PoetryWeekend

Long on Ambition: The Public Poem in Books from Rachel Levitsky and Andrew Zawacki

Zawacki-coverAccording to Mark Edmundson’s uncritically nostalgic and, by now, notorious article “Poetry Slam: Or, The Decline of American Verse,” which was published in the July 2013 issue of Harper’s, “[o]ur most highly regarded poets—the gang now in their fifties, sixties, and beyond” (such as Sharon Olds, Robert Hass, and Mary Oliver) are, despite their lyric gifts, in a state of bland and unambitious decadence. “At a time when collective issues—communal issues, political issues—are pressing,” argues Edmundson, “the situation of American poetry … [is] timid, small, [and] in retreat.” As can be expected, a range of commentators — from Seth Abramson in the Huffington Post to Stephen Burt in the Boston Review — have already taken Edmundson to task for his gross overgeneralizations and his extremely parochial and outdated understanding of the contemporary scene, but I would like to use his provocation as a starting point and foil to discuss what I take to be one of the most exciting trends in post-millennial American poetics: the importance and evolution of the long poem.

The long poem, at least since modernism, has been the premier form for asserting poetry’s cultural and social ambitions (and here we can think of Olson’s Maximus Poems, Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” Crane’s The Bridge, Tolson’s Harlem Gallery, and Williams’ Paterson among many, many others). One would then have reasonably expected a piece that bemoans a dearth of poets “swinging for the fence” and “work that matters” to shed some light on the fate of the long poem in the twenty-first century. But Edmundson only spends two slim paragraphs discussing two mainstream long poems of the 1990s: Paul Muldoon’s “Madoc: A Mystery” and Jorie Graham’s “Dream of the Unified Field.” Ultimately, Edmundson concludes, “When contemporary poets do write at length, with what appears to be large-scale designs, they tend to lapse into opacity and evasion.”

But what about “large-scale designs” written by poets younger than “the gang now in their fifties, sixties, and beyond,” poets who don’t “get the balance of public attention”? What about the numerous long poems of the new century? In a blogged response to Edmundson (her former dissertation director), Susan Schultz rightly reminds us that there is “an astonishing number of contemporary poets” that are “successfully” writing “[l]ong poems…that navigate philosophical and material vocabularies.” I would like to discuss a pair of such poems that have been recently published by two excellent small presses, Rachel Levitsky’s The Story of My Accident Is Ours (Futurepoem Books, 2013) and Andrew Zawacki’s Videotape (Counterpath Press, 2013). Both of these book-length poems — which are quite different in form, style, and structure — ambitiously articulate, among other things, one of the most crucial of our “collective issues”: the nature of life as it is shaped and conditioned by advanced global capitalism.

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Levitsky-cover“Few are the consequential poets now,” claims Edmundson, “who are willing to venture … ‘our’ or, more daring still, to pronounce the word ‘we’ with anything like conviction.” Levitsky’s challenging new title proves Edmundson otherwise.

Indeed, the most conspicuous and immediate feature of The Story of My Accident Is Ours — which, as Levitsky tells us, was inspired by a photograph of “young WTO protestors” (98) — is the insistent and ubiquitous use of the first person plural: “We were ignorant of what we were, uncertain about the ways we did have, what they were and how they’d come to be.” A few pages later, she describes, through a canny use of repetition, a collective “we” divested of agency, susceptible to an underdetermined, disorienting, and even coercive social setting: “We walk around puzzled for although we did not make ourselves we are left by ourselves. We have been given responsibility for ourselves in the very places, vast and difficult to avoid, over which those who made us exert control, both by nuanced suggestion and explicit design.

A passage from the eminent Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (2007) can nicely gloss the quotation above: “[I]t is now left to individuals to seek, find and practice individual solutions to socially produced troubles.” The Story of My Accident is Ours is, in short, a crucial narrative testimony, a tale of the tribe for our dystopian present. As an unconventional novel (in the form of a sequence of 33 meditative and meandering prose poems), Levitsky’s book movingly offers a collective autobiography of radical protest and inventively creates a striking vocabulary in the service of developing a social theory for our fragmentary moment of social turmoil.

Levitsky’s narrator questions, “But what about here, where it begins. With Baudrillard? Benjamin? With Bataille. Most certainly it begins with Bataille.” Certainly “Bauman” could be added to this alliterative list of theorists: The Story of My Accident is Ours describes the affective texture of life in an era of what Bauman has called “liquid modernity,” which is characterized by an extreme transience and unreliability of social structures, institutions, and relationships, a decoupling of power and politics, and a transference of responsibility for managing society from the state to the vagaries of a global and deregularized market; it is a time when, to intensify Marx and Engel’s famous observation, all that is solid has irremediably melted, a time when, according to Bauman’s Liquid Modernity (2000), “[g]lobal powers are bent on dismantling” “the social network” and “effective agencies of collective action … for the sake of their continuous and growing fluidity.”

In liquid modernity, “capital can travel fast and travel light and its lightness and motility have turned into the paramount source of uncertainty for all the rest. This has become the present-day basis of domination and the principal factor of social divisions.” Perhaps alluding to the bewildering effects of liquid global capital, Levitsky, herself, invokes the trope of liquidity when describing the collective protagonist’s beleaguered efforts at “navigating the liquid voids of our world.”

Levitsky’s narrator mimics this fraught and uncertain act of social navigation through the expression of long and highly subordinating sentences. For example, in a prose poem entitled “Public Sphere and Privasphere,” the narrator says:

I do not think that this world in which we found ourselves nameless, tagged, and more often than not allowed to physically survive, constitutes that thing which, before its obsolescence as a concept, was the thing thought of as society in the way society implied a particular sort of non- or semi-commercial relationship which existed nearly but not quite squarely outside the operations of the State, with more of its weight being between and among its members, so as to be a thing simultaneously enforced upon us and generated from amongst us, a special contradiction of public and private invented by the then new ruling class before they were completely ruling and when they were installing and maneuvering and manufacturing improved conditions in which to be the ruling class, conditions which they advertised as being improved conditions for society, as a whole.

Making one’s way through this complex and at times ungainly sentence performs the act of situating oneself within the ungainly and networked totality that some of us might call “society.” We might even say that this cumbersome sentence lacks the speed and lightness enjoyed by the “new ruling class,” a class which Bauman calls “the nomadic and extraterritorial elite.” The terminology of “spheres,” moreover, allows Levitsky to further analyze the “special contradiction of public and private” and to describe the extreme atomization and individualization of civic life and the lack of a suitable agora in which citizens can potentially discuss personal ills and problems as common public concerns: “Spheres were and in fact still are everywhere and nowhere exactly in the public sphere which can no longer be, nor breathe, now that its surface has been covered and its air filled by the desperate, manic, birthing of spheres everywhere, everywhere apparent and less apparent, which also makes for us an increasingly populated world.”

To take up Edmundson’s complaint again, one of the reasons why he can easily make the general observation that contemporary American poets are “ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn” and “ignoring what they have in common with others” is because such conditions — the erosion of community, collective projects, and civic culture — are wholesale consequences of the latest phase of globalization within liquid modernity. As Bauman explains, “The new individualism, the fading of human bonds and the wilting of solidarity are engraved on one side of a coin whose other side shows the misty contours of ‘negative globalization.’”

Levitsky is acutely aware of this historical development and, in a fascinating statement, cites the Reagan era as a key moment when collectivities (and representations of collectivities) began to break down. In a “Next Big Thing” self-interview posted on the Futurepoem blog, Levitsky replied to a question that asked which actors she would choose for a movie version of the book: “it would have needed to be made as a movie in the 1970’s — because of the ‘we’ character of the book.

After that, after Reagan comes to power, you will note that films are no longer representing the collective, or the attempt to form into the collective.” Reaganism, of course, dominated the 1980s, an era in which we saw the consolidation of trade liberalization and the deregulation of financial markets, and such socioeconomic conditions have affected the contours of American poetry in ways that Edmundson isn’t willing to accept (Robert Lowell, Edmunson’s primary example of the model public poet, died in 1977). By hearkening back to a time in which a coherent social project was more easily imaginable, Levitsky bids us to imagine a common (and liberated) ground on which we can, as she says in the interview, “remake the world while living in it.” “The ground beneath us,” she says, “cannot be trusted; we need new ground.”

According to one reading, the “accident” referred to in Levitsky’s title is the accident of birth and thus could conceivably apply to all those who are born into the deleterious consequences of negative globalization. This is why, in a review of The Story of My Accident Is Ours, Sueyeun Juliette Lee can claim, “The grand ‘we’ that Levitsky invokes clearly operates in a contemporary, urban, first world-ish mode of State legibility without being pinned down to an identifiable or particular geopolitical landscape. ‘We’ could be in Los Angeles, Seoul, Mexico City, or Dublin. ‘We’ could also be in Dubai, Istanbul, or Qatar.” This “swappability” or blurring of locales within a fluid postmodern geography also significantly informs Andrew Zawacki’s Videotape, a long documentary poem organized into two split “tracks.”

Videotape,” as Zawacki explains in an online statement of poetics, “is shot on location in South Jersey, London, Avignon, Buffalo, but its viewfinder is also trained on sites spanning Brixton to Chamonix, Tokyo to Bamako. This grafting of once particular places, the collapse and flattening of discrete locales by the hegemonic capitalist imperative, participates in what I think of as ‘global pastoral.’ While that phrase might have been oxymoronic a few decades ago, it’s certainly available now, as the concepts of ‘here’ and ‘there’ are emptied out.” In Zawacki’s practice of critical pastoralism, there is neither an idealized locus amoenus nor a national landscape that can be understood in isolation from planetary concerns. Edmundson gripes that “America now is simply too much for its poets,” that “[m]aybe they’re not up to grappling with it.” Zawacki’s use of the serial poem’s capaciousness and extension, in fact, allows him to grapple with what is beyond Edmundson’s severely limited, nation-based frame of reference: the sheer “too-muchness” of the world.

In a salutary fashion, Zawacki seems to reverse what William Empson famously called the “pastoral process of putting the complex into the simple.” So in “Track A: Glassscape” a seemingly simple and sheltered scene of domesticity (with “[a] flag in the front yard…[and] fence / at the back”) is pierced by the complexities of “global capital’s local caterwaul.” Through a robust metaphorical imagination and a keen post-Objectivist eye for detail, Zawacki demonstrates how technologies of capture, storage, representation, and reproduction shape and frame the ways in which we apprehend the micro-processes of natural phenomena. Through his vivid poetic viewfinder, “twilight” has a “Xeroxed / veneer”; sunrise emerges “in Deskjet scarlet & halogen / white”; a “vale [is] a wet-gate print of the weather”; a storm “de-gausses the grimy / sky of its raster / lines”; and “scrolling out from quinol clouds, by zoetrope / or strobe: the moon… [is] a strip of aluminum foil, stuck to the film stock.”

In referencing Stéphane Mallarmé along with the familiar film industry itinerary of “box office-to-DVD,” Zawacki indicates both an ambitious metaphysics of representation and the cynical apprehension that everything can be converted into a neatly packaged commodity: “the world exists to end up on DVD.” The obvious fact that this last statement exists in a printed book entitled Videotape calls our attention to a complex medial ecology in which planned obsolescence and rapid technological change, driven by what Zawacki might call “the hegemonic capitalist imperative,” coexists with the endurance of media objects such as the book.

Raymond Depardon, a photo from the "Errance" series (© Raymond Depardon / Magnum Photos, via raymond-depardon-en-languedoc-roussillon.fr)
Raymond Depardon, a photo from the “Errance” series (© Raymond Depardon / Magnum Photos, via raymond-depardon-en-languedoc-roussillon.fr)

In his statement of poetics, Zawacki notes that Videotape shares a number of aesthetic affinities with the French photographer and photojournalist Raymond Depardon’s photo-essay Errance (2000), which contains a series of 70 black and white vertical images of “empty, unidentifiable roads and places” in which the chosen constraint of always placing the horizon in the middle of the photograph creates the feeling of both “too much sky and too much ground.”

In a photograph of such an “empty, unidentifiable road,” Depardon’s seemingly perverse decision to capture a narrow strip of landscape using a portrait orientation — a move that not only floats the conventions of landscape painting but also, as Depardon says, turns the movie screen “on its end” — focuses our attention not on any ostensible subject but on a series of stacked horizontal thresholds: a section of dotted line separating one side of the road from the other, the edge of road separating asphalt from earth, and finally the horizon separating earth from sky. As with Zawacki’s pastorals, this shot is less about following a single roadway or some teleological path than about letting one’s vision cross a variety of borders, man-made or otherwise.

It is tempting to construe the isolated white dash in Depardon’s photograph as a hyphen, a piece of punctuation that Zawacki employs with considerable skill to create a powerful dialectic of connection/disconnection. We can see this dialectic in action by examining a clip from “Track A: Errormirror,” which, like Depardon’s photographs, acts as a narrow, vertical corridor (all sections of Track A, in fact, take this slender form):

passage-VIDEOTAPE

In the above passage, the hyphen brings together disparate elements — as in the commercial neologism “sturd-i-floor.” But it also marks the presence of deliberate disconnections, of radical enjambments — as in the fragmenting of the word “hys- / terical.” This disconnection, nevertheless, allows for a new connection: the neat constellation of the near homophones “hiss,” “his,” and “hys-” into a sibilant, stuttering, and onomatopoeic triplet. Likewise, Zawacki splinters the word “ex- / tension” and, in so doing, extends and revises the famous Black Mountain dictum (that “form is never more than an extension of content”) by highlighting the “tension of form,” a tension that is embedded through the craftman’s labor.

Indeed, tension is an apt word to describe Zawacki’s poetics. From section to section, Videotape sets up dynamic tensions between sight and sound, nature and culture, between the local and the global, the vertical and the horizontal. To accompany the verticalities of Track A, Zawacki has included “a bifurcated Track B, [which] beyond concretely mimicking the layout of videotape, aspire[s] to Depardon’s horizontal, materialist discipline.” In the opening piece to “Track B: Zerogarden,” Zawacki alludes to the protests of the 2003 FTAA summit in Miami and presents a dramatic tension between the distorted vantage point of local journalists “embedded” within the center of police power and a dissenting “aside” from on the ground (which comes from Rebecca Solnit’s eyewitness account “Fragments of the Future: The FTAA in Miami”):

The center equals all asides aside. “Local television claimed that activists threw smoke bombs at the police, but what they videotaped was activists lobbing back the tear gas canisters that had been fired at us.” Plectrum leaves, wind-plucked, moog inside the storm: the world is a Wardian case.

Zawacki ambitiously juxtaposes a range of scales and timeframes not only by reimagining the Romantic Aeolian harp as a postmodern Moog synthesizer but also by comparing the corporate brand of globalization proposed by the FTAA with a Wardian case, a nineteenth-century British invention that played a key role in facilitating the international transport of profitable plants and agricultural goods (Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief pithily describes the globalizing effect of the Wardian case: “Natural boundaries melted; the world shrank to the size of a glass caterpillar jar.”) While listening to Zawacki’s “4-track” quatrains we get the sense that the world — while easily imaginable now as being capturable by our technologies, whether by book, DVD, or glass caterpillar jar — is sublimely ubiquitous and should not be subject to mastery: “What is the world. What isn’t.” This amounts, in my assessment, to a powerful ethics of aesthetic perception.

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The “‘War Against America’ and the ‘War on Terror’” along with “the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya and Syria” are, for Edmundson, the exemplary contemporary events which deserve and call for ambitious poetic treatment. But the long poems of Zawacki and Levitsky — which through verse and through prose “light up the world we hold in common” — powerfully show us that there is more than is dreamt of in Edmundson’s philosophy that is worth fighting for.

Edmundson desires not “the fragment that is given … [to the poet] to write” but the “completeness, expanse” of “a grand illumination in the making,” of “a full-scale map of experience.” He, in other words, is nostalgic for what Northrop Frye has called “encyclopaedic form,” which is centripetal to the poet’s culture. In contrast, Zawacki’s and Levitsky’s poems are not so much centripetal as oppositional to their cultures; rather than aspiring to the breadth of the comprehensive collection (in the manner of Pound’s Cantos or Ronald Johnson’s Ark), they aspire to the depth and detail of the specialized monograph. They are testaments of lives lived in liquid modernity, in a global and perpetually shifting world. And although we may be, as Levitsky says, “[i]mpotent to change the times” we are in, these books teach us how we might adjust the “posture we wear in this world in order to be able to face it, full on and frontally.”

Rachel Levitsky’s The Story of My Accident is Ours (Futurepoem Books, 2013) and Andrew Zawacki’s Videotape (Counterpath Press, 2013) are available at Small Press Distribution and other online booksellers.

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