Saturday, January 17, 2009

Erica Hunt: SEGUE intro

Reading Erica Hunt’s poetry reminds me of a scholarly book that has yet to be written. Such a book would trace avant garde practices through their relation to forms of activism, intervention, and social responsibility. Were such a book to eventually be written, Hunt should find herself among a host of other poets and artists including Murielle Rukeyser, Tillie Olsen, Adrienne Rich and George Oppen. The scholar of such a study might focus their attention on the way activist work shapes an aesthetics whereby forms themselves become not only meaningful, but culpable. A central question our hypothetical scholar might ask, and which might guide her thesis: why do some artists and writers involved with activism work through formal modes which may be said to be transparent or facile, while others resort to “difficulty,” and thereby risk not making sense to a larger readership?

To risk not making sense, in Hunt’s poems, is to risk the public sphere itself, as that which is defined by our ability to make meaning and communicate among one another. To challenge common sense is therefore to reimagine what forms a public sphere can assume. In Hunt’s work, these problems perhaps owe as much to Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom: on Shakespeare, wherein one finds Zukosfky quarreling with Spinoza and Wittgenstein, as they do to traditions of African-American lyrical address, sermon and music.

In an Objectivist spirit, Hunt prioritizes “thinking with the things as they exist”—as Zukofsky famously states the problem of “Sincerity and Objectification” in his 1931 Poetry magazine editorial by the same name, where “things” = words, and “with” belies the communal function of all writing. Throughout Zukosfky’s work recurs a famous incident from Spinoza’s letters, in which the philosopher records himself saying the grammatically incorrect phrase “the window flew through the bird” instead of the grammatically correct one, “the bird flew through the window.” Zukofsky’s point in citing this incident: that sense-making is only as good as context, deixis, relation, and of course the desire to understand; what’s more, what people too often call “making sense” does not take account of poesis—the fact that the production of meaning is always an activity shaped by shared processes, experiences, and beliefs.

From Zukofsky to African-American culture is never a far cry, where the Blues, for instance, or Hip Hop constantly attain music’s “upper limit” by intensifying the rhythmic and melodic qualities of speech. Although Hunt tends to work at the sentence level, often accreting long lines, or prose paragraphs, much of her work remains essentially lyrical. Likewise, her use of the “I,” while it of course troubles the centrality of the author function, nevertheless serves as a fluid index for the poet’s autobiography. In fact, compared with many of her contemporaries, it is refreshing to read the “I” of Hunt’s poetry as an unironic, however witty and playful, critical vehicle.

In Hunt’s 1996 Kelsey St. book Arcade, a collaboration with visual artist Alison Saar, I am struck by a related sense in which we must take Hunt’s problem of sense. In this book, Hunt and Saar attempt to bring their reader back to her senses, both through Saar’s black and white and color wood cuts which complement the tactile and imagistic qualities of Hunt’s poems, but also insofar as Hunt’s text extends a series of propositions about the senses during an era of spectacle and information consumption. Where the noun "arcade" summons the Paris Arcades of the 19th and early 20th centuries, after which Walter Benjamin constructed his theories of allegory and dialectic, I cannot help but also hear in arcade a more contemporary definition: that place where people (typically white male teenagers) gather to play video games.

If in the video game, television programming, and now the Internet lie the conquering of sense, it is the mass desensitization of our culture Hunt’s work criticizes, and conscientiously plays with. Against these mediums of desensitization is the word itself—and poetry as it tests the limits of what words can do. Through the pleasures of poetry as discourse pragmatics, Hunt takes back the senses, reinjecting them with some feeling for being common, public, related, and shared. Or as Hunt herself puts it more eloquently in an artist’s statement for a 2001 Foundation for the Contemporary Arts’ grant:

As is true with many poets, I am drawn to language for its music, for language's capacity to limn thought, its connection to experience, its power to still and magnify the world while one writes/reads the world/book. But equally, I have been interested in techniques that purposely unsettle the crisp ride and appropriate shade of register and vocabulary. I like to read or write to topple the balance between controlled allusion and opacity. And so I have been drawn to the disjunctions of surrealism, Oulippians, improvisers and scat cats as aesthetic methods to seek new and unsuspected connection. This makes it sound like too tranquil an operation: I write poems that teeter on the verge of legibility, blur private and public, set boundaries anew and implicate us as practitioners of this moment and the next.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Silent Light (with Dorothea Lasky)

-after Carlos Reygadas

To the dear Farmer of Mexico

Dear Farmer, In Mexico,
Did you hear about the plane that crashed into the water?
It happened in a dreary landscape
Not unlike this one
In which I write this poem
Unlike this one
Is the sun rising for an hour
Over rabbits crying and crickets crying
And Mothers crying
In morning dresses so filled with rain
So wet with water
They might as well be dry
And death that comes up
When it has already come
And death
Which rises up
When it has already fallen
And dusk which rises up like dawn
And end which rises up like a beginning
And the beginning which is not unlike the end
The Mother's wetness
Not unlike the tears which made her
As a snake in the grass of the field
With those who we love
And the grasses and corn
Dry in the dead fields of those dead who we love
And the living wet with rain in the
Grasses of those dead who we love
And those who we love dead not living
In the grasses dead who we love
And the light of the dawn dead
In the grasses of dead who love
And who we love dead now living
In rooms of grasses who we love
No no, no white rooms
In the boxes of the dead now living
In the light of day that we love
All in all, dear Farmer
It is the light of day that we love
In the field with yellow flowers
You go to meet a snake in the grass
And I watch you
In this neverending landscape of dread
Which is only a beginning
To the day I begin
In the deadly combination
Of love and light
In the deathly combination
Of horrible want
And horrible longing

No light better than this
Silence conquering space-time
The umbilical stars always in
A horizon before our future

Breaks milk is sort of like
Tears sort of similar to sweat
Which is like cum on your
Breasts when you are with

Him not a separate being
This awful apartheid despair
As if Kierkegaard’s problems
Transposed in the landscape

Of Mexico big-sky country
Respiratory open earthly
Where every moment seems
A resurrection of our breath

Heaving in the reflection of
A pendulum what won’t
Leave this room like singularity
No other hope in words

Images but in this the pinkish-
violet petals of our desire
Unawares camera must catch
Them in focus make them real

These powers unsaid between
Us are real resurrecting the
Children believing she’s not
Dead a milk of your eyes years

Sweat come sadness from
Beyond the actual pores the actual
Ducts spoon caught on your
Thumb the earth which is

Breathing the grass seeming
To sigh under the sky your
Chest feels full of lead her
Heart heaves heavy with regret

Time has no other direction
Except when we cry except when
Daughters don’t believe in it
Stars might lead us again.

It is my great honor...

to be reading with Tyrone Williams a week from this coming Saturday at Unnameable Books in Park Slope, Bklyn. thanks to Brenda Iijima for thinking of the pairing, organzing, and hosting... [more info below]


Thom Donovan & Tyrone Williams

Saturday, January 24th

7:30 pm

Unnameable Books

456 Bergen St.
Brooklyn, NY 11217
(718) 789-1534
Get directions

Tyrone Williams is the author of c.c. (Krupskaya) and On Spec (Omnidawn). Hero Project of the Century and MI Howell are coming out this year. He teaches poetry at Xavier College in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Thom Donovan is an ongoing participant in the Nonsite Collective, coedits ON Contemporary Practice, the first issue of which can be purchased now at SPD, edits Wild Horses of Fire weblog, and curates PEACE events series. His poems and critical writings have been published variously.

Hosted by Brenda Iijima

Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs
Brenda Iijima
596 Bergen Street
Brooklyn, NY 11238

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Points of Arrival

I want to fly into the line
You are writing and that
Becomes you a point in

Space desirable space as
You make it planes ad-
just adrift the actual body

Time heals over sense
Scars bones photos make
Eyes moist your life as

A monster as a wolf does
You can not escape
Tunneling through the

Gelatinized moral feral
Writing beside yourself
Becoming authorized that

Doesn’t need skin that is
All skin no organs except
The gooey sun biggest cell

Calling me swerves splits
With perimeters flesh flux
Gates write just below

Thresholds so feelings
Travel integrate worlds
Bodies leave us no choice

Letters swallow up each
Point since distance
Can't help but devour us.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


-for Carolee

Because she
was near me

because she
bakes a pie

I believe

is possible
again the inter-

of nothing

the plethoral
void one's

breast without
malice whether

good or bad
inside it

even time
seems to

because it

is close to
you that

clocking a
clock for

cooking for
making things

there is no

what your

mind your
heart & this

the original
apples make

apple pie

seeming sweet
and baked.

Monday, January 12, 2009

These beautiful citations...

from my friend Eleni:

“Pain does not throw one back upon one’s own resources; it backs one up against oneself; to suffer is to be unable to flee and unable to retreat from oneself. Pain senses the imminence of death. In the weight of one’s own substance one can no longer bear, pain senses the weight of the unknowable that advances inwardly.

. . .

Pain breaks down the path of time I am extending; I pull back from the future I was pursuing and the past whose resources I was drawing on, to sink into a time of enduring. In the pain I have a foreboding of the time of dying. The other suffers in another interval without equivalent and in a pain in which I can nowise displace him. Pain blisters in intervals of time coming from nowhere, going nowhere, disconnected from the past and future of life, of the transpersonal enterprises, of the evolution of the planet.

Yet it is out of that other time, the time of his or her dying, that the other addresses me.

. . .

In pain the other sinks back into his or her body, into prostration that already delivers him or her to death in the world. The flesh in pain is anything but an object; sensibility, subjectivity fill it, with a terrible evidence. This evidence is turned imperatively to me, more pressing than the evolution of the planet and the anonymous enterprises in the humanized map laid out on it, more urgent than the tasks my own death has addressed to me. It is not in elaborating a common language and reason, in collaborating in transpersonal enterprises, that the human community takes form. It is in going to rejoin those who, fallen from the time of personal and collective history, have to go on when nothing is possible or promised.”

- Alphonso Lingis, “Accompaniment”, Abuses