All profoundly original art looks ugly at first — Clement Greenberg
Two books I’ve been reading and rereading this summer have been Johannes Göransson’s Haute Surveillance and Lara Glenum’s Pop Corpse, and in many ways the two books go together. They share certain sympathies, certain styles. If they were movies, they would make a great double-feature. In Memphis, there’s a porn theater, a decaying relic from the 70s, called Paris Theater. It brought in a diverse clientele because of its location between an “artsy” neighborhood and a “bad” neighborhood: crack addicts, tattoo artists, philosophy and English and art students, skinny junkies, and young punk couples. I can imagine such a double-feature playing at exactly such a place.
They are both truly hybrid works, not simply a “hybrid” of different schools of poetry. Glenum’s Pop Corpse brings to mind some of the more daring elements of the art world: Cindy Sherman’s Gothic, carnival-esque works, Paul Thek’s meatiness, Matthew Barney’s monumentality, the high-wire acts of certain performance artists (Marina Abramovic, the Russian Voina group), Paul McCarthy’s sense of bizarre, repulsive hilarity. In fact, Glenum’s blend of excess and theatricality is closer in spirit to certain sections of the art world than to much of the contemporary American poetry scene, and I can’t help but suspect that admirers of Thek and/or Sherman and/or McCarthy would understand her work better than some of the her fellow experimental poets (some who, because she so thoroughly does not fit into the currently dominant Language Writing /Flarf/Conceptual mode, simply don’t know how to approach her work).
Like many of those artists mentioned above, there is an element of creative ecstasy in Pop Corpse, and, like them, it’s an ecstasy laced with horror and confusion. As the Sea Witch says, “I perch on heaven / habitually / Pig-sized / nipples.” The entire poem/play takes place on “floating islands of garbage” — the “floating islands” implying a beauty and serenity that “garbage” brutally undercuts.
Haute Surveillance is also hybrid. It is infused with film both in style (montage, tableaux) and reference (Blue Velvet, The Wizard of Oz, mumble-core, the character of “the Starlet”). The spirit of Lynch and Godard and Zulawski especially haunt this work, directors who create films that steadfastly refuse to offer us a privileged bird’s eye view of their projects — directors who immerse us in a world, not offer one up as a representational object. Weekend, Made in USA, Inland Empire, Mulholland Drive, Szamanka, On the Silver Globe: these are films that don’t allow for the luxury (and it is a luxury) of distance. So too with Göransson’s book. “Of all the movies I made with the Starlet,” the narrator says, “my favorite was our mumble-version of Hiroshima Mon Amour. Or the Jacobean piece we filmed in a shooting range. The clothes I wore were positively repulsive by the time she was finished with me.”
Of course, Göransson follows a long line of poets who have been fascinated by film. Frank O’Hara is the most obvious example of a poet engaged with the silver screen (or, in our age, the digital screen). And Artaud loved the Marx brothers. But in the past few decades a serious vein of cinemaphobia has crept into the American poetry scene. Part of this is the influence of Language writing. Despite its revolutionary ardor, it had a surprisingly conservative take on the Image, considering it to be empty, false, hollow, a lie. (There were several exceptions to this view: Palmer, Hejinian, Waldrop, etc.) It’s a view that goes all the way back to Plato, at least, as can be seen in the allegory of the cave where concept is plentitude and beings and images are shadows and falsehoods.
Related to this austerity is poetry written in the more mainstream, lyrical mode. As Göransson has pointed out in various blog posts and interviews, and as I’ve heard several others poets claim too through the years, in some workshops an image must be “earned.” It must fit in with the general pattern and be conducive of an overall meaning. Interestingly, the austerity policies of certain Language poets and the fear of inflation in less experimental poetry have more than a little in common.
But an alternate take on the Image sees it not as a false representation of a real object or event, but a new creation, an addition. This is the view of the Stoics, Deleuze, Warhol (as implied by his “Factory” of images), Godard (“cinema is everything”), and Lewis Carroll. Göransson shares this approach. As the narrator writes, “Ever since I was brought to this goo-goo nation, I’ve trafficked in images. About photography, I love the machinery. I can’t understand any of it. It’s like the inside of a woman’s cunt: fascinating and intricate. And gives birth to millions of childrenchildren.” Here, image is a multiplier, not a shadow-play for dupes.
As the influence Language writing wanes, I suspect that this cinemaphobia will drift away. One of the most thrilling books of poetry last year was Lina ramona Vitkauskas’s A Neon Tryst, a collection very different from Göransson’s, but which is also evocative of the spectral, haunting dimension of film. And Rauan Klassnik, one of the most brilliant poets around today, writes poetry that appears to be highly informed by the language of cinema, with odd edits, mini-narratives, and a materialist religiosity that seems to stem as much from Pasolini and Buñuel as Bataille.
There is another link between Glenum and Göransson’s two new books, and that is how they are both books about events. While reading them, I kept thinking back on Monsieur Oscar in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. When the metaphysical performer is asked why he goes on, he answers that it is because of the “beauty of the act.” Both of these books are filled with beautiful (and horrific, and startling) acts, and these acts are related to art-making, art-construction.
As the Smear says in Pop Corpse, “I make a spasmatic pose for the penal colony. I wear a gas mask for the finale. The tourists are allowed to take my photographs if they offer me some food.” And as the narrator in Haute Surveillance writes, “Together we are working in a new medium: sweat clothes. We’re interested in mediumicity. In one sweat cloth we see an image of an artist’s body after a car crash: all ornamental. In another we see a dark lady who may be our lady of the video malaise.” These books are from the Warholian Factory. And because they are books of action and event, they don’t allow us lounge about on a clean, conceptual hillside, above the muck and dirt and sweat. They plunge us into it.