“When I hit him he comes apart like a perfect puzzle”: On Phil Levine’s “Angel Butcher”

by on Dec.30, 2014, under Uncategorized

philip-levine
For a poet that later became known for his poems that supposedly authentically depict working class factory life in the Detroit factories, Levine’s early poetry is almost allegorical – complete with the kind of poetic artifice that is generally believed to be opposed to the authentic.

For one thing, it’s full of angels! This might be the last figure one might least expect to find in authentic depiction of factory work.
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And of course that’s why they are so prevalent. Throughout Levine’s early work, when he began to depict factory work, there are angels and almost always they are subjected to violence. For example in “Sunday Afternoon,” the angels are not being worshipped, rather they are attacked: “On the body/of the Angel without teeth/I counted seventeen welts/scored with a bicycle chain.” Instead of the most pristine, the Angel is toothless – as if the poem had ruined its holy beauty – and then inflicted extreme, crude violence on its body, as if the violence itself had to be debased.

This violence against angels is probably most noticeable in the famous “Angel Butcher,” one of my favorite Levine poem. On one very relevant level, this is a poem about a butcher – which stands in for any violent, numbing work – who butchers all that is beautiful within him (the “angel”), the way one has to when one works these numbing jobs: “ we talk about growing up and losing the strange things we never understood and settling.” The “settling” is then enacted as the butcher kills the angel. Along the same line, the violence enacted by the speaker is a kind of displaced violence of blue collar work against worker’s bodies; a return of the repressed, a gothic fable about industrial work.

In a memoiristic essay in his book Bread of Time, Levine refers to the factories in which he worked in his youth as “those terrible places designed to rob us of our bodies and our spirits, we sustained each other.” This adds another layer to “Angel Butcher”: Is butchering someone the same as “sustaining” them? Is slaughtering someone the same as defending against the loss of “spirit”?

In the poem, the angel wants to be butchered “like a rabbit” and the speaker complies. The angel is the customer, he wants to be killed, he orders his own murder. The angel’s body plays a key role in the poem. There is the unsettling description of his thin, vulnerable body: not only does he want to die like a rabbit, his wrist is small “like the throat of a young hen” as he undresses for the butcher, removing his “robe.” His fragile and vulnerable body – vulnerable because it is a body – the angel becomes like an animal. That is to say, the butcher doesn’t have to “settle”; the angel returns him to “animals.”

Why does the angel get naked for the murder? There’s definitely a sexual element to the murder. The angel may be a he, but he is also “smiling/like a young girl.” This erotic element of the angel reoccurs in most of Levine’s many angel poems. In “The Second Angel,” the speaker carries an angel “home” like a bride and accidentally “bruise[s]” the angel’s head by hitting it on a doorpost. But instead of reaching the wedding bed, the strange couple end up “roadside,” where the speaker lays the angel “like a doll,/his eyes still open, seeing,/his wings breathing in and out /in the winds of traffic.” Instead of getting fucked, the angel becomes artifice (doll) and roadkill (the traffic blowing his “bloodless wings” around).

This connection between murdering and fucking angels in/as acts of artifice becomes most overt in the poem “Waking An Angel.” Here the poem starts out as a depiction of domestic harmony. An undefined “she” – we read it as the wife or lover – says “we have been good” but the speaker isn’t so sure. Afterall, “there was sand//as white as powdered glass overflowing/teh vessel of the hyacinth,” as if artifice was taking over nature due to something the couple has done – perhaps because they have become a couple, perhaps because they have had sex and thus perhaps not been “good” at all (according to the Bible). And this physical stuff of artifice is “on my own tongue” when he waks up “in the dark” and starts to “rock” this “she” “gently.” She replies “O, O, O.” Is he fucking her or – as in the title of the poem – “waking” her up?

In “Angel Butcher” we get something similar: the angel undresses as for sex but the speaker murders him instead. The result in “Angel Butcher” is that the speaker’s own body is renewed and metaphorizied:

“When I hit
him he comes apart like a
perfect puzzle or an
old flower.
And my legs
dance and twitch for hours.”

Through this beautiful erotic butchery, the speaker’s own body begins to “dance and twitch for hours.” It reminds me of Olympia in Hoffman’s “The Sandman,” source of Freud’s famous essay “The Uncanny.” Levine’s speaker becomes artifice, becomes doll-like (like the “second angel” who becomes roadkill), but he also regains his body (“my lungs flower”). Artifice and body – which are so often treated as opposites – are in fact closely aligned. The violence of art brings his body back to life.
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Instead of a protest against the violence of industry, Levine’s poem to me suggests that the violence of art – perhaps a displaced, “return of the repressed” violence of industry, perhaps an anti-industrial revolutionary violence (as in his famous poem “They Feed They Lions”) – is what “sustains” the speaker. Unlike a “settling” aesthetic of describing daily life (at the abbatoir or any other place), the violent, extreme art of “angel butchering” brings him to life, sustains him. Art it seems is both like murder and like sex (homosexual – non-reproductive and non-productive).

If the angel might initially align Levine’s poem with some kind of transcendence, it seems that ultimately it’s in fact the opposite of transcendence that sustains Levine: giving the angel a body and inflicting pain on it, killing it.

Anselm Kiefer's Book with Wings2

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Reading Tonight in Chicago: Rotaru, Tanta, Göransson, Karmin, Bucur

by on Dec.06, 2014, under Uncategorized

Join us as we stage a mini-reunion of the 2012 symposium on ‘Form and Identity in Contemporary Innovative Poetry,’ which was organized by Gene Tanta, and held in Bucharest Romania. Featuring:

Andra Rotaru (visiting from Romania!)
Johannes Göransson
Gene Tanta (reading from his in-progress anthology of contemporary Romanian poetry),
Jennifer Karmin, &
Anca Bucur (presenting remotely from Romania).

Time and Place:
Saturday, December 6
at 7:00pm in CST

Uncharted Books
2620 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, Illinois 60647

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Rachel Greenwald Smith on “Compromise Aesthetics”

by on Nov.18, 2014, under Uncategorized

Over on the website “The Account,” Rachel Greenwald Smith has an essay on what she calls “compromise aesthetics” of contemporary literature. I’m still thinking about this piece. Please let me know what you think!

1. Com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics under­lie a range of crit­i­cal approaches to con­tem­po­rary fic­tion and poetry, but their emer­gence has yet to be ade­quately historicized.

In her intro­duc­tion to the Nor­ton anthol­ogy Amer­i­can Hybrid (2009), Cole Swensen cel­e­brates the ten­dency for con­tem­po­rary works of poetry to make fer­tile com­pro­mises between tra­di­tional and exper­i­men­tal forms. She argues that this ten­dency, a qual­ity she sees as inte­gral to what she calls “hybrid poetry,” is defined by an inter­est in “plac­ing less empha­sis on exter­nal dif­fer­ences, those among poets and their rel­a­tive stances” in such a way that “leaves us all in a bet­ter posi­tion to fight a much more impor­tant bat­tle for the integrity of lan­guage in the face of com­mer­cial and polit­i­cal mis­use” (xxvi). In script­ing the “bat­tle” in these terms—poetry, envi­sioned in utopian terms as a united pro­gres­sive front, against the “mis­use” of commerce—Swensen at once makes a pow­er­ful plea for the social advan­tages of aes­thetic com­pro­mise and affirms poetry as an essen­tially polit­i­cally use­ful (i.e., left­ist) enter­prise. This stance typ­i­fies a posi­tion that I will call “com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics,” or the belief that con­tem­po­rary art is at its most socially rel­e­vant when it forges com­pro­mises between strate­gies tra­di­tion­ally asso­ci­ated with the main­stream on the one hand and those asso­ci­ated with exper­i­men­tal depar­tures from the main­stream on the other.

It was not so long ago that the very works that refused to com­pro­mise, those that placed clear empha­sis on dif­fer­ences among writ­ers’ rel­a­tive aes­thetic and polit­i­cal stances, were seen as the pri­mary means by which any bat­tle against the “com­mer­cial and polit­i­cal mis­use” of lan­guage could be fought. This is how the exper­i­men­tal move­ments of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury con­sti­tuted them­selves against the lit­er­ary norms of their period and sought to expose such norms as implic­itly in sup­port of the social, as well as the aes­thetic, sta­tus quo. [i] Yet the past few decades have seen a dra­matic increase in crit­ics and writ­ers whose inter­est in for­mally inno­v­a­tive work once may have made them seek out oppo­si­tional posi­tions argu­ing instead that such polar­iza­tions are no longer nec­es­sary. Observ­ing this trend, Ron Sil­li­man has recently asked, “Why is it that so many young writ­ers are con­flict averse in a world in which con­flict itself is inher­ent? What is the attrac­tion to not tak­ing a stand?”

This essay is an effort to answer that ques­tion through an assess­ment of recent crit­i­cal appraisals of the con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary cli­mate, includ­ing the defin­ing state­ments on hybrid and ellip­ti­cal poetry; post­language lyric; and post-postmodernist fic­tion. My inter­est here is not in the accu­racy of these appraisals as they per­tain to par­tic­u­lar lit­er­ary works. Instead, I focus on the ten­dency for crit­ics to cel­e­brate what they see as the end of the debates that emerged in the post­war period between those inter­ested in the desta­bi­liz­ing poten­tial of var­i­ous exper­i­men­talisms, and those inter­ested in the expanded access, pop­ulism, and social imme­di­acy asso­ci­ated with more acces­si­ble or main­stream forms.[ii]

A lot of people have been discussing “the avant-garde” recently, and Greenwald Smith offers some very provocative comments on this topic as well:

Pro­po­nents of com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics do have one thing right: if we are look­ing for a coher­ent avant-garde in con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary cul­ture, we are unlikely to find it. Today’s lit­er­ary pro­duc­tion is largely char­ac­ter­ized by the preva­lence of hybrid forms that bring together a range of tech­niques from pre­vi­ously opposed aes­thetic schools. But lin­ing up the utopi­anism of com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics with the utopi­anism of posi­tions like Fukuyama’s shows that the belief in the tri­umph of com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics is just as inat­ten­tive to the con­tin­ued pres­ence of crises and con­flict in the domain of lit­er­ary aes­thet­ics as the belief in a global cap­i­tal­ist utopia is to the polit­i­cal real­i­ties of the present.

And:

If we look closely at con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary works, we can see that aes­thetic chal­lenges con­tinue to exist in works that at first glance look like they con­form to the qual­i­ties cham­pi­oned by com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics. Many of these works are hybrid in form: they bring together for­mal strate­gies from a range of aes­thetic inher­i­tances. Yet this hybrid­ity does not resolve into an easy state of com­pro­mise.

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Prisoners: A Prepper’s Nightmare

by on Nov.17, 2014, under Uncategorized

Prisoners takes as its protagonist Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a man we might describe as a blue collar conservative Christian American who values family and self-reliance and views as intrinsically unreliable the fragile, gigantic, global apparatus we all cling to, dangling precariously as we are over the void. We might also describe him as a prepper. This movie is basically a prepper nightmare.

[Full spoilers ahead, like immediately – abandon all hope from here on out] (continue reading…)

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Flowers of Violence: Atrocity Kitsch and American Poetry

by on Nov.11, 2014, under Uncategorized

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a response to Gregory Orr’s essay in the Writer’s Chronicle, in which he argues that Wordsworth is fundamentally democratic in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads because he argues for a non-flowery, non-poetic language that Orr sees as “open” to the lower classes.

But as I pointed out, this rejection of the “gaudy and inane phraseology” is anti-kitsch rhetoric. Further, Wordsworth was definitely not lower class, though he both used the ballad form (a fake lower class form) for an elite audience.
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But I wanted to point out another element of Orr’s essay and that’s his use of a soldier-poet as an example for how poetry should be “emotion recollected in tranquility” (rather than say poems written in the state of disaster). Orr writes that he had read a manuscript by an un-named contemporary US poet about his time as a soldier in Vietnam, and how the two poems he wrote while in Vietnam stuck out from the manuscript, not only as bad poems but as unreal poems (I can’t quite remember the exact word Orr uses). The poet-soldier needed distance to achieve a tranquility in order to really process the poetry.

Orr also gives a moving account of accidentally killing his own brother and how it took him years to process this violence.
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As I’ve written before, violence is everwhere. And poetry is not difference. The artistic experience is often a violent one. But contemporary American poetry critics still seems obsessed with distancing poetry from the violence of art and the violence of the world at large. It’s the dangers/fears of “aestheticizing violence” (which according to Benjamin is what the Nazis did, more about the Nazi-art connection some other time). And yet, violence is constantly brought in as a way of understanding poetry. Orr has to bring the war into his essay in order to remove poetry from it.

The thing that interests me about bringing it in is the way he joins the “gaudy and inane phraseology” of flowery language – of poetic language, of kitsch – to violence. Kitsch is violence. The poetic is inhuman.

*
In Orr’s article, it’s a way to show the importance of achieving distance. I sometimes think about a post I remember reading on John Gallaher’s blog a long time ago, in which he referenced an essay by Hank Lazer about a panel on poetry in the mid 80s. The crux of the discussion between different poets (some language poets and some not) was the prevalence of feeling:

(continue reading…)

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Screamin’ Jay Hawkins Halloween

by on Oct.31, 2014, under Uncategorized

Not sure if this is a Halloween song exactly, but a great song anyway, and creepy as hell..

And here’s another great version, by Nina Simone…

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On White Uncreativity and the Mongrel Imagination: Interview at Entropy

by on Oct.31, 2014, under Uncategorized

From Gina Abelkop’s interview with me at Entropy:

Tell me your favorite things about the loose community of artists that you’re a part of, if you’re a part of one in some way, shape or form. What is most exciting about the work you see coming out of this community? Do you make work in response to any of it? What do you wish to see coming out of this community that you feel is lacking or underrepresented?

I still thank my lucky stars that Johannes Goransson and Joyelle McSweeney invited me to join Montevidayo, a poetry blog and haven for anyone who believes in insurrections instead of communities. It’s quieter now than it used to be, but the blog’s imprint on my mind continues to help me work through the inseparability of form and politics, and to think about both categories as entirely immanent to the writer’s process. What I cherish in Monte and its constellations, in particular, is a shared commitment to the otherworldly potential of art. In my version of this model, the writer gives herself over to the poem, foregoing foresight and mastery in order to allow for a fully experienced deviation. The poem, in other words, becomes a sacred space that spiritualizes alien perspectives at the same time as the writer bodies them forth. The result is an animation of ‘her’ words, a ghostly dynamic of exchange. Maybe what I’m describing is actually the backchannel of the dispossessed… a passage of energy mutating throughout multiple realities… spilt souls coursing in and out of open veins. Deprived of the right to claim property, illegible to all but the most occulted traditions and lineages, this kind of writer may have no choice but to enact a “production of difference” rather than fall back on the luxury of “imitation” (Luiz Costa Lima). Of course, an imagination with so much reach would barely make a blip under Empire. It blooms not in the Empirical but in the rim and realm of the invisible, blacked-out, and metaphysical. It is the mongrel other to 21st-century white lack, appropriation, and self-projection.

Karen Valentim's mural in the neighborhood of Jesus de nazaré, in Vitoria, Brazil

Karen Valentim’s mural in the neighborhood of Jesus de Nazaré, in Vitoria, Brazil

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Mystical Materialism: Cargo Cults, Food Riots, Disease and the Political Function of Food

by on Oct.29, 2014, under Uncategorized

511px-MaciejowskiExodusManna “I have an anxious and highly ambivalent relationship with food. This is informed by a thoroughly demoralizing struggle with digestive disease dating back to early childhood, and in my adult life with an evolving awareness of how political power is derived out of the universal need to eat. I don’t think it’s simplifying things too much to say that food is the terrain of struggle, of our bodies and our lives. So it is with some trepidation that I approach a topic that refracts for me in such a charged and diffuse manner, and with such interrelated complications.”

More on cargo cults, food riots, autoimmune disorders, bowel resections, permaculture and the political function of food over at The Inquisitive Eater, where I confess everything I ever thought or felt about everything I ever ate and threw up.

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The Flowers of Evil: Gregorry Orr on Wordsworth and Flowery Language

by on Oct.23, 2014, under Uncategorized

There’s an interesting article by Gregory Orr in the latest issue of Writer’s Chronicle called “Foundational Documents and the Nature of Lyric,” which I think (of course) backs up all the arguments I’ve been deriving from reading Wordsworths’ Preface to Lyrical Ballads as a foundational anti-kitsch manifesto.
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Orr begins with a relevant reading of Plato’s Republic as an anti-poetry foundational document of western culture: re-hashing Plato’s urge to banish poets from the ideal republic because or their irrational artform and his idea that if they tried to sneak back in they should be killed. To counter this foundational anti-poetic text, Orr brings in various Asian texts, finding in them an understanding and appreciation for the emotional nature of art and lyric poetry.

But what I’m interested in is his use of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads.

I’ve discussed this document several times as an anti-kitsch manifesto (taking a cue from Daniel Tiffany’s writing on kitsch). Wordsworth rejects the “gaudy and inane phraseology” of the graveyard poets (derived, importantly, as a kind of translatese from Latin translations) in favor of a model of the poet as “a man speaking to men.” The flowery language is connected to sensationalism of mass media which also “blunts” the reader’s senses. It’s too much. It’s kitsch.

As I’ve argued in the past, kitsch is really at the heart of any art – any art can be turned “gaudy” if you choose to see it that way because art can always be seen as useless and gaudy, as opposed to the real stuff of work and politics.

I realize there’s a bunch of stuff going on in Wordsworth, but this is an important line of discussion issuing from his work to this day and I think Orr’s article really proves this.

For Orr, Wordsworth provides a welcome antidote to Plato’s anti-poetry stance. Most importantly for Orr:

“Wordsworth rescued Western poetry from its capture by the ruling classes. He returned it to ordinary people, understanding that anyone could and maybe should write poems or songs – that lyric poetry isn’t an elite art form, but is a human birthright. A birthright related to its essential function as a survival mode. All of us need poetry and song… Wordsworth rescued lyric from elitism by saying that the language used in poems isn’t a special, flowery language reserved for special people or a special class of people. Instead, he insisted it was “a selection of the real language spoken by men” (and women). Poetry was just us, speaking a little more intensively or rhythmically than we ordinarily speak, but not in some special language only available to social or economic elite. Wordsworth’s return to speech as the model for poetry was a crucial insight, but we in the West are still struggling to take it in and accept its full, democratic implications.”

There’s a lot to be said about Orr’s reading, and to some extent I obviously agree that Wordsworth’s document is revolutionary. But I want to focus on the way Orr sees “flowery language” as inherently elitist and undemocratic.

Flowery language (gaudy and inane phraseology) can afterall be written by anyone, and I would venture that often young poets are taught by their elders to reject flowery, “Romantic” language (I was when I was a teenager). One might say then that plain-spoken diction has become a kind of elitist Taste that we have to learn.
(continue reading…)

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WHY I HAVE TO BECOME AVE MARIA

by on Oct.21, 2014, under Uncategorized

Before my reading at the Poetry Project, I first embodied Ave Maria with the help of my friends Eduardo Mamede and Anderson Honnorato.  In São Paulo, they styled me according to Eduardo’s vision while I clutched Anderson’s Our Lady of Apparition, ready for our glamor shot.

ave maria

I am not sure I could have become her in the US.  It’s much easier to be a mystic in Brazil, where the embrace of spiritual impurity means you don’t have to be a believer to feel the dead around you.  If even atheists there see ghosts, Evangelicals often have spirits from Afro-Brazilian cults exorcized out of them.  As José Jorge de Carvalho writes, such is “the world in which rationalist, psychologizing, materialist, esoteric, Theonist, Calvinist, Lutheran and various African and indigenous positions confront each other.”

Note:  Ave Maria is a chicken saint from the cult of death.

In becoming her, I throw myself into this confrontation and side with the forces of the ones who keep dying. (continue reading…)

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