Through which the War has passed
— Frank Bidart, quoted in Solmaz Sharif, Look
I felt a blanket put over me, though very thin, it comforted me.
— Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Guantánamo Diary
What are the things that get in the way of care?
Why have you come back here, only to go away again?
Are some of the reasons hurtful but necessary?
— Oki Sogumi, “The Longest Month”
And to get that distinction clear, just for yourself, will demand a forensic labor.
— Denise Riley, Time Lived, Without Its Flow
What is forensics forensics is an argument to be fought.
— Gertrude Stein, How to Write
1.0 Often I find myself thinking about the relation between private life and state violence, while wondering whether it’s within poetry’s reach, by risking things both intimate and obscene, to make the material links between these things perceptible.
1.1 This question hangs on the recognition that even the most recessed of personal intimacies (say, masturbation & fucking) are penetrated by the most exposed systems (say, wage & war). If in need of a formula—though they’re never reliable—one might say: Immediate touch is mediated by abstract process; or, My most intimate being lies outside me.
2.0 I want a poetics that is responsive to contemporary crises and inseparable from one’s body understood as a geopolitical situation or problem.
2.1 This is something I’ve tried to enact, with varying degrees of success and failure. In Music for Porn, I situate my body in relation to the body of a wounded US soldier in Afghanistan; while in Common Place, I do the same vis-à-vis a Yemeni man detained at Guantánamo Bay. The effort here is to make palpable a militarization that has captured our life-world, while making distant and reified bodies—bodies reduced to things—proximate and intimate.
2.2 Both “the wound” and “the camp” grotesquely mime or mock the intimate interdependencies upon which every form of social emancipation radically depends.
2.3 Put another way: I want to arouse a sense of acute relation between my body and certain “nonsites”—the soldier’s wound & the detainee’s cell—where relation itself has been all but negated by a ubiquitous militarism that penetrates every segment of our lives.
2.4 As formulated by the Nonsite Collective in its draft proposal: “Nonsites may be scenes of transport in the sometimes unnavigable space between real social disasters and our critical apprehension of them.” In other words, nonsites allow otherwise submerged social processes and occulted geo-political dynamics to become perceptible as if for the first time (cf. Robert Smithson).
2.5 The nonsite can be both commonplace and exceptional, material and phantasmatic, as Marx suggests in his analysis of the commodity: “Sensuous things which are at the same time supersensory.” Like the commodity, the poem can be a nonsite, too.
2.6 The wound and the camp, holes in militarized sense, common places born of property’s circulation (arms, oil) at the expense of very specific bodies. These are figures subject to the most abstract generalizations: “the soldier,” “the prisoner.” Can a poem be enlisted in the work of making these figures felt—precondition for embodied thought—together with the relations they obscure?
2.7 This might yield the poem as a negative materialization of some utopian desire for a common place.
3.0 This has as much to do with the banalities of everyday life—prosodic tenor of the drone—as it has to do with what Jodi Dean refers to as our “communist horizon”; as much to do with the degraded body of the Gitmo detainee as it has to do with the black body murdered by police in the streets of Baltimore, Madison, Charleston, New York, Ferguson, Cleveland, Oakland, etc.; as much to do with a body slain in Peshwar by a US drone operative in Tuscon as it has to do with the trans-body segregated in solitary in a Michigan prison called Kinross; as much to do with the promise of community as it has to do with the state of exception that negates that promise, be it in a detention camp or in a city square.
3.1 The most recent spectacularization of racialized violence makes it ever more clear that “the camp” no longer denotes the location of a geographically isolated “sovereign exception” when power’s unlimited capacity becomes the norm in the streets of every American city.
4.0 While these propositions and questions may seem to advocate for a certain ethics, there exists no ethical stance for poetry that is not itself caught up in the violent dynamics and processes from which such a poetry might imagine itself at some less culpable remove.
4.1 In other words, while “ethics” often amounts to an idealist discourse, there’s no ethical view from nowhere that isn’t bound to a specific body caught in the grid.
4.2 I don’t want this to be confused with an ethical call for acknowledging “complicity” in one’s poetry. That’s too easy a reflex. What about the contradictions every insistence on the ethical obscures? What can a poem make legible about those contradictions that we can’t already feel & don’t already know about a body’s relation to socially sanctioned violence?
5.0 It’s often been said: Ethics can only be lived as a refusal to reproduce the terms of its own unethical conditions. I want a poetry that’s able to tease out an embodied dialectics of refusal at the heart of whatever effort to refuse in order to make the limits & obstructions to that refusal palpable.
6.0 Whereas the discourse around ethics can be ideal, disembodied and consoling, the language channeled and organized by poetry can often only refuse these comforts:
6.1 So when masturbation fails, I work
Transcribing autopsy reports because I want to
The way the myth assures but limitless as I fulfill
The promise of my individual person in this infinity
Of military hardware & online shopping whose auto
- nomous value informs my inner life, illuminates
The body viewed thru a cell window where he lay
Not breathing. Reported to be in that fetal position
Covered with a blanket, head slightly tilted, hands
& feet exposed when the guards enter to secure a
Decedent’s swollen tongue, I notice the defining
Thing, a ligature consisting of an elastic band tightly
Wrapped at least twice around his neck, twisted
On the left, having to be cut from the same. At approx
- imately 2200 hours he asks for a nurse, requests a sleep
- ing pill and is last known alive 10-15 minutes later
When he calls for the guard to close his ‘bean hole
Cover,’ a sign meaning he’s ready to sleep. A few
Minutes later he’s discovered unmoved & unresp
- onsive. That’s when I enter to sponge his brow
Before wrapping the ligature around my cock secur
- ing the thing at the base of my balls where the press
- ure keeps me hard as I caress his head on my thigh
Close my eyes and sing.
Because unlike ‘a clerk
I admit libidinal impulses otherwise subtracted from
The record, like extraneous sensations, the real smell
Of rectal mucus, my organs touching the social limit
His body, ‘blunt indefatigable fact’ (that’s Sylvia Plath)
If only to pit report against its administration
Stifle the sound of autopsy’s universal tongue
By including swollen things outside the image or be-
— yond the imaginable like someone’s shiver in de Sade
Whose perversion is nothing but an empty place
In the order of property an unspeakable name
That is no name and will never be proper and whose
Dirtiness makes it common or whose banality
Makes it sleazy like Justine’s shudder banned the way
A fake name exceeds obligation to service virtue
— ’s four detained boys in succession as they tie me
With strings attached to every part and pull at will
And I sway & lose balance on the edge of losing my
Self the way they introduce stones & pipes to each
Hole whose emptiness opens on unthinkable pleasure
The way exuberance destroys the one who narrates
It there being no common subject as all human me
— asure dissolves, withdrawn inside his cell. [Common Place]
7.0 Often I find myself thinking about the difficulties a poem encounters in its effort to mourn the casualties of state violence, as well as its potential to make the abstract militarization of our social relations visceral, concrete, and available for thought. This is an effort, perhaps, that can only ever fail, which is fine, I suppose, so long as “failure” itself isn’t elevated to an ideal.
7.1 In this regard, I suppose I’ve never let go of the model offered by queer art in its struggle to respond to AIDS in the late 1980s when an artwork might have had to refuse everything “proper” about mourning, everything quiet, distant, ideal, abstract—to the point even of refusing the common sense of sympathy and compassion, whose norms often sadly serve to stabilize the status quo—in order to politicize loss under violent conditions determined to neutralize it: Throwing ashes on the White House lawn vs. Quilting panels on the Mall.
7.2 I jot down the phrase “visceral solidarity” to denote a form of radical recognition & politicized alliance capable of moving one’s body to lie down in the street, occupy a building, or block a bridge. Whatever practice this phrase might prompt itself gets blocked by decorous sympathy & abstract dignity, values mediated by socially prescribed feelings policed by commonplace ethics.
7.3 I’m interested in situations when codified forms of sympathy—feelings of compassion for violently othered bodies—get impeded, if not disabled. It’s the contradictions these familiar feelings obscure that the poem might arouse: A form of grief that refuses rather than facilitates consolation
7.4 So this has been about mourning all along.
7.5 Can mourning be revolutionary? Perhaps not. But it can inform the visceral solidarities across otherwise unbridgeable divides and without which revolutions can’t adequately imagine themselves.
8.0 Unlike melancholy—my obstinate attachment to loss to the point of identifying with it—mourning can transform life affirmatively, embodying loss without becoming it. But as Denise Riley insists, “to get that distinction clear, just for yourself, will demand a forensic labor” (Time Lived, Without Its Flow). And Riley immediately qualifies her proposition, urging one (herself) to assess “one’s responsibility in the death” in a way that “needn’t entail your masochism.”
8.1 If “forensics” has its etymological root in that which pertains to the “forum”—an assembly place for public discussion of politics, law, and economy—how might something like a forensic poetics remediate documentary and evidentiary language in an effort to resist the ends—sanctioned violence—such language lubricates.
8.2 Following the work of photographer Allan Sekula such a poetics might be called “counter-forensic.”
8.3 While state-sponsored forensics seeks to transcend the dependence on human testimony (insofar as the latter can never overcome the traumatic conditions that conveniently render the witness-bearing subject “unreliable”), such a forensics can never really overcome the subjectivity it publicly disavows.
8.4 So what might a “counter-forensic” poetics look like? I’m thinking here about a practice of poetry that affirms the volatility of that embodied subjectivity in its encounter with the linguistic traces of material force (i.e., autopsy report, tribunal sentence). What happens when language itself becomes the evidence of the bodily trauma it purports to document? And: What place does the writer’s body occupy as an active agent in the mediation of that language?
8.5 I often find myself imagining a Bartelby who refuses and copies at the same time, practicing a kind of “metabolic transcription” wherein body & document collide.
8.6 But there are always other approaches. As Andrea Brady writes in her postscript to Wildfire: A Verse Essay on Obscurity and Illumination: “I wanted to write a forensic poem, one whose structure could accommodate an excess of social information. I was thinking about an aerial map, plotting contours in history and relaying the coordinates for a surgical strike. But I was tired of trying to position ‘us’ on the ground, like actors in real carnage, where being ‘implicated’ is also a way of sharing the spoils.”
8.9 Here I think of Gertrude Stein’s concluding chapter in How to Write. The chapter is called “Forensics” and it reads like a pathology report of language itself. “Forensics are a remedy in time,” she writes, “So have thousands. A master piece of strategy. An argument of their deliberation. The forensics of abuse which has not been written.” Forensics as a “remedy”: like language’s own alibi to cover-up an abuse which can’t be named as such, or to make of it an open secret. Hence, a “counter-forensics,” which Stein pioneers.
9.0 My approach to a counter-forensic poetics would aim to arouse a sensuous intimacy at the place where that intimacy has become distant and abstract, say, in the linguistic debris of “evidence”: To embody relation at the limit of valued relation if only to feel those relations and think those limits as if for the first time.
9.1 In its effort to demystify the false immediacies of both common sense and erotic touch, a poem might default to the language of sexuality in order to arouse a visceral relation to the fallen and the detained, a relation whose real materiality might paradoxically require a fantasy in order to feel something otherwise banished from perception.
9.2 The erotic here is not a gratuitously amped-up trope, but a poetical figure that makes it possible to imagine a relation whereby touch might be the site of visceral care rather than violent pain.
9.3 No doubt the language of sexuality is a fully processed and codified language, one that reproduces a logic of domination precisely at the moment when it would have us believe—recalling Michel Foucault’s famous expression—that our liberation from power were in the balance. Often I find myself thinking about how, despite its codification, the language of sexuality informs a poetics—post-pornographic—that promises in some small way to expose my body, making it vulnerable enough to imagine relations and intimacies against the grain of dominant common sense.
9.4 If systems of domination and exploitation are continually reproduced in the social relations that comprise our everyday lives, how might we begin to imagine those relations differently while registering how our efforts to resist move within the very same language and logics they aim to disrupt, overturn, revolutionize? What’s the use of a militant queer art if not to make these tensions and contradictions perceptible?
9.5 And so I want to remain faithful to the end of The History of Sexuality where Foucault proposes “a different economy of bodies and pleasures” whereby he anticipates, without prescribing, another form of social reproduction, another way of organizing, living and feeling the relations between bodies, one that will have superseded the current system of value.
9.6 This requires a movement beyond sexuality itself. And yet, the reproduction of the current economic order of things—inseparable from military order—cleaves to sex as it is currently lived.
9.7 Often I find myself longing for a poem to attune my senses and orient my desires to the promise of an other economy where bodies and pleasures would be experienced differently, even if the only thing such a poem can make perceptible is the obstacle to the transformed conditions it desires, an obstacle of which the poem itself is an extension.
10.0 Poetry is not activism, but it can be an instigation to utopian desire, a stimulant for radical fantasy & visceral solidarity, enabling us to feel our relations to real conditions without resolution, without consolation, while moving our bodies as writers & readers toward the bodies of others already struggling against these lived conditions, in streets, squares, and prisons.
11.0 Conceived in fantasy, a poem can throw light on the limits of what’s imaginable in its effort to feel something beyond those limits. What I call “radical fantasy” might allow us to feel the material structures that obstruct the world we long to make as a prelude to sensing a world outside them. Often I find myself desiring a poem that touches the horizon of that beyond, without deluding myself that I am anywhere but here.
11.1 Like utopian desire, a poem is penetrated by the very conditions it longs to overcome, conditions whose transformation would ideally make the poem irrelevant. There’s no utopian fantasy exempt from this constraint.
11.2 In this sense, fantasy is not a dreamer’s dream, autonomous and unconstrained, but the means by which to feel our heteronomy, our unfreedom. This is not fantasy as escape, but as a flight toward the Real (i.e., that which our reality can’t avow).
11.3 “The wound” and “the camp” name sites where an effort to represent my imaginary relations to real conditions—bodies under siege—is threatened both by the spectacle of visibility and the spectacle of absence: by kitsch, on the one hand, and prohibition, on the other. (One could say “the wall” now extends this sequence, and just as the logic of the camp has become inseparable from the logic of capital, so too has the logic of the wall.)
11.4 There can be no imaginary resolution to all these tensions & contradictions that isn’t always immediately betrayed. In other words: It’s not the business of poetry to offer imaginary solutions to real contradictions, but rather to make the blocks to those solutions acutely palpable.
12.0 Can a poem assist our effort to return to a sensuous intimacy when the terms of that intimacy have been violently submerged, abstracted, mediated, distanced? I suppose what I want to ask is this: Can a poem help us to imagine what is, I mean, to imagine what we ought not have to imagine?
12.1 If so, this would be a poem that materializes a nonsite, the non-synchronous space between sensual experience and abstract process—scene my displacement.
12.2 Often I find myself imagining the poem as if it were a phantom limb with bodily intensity, preparing the whole organism—my body in relation to other bodies—to respond to conditions we can’t fully grasp even as we act within them. This may be the poem’s urgent response-ability.
13.0 Taking Frank Bidart’s lines to heart as quoted in my epigraph (above) which I found quoted in Solmaz Sharif’s recent book of poems called Look—a work that détourns phrases lifted from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms in poems that transform the violence of euphemized war-language into the language of tenderness, intimacy & care—my own writing can only bear witness to the distance between this body my body and the wars, a distance that often feels total but is as close as the most intimate proximity.
14.0 The only world we hold in common may be the one that doesn’t yet exist. And while we may share the preconditions of this other world, we share them in radically different ways (i.e., the uneven distribution of precarity).
14.1 How can we imagine life held in common across the most radically diverse spaces of our social world where solidarities might seem inconceivable—from cozy bed to prison cot—without falling for the lures of guilt, complicity, despair? How might a poem feel this common life while simultaneously registering the obstructions blocking its transformation?
14.2 This opens onto a cascade of questions: How to cultivate a poetics that challenges the immunities upon which political sovereignty and its military violence hang harnessed to legal personhood & profit, identity & property? What might it mean for the poem to enable forms of vulnerability and care that are critical for a countervailing communion? How might a poem insist on a visceral solidarity, rather than idealist notions of “human rights” (i.e., notions that demand a rights-granting form of sovereignty, which can only ever fail us)? Can a poem help us imagine unthinkable solidarities in the interest of transforming the conditions of our conditioned love?
15.0 While all of these questions only amount to an extravagant thought experiment, I long for poetry that can move me to its limits.