Today Ted posted a picture of someone in a Big Bird costume sitting on a park bench in Central Park, holding a package (or is it all of their worldly possessions?) in their lap. I wrote in the comments of Ted’s post: “allegory.” Big Bird—symbol of childhood and public broadcasting—getting the fuck out of this hell dimension. Allegory of the public sphere’s withdrawal.
For many years it felt like the ground was slipping from under my feet—the erosion of civil liberties under W. Bush, the destruction of society through neoliberalism, governance through debt—until I realized there never was any ground. America was never great. As I told my students yesterday, you cannot found a country on genocide and slave labor and not expect for it to eventually self-destruct. Exceptionality has always been constitutionality’s greatest myth.
The title of this book holds many connotations. Withdrawn: as in, a depressive or anti-social psychological state; an occultation of the senses; a period of suspended use of a controlled substance; to exit, or to pull away; to become isolated, alienated; to retreat; to take or bear away. So finally, perhaps, begins the real withdrawal—from aesthetics into politics, from a false sense of being grounded to pondering the lack of ground under our feet—necessitated by an event that had not been so much unthinkable or unimaginable as unactualized.
Yesterday I wanted to write on Facebook (and my wanting to write on Facebook is very likely part of the problem): It was everyone’s fault. Not just for not stopping Trump, but for not stopping Obama, and before him W. Bush, and before him Bill Clinton, and before him Bush senior, and before him Reagan… and so on and so forth through a chain of presidents since the nation’s founding. I wanted to write also, and I write now: My poetry is a failure. The books I have written are failures. This book is a failure, because they have not made the necessary demands on our conscience. I wanted my books to constitute a “commons.” I wanted them to “prefigure” a world we “would want.” I wanted them to “punctuate clock time differently.” But as my friend Brian curses in his book Face Down, implicating my practice across a span of books and years and conversations, “Fuck these tiny holes." A strategy of “counter-distribution” was never enough. Bringing "life" from an online environment into a bound codex was never enough. Creating the community to which I wished “to belong in my dreams” was not enough.
And yet, at the risk of creating an alibi for myself, I believe that Withdrawn: a Discourse may trouble the way art (and poetry) is typically conceived as “autonomous” from social life, if not politics itself. As the epigraphs go:
My study began with Rimbaud and what I took to be Rimbaud’s flight from l’être poète: a flight that took shape, as I came to realize not with his famous silence, his departure for Africa, but in 1870 when he wrote his first poem. Rimbaud left literature before he even got there.
In the names away in blocks
with double names to interrupt
Written under the influence of Kristin Ross’ The Emergence of Social Space: Arthur Rimbaud and the Paris Commune and Fred Moten’s B Jenkins, the book attempts to create a space where poetry can disappear through its occasion, its sociopolitical contexts, and the nexus of relations that it actively constructs through dedication, interlocution, and modes of address. To present the discourse in lieu of the poems. For an exchange among proper names to be objectless. For the poems qua objects to be occluded, leaving what we say to each other, if not what we do, unreified. “Life is what escapes,” Moten writes after Michel Foucault. That Withdrawn has yet to appear and perhaps never will would now seem a perverse accomplishment of this ‘project’.
Yet, Not an Alternative’s contribution to the book correctly warns that participatory art can itself become reifying. Discourse can become a fetish without action in socio-political space. Generously, Brian Holmes’ essay in the book posits that Withdrawn is an attempt to establish a “missing matrix of mutual self-recognition” within “the rhythm of punctuated outbursts that composes a not-so-secret history.” However he also admonishes that “[t]he obvious problem, which climate change reveals, is that it is really getting a little too late to continually return to living in the gaps between such explosions.” In other words, the intensification of cycles of crisis troubles the luxury of protracted reflection represented by my attempt to posit a dreamy cohort—my team, my band, my commune, my friends.
In his proleptic review of Withdrawn included in Withdrawn: a Discourse, Ian Dreiblatt playfully imagines me like St. Anthony retreating to the desert, absconded from Empire, holding court among acolytes, pilgrims, and fellow exiles. Teaching most of all has saved me from the fate of the recluse. Teaching and a tenuous sense of community after the precarious birth of my daughter two years ago when it became nearly impossible to be communal and public and generous in the ways I was previously. We need to withdraw sometimes to ground ourselves. To have the resources intellectually and imaginatively that can prepare us for the unactualized.
Nearly two months ago Dottie and I had a cancer scare with our daughter. After performing an ultrasound and an MRI doctors couldn’t discern whether a vascular tumor on my daughter’s left arm was malignant. In the days following her surgery, I imagined what I would do if they discovered cancer. I imagined losing her and what it would mean to live in a world without my daughter. Should she die, I was determined to live my life differently in her absence. My friend Rob correctly recognized the possibility of her death opening a space for fantasy related to my capacity for world-forming. She was not diagnosed with cancer—thank goodness—but a residue of those fantasies remains. They are activated again by the situation we find ourselves in. If the world is in fact lost what should we create in its place? If God has withdrawn, an image so central to Jewish and Islamic antinomianism, what laws should we observe? What will command and compel us?
Or, as Aime Cesaire writes in his Cahier:
What can I do?
One must begin somewhere.
The only thing in the world
The End of the world of course.
Perhaps now that neoliberalism has revealed its dark underbelly we must finally do the work that Cesaire implored us to do all along. To bring about the “End of the world,” which is to say, of racist, misogynist, xenophobic, settlerist capital.
America, you ode for reality!
Give back the people you took.
Let us all survive, who need to OK?
And we wish each other luck!
One of the central presumptions of Robert Creeley’s poem “America” which I question is his use of the plural pronoun “we,” having recourse to “we” myself in many of the poems of Withdrawn. To whom does this refer? Whom is this “we” inclusive of? Who is “the People” invented by America, presumably by the Constitution? Who are the people it “took”? It is unfortunately not clear, and this lack of clarity is a problem. Amiri Baraka’s particularity in “Who Will Survive America” is refreshing in this regard. For it is only the “Black Man” who will survive in America. Not “Negroes,” not “Crackers,” not “Christians,” not “Red Negroes.” The distinction is not merely divisive. Rather, an Afro-Pessimist avant la lettre, Baraka recognizes a central antagonism between “White” and “Black” paradigms, and it is the former which, for both Wilderson and Baraka, cannot survive. Whiteness must die, and we are now finally forced to kill it once and for all, lest we all perish.
Who this “we” will be constituted by is something I have been struggling with. Specifically, how and whether it might include me. Both Withdrawn and its companion book are thoroughly entangled with the problem of collectivity, and specifically what it means for the poem to be a locus for collective enunciation, mutuality, and exchange. But a “we” has limits, as I discovered the hard way when I gave a reading last year at the home of friends in Ypsilanti, Michigan. For writing through the “we” in relation to Black Lives Matter and in memory of the many Black people who have been murdered by police I was taken to task by audience members, none of whom, interestingly enough, were Black. A year later I am haunted by the question of whether my art can claim solidarity with others differentiated by their vulnerability to premature death.
Ultimately, I don’t know what I would do without interlocutors, people to think and talk with, a “we” both constituted in fantasy and reality. Withdrawn and Withdrawn: a Discourse bear out this compulsion. Art objects and texts I encounter often become guides—both in the spiritual and geographic sense. They are orientating intellectually, morally, and emotionally. Encounters with others often seem evental and catalyze occasions for poetry. George Oppen writes that “other voices wake us or we drown,” emending T.S. Eliot’s original and to an or. The folks gathered in this book are ones who have woken me in different ways, at various stages of my life. Having written with them in Withdrawn, through a sense of identification and solidarity, I write to them in Withdrawn: a Discourse, as a means of dramatizing exchange. I realize that there is nothing very extraordinary about this: we all write to each other, poets especially, and an age of social media has made us more garrulous than ever. However through this project I wanted to honor this writing to and writing with as central aspects of whatever can be called ‘my practice.’ The result is a metadiscourse: a reflection, framing, or amplification of the act of discourse itself.