In The Shadow Which Is Life

In The Shadow Which Is Life

Ithaca Is Displacement

i    gunpoets

The Shells On The Ledge Belongs To Us

The Cross On The Wall Belongs To Us

The Ribs In The Sky Belong To Us

The Red Trails

The Minute Falls

The Dark Road

The Personable Fence

The Thick Slab of Air In Between The Museum’s Exterior

Our Yellow Expanse Ends In a Jelly Curve

My Little Dorm Room

My Sticky Mind

I’ve been wanting to write about being in Ithaca at the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell. I’ve been terribly anxious about the peaks I am able to climb. Across the room from me–I am in the basement of the library–there is a map called “Columbia or America: 500 Years of Controversy.” I don’t know precisely what it is about, but I can guess, and my guess will be close. It has something to do with annihilation. This is also what I fear–a map of my projection–a fear I’m nearly incapable of forgetting: I walk around and up and down the hill to and from Cornell. I didn’t realize it was an Ivy League school until the moment I realized it. It wasn’t something I’d always known. This status can mean or not mean many things. For me, it means I am like Dorothy in the balloon going nowhere. I mean it’s a joke, a pretend ascent, or I’ve got it all wrong because Dorothy is trying to get home and I don’t know where I’m trying to go except I am trying to be here, with and in and amongst our minds, the minds and bodies of the folks that are here, wanting to be with them, and scared of the fiery burn of the dreams that take us away from ourselves. The ribbed arches of these gothic buildings were things I admired, and learned to admire, in my AP Art History class at Roeper. That was the first private school I’d been to. I finished high school there. I didn’t start there. I certainly didn’t start here.

 

 

A long way to run

Sometimes I want to say, oh my god, it’s such a small world. And I do. I say this after running into people I never expected to. But then it seems, this is not really true. The world, as it is, is not particularly small.

*

Since traveling over the past month, visiting London, Bologna, and now Detroit (my hometown), I have bumped into the following people:

1. Bhanu Kapil, a poet who lives in Colorado, at the Tate Britain in London

2. Dave Zohrob, someone who used to be a DJ at WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, at a coffee shop in Detroit (he lives in New York)

3. Casey Girardin, one of my very best friends from childhood, at Sinbad’s, a restaurant on the water in Detroit (well, my parents ran into her, but same difference)

4. Lewis, a person I used to be a bus driver with for Ann Arbor Public Schools, who is a security guard at the Whole Foods in Detroit

 

 

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[Me and Bhanu with a Francis Bacon triptych far in the background. The class I took with her at Naropa was about triptychs and Bacon’s in particular. We were stormed by the magic of our encounter.]

*

I realized that another way to understand these run-ins, rather than saying “it’s such a small world!”, is as the consequence of having moved a lot and, I think, having jumped from one class to another. Or, if I haven’t jumped, these run-ins can be thought of as one outcome of having lived at the intersection of working-class neighborhoods, jobs, and public education on the one hand, and relatively elite education and artistic communities on the other. (Understanding these scenes as distinct produces a number of problems, especially since most poets I know do not understand themselves as part of an elite anything, but it’s important to understand that I take the time and pleasure to make this blog post. I can take the time and pleasure to write and read poems and I have the education to know what that is, how that might happen, and that there are conversations about poetry that go far beyond my own intervention. I am not isolated. In this way, I am not an outsider.) I also “ran into” several people I went to high school with when I went to my 15-year high school reunion for Roeper, an undoubtedly elite private high school, which was the third high school I went to, after attending Renaissance in Detroit and Stevenson in Livonia. Basically, it should be clear, that I have covered some serious Metro-Detroit ground.

Expansive and strange, strained and dispersed, on the heels of having spent weeks in such an extraordinarily different city, London, I have many, sometimes too many, places and people to compare to one another; many worlds to understand in relation; many landscapes and habits, methods and sites of exposure to measure, fuel, and digest.

The experience of the so-called uncontainable is ubiquitous. I mean, what cannot be contained is something we (and now I’m talking about us as academics) talk about a lot. Most folks (many kinds of folks) would not deny that they have encountered something that they couldn’t swallow or take in; something they couldn’t properly or desirably hold in their minds or bodies.

When I skate across the surface of these highways, I pass any number of exits I’ve taken to arrive somewhere that used to belong to me. I return to see if I can hold it again, but if I slow down, if I pause for too long, say, in front of the house I grew up in on Longacre, I make the people that live there nervous. What am I doing here? I don’t belong here. It’s not mine; or, it’s not exactly mine.

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[6425 Longacre, a still from a video of driving down the street]

 

And as my friend so brilliantly suggested regarding Detroit in general, there’s no here here. It’s cut up by highways, spread out, most of the city is ignored. They’re shutting off people’s water. And, as the clerk at Rite Aid said, “it’s Detroit. People’d steal air if it wasn’t free.” (He’d said much more than he meant, we decided. It’s not that people steal just to steal, but that Detroit is the kind of place where you might have to steal air because they might start charging for it and folks here, meaning many Black folks, would not be able to pay for it.) (The comment about there being no here here needs a bit more context, but it has something to do with the desire to signify Detroit to itself. I sit in a coffee shop and the conversation beside me includes “Detroit City of Lights” or something like this. There are plans on the tables for spaces in Detroit.)

The surge of pleasure that capital metes out, and which we (the class of mostly white artists here) squeeze out despite and/ or because of capital, thrives in the tiniest parts of this behemoth city.

Wherever I go, Detroit is being symbolized, both outside and within the city. The place we go for our high intensity workout tonight is decorated with photographs of the Train Station, which is only up the street from our workout. The instructor wears a Detroit City shirt. I have my Detroit Detroit tattoo.

When there is a Tiger’s game, everyone is wearing Detroit schwag. People have old English Ds on their cars. A Whole Foods truck indicates something like “we’re in Detroit now” or “we’re happy to be in Detroit now.” Their sandwiches are listed as “Detroit favorites.” I have a drink at Rock City that is made with Faygo Rock n Rye and I get it because of that, because Faygo symbolizes Detroit. Motor City Brewery has a beer called Ghettoblaster. Shinola’s advertisement on a downtown building reads: “Before Detroit Made Watches and Bicycles We Made Nice hashtag saynicethings.”

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[Billboard pic taken from the car]

 

The city, perhaps in a unique way, perhaps not, needs to symbolize itself within its own borders. But a city can’t signify itself. I don’t know how to understand this. Does this affirm its boundaries or express the desire to expand? “Me, a name, I call myself; Fa, a long long way to run”??? I get that that it’s part of selling stuff. People want to buy the brand Detroit. But it also feels bigger than that. Or the desire to make the brand and buy the brand and trade the brand involves the circulation of feelings that are not always clear to me, especially as I see that I am someone who, unwittingly, participated in the reproduction of this symbol by attaching it to myself. I thought I was saying, I am attached, too attached, let me put this symbol there to objectify it. Let me objectify my attachment to Detroit in some way to lift it off its surface; let me make this desire to make concrete and solid the word “Detroit” an object of knowledge that is more external. This poetics frightens me. A fantasy of liberation hinges on how the freeway asks us to skate through, allows me to collect images from my car, which I try to slow down to live inside, briefly.

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[Bankruptcy pic taken from the car]

 

 

Detroit, Detroit; Hampstead Heath; Yellow/ Cliff; Shadwell Swim

I take pictures everyday and my phone dies because I need to use the map all day and I am not able to keep up with what I see. But it keeps up with me. I feel like taking pictures everywhere and then going to Facebook to see that the day hasn’t begun in the Midwest. This makes for a long stretch, a noodle (everyone laughs in Bologna when I use the word “noodle” instead of “pasta”), a noodle that feels like it’s going to break.

I tell Lenora, “There are real differences! There are real differences!” I am so emphatic about it, like I never believed until now that there are real differences (which isn’t true–I mean it’s not true that I didn’t believe it, nor are differences a matter of belief). But I hadn’t felt them in that way until then: being both so far from home and not actually realizing what “home” is.

This is a theme on the postcards, maybe, that I sent and the ones that I haven’t. It’s also so obvious to everyone but me because I got a tattoo of the theme, which continues to surprise and re-present itself for interpretation, as it is a conversation-starter.

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I know this is going to sound stupid, but I didn’t realize it would mean talking about Detroit with strangers.

“So, you’re from Detroit?” And then some people don’t understand what it says underneath. “Defrost?” And some people say what the tattoo says without realizing it, “Oh, you’re from Detroit, Detroit . . .”

*

My last day in London–this won’t be the last post I make–my last day in London was pretty much perfect. If only I hadn’t spent the morning packing and thus cutting short my time at Hampstead Heath, where I could have got more heat rash than I did.

*

I grab a sandwich and a Coke (I almost never drink pop in the States. I think I drink pop here because it feels American). The guy working the little coffee/ food stand at Westcombe Park Station is good at his job because he knows just how long it takes to warm up a ham and cheese sandwich and this just the amount of time I have before I have to catch the train. He asks me about my Detroit tattoo. He says he knows that place because isn’t that where Eminem is from. “Yeah.” “So did you grow up near him? Do you know where his house is?” “Well, I think his childhood home is boarded up and I don’t know where he lives now . . . He’s a pretty interesting guy, though, I think.” “Yeah. He’s white and rap is mostly black and I think he’s a good rapper. Oh your train is here. I’ll cut it in half and then you’ll have to run.” “OK. Thank you! Bye! Have a good one!” I’m not sure people understand what I say when I say, “Have a good one.” I haven’t heard anyone in the UK say this, but it’s one of my favorite ways to depart. I find myself wishing, too, that I’d asked the guy where he was from.

There are so many people in London from so, so many different places and this is intensified by being on the train for hours everyday. An hour out and an hour back and usually more than that because I take more than one roundtrip.

*

I read Morrissey’s Autobiography on the train and look around a lot. It is both fast and slow reading because I’m at the part where Morrissey complains a lot about Rough Trade records and it’s really boring. Some of the best parts of the book are when he describes music that he loves and I remain taken with the first sentence of the book, which I’ve repeated countless times: “My childhood is streets upon streets upon streets upon streets.” I didn’t go to Manchester, which is where his childhood is. I opted for Brighton instead because it is closer to London and there is sea there. But back to Monday.

 

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1. Hampstead Heath (soooo English!)

 

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2. The Ladies Only Pond (soooo lovely!)

 

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3. At a beer garden, I try to try draw a picture of the first Nick van Woert sculpture [left] you see at his current exhibit at MAMbo, the pretty fabulous Modern Art Museum in Bologna. And someone who draws better than me draws a picture of a cliff at Cornwall [right].

We meet at the pub at 2:30 after I’ve been laying out in the sun and taken a very, very cold dip in the pond. (I’m just too colloquial for lying out). I have a Pimm’s with lemonade with mint and slices of orange and apple. The mint is really refreshing and the drink is served with a bendy straw. (I think all straws in England are bendy straws). After Pimm’s, there’s a move to drink Lavender Hill beer. There is some time spent reciting Laurie Anderson and discussion of the role of reflection or mimesis and interpretation in psychoanalysis. I share my theory regarding what “love” is in “Love Will Tear Us Apart” on the train.

 

 

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4. I meet someone, this time near Shadwell, for a second swim at a secret river basin. I ask if it’s really secret and they say yes! It’s for members only and it turns out, we are the members! And there is a speaker in a wagon attached to a bike that is playing what else? British punk and no-wave, which is so lovely to have that feel close and local somehow as we slide into the cool-but-not-as-cold-as-the-ponds water of the Thames.

*

It’s too much to recount how I, then, in a sun plus beer plus last-day-in-London fog ride the train back to my kind and generous hosts in Greenwich and Rihanna’s song about finding love in a hopeless place comes on through the shuffle.

*

I wake up in the hotel room near O’Hare at 3am and continue to try to think through the fantasy of finding love in hopelessness, wondering what the intrigue is specifically around the extreme of love plus hopelessness. And does this mean finding hope in hopelessness and why that? This bends back to my theory about “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which I’ll have to get to next time, just like “Philosophy in Erection,” which had something to do with being torn apart, too, as Catherine started off that talk about being in between and thinking that’d be pleasurable but finding it more complex than that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wolf Eyes, Madison, WI, May 12

 

At one point, I counted how many more-or-less feminine-looking people there were at the Wolf Eyes show last night in Madison and, including the bartender, there were 4 out of about 40. This wasn’t true all night, but the ratio didn’t change too dramatically. And even if it had, something of the masculinity that was established at the start of the night stuck.

This didn’t bother me so much as remind me of what masculine cultural feeling often looks and sounds like. It’s something I consider my own even if it attempts or appears to attempt to only belong to itself.

So here’s what I took from Wolf Eyes.

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Teaching/ Reading

Below is a letter I wrote to political activist and poet, Marie Buck. It is is in response to her response, “Organization and Aesthetics,” to Josef Kaplan’s piece, “Theses on an Aesthetics of Violence.” She’d sent me an email asking for my thoughts, but since I was in Harpers Ferry , WV, I couldn’t reply then. I don’t have a firm position on the following questions, but it’s not for lack of wanting one.

7.11.12

 

Dear Marie,

 

I’ve read your post, “Organization and Aesthetics,” and caught up with the Josef Kaplan piece and interview. Thank you for writing me and asking my thoughts on it. Since we have such distinct relationships to political action, meaning you are politically active and I am not (I don’t believe) in your assessment (?), I’m happy that you thought of me/ my brain. I’m sorry I couldn’t respond sooner and now this feels belated, given the speed of conversations on the net. But that’s OK. These are ongoing conversations.

 

What seems sorely missing from your (and Kaplan’s) assessments of poetry, art, and politics is teaching (yet when I say this I recall how constrained graduate students felt in the classroom during the demonstrations in Madison). [There is no purified space for political organizing, right? I don’t know how to answer my own charge that teaching should be part of this conversation except that it is a context in which people are learning how to convince each other of what they think are good ideas to greater and lesser degrees.] I completely disagree with Kaplan that an engaged intellectual community can form around a knitting circle in an analogous way to that of a group discussing poetry, unless the knitting circle is also reading or makes it a point to discuss cultural objects or they analyze the forms in which patterns are made and distributed, etc. A group (knitting or not) discussing Mary Oliver, if they are a group of working-class, first generation college kids will, in my experience, call that shit out as uninteresting because it has nothing to do with their lives and say, “Next!” But, in my experience, they will glimpse a strange optimism in Harryette Mullen’s writing that makes them want to know a whole lot more about how the culture and language they live in has shaped them and how they might want to shape it in return.

 

A poem cannot make a decision, but, importantly, it takes a really fucking long time for humans to make decisions, or at least some humans, including myself, which makes us not unlike poems, given that some of us never get around to making the decisions we mean to make. (How have we been plummeted into an Enlightenment conversation about the will-to-act?)

 

My point is not to be round about here. My point is to be clear. What is “genuine political action”? Does it not involve reading, writing, and discussing the practices we deploy to read and write? Since when are reading and writing well enough to make convincing arguments so different from speaking well enough to make convincing arguments? Isn’t this conversation, then, also about audience? Who do you want to organize? How are they available/ open to organization? What if you organized the poets and artists in Detroit? Are they more or less organizable than the workers at Thorn Apple Valley? I’m just thinking out loud here. There’s so much that I don’t understand about the ground for conversations about political action and why such clear, righteous pathways must appear before us.

 

When I gave my paper at Orono about rethinking how Language poetry is political, I produced a reading of Barrett’s poem Progress and some early Language poetics. I chose to read the poem’s “message” quite differently than anyone had before, and I hope to keep reading in the way that I do and convince others that the way I read is worthwhile. I read the poem in terms of its overwhelming representation of force. What I might say is political about this reading practice is its attention to unseen effects and affects. What could be useful about this reading practice is its transferability to listening (in a meeting?) and grabbing the trails of effects that are created by lots of bodies in rooms. Collecting those and showing them to ourselves and others when we get hot-headed and the discussion starts to break down. Tracking these so we might know, as a group, why we’re not able to make a decision that we desperately need to make to alleviate suffering? (Does such a singular decision exist? Well, not really. If I were willing right now, I’d read the desire for such a singular decision as one thing that determines inaction. Everything takes so damn long and our lives, our deeply personal, individual lives are coming to a close. We must make openings!)

 

What’s the translation from reading to action? I bet I could (and one day will) take my reading habits into rooms of people that are not all scholars (or scholars-in-training or psychoanalysis or whatever teeny-tiny groups I’m oriented around), and use them to help people do things. But I’m not sure people can do things as well as we’d like them to and maybe some poems can help us think through inaction in order to put our feet on the street?

 

I’m being cute, but here’s something not cute. I was just in Harpers Ferry, WV and was reintroduced to the enormous importance of Harpers Ferry to the history of African-American political action and the fight against slavery. [It’s taken me a very long time to come up with the next sentence. This is because this country is still so fucked up. An address by W.E.B. DuBois in the earlier part of the century is cited in one of the exhibits with a list of demands for African-American liberation and the list could still be read today, meaning those demands/ needs for equal participation have not been met]. John Brown and twenty-one (?) men seized one of the two largest arsenals in the United States. Their plan, it seems, was to take weapons from the U.S. government and distribute them to slaves that joined their army as they traveled through Virginia. U.S. soldiers surrounded them, though, and they never got out of Harpers Ferry. The story about John Brown’s raid, the most mundane version I think, is that it failed. But Frederick Douglass said something like, it may have been one of the most important events leading to the ending of slavery. A failed raid is not a poem but, now that it’s history, it’s also not political action (which implies now, right?). It’s a fucking amazing story with consequences that historians are still debating over.

 

I don’t have a final point to wrap up with. Disappointing, I know. I’m not married to the idea that poems or art do something SUPER DUPER SPECIAL THAT NOTHING ELSE CAN. Not at all. I’m highly suspicious of it. But I know reading and talking about them does things and I imagine that that doing stretches and expands. This is a terribly disappointing ending to an otherwise interesting letter. If poems aren’t political all by their lonesome, maybe the stories we reproduced as a result of our reading practices are? Meaning, isn’t choosing what stories to tell and to whom a kind of political action? Isn’t that, partially, what organizing is?

 

With love to you and your brain,

Anna