I want to say that the poem, not through the material support given it by language, but on the strength of its being a poem of the language, is given immediately, through the clarity or renewal of vision it insists on, as the ‘in-itself’ of language. The being of the poem as poem is a pre-analogical or pre-predicative semblance, which stems (to adapt François Laruelle) neither from ‘iconic manifestation nor from pragmatics or the norms that make of the poem a verbal index, but from the poem’s non-specular manifestation of Identity’. What is at issue here is a non-ontological thought of essence, a thought not to be confused with the active construction of essence on the basis of a philosophical or logical conception of identity: it is rather that the identity to be discovered is an identity in the Real, which is founded passively, and which, by virtue of that passivity, is philosophically sterile. The poem takes place in a mode of immanence, and therefore no burden of proof is required of it. By which I mean that the thinking of poetry, or the poem (as I conceive of it here), is not constructed on the basis of a model derived from philosophy or aesthetics. Rather, thought of what poetry might be, or what the poem might do, is immanent to the poem, and is only to be discovered by a stance or posture towards it that is non-philosophical. The poem may thus be seen as an enactment of an intrinsically realist knowledge directed towards the Real, rather than the World. The poem is, one might say, thought-experience, rather than ontology, thought-experience occasioned by the Real. (Thought-experience is comparable, in many ways, to the seeing of aspects.)
If this seems unduly obscure, I would suggest that what is at issue is a matter of relieving poetry of its un-thought philosophical residues, one of the most obvious of these being the ‘representational’ fallacy, namely, that the poem is about this, that or the other, a position shared by commonsense and most dominant regimes of philosophy and aesthetics. I would insist against this position that the poem is not so much an object as it is its own Reality: it does not merely engage with the World (though it may do so), it seeks to identify the Real. It is the thing, and possessed of the same ‘affect of identity’ as the thing. Distinctions between Being and beings, ontological and ontic, form and content, as well as the distinction between the transcendent thing and the transcendence of the thing, lose their purchase. As distinctions, they have, one might say, become strictly identical or indiscernible. The identity at issue is not constructed in logic, nor is it any synthesis of form and content, sign and thing, signifier and signified. It is an identity of the Real, and as such it is non-totalising: in Laruelle’s idiom, it is a non-decisional self-identity. To clarify this notion, one might draw an analogy with the quantum mechanical phenomenon of superposition, where all the possible states of a physical system co-exist, including the mutually exclusive ones. The poem, as part of the Real, relates to the Real mereologically (in the manner of a fractal), rather than in the mode of representation, as an application, say, or example, or illustration. That is, the poem is immanent to the Real rather than transcendent of it: it is a matter of its being of one kind, of sharing one quality, with the Real. One might call a poem thus understood a ‘meta-poem’, ‘meta-‘ being taken as ‘beyond’ in a purely physical sense, beyond our standard vision, on the periphery, on the margin, just glimpsed. Laruelle identifies this necessarily situated glimpse with what he calls posture or, as he puts it, ‘force (of) vision’:
what does it mean for the transcendent posture to realise itself as force (of) vision, if not to suspend from the outset or to immediately reduce the transcendence of the World, and all the phenomena of authority that follow from it?
To answer that question requires one to consider what poetry does, what it performs, as a function of the immanence of the force (of) vision. And this in turn requires one to recognise that to speak of ‘force (of) vision’ with respect to the poem is to speak of the poem as a way of seeing or ‘way of looking’ that traverses and animates the materiality of its own processes in thought-experience occasioned by the Real, while at the same suspending the power and domination of the world.
What holds of the poem holds also of the human essence. Inasmuch as it is of the Real, it too stands apart with respect to the World, and this means that it also stands apart with respect to time. The subject, the ordinary human being, does not have his or her being in the world, but simply for the world, being subject to the world in the most usual sense. The crucial point is that the human subject is, in his or her being, separate, and separable, from the world. That is, the subject and the world are different, due not to some relation of difference that holds between them, but to separation as such. This means that to temporalise or historicise the subject is to fold the essence of the subject into the play of the world and, as a result, into its inevitable violence. However, the position being insisted on here means that the human subject is not to be understood as a dimension of temporal ecstasis, as Heidegger and many others have had it. Something else is at stake: in the words of one exponent of Laruelle, ‘when it comes to what matters for humanity, the category of history holds no meaning, and the concept of time no promise’, or, to put it another way, the fundamental separation between humanity and the world is also a fundamental separation between humanity and the world of time. The future is not in the process of arriving: it is an ultimatum already here. Nor does the past pass away: the human essence or singularity, that which is ‘in us more than we ourselves’, exists out of time, as what has been excluded and despised by the temporality of the passing world; it is the stone the builders have rejected. The poem, occasioned by the Real, is therefore the voice of a humanity exploited and betrayed, subject to murder and violence, and to a persecution that is simply the distinctive mark of a continuous revolt against a world whose banal and interminable attempt is to relate every struggle or need to a struggle or need within the world. The poem speaks from a position separate from the world, its utterance being that of a subject out of time. This means that the utterance of the poem is operating from the Real, and what it speaks from is an Identity, not a Universal: it speaks from and not of its identity, and without, as Laruelle has it, ‘the identity in question being constituted retroactively by the materials of which it makes use’. The identity in question is that of a strangeness that is not an estrangement, and is to be encountered outside of any process of having become estranged, or having been identified, beyond any mixture of transcendence and immanence, discourse and reality.
It is not only in poetry and photography but also in the cinema of horror, beginning with Nosferatu (1922) and on at least to Eli Roth’s production of Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism (2010), where issues surrounding the Real have come to compelling performance, and disclosure. The films in question do not exemplify what is at stake: it is rather a question of what they enact, what they bring about (a point made forcefully by Roth himself during an intervention at a festival in London in 2010). The following poem, by Simon Smith, is likewise no example or illustration of the position I have attempted to set out. It is a work in which the poet is both present to the discontinuities of life and removed from any position of authority that would give him leave to impose meaning where meaning is otherwise elusive. The poem is a reverie, composed of commonplace events and memories, with no attempt to force significance onto what does not require it. What meaning the poem has is inseparable from, and constituted by, its taking place.
locale lyric& all the ls
a shell where a mollusc dwells
worn almost flat
then after the beach & marina
I imagine the troopships & minesweepers
were they painted zig-zag black & white to confuse
later hauling nine kilos of gold
curtain the damp halfway up
down the street all the way to ‘Paris’ for dry cleaning
next text – see-you-afternoon-or-evening-Thursday
don’t be wobbly be lovely
The elements of the poem are organised into self-interfering patterns internal to syllabic echo and syntactic folding and unfolding, turn and re-turn, which amounts to saying that the elements are superposed. Furthermore, it is in the context of such a patterning of self-interference that the poem is able to assert an identity whose manifestation in the poem is without consistency, that is, an identity defined in terms of what Laruelle has called ‘the separated middle, which is neither included nor excluded, neither consistent nor inconsistent’. One can say, on the basis of arguments offered thus far, that for the poem to effect such a construction of the separated middle out of superposed elements is to effect identification with the Real: inasmuch as the poem is set alongside the Real, not so as to represent it but as a re-discovery or immanent presence of it, the poem speaks, not from equality with, or equivalence to, the Real, but from the Real itself.
The negativity of Olson’s hell is not that of Dante, despite references to the Inferno, nor that of Eliot, for whom any such negativity is assimilated to the transcendental condition of the symbolist poem. Olson’s hell is psychological, and what traps him is not eternal fire but guilt, guilt about sex, adulterous sex. In Part I, section 3, ‘the same each act’ carries an aural suggestion of ejaculation, while ‘fix’ carries a navigational sense and a colloquial one, ‘look at the fix I’m in’. It is this shifting and uncertain ‘fix’ that for the poet is to fix his identity: ‘Who am I but by a fix?’, he writes, a notion that is immediately run together with the fixing of particles, which notoriously become waves once they are observed. The lines immediately following, lines that begin ‘as in this thicket’, depend crucially on a play between body and thicket, ‘roots lie, on the surface, as nerves are laid open’, with a sudden inserted (bracketed) reference to ‘her’, ‘(the bitterness of the taste of her)’, which serves to evoke possibilities the poem takes no further. One should note in this connection, however, that ‘pincer’, two lines lower down, is an allusion to Mellors’ description of his wife’s vagina in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The vagina dentata is to be identified, it would seem, with the displaced and isolated ‘this’ of
is the abstract, this
is the cold doing, this
is the almost impossible (D,29)
The phrase ‘cold doing’ is as insistent in its refusal of enjoyment, jouissance, as is the pattern of repeated assertion. It is repetition and assertion, in the highly self-conscious mode of their presentation here, that constitute what Olson calls, in the penultimate line of this section, ‘traceries’, something that leads me to think that the style of the poem is itself meant to be seen as a series of ‘fixes’, which fixes are all that remains of ritual acts once performed by the shaman. To these possibilities of meaning one can also add the use of ‘fix’ in the context of drug use, as in a drug ‘fix’. By this time, of course, ‘fix’ has also acquired a further sense, that of remedial action, though, equally, one can hardly fail to be reminded of Prufrock’s ‘eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase’, particularly when one moves on to Part II of the poem. Here, the psychological thrust of the poem is made explicit, especially in section 1, and hell becomes identified with the inner self (what Olson calls ‘your core’), and the poet’s entrapment in it. (Again, one may remember that Eliot’s rejoinder to Sartre’s pronouncement ‘hell is other people’ was ‘hell is myself’.) Hell, for Olson, is described as ‘the coat of your own self, the beasts/emblazoned on it’ (D,30), one effect of which is to establish metaphor as the reigning rhetorical figure of the text, around which the poem is organised and to which it continues to return (despite Olson’s vigorous disclaimers to Robin Blackburn on the matter). Thus, the act of sex, where ‘the beasts are met’, and where ‘she who is separate from you, is not separate’, is equated with ‘the making of one hell’. The lines that effect the equation constitute, in the metaphoric conjuncture they themselves set up, a commentary on just those figures they are in the process of employing. This self-conscious, self-referring use of metaphor is a characteristic strategy of much of the poem. Again, one finds underpinning the lengthy final paragraph of this section, comprised of repeated insistences, a metre whose iambic feet work to reinforce, by a pun, ‘why/his feet are held’. Olson prepares the way for this with a knowing reference to his own formal structure: ‘(this is why he of whom we speak does not move, why/he stands so awkward where he is’, where the promise implicit in the use of an open bracket appears to conflict with the iambic ordering of the subsequent phrases. Here, and elsewhere in his work, Olson undertakes a foregrounding of formal structure that can leave little doubt that, for him, palpable enactment is the foundation, the essential condition, of poetic meaning. Thus metrical and syntactic repletion work together on this occasion to create an almost physical sense of being fixed, as though Olson were, like Prufrock, ‘formulated, sprawling on a pin’. To posit any such similarity is not, however, to seek to obscure the many differences between the modes of enunciation and subject positioning evident in these two poems: whereas Prufrock, as subject, is in and of the poem, an effect of a certain procedure of writing, Olson is present in propria persona. ‘In Cold Hell’ emerges out of a lengthy correspondence addressed to Frances Boldereff, to whom the poem is also addressed, a context that renders problematic the relation between the epistolary and poetic personae. How far should they be identified, how far separated? Olson’s poem is confessional, in a way that Eliot’s poem is not: Olson aims to align us with the predicament of the poet himself, beset with fixes. The violence and anguish that consume him are stated directly: ‘that men kill, do kill, that woman kills/is part, too, of his question’. Part II, section 2, of his ‘question’ follows immediately, though less as a question than what turns out, retrospectively, to have been an extended assertion:
That it is simple, what the difference is—
that a man, men, are now their own wood
and thus their own hell and paradise
that they are in hell or in happiness, merely
something to be wrought, to be shaped, to be carved, for use, for
does not in the least lessen his, this unhappy man’s
Men, or at least ‘this unhappy man’, will escape the fix, will fix the fix, by what they or he can make, by the fact that what comes from the hand is so shaped or carved that, in its truth to the material of its being, it can acquire redemptive force by virtue of that truth: by virtue of being ‘equal to the real itself’. This is the redemptive promise of projective verse, as Olson lays it out in his programmatic writing. It is a promise that ‘In Cold Hell’ appears more uncertain of. The transfiguring energies of poetry appear less convincing when confronted in a poem than they do when evoked in the rhapsodic exuberance of a manifesto. The question, whether such writing can indeed extricate him from ‘this total thing’, this ‘cold hell’, this ‘thicket’, is the question around which the poem circles. However, no conclusive answer results, nor perhaps could it. It is hard to see how any poem could bring off what Olson demands of it. For Olson, as for Sartre, existence precedes essence: the poet is to remake himself, and the poetic act is to be an ethical act of just such a remaking. It is therefore in the poetic act of confrontation with, and expression of, his psychological hell that the poet will achieve freedom, if freedom he is to have. But to postulate such a programme is one thing, to realise it quite another. It is here that the distance between Olson and Eliot is clearest. Olson staked his entire career, as writer, teacher and sage, on an emphatic and reiterated exploration of the redemptive possibilities of poetry thus understood, that is, as an expressive manifestation of the energies internal to the poet himself. Eliot placed the possibility of redemption elsewhere, not in anything the poet might do, or say, but in the space of poetry, in what the negativity internal to language might, or might not, open onto. A precondition of such an approach is, of course, the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, a disappearance that involves the un-working, the un-doing of the poetic text: a poetics of non-identity.
First Ode First (vErisimilitUde, 2011) The Mayakovsky Ode (vErisimilitUde, 2011)
The recent writing of Simon Smith is a writing of interval and suspension. It introduces a space of juxtaposition, quotation and parenthesis. The words that confront the reader exist in a manner which is not that of words in a context of significant use. They exist rather as words between words, words beside themselves, exterior to themselves. In phrasings such as ‘and it is not grief/is not/to identify, to name/more’ or ‘but now is somehow a point of no return’ or ‘but there’s nothing to shout about/ no notes left, not an appointment, kick it over/then say who broke the book’ the temporality evoked is as though poised between the no longer and the not yet. The writing emerges as a sustained series of interruptions. The lines seem to be an effect of—even as they create—a space of reserve, in which things assume an aspect of immobility. It is a space the elements of which come into relation outside one another, preserving exteriority and distance as the principles of signification. We are positioned ‘in the middle of the walk best taken backwards’.
The sense of the neutral that emerges here is not unrelated to an emergence of the strange and the uncanny. Constructions such as ‘who knows/what else do you hear?’ or ‘the position just changed to, this page the only position/you need for which you receive the compliments of the day’, are forms that are not quite those of question, statement or assertion, nor yet of description, or indeed of evocation. It is a writing that partakes of neither the subjective nor the objective. It cannot easily be assigned to any genre; it is not general nor is it particular. Something is advanced which our modes of abstraction and generalisation fail to get a grip on. Even so, this writing is not the consequence of some bizarre or exceptional experience. It insists on the mundane nature of what is being dealt with.
And life means what it has up to now
and most of this is about listening
and behind the door marked ‘PRIVATE’ I receive no signal
This is the language of the everyday, a language the very ordinariness of which turns out to expose within common experience that which such experience cannot locate or grasp. As Maurice Blanchot has put it: ‘What is present in this present of speech, as soon as it affirms itself, is precisely what never lets itself be seen or attained: something is there that is beyond reach (of the one who says it as much as the one who hears it)’. Speaker and listener are both on the hither side of discourse, where language is still visible, where it is an event occurring this one time, here, now.
The political implications of the order of writing are exhibited, in both books, as an implacable refusal of language as that has been assimilated to the structures of management and administration. Smith refers to the end of the First World War: ‘November Eleven 1918, the full-grown men/return as though they’d just been born/the memory falling/into email/press the ‘send’/button at dusk’. This serves to align his work with the response to that war of earlier writers, of whom Mayakovsky is taken as exemplary, and to foreground his own exposure of contemporary forms of injustice and annihilation. We too are living in ‘the last days of mankind’. The writing of so exacting an exposure is, of necessity, a writing of exile, and the dissatisfactions of exile are inseparable from it. The poet is seen to stand outside the city, while at once being within and of it. He gives himself over to the foreign, and to what is without intimacy or limit. He sets himself against all that is connected with substantive reality and power, against all that pertains to unity and wholeness. He does not accept the rule of identity or the logic of the same. He effects, line by line, phrase by phrase, a restless dissemination of beginnings or fragments: ‘poetry is made of everyone and a glass of water’. It is work that brings to mind the question put by René Char: ‘how can we live without the unknown before us?’
[This review is published in Tears in the Fence Number 54 (Autumn 2011): 144-45]
No one names you. There’s no sound, no voice. You’re left alone enclosed by the dark boats. The ground you stand on Is uncertain, and the words you have Are not those whose wreckage is required of them.
The separation you desire Is not the tedium of assured departure. You have no liking for the brackish water You care nothing for the wind gusting through the trees.
Rather, you would say, rather go where the cruel dawn arrives in darkness The palace whose utter ruin I have been. Your one love is for the night as night The words gaze at you and take your substance for their own.
The doctor told me: get on with it, smoke your Virginias and drink your schnapps! It’s obvious that with or without them we all have to go in the end. In the mucus membrane of my eye there are for example traces of a cancer: Given time it will see me off.
No one need of course despair on that account. Each one of us can hope to see a good few years yet. We can still stuff ourselves with blackberries and chicken. Though it’s true we can expect a real pain in the gut one day soon.
There’s no way to set things right, either with the bottle or by kicking up a fuss. Such a cancer grows undetected on the inside. You could be scratched from the list At the very moment you are walking to the altar with your bride.
My uncle, for example, kept his trousers pressed Long after he’d been marked out for the kill. He bloomed like life itself, but these were flowers for the coffin. Every hair on his body was diseased.
For some it runs in the family Though they don’t discuss it. They can tell a bunch of grapes from a pineapple, But when it comes to cancer and a rupture, they admit nothing.
On the other hand, my grandfather knew precisely what was coming And let the doctors rule his life accordingly. He was fifty by the time he got fed up with it. A life like that is fit only for a dog.
You and I know better than to envy any man. No matter how he lives he’s got his cross to bear. As for me, my kidneys are in trouble And I haven’t been allowed a drink these past five years.
ON BLACK SATURDAY AT THE ELEVENTH HOUR OF THE NIGHT BEFORE EASTER: AFTER BRECHT, MANUAL OF PIETY
In the spring and under the green heavens Somewhat brutalised by the loved and savage winds I came swaggering on my way Down to the black cities, the interior of my heart lined with cold sayings.
It was with the black creatures of the asphalt that I filled myself I filled myself with water and with lamentation I was left in the cold and my darlings in the light I stayed throughout incomplete and light through it all.
And I know they were the ones who smashed the holes through my walls And that even as they were to curse me crawled out of me again There was nothing inside me but so much space and paper I was the paper only—and they were to scream with their obscenities.
I grinned and as I did so walked at speed down between the houses Into the open country. Soft and receptive The wind was going now to run more swiftly through my walls. The snow had stopped falling. There was to be the rain.
Thick snouts of thuggish bully-boys Have found that there is nothing in me—in truth, nothing! Wild boars had sex in me. From the radiant heavens Ravens would often piss straight into me.
Feebler than the clouds! More delicate than the wind would ever be! There is nothing visible. The light, being brutal and as festive As any one of my own poems, I crossed the heavens With a stork, its wings beside me, beating faster.