them. More than anything it is an experience of an uncanny recognition.
When Rimbaud wrote "I is an other", he immediately follows it first by the example of wood waking to find itself a violin, and, in a second example, brass finding itself a trumpet. The analogy of "I is an other" with materials shaped into objects certainly can "leave the door open" for a "shock of recognition" of an "I" with an object, an object with a being. Rimbaud wrote that he meant words "literally and in all senses". Poetry is not to be a question of metaphor, but of something other, "literally" and "in all senses" with all senses playing a part in the understanding of meaning. This is part of the famous program of "a long, reasoned derangement of the senses": to arrive at "the unknown", an area in which one can literally say "I is an other" and of the language for this, "it has to reinvented".
Like Marinetti later on, Rimbaud was interested in the speed of poetry. In his letter to Paul Demeny of 15 May 1871, Rimbaud notes that "(i)n Greece, as I have said, verses and lyres give rhythm to Action". Much further in the letter, he comes back to the Greeks, noting that the poetry of the future will be "(f)undamentally . . . Greek poetry again in a way", except for one major change. "Poetry will not lend its rhythm to action, it will be in advance." (Rimbaud's italics.) Not surprisingly, it is frequently noted how much of Rimbaud's "life of action" after he stopped writing is already described in his poetry and prose poems. An incredible number of the spare, flat sentences of his letters to his mother and sister from East Africa can be found already existing in their "original state of sons of the Sun" in the poetry, to paraphrase his description of what he had wanted to restore Verlaine to.
In American writing and the arts, the last three figures concerned with speed in relation to poetry, art and action as a way of both being and creating are Charles Olson, Jack Kerouac and Robert Smithson. Kerouac died in November, 1969, Olson in January, 1970 and Smithson in July, 1973.
In his "Projective Verse" Manifesto of 1950, Olson urges a return to the physical speeds of the human body, it movements in writing, in breathing, in articulating sounds, in "dancing while sitting down" and in living a "stance towards reality". Olson also introduces new ways of thinking of and using the typewriter for the visual notations of Projective soundings and seeings within the open field of the poem as it is being made and then performed. Though of a much different kind, he is as adamant about speed as Marinetti:ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMEEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION . . . at all points (even, as I should say, of our management of daily reality as of the daily work) get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speeds, the perceptions; theirs, the acts, split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can citizen . . .
Olson's "stance towards reality" outside the poem as well as towards the poem itself involves what he calls "objectism".Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the "subject" and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature (with certain instructions to carry out) and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects. For man himself is an object . . .It comes to this: the use of a man, by himself and thus by others, lies in how he conceives his relation to nature, that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence . . . if he stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share.
Olson's idea of a person being an object among objects and so "hearing through himself secrets objects share" is an interesting way of "getting rid of the lyrical interference of the ego". It assumes that if a person is an object among other objects, the otherness of the object and the person to each other will be greatly lessened, and the person can listen in on the objects' sharing of secrets. Yet what if the object has no such recognition of the person? That is, the object remains other, contained within itself, silent. "The hills know, but do not tell," wrote Emily Dickinson.
When Rimbaud writes "I is an other" (also translated as "I is somebody else") he can be meaning that the "I" you call and think of as "Arthur Rimbaud" is an other to the "I" which is NOT the one you "know" and are "thinking of". He is an other, a "somebody else", but not an object among objects. When Schwitters says that the door did not shut by chance, but that it was "a conscious experience of the door, the door, the door", he is recognizing that the door is an other—not simply an object, as he himself is not an object, but a consciousness also, to itself. In a way, this all sounds a bit idiotic on my part—like the Red Queen, "I have believed as many as five impossible things before breakfast" if not many more--but for the way poetry and war may relate to each other in terms of this.
In her essay "The Iliad: Poem of Force", Simone Weil writes: "To define force—it is that X that turns anybody into a thing". In war, all persons are turned into things so that they may be destroyed, not as persons any longer, but as things—"collateral damage" for example. "Savages, terrorists, militants, rebels, outlaws, potential threat, pre-emptive strike . . . " but not persons, not "citizens", or "civilians", or even "others", but things, objects, labels, "targets" of "civilized" "smart bombs" as opposed to the absolute barbarity of the most evil weapon of them all, a human bomb.
What is it which makes these human suicide bombs so incredibly reviled—precisely that they are NOT things. The true terror is not the bomb, but that what one treated and thought of and destroyed as a thing should appear as a human right before one and blow you and themselves both up as humans, not as things. For example, "There never was any such thing as a Palestinian," Golda Meir told a BBC interviewer in 1969. When a thing that does not exist turns out to be human—this is the terror that has to be annihilated at all costs, according to human decision makers. And so hundreds of thousands of "things" and "no such things" are being imprisoned, murdered, starved, bombed, threatened with nukes to keep from being recognized as humans, with human rights. In fact, they are destroyed as things in the name of bringing "freedom" from being things to them. Their own thingness stands in the way of their freedom, so it must be destroyed. After that, they can become recognized as humans. As the old saying goes, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian".
I am sure Olson himself never meant for his sense of objectism to be extended in this manner at all. The possibility of it is being formulated this way is there, though, and hinted at in some formulations of Olson's phrase. Recently I stumbled on a discussion among some self styled "avant" poets who wanted to use the idea of the poet as an object among objects in order not only to get rid of the ego, but to construct a form of poetry which would be able to be continuously "resistant" to "the language of the government". Not just now, but long term.
The idea—extrapolated from one put forward by Charles Bernstein in his talk "Enough"--was that rather than write protest poetry of the usual sort, which is written in a "normative" language not that different supposedly from the government's own, poets should write in forms which are as opposed as possible via complexity and ambiguity to the forms the government and its protestors use. Ultimately, if properly achieved, this would be a kind of "long range" "resistant" poetry, not subject to appropriation. One imagines something like Dick Cheney's or Dr. Strangelove's bunkers and mine shafts, loaded with poems whose resistance are almost equal to the incredible shell life of the Twinkie, or the half life of Strontium 90, or the survival genius of the cockroach. One wonders, too, if due to their incredible complexities and ambiguities, their "resistances" to government code crackers, if when found some thousand years hence, and if translated, they will be as comprehensible as such mere normative nostrums as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Iliad.
The Good Solider Schweik reports to Lieutenant Dub that, following orders to observe what the retreating enemy has left behind to learn about what soldiers experience at the front, he has found ditches filled with discarded weapons:A ray of hope darted through Lieutenant Dub's mind that at last he'd manage to get Schweik up before a court-martial for antimilitaristic and treasonable propaganda, and so he quickly asked, " So you think a soldier ought to throw away the cartridges that are lying about in this ditch, or the bayonets we can see there?""Oh, no, sir, beg to report, sir, not at all," replied Schweik with a sweet smile. "But just have a look down there at that chamber pot."And, right enough, at the bottom of the cutting lay defiantly a chamber pot . . . discarded by the station master as material for arguments in future centuries by archeologists who, having unearthed this settlement, would go quite crazy about it, and school children would be taught about the age of enameled chamber pots.
After Olson, American poetry has lost a lot of interest in the kinds of speeds Olson wrote of—those of perception, breath, human nerves, actions, awarenesses as a kind of continual training for writing poetry and for being in the world. Olson was an ecologist and activist very much of the think globally, act locally style. There is an excellent collection of his letters to the Gloucester papers on matters of local interest involving the tearing down of old buildings to make way for parking lots and many other issues with ongoing relevance to anti-globalization movements the world over.
In her Introduction to Manifesto A Century of Isms, Mary Ellen Caws notes that the energy level of the "postmodernist" manifestoes is largely undone by their "dryness". In contrast to the speed of Olson's vision, there is the static quality of some of the final entries in the book, including those of American L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry.
In "Why American Poetry is Boring, Again", Amiri Baraka writes that in the current situation, a poetry of "the outdoors", of the actual, is being eschewed. Instead there is a desire for belonging, safety, all the comforts of Homeland Security, with the streets kept clear of protestors, potential tearerists and terrorists, looters and the like. Baraka writes of the poets' "desire to be in the social diarrheic of society's value and meaning". The "blunt consideration" of playing it safe, of not "saying something", to protect one's career, creates a pervasive dullness, an entropy of the speeds of poetries involved with an actual which includes war, being part of it or opposed to it.Baraka writes:This isn't limited to the "Academic Cowards of Reaction" . . . These (poets) would include certain crypto-Babbits—of the so-called L*A*N*G*U*G*E poets whose theoretical quasi "left" masquerade seeks to obscure a limp conservatism that opposes political activism by artists (e.g. Ginsberg) as an "impossible ideology". And with that their dullness to be construed as profoundly arty . . .In the cases I speak of poetry has become the devil's tail waggling flashily out of Bush's behind, like Gerald 2X's 60's devil cartoons. One wonders, is it still called "high art"? Now too high to deal with the angst, pain and ignorance of the real world though certainly an obtuse registry of it. Content with the masturbatory, inoffensiveness of an actual loyal opposition, inferred loudly as "deep intellectualism". Childish feints at surrealism, jokey pop art, the inside jokes for the uncognescenti, all pass as wow! poetry!1
One of the central issues in the "poetry wars" is the question of identity. The language-centered writers oppose, though in different ways, as Olson did, the lyric self and ego. Since 9/11 identity has been threatened in ways far more radical than any opposition to the lyrical self. Yet for safety's sake perhaps, it is found best to ignore this, because it would demand a "speaking out" for something that one claims doesn't exist. "Resistance" in language, in "high art" is considered the only true resistance, because it doesn't take part in the same language the perpetrators and protestors use. The only problem is, language of all kinds lives on the same planet. "You can run, but you can't hide" as the song says, putting to music Heraclitus: "One cannot hide from that which never sets". Sooner or later the supposed safely constructed "resistance" will be exposed.
"Resistant" language and resistance to the lyrical self, the ego, all this may appear so to the creators of it. But from the point of view of the power which is supposedly being resisted, this is a welcome work in the area of the laying down of arms against itself. For it has performed the miracle of Schweik's parable, turning weapons into a "defiant" enameled chamber pot to save its own skin.
On Friday, 29 December 2006, roughly 60 "innovative" poets gave an off-site MLA reading, to an audience of primarily themselves. This year the poets were greatly excited and empowered as Marjorie Perloff, Super Critic, and a long time supporter of their cause, is the new MLA President. There had been a much greater focus at the Conference on Poetry, especially their own and related poetries for that reason, and all boded well for the future. While the poets were reading, Saddam Hussein was being hung in Iraq. A great day for the democracies of the USA and Iraq, President Bush claimed.
In the Philadelphia Inquirer of that day, Susan Snyder quoted Perloff's fellow panelist, U Penn Professor and poet Charles Bernstein on the rise in jobs and importance of poetry and creative writing programs: "What we're interested in is talking about these works as works of art, rather than extracting the sociological or historical information from them".
This is very much in the line of Mallarme's calling for poets to be "purifiers of the language of the tribe". Poetry has to be cleansed again of all the detritus that has been being smuggled in from "outside". Or that is living all around it and getting more difficult to ignore.
Bernstein and many others have written for a long time now a poetry of "resistences", against transparency and closure. All the while the society and culture have rolled merrily along farther and farther to the Right, as though there is no resistance at all.
Long ago, the supposed enemies of transparency and closure had dispensed with these. War is not about transparency or closure at all. Sun-Tzu writes 2500 years ago in The Art of War: "The Way of War is a Way of Deception". And currently Americans live among three intertwined Wars Without End—the War on Poverty, turned by Reagan into the War on the Poor, the War on Drugs, aka the War on drug users endlessly supplied with ever more drugs under the guise of the War on Terror, aka the War on personal identity and freedom. All three of these Wars take place everyday all across the USA. And the casualties pile up right along with ones from American Wars overseas. In the last two weeks, six people I knew died from the new heroin pouring in from "liberated" Afghanistan. Several more lie in hospitals and sit in jails.
Yeats wrote that poetry is what is made with the argument with oneself, and rhetoric, politics, made from the argument with others. Identity, self, then, in relation to poetry is crucial—that is, if one does indeed argue with oneself!
Ever since Michael Rothenberg asked me to write about "poetry and war", it has been extremely difficult to figure out how to do so. Paul Celan wrote that "Poetry no longer imposes itself, it exposes itself" and this I work to be honest with and not impose poetry, my "ideas" of poetry or some idea of poetry, but to find what is exposed as poetry hidden in plain sight and work with that.
A constant struggle is with oneself, and I don't mean a lyric self or oneself as an object among objects. I mean "I is an other"—many others—and many "I"s to them. It is a not a struggle for one or the other to be the sole "I" or "dominant" one. Actually often it is not a struggle among these at all, but more a kind of being present to find out a way to express what it is be a person whose identity isn't believed in, or apparently very hard to identify at all. The struggle to express "oneself" when "who you are" doesn't seem to be believable.
In that regard it is very hard indeed to purport to write "something" on poetry and war other than from the point of view of experience rather than theory, morality, aesthetics, ethics and the like. But to try to write from "my" experience is very hard because other than that someone is typing these words, whose experience is it of which one writes? And this isn't a rhetorical question.It was to one of these gentlemen that Schweik was conducted for cross-examination. When Schweik was led before him, he asked him with his inborn courtesy to sit down, and then said, "So, you're this Mr. Schweik?""I think I must be," replied Schweik, "because my dad was called Schweik and my mother was Mrs. Schweik. I couldn't disgrace them by denying their name."A bland smile flitted across the face of the examining counsel himself. "This is a fine business you've been up to. You've got plenty on your conscience.""I've always got plenty on my conscience," said Schweik, smiling even more blandly than the counsel himself. "I bet I've got more on my conscience than what you have, sir."
To tell a little bit of it, since identity is the question:Once upon a time . . . "there was a dance, there was a time" (James Brown) . . . .
My 18th birthday was approaching, the Vietnam War was in full Hellish swing, and it had been announced the draft that year would be by lottery. Lottery numbers were to be assigned by birthdate and those drawn in the first thirteen would be sent immediately to Vietnam. In the last year and more I'd been active in the grassroots work of the Peace movement, so I decided to file for a Conscientious Objector status and accept whatever came of that, prison most likely. Distinguished Peace people wrote letters for me, and I filled out all the forms.
As my birthday neared, though, I realized I couldn't go through with it. If I were a Vietnamese, or any number of other persons around the world, I'd be fighting, too. And besides that, I'd already been involved in Anarchist bombings in Paris, (empty police vans etc) and translated a very bloody Anarchist guerilla memoir of the Spanish Civil War. My childhood dreams of being a guerilla fighter flooded back and I decided to resist the draft. And of course my birth date came up in the first three drawn.
About a year and a bit later my spine was shattered when I was a passenger in a truck which went off a bridge. I had what I much later learned was a Near Death Experience—when the doctors told my parents I wouldn't live, I already knew that I would. It was strange to see their faces in the first shock of what only I knew to be a needless mourning. The first of several posthumous existences for me, as it has turned out so far, as later having been clinically dead three times, the last in ICU six days.
That effectively ended any immediate worries about being shipped to Vietnam, but not the question of the draft.
A few years later my first wife and I filed our income tax. I had lost my Social Security Card, but filled in a number I thought was right. A letter came back saying to refile—my number was wrong. Incredibly the number I had filed was that of a man with the exact same name as mine—first, middle and last---who had died in Vietnam three years previously. I was instructed to go to Social Security and apply for a new number.
About eight months later, when all was straightened out and the tax money had come, I started receiving letters from the Veterans Administration, as well as checks. They were made out to my name and to my new Social Security number. My wife urged me to cash them and make use of the VA hospital. To her great anger, I burned them all. Not only was it immoral and illegal I pointed out, but a part Indian—me—had married a Mohawk female, making me part of her tribal roll. These were the militant times of the American Indian Movement and her full time job and my part time second one were with an American Indian Program. An even worse time and reason than usual to be mixed up at all with the Federal Government.
Besides, I reminded my wife, only two tears earlier, I had been under house arrest two weeks in Wrolcaw, Poland and then taken to Warsaw before a secret military court, accused of a variety of things—suspicion of false identity, suspicion of espionage, suspicion of connections to terrorism. Fortunately the man whose family I was staying with was a National hero decorated by four countries, a guerrilla leader and camp survivor, though not a Communist. The charges were shaky to begin with, mainly based on the same ones I had been charged with several times through the years in several countries—false identity, possession of a forged (American) passport. To which other things could always be—and were—attached, usually of a sinister nature. No one believed I was an American. And no one could ever quite explain why. That shadowy area without an obvious reason for it is what caused all the complications in the matter. So--not a good idea to push the American government on this identity business, not at all. If I did, they, too might decide that I wasn't an American after all—not an Indian one either--and then God knows what would happen.
Identity besides nationality and ethnicity can get just as problematic. Seven years ago, in the holding pen of the jail in downtown Milwaukee, I was fingerprinted on entering and then again on what was to be leaving. Drawn in as tight could be into ourselves, eleven of us and a toilet were crammed in a freezing cell big enough for two, waiting the word of the three days' release. When the door opened, I was informed I had to be fingerprinted again and held a half day longer. The second fingerprints had not matched the first.
About ten hours later, a guard approached me and led me to the front desk. The new fingerprints had not matched either of the first two. The situation was so bizarre some officers wanted to just ignore it and kick me out. The officer in charge though was in a complete rage and claimed I might be trying to alter the prints in order to hide some truly sinister identity. Fortunately no one felt like following up his claims, it really needed just to be ignored, they said, it's too freaky to get involved. So out I went, at four a.m. into a bitter cold homeless morning. And of course homelessness is another form of non-identity. Without an address, a person can't vote, for example.
Recently CVS took over Osco in our area. You can register for a special card that earns you year end money back and on your receipts may give you coupons for discounts, two for one packages or free candy bars. I filled out the information, got my card, and the first time I won something on the receipt, I had a shock. The name printed there was not my legal name at all, but my birth name, which I haven't used in decades. How it got there I wasn't even going to ask.
"I is an other." Rimbaud wrote. Very young at the time I first read this, I agreed right away. After all, hadn't one experienced moments of being "outside myself", "not myself", "like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"? Since then of course I have found I is many many others, and not only ones I find, but all those rooted out by persons whose jobs it is to know, to pin down, who one is. Sometimes the occaissions are hilarious, and then there are others not at all amusing. All the ones and their others after all, have one thing in common—the same body. Due to one of my "identities" I have two permanently damaged knees courtesy of a CRS prison in Paris. One of Rimbaud's others died, missing an amputated leg; his last words dictated to his sister Isabelle were "I am completely paralyzed therefore I wish to embark early".
That period of homelessness initiated a new series of travels in life. Without leaving Milwaukee, many worlds new to me began continually opening. Eighteen months of probation was a good education in the teachings in the State's Offender Handbook and the labyrinths of the law for poor people officially designated as "chronic substance abusers" in the War on Drugs' steady criminalization of poor people for the good of society. Some clinically dead episodes, and two severe blunt traumas to the head from assaults led to the county putting me in a 90 day "Behavioral Treatment Center" basically to live or die, sink or swim. All my life's belongings except some books were lost, and I entered this place in a state described to me later as extreme trauma.
This happened just six weeks after 9/11. (My youngest son was born in NYC a few blocks from the Twin Towers the day before their collapse.) The "Institute for Criminal Thinking" as I dubbed the place, was basically at the time a sort of interim shuttle station for substance abusers on their way to prison terms, or on their transition back out from prison terms. It was a harsh place to come out of trauma, but I always think of it with great affection and still see friends from that time. To that place and time I date the start of what I think of as "Zero Poetry"—starting everything over from scratch, nothing, in terms of almost everything one had known before. Zero poem, zero art, zero possessions, zero nearly identity.
One day an issue of the Japanese journal KAIRAN arrived with an essay of mine in it called "Refuse/Refuse" re my art work using only materials found in the street, and using this refuse to refuse all sorts of hierarchies. It was from a lifetime of faith in the found, in the streets, in refuse/refuse having some hope in it. The essay seemed hilarious to me as of course now I wasn't in the streets but inside narrow corridors, the same all the time. Yet the street training led me to find I could treat the inside walls and objects in the place the same way I had the streets and things found there. I had been making "rubBEings" as I call them for almost two years, so I transferred my activities with lumber crayon and paper to pen scarred surfaces (only plastic knives were permitted) and wall cracks, and letterings on the backs of machines in the dirty labyrinths of the basement we had once or twice a week access to. There we could do laundry and work out with weight machines resembling instruments of the Inquisition and play ping pong on a table with an immense dint on one side of the net. Out of this experience came another essay, "Necessity is the Motherfucker of Invention".
A social worker unbeknownst to me had applied for me to apply for SSI, so accordingly I found myself being given the requisite tests and exams. Three spinal fusions and a bone disease landed me in that particular bureaucracy. For most of the last five years I have lived in one area of the West Central City, a high crime and drug trafficking one, primarily in a transitional living for recovering substance abusers. To be honest, I would say that despite the endless drag of a fixed poverty income, I am daily thankful to live in the area I do, because it is a never ending education in the real Raw War hidden in plain sight. That is, except for a short period when a Katrina exposes it to the world, it is a world that goes largely unnoticed or is distortedly and sensationally noticed, in the media, and hardly at all in the aggregate of American poetry.
In the last years I have continued to work with the rubBEings anytime, anyplace, and also with clay impression spray paintings. The clay—cheap children's clay from the drugstore—is used to make impressions of letterings and forms found in the streets, parks and interiors everywhere in the city. I also lug back found objects and letterings to keep in my room as materials to use on days of bad weather for outdoor work, though I have made rubBEings and paintings during snowstorms and in temperatures well below the beloved Zero. The impressions are painted with various colors of the cheapest spray paint and rubbed onto paper.
Last summer on my blog spot I began an Ongoing Mail Art/Visual Poetry exhibition "For Lebanon, For Palestine Human Rights-Peace-Liberty". This has inspired finding ways to express the complicated emotions and thoughts one has in regard to War, State Terror, Terrorism, Tearerism and their interrelationships as one finds them through working with Zero poetry, with questions about what liberty really is, what human rights really are, what it is to live with oneself always as an experiencing of an other, identity as something one feels a lot of the time is simply a person who is here at this moment doing this that they are doing and interested in what you are doing here, too. Because we are here, now, persons not things. "Here today, gone tomorrow" as the song says. Is that a moment of terror for some? For poetry? Sometimes I wonder.
As a child I loved looking at photos in war books of ruined cities and imagining living in them, living during war times or revolutions, and how one might find ways to survive there and make a life. My ideal such place became the streets and buildings found in the Andrej Wajda film, Ashes and Diamonds. The family I lived with in Poland had the star's photos on the wall with them—he'd been a family friend, Cybulski, the "Polish James Dean". It wasn't until I saw the film again last year and kept thinking how incredibly familiar so many street scenes looked that I noticed at the film's end it had been made in Wroclaw, where I had been staying., though 16 years earlier.
Now I don't need to imagine living in a war time scene or place—it is all around me and has been for decades in my life. Though the United States has not experienced occupation since the Civil War by a foreign military presence, there are many ways in which living in vast areas of the country can seem like living under an occupation. And in the realm of media, silencings and silences have become the signs of occupations of various kinds going on, with corporations, lobbies foreign and domestic, powerful interest groups and political fellow travelers controlling the illusion of "free speech".
Writing of speed, poetry, occupation, finding things as others and they finding oneself—these all interrelate with the three unending Wars of Poverty, Drugs, Terror. Robert Smithson writes of the "art of looking" of an artist, that an artist can create with a glance a work that could be as substantial as any thing, as any art "object". Even though I work already with the most minimal materials in terms of purchasing and "owning" them —I find myself thinking always back to being confined, and with perhaps no materials allowed at all, as I wasn't initially. The purpose of this is to continually be training oneself in the "art of looking" without it being "part of a process" towards an "art object".
Forget the tired arguments about process/product, value, etc. Think of working in such a way that no matter what happens, one is creating, from absolutely next to zero, to be able to make something that perhaps no one other than oneself may ever even know of. Far more poets and artists than one has any idea of have had to exist and work in this way. A Zero way I practice so to know that this exists as a possibility of what can happen and so to be prepared always with a way of survival and resistance no matter what happens. It may seem a strange way to think, but if one has experienced it even a little bit, the reality of it never leaves one. If one begins with that kind of a Zero, the minimal which one brings at present seems a very great freedom of endless possibilities and at the same time one can see how many ways there are of possibilities being taken steadily away. That in itself is a curious form of freedom, if one doesn't let it pass by in silence and just watch it become less. So the art of looking goes on continually being worked on. Fortunately, it is an activity that isn't easily recognizable by others while it is going on! It itself is hidden in plain sight.
To work in this way leads to continually finding what is hidden in plain sight all round one while others may or may notice one at all. With the lumber crayon and clay one can go about not "representing" things, but working with the things as others themselves in their voices to be present in what is created with them. The crayon and my hand touch one side of the paper, the other touches back—they meet there in that marking, the notation of "I is an other" in an uncanny recognition. That is a Zero Poem—to start working all the time on the art of looking, and then to work with these others found, these others of oneself, to create something that is an expression of their direct encounter.
Speeds are the speeds of perception one trains with and in, as Paul Virilio writes, "The field of perception is the field of battle". To see not just quickly, at high speeds, but also at extremely slow ones, or in a series of glances of differing durations. Paul Cezanne worked with this sense that if one moved one's head but an inch, the entire field of perception is completely changed.
When "I" write that I have difficulty in writing of poetry and war, it is because I am at a Zero Poem with these. Not to impose, but to expose as Celan says, the poetry and war which is all around one. "Resistance" isn't something one can put on a piece of paper and lock up in a code only an elite will understand. Resistance is something one works on learning how to do in order to survive and fight back at what is killing one as a person at a faster or slower pace. One of the most bizarre events in one's life is to find that poetry itself is one of the instruments of silencing and destruction, "purifying", that's at work to keep hidden what is in plain sight. That's why, necessity being the motherfucker of invention that it is, I express also a rhythmic thanks in making Zero Poems. To be forced to start from the foundations of shattered rubble, refuse, and the non-purified languages, there is everything to learn and invent. "The most beautiful world is a heap of rubble tossed down at random" wrote Heraclitus.
I don't mean by my statements that I am "against" various poetries nor their resistances and so forth. I'm not "against" other poets. I mean that for myself I see these as part of a society that doesn't want to see what is in front of it. It doesn't mean poets "have to" write poetry about these things around them. What is disturbing is to find that poets write against those who do speak out or take action, or try to write of what they see, make poetry of the world they find themselves living in. When poets and poetry takes sides against others as inferiors because of their language, one is reentering the world of caste based on language use. And what does caste reecho but the idea that some people are born better than others because of who they are born as.
Since a child I have felt that to be the most terrible thing that anyone can claim, the most insidious and disturbing, for it reduces others to something inferior in every way imaginable. And what do people do with inferior things? Ultimately, they think about getting rid of them.
A poetic license in this way for all one knows can get turned into a license to kill, "at least" a license to silence.
There is a lot of silence and silencing going on in this society and in poetry, many things one is not to write or speak out about. The longer people remain silent, the fewer words they will find they are allowed to speak or write. After a while, perhaps they won't even think those words any more. Poetry, for some, may be wonderfully purified. For others, it is over with them as poets, if not also as persons. They will have had their words and then their selves purified right out of existence.
This is why I begin with Zero Poems, because how can "nothing" be taken away from "nobody"? Even if I go blind, I'll still have the art of looking in my hands making a rubBEing by touch. To touch that other's touch through the paper and make a Zero poem with them working together. Not to lose touch with life in the world and become a thing subject to the force of lies. A poetry of resistance stands in front of one hidden in plain sight. Many more see it all the time and that is the hope of the present for the future, that it is seen and people make poetry and lives with their seeing and being in touch with the world which is right there before them, "literally and in every sense".
"With us they started a little at a time encroaching on our rights until we had none at all. It will be the same for the Constitution; this is not conjecture, but fact." —Leonard Peltier
And to repeat again from the start:"Look now before it's too late—see what is being done in your name to others and see what destruction you sanction when you say nothing"
1 From The Poetry Project Newsletter, December 2006-January 2007