[Composed October 2013 for Eleni Stecopoulos' Poetics of Healing symposium, held at Unnameable Books, Bkyln. Parts of this text have been published in "I scarcely have the right use this ghostly verb”.]
Upon returning from Florence Italy this past July, I found our dog Lucy well taken care of by our friend Eric. Six months previously she was diagnosed with bladder cancer, but she was still with us, hanging on. No doubt because of the many experimental treatments Dottie had tried—a regimen of herbal medicines, alkaline water, and weekly acupuncture treatments. The following day when I awoke, Lucy was whimpering—something she never did in the five years I knew her, unless you stepped on her paw—and could not stand on her hind legs. That day we took a car service to the vet, where she was scheduled for acupuncture. As the driver pulled up to the vet’s office, Lucy growled at me—something she also never did. Cradling her in my arms, we passed through the doors of the office into a lobby, when I felt a warm liquid dripping onto my legs and feet, pooling in my flip-flops. I thought Lucy had peed on me but the liquid was very dark, so then I thought it could be shit. But it didn’t smell like shit, it had a metallic odor. My senses were confused but moments later the vet techs would take her away and I would know she had started to bleed-out. The vet was very kind, and patiently waited until we could get Dottie on the phone to have a conference until making any decisions about Lucy. Dottie was in Florence still and the reception wasn’t good, so it was hard to decide what to do. The vet was very confidant that anything we did for Lucy would only cause her pain and not prolong her life significantly. It was clear we would have to put her to sleep. Preparations were made for cremation and I held one of Lucy’s front paws while the vet administered the lethal injection. She was gone in ten seconds, as the vet said she would be. “She had one bad day,” the vet kept repeating, in an attempt to console me.
The following week, my mother called to say that my 99 year-old grandmother, Helene, had contracted shingles and that her health was declining fast. This was a person who despite her extreme age had never had a single health problem—only very recently some mascular degeneration. Within a week of that phone call my grandmother was also dead. In hospice at my parents’ house, which had once been her house, for nearly 30 years, I visited her nightly, keeping vigil and holding her hand. It occurred to me that I should read her poems—the nurses said that she could still hear us even though she was not conscious—but then I remembered that she never really liked the poetry that interested me, including my own. She liked poems to rhyme. The only poem I knew her to have memorized, other than some lines from Shakespeare (“Oh death where I thy sting?,” she used to recite), was a poem with rhyming couplets meant to help you remember the rules for bridge. Instead I just sat with her, reading silently, meditating on her face, which no longer looked like her own. Classical music played on a stereo. My parents hoped the music would comfort her.
I haven’t drawn anything since I was about twelve. And I stopped drawing in high school, which didn’t have art classes, to pursue poetry and academics. When I was young I would copy a lot. From National Geographic and other magazines. Since the death of Lucy and my grandmother I have started drawing again, and tried to draw them specifically. On the one hand it has been like paying tribute to them, a form of ancestor worship. My grandmother, an Aries with a Libra moon, would have appreciated this. But then there is something primal about drawing too, which forms a “transitional space,” in the sense that Object Oriented psychologists use this term. Drawing as a form of healing, of mourning; of therapy or self-hypnosis. Susan Howe used to imagine the handwriting of Emily Dickinson this way. As an aid to mourning. The sumptuousness of her handwriting that only became more spacious, more concerned seemingly with absence, the creamy expanses of the page. It reminds me of something from an interview with Jean Genet, startling because of its aestheticism, the assertion of writing’s material pleasure and autonomy over its content:
Madeline Gobeil: Did you start writing to escape from solitude?
Jean Genet: No, because I wrote things that made me even more solitary. No, I don’t know why I started writing. What the deeper reasons are, I don’t know. Perhaps this: the first time I became conscious of the power of writing was when I sent a postcard to a German friend who was in America at the time. I didn’t really know what to say to her. The side I was supposed to write on had a sort of white, grainy texture, a little like snow, and it was this surface that led me to speak of a snow that was of course absent from prison, to speak of Christmas, and instead of just writing anything, I wrote to her about the quality of that thick paper. That was it, the trigger that allowed me to write. This was no doubt not the real motive, but it’s what gave me the first taste of freedom.
We, Left Melancholics, write responding to the grain of the writing surface, the paper, the page. Textual conditions are a provider of content. Dickinson, confined to her house and obligated to perform reproductive labor, writing on all those little scraps (recently on exhibition at The Drawing Center and recollected in Marta Werner’s book, Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios). Like a form of permission. A point of entry, entrance. Often I am permitted to return to a meadow. Arcadia. Idylls. We write as though to access a muscle memory of previous moments of writing, of thought and feeling. Writing back to an overwhelming maternal presence. Called back. Writing before we became separated from the bodies of others—friends, lovers, comrades. Drawing, like writing, brings me closer to you. I am so rusty at it that it surprises me when I make a mark and it actually resembles the photos I am copying, which are of me hugging Lucy’s face close to mine on a bed, and which were taken of my grandmother before she was married, during WWII. There is her standing before what seems like an ice skating park with a girlfriend. Another where she is standing in front of a large piece of machinery in an ammunitions factory. Her cheerful expression set in relief from the heavy machinery of late industrial warfare. I want the drawings to resemble them, but I also know this isn’t the most important thing. It is in someway to undergo their image—pencil in hand; pencil to paper. In the 19th century, infant mortality was much more prevalent than it is today, to say the least. Dickinson’s culture was a culture of death. So many of her letters notes of condolence to family members. So many of her poems—epitaphs. At one point I wanted to write about Dickinson’s poetry in relation to 19th century mediumship—but this is maybe all I meant to say: that the poet is a medium for those others who they have lost, who through the hand try to capture the lost rhythms—prosodies—of having been among them. Of me losing a part of me in you (to paraphrase Judith Butler). Of us being carried across time, stamped by a space of community.
I have never told anyone this, but I want to tell you now—my friends, my comrades, our little band. One of my earliest memories of making something that I would now call “art,” involved gathering all of my action figures—GI Joes, He-Man, Star Wars—and affixing them to this Fischer Price space shuttle, one of my very favorite toys at the time. From the room I shared with my sister, the master bedroom of a two-bedroom apartment in Menlo Park, California—I dragged the ship down a hallway into the living room. I remember it being a lot of work, because each time the space shuttle moved, some of the figurines fell off and I had to prop them back up. The whole procession/performance probably took about twenty minutes, at which point ‘we’ had reached our destination and I abruptly lost interest.
Right now I am completing the proofreading of a book by Robert Kocik, the poet-designer. It’s an extraordinary collection, and I often marvel that Robert isn’t better known, particularly in the realm of poets who tend to love eccentrics and underdogs. But the problem with Robert is that he’s not just a poet, but so much more. He is thinking about the whole world (and beyond; a consortium of beings) while constantly relating it back to a discourse about poetry. And I think this is the saddest thing—that this world doesn’t like someone who tries to relate everything, who steps outside their little area and tries to connect things that for no other reason than the tendency towards specialization in our society have become removed from one another. In fact, they are often punished for it, despite the many demands nowadays—no doubt spawned by the prevalence of “immaterial” and “affective” labor practices—for workers to be ‘interdisciplinary’. Robert’s practice isn’t interdisciplinary, so much as he believes in one continuous work, the work of “unworking” (Blanchot, Nancy), of trying to use the things of the world without using them (to paraphrase Robert quoting Augustine).
One of the many radical propositions in Robert’s book, is that instead of orienting ourselves through “natural selection” or “fitness” he would like us to produce a 100% “survival rate.” What would this mean? Wouldn’t this cause overpopulation? As Charles Reznikoff says, the reason people die is so that there will be enough phone numbers to go around. The Left Melancholic can’t let a single one of us go. Robert is a Capricorn with a Pisces moon. What if everyone in the world were part of that procession? If every time they fell down, we had to stop the procession to pick them up? At what point do we stop believing that we cannot pick everyone up? That inevitably some have to fall by the wayside? It leads to the heart of questions of disability and social justice, another problem that Robert’s writing tackles head on, by proposing architectural and linguistic solutions to the problem. What would it mean to design an entire society around its ‘weakest’ members; or simply, the members who require the most care, or who the built environment is least equipped to accommodate? One of the main differences between the Left and the Right, as I see it, is that the Left is minoritarian—it believes in the importance of caring for minorities, practicing a politics from their position, over a presumed majority—whereas the Right would essentialize “normalcy” and relegate social difference to the margins. Often with my students I will give them a series of exercises to help them think about disability through aesthetics. Here, I ask them to do one of two things:
1. Reflect on something you take for granted about the ways that you occupy space, move, perceive the world, with regards to the ‘built environment’ (architecture, the way social space is designed). Design a series of constraints that will disable you in relationship to these conditions of design. Write a poem based on your experience of the constraints.
2. Reflect on a way that you are disabled: physically, mentally, or socially (by your environment, by the way society functions). Use your identified disability to make a work of art. Consider ways that your disability can produce a new form of art? Conversely, invent a form of writing that may empower you by capitalizing upon the unacknowledged powers of your identified disability.
In the past when my students have done these exercises, they have revealed things about themselves that it may not usually be appropriate to reveal in a classroom. Which is to say, the exercises facilitate forms of intimacy and vulnerability that might not otherwise be possible in an institutional setting. Many of them reflect on the drugs they have been forced to take since childhood, to control behavioral and emotional problems. Memorably, another student talked about how he was trained not to stutter. Which prompted me to ask him if he ever missed his stutter? He was confused by the question. Twice I have taught Jordan Scott’s book Blert, which the students love, because it makes them go through what he goes through. Speech dysfluency, a gymnastics for the mouth, the tongue. One student called his writing “mouth writing,” as opposed to hand writing. I talk about the body as a “constraint.” That we are all constrained. Following Robert, what if we also approached disability as a universal condition; with the proven fact that if we grow old we will all at one point require care? The brilliance of all of Robert’s writing rests on a form of inversion, that constantly relates this world through a sense that there is another equally viable one waiting in the wings—if we only started by thinking of others first. And of the ‘me’ that is in everyone else. Here anarchism, and communism, and Buddhism can inform one another productively because for Robert they are all in the interest of disalienting subject and object—rooting-out separation. Separation being the source of all oppression. Ego being the principal obstacle to all forms of justice.
Robert practices what he preaches, as it were, by acting as a caregiver to others. I often imagine him sitting with Larry Eigner in the 80s, who on account of his cerebral palsy was confined to a wheelchair for his entire adult life. Now Robert cares for his dad, who is in his mid-90s and lives by himself in Austin, Minnesota, and this forms a backdrop to many of the anecdotes that pepper Robert’s writings about disability, and “epigenetic” architecture, and “subtle” prosody, and economic justice.
Last year around election season I had been asked to participate in an event at the New Museum, a tribute to the dance and art writer Jill Johnston, who was also a pioneering advocate of militant feminism through her book, Lesbian Nation. I didn’t know what to present for the event—I was tired of reading poems I had written for dance—and the event was supposed to be about convergences between social and personal emergencies. Where writing might embody exigencies normally excluded from the realm of criticism. I wanted to do something that might take up the challenge of this event—to invent such a form of criticism—but I found myself writing a poem instead.
Visiting the Bay Area the previous summer, I had seen a show at the SF MoMA regarding theatricality and performance in contemporary visual art. The piece that struck me most was a dance film by Charles Atlas, perhaps his most famous: Hail the New Puritan. The following day I was scheduled to give a reading at Small Press Traffic with Sara Larsen and Suzanne Stein, and it occurred to me that this work—made over twenty years ago—could help me to organize my reading. Most of all, I was struck by a particular scene, where a young Michael Clark is followed by Atlas’ camera into a dance club. In this scene, Clark’s milieu is choreographed, so that he becomes both dancer and a social currency passing among his friends and community. What I mean by “social currency,” is that he becomes the thing shared among the other members of his community, an object that seems to bind them—affectively. I remember he kisses a young woman and slaps another on the backside; he is taking sips from people’s drinks and drags on their cigarettes; he suddenly reclines in someone’s arms; he rises and start’s dancing with a circle of friends. A feeling for milieu is perfectly formalized in this scene, so that we can feel all of the urgencies—the way that we are propelled by desire and attraction—within a scene of our comrades. It is about partying of course, but also something else. It is about Clark’s desire and how he is desired by others. It is about how desire and pleasure are distributed within the group—as gift, munis. Possibly it is also about care. How all these little things Clark and his friends do for one another affect the other, keeping the whole things in motion.
Then Micah stops by & I smoke while he nurses a nicotine lozenge & helps me better understand Laurelle.
Then Kathy moves her shoulder in just such a way so that I can sneak around her through the door.
Then Nancy is working my shift.
Then I shit my pants & a friend of my mother’s comes to pick me up from school so I can change.
Then Blake sits beside me on the waterbed talking me down from some harrowing trip.
Then Anne brings me ice in a washcloth to see to the finger I’ve busted in Overland Park.
Then Jen hangs out with Vivian while I track down my car.
Then Charlie drives me back from the impoundment lot on Sunday.
Then Randy is taking me home.
Then Joey comes to take me to the openings, & dinner.
Then Joe picks me up for the show.
Then Maria gets me home before midnight.
Then pastor finds some money in the budget.
The poem I wrote was a kind of exorcism of Mitt Romney, the 2012 presidential nominee. It was also a reflection on “an aborted North American socialism” embodied by PBS’ commissioning of the dance film, and of course upon Atlas’ and Clark’s very queer, very British communism of the nightclub. Shortly after I wrote this poem, I remember seeing Dana Ward read at the Zinc Bar, for the SEGUE series. It was a winter day and Charity Coleman and Ariel Greenberg were hosting the event. In Dana’s poem, “Some Other Deaths of Bas Jan Ader,” a tribute to the visual artist who famously died at sea during his last performance work (a journey by sea), he distills the thing that I feel is so interesting about the scene with Clark. Here, Dana/the speaker, provides the names of friends, in tandem with what they do together and how, most specifically, they take care of him, bringing him food, or medicine, or lifting his spirits at critical moments. It occurs to me that Dana is so much like Clark, in the ways that his writing conveys a social current coextensive with his life. Writing and life collapse; life practice and performance; labor and play; everyday life and revolutionary desire. It is the dream of all writing since the 20th Century avant-garde—Russian Futurism, Fluxus, Happenings, Conceptualism. It is a fulfillment, as well, of O’Hara and how O’Hara’s ideas are extended and given political valence in New Narrative. I often wonder, given the many things people have said about poetry and political militancy recently, and particularly since the occupations of 2011, if proper political militancy can exist without a radical sense of care. Care as first politics. Care as the beginning of political and social responsibility. Considering the affective qualities of a work of art then does not necessarily become an alibi for works that do not have an immediately available political content or purport to be useful (as much “socially engaged” art would purport to be), but of foregrounding affect as a locus for certain political and ethical conditions of possibility. Mutual aid, care, as the groundwork for political and social action.