Transitory Poetics is a monthly review series by Toby Altman focused solely on current and upcoming chapbooks. You can read the introduction here.
Sometimes when I’m scrolling through Facebook, I think about Horace—the first century BC Roman poet who called poetry “a speaking picture” (ut pictora poesis). For most of poetry’s history, this was a metaphor, a way of unraveling the uncanny, occult threads that bind poetry to its sister arts: painting, sculpture, and (eventually) photography. But on Facebook, Horace’s maxim feels less like metaphor and more like prophecy. The Internet has fundamentally scrambled the relationship between image and text, unleashing a weird plentitude of new possibilities for writing. What are these possibilities? And how are they being used?
For this month’s column, I reviewed four chapbooks that work with images. The chapbook, I suggest, has become one of the primary spaces where poets explore the new grammars and possibilities of the image. The plurality and provisionality of the format gives poets the space to try new things. In I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel, for example, Nikki Wallschlaeger appropriates her own poetry and makes memes out of it. The resulting graphic chapbook contests whiteness and patriarchy; it converts the poem itself into a voluble seedbed, a source of play and possibility, rather than a finished product. Mike Lala’s In the Gun Cabinet, on the other hand, uses images in a formal capacity: they become almost metrical, regulating the reader’s progress through the chapbook, separating and drawing together the many registers and resources of his writing. Carrie Lorig’s The Book of Repulsive Women uses images as an extension of the book’s larger poetic project—another in the molten array of resources she uses to articulate the possibility of a feminist poetics (and to critique the global misogyny that stands in her way). By contrast, in eckClogs, Magus Magnus and his collaborators use the image to make their chapbook a palimpsest, which encodes many historical modes of book production—and, in turn, diagnoses the operations of power on and in urban space.
Some of these chapbooks clearly derive from the possibilities of Internet culture; some do not. But they are united by a shared visual virtuosity: a casual knack for using the image as part of a larger poetic and political project. This virtuosity seems characteristic of our political and cultural moment; perhaps it should be one of the distinctive criteria by which we define the distinctive achievement of contemporary poetry.
In Houses, Nikki Wallschlaeger’s debut collection of poetry, she writes, “We’re using history instead of letting it use us.” It’s less a thesis statement, and more a declaration of war: on the hypocrisy of colonialism, racism, white liberalism, and the way that all of these things act in and as literary history. Wallschlaeger’s poetry emerges from a refusal to comply with this history and its demands—and a concomitant refusal to accept feel-good narratives about progress. “As a westerner, condoms and education will solve everything…As a westerner I will vote for a Democratic president…As a westerner, I will approve of celebrity activists,” she writes in “Yellow House,” eviscerating western fantasies with cool sardonic glee. Houses documents the exhaustion of living and writing in a world ruined by racism and colonialism. It also imagines and enacts a poetry to challenge and remake the routines of that world.
For her new project, I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel, Wallschlaeger has assembled a graphic sequence of short poems—poems which are memes, memes which are poems. Each poem features a photograph of a doll named Julia (produced by the Mattel Company from 1969-70, and based on the television series starring Diahann Carrol). Wallschlaeger poses Julia in bright outfits against bright backgrounds. We see her standing against a pink wall, or lying on a many-colored carpet, or propped against a grainy field of cinderblocks. Wallschlaeger photographs her in tight close ups: usually just her face, or her face and her torso appear in the frame. Wallschlaeger never lets us see her whole body. Her photographic practice thus raises a series of questions about looking, about repetition, about embodiment, about race, about the politics of poetry. For instance, in two poems—which deserve to be iconic—Wallschlaeger poses Julia in a field of saltines: a black body against a field of crackers. Over the first image, Wallschlaeger writes, “YOU’RE KILLIN ME BROET,” the word “broet” in blood red; over the second image, “READY TO ETERNALLY TALK OVER YOU / FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.” These images stage the situation of contemporary poetry: a suffocating field of crackers. However, these poems have no interest in white guilt or the politics of accommodation. Instead, they radically recenter contemporary writing: Julia is staged at the center of the frame in both images. She is, in a sense, the only object of interest in these pictures. Whiteness becomes what it already is: bland and domineering, mute and violently loquacious.
The writing in I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel is, by turns, thrillingly allusive and thrillingly frank. “LIKE ALL GOOD HOUSE GIRLS / I AM GROWING MANDIBLES UNDER MY SHIFT,” she writes in one poem. In another, simply, “DEVASTATION.” I’ve had some difficulty deciding how to quote these poems: for example, should the top text and the bottom text be regarded as a separate line? And what happens when those lines themselves contain enjambments? Wallschlaeger uses the format and the grammar of the meme to disrupt the logistics of poetry, to challenge the rote responses of readers to literary texts. I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel raises fundamental questions about what poetry is: is each image its own poem? Or is the chapbook a single long poem? (And what’s the relationship between the text pieces, which preface and conclude the memes, stretching across the inside flaps of the book?)
The questions themselves betray a kind of thinking which Wallschlaeger’s work challenges, indeed uproots: they presume that poems have relatively well-defined boundaries, that they are single, separable objects, with distinct and durable forms. But Wallschlaeger’s is a poetics of multiplication and plurality. Much of the language in the chapbook comes from longer poems, from her ongoing sonnet sequence Crawlspace. It’s an inspired gesture. It makes the components of her poems into poems themselves. It makes the poem itself a generative seedbed, a multiplying field of literary objects, which circulate in many forms and in many channels: as poems in journals, as memes on Facebook, as graphic chapbooks, as sonnet sequences. Wallschlaeger’s poetry multiplies in unpredictable surges, invading the body of colonialism and racism. As she writes on the back flap of the chapbook, “YOU NEVER KNOW / WHAT I’LL SAY NEXT.”
In the Gun Cabinet by Mike Lala
The Atlas Review, 2016
In S/Z, Roland Barthes writes, “we gain access to [a text] by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one.” I’ve always thought of this plurality as a charge of utopian possibility: it promises the indefinite extension of pleasure and interpretation. In other words, it is a fantasy that belongs distinctly to late capitalism: to a world of permanent expansion and escalating fecundity, a world without scarcity. But, as Mike Lala writes, slyly understating the case, “There’s a violence here.” He does not specify where—because, of course, the violence is everywhere. It is implicit in the fantasies of capitalism, in the military strategies that it uses to sustain itself, and in the subjectivities that it compulsively produces. This fact is simultaneously obvious and almost impossible to describe. In his new chapbook, In the Gun Cabinet, Mike Lala takes on this impossible task. Over the course of a single extended poem, Lala binds together the personal and the political. Or rather, he maps their intimate interfaces, the places where family history and political violence coincide, compulsively producing each other. Late in the poem, he describes a “moment from my childhood”:
d my father lifted me
to straddle the 30-millimeter, hydraulically driven, seven-barreled
on the nose of the plane he flew
my mother smiled & my younger brother looked up from her shoulders
The scene is almost allegorical, in the way that it literally superimposes the personal on the political. It is also specular: Lala makes his reader into a voyeur, who observes the scene as in a theater, a painting, or a photograph.
These are not innocent examples: as Lala moves back and forth between family history and political violence, his poem expands and contracts on the page, assimilating a wealth of formal possibilities. At points, the poem becomes explicitly ekphrastic, working through words and images from Cy Twombly’s paintings and sculptures. At points, it includes grainy images—gifs of tv static pulled from the Internet (and a manipulated pair of lips from a play whose author will remain nameless, for copyright reasons). These moments of illumination are characterized, ironically, by their obscurity: the cloudy mass of pixels which obscures their referents. Lala uses images to interrupt the poem, to divide and punctuate it. They separate autobiographical material from political or impressionistic sections, challenging the reader to articulate the unity of the poem, the connection between its many objects of interest. And other at points, the poem becomes explicitly theatrical. It closes, for example, with an enigmatic, Beckett-like short play, “Interview,” starring two seemingly eponymous characters, I and M. They chat, as the stage directions insist, “in the gun cabinet.” Perhaps we should take this as a stage direction for the entire poem: it not only describes the gun cabinet, it takes place inside of it. In its expansiveness, its rhetorical and formal diversity, the poem takes on the shape of the problem that it diagnoses: it becomes, as it were, a map of violence, a map of the plurality and heterogeneity of late capitalism itself. Indeed, in a sense, the poem is the gun cabinet.
Late in the poem Lala demands, “[A]m I so seduced I believe / the time I spend / & what I produce / are untethered to the economy I live by”? In the Gun Cabinet thus engages a—perhaps the—longstanding avant-garde preoccupation: how, Lala asks, can the aesthetics of modernism be rescued from Clement Greenberg and the CIA? How can modernism be transformed from a tool of state power into a politically radical weapon against the state, its imperialism, its culture of violence? If the question is canonical, Lala’s answer swerves away from the tired, standard strategies of (to take an entirely innocent example) language writing. Rather than placing his faith in, say, syntactic disturbance or radical parataxis—that is, in an acceleration of modernism’s own aesthetic strategies—he uses those strategies to describe himself, to locate himself in an economy of violence. And vice versa: he uses his personal history as a mapping tool, which allows him to sketch the contours of contemporary violence. In this sense, his work stages a rapprochement between many modes of 20th century writing: mingling avant-garde difficulty with confessional directness, polemical energy with aesthetic depth and beauty. “I was born, beauty ended / my appetite for destruction,” he writes, offering a compact autobiography. Before the enjambment, Lala asks us to imagine an awful possibility: the end of beauty itself. After the enjambment, he offers an ecstatic promise: that beauty itself will remediate violence.
The Book of Repulsive Women by Carrie Lorig
Essay Press, 2016
Recently, I was out to lunch with a bunch of poets. We were at a French restaurant downtown. The conversation was languorous and awkward. Bernadette Mayer was sitting underneath a huge “Je Suis Charlie” sign, but I was too nervous to take a picture. Then the woman sitting next to me pulled a copy of Carrie Lorig’s The Book of Repulsive Women out of her bag—a print-out of the pdf, creased and wrinkled, read and re-read. I want to say: that seems right to me. The Book of Repulsive Women is the kind of book you print out and carry around with you, the kind of thing you read obsessively for months and months, a secret source of power and possibility that follows you everywhere, making the spaces that you enter somehow luminous and strange. It’s the kind of book you pull out at a bullshit lunch in order to say OK ENOUGH. “All reading is blood,” Lorig writes. This is a bloody book: a book which is simultaneously sustaining and wounding, which is both of the body and against the body.
Lorig’s book is, in part, a record of reading: of her engagement with figures like Alice Notley, Virginia Woolf, Bernadette Mayer, and Djuna Barnes. Indeed, the chapbook takes its title from Barnes’ 1915 collection of poetry, The Book of Repulsive Women. At times she appeals to directly to Barnes—asking her sharp, fundamental questions, opening an ongoing collaborative dialogue with the past:
What is a fucking girl, Djuna, What is anger, Djuna, to a fucking girl in a girl’s corpse body How is a anger a BLKSEED a BLKC a BLKSEIZE ripening glistening fluttering in the fire / tissue / script of the corpse’s spreadgirl body, Djuna, Plunging I bought your book made of construction paper Plunging grandly I bought The Book of Repulsive Women, Djuna, I felt it choose me….
Lorig’s work raises a series of questions about feminist poetics: how does it relate to its own history? How can it sustain itself in the face of deep misogyny, institutional and otherwise? The book is as she writes, “An essay about distance and estrangement / An essay about learning how to speak.” As the word “essay” already suggests, Lorig’s work ruptures the narrow boundaries of the poetic—or, rather, demonstrates how flexible and encompassing poetry really is. This book is an essay in both the scholarly and etymological sense: it tries to articulate the conditions of a feminist poetics by embodying them, by giving the poem a body: “The body that writes / that contracts the bodies of writing / It must become Dirty too / I am Dirty and Bleeding.” “Dirty Critic Dirty Critic Dirty Critic…” she concludes, chanting the words, so that they become an incantation, a spell of protection.
However, The Book of Repulsive Women ruptures the boundaries of the poetic in another, perhaps more fundamental sense. Even as Lorig works through a broad range of poetic predecessors, feminist and otherwise, she draws on extra-poetic resources: text messages, conversations on the street, Facebook event invites, assimilating them to her project. For example, she includes a screenshot of a Facebook invite for an event celebrating the life and work of Cuban-American performance artist Ana Mendieta:
Mendieta died in 1985: many people, myself included, think she was murdered by her husband, the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. “Join / Save Join / …”—through the pressure of repetition, Lorig invests the everyday language of the Internet with political and aesthetic intensity. Facebook’s generic options become an index—of the possibility of solidarity, of the bodily dangers facing women artists. Throughout the chapbook, Lorig documents these dangers. They range from the casual violence of street harassment (she recounts how, “A group of white college men demand that N kiss me for them / that he take me home and fuck me for them”) to the draining difficulty of touring as a female poet to the ongoing misogyny of the literary tradition. (She quotes, for instance, some of
the most misogynistic lines from Berryman’s Dream Songs before declaring, “I AM JOHN BERRYMAN’S FEMINIST REVENGE,” the text floating in a field of enormous emoji strawberries). This ongoing violence, casual, continuous, and ubiquitous, marks the field of the real: the everyday horror within which Lorig works, and against which she summons Barnes and Mayer and Notley and Woolf. In this sense, Lorig uses images throughout the chapbook as a continuation of her larger poetic project. She does not draw sharp distinctions between literary quotations and text messages, emojis and sonnets. Her work is centripetal: it creates a vast archive of the actual, in its derangement, its violence, and its possibility.
eckClogs by Magus Magnus with Tony Mancus, Casey Smith & Gowri Koneswaran
Furniture Press, 2015
eckClogs is the first in a new series of “illuminated” chapbooks from the long-running Baltimore-based Furniture Press Books. The name of the series is, perhaps, misleading.1 The chapbook itself is all text. But the cover is hand-illustrated by the poets and the press’ publisher; each cover is unique. On my copy, green balls descend onto a series of beige steps. A dark row of tiny mountains pops out from the bottom of the cover. The drawing is simultaneously intimate and mythic: a crayon map of a front yard, a geological survey of a fairy-tale nation. Elizabeth Eisenstein (among others) has famously complained about the fallibility of scribal literature: books produced and reproduced by hand tend to drift, to change in inexplicable, confounding ways. Furniture Press’ illuminated chapbooks turn this disadvantage into a virtue. They militate against the austere, identical texts that issue from the digital printer. They seek to make the book, again, a site of difference and drift, to strip it of its authority and self-identity, even as they continue to embrace modern book making technologies (the insides of the chapbook are digitally printed).
The chapbook itself is thus a palimpsest, an unsteady combination of historical situations and modes of literary production. The chapbook collects three eclogues, collaboratively written by DC-based poet Magus Magnus and a series of collaborators. The eclogues were originally composed for performance: recordings of the poems were broadcast through the built-in speaker system in DC’s Canal Park, and the chapbook comes with detailed instructions for their re-performance: “Performers should concentrate on the sound quality of their voices and precise enunciation of words and phrases: the acoustics and aural textures of voiced text…[P]erformers are to return constantly to the word, phrase, and syntax level of the script, for emphasis on articulation and ambient sensuousness of particular words…” The poems in the collection are partially elsewhere: located in series of performances, past and future. If the poems extend into the indefinite and unplanned future—anticipating performances to come—they also emerge from a specific place at a specific moment in the history of DC’s urban life.
“[W]e must sing within history,” writes Magus and Koneswaran, in the chapbook’s final eclogue. The poems work to excavate and describe the history within which they sing. Digging into the smooth, pastoral surfaces of the urban park, the three eclogues unearth a tangled mass of history and power. In eckClog One, “Nothing Missing Here But Song,” Magnus and his collaborator, Tony Mancus, detail the industrial origins of the park, the early twentieth century rail-yards that occupied the land. In eckClog Three, “Rubber Snake in the Grass,” Magnus and Koneswaran document the dispossession and erasure produced as public housing projects were torn down to make space for the park. In some of the chapbook’s most powerful moments, they quote directly from journalistic accounts of the devastation: “You ate; you drank; you broke up with boyfriends. And now it is totally gone—there are no remnants of who we were and what we were as a community,” one resident says. Is the proper name for this devastation gentrification? Or is it pastoral? As the project’s subtitle demands, “Are Pastorals Idle in an Age of Corporate-Civic Structured Spaces?”
Over the course of their eclogues, Magnus and his collaborators demonstrate that urban space—like the chapbook itself—is palimpsestic: composed of multiple moments and modes of production. Unlike the chapbook, urban space hides its own multiplicity, producing a carefully manicured surface. In this sense, the seemingly natural landscape of the park is not the absence of human activity, but rather a carefully concealed product of power. As Magnus and his collaborators unearth this network of power, they drift away from the traditional activities of the pastoral toward a renewed and politically pliable pastoral practice. In his epochal history of the pastoral, The Country and The City, Raymond Williams notes, “It is not easy to forget that Sidney’s Arcadia, which gives a continuing title to English neo-pastoral, was written in a park which had been made by enclosing a whole village and evicting the tenants. The elegant game was then only at arm’s length—a rough arm’s length—from a visible reality of country life.” Setting the agenda for the English pastoral, Sidney participates in enclosure, ignoring the material circumstances that produce the pastoral park. Magnus and his collaborators flip the script: in their hands the pastoral is a hermeneutic tool, designed to reveal the operations of power, and to mourn its ravages.
1Full disclosure: Furniture Press Books published my chapbook Asides in 2012.