ESSAY POEM: Contradictory sentences of socio-political import
form series of indeterminate length. Energy
arises from turns in phrasing, abrupt
carriage returns. Word substitutions
contrary to sense. A degree of incompleteness,
prized, precedes leaps in unexpected directions.
The staging of the performance provides motivation
to follow large unfoldings masked by subtext. “When you look at
/ the fieldwork, you see the problem of agency supported by
/ the sophistication of upward mobility … A contrapuntal
/ structure moves among several different lives.”
This is a cue to the method of writing. It is
a perception of the world order under capitalism.
Is the method only all about generating meaning
or incongruities in the field of action? In any case,
meaning is in play, “an abyss of crop-duster dictums”
writes Andrew Levy, in Artifice in the Calm Damages,
the chapbook from which I have been quoting.
He continues “revolutionaries / via minor routes,
filth, blood, and noise.” His text is written in the key of anarchy,
no newly born utopia looms on the other side of destruction.
Alice Notley, in turn, writes, in the key of really pissed off.
“Most of us are slaves, largely by consent. Or
/ you could say we’re brainwashed.” She is sardonic.
“I work / in a shelter for battered women.
I submitted to / a pharaonic circumcision.”
Facing the abyss of embodied affect, I quaver.
Paralyzed. At times I see a cat sprawled
under the clothes tree. Juan Goytisolo muere
en Marrakech, city of my highlife nightmare,
jùjú music, Djemaa el fna, central square
of all night dance parties and food stalls,
estranged from myself and my circumstances.
Bearded old man in a brilliant Berber jacket.
Goytisolo sat with his back to the wall. Mint tea.
a notebook for recording phrases from an Arabic
that has no alphabet, seeking to better understand
those with whom he shared his life of exile,
three adoptive children and their mother.
The tide that surrounds us grows impatient
with lame-footed measures. He chose
the Atlantic shore at Larache for his internment.
He eschewed literary prizes. From the need
to educate his children, he accepted the Cervantes,
crippled as he was and unable to stand on his legs.
Now he lies with Jean Genet as he had wanted.
Do the contradictory sentences of in my notebook
touch the territory of exile from home so central
to my own disposition? Abjection too is central,
the contradictory actions of docility and submissiveness
threaded as they are with anger, do they inform
the only poetry any of us are able to write?
Remember Alice’s madness and magic at least!
Is it possible to describe what it means
to be an American in an age of deception?
That’s motive for exile in hers, in my case.
In Andrew’s? what does he do?
He is pushed toward the book.
He begins with a conclusion, “Nothing is in here.”
Title and first line of an earlier composition
By that he means that all that once
had value or embodied joy is now absent.
Such desolation! Humor doesn’t help.
“The vile stench makes sunbathing impossible
and swimming / through the slime … the tiny
trapped sea creatures living inside perish
/ when the algae hit the beach,
creating a putrid sulfurous stench.” Is there
a resolution to “The chaos of Dreaming Life”
where poetry is wed with pain? Alice writes,
“I wish you’d waterboard me. Make my heart crash.
We’re immortal. It hurt my throat. What a bunch
of liars they are.” She has no interest “in being myself.
I just am.” She forces the poet’s hand, “There’s
nothing here now, there is only me.” She’s in self-exile.
She has no answer to the incompleteness that hovers,
“It isn’t a good price that you pay for writing a poem.”
Everyone I know has money for their needs.
Even more than they know. To them, within the confines
of their reality, there is no imaginable alternative
to their security and comfort. This insight
came to me during a heatwave. Even for my kids,
I thought, there’s nothing to be done but to call
the repairman or installer when faced with a domestic crisis.
I am not a purist or a minimalist and far from a hero.
“I tried to learn how to be a person,” Alice wrote.
“In death we speak, in dreams we speak, / and
in the immaterial past and future our vocal cords
are fast as birds.” She clutches a grail of light
to her chest and gives it to a child. So thought
those in honor of Goytisolo as his bark rode the waves.
He no longer had words for his life. Andrew concludes,
“These are my words. Nobody asked me to write them.”
As to the riddle that underlies this essay-poem of mine,
he suggests, “You could identify with the poor.” That is the key
of Juan’s attempt to decode the analphabetism of the crowded square.
Andre Levy, Artifice in the Calm Damages (Victoria TX: Chax, 2017).
Andrew Levy, Nothing in Here (NY: Eoagh, 2011).
Alice Notley, Certain Magical Acts (NY: Penguin, 2016).
July 18, 2017