Tuesday, April 29, 2008

from Presencing the (New) Disaster(s): some consequential poetics after George Oppen (Talk)

Discussing George Oppen with my friend Kyle Schlesinger recently, and contrasting his work with the collaboration of Taylor Brady and Rob Halpern, *Snow Sensitive Skin*, Kyle reminded me that the situation distinguishing contemporary poets from Oppen is not just a matter of generation and historical embeddedness, but of degree. When I proposed that the poetry of Taylor and Rob was a new kind of lyrical reportage, Kyle imagined the daily routines of the poets searching beyond mainstream newspaper dailies for indymedia sources, bringing to bear on these sources minds shaped by radical habits of thought, attention and action.

Between ourselves and Oppen I do not think we can say anymore that “All this is reportage” since when I read many of the writers of my generation I am reminded just to what extent an unprecedented problem of coterminous information explosion, implosion, saturation and occultation delimits what we can do as writers at the hands of a certain technology (the fact that we use word processors and internet search engines and multimedia software, rather than typewriters and printed newspapers as our parent and grandparent generations did/do). I would even argue that the situation of poets today, while many of us take up the mantle of Oppen’s lyrical valuables in relation to his ideological preoccupations, resembles as much if not moreso those of writers in the 30s such as Bertolt Brecht, Lola Ridge, Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Reznikoff, and the Louis Zukofsky of “A – 8” whose works embody problems of reportage as both the “getting down” of facts, as well as the critical reflection of those facts through formal discovery, filtration, and negativity.

Another matter of degree regarding a generation gap between those I am calling “my generation” and Oppen’s own (and *only*(!) 60 or 70 some odd years separates our births) has to do with catastrophe itself as a socially (and not naturally) inflected consequence. While The Bomb, WWII, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights movement, Totalitarianism, and the erosion of democratic superstructures in the United States are nothing to sneeze at in Oppen’s case, nor are the ways that such events and phenomena have telescoped since Oppen’s generation creating many of the geopolitical and ecological crises we now find ourselves in. While it might be futile to attempt to put ourselves in Oppen’s shoes, as it were, and while I feel an incredible debt among my generation to Objectivists, and Oppen’s objectivism in particular--a debt that often elides our parent generations--disaster is not what it used to be. Or rather, we must take-up new meanings of this term within a discourse for our present.

As Rob Halpern writes in his essay, "Post Disaster," from an unpublished manuscript entitled *Disaster Suites*, forthcoming from Palm Press:

*But what do we mean by disaster? Perhaps nothing more than the shape-changing confluence of state, police and capital, that old troika by whose logic everything we can’t see appears as if already calculated from within dominant regimes of representation—our democracy of total visibility—forcing into the light of language and law precisely what resists these violent operations. Lyric can only be complicit with it.

Or, one might equally locate disaster in the coercion of common sense truths about disaster, as in the media-driven identification of bodies lost in scenes of global conflict and other social voids—a dead boy in Gaza, a thirsty woman in post-Katrina New Orleans, or a transgendered person caught-up in the social disaster that is gender itself—as if such bodies counted, as if they really mattered.

My friend Thom suggested that I think of disaster etymologically, in relation to the stars. So I began considering disaster, as being delinked from stellar guidance, unmoored from the visible constellations, or dissociated from the horoscope and other forms of totalizing organization and whatever mythologies of fate, which nonetheless continue to determine who lives and who dies. Unlike the death of any one, disaster is what we hold in common as a community, despite its not being there for us to share as a site of communion.*

What does George Oppen mean by disaster? For me, the term can not be dissociated from that other term from Oppen’s poetics, “shipwreck,” which first appears in *Discrete Series* 30 years before its recurrence in tandem with *disaster* in Oppen’s poem from *The Materials*, “From Disaster”. In this poem disaster comes from shipwreck, and the objects of shipwreck are immigrant families living, or rather, surviving, in the tenement houses of American inner cities, and eventually among the lawns of American suburbs.

Scanning the pages of Oppen’s *New Collected Poems*, I can find no other use of the word disaster throughout the work though “shipwreck” and motifs of shipwreck will appear multiple times, and words close to the meanings of “disaster” and “shipwreck” will recur insistently: “danger,” “precarious,” “emergency,” “vertigo,” “failure,” “disorder”…. When Oppen takes up the term disaster and its synonyms I take him to refer to a situation of fatelessness and atelos (as the term’s etymology suggests) but also some sense of breaking-up and distance ensuing from this break-up, that the world should be disassembled into parts or entities which should never form a communicable or known totality.

I believe this is Oppen’s Diasporic sense of the “breaking of the nations” being a literal breaking-up of people (like the mythological breaking-up of the Sefiroth from Kabbalist literature, which in Hebrew means “enumerated” or “numerous”) into radiances nearly touching, but never doing so. These radiances presence the shards of a disrupted or interrupted substance: the substance that is a people substitutable for the whole of life, the universal, by their very particularity--their substitutablility in chosenness.

Following the last sentence quoted above from Rob’s “Post-Disaster”—“Unlike the death of any one, disaster is what we hold in common as a community, despite its not being there for us to share as a site of communion”—I would relate Oppen’s similar sense of a community only constitutable and locatable by its distances, however small; and the necessity of distance to enable a being with by which entities should not become subsumed by other entities nor by communal organization at large—that is *mediate* and not *immediate* as such. Oppen’s poetics may also allegorize a disaster or allergy of beings, as words themselves perform inoperativity/"failure” both through a caesura where meaning becomes indeterminate and multi-directional/bifurcative (what John Taggart refers to as Oppen’s “sliding”), but also by a visible cleaving of words through tabs and linebreaks in Oppen’s late books, from *Seascape : Needle’s Eye* on. There are also those palimpsestual distances of Oppen’s daybooks and working papers wherein construction itself, the worked-over-ness of the poem, yields an enigmaticalness of glue, pipecleaner, nails, paper upon paper….

In Oppen’s work, I also link disaster to a form of intentionality that induces inoperativity to make the poem an extension of consciousness, and thus activity. In the work of contemporaries I read after Oppen, there is a sense of failure and not mere indeterminacy that may account for the sincerity of forms—their tests of poetry. Where the poem does not fail, that is, where it does not produce an awareness of distance where distance equates disaster and intended shipwrecks, the poem fails (i.e., it fails by not failing). Through this failure to fail, the poem remains “mannerist” or merely “declamatory”. The poem becomes useful or useable where usefulness negatively implies the instrumental as the end of catastrophic humanist endeavor (plans, projects).

Such is Oppen’s Heideggerian recognition. That being shows itself where things break down or things disclose themselves in their thingness as historicity; that thinking occurs in dis-ability, where the habitual cognition/memory is disabled so that one must think through the origin of things, what they are, and their properties as they relate and echolocate one another in impermanent worlds. I believe Nonsite Collective’s draft proposal takes up this problem of Oppen’s work, and the ways this work is truly revelatory or ontologically purposive, where it states: “In a situation where resources of every sort are being expropriated, displaced or enclosed—the commons shrinking before our very eyes—the Nonsite Collective deploys its organizational and intellectual labor in an effort to make use of the world without using it.”

I think about this statement often, both in proximity to Oppen where he writes “Failure, worse failure, nothing seen / From prominence, / Too much seen in the ditch,” after his experience of surviving his battalion in WWII, and “’Substance itself which is the subject of all our planning’ // And by this we are carried into the incalculable” where Oppen tarries with his perceived Heideggarian affinity. It is this carrying into the incalculable which seems the principle ethical wager of Oppen’s work, as it may intend an ethics of poiesis to think toward the unconceptualizable, and therefore exterior—the infinite as it can be experienced in thinking. Such is one of Oppen’s many twists on the original thought of Heidegger.

“To make use of the world without using it”—a paradox—implies an act of use or useability that is no longer instrumental, and that therefore does not use-up or become anything other than part of an ongoing process of activity. Such a prescription relates Oppen’s own senses of incalculability and failure to problems facing our ecology as they involve a nexus of economy, law, politics, ethics and other cultural realms. This past weekend, I picked up a copy of Land artist, Agnes Denes’ selected writings at a bookstore, wherein Denes includes her statement from her famous 1982 work, *Wheatfield*, a work in which she planted two acres of wheat on a landfill in Downtown Manhattan’s Battery Park. The aporia generated by Denes’ work may touch what Nonsite intends by “making use… without using” in relation to Oppen’s poetics:

*My decision to plant a wheatfield in Manhattan instead of designing just another public sculpture grew out of the long standing concern and need to call attention to our misplaced priorities and deteriorating human values.
...To attempt to plant, sustain, and harvest two acres of wheat here, wasting valuable real estate and obstructing the “machinery” by going against the system, was an effrontery that made it the powerful paradox I had sought for the calling to account.
It was insane. It was impossible. But it would draw people’s attention to having to rethink their priorities and realize that unless human values were reaccessed, the quality of life, even life itself, was in danger. Placing it at the foot of the World Trade Center, a block from Wall Street, facing the Statue of Liberty, also had symbolic import….
Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept. It represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, hunger and ecological concerns. It was an intrusion into the Citadel, a confrontation of High Civilization. Then again, it was also Shangri-La, a small paradise, one’s childhood, a hot summer afternoon in the country, peace, forgotten values, simple pleasures.
What was different about this wheatfield was that the soil was not rich in loam but a dirty landfill full of rusty metals, boulders, old tires, and overcoats. It was not farmland but an extension of the congested downtown of a metropolis where dangerous cross-winds blew, traffic snarled, and every inch was precious real estate. The absurdity of it all, the risks we took and the hardships we endured were all part of the basic concept….
After my harvest, the four-acre area facing the New York Harbor was returned to construction to make room for a billion-dollar luxury complex. Manhattan closed itself once again, to become a fortress, corrupt yet vulnerable. But I think this magnificent metropolis will remember a majestic, amber field: vulnerability and staying power, the power of the paradox.*
--from Agnes Denes' *The Human Argument*

In Denes’ work, a work shared by Nonsite Collective member Amy Balkin as well as other artist-activists after the Land Art movement of the 70s and 80s, to make-use is not to have but one end that is useful; but to produce the consequences and effects of processes as the artist deploys them tactically through her situational art. By presencing the multiple failures of a socius—to account for global and local disparities of wealth, and the discrepancy between real estate and land used for farming that foregrounds such disparities—Denes succeeds in her unusing of the world. The failure she produces is a success of her art: that she should yield wheat crops on a barren land-fill in a blighted New York City, and that this should draw attention to her work as a work drawing-out aporias and contradictions of cultural exchange. Dematerialized by its dismantling and conversion into real estate, what remains are nonsites—photodocuments, films and writing—that may be resited by future culture workers after Denes’ original intention, and historical situation.

*From non-site to site: As the negative term in a dialectic of social contradictions, non-sites exist in a process of ongoing relationships. As such, they can’t resolve themselves, just as they can’t exist in isolation. Rather, we might think of them as persisting in tension with their opposites—sites—while moving toward reintegration into living social ecologies. If the non-site is a constructed response to an illegible social process, how might we imagine or understand the conversion of non-site to site? And how would that conversion alter site’s meaning?*
--from “A Draft Proposal,” Nonsite Collective, 2007

--my carbon credits *public smog*
our outposts on the commons
being *waste* expands there
no limit to what’s left over-
time remains *say life itself*
where gulls wheel scout mark
mountains of what won’t decay
no future reference a bird-
filled sky affirms

--*what guarantees the working day*

--from Taylor Brady & Rob Halpern's *Snow Sensitive Skin*

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