T.C. MARSHALL Reviews
Still Dirty by David Lau
Or, The Ambiguities by Karen Weiser
(Ugly Duckling, Brooklyn, 2015)
ONTOGENY RECAPS PHYLOGENY AND THEN SOME
Karen Weiser and David Lau have given us a couple of exciting new books to work with in understanding our craft. These books both demonstrate the “ontogeny” of our poetics in the use of “moves” that somewhat recapitulate the phylogeny of our “craft or [very un-]sullen art” as we might call it, after Dylan Thomas. How we got here involves centuries of experimentation, fiddling to find new tunes, in poetic form and content. Not all that has been tried stays with us, but we keep working with whatever works. It’s a bit like Pound’s Pisan Cantos dictum: “What thou lov’st well remains; the rest is dross.” The best of poetic moves make themselves useful for many writers. These two avant-garde-istes do not eschew the old ways; they add to that repertoire. They make new uses of old tricks in combination with further extensions of the artistic approach. The need for these further extensions was noticed even by the old white guys who dominated “literature” through the middle of the twentieth century. Their comments gain new meaning from the practices that have followed their time, like those in these two books.
For awhile now, we have used the term “aesthetics” for the framework of artistic approaches (tools and concepts) that any artist may employ. This has led to a kind of circularity that is almost an impasse but also indicates a way forward. Lau and Weiser’s new books take us through that pass and beyond it a little ways, riding on the energies of our attempts to bring out the political weight of what we write these days. In the culture of aesthetics, any new tool becomes an “Aesthetic” one with an “always all ready” place for it in the general acceptance of the arts. Challenges to this structure and the way it props up the hegemony are pre-absorbed for the most part in our practice of aisthesis. The dominant social classes have a use for everything aesthetic.
If we stop and examine the term, as Terry Eagleton and Jacques Rancière have done with great concentration, we see that trap or eddy in the stream for what it is. “Aisthesis” is just one of the series of basic approaches to art-making and art appreciation that our society has worked with and through. Our poets and other artists have begun to work beyond it in a direction as yet not named or theorized. However, it is discussable and recognizable already because of works that reach outside the bourgeois framework of the Aesthetic.
Eagleton has made it abundantly clear that “aesthetics” was invented as an adjunctive part of the rise of the European bourgeoisie. It helped frame a world where “feeling–perception” (aisthesis in classical Greek) could be used as a measure of self-worth, like money. It was also to be a way of “sharing” experience by re-enacting it in the tasteful work of art or critique. Whether through the Kantian Sublime or the Freudian Unconscious or Hegelian and Marxian Dialectical Sublation, the “bourgeois gentilhomme” connects himself to greater forces and raises himself (his Self) to higher heights via the Aesthetic. Most of our work continues to do this one way or another, and Weiser and Lau are no exceptions there. What we can find in their books, though, goes the Aesthetic one better in using it to create critical thinking.
The circular logic of bourgeois aisthesis, seeing and feeling truths through art works or in artistic expression, always comes back to the power of the person and experience. The bourgeoisie and their allies have no trouble accepting this, even in its most transcendent (Artaudian, for example) forms. As the bourgeois world has evolved, despite such strongly static forces, artists have found ways to counter this counter-progressive gravity in Aesthetics. Their moves have begun to reveal the contradictions in the aesthetic to the point where a breakdown or breakthrough is apparent. Jacques Rancière has both theorized the developments that led in this direction and defended the power in the aesthetic concept against those who would have us simply turn away from it (like Lyotard). Rancière’s theoretical schema lays out a progressive history of basic approaches to art—with poiesis, mimesis, and aisthesis as stages and/or aspects in it. These are what get recapitulated in part as art moves forward. We combine aspects from each stage in the following stages, not leaving them behind but making them new. Lau and Weiser are helping to shape the fresh framework that makes the old newly new.
We can find all three of those earlier aspects at work in Still Dirty and Or, The Ambiguities, and we can see these modes transformed by something newer that actually rises out of them. Poiesis, or Making, names the artistic approach of making “images” of the powers that be—from gods and sprites to the seasons or The Queen. This is the basic poetry of naming and imagery; praise songs and psalms abound because of our work with it. Mimesis, Imitation or Dramatization, is the root of ritual and theatre as they develop from poiesis. From religion to Aristophanes or Molière, mimesis enacts the doings of the powers that be—sometimes in parody, sometimes as ode beyond psalmody. Aisthesis, or Feeling-perception, arises to accommodate the personal and “internal” aspects that develop from poiesis and mimesis. It operates via transfer of formative experience, as expression and abstraction blend to “take us there” in Keats or Cezanne or Woolf or Gwendolyn Brooks. The bourgeois rewards for writer and reader and society come from the perceptions expressed, but that leads back into a world of hierarchized values unless some force of contradiction breaks those open first. This is the new mode that shows up in these two books. Lau and Weiser use both old and new angles to give us a doubled context for thinking and reading in their new works. A few of the old guys, including Yeats, referred to “holding two thoughts in mind at once,” and Fitzgerald called it a sign of true intelligence to be able to hold opposing thoughts in mind and still function. Noam Chomsky calls that “cognitive dissonance” and names it as a symptom of our society, but it helps poetry in working toward a fresh mode. One should probably call it “noesis” since that is the classical Greek for the “Critical Thinking” complementary to “feeling-perception.” This mode is coming forward now in the work of many poets. The four modes give us four aspects to look at in each work. Each poet uses image & naming, imitation & dramatization, and feeling-perception in their own way. Many have found ways to create the doubled contextualization of noesis that is necessary to critical thinking. If we investigate just a bit, it’s there to be seen and evaluated.
Both Still Dirty and Or, The Ambiguities present themselves in four sections. Both have parts that emphasize noesis, and both demonstrate a repertoire of moves from all four phases of our artistic phylogeny. Both are exciting books of poetry, especially where noesis nudges us into that extra dimension of contradictions that aisthesis might leave unopened. The bulk of both books can be read fully in terms of the three older modes, but both engage the newer mode in their reach through the personal and social to the political. Lau’s book offers occasional focus on the question of art’s effectiveness in engaging political dilemmas. As it says in “Curtain Design for Victory over the Sun”:
because there exist, after all, limits,
book people for a leftish song,
limits to the effective
--lowest, floweriest—channeling of real life
we should keep track of them and the challenges to those limits in this poetry. They come from the limitations of those modes that try to put it all into imagery, dramatization, and perception through feelings or even the feeling of knowledge. Still Dirty’s own poems stay within those limits a lot of the time. Much of the book works with imagery and naming, though it steps up this poiesis to create juxtapositions and shiftings that add a level of thinking to what we’re talking about here.
the earth shakes fire
What is its name thinking / the stall switch
our desperate generation’s iron
the effect of wondering where the sense simply begins and
(noise: pension fund undermined)
There is a fair amount of narrative in these poems from time to time, too. It comes through in “Lumumba Zapata College,” with its title reference to an idea of naming that’s been around since Berkeley built Zellerbach Hall in ‘69, and “The Triple-Double Dream of Spring,” with its title that drags Ashbery into marketing and fast food contexts. The stories told are often fragmented; the bits are aligned in revealing re-contextualizations in “Skid Row-kyo,” and they turn toward frank commentary in “Poem”:
Disciplined, we return, come
back into the shrinking labor market,
our refabricated wills bent toward
If we cross their property borders,
we violate their immigration laws.
In “Moreno Valley, Trapezoid of Light,” we have a dramatic dialogue delivering the just view by means of ironic satire:
“So, Mr… Hilario Logistical,
tell me… why you wanna work here?”
“I don’t know, the… unacceptable conditions?”
The Dickensian use of naming joins the mimetic joke here, and we are pushed to feel the contradiction in an applicant’s recognition that the job involves “unacceptable conditions”—even as we laugh. “Source” also adds thinking commentary that mocks the sense of “reality” we’re asked to live with:
Those who fought it
were no match for the fledgling hyper-reality,
the permanent state of economic mobilization
and ideological agitation.
The feeling-perceptions in these poems shuttle between seeing through the hegemonic reality and seeing into another:
The universal empire of crime,
that faggot angel, whether to war on, according—
nears the end of a new period—
the nunca flamingo in smoke white hedges—
period in which the design ambush
at the torch indentation
was known ahead of time by Sun Ra
Lau offers us perceptions that rise from confrontations between these realities in our lived moments. One reviewer has already called this book a “hall of mirrors,” but it is as much a “haul” of mirrorings where our lives smash into themselves. These are not just mimetic mirrors at work but an interplay of the mirrorings in such mirrors. That adds crazy depth as it presents reflections on, and of, the contradictions in our reality. It opens a battle of idioms. The first poem in the book uses these tensions to create its tremendous energy, not an energy of rant or simple insight but one of fun with a point.
“Money Shot Through Glass Crane Floor” is the rich title that opens Lau’s book. Right there, we have image and drama and perception to be shared; we also have the doubling of sense that can encompass or engage critical thinking. “Money Shot” is a Rae Armantrout title that borrows the porn industry term for a film sequence that shows ejaculation; in Rae’s book it is, of course, also about money’s role in the drama of hegemony. To add the word “Through” turns the sense back toward “Money” itself, and images it as “Shot Through” (pervading) something or as “Shot” (seen, in the film sense) “Through” something else. That something else here is a “Glass Crane Floor,” and that is another image mirroring a contradiction. The glass floor is another’s “glass ceiling” that prevents a rising up, but a “Crane” implies lifting something. This title shuttles back and forth between two or more idioms without settling on either side of the divide between them. It lets them speak for themselves, but never without calling the other to mind. That is noetic.
The poem begins after that with a couple of stanzas that narrate an experience of
Electro riot tonight, May Day, Santa Cruz
and go on to take us inside a personal experience of that exhilarating time. The poem plays a fairly straight-forward game of image, narrative, and perceptions like
The wind was blowing down trees;
at the port of Long Beach,
a Mitsubishi crane un-stacked
a glow-blue sheet of wind
In this passage, we get images and narrative ostensibly from the shutdown of “Wall Street on the Waterfront” at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach. They also reach, through that one word “wind” into a metaphorically grander scale. The “wind” that is “blowing down trees” becomes aesthetically figurative. It looks as though Lau has used a move here that is often just an aesthetic one—erasing the “-ows” from “windows” to turn the descriptive “glow-blue sheets of windows” into a larger reverberation with that metaphor of the unseen force unleashed by objections to the ways of corporate forces such as Mitsubishi.
This poem ends with a fairly simple image and a direct statement, but one that returns to the tension of confrontation between idioms:
I’ve been rolling around with a bunch of Fleetwood Macks.
We are the crisis.
The trucking image, crossed with a pop-rock music reference, honors the truckers who joined in the Occupy acts at Long Beach and Oakland. It also raises the protestors’ image in a doubled way that refuses to deny pop culture while at the same time critiquing it. The last short line is the kicker, though. It takes a complex perception and uses the hegemonic language to tell it in a way that steals the sense of the word “crisis” back to our side. They use the word in their excuses for cut-backs, down-sizings, and “unacceptable conditions.” That makes what would be a “crisis” for us as laborers and even as consumers, but owning the term raises us back to the level of the active center of what must be worked out in our society. We can make “crisis” happen too. This, again, is a noetic move. With all the critical thinking invited by the title and this last line, this first poem sets a fresh tone above both its old-time moves and its contemporary references. This sort of critique gets established right off as a basis for Still Dirty and our thinking enjoyment of its poems.
The book’s jacket blurb inside the front cover claims that “this collection of experimental, socially conscious poetry reflects a world in crisis.” It rises from “a rigorous criticism of the toxicity of the economic system,” they say there, and they are right but fail to show the connection. The situation is “a world in crisis,” but these poems don’t just state that. They come from “a rigorous criticism” and present it, but “slant.” Their “experimental” techniques include many that are among the usual moves practiced by avant-garde-istes these days: juxtapositions like jump cuts, syntactical enjambments, erasures to reveal hidden sense, incorporation of real news, a jazzy sense of song, a prosey sense of the sentence, and substitutions that bring disparate historical moments together through their vocabularies. These all serve the aesthetic effort to relay perceptions. The new news in these poems comes from those experimental moments when social contradictions show through as two sides of what’s going on, like with that “crane.” This is not just a window on what’s happening but a raising of the wind as well.
The direction of the wind is also in the four parts of Weiser’s book as they are given the compass designations: N, S, E, and W—instead of numbers. This gives Or, The Ambiguities a particular kind of coherence, one dear to Melville who sailed across many maps. But what is being mapped in this book is a play across the inner and the outer worlds. Each part has a focus, and the fourth part seems to have a doubled one that doubles back in some ways on the earlier ones. Each part invites us to read it in a way that combines older and newer techniques, aesthetic modes and something that reaches beyond them.
The first part is N(orth), and its form and approach are stunning. Each page has two lines from Melville’s writing or the associated sources named in Weiser’s “Postscript,” one at the top and one at the bottom. In between are lines, five following from the top line and five leading into the bottom line, that use letters in those basic quoted lines to create new lines as if by erasure of more and more letters. Its delightful slow lyric goes like this:
Our mirrors were covered. There were strangers in our house all day long. I don’t
ur mirror re covered here re st s in ur house a day on on
u mirror over re st s in u house a y on
u m o re st n u s a y
u m o r s a y
o Pier angel
o Pier angel res t
o o Pierre, now angel led res t and a liar o
out of Pierre, but now strangely led th e res t formed, and familiar to
outline of Pierre, but now strangely filled with features transformed, and unfamiliar to
The haunting voice in these poems at once disintegrates and assembles itself as each pair of basic quoted lines is played out. The root lines themselves would make a fine poem of shifts and allusive continuities. The derivations create, on top of that (or sandwiched within that), little poems in pairs that carry a lyric of mourning. This drop-out/drop-in technique isolates phonemes and allows their recombination into fresh words selected in such a way as to unfold new meanings dormant within the root phrases. The common thread of personal pains gets played out in a drama of grief, but there is also a thread of gender politics critique here. This is clear in the final phrase of this part of the book: “I give to her, to both of my girls, what was taken from me” (30).
The second part of the book is S(outh), and its sub-title names “Love, Delight, and Alarm” as its themes. This part emphasizes “What’s in there to sing” (36). Its poems could each stand alone as lyrics, but the sixteen of them combine to tell an inner story of romance. With different speakers designated for each poem, there is a dramatic interchange among them that moves operatically beyond simple lyric. The closing piece is given to the “Narrator,” and it steps back to comment on the form:
The elegy is a monster
Whose notes perforate your communal feeling
With its nascent consciousness
Pre-person, little tenderly
Floats this title on the fountain of philosophy
Melville’s trap, the “sweet honeypot of philosophy” as Charles Olson called it, is there beneath Weiser’s efforts to pull Pierre’s strengths into a new shape for us. The grief in this section takes many faces to perform, and Weiser has extended the references and characters into a composite creature and a “feeling” beyond any one person.
As the book moves into its third section, E(ast), it hovers around the word “sympathy” and includes both a lot of questioning and a look at a doubled “I &I” self. Its subtitle is “Pilgrimage,” and it moves toward “a music derived from vanishing” (62). This section continues the application of techniques from the long-familiar modes with a Creeleyan sense of music and imagery like a “drawer, under the lake” (62) and “an echo hum inside” (54) that puts the poet in the old familiar position of feeling-perception that we know as the aesthetic.
As we move from those bits into the final part, the format on the page raises a surprising doubling into position to generate the book’s fuller meaning through noesis. Back before the beginning of the poems on the page that would be 11 if it had a number, the letters of the map directions are arranged around a graphic representation of the kind of handcuffs used to immobilize prisoners and slaves in early America. Part Four, “W: In the Darbies,” fits its poems into that shape. This is, of course, a reference to the closing poem in Melville’s Billy Budd and his handcuffs known as Darbies—perhaps from the English iron manufacturer Abraham Darby, or from a famous usurer of yore. The Melvillean themes of innocence and being framed by the law are in the materials that Weiser chooses for this section, but the “framing” of the words in this shape gives this part a further dimension. Lines run across from one wrist-circle to the other, but the shape and its sense are never “out of sight.” The voice is of one who is condemned to be hung or forced across the plank to death, a felon or a slave in transportation being shaken out of death-in-life. His contemplations reach beyond the immediate situation:
and kidnapped from old Rights of Man, that ship I
left for a purer fable, is a mutiny I hold in my hands, though hands
always tell of something, pointing to that which is outside the frame,
in words that sit right around the hinge at the wrists in the handcuffs. These lines point to a larger framework of guilt and innocence and rights and repressions, and that keeps this framing working at two different levels. It pushes the focus of the poem to where it can embrace a story way beyond Pierre’s.
Wesier’s composition of her book embraces many stories and expands Melville’s Pierre and Billy books toward the horizon of America’s great question. From the first section, N, that lets other voices through via erasures and on toward this final sketch of constraints, we go through lyrics reaching beyond even “the sudden shift outward” (43) of expanding perspective and the pilgrimage through death aesthetically presented in the “E” section. All that is based in long-standing approaches even with some newer aesthetical moves like that erasure, but the fourth section’s graphic dimension lifts the book as a whole into the noetic.
Those wrist constraints put every word of “W: In the Darbies” under erasure or constraint. Weiser makes the words of all her poems count, of course, but the form on the page for part four raises those poems above themselves. Their significance reverberates in Melvillean terms but also into our larger story. Slavery is always present in American history, but Melville’s objections to it were not as sharp and direct as we might have liked them to be. Even his story involving slave rebellion, “Benito Cereno,” is interpreted in many diametrically opposed ways. “Because of its ambiguity,” Wikipedia asserts, “the novella has been read by some as racist and pro-slavery and by others as anti-racist and abolitionist.” Weiser steps right into this on one page of this fourth part:
for I do not un- derstand ambiguity and it does not
understand me, with a friendly promise to stand by the plank, it
lashes me in hammock— But aren’t it all sham? since
my nature and my action are at odds
It was this “theme” of character and deeds, variations on “by their fruits ye shall know them,” from the philosophies and the prejudices of his day that Melville also worked in “Cereno.” The continuing discussion over sin, original sin, and innocence is there in Billy Budd, in its broader sense too, for sure. In Weiser’s expansion of Pierre, the ambiguities are exposed as no release from the problem, and something more is also exposed as the poem begins relaxing its form at its end:
in shapes you’ll no longer
make out, just ease these too tight forms at your wrist, they’re made
of the systems that hang us through.
The ambiguities over race in our social “systems” are the very locus of the problem, but there are aspects of the problem that are unambiguous, for sure, like manacles or death by drowning. Melville’s efforts can be seen in egalitarian terms, but the ambiguities forced upon him by his time leave his terms hanging. Near the end of her book, Weiser writes of poetry’s limits in raising issues as if “each poem’s a time capsule / with references lost” (81). It is up to our reading, directed as much as it may be by the writing, to frame meanings for us. If it does so only aesthetically (or poetically or mimetically), we have to rely on the relay of perceptions from the writer. We feel for the sailor begging to have his manacles relaxed and we may extend this to a feeling against “the systems” that condemn us or others to less life. In Karen Weiser’s re-composition of Melvillean bits, we are led to where we can compose meaning for ourselves and let go of neither side of any of the ambiguities involved. She does this with a doubled framework for reading part four that reflects back on the other parts of her book. Just as the first part, “N: Dear Pierre,” lets other words come through its lines, we are directed by her graphic choice of the image of shackles as the “stanzaic” form in the last part to embrace in mind a whole history with all its two-faced truths. As we look at the pages of the final section and see the repeated pattern that we read “through,” the interplay between Billy’s words and the larger story of American slavery reverberates resoundingly. It is no longer “outside the frame” but is the very framework of thought itself.
To be “poetic” is not simply to be “aesthetic”; indeed, the aesthetic stops itself short of the poetic if we let it. We have entered the historical phase of the “noetic,” where poetry can re-assume its central task of critiquing language’s possibilities and limitations and our use of them. Both Weiser’s and Lau’s books take steps in this new direction. Both books offer an engagement with their materials that includes us with our own reading and critical thinking. We are directed into the swarm of meanings, into the force of contradictions, and into our own unending analysis without a key:
The Rev. Dr. T. C. Marshall studies French and Slovenian Philosophy in the redwood forest with salamanders and mushrooms all around. He also teaches in town at a college that struggles to serve the community of yuppies, farmworkers, surfers, and aesthetes in Santa Cruz County. There is a safety pin on each of his jean jackets now.