Helen Diffenderfer, my grandmother, died today. She was 86 years old. She was a badass. She worked for NASA at Cape Canaveral. She wasn’t much afraid to die, & had a pretty good last few days, from what I can tell. She ate like a trucker: two Christmases ago she berated me for not giving her a gift certificate to Cracker Barrel. This year she got one, & used it to eat what she wasn’t supposed to, again. She laughed a great deal, rather boisterously, which I used to think a lot of old ladies did but actually a lot of old ladies don’t. She loved Wendy. She loved movies & her family. She loved church. I could describe her a thousand ways that would only help to describe a thousand grandmothers, but she was mine & I’ll miss her dearly. Helen Diff-en-der-fer. I’ll miss saying that last name.
I’ve been neglecting my own website for the Brooklyn Arts Press website, which is brand new (praise be to Martin Rock) and seriously pleasurable to look at. I’ve also neglected writing about AWP, which was a wonderful experience, given how I was finally introduced to some of the authors I’ve published. Our reading at the LIR bar in Boston really cemented the idea, for me & for others there, that BAP is a family. My thanks to everyone involved.
Visions of Drones Swarming U.S. Skies Hit Bipartisan Nerve
By SCOTT SHANE and MICHAEL D. SHEAR
Last Friday I was in Boston attending the AWP conference when Wendy & I finished up dinner & drinks with some Boston friends & headed back to our hotel room. I figured I’d jump on Facebook before hitting the sack (a long day full of book selling & catching up with old writer friends & beating the blizzard) when I noticed a friend of mine had posted a link with my name attached to it.
I opened the link & found my poem “Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper” had been quoted in the New York Times. Wendy hopped out of bed & jumped around. I reposted the link immediately & since then my website has blown up, the poem has been disseminated by a great deal of people on the major social media platforms, & the emails have poured in congratulating me for what would the next day appear on the front page of the NY Times print edition.
I did not expect in my life to appear in an article concerning the actions of Rand Paul. Although our ideas diverge greatly at times on many issues, part of the reasoning behind his filibuster, which brought attention to the question of the President’s & our military’s possible authority to track & kill Americans on American soil using drones, was just & appropriate. People can decide whether or not it’s a question worthy of protest & arrest, though I must say that though the weapon we would now use is new, state killing of Americans on American soil happens all the time in prisons around the country. We have a distinct history of killing our own & the legality of the action, though it has been questioned & fought against, remains as it had before. My point is, this is no new thing, & to object it one must realize what one is rejecting in full, in broader scope.
All I can do is thank everyone who read the poem & felt the need to send me their thoughts, it means the world to me. Thank you.
I would like to thank the editors of Epiphany, in particular Brian Turner & Martin Rock, for their help in publishing “Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper” in print & partially online in their Winter/Spring 2013 War issue, as well as allowing me to talk a bit about the process of writing the poem (which is only available in the print edition). Beyond this, they have also allowed me to post the whole of the Reaper poem here on my blog, in hopes that we can generate a larger readership for the work, & also drive readers to Epiphany, a great literary journal.
Two & a half years ago I started working on “Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper,” finishing it during the late spring of 2011 in Brooklyn, & revising it up through fall 2012. My hope is that it adds to the larger conversation, now that drones are beginning to take shape in the public consciousness.
To download a PDF of the poem, click HERE.
Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper
(I dreamt you up in third grade.) Ultra-cool & promo slick, a predatory dart
zip-lining threads of nimbi, unmanned, over darkling continents, your bot-brain
is a paragon of focus & yet mechanizedly desireless, as self-aware as silverware,
& thus incapable of cruelty when delivering laser-guided missiles calibrated
to fountain a small bus full of explosives into a contained puff above a crowded
marketplace, or slip eel-like through a cave’s oculate within the Hindu Kush.
Your blurry, thermal aerial view beset with squared crosshairs a rookie war
director’s owlet dream: oblivious vermin swept up with gestural efficiency from
heights that confer the necessary filmic distance of omniscience, as if each strike
were a warrant fulfilled by reason abiding divine instruction: Michelangelo’s
God fist-bumping Adam. Edited & packaged, a select few videoed assaults ship
to media outlets as evidence, an impressive staging intent to show a public what
humdrum work war’s become—locate, track, eviscerate. Replicate. From these
spare scenes of bombed & reconfigured wreckages of cars & buildings ghosting
though a dusty plume arrives a satisfying vengeance for the loss of Sgt. Elias
from Platoon, those spry young Wolverines in Red Dawn, & my uncle’s waking
battle dreams (of the Vietnam variety) that go unmentioned in advertisements
peddling the mastery of thumb-numbing single-shooter POV games for Xbox
& PlayStation as a skill set, with once implausible credits transferable to active
military duty. O to be gamers & destroyers, with each ethereal tick a countdown
aria to roadside decimation or the anticipated readiness of microwaved pizza—
I’m on YouTube again watching a task force seize a desert outpost, the offal
opulence of awful ordinance as witnessed by a documentarian’s hand-held,
an eye unsteady in its capturing, but never insecure. By firefight an anecdotal
oral history begins developing its authors, these servicemen & -women who
user-posted comments identify as members of Generation Kill. Soldiers passing
soccer balls to poor kids an errant attempt to dupe a viewer into moral alliance
& engage the heart’s surrender, but as the camera goes downrange, still settings
shiver with heat & the sudden dubstep beat drops its discharge of epinephrine,
pumps us for the possibility of a shootout & invasive human plumage: gut-shots,
headshots, Hajji hematomas (& never a dead American), the BBC-style coverage
devolving into Bang-Bang Club badassery, moments spliced for detachment via
destabilizing rapidity. The first tank shot a Globe theatric to begin the operatic
picaresque: Pafghaniraq: the Musical. Ubi sunt & heretofore? Let the bodies hit
the floor. Dulce et decorum est? You wanted in and now you’re here. / Driven by
hate, consumed by fear. The tanks roll in, the tanks roll out. But Reaper, where
they cannot go, you can—& suddenly we’re Superman! Eye in the sky, womb
with a view. You whizz to the rescue, my childhood A.I. dream‘s apotheosis
as M.Q. Joe, as a voice narrating the hunt regurgitates post-Towers ideologies—
the kind of stuff we get from news sources instead of news—& a superstructure
emerges, with themes equating learnedness with subversive otherness & might
with right, which Heaven atones, advocating our patriotic, righteous will-to-power.
& I get why we heart the hype. Your sleek iBomb design is haute Apple adorable:
the extended wingspan, the ball turret cam. Viewed full-frontal, Hellfire missiles
hang loosely clamped to the horizon of your asterisk body, itself a fusion of X-Wing
Fighter & Lambda-class Imperial Shuttle from Star Wars, a sexy sort of curvilinear
Geek Goddess whose forehead slope recalls the stately dolphin fish, rear propeller
the whirr of a rubber-banded planophore. Behold our Indian Springs Sphinx,
riddled with weapons. But your work is deadly serious: to split atmospheres &
genealogies alike, & do to human beings what bunker busters do to basements.
In my child’s mind you were precise, able to de-install a dictator as effortlessly
as any computer virus, a typed command & poof, *democracy*. But the reality
is always trickier: while pursuing the enemy you also catch civilians, & often,
a fact that crass reporters reduce to food metaphor (in order to make an omelet)
& zealots to allegory (God makes his omelets with American cheese), but a truth
remains: when targeting al-Qaeda, jihadists, & the Taliban, you snatch the heads
off schoolchildren. Actual little kids, with families smothered in radii of blast circles
& a bloody sampling of bystanders. The Brookings Institution puts your civilian-to-
militant kill ratio in Pakistan at 10:1. Possibly. New America Foundation says 1:6.
Maybe. Actual numbers unavailable. I click from collateral damage to Google Maps,
satellite zoom to downtown, & comb rooftops for the faintest fraction of your form
hovering Ground Zero because I’ve read you minnow those twin blue columns
of memorial light as New York’s newest National Guard. I can’t help but imagine
what future recon missions Cuomo might commission. Will you one day sweep &
clear meth labs? Will you whistle just above our neighborhoods, a goodly beat
cop who when alerted turns bag snatchers into smatterings of gore a blogged
cartoon Giuliani might welcome as graffiti? Or would you just zap terrorists? &
could we as Americans stomach accidents? A collapsed school gym, a Park Slope
bar, the IFC, NYU, or BAM? In my dream you spiral slowly overhead in a droning
corona of mechanized security, attentive as any parent. Are you the border patrol
or the border? In your harmonious hum I hear George Carlin proselytizing on
flamethrowers, a confluence of human ingenuity (How do I throw fire from here—)
& what our culture embraces as a necessary wickedness (—on people over there?),
as if the bargain struck with sentience was having to fulfill its darker innovations.
Will the ramifications of your exploits serve as a parable, or dictate foreign policy?
Do robot assassins outstrip the honor of our enemy, or us? This is not, I think,
an academic question, unless we really wish to own the role of a global hobgoblin,
dining expansively at the expense of others, crematoriums stirring in our cocktails.
As a boy sweating it out in the swampy Florida ruins of the Space Coast, I conceived
also the Extreme Frisbee, which when tossed onto a lawn levels a concentric blast
horizontally, mowing the yard & thus finishing my chore, an easy circumvention
of a nagging task I found torturous in humidity. Would the Air Force be interested
in my toy version of the “daisy cutter”? It’s unnerving, two decades in the rearview,
my easy fascination with destruction. I can’t say if it was fed by video games, toons,
the assumptive natural tendencies of boys, or incidental fallout from grandparents
that worked for NASA at the Cape, where I once met Ronald Reagan during an era
of Cold War initiatives—rockets, satellites, weaponry, plutonium payloads; beach
protestors’ signs reading: We Want to Grow Not Glow! At ten I watched the shuttle
Challenger craze a curious Y overhead as we paused in playing duck-duck-goose
on the school’s soccer field, our harmless game made instantly ridiculous, sickening
perhaps, to our teachers, though I’d rather imagine our sport as analgesic to abrupt
cracks forming in their logic, a hopeful premonition (even as they instantly foresaw
a future of layoffs & foreclosures, ransacked tourism & a raised crime rate, an anti-
Oz ushered in by faulty O-rings) of enduring life—which touches me now, resting
on this bench in McCarren Park & watching a group of latino kids batting around
a diamond, a few of whom might one day serve overseas. In this Spring of uprisings
& genocide & war—baseball. A juxtaposition one may enjoy like an itch on the back
of the throat. But what we call living is loving what we have, & have lost, when
we can afford to love having it. Some say we fight for this opportunity alone. Others
say to fight at all perverts the having. I see the boy pitching catching the HEAT end
of an RPG-7 in a few years, & think, Play ball. Live & love this having. I worry Reaper
you’re nothing but the latest incarnation of defensive bulwark designed to keep our
leaders from having any skin in the game, a flying watchtower for One-Percenters.
But that’s my irreverence speaking, as it’s obvious you were designed primarily
as punctuation, a stop-gap for sentences like, “I’m going to plant an atomic bomb
(Reaper) in (Reaper) your (Reaper) city.” & to keep young adults from shipping out
& having to bear the brutal brunt of difficult decisions. But I find the remoteness of
your remote control indicative of certain policies of opacity, the reticence toward
disclosure adopted by governments & gatekeepers, fretful as circus flea-handlers,
who decide some truths are too harsh/heady/hairy for a public. Your lofty hands-
off approach feeds into that, & I imagine a subsequent generation envisioning war
as raining droplets onto water beetles: bloodless because we do not see the blood,
effortless because we do not see the effort, & so a simpler thing than the arduous
recurring task of engaging in diplomacy. A not-so-futuristic, not-irregular Tuesday:
coffee, WiFi iTunes, Netflix South Park reruns in an open tab, your successor drone
narrowing on its target, requests a confirmation & is approved by the same sugared
finger that seconds ago tested the relative squishiness of two types of jelly donut.
Here’s a line announcing a strong desire to reference Blue Oyster Cult in this poem,
or pepper in a bit more humor for digestion, but the shitstorm in my head’s pushing
my levity button sublingual as my mammalian cortex indexes lines for a Codex
(disseminating tips on how to better agitate an ulcer) entitled Driving a Blunt Point
Down a Dark Road, With a Wandering Eye for Wildlife & a Certain Recurring Fear.
Dear Reaper, I interrogate to better know aspects of myself, it seems. My inquiry
into the meaning of your presence has made for incessant consternation, ineffective
sleep, a line by Karl Krauss my rare dreaming’s epigraph, “In case of doubt, choose
in favor of what is correct.” & around me the world becoming a sudden dustbin for
metaphors, e.g., these El Beit coffee cups stacked into one another lip-to-lip like
largemouth bass of similar size attempting to swallow whole their counterparts
perhaps the symbolic error of my arrogance, choking on a subject more immense
than my wheedling could wend; a caricature; enigmatic reach beyond my grasping.
Outside June ferments its special brand of Brooklyn light, summoning dog-walkers
& buskers & strollers to the park overlooking the motley chopper barges of the East
River & Manhattan’s bric-a-brac skyline, & all the styled lines I’ve erased in pursuit
of you are monumental failings I can’t shake, & share with friends over café beers
& small plates of chorizo & applesauce, speaking of guilt for having not reached an
ethical conclusion of you, as my internal editor broods & kicks, distrustful of poems
that approach polemic, & rightly so. I could bend like the palm tree, ruffled
by opposing winds, yet breaking neither way; or play the twin-faced Janus who,
given variations on a score, sings a garbled contrapuntal tune. But still each night
I return to you, clouded with resentment, the questions I pose echoing as personal
indictments: If I accept you as a net positive, must I then accept the death penalty,
for which the cohesive moral arguments by either side I find by turns compelling &
absurd? When if anytime is absolutism, in law or life, viable? & what of fallibility,
stamped on every birth certificate? Is human error error’s most humane defense?
If war (as the poor) will always be with us (or us), should preemptive forgiveness
accompany any loyalty we bestow upon our government, however begrudgingly?
Is skepticism our better patriotism? Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching.
The case made for your creation was utilitarian, with a catch. As an instrument
sacrificing nothing of itself, you are a tool, Reaper—a dumb bucket of brimstone
& nothing more. But in your work there’s sacrifice, to be sure. Not the mundane
daily forfeits made by people carving out their own identities with virtues like
humility & patience—a guile amounting to a certain manufacturing of spirit—
but with swift certitude in servitude, sacrificing the lives of others in our name.
To deprive war of warfare’s casualties (on our side, of course)—its main malignant
property (to paraphrase Zizek)—is reiterated as your goal, & yet civilian casualties
excluded from military updates discount the lives of victims whose freedom we’re
told is in part the reason why we fight, no? Surely liberation doesn’t mean from life.
Or are we expected to believe their desire for democracy (if indeed this is desired)
denotes a predilection, an implicit willingness, for self-sacrifice in service of greater
goods, this devotion somehow empirically antithetical to that of suicide bombers?
ಠ_ಠ. #OverheardInDC. To usurp a suffering voice with ventriloquism or shush it
with cover-up is the handiwork of dictators, dickheads, & directors of propaganda.
A modicum of respect is paid by invoking a revoked life when reporting a victory,
losses both targeted & untargeted. Shame is America’s great barometer: it lets us
know when we’ve crossed a line. Recall LBJ’s reaction to Cronkite’s condemnation.
We know sacrifice well enough to know when it’s not worth it, & even find within
ourselves forms diametrically opposed: the soldier who sacrifices herself for us
might sacrifice another for herself. We’ve seen our own countrymen take batons
& lashes to the back, suffer the lunacy of crowds, or the indignity of being unjustly
jailed & even killed in the fierce nonviolent battles of giving of oneself. But what
do you relinquish, Reaper? What do we lose by using you? Your advocates serve up
spin like dervishes, hors d’oeuvres buttery as Rumi but bitter, as detractors clamor
eagerly for central space on aggregate news sites, Op-Ed columns marginalized
& funneled through the foreign press. Each time you slip across an international
border illegally to snuff a serial killer, the debates erupt, each side tending garden
with the unimpeachable words of our forefathers, proven pesticides for fighting any
weed or rhizome of rebuke. On the airwaves Senators, Representatives, & talking
heads unite to enact a dance of prefabricated sound bites & slogans a Fifties adman
might concoct to ameliorate “the befuddled masses,” teaching us where to focus
our newly engaged feelings: on the nationalistic Pride for our military’s Ingenuity;
the Bravery in making these difficult Choices; the Talent & Teamwork; the restored
Honor in having doled out Justice. Phrases that imbued with righteous overtones
subdue & collapse their subject, trivialize with jargon the power of authentic
expression, & with the pompous authority of the politico attribute a successful
campaign to our fighting spirit, heaven-forged & exclusively American. Well firstly,
Senator, nice tie. Lieberman called & wants his smirk back. & so we’re clear, I find it
slightly fucking irksome to be addressed as a collaborator in some monumental
decision in which I had no say, & livid because I have a stake. In your speech against
the enemy, was I meant to be the juror, or the injured seeking justice? Looking out
into the cameras, do you imagine the solemn, braided faces of a million confessors
staring back, each troubled by a grief only your full pardon could relieve, being as
we share in this responsibility? Do you stick to boilerplate clichés because language
is a terminal for vagary & connotation, & our polling preferences remain a known
unknown? Even if I shared your plan of action, the rhetoric smacks of self-glorifying
punditry, as if you’d commandeered the bomb yourself & rode the goddamn thing
to earth like Major Kong. This aint you vs the hippie-dippies, so stop trying to out-
man-handle gravitas. One dead Head doesn’t curtail much less abolish a terrorist
movement, so let’s talk turkey: the drone tactic of picking off bad guys one by one
is feasible but expensive ($3k/hr); they’re prone to crashes, slip-ups, have a flight
hang time of Jordan on two days’ rest & methamphetamine, & are practical
merely as an application for hunting higher-ups who’ve had their covers blown
by errant errand boys—a strategy that relies on runs walked in on balks to win.
If it boils down to body count, Senator, let’s discuss the flimsy bags of foulness—
the body as person, conflux of ideas, protein chains in congregation, a thin material:
not the kind we halyard up a pole or drape over a coffin, but a living instance we
either value or devalue with our actions. To keep the number of combatants-to-
civilians killed out of your podium romp & rhapsody amounts to whitewashing
in the name of foreign relations, does it not? (No need to wake the far right Czar-
side of Karzai.) If ever our leaders & .gov devalue bodies, undermining each our
own mind’s dominion, we’ll lend our heart’s ears & eyes elsewhere, to be clued in
by the new vanguard, e.g. the tag team comic smackdown of Stewart & Colbert,
the nebulous panopticon of WikiLeaks, or the ambitious wave of Anonymous grey-
hat hackers who post their findings online mere ticks after your talk. Transparency
is a form of objectivity, & truth a noumenon: by this I mean, we know bias exists,
so share your bias, & allow us to judge its worth. We need to know those running
our machines are functioning well, as well, & in good service. We need to know
that even if wars find us unavoidably involved, as with an attack on our harbors,
or a match scratched across Europe, though there may never be consensus, clarity
at least will guide our certainty in how we will advance & why & at what cost. Make
no mistake, your exploits (grave music) attract songbirds & whistle-blowers: smart
phone photojournalists, bloggers on crusade, a child’s text arriving instantaneously
on our devices. To stubbornly refuse to share with your constituents the hard facts
& steer clear from implementing policies marshaling forthrightness, you lose a not-
negligible portion of public trust; & find it worthwhile, as popular feedback during
election cycles could consign a $10 million Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) deemed
ineffective to the scrap heap. Phrases meant to assuage us, detailing the perils of
compromised National Security, would be fair if we’d requested preliminary attack
coordinates, communication logs, data that endangers operatives, etc., but what
we’re after is POTUS’ justifications (heavily footnoted) & an honest casualty count.
Bear in mind, what roosts in darkness awakens in darkness also, but is rejuvenated.
Some folks, unable to parse fact from fiction, feeling resentful, duped & mishandled,
will invest attention, energy, & money in commiserating charlatans who entertain
conspiracy & preach a radical, bigoted, insular fascism that fetishizes your failures,
Senator. It’s sad to watch such distrust flourish. It frustrates me, upends my mental
furniture. When folks demand what lecherous voices demand they demand of you,
it will be in equal measure to what they feel you’ve withheld. On all sides, animosity
for government grows, the perception being it conceals only to illustrate its power.
Evidence itself must be evidenced. Clamoring for graphic images of our own war
dead are the people who sought out pics of bin Laden’s corpse (& Saddam’s gallows
plunge, captured by a grainy camera phone; who watched Qaddafi sodomized &
hood-strapped like a deer & driven through the angry streets), if not to placate
their own disbelief, momentarily, then to finalize another draft of current history.
Perhaps it’s fair to push past tastefulness & ask for images of our fighting dead;
those who suggest it could prompt fewer military actions are probably correct,
but then expect a surge in websites devoted primarily to gruesome battle porn,
with faces recognizable—an unfiltered horror show no PBS documentary by Burns
could fully mitigate for mass consumption, nor a le Carré novel stew in its juices,
feeding out the pearls. Some things can be engaged but not encapsulated; slip our
definitions; shift their natural structures when being observed, making it difficult
to weigh the potential outcomes of any approach. Shock weds us to understanding
& mothers empathy (or trauma), & empathy activism or a paralyzing awe at how
little we can help. Shock enjoys the lifespan of a fruit fly, empathy the fig wasp,
yet pitted within each, abuzz, a plot for ultimate change. If nourished too frequently
by either, however, we numb to them. But if left unfed in intervals, we risk fostering
conditions for bleak distortions of the soul, the rank solipsism of corruption, fear-
mongering, isolationism, genocide. Best I think to arm ourselves with compassion,
a word for love’s morality, & an activity to be pursued to a point of effortlessness.
To share in the suffering of another (our enemy (our idea of our enemy)) gives us
a stake in their welfare & survival, our shared breaths & burials. This isn’t breaking
news. History is a coroner’s cold slab / the rise & fall of nations on display / & though
the body is a bloody mess / its examination brings clarity. So what does it matter
what wrapping we box our rationalizations in, or the fingered reason we ribbon
our bows about, if peace is the desired end result & we cannot have peace without
understanding? If the other suffers, we must suffer knowing. If it’s wrong, we stop.
The soldier relinquishes his body for the greater body. The conscientious objector
relinquishes her body for the greater body. The terrorist relinquishes his body for
the greater body. The martyr relinquishes her body for the greater body. Reaper,
you relinquish nothing but another’s body & our name. You respect not & want for
nothing, & if by terrible error you misfire, you have no hands for blood to be on.
When Abraham took his only son Isaac to carry wood up Mount Moriah, which
Samaritans (of the good ilk) believe was Mount Gerizim, in the West Bank, to do
what his god had commanded, which was to bind his son & slit his throat, for proof
of loyalty, it was always easy to imagine the scene as developed for Hollywood,
a Warner Brothers production, where the complexities of devotion, split between
familial love & a higher purpose, could be played out by actors we liked, whom we
knew the studio would never allow to die onscreen, under a purpling sky & thunder
& broad orchestral strokes that signaled a grave decision & torment of the spirit.
What’s more difficult to imagine is how a country father could make that climb up
a path of white rock, fig & olive trees arriving in clumps & the air smelling of herbs
of his own childhood, perhaps—oregano, thyme—& brambles at his feet, as his son
asked, repeatedly, what it was they were planning to sacrifice using all this wood,
& having to hold that secret in, which must have felt like an infestation of the brain,
for the whole duration, knowing the hot knife at his thigh would soon be under his
son’s chin, the smooth skin found there, & that he would have to puncture or slit or
in some way force this tool into this boy in a manner that would bleed him out like
a goat, not yet knowing some force would stop him, knowing only that to do this
he must prepare himself, empty himself of feeling & so become that tool of his lord,
given to the invisible hand, & sacrifice himself in order to sacrifice his son. & what
child, tucked under the covers, listening as his own father reads this bedtime story
to him from a book opened many times before, doesn’t imagine himself Isaac?
Recently, among the industrial vestiges of Bushwick, I found myself in a white box
some entrepreneurial do-it-yourselfers had carved into an art gallery, & found
mixed in with post-grad’s work informed by the subtle forms of Lin & Beuys,
the hard-wrought whimsicalness of Anderson & Baldessari, two flat screen TVs
hanging side by side on the wall, where I watched a fluttering arthropod buzz
onlookers in McCarren Park as the other screen detailed its aerial imaging as
layered onto a satellite view of Google Maps. As chance would have it, the artist
was there & gave me a rundown of his work. I saw this in a dream, I said, feeling
slightly ridiculous. Me too, he said. I’m intrigued by drones, I said. It’s all that I
can think of, he said. The drone was strung above us, its articulated exoskeleton
& elbow cameras not quite so menacing in repose. Onscreen we watched it wobble
along a swarming path remotely set by iPhone. It won’t need you soon, I said. That’s
the point, he replied. How long did it take to design? I asked. It’s a kit, he said. You
can buy your own online. I told him of this poem, how in using a received form,
an irregular ode, which I’ve wrecked, to receive your form, I’d moved beyond a place
of comfort & the sonic permutations of lyric wanderlust I usually trust to gather
what it grows, & into a mode of formal speculation. These things will do that to you,
he said, as if I were hard-wired to follow tension to intention. Why just last week
a company approached me asking if I could outfit this thing with a thermal cam.
The line “(Ghastly went the twerp)” was first conceived as “(Petty wrath,
this length of West),” among other improbable incarnations, plus or minus a few
switched-out letters; ultimately I chose the former to fit an evolving characterization
of you as a bird of prey. Treating the historical list of drones as a layered anagram
was just another attempt to chip you from the stone, a time-intensive experiment
to hone (home) in on the idea of you using a formal device of creative constraint
not unlike meter or a Matthew Barney bungee chord. & if by certain measures it fails
I’ll accept that. But let it be a failure with some transparency: in my word choices,
using a soliloquy trope which allows for this presence of mind, the delights & false
turns I’ve made, the frictions & fractious phrasing & varying musics. & this stanza
of Kora in Hell-ish afterthoughts is part of that. Relationships need their breathers,
their steps back, in order to assess what has been achieved, what is still at stake;
it’s exhausting, this swarm technique I’ve employed to both encapsulate & out you.
I’ve heard Moby Dick described as Melville’s own attempt to capture in language
the whale’s essential thingness—fleeting form, elusive essence—by framing events
preceding & surrounding its hunt, its hunters’ histories, & the industry relying upon
its animal fats & oils. We get a minor telling of its impact, & sense the authorial hand
creeping in at the sides. He divulges the secrets of its anatomy, charts its behavior
in an attempt to elucidate a nature, collects salty anecdotes & myths to better keep
it buoyed about a surface of referential symbolism. & still the whale evades totality;
the trap is tripped but nothing caught. Where in a whale exists a whale? What core
among detritus? If not a sum of facts & traits & qualia, if irreducible to cross-section,
if un-pin-down-able by narrative, imagistic or lexical triangulation, then how does
one account for it? It is a phantom object: the closer you look, the less there is to see.
Melville must have enjoyed the slip of it, grabbing still, & so often. Gospel of Ishmael,
Book of Second Job, a testament concerning a depleted man conspiring to kill what
he cannot capture nor contain: not a physical Leviathan, but a bitter logic of injustice
& vengeance trafficking within. Had Ahab early on harpooned his psyche’s cachalot,
wrenched the jaw from it, flensed & minced it & laid it bare before maritime birds
who’d take it in their gullets & disperse, his crew & himself might have lived longer,
but then we’d be left with no lesson by which to mark our moral lives, which shows
the truer whale for which Melville used Ahab as the bait, & for which I use Melville,
so that a discussion might surround the impossibility of possessing you holistically.
& I say it aloud to myself, & say it another way, that language is mere iron fillings
betraying a magnetic field, exposing one aspect of a thing, a force, by its properties.
I desire but will never hold the atomic fact of you in my brain. You are too quick &
I lack the stamina; lack the knowledge, the tools, the knowhow. In the end I have just
words & images. But images & words are what I have, & hope of their effectiveness.
To begin with this:
Writ into its programming a complex theory of the heavens & the earth, & a mystical
treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that the Reaper in its own self was a riddle
to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; whose mysteries not even itself could read.
mindful of my own biases & beliefs:
This is what you’ve been shaped for, Reaper! to chase these white whales, for both sides
of man, & under all sides of earth, until they spout black blood for Rolls, Infiniti, Audi.
while altogether trying to avoid this:
All that most maddens & torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with
malice in it; all that cracks the sinews & cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms
of life & thought; all evil, to crazy [Your Humble Investigator], were visibly personified,
& made practically assailable in the Reaper. He piled upon the Reaper’s white hump
the sum of all general rage & hate felt by his whole race from earliest ancestors down;
& then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his fucking hot heart’s shell upon it.
Personality strikes target specific high-level individuals. Signature strikes are strikes
against suspicious confluences of people (suspected terrorists, sympathizers, training
camps) based on vague factors like age & location. The bulk of strikes are Signatures.
Disruption strikes are “crowd kill” Signature strikes operating with direct evidence
of a threat to national security. For each type there is no opportunity for surrender.
There is no due process. The dewdrop world is but a dewdrop world. & yet. & yet.
To realize the air cleaner I’ve recently purchased to cleanse my house of dust particles
comes from the same company (Honeywell) that designed your turboprop engine.
Factory 1: Remotely piloted hunter/killer weapon. Factory 2: Relief for asthmatics.
A poet-teacher of mine rolled in late for class once & sat, hands folded on the table
we all shared, looking out upon us as if we were each Persephone in her garden,
victims of a future kidnapping, & said, ‘I’ve just read we’re making nuclear weapons
small enough to fit in suitcases. If there was ever a time to be arrested in protest,
this is it.” & we each, separately & in unconscious unison, almost imperceptibly,
did not move. Befuddled by the unreality of the news & our mentor’s expectations,
we weighed the pros & cons of sudden activism, anticipating an impulsive flash
of filial courage even as we prayed for a collective cooling. Instead, dawdling &
nodding agreeably, we opted out, dragging our naked helium heads from a smoggy
cloud-cover of disgrace to embark upon the lessons of the day, of which there
This anecdote became the sort of chilly nugget I’d drop in a breakfast
of bourbon after pulling an all-nighter trying to fashion from a complex idea ten
pure syllables of poetry, & forego the snap of sleep for slow evaporation, having
failed to seize the throated moment at its inspired impetus many hours earlier.
Being a disciple of impulse & self-fulfilling prophecies—the sparks of revolution,
I imagined—my failures left me feeling low, if not absolutely gutted. I’d chide
myself for having resorted to bibliomancy of the classics (kernels of ideas I’d pot
& shake over a blue flame) & crude word-pilfering from peers & websites (whose
users coined ad hoc lexicons for instantaneous appropriation, riffed-off & punned-
on by others, each an arbiter of a living language) instead of relying on my own
internal devices: Mini-Hadron Connotation Collider, Hubble Logoscope. What gain
was had trying to perfect a minor line? What readership lost or won? What impact?
What decisive battle undercut in having not marched on the state capitol building
that day to jerk a headline from some field reporter? Did I really lack initiative, or
was it that I’m naturally skeptical of secondary sources? Had my crafting, the back
& forth internal squabbling, sucked the marrow from a healthy, living organism?
Did they ever make those goddamn suitcase bombs?
Atomic facts. How much of me,
reduced, molecules rearranged, would constitute what percentage of you? If we
are locked together in this natural world, of the same matter, am I responsible for
your every aspect? I can’t accept it. I couldn’t sleep or eat an egg. I rely on surfaces,
distinctions that separate. & yet I feel the friction of your movement. Any theory
of surface contains an idea of edges, ends & beginnings, interference, commingling,
restraint, subversion, how things touch & where. But here you are, albeit chemical,
catapulting what amounts to lightning through my cell walls, & my imagination
Any theory of surface depends upon which side of it you’re on. I could sit here
skipping stones all day. Or I could watch the flat side of some altogether alien
subject collapse my sky in brilliant fashion, one realized blip at a time, until finally
lowering to my closer investigation. Humans are surface in that we’re both barrier
& brane: a sovereign fortress of rectitude, when at defense; when carefree, about
as permeable as rhubarb pie. When we are deep, we are as deep as what is there.
And nothing can exist except what’s there. But of course we’re deeper than that,
more than our reality, more than experiential filtration systems, materialism
sifting through media. More than a sum of systems. My idea of you will always be
more summary than sum, Reaper, even as I systematically uncoil the looping
layers holding you intact, because you are the layers, & the intactness, & my desire
to see you differently. I am conscious of this & yet persevere into idiocy. If there is
a spirit it’s our conscious imagination, plump porcupine, a population of Calibans,
half demon heart, half overheard.
Consciousness exists, meaning the universe
accounts for it, & so may use us, its fallible stumblebums, to better understand
its own workings, in accumulative degrees; not some five-deck shoe of blackjack
arranged to perplex the number counters, but a system unfinished, which a mode
of sci-fi expressionism might one day examine & illustrate. To better understand
its own workings, the mind revisits itself in memory. The college of correlatives,
where we learn of interconnectivity. The mnemonic consulate, where we work
each day at failing better. This is one understanding of progress—the arboreal
dendrite in bloom, flowering receptors to receive at the synapse a radiant charge
(which changes everything. (Shockwaves (of intelligence).)) The desire for an
apple, the apple in my hand. But before that, like a child’s desire, the reach for
what it cannot grasp. Then the grasping. To be or to be better at, & try not to be
better at being worse. The memory of that learning. To better understand its own
workings, the poem revisits itself through language. The impartial eye & itinerant
image, how they syrup through each other’s fingers, clinging each to each but never
caught. How rhythm is both a wave & a trellis. How momentum expands a moment.
How interruption & imperfections can tango & twist a critical mind from contempt
to contemporary. How mutually exclusive ideas can intermingle in a single line
without genuinely coalescing, & then in a thought genuinely coalesce. To better
understand his own workings, the poet works. The blank page is a plank as thick
as his world, a baseline of knowledge he’ll challenge to undermine. He wets &
warps it, testing for weakness. The final form is unforeseeable, a boat or a rod,
or a powder keg; he’s probably just ruining wood. But it’s good work, & the more he
works at it, the better the bender. His travels are varied—Tokyo; his tinker’s heart;
as far as the neighborhood bar. He studies the workings of other woodwarpers
& looks over his own porous specimen. A pale sort of thing. Mostly air at a molecular
level. He never knew he knew so very little. With one plank bent he grabs another.
As big as his world, but now a bit bigger. The worries of work are rejuvenating.
They ready him. For more work.
What infestation is music in language? It says
all the time what I don’t mean to want, & better. & concentrating on you has me
staring at blue until all I can see now is yellow. When the youngling woodpecker
first hammers its head into the bark, does it fear it’s lost its mind?
I was reading
Auden when the second war with Iraq broke out. Come a year later, September 1
was everywhere on August 29th. Imperialism’s face / And the international wrong.
My friend J—— came by & we walked with the protesters up Seventh Avenue,
a thousand flag-draped coffins tracking hundreds of thousands of demonstrators
toward Madison Square Garden, where the Republican National Convention had set
up shop, & where on its steps well-suited clusters of our ideological opposites (our
organizers assured us) watched in muted ceremony as the polychromatic orgy
of hordes passed them by, trumpeting their grievances & tacking their secular
Theses of Demands to every eardrum in earshot. But even in that wash of unity
there was infighting, bickering, bad-mouthing, brutes. We were as weary of each
other as we were of them, & they were of us; our joined voices a loose architecture,
a toupee the wind kept disheveling. As the crowd dispersed with calls for a socialist
paradise or a centrist uprising & the catcalls of bankers who’d ruin us later, J——
& I kept walking, all the way up to Central Park, to sit on the gray slope of Umpire
Rock overlooking the baseball fields, & discuss it all. Was this for anything? was
the question, & I had within me Auden & the memory of that class some two years
earlier, & figured yes, it was necessary, even as gesture or performance, because it
was if nothing else good work. All I have is a voice. “But what purpose does it serve
if it’s just a party?” asked J——. Reaffirmation. A reminder of the work that came
before us. Of our own work. From the conservative dark / Into the ethical life. Those
that came came together to oppose a stupid war & unethical governing, spies & liars,
& even if we didn’t agree on everything, we agreed on that. May I, composed like
them / Of Eros and of dust, / Beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair, /
Show an affirming flame. Earlier that day we’d been asked to carry a casket &
declined. I wanted to be free to wander. My friend felt a deep distrust of forming
any particular alliances, saying we should own our own perspectives, informed by
separate experience, & gather with those differences in mind. We left the boulder
& headed for the West Village, hungry & silent as we traced the fleeting afternoon
to its darker avenues, alone & not alone, & passed by 52nd Street where in 1939
a British expat sat down in a dive bar & scribbled out, not a call to action, but some
observations on the horrid state of things; stealing glances at the other patrons;
finding in a mirror behind green bottles the smooth, pensive face Life captured
before it broke into waterfall. Self-exiled from fame & its devotees; a lover gone
to California; & trying to drink his way through an internal argument, he came up
with this: We must love one another or die. & there you have it: a 32-year-old’s stab
at encroaching fascism, sounding more like a borrowed Beatles pick-up line, or a
verse a precocious schoolboy might have penned, frustrated other notes he sent his
heart’s desire met only with cheery ambivalence. We must love one another or die.
It rings simplistic—the antidote for a threatening infection being the hope it heals
itself under a bandage of utopic, willed camaraderie, as if Nazis slaughtered for lack
of this. But the urgency behind the message feels genuine, & the dread that powers
a powerless individual to shake low-hanging fruit from a wilting How-the-Fuck-Can-
I-Stop-This tree may revitalize a desperate congregation, & is the antithesis of trying
to unring the bell of war with a few diplomatic lines that act as apolitical earplugs.
But even so, this plea for harmony was weirdly tardy: the storm had already begun.
The question was, what to do next? Should America get involved? Form a coalition?
Arrange a summit with the Germans? In this the poem is modest, as poetry is an
inquisitive art, lest one forget, & to supply each question posed with an ultimate
answer doesn’t mean the poem is finished, just that the poet is. Finished. So Auden,
though perhaps unnerved that his adopted American kin appeared content to
drink away their relatively small concerns the very day Germany invaded Poland,
stopped short of saying they should rise to the political demands of the occasion or
grow a global superego. After scouting the bar’s bleak-bank of depressives, whom
he counted himself among, I’d bet, he found Lost in a haunted wood / Children afraid
of the night / Who have never been happy or good. Some might argue he soured
to our species, but in the poem’s snowballing antipathy & verbal antagonisms
tallying our faults lies the poet’s true challenge—that of capturing competing ideas
in cognitive dissonance, & to test & augment his findings, keeping what resonates.
No Bible tract but a sparring interaction, the fevered theater of a mind unsure of
its own footing. To make an open case for war might have proven unforgiveable,
if only to himself; but to disregard a land-grabbing psychopath would be viewed,
at best, as a clarion call for his supporters & detractors alike to roll up their sleeves.
Confronted with blind alleys, the poet drove the moment inward, afraid & resentful
of the fear, so he might tease from his own uncertainty what troubled him of Power
& the pain inflicted in its pursuit. This mapping of the atmosphere sent his brain
pinballing into buttresses supporting the more incendiary claim that we were not
all in it together. Together in our wickedness & decency. Together in our shared
reliance on one another, which amounts to shared responsibility. & so he left the
reader to the dictates of her own conscience when determining what battlefields
materialized from the page, the only certainty being that in navigating this model
of a model world, one is never alone. & though over the years Auden altered this
poem, calling it his worst, banning it from collections & anthologies because it felt
dishonest, unfinished, unclear, it mattered very much to me—munching a slice
from Joe’s Pizza on Carmine Street, the dream of Camus’ solidarity also eking its
way in there between the peppercorn & basil, the salts & oils, people-watching
through the open window & wondering if struggle is our human glue, & if we build
our culture largely the way be build ourselves, by wrestling with opposing views,
even if some matches last a lifetime. The poem itself wasn’t the protest. The walk
down Seventh Avenue wasn’t the protest. Our lives were the protest. Our galactic
imperative of forward movement, our synapse songs & the good-work process of
woodwarping. We will love without being told to. We will face our struggles & die.
During the process of writing this last section, while my wife & I slept in the back
room, someone crawled through the front window of our home (I can imagine
him moving the garbage bins, smothering his smoke, slowly raising the window
& in a sudden leap to his stomach, emptying himself into our lives) & stole among
other things my computer. In my living room for maybe forty seconds, listening
for my stirrings, & gone. & I know that if he (assuming it was a he) had made his
way to my bedroom, with whatever intentions, & I had woken to find him there,
I would have, I am sure of this, used the hunting knife I keep nearby to take from
this stranger first what I would have been sure he was there to take from me.
(If by some means I’d been forewarned of his intent to break in &/or do me harm,
would I have been justified in preemptively storming his house & murdering him?
& what about his family, in order to eliminate all possibility of witness or retaliation,
the Hatfield & McCoy strategy of mutual annihilation? Any offensive form of citizen
self-defense (premeditated) is an indefensible offense, punishable by law—yet
somehow acceptable if carried out by our military in a foreign land. & if it slips
beyond the allotted timeframe, or leaks its secrets, we’ll call it war. At my most
cynical I’d say whoever attacks us gifts us a new opportunity to extend ourselves.)
But then, after the fracture, forgiveness. Following weeks piecing together what was
lost, (what remains irretrievable: unsaved portions of this poem, partly memorized;
the sense of our lives in this space) the fear & piss gave way, opening a space for
reconstruction: parsing what was manageable & not, what could be mended or not,
replenished or let go. Forgiveness is not forgetting, in my experience; it is an active
occurrence of memory, to be reassessed in recollection. In this way, forgiveness is not
a conclusion but an ongoing effort. & it is difficult, like any exercise, because it must
again tear, like a muscle, what it aims to strengthen.
& here I forgive my intruder again.
I’m no guard of moral decency, Reaper. In hounding you I’ve slobbered & frothed,
chased my own tail, left a few nasty mistakes. & whenever the desire to excoriate &
repudiate you finds another climax, I must reassess: today in Yemen, our “uneasy ally,”
100 soldiers marching in a parade were undone by a single suicide. On YouTube a blue
stampede of uniforms rushes from the bodies, & I think, if we are not the world police,
we can at least be a global sibling. How do we fight this? Education, trade, lending,
community building, construction, job training—it all takes time & costs run high
in both money & blood. Without reform, the region faces ongoing dictatorial theocracy.
But when their children grow, how will they remember this era, us, our actions? Our
imprint should be small & productive. But for now, a Band-Aid: a quick track & flyby,
& while you’re out, snap us some close-ups of Socotra Island, that place looks crazy
Reassess. I couldn’t even keep the last sentence snark-free. Is the question,
finally, what we choose to invest in, education or security? Reassess. An unrealistic
goal should be our pursuit—a series of perfect instances. & when you fail, we must
reassess your worth. They will not forget us. & who knows what will be forgiven. Re-
assess. Abdul-Rahman al-Awlaki for Anwar al-Awlaki. Reassess. Marine Staff Sergeant
Jeremy Smith & Navy Hospitalman Ben Rast for Fahd al-Quso. Reassess. Warnings that
children might be present, disregarded by our officers. Reassess. Little Fatima, jewel
of Egypt, split by the Hellfire Romeo that killed Mustafa Abu al-Yazid. & here I forgive
my intruder again. & flowering in me a stance tomorrow may crush.
But it’s tomorrow,
& it hasn’t.
I speak from one side of the gulf, the side with power, the side kept safe.
I believe you save lives, in that, for a time, you can hamper the options of our enemies.
I believe you will be with us a long time to come. I believe you’ve made the future
borderless. I believe those lacking power will gain power through you. I believe you
will be used to terrorize us. I see no way around it.
“Right now, for about the cost
of an iPad, a person could buy a used Parrot AR Drone, a radio-control 2.4GHz receiver
and a WiFi Yellowjacket, get a Ubiquiti PowerAP N router for the distance, a cloverleaf
antennae, pack it with a small amount of explosives & hover it up to any floor of the UN
you wanted. & you can do that from, hell, Roosevelt Island? Maybe even Gantry Park?
You don’t even have to be in Manhattan.”
“But people have been flying toy helicopters
for years & I’ve never heard of anything like that happening.”
“We’re in the infancy
of this thing. Wait ‘til these get faster & more stable. Wait until you’ve got a thrust-
vectoring jet or quadrotor some 15-year-old maps out the specs for & posts online.
You put a GPS onboard, set a timer, hide it on a rooftop, & drive to Maine for lobster
& an alibi.”
“& we’ll retaliate. Go make a thing a nothing & call it peace.”
“We don’t even
call it that anymore.”
Thanks, online forum hobbyist. Let’s go make coffee for the FBI.
& so, Reaper, after a year of watching you become our go-to weapon, our Big Gun,
& as news of your travels travel & make news, on NPR, in the glossy covers of major
magazines, after you were infected by your first virus, after Occupy Washington
staged a rally outside General Atomics in DC, & as Iran decodes your captured
sibling & scientists construct out of your ethos a robot hummingbird, I confess to
finding in your present work no clear instance of what should be our greater plan—
security in service of serenity. Not for dominance or disdain. Not for justice pursuing
vengeance. Not for negotiating leverage. Not for show of power. Not for one & killing
twenty. Not for not for. If poetry is news that stays news, I would rather this poem
follow you headlong into obscurity, where you as the transfixed object & my words
as what-will-suffice greet each other at a point of detonation above a thin, horizontal
path to yield culturally & historically all the raw accumulative power of a hiccup.
If not, others will be along to bind you with law & word. Other watchers. Other
woodwarpers. I see no real end to our progressive ropes.
It is raining on a Sunday.
Children in flip-flops splash each other in puddles. My wife is playing the tongue
drum I bought for her birthday. Outside my window, a lone gull of no consequence.
Then gray, empty sky. No small luxury. We should get to the market before it closes.
Let me say something about contemporary poetry. It believes itself progressive. That is, when we write, as poets, we think of ourselves as creating something new in the world, that our thoughts & feelings & word choices are not replications of the past, though they are built of things from the past, the way a new home is built of brick & brick is made of sand & sand was around for a long long time. The sand, however, could not have hoped to become a house. Nor the brick, which was intended for construction, might never have been, in the brickmaker’s mind, intended for a specific house, shaped as it is from the mind of an architect.
& yet I read the poetry of Philippe Soupault from three quarters of a century ago & it reads as if could be presented at Pete’s Candy Store or Studio AIR tomorrow night by one of my friends. Here’s an excerpt from a poem by the old Dadaist/Surrealist:
Wednesday on a barge
and you Saturday like a flag
the days have crowns
like kings and dead men
lissome as a kiss my hand
rests on chained foreheads
A child cries for her doll
and we’ll have to start over again
Monday and Tuesday cold-blooded
four Thursdays off from work
a thread unravels
a shadow falls
a butterfly exploded
chrysalis or glow worm
[translation by Paulette Schmidt]
Progress lies in the thinking behind a thing, in the intelligence that incorporates the teachings of the past (in as much at it can in one lifetime), but this does not prevent the intelligence from covering the same territory as the minds preceding it–on its own terms, in its own way, in its own time–nor does the newer intelligence find itself mired in absolute fallibility when discovering that its insight into an experience or phenomena matches up with what came before. What may seem derivative may also just be that certain like modes of inquiry & experimentation yield similar results, even when the minds doing the inquiring are separated by a century or more. A poem written by a young poet today might share certain values, sounds, verbal play, word choices, even an underlying aesthetic with those developed by the co-founder of the Surrealist movement years ago, but that does not necessarily mean the poet has not progressed, or that poetry has not. Millenia separate Plato from his adherents. It’s not that the world hasn’t changed, it’s that the world & human emotion & human reasoning hasn’t changed so much that the past has little to no direct bearing on the present. It does. & poetry, for all its impressive strives, still maintains a primary interest in humanity & the human condition, & for this reason will continue to entertain & employ elements of its forbearers’ work for centuries to come.
Readers have a penchent for the unexpected; poets are expected to deliver the old news in new wrappings, or the new news in raw form, but sometimes the old news, in its primal form, which was new for the time, is the best news for the new time. & some poems, as we know, reach from behind you to grab hold of the future you are just now imagining. & that can be a fun sort of tickle.
When I read this Philippe Soupault poem a certain delicious shiver runs through me. I can’t just read it once. It becomes a sort of deep incantation. I find myself speaking it aloud while reading without even knowing I am:
I’m not sleeping Georgia
I shoot arrows into the darkness Georgia
I’m waiting Georgia
The fire is like snow Georgia
The night is my neighbor Georgia
I hear every single noise Georgia
I see the smoke climbing and escaping Georgia
I walk stealthily along in the shadows Georgia
I run–here is the street to the suburbs Georgia
Here is a town which is the same
And which I don’t recognize Georgia
I hurry–here is the wind Georgia
And the cold and silence and fear Georgia
I run away Georgia
I run Georgia
The clouds are low and they’re going to fall Georgia
I have to be in your arms Georgia
I’m not closing my eyes Georgia
I call ‘Georgia’
I call you Georgia
Will you come Georgia
Georgia Georgia Georgia
I’m not sleeping Georgia
I’m waiting for you Georgia
[translation Julia Murkin]
There are also times in my writing life where I discover something of the past with a determined mode of expression that speaks directly to me in such a way that I cannot learn from it, or overcome it, or work against it with subversion. It feels like a perfect example of a thing, even if I find certain word choices to be too easy or just slightly off in one direction or another–all the better for its human flaws. So what I end up doing is singing with it, a kind of spiritual translation into the newer time of ever-occurring now, though I don’t believe much in the soul or in translation.
I think it’s common to experience reading a good book at the right time, & perhaps picking it up later & feeling it childish. But for that time it was a great book, & it delighted. This love of a great book inspires people to write. Not because they wish to outdo the creator of the great book, or outdo the great book itself, but because that book makes the writer wish to sing along. To contribute. To add. But of course, when you sing, it can never be quite the same song.
I’m waiting Anna.
I’m not sleeping Heather.
Mildred. Mildred. Mildred.
Don’t be long Michael.
Won’t you come Bethany.
I’m calling you Lucy.
I’m calling Stella.
I’m crying Billy.
I’m calling Amelia.
I don’t close my eyes anymore Dawn.
I open my arms like a goalie Lenin.
The sky is already falling Lauren.
I’m running Julian.
I scatter like nickels Damien.
All this cold silence & fear Cordelia.
I hurried but here’s the wind Libby.
& it’s all very strange to me.
Here’s another fucking causeway Sister.
I’m running down a suburban street Hermione.
I’m a wolf to your shadow Adam.
I see the smoke rising in shapes Brandon.
I hear all noises no exceptions Janice.
Night is the hot girl next-door Joanna.
Fire is a kind of quick snow Matthew.
I’m thinking of you Julia.
I’m waiting Emily.
I send flares into the night Cynthia.
I don’t sleep Georgia.
I don’t ever sleep Georgia.
“Green” is a surreal work influenced by video games, the sonic permutations of language, competition, spring, the green of astro-turf, sex, & memory, featuring the poetry of Joe Pan.
The crassly fashioned.
The crudely uttered.
The caped crusader as a crêpe crew saber. Consciousness
Even a hollow gesture informs.
Movement as text without shelf-life, with a poplife
provenance in kinetic pleasures, whose half-life is performing
whole notes of rote consistency & strength.
There’s always enough laughter to go around, so unlike gruel—
there’s never enough gruel. Consider yourself.
Consider yourself at home. The kireji
of a haiku is a word representing the moment the poem
is cut, where consciousness is severed in its telling
& heralds a new thought; the wound is an act of creation.
The closest English equivalent might be the caesura,
the drum thump, aid to memorization.
Then there’s the non sequitur, which seeks
for its own sake, emblematic of movement in that it must cut
itself or be cut
to continue, as any green-thumbed gardener will explain.
Fwomp, the dance instructs, meaning slow but whiplash-y.
Fwomp fwomp. The child in me claps &
stomps about, green as a comic Seuss egg, her magic handbag
a music & a means of perilous adventure & Atari possibility.
The Force & the Green Fuse
In certain circles, dance is a sport.
In certain circles, a deadly one. From certain angles.
For some, a circular sprint. Or sacrifice.
Like sand iguanas, the dancers breathe-in green. What is green?
What is the Green Agenda? Apolitical as a popsicle,
parsimonious as a president seeking re-election,
it cannot be encapsulated by the entwined trunks of three miniature trees.
Or these translucent peacock feathers. This candle. This fuel.
The envious. The dollar. The decibel. A copper invested in raw weather.
Jack Burton’s lime-eyed noir-fried gal pals in Big Trouble in Little China.
Tatiana is gone. Violetta is here. Neither have a green card.
Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, Emerald Isle symbolism & vegetation
myths, where folklore is again made green as the grunt.
As the unpopped cherry. The new renewable. The unpoppable cherry.
The news, graphic as a gringo novel. Novel as a ginkgo gecko
focusing its filmy green eye. Young outlaw love is the new
inbred. There, I said it. I feel your clean ruining
my green slate. Your tattoo-able taboos. The best part of green tea
are the dead leaves that nag one’s sense of fate.
They lie & lie about & laze & laissez–faire our fears like unfazed lasers.
Don’t worry, there’s always enough new loss to go around,
enough competition to break our able bodies like an oboe.
Lost, in a Sense; Found in Another
Dear deciduous dryad, I aim to process your private syrups,
would settle as a simple window sill wildflower
a happy accident
opening its amino palominos to the bee’s dripping knees.
I’d ravage you like horseradish, swell your tongue
& curve the slick of each incisor. I miss you
like the moment misses a maker of moments.
You make me feel so Jungian.
Make me spring like sprung’s a scrum.
The lung-like mint-scented split of your center
is a favor I hope to favorite, to enter airy as birch, your body as bendy-flex
as my hung desire to see you slung astride my switch.
Contrapuntal as celluloid & score
are core & stomach muscles gone wrong
but O so right, like the impetus towards empire,
or a bee slathered in its own sweet scent.
Choice is paralyzing.
I ease into the act of watching you
become something unobtainable. If I ease
too quickly, I obtain, but what I get is not you.
If I ease too slowly, you get elsewhere & I get nothing.
You move again, a bullet of brevity I’m anxious
to acquire, but acquire by acquiescing.
The Offal & the Feral: a Fall
We go after the ineffable.
We go after what we see as inevitable.
We go after each other’s throats.
The Ballet Russes enters the Grand Guignol
& is entertained. The body enters the world
& intertwines. Both capture flailing until death.
Go ask the wasp tail; go ask the green leaf
why it balances the trembling dewdrop
on its kitten paw.
There’s no bottom to our greed for life.
Bathos is its own heaven.
O Helios, you power the leaf’s circulation
but cannot stem the algal upchuck of an ocean bloom.
The leatherback sea turtle fills a shallow pit
with ping pong ball-shaped eggs & when they hatch the maritime birds
will gorge themselves to gluttony; come night the survivors
paddle sand toward the light of either moon or highway.
Are you going my way? Have we gone? The new Pacific
landmass is constructed entirely of plastic—
mountains of dew, forests of sprites—
the condition of mankind reflected
in a hundred trillion plankton nuclei.
It is a perfect metaphor for itself,
green as the day is long,
deep as our willingness to forget it.
An Unscrolling, a Principle of Pleasure
These aren’t, in one respect, the first
dancers to do this. The opposite is also true.
You work at play until you’re tired.
My memory breads into instances,
renditions of us in this position,
How the body fits into wedges,
tucks into itself at energizing angles.
The tense blue vein wrapped about an engaged Achilles
is what I know of love. Muscle memory is a mechanical constable,
rigid constraints snapping body
to form, hi-ho. Hum. Sometimes we blow a gasket.
Sometimes a gymnast. Our muscles, by definition, define us.
Memory is muscular. A stronger one I keep is of the soles
of her feet, a crenulated shoreline. Her voice terse
as a clothesline. Facing away.
The corrugated heat sleeve on my coffee cup
is patent pending. One day movement
will be made proprietary—imagine these breaths
expirated in intriguing couplets as a buy one, get one free.
Imagine the new market of lovemaking.
The bear & the bull. The vertical & horizontal markets.
The way cloth hangs from a body
can add or detract from presence. Divide orgasm
from organism & what you get
is a way in. Getting out is easier. It seems the world’s job
is to inflate people so nature can peer back at itself.
& then it helps everyone stop breathing.
I envy the immediacy of her art—
how quickly one gesture in nature erases the next.
One body erases the next.
She closes her eyes & I’m gone.
Dance is the apparatus of body
in ecstatic curiosity.
The emphatic spin cycle of desire
& a release like resurrection.
No one is a totality, & none are autonomous.
We are left with nothing & more.
This video was shot in December, 2011 at the Louis B. James gallery in the LES of New York City, during what was deemed a retrospective slash holiday special by performance artist Ann Liv Young’s infamously in-your-face character, Sherry.
(Why write about this performance a year later? Because I’m a pretty busy person, & because I needed to let this piece, however light it may read, stew a bit. I’m not setting out to make a grand statement about the work of Ann Liv Young; these are a few observations on a performance that stuck with me, which I think speaks to its resilience as a work of art. Also, it interests me in the way real world events might carry themselves into fiction, as Sherry is a true character.)
The event was entitled “Sherry is Present,” a slanted homage it seems to Marina Abramović. But where Abramović sat quiet & still across from her participators, Sherry gets up in your grill, belligerent & unavoidable. The audience reaction, though, strangely mirrored how audience-participants react to the work of Abramović. Some people leave feeling like they’ve just experienced something profound & authentic. Some are moved to tears. Some find the whole thing ridiculous. But everyone, you can be sure, will have an opinion.
In the video above you will see Sherry do several things of note, for which I’d like to provide some context. 1) Sherry will sing the song “Dead and Gone” (T.I., featuring Justin Timberlake). 2) While face-humping a fan, Sherry will bring down a ledge above him. Resting on that ledge was, along with various other Sherry artifacts, a large stoppered jar full of her urine. 3) Sherry will, at one point, refill the jar with urine in front of her audience. 4) Sherry will call onlookers passing by the large gallery window “a bunch of cheap-ass niggers” for not paying to watch the show. Audience members will cringe & laugh. The video will end.
Sherry was singing “Dead and Gone” for a man whose father had recently died. The entire holiday performance was centered around the idea that brutally honest discussion can set you free. Sherry is a character that will say or do anything to provoke a viewer into action. Most wilt under her scrutiny. At first, she reaches out to her participants with a delicate urging, mic in hand, a few feet from your face, in front of everyone. At times, she’s a real sweet talker with genuine southern charm, exuding warmth & strength. But what keeps the average viewer/participant at bay, & nervous at first about sharing with this woman anything of value (to be used against them perhaps), is Sherry’s overwrought style & appearance, her heavy makeup & what feels like a latent, explosive violence waiting in the wings—evidenced by manic bursts of karaoke, manic speeches, & a seemingly crazed, impetuous need to involve her captives in the discussion of capital H honesty.
It’s no wonder then that Sherry has a history of angering people with her antics. On this particular night, near the beginning of the performance, Sherry engaged a pissed off woman who believed Sherry had singled her out for slow torture. Sherry continued to ask the woman why she was being so defensive, pointing out that her body was curled in a defensive position, that her tone was defensive (as I remember it), wondering aloud why such a person would continue to attend the show, or show up in the first place? Sherry urged the woman to speak her mind, refusing to drop the subject. The woman eventually rose & left, taking her friend with her, but not before giving Sherry what she demanded, which was her honest take on the experience. It was not a flattering take, but it was honest. & so Sherry was satisfied.
A Sherry there is that does not love a wall.
Conversely, as the night went on, attendees (what were we, exactly? witnesses? viewers? participants? actors? enablers? We sat in a gallery that became a stage with us on it) grew more comfortable with Sherry & began sharing their own experiences, real life stories of pain & pleasure that reduced other listeners to giggles & yes, genuine tears, executing what I believe was Sherry’s ultimate goal: a holiday catharsis. This was, after all, Sherapy. Something about us needed fixin’, & right quick. Sherry wasn’t interested in song & dance, she wanted purging. Thus the gentleman who told Sherry about his father’s passing & was rewarded with a soulful karaoke attempt at an empathetic eulogy. The strange pairing of words in a phrase like “soulful karaoke” is indicative of my theory of the performer’s intent, which was to create (& moderate, & modify) dualities. To set up an obstacle to reckon with, & reckon with it. Be it real, imagined, or the politician’s straw man, It was being dealt with. & because Sherry’s dual roles as profligate performer & homespun psychologist amused & terrified us by turns, our moods becoming more dependent on her shifting. Oscillating between repulsion & attraction, we took sides when we needed to. Nobody wanted to be an I, not in this space. We needed to be part of the Us, or risk embarrassment by Sherry, who we knew would not banish us but make an example of us, turn us into a Them, & needle us until we gave in or gave up.
When one walks into a gallery, does crossing the threshold automatically sign you up for whatever will transpire in that space? Artists sometimes speak of this as if it were a natural law or universal known, & not a formula for arranging one’s preclusive sensitivities: “Know what you’re getting into.” If the stage suddenly becomes the floor you’re standing on, too bad, participate or beat it. But then what is to be done with nonparticipants who refuse to leave? The rebels? The ones that shy away? Some of these folks, in moments of dread, create a performance within the performance, lashing out at the provocateur in hopes to be left alone, confirming their feelings with the audience, or joking their way into ultimate withdrawal. Sherry does not seem to allow for this. (Perhaps once, out of distraction.) The question remains, though: what are we to these performers if not simple resources? Does our sharing mean we were having a more authentic experience, or were we just feeding Sherry’s own desire to watch us squirm?
The man who’d lost his father, it should be noted, seemed genuinely pleased & thankful for, albeit a little embarrassed by, Sherry’s tribute. His smile never faltered throughout the rest of the performance.
Despite the abnormality of the situation, people were displaying sincere emotions & purporting to be genuinely touched. I certainly was. Despite being shadowed by a creepy Santa & various male minions in old-lady drag, Sherry had a way of focusing all attention on her, until she wanted that attention focused elsewhere.
When Sherry asks you for your honest opinion, it actually means “you honest opinion with a microphone shoved in your face, before a crowd of raw & sensitive individuals (being kept this way by an energized prison guard) who are poised to either relent or become confrontational. But, really, say what you sincerely feel.” Sherry is easiest on those who acquiesce. The confrontational are asked to explain themselves, undergoing a barrage of questions until they give her something she feels is authentic & real. Even if it’s nasty, or attacks her, Sherry respects “the real.” Not the actual. Not necessarily the truth, but the “real” of the moment—which is more or less a confessional sort of response that lies somewhere between “the unfiltered genuinely expressed” & “the case.” The first words we hear from Sherry comes from the song she’s singing: “Lemme kick it to you right quick, man. Not on some gangsta shit, man, on some real shit.” A question Sherry is always posing is: “Where is the real shit?” It’s a good question. A second unavoidable question during the performance is: “Who here has the power?” And one’s response is always: “You do, Sherry.” & in most cases, this is true. If Ann Liv didn’t excel in fully embodying her character, Sherry would not be able to hold you. The single most powerful act any viewer is ever capable of is walking out on a performance. (I would urge you not to; the show sustains itself.) The unseen performance artist is a word stripped of its speaker. The audience brings the real.
& so we shared. & perhaps because telling a story about yourself helps you share in the feeling of having power, or because Sherry’s eyes & those of your peers tell you that you have done right, you are relieved. The mic is taken from your face & you feel better. Happy holidays.
During our sharing, people wandered in off the street. They were actually being coaxed in by a woman standing near the door. The gallery space had crept out onto the sidewalk, & into the lives of people on their way to dinner & drinks. At one point, several men wandered in (I believe one admitted to being on Ativan or Adderall & drunk on beer—we’ll call him Adderall Guy) & began interrupting Sherry mid-performance for laughs. After Adderall Guy made a rude comment directed toward a participating audience member, who immediately broke down crying, Sherry interrogated the abuser until he began revealing details of his own life. He spoke of his own insecurities & failures, which led to an apology.
But that wasn’t enough for Sherry. She asked the man to take off his pants.
One question that remained with me following the show was whether Sherry is a hardass with a keen sense of persuasion, systematically breaking down the boundaries of her audience, or whether she’s an outright bully, demanding our full participation in this ritual of art (one couldn’t imagine Sherry in any sort of non-engaging meditative space). When we opened up to her, she made us believe we were part of the discourse, that what each of us said carried equal weight, & that what we were engaging in was a traumatic, public version of group therapy. Of course, this was never the case. Sherry controlled the space. The audience was participating on an unfair playing field. But so what? We took for granted that Sherapy was designed to help us, because it rhymes with therapy, & therapy is supposed to help us. Sherry never promised us anything. We began trusting her, & each other, with our feelings, which was perhaps a mistake. Or maybe that’s just what being a socializing human entails—sharing, with no promises. Sometimes you get a positive experience, sometimes a negative.
When the Adderall guy refused to take his pants off, though we could sense he was close, Sherry attempted a new line of persuasion by showing the man that nudity was accepted in the space. She asked two of her collaborators, Michael Guerrero & another man, dressed in holiday drag, to take their pants down, which they immediately did. The collaborators were part of the show, & thus quite familiar with what Sherry expected of them. But though Adderall Guy was aware of the momentary ridicule he’d experience undressing before the crowd, he might not have been aware, given his state of mind, of its lasting effects. For instance, there were many cameras present. Most of Sherry’s collaborators had cameras in their hands & were digitally recording the event, & one must assume that at some point the videos will pop up online or be sold to a viewing public. The Adderall Guy, as any witness would attest, would have disrobed of his own free will, in a gallery space, which as a venue could have had him arrested, & that choosing to participate in this way was not the responsibility of the gallery or that of Sherry but only of himself, & that his naked error (or drunken, drugged antics) could be broadcast at any time without his given permission. But it is also important to realize that Sherry wanted this to be the case, was trying to talk him into this possibility, thereby extending the duration of his shame. This particular moment seemed an act of humiliation. This man had hurt one of the people Sherry had worked so hard all evening to manipulate into a place of true vulnerability, & he was going to pay for it. & that’s what we wanted, too, as the audience. We wanted to see the drugged asshole drop his drawers. If the bully wasn’t bullying us, what did we care who she was bullying? Was it so bad that she was bullying a bully?
Footage of the Adderall Guy naked will never see the light of day, because it didn’t happen.
The dramatic apology following the public shaming, sans nudity, was still an impressive win. Sherry was a lawyer, a caretaker, a lounge singer, a deviant, a therapist, a friend, a hound dog, a psychopath, & an ex-wife all rolled into one. A chimeric being with love in her heart, & perhaps more than a little sexual animosity. A person with a deeply fucked-up sense of convention, with an instinct to punish always simmering just below the surface of her desire to lend a hand. & whether they were enjoying themselves or laughing through the weirdness, everyone was enjoying the spectacle.
The gallery had an upstairs & a downstairs. Each floor showcased a variety of objects—shoes, fingernails, paintings, purses, dresses—artifacts of a cultural icon; the apotheosis of Sherry into a star of trash & camp: the Queen Tramp. The objects appeared framed in glass, kept in bottles, displayed behind velvet ropes. There was living room furniture, as if we were in a house within a gallery. Videos showed past performances. All of it was highly self-referential. Downstairs stood pink Christmas trees & a table set up for Sherry merch. I can’t recall what was for sale, but some part of me believes everything was for sale.
The urine that fell on the fan (I call him “fan” because I heard him expressing his love for Ann Liv’s work; he might even have been a friend) was several weeks old. It was, as Sherry hinted, putrid, an assault on the senses. Which made it all the more funny. It was only one of only two times during the performance that Sherry was caught a bit off-guard, & where Ann Liv Young possibly broke character. Sherry made up for the shift in power by refilling the container with her piss, as you can see, much to the moaning delight & laughter of the audience. In the video, the woman sitting next to the fan drenched by the urine is my wife. Wendy received a little bit of Sherry herself, some droplets on the sleeve of her coat, free of charge. Barring that not so wonderful moment, Wendy thoroughly enjoyed the performance, & saw Sherapy as a means of honest discourse.
Urinating in public is an act which Ann Liv Young’s become known for, best recalled by Art Fag City (in regards to Ann Liv’s now infamous PS1 show) & by Ann Liv herself in this interview with Idiom. She peed to retake control of the situation, & to ask us to follow her back into the magic space of our shared performance, which we did. During the crazier moments of performances like this one, people sometimes leave, & I’ve never understood why; I’m always excited by the prospect of what might come next: will the artist try to outdo herself, or reel the strangeness in a bit & give us all a breather?
Sherry, filled with power & the excitement of the night, thrown off balance by the unforeseen collapse of the ledge, managed one more massive shift of perspective by calling gawkers at the gallery window “a bunch of cheap-ass niggers.” In the video, watch the young black man do that thing with his glasses, the thing one does when somebody you enjoy suddenly says something way out of line. Beside him, a woman who I believe is a professor at Columbia University creates a mask of her smiling face & retreats inward. It’s a tough one to swallow, this person you’ve trusted to unite everyone in embarrassment & march them through a desert of honesty & deliver them to…not salvation, exactly, but perhaps to a place where one feels like one belongs to a community of survivors…has suddenly betrayed that trust & sent everyone off to their personal corners.
For some, I’d imagine, the off-hand statement killed the fictional dream we were experiencing as a group: it broke the spell. Racism is a line toed by few performers regularly save perhaps comics & even they can lose careers over it, when the line between performer & performance breaks down into actual hate speech. (Michael Richards comes to mind.) But more people make their careers in its cringeworthy parody (Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Daniel Tosh), upsetting the conceptual space between perceived & actual, which leads to a slew of obvious questions: Can Sherry get away with this? Does her parody of a crass, off-balance, trailer-park raised Southern healer hold up? It certainly wouldn’t be beyond the realm of her character to say such a thing. & yet later, after the performance, the young black man asked Sherry why she felt comfortable using such language (Bear in mind, it has been a year since this happened, so I’m not sure if the young man asked Sherry about the word outright, or if Sherry asked people what they liked/disliked about the show, & he responded). Sherry’s response was that she shouted the common but still jostling go-around word “nigga,” a word ushering from the general vernacular of the songs she’d been singing (again, this is paraphrasing), at which point both the gallery owner & Michael Guerrero (Ann Liv’s co-producer/husband/bullshit detector) pointed out that no, Sherry had pronounced it distinctly as nigger, not nigga. At which point Sherry apologized. Or Ann Liv did. Certainly one of them was present. Her argument amounted to being in a headspace where people wouldn’t bat an eyelash at the use of the word “nigga,” & that any slip of the tongue was just that. Which I believe was the case; she seemed uniquely vulnerable at that moment, & Sherry was so open to everything & everyone that any attack of racism would seem to me unfounded. One could argue that Sherry is a secret racist, or that she has a subconscious or latent racism, but then who are we talking about now, Sherry or Ann Liv? Can there be a subconscious racism within a character that doesn’t exist for the artist? (If you’re a behavioral analytic studies PhD candidate looking for a thesis project, you’re welcome.) & why would Sherry apologize for this & not for pulling up her skirt & rubbing her vaginal juices all over the gallery window, much to the disgust of gawkers & winter-night passersby? Was it a mistake in the heat of the moment? Was Sherry just a fucking nightmare of a human being? Was she a delusional woman regressing at times to a violent childhood? Was she yanking our chain? Could any part of the experience be described as genuine, the real deal?
After sitting through a performance, its natural to wonder just how far removed Ann Liv is from her testy, inviolable character. Quite a lot, I’d imagine, as I don’t suspect Sherry’s personality would keep her on the streets for long before she was institutionalized. Ann Liv has talked a bit about the real her peeking through her characters, though, & if you’re up for a fascinating meta-interview, I’d suggest watching the video of Ann Liv interviewing Sherry.
It also bears mentioning that the very person one might expect to defend Sherry’s actions or come to her aid, Michael Guerrero, patently refused to, because that’s not what the show is about. It’s not what Sherry is about. Sherry is about peeling apart the reality of a situation. Sherry is about honesty. After confronting her, the young black man in the glasses laughed it off, saying he knew she wasn’t racist, but that it had jarred him, if only briefly. Earlier on, it should be said, Sherry had grown visibly excited & proclaimed her happiness to see people of color in her audience. (She also gave a shout out to any lesbians in attendance & sang a song for them.) This does not absolve her of anything, though it does speak to her wishing to make everyone aware that her desire to help is all-encompassing. People will come to their own conclusions, but by the end of the show, those waiting to speak to Sherry seemed unfazed by the incident.
So many boundaries, so little time.
As the magical truth-telling time faded, folks spent the final minutes praising the performance for what it was—a truly unique, nerve-wracking experience with implications for larger social change. I’m not saying one should seek out enlightenment in group therapy sessions led by a sociopath, but it is remarkable how some of our more basic core values are now being expressed by characters residing at the fringe. Think Dexter from the self-titled TV series, or Tony Soprano, or Rorschach from The Watchmen, or Jack Bauer from 24. We see who we are through their view of us, because they are us, exploded. We say we want brutal honesty, until it hurts, but when we get it, the way that Sherry gives it, we may not want it ever again. When we find wrong in others, the same wrong that may exist in ourselves, we shame them anyhow. Because who doesn’t deserve it. These creepy little dualities that exist within us, how they itch so.
So there’s some context. I asked both the gallery owner & Mr. Guerrero if I could use my iPhone footage for a blog post & they said it was fine. I hope one day to see the entire performance again online. It might just show that how I remember it is not how it happened at all, & I’ll accept that. Things change after a year. We further privatize experience until it becomes a trigger for nostalgia or something useful, & this experience falls into the latter category for me. Maybe I’ll use my idea of Sherry as a character in a short story or something. Only time will tell.
If you’d like to see Sherry live, she’s been traveling around in her Sherry Truck, billed as “a mobile Sherapy office, a sculptural coffee shop, and a boutique filled with memorabilia from Sherry’s world” by MoMA: PS1.
Or would you Skype with Sherry? Or experience Sherapy in your living room? Check out Ann Liv’s website here for more details.
If you, dear reader, actually book a Sherry therapy session, please drop me a note & let me know what it’s like. I’d very much be interested to hear about it.
End matter: Disclosure: I’ve met Ann Liv at various times in my life. Before New York, I knew her as a modern dancer attending the North Carolina School of the Arts; I lived across the street from NCSA with a former girlfriend & they took a lot of the same dance classes. Ann Liv & I were often at the same parties & spoke on occasion, but I never really got to know her well. I’ve seen her perform here in New York several times, once with live bunnies. When her & the two other women on stage began singing, the rabbits began shitting. Ann Liv dropped a finger under her skirt, played with herself a second, & took a whiff. Even as the audience in the warehouse roared, she appeared unshaken, nonplussed, & as I watched her watching the audience, I was struck by the idea that this performance wasn’t being done for us. We were performing for her.
If I remember correctly, the day of the NCSA graduation, Ann Liv, wearing a tutu or a skirt, I can’t recall, walked across the stage to receive her diploma. Just before she reached her spot, she leapt up in the air & mooned the entire audience. There were a good many people laughing, but there were just as many people around me saying “Jesus Christ why.” All I remember wondering was whether or not she got away with it, or if she was reprimanded.
Last year, up through November, more active-duty soldiers killed themselves than were killed in battle: 177 to 176, respectively.
One of the great difficulties of war is the post-service operation of reintegrating soldiers. Most return home to families that can’t fully grasp what they been through. The loneliness & the horrors of war stay with them, & for some, the emotions & memories never dissipate to a point that can be reconciled, & lived with. I’ve known people with PTSD, & each would say it’s a horrible thing to wake up with each morning. We cannot forget these people. If we turn away they will disappear down the rabbit holes of their own misery. It’s our responsibility to help them acclimate to the culture that is theirs, to find the mental & medical help they need, & to prevent any service person from taking from themselves what they put on the line in the name of duty. I am a big believer in personal freedom, which includes the right to die, but I also understand that certain pain, though it may not be remedied completely, can be controlled & cared for, & that one’s mental health might often depend on the willingness of those around to help.
Sometimes people are embarrassed by the idea of needing help. I know because I’m one of them. It’s never a good lesson to learn the hard way. Sometimes it takes another person to take the first step & start the process. I’d encourage anyone who knows a soldier having difficulty adjusting to contact the Defense Center of Excellence (for Psychological Health & TBI Issues) at: http://www.dcoe.health.mil/Families/Help.aspx. They’re available 24/7, & have information ready for anyone who calls, from family members to educators. There is also of course our military’s suicide prevention hotline (1-800-273-TALK) who may be of assistance.
I hope 2013 is a better year for all of us.
Be sure to check out the latest two poems I’ve chosen for publication at Hyperallergic.
For the past month I’ve been collaborating with choreographer Stephanie Sleeper on a piece that infuses modern dance with contemporary poetry. The work is entitled Green, and we will be performing the piece (yes, I am in it) on Friday & Saturday, October 26 & 27th, at the Triskelion Arts Center, located at 118 N. 11th St. 3rd Fl, Brooklyn, New York 11249. Tickets are $15. Performance time is 7:30.
“GREEN is a surreal work influenced by video games, the green of astro-turf, the sonics of language, competition and memory, and features the poetry of Joe Pan.”
Green will be performed after Black as part of a two-piece performance.
In terms of movement, there was a great deal of back & forth collaboration between Stephanie & her dancers in piecing the work together. Each dancer was invited to keep a running journal, & even at various times during the creation use a marker to write words or phrases that rose out of themselves & the movement onto a scroll, so they could express & feed off one another’s ideas.
Originally, I was going to be performing alongside 2 other males, but circumstances changed & I became the lone male in the piece. The dance quickly grew around my words & my presence on the stage. The piece is more or less a meta creation a la the film Adaptation. You see me engaged in the process of creating the very dance you’re watching, which is also a rumination on the color green, its connotations & various meanings, with a nod to vegetation myths & Stravinsky, etc, of course.
So here’s the rub: words & dance don’t fuse very well. I’ve seen plenty of dance pieces over the years that attempt to incorporate text/words, & the text/words more often than not come off as combative, meaning they seek the spotlight. Where music often amplifies a dance’s movement/tension, text vies to commandeer the piece & the viewer’s attention. At worst, text becomes a distraction. Usually it just sounds like an older brother yelling over a younger one to make his point heard. So how does one get around this?
We chose to allow the words their own space in the piece; the dance, then, becomes an accentual background visual, or better: a visual music to the reading’s tonal/inflected music. When the words stop, the air is filled with the dancer’s stomps, scattered foot beats, silence, & the dance again becomes the viewer’s emotional & visual focal point.
I hope we have a good crowd. I have no expectations, & no real fear of failure, yet. & may not, as failure, in small ways, has been worked into the creation of the piece, so that it becomes almost a demand of the piece to screw something up, or (to be more accurate) taken over by another force. In the natural world we associate greenness with life-giving qualities, but it is also the color of jealousy, youthful competitiveness, the soft slow strangulation of a tree by kudzu. A natural thing must live by taking the life of another living thing. The piece is about struggle, & was a delight to create. The poem itself will be part of a larger poem later. I fully intend to include it in my next book, though with added-on stanzas. I’ve been toying with the idea of calling the form of this new poem a Divorce, since it was intended as a collaborative piece at first, then must divorce the idea of its former self & make itself anew. We’ll see.
A few months ago, Hrag Vartanian, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Hyperallergic, approached me about serving as Poetry Editor of the online arts magazine/blog. Today marks my editorial debut, & I couldn’t be more thrilled. The inaugural poem is by Joanna Fuhrman, entitled “Poem for My 39th Birthday.”
One of the great things about Hyperallergic is that it seems to be everywhere at once, with a stable of great freelance writers & peripatetic bloggers attending various exhibits & art happenings throughout the city, & more often, as it grows, around the globe. The writing does not shy from political or cultural discourse, in fact invites reader engagement – some of the best reading moments occur within the comments sections, where people actively sort out their opinions & criticism, & where writers can & do interact with their readers. Hyperallergic always feels like it’s bringing you the news of what JUST happened right NOW. It feels current & alive & takes full advantage of the format in which it operates.
In thanking Hrag again by email earlier today, I noted something I’ll share here, regarding art in praxis & the reason I took the job: “My hope is that the work I choose, in congress with the literary criticism of John Yau & Morten Høi Jensen, two writers whose opinions I often share & whose writing I admire, will broaden your readership & ultimately the community of artists cognizant of each other’s works.”
This last part is quite important to me: that artists seek out & maintain awareness of other forms of art – their practice, their histories, their criticisms. As various arts move within each other’s orbits, dialogues & tensions occur, ultimately growing community, not to mention creating more opportunity to share, borrow, & steal – the genetic dispersal responsible for art’s ability to adapt to ever-changing environments.
As I choose poems for the website, some will no doubt be works of ekphrasis, given the artistic nature of the magazine. But I will also choose poems representative of poetics as they’re being exercised today, concerned with language & experimentation & the theories of their own manufacturing & playful logic, so that readers possibly unfamiliar with what’s happening in poetry now can get a sense of it & possibly even develop a taste for it.
This is my hope. I’ll post links here as the poems go live on the site. In the meantime, enjoy Joanna’s poem. I absolutely adore the music that arrives in the ending.
My summer can be summed up in work. Even with the trip to Europe & upstate for Mt Tremper, I’ve worked everywhere, seven days a week. These three magnificent books are half of what I spent my time on, & I’m proud they’re out in the world.
Peyton Marshall, Xeni F. & Jim Sidel were in town & we all met up & had drinks in the Burg, settling into the garden at Soft Spot before moving later to The Counting Room for some catch-up conversation & good times. They’re each still funny, which helps conversation that’s filling in the blanks of a decade (in Xeni’s case) that much easier & delightful. Peyton is here meeting with her editor at FSG for her first book, which I’m very excited to read: it’s about the propensity of violence in young boys. She once wrote a story about rabbits I liked tremendously, so I told her the story of Wendy’s father’s rabbit who had a stroke because Wendy’s father kept feeding it dog food & when the rabbit went to raise it’s ears, only one raised and the other flopped forward. The topics of our discussions varied but never kept too far from the black comedy we enjoy, which isn’t a generational thing. With good jokes, someone gets maimed. With great jokes, you know the person.
I’ve been working diligently each day the past two months on five books, which I will have ready for sale all before Christmas. The amount of work I’ve put into this endeavor has taken some minor tolls, but you gotta push yourself if you ever hope to produce anything of worth. The books will be:
Jared Harel - The Body Double
Alejandro Ventura - Puerto Rico
John F. Buckley & Martin Ott - Poets’ Guide to America
Jackie Clark - Aphoria
Laurie Filipelli - Elseplace
Aaron Sing Fox did the cover art for Jared’s book, & Jonathan Allen did Alex & John & Martin’s book.
I’m trying, for the first time, to experiment with Print on Demand by using both Createspace (owned by Amazon, run by Beezlebub, et al) & Lightning Source (similarly rent with QCS demons). Neither are known for the quality of their work nor their high standards of customer service. Both have legitimately enormous potential for changing publishing forever, but have chose to limit themselves in frustrating ways. If I use CS, I get to have my books immediately listed on Amazon, printed on demand for any customer, anytime; I get to order publisher copies for around $2-$3 a piece plus shipping; I get a PDF proof if I so choose; it costs me next to nothing to produce. They do not, however, do matte covers or lamination & their digital printers print at what looks at times to be 72 DPI, even though they swear it’s 300; plus, the covers feel & look cheap. Plus, & this kills me, if the book like most poetry books are over 100 pages, they will erase the spine elements (without consulting you) & refuse to print the book with any spine whatsoever. Lightning Source does everything CS does, but they do matte, which is awesome. They also have their own built-in distributor, Ingram’s, as well as the ability to list on Amazon & B&N.com right away. They also allow for spines on small books, if you beg, & assign you actual contact point employees to help you with your questions. The problem? Publisher copies run full price minus 10%. What? I use Small Press Distribution to help place my books with libraries & universities, & must have books shipped there directly, which means there is currently no economically feasible way to have SPD receive books I print with LS, which cuts bigtime into my profits.
I should begin my daily fiction writing habit now, but will return to this at a later date.