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A swansong for the millennium has just been written and none too soon; or rather, an evensong for late capitalism’s annihilation. The unlikely form for this enthusiastic apocalyptic message is poetry and, against all expectations, given the usual banality of so much politically charged literature of recent memory, it succeeds powerfully. Joshua Clover’s Red Epic is an epic of fiery vision and uncommonly strident radical critique out of keeping with comparable voices of discontent. If you are disgusted by current global conditions and drawn to intelligent work densely layered with surprising juxtapositions of historical reference, statement, and prophecy, then you will find Red Epic revelatory. You will also probably wish to abide some of its more extreme commands or be convinced of their theoretical worthiness — as when one poem implores the reader to “seize the fucking banks.”
Few poets directly engage our dire political and cultural realities, and fewer still do so consistently or effectively (Julie Carr’s 2010 collection 100 Notes on Violence is a shining exception, Juliana Spahr’s work is another). So be it: I am all for poetry free of political agendas but I also respect those artists who present empirical evidence of our debased political culture as well as the organizations that perpetuate international injustice. Moreover, I am impressed by those poets who don’t necessarily align themselves with a specific leftist tradition, yet are not reluctant to explore and espouse certain critical elements of many leftist traditions, including those vilified in popular generalizations. Going further, I appreciate the poem-as-manifesto that incorporates both declamatory outburst and nuanced conceptual takes; that also possess a sense of wicked humor as well as an air of moral indignation. Clover fulfills all these demanding criteria and it is refreshing to see how versatile, zany, and exuberant his voice remains throughout the volume despite never veering from its earnest revolutionary inflection.
Red Epic approximates the logic and movement of circulating capital by densely accumulating its images and pop cultural and political references in lines that often mimic the “stations and circuits” of market-driven omnipresence. These feverish, detail-driven units express a superabundance that mirrors the excess of the system it repudiates, while also engaging in relentless deliberation of poetic language’s contamination by it:
the rhizome and the chaebol
and Paper Planes
and Paper Planes Diplo Remix
featuring Bun B and Rich Boy
and Paper Planes DFA Remix
and the century was shit
but the acoustics were awesome
and you could hear the human
poets sing economy
of language while paring
the poem down to an object
oriented ontology subhed Parmenides
among the Moderns
Clover enacts a kind of ominous play in which wit and wildness are used to expose and explore the patterns of a destructive economic system. The humor is surprising and yet seems an apt modulator of the more revolutionary, even nihilistic spirit that sometimes emerges when naked anger nearly overwhelms. The frequent return to the matter of whether poems are suitable vehicles to express radical sentiment reflects a chastening reflectiveness, rather than anxiety, about art’s possible functions.
Many of these poems perform a self-conscious deliberation of how their very existence is owed to the system rejected as inhumane. In doing so, they reveal not only how art participates in the culture of its creation but also how they — I, we — are rendered contradictory subjects, channeling elements of both an oppressive, totalizing political force and the emancipatory impulse resisting it (some of us, at least). Clover goes further in characterizing modernity as great imaginer of utopia and maddening continuation of controlled crises. The mosaics of Stalinist, Trotskyist, anarchist, non-aligned leftist, and fascist references create a kaleidoscope of revolutionary and reactionary movements and mentalities. In excavating the past, Clover does not endorse a specific alignment or ideology, all the while sustaining a withering assault on the Moloch of Markets. His radical sentiment disavows the presumed historical failure of Leftism and looks to the future of revolutionary possibility.
This possibility, as the poem “Haecceity” affirms, must eliminate complacency:
If what you want is calm
to be restored you are still the enemy
you have not thru clearly
what that means
if what you want is a national
moment of silence the indictment
of a single police officer
or two or three you are still
the enemy you have chosen the reverie
of law for you and your friends…
This notion of possibility does not subscribe to a Marxist narrative of progress or idealize the prospects of radical change — a position that Clover knows has consequences for the poetry reflecting such ambitions, as part two of “Fire Sermon” signals:
There will be a revolution or there will not. If the latter these poems
were nothing but entertainments. If the former it will succeed or
or fail. If the latter these poems were better than nothing. If the former
it will feature riots fire and looting and these will spread or they will
Nevertheless, regardless of the outcome,
The poem must be on the side of riots looting barricades occupa-
tions manifestos communes slogans fire and enemies.
This kind of direct declaration is so out of keeping with contemporary American poetry that it might initially come across as ironic or jokey; or perhaps too artless a vehicle for any sympathetic political and literary sentiment. However, the volume’s bombastic, rhetorically complex poems are modulated by surprising dexterity thus their forcefulness never wanes.
Red Epic resonates with the kind of thunderous clarion found in the manifestos of Futurism, Dadaism, Soviet art before socialist realism, and the poems during LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s black nationalist period, among other incendiary voices. The energy is unmistakable, and as propaganda promoting an agenda, it weds a general political will with an epic scale that echoes Milton generally and evokes Blake mightily.
Clover’s poetics depends on a deep ethical regard — he dramatizes the visceral experience of social alienation. Five different poems refer to subjects growing ‘abstract,’ disintegrating into thingness (or reification as a classical Marxist might frame it) and therefore oblivion. Faces and figures as captured by the poet-as-spectator reveal the loss of personhood. The ghostliness imbued in many of these poems seems to suggest that the specter haunting the contemporary world is not Communism but the compromised world citizen deprived of the justice of true singularity or potential freedom. The attendant fierceness of Clover’s activist stance in spite of this depredation therefore gibes with Adorno’s notion that “art must testify to the unreconciled and at the same time envision its reconciliation.”
Red Epic is published by Commune Editions, “Purveyor of Poetry and Other Antagonisms,” affiliated with the anarchist AK Press. If its quality is any indication of what future titles might offer, then the widespread allergy to political poetry might fall away and the notion of poems as incendiary rhetorical devices might be more widely embraced. Perhaps I, too, am being too optimistic but so be it — Joshua Clover’s mischievous and militant poems inspire renewed faith in poems and possibilities.