Not Betsy Rosses
For a while I thought about designing a flag. Something bigger, blurrier than "nation." I imagined a hovering planet on a field of blue, and "United We Stand" could be written under that--which felt good. I mentioned my idea to a few visual artists, who smiled and said I know what you mean, though some felt the American flag was fine and did stand for "something." Though no one could say what that something was, except maybe a desire to feel safe, together. Nonetheless, it kept happening. The war got sold on TV right in front of us. First, "Attack on America," then "America Strikes Back," then "America at War." It felt like a gradual poem coming across the TV screen in the same way a news story keeps adding one tiny little detail every hour on the hour. A poetry of repetition, so very American. We do understand the selling of a thing. Patriotism is, of course, a language system; a reality is getting constructed, just like "sobriety" exists as it does because of AA and the success of its endless repetitions ("it works if you work it!"), because, as Fredric Jameson says, conviction is related to the amount of redundancy in the message. But what about a flag for that other us? If there is another country, or many of them, in North America, or even in the world, how shall we know ourselves? Or shall we just darkly slide into the abyss under Gertrude Stein's ominous words: "Each civilization insisted in its own way, until it went away."
Long before September 11, I received countless e-mail petitions, still do, concerning the inhumane treatment of women in Afghanistan, though at dinner parties one hears the "good news" about the war--that windows in Afghanistan have been flung open, TV stations are coming back on and women are abandoning their burqas, going back to work. Suddenly, the US military has become the liberator of Afghan women. Yet this cheeriness is complicated by the story of Lieut. Col. Martha McSally, the highest-ranking female jet pilot in the Air Force, stationed in Saudi Arabia, who was, until recently, bizarrely forced to wear restrictive clothing--a black head-to-foot robe called an abaya, female Muslim attire, for her own protection whenever she was off base. Also, she was required to sit in the back seat of the car, as Saudi women do. (The Pentagon recently declared the black head-to-toe robe is now "not mandatory but strongly recommended" as off-base dress code. And McSally was reassigned to Arizona in what didn't sound like a promotion.) So while women were being liberated in Afghanistan, McSally's experience seemed like a recapitulation of the same oppression in mini-form, as if Muslim culture and the entire incident afforded the US military an opportunity to restrain women within its own ranks--obviously a goal. Because no one would ever suggest that a man in the military wear a dress for any reason. It would get him thrown out--so the masculine "out" is the feminine "in." Clearly, the patriotic have lots of work to do to change this pattern. Perhaps the war is "our" opportunity. We really need a flag.
In recent months I've read some radically female books that use poetics to promote a sexy and beguiling peace. Lisa Robertson, a Canadian writer, has written a small but epochal collection of poemlike prose passages and intermittent poems called The Weather. Once you crack the cover of this incidentally stunning-looking book--three floating white spheres in an azure sky--a folded turquoise sheet tumbles out, a press release it seems, from "The Office for Soft Architecture." It pronounces in boldface, "We think of the design and construction of these weather descriptions as important decorative work," and it wonders grandly, "How should we adorn mortality now?" This is a serious political question, since, it explains, "sincerity's eroticism is different from wit's." I suspect "sincerity's eroticism" is the condition of that "other America" that put Colonel McSally in an abaya. Lisa Robertson embarked on The Weather during a residency at the University of Cambridge, where she began an intense yet eccentric research in the "rhetorical structure in English meteorological descriptions." Referring to these weather descriptions, the Office for Soft Architecture temptingly promises, "They sculpt what rhythmed peace could be." The Office for Soft Architecture is a poet's fiction, a poet's dream--utopia, what used to be called a manifesto. Robertson's trope is exactly what we need to see whapping in the air, and, as the vastness of her international conceit reminds us, it is the air. In this so-often-impersonal book (which is no small crime for a female writer) she lets the landscape narrate, and from this newly constructed body politic, a collective tells the tale. The writing of the weather descriptions (which, I must admit, instantly changed mine) is incantatory. The Weather is a work of dazzling surface divided up into the days of the week, each "day" being rhythmic prose with a pendant poem at its end.
"Sunday" opens like a stick being thrust in the ground. "About here. All along here. All along here...." Later on it grows more dramatic: "Here a streak of light, here and there a house...." She continues: "Here is a system. Time pours from its mouth. We design it a flickering. Here is its desolation. Here it crosses. Here it falls at last...." The perspective is so deliberately precise and unclear, and so lovingly guided, that we follow it like a beautiful film, one quivering between art and politics, and the classic calm of her narration slides us over to a meditation on the State. Her text is a Virgil who would lead us humming through our mutating atmosphere. "Monday" begins with this suggestion: "First all belief is paradise." She shifts readily into the philosophic realm because she was never absent from it, and as the payoff for her constant mutation--just as swiftly she shifts out. The flickering ground of her book is all exits.
"Wednesday" is, among other things, a litany of female saints. She plops them into her landscape like paratroopers. These are military girls, leaders. "Days heap upon us. Where is our anger. And the shades darker than the plain part and darker at the top than the bottom. But darker at bottom than top. Days heap upon us. Where is Ti-Grace. But darker at the bottom than the top. Days heap upon us. Where is Valerie. Pulling the hard air into her lung." The effect of her naming and moving over the schematic, flickering landscapes is a cumulatively emotional one. "Days heap upon us. Where is Olympe. Going without rest. The polis crumbles open." When she quickens the pace of her unfolding, by shifting the scale, drawing her terms closer to one another, it sexualizes: "When monogamous, besieged. When no perception, doing warning. When none would, a pip of wet, stillness, a runnel." As each sentence opens with a poised "when," and as the gaps shorten, the field is suddenly jarring, exciting: "When the plan, a purse, optical." The rhythm of the collapse is a way of focusing, containing, then pulling back. This single practice, this excision of space and time, becomes a manner of speech itself. If all is weather dividing into week, week made of days, days of moments and letters, then the whole is a reference to a continuous surface of enlightenment in language, in being. It's exalted, even patriotic to me. We see the words that remain, and our selves reflected in it. In this fragment, the poem after "Friday," her work almost done, she speaks keenly of her utopia:
I make a little muscle
to disallow each part; a collar clamped against the cold, a nail against the rock. Sometimes, just what I praise, I believe.
Dodie Bellamy in Cunt-Ups uses overtly sexual texts, her own and ones written by others. She arranged her pages whole cloth, cut 'em into quarters and re-arranged them like tiles. She smoothed the resulting page out till it seemed right. The "cunt-ups" of the title refer to William Burroughs's famed cut-up technique. I think there's a deliberate air of domesticity (like working-class moms making dresses from patterns) to how she describes her project--this female riffing on the historic practice of the quintessential "outsider" man. Especially when I think of Burroughs's prophetic railing against the corporate monstrosity, while taking into account the irony of his being the scion of a huge corporate family; and when I recall how much Burroughs hated women, calling them (us) "two-holed monsters," and how he shot his wife (allegedly a lifelong sorrow for Burroughs, yet still how much worse for her!). There's something horribly fitting that Dodie Bellamy, who incidentally comes from a Midwestern, no-privilege background, would construct a small book of endless romps like:
I contact either myself or you, I recall being involved at this time when I moved our hand across my body and I felt like I had one of those small water pistols. You were dripping instead of shooting your victims, you were living in your stomach penis and balls. I fuck you in a garage, I fuck you as if you'll be recovered like a sledgehammer in a garage, like you'll eat my brains. I get all stirred up, I was still half asleep and started flopping about, I was shown to have my right hand cupped around the sledgehammer's base, I used to break up the bones to reach your balls, kneeling before you, here, a sledgehammer will be placed on inventory, your cunt is comfortable, that and your tits, orgasm, after orgasm, but I can't shake wanting to plant myself inside you, gray handle, my hips spreading across the chair, feeling me over. I just want to suck on your nipples.
In a way Burroughs could say anything--he couldn't be thrown out of anything, could he?--being a man, being on a small trust fund, living at the end of the world. Already killed his wife. What's to lose? I think about how Bellamy's appropriation of his method is not unlike Kathy Acker's, but Kathy was also a trust-fund kid, and was personally safer being bad--because the upper classes are entitled to transgress for us all. I applaud this dedicated act of replacement, the joyfully willful construction of a Frankenstein text, one where the genitals are all confused in a timeless flow--all present, as a particularly ballsy female accomplishment. Going one further than Bill, the avant-garde's Dubelyew, in taking this sublime stab at pleasure, the rearrangement of hundreds of cunts and clits and dicks and pussies: The exhausted "I just want to suck on your nipples" has tremendous immanence, all gesture, a mad kind of one-time power.
Honor Moore's Darling is in many ways the most ambivalent creature of the lot. Its cover is a photo that looks like a painting; the whole question of artifice abounds in this book. It's conventionally poetic in some ways, but the ground is unstable, the largest tease in Darling being its title. A female nude leans into her position, gazing at flowers, and so many of the poems in the book are about love; sometimes the lovers are female, sometimes male. It's truly a midlife book about love and relationships, but the "Darling" of the title is not the woman gazing on the cover or one of the lovers or all of them. Instead, there's a dream of a funeral in an eponymous poem toward the end of the book; it's a family funeral, I guess. And there the dream's narrator saw her first gay man kiss another. After which he calls him "Darling." It puts a spin on all the poems, making this trickster aspect of love be the star. Which love? The woman on the cover thinks: Hell, what's he gonna do now. Love is unfathomable, this poet knows.
Stylistically, Moore does not speak in excision. It's an older ear. I'm thinking that a material everything hovers in her view, and the poems feel selected from that. We're moving through the fullness of a world, and memory. The surprises, the replacements, are conducted almost by sleight of hand. Like Bellamy's, this is also a poetry of class. I mean, what poetry isn't, but here I'm thinking upper class, and the poems are full of the aches of privacy; figuratively it starts in the dark and it returns. In the book's first poem, "Bucharest, 1989," a painter yearns for white, but the color is unavailable. The whole of this book is richly dark. It's hard to imagine most readers not approaching this world without a certain covetousness. In the same way that the name Robert Lowell was part of that poet's poetry, so is "Honor Moore." Her name approaches allegory, and even when you know she's being daily, it's a rarefied daily and it sings differently. A poem called "In the Dark," however, approaches a Djuna Barnes or a Hart Crane wildness: "A goat strays/through my dreams, Doctor, a crazy dove,/and from Pontormo, a woman struck/blind, her arms raised against the stranger." It's a medallion of chaos, but emotionally it's as stamped as a coin, like an old dream that clangs long after its images are gone. I'm glad for the mystery here. The house of the book is huge, and it sheds light on the unknown. History is a place, after all, a very real and glamorous one, where strange things occur. In "Citizenship" she states: "I wake to cars raging north up a rise, a truck/banging south." There's a loneliness to the notation.
My sense of the real time of the book comes out of these matter-of-fact lines. The poet wakes up and you feel she is ready to move, while still swarming with dreams. You feel the pause before the gesture, and the effect is quietly awesome. In "Undertow" a woman is described: "She liked to wear bright/colors, used the word 'sweetie,'" then a line later you realize it's the poet's mother. There's a movie star quality to the description: "I'm tiny in her arms, as if/flat against a steep mountain." Even as we read the lines, the poet is fading into the distance--no one is bred for this experience. The poet endures her own pathos: "Understand, I don't/believe this will ever change." "Hollow Hill" is a swatch of prose that is not a "prose poem" but a tiny memoir of a child in a big house, where people have "old rooms," as in "my father's old room." On a planet where many people spend their lives moving constantly, on "Hollow Hill" not only is the poet's own childhood stable but her father's is too. Her parents sleep in "the Modern Room." The reality of this family life is uncanny, museumlike, and the child iterates herself theatrically: "They don't let me keep the doll. I gallop back...but I will never undress her or untie the red ribbons under her chin." How I understand this book has to do with what seems disallowed in this very ornate, very conditioned reality. So much undoing is not visibly possible. I understand, for instance, how our sense of the Gothic springs out of exactly this imaginary of old, dark ancestral houses, even beautiful places where things don't change much. Just deepen.
To be alive in these places one would become a reader of codes and elsewhere seek one's own undoing. That "undoing" being passion, which is the subject of this book. Passion being, I hate to say, so poetically, the most necessary flag. Lines slap us in the face, almost jumping out of the poems that hold them: "Nothing heals/like that hand," she utters in "Resonance," which I think is the finest poem in Darling. The moment of the line is followed by a sort of rejection: "We don't have a life/together," she says, "face toward/the child, window, the child running...." It's a heartbreaking reply, yet the power of the moment remains with the narrator. It resounds with a very female frankness that cuts across class in terms of knowing what one has made, has done.
Perhaps he's right about the cup.
You dig the clay or purchase it.
You cover it, keep it wet. One day
The clay calls you to model the cup
And what you've lived, every cup
To your lips, moves through your hands.
As a reader these new books make me feel that so much good is already on its way to us. Like Lisa Robertson says: First of all belief is paradise. The right to assemble a moment of presence--a poem, this flickering banner of passion is ours.