Thursday, August 24, 2006



Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War by Kent Johnson
(effing press, Austin, TX 2005)


An Afterword Engaging Charles Bernstein’s “Enough”

for Jaroslav Hasek & his Good Soldier, Schweik

Let murderers, bigots, fools, unclean persons, offer new propositions!
Let the old propositions be postponed!
Let faces and theories be turn’d inside out! Let meanings be freely criminal, as well as results!
Let there be no suggestion above the suggestion of drudgery!

Let the theory of America still be management, caste, comparison!
(Say! What other theory would you?) . . .
Let nothing but copies at second hand be permitted to exist upon the earth!
Let the men of These States stand aside for a few smouchers! Let the few
seize on what they choose! Let the rest gawk, giggle, starve, obey!
Let books take the place of trees, animals, rivers, clouds! . . .
--Walt Whitman, “Respondez!”

No one can say what will be “real” for people when the wars which are now beginning come to an end.
--Werner Heisenberg

Someone has said it that it requires less mental effort to condemn than to think. The widespread mental indolence so prevalent in society proves this to be only too true. Rather than get to the bottom of any given idea, to examine into its origin and meaning, most people will either condemn it altogether or rely on some superficial or prejudicial definition of non-essentials.
--Emma Goldman

I first offered to review Kent Johnson’s Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz a few months ago because the two or three poems from it I knew were refreshingly disturbing. In them, smooth skinned American surfaces slid seamlessly into obscene scenes of horror, with poets among the participants. They reminded me of various lines from “Respondez!” one of the “Rejected Poems” Whitman chose to exclude from LEAVES OF GRASS, among them:

Respondez! Respondez!

Let every one answer! Let those who sleep be waked! Let none evade!
Must we still go on with our evasions and sneaking?

Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz appeared a year ago, the poems themselves having first appeared in various magazines, blogs, presses and anthologies. Events since, especially those this summer, have meant the book’s relevance is very much alive and its scenes and interrogations even more disturbing.

The original poems are bookended by two additions: “By Way of Preface” and “By Way of Afterword”. The Preface is a letter addressed to Campus Watch, to whom the proceeds of the book, unless declined, are to be donated. After reading “a diatribe on the poet and activist Ammiel Alcalay, published in the The America Thinker on March 4 (2005), Johnson asks to be added to the list of poets under surveillance, and provides his credentials for this honor. The offer of royalties is made because the poet believes the organization’s “proto-fascist activities are an excellent stimulant to the defense of American values, like civil liberties and other stuff.”

On the surface this seems like light hearted nose tweaking of a ponderous guard dog. It’s just below the surface that things get unsettling. Why is the poet in such a dog gone “me, too, me, too!” rush to get on this list--and to the extent that he’ll pay for the group to spy on himself and his friends? A make-believe game, a dangerous game--or a completely cynical one? What if he’s taken seriously? Or, to punish his outrageous behavior, what if Campus Watch refuses both to list him and accept his money? Or takes the money and doesn’t list him? Or, satirically, self-mockingly, yet also seriously, consider this scenario: Pity the poor poet deprived of yet another form of recognition! And after such service in Left Wing causes! And even with the new anti-war poems! How can one be denied such “street cred” as a radical? Ah!--(light bulb goes on in balloon above the cartoon poet’s head)--why not help fund the persecuting organization and ensure that its activities draw attention to oneself as a “standup guy” staring into the faces of oppression, a poet who “speaks out” for civil liberties in their time of distress. Didn’t Lee Harvey Oswald distribute “Hands Off Cuba” literature with the same address as an anti-Castro organization? Cannot poets also be involved in some strange double dealings to advance not the cause but the career? Or both at the same time? Be double agents or multiple agents in the grand tradition of Christopher Marlowe?

On the other hand, the Preface may just be a prank, which conveniently contains the poet’s CV of radical activities over the decades, mixing facts and fantasy, horror and humor in an unbalancing mode of address. (“Forgive me for being a bit disorganized in my thinking and for using the come-sap of ideology like the ants do.”)

“And if not why not”, as Gertrude Stein would say.

“Why not” I think is that faced with many by-ways of reading the Preface, the reader is alerted to the instability of the surfaces of language, which can be used in all sorts of ways as maskings, camouflaging, and coverings up, mirrorings, costuming and the Emperor’s New Clothes. What makes Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz “news that stays news” (a Pound criterion) is that the examination of the surfaces of language and its capabilities of being manipulated as maskings and mirrorings isn’t directed at others only, but at the poet himself primarily. A Yeats criteria: “Out of the quarrel with others we make politics, out of the quarrel with ourselves poetry.” Trying to confront what’s behind the surfaces and look into the area of overlap of the two quarrels is the work of interrogating going on in these poems “submitted to the war”.

“Times of quickening crisis famously clarify things previously obscured by cultural inertia,” Johnson writes in the “Afterword”. This originally appeared as a web piece, linked to the talk to which it refers and was later printed in a journal. The web address of the original talk is included in the Afterword here. “Bernstein’s ‘Enough’” takes to account the talk of that name by Charles Bernstein in which the poet implicitly attacks the “righteous monologue” and “digestible messages” of the Sam Hamill-edited immensely popular Poets Against the War. For Johnson this is a “moral decree . . . astonishingly blind to the ironies of its own arrogance”. Bernstein’s argument is that in opposing the language of Bush and Co. poets should “eschew the language of social and linguistic norms” and instead employ “ambiguity”, “complexity”, and “skepticism” in exploring the ways such “norms” “are used to discipline and contain dissent”.

For Johnson, this is a thinly veiled response to a previous talk by Eliot Weinberger, in which that writer had pointed out that the anti-war poetry that is great and remembered, is almost always written in the “norm”. Johnson finds Bernstein’s position to be “exclusivist and fundamentalist” and its “righteous ideological dispensations” to be “an ironic after-echo of the intolerant leaders he would oppose”. Bernstein and his “avant-garde” circle, for all their insistence on a radical theory and practice, are seen as being left behind, sniping at “poets speaking out with courage and force”. The “post-avant” poets formerly accused by Bernstein and Co. of a lack of activism, Johnson sees now among poets speaking out and leaving the old guard behind.

This is one of the hopeful moments in the book: that poets will speak out regardless of surveillance by Campus Watch and Big Brother, and regardless of policing by the Guards of the “avant-garde”. Yet that there should even be a question about this indicates a disturbing “State of the Union”: when both Big Brother and “radical, oppositional poetics” come down on poets speaking out against a war, there’s something deeper rooted in a society that is showing its face. And it ain’t pretty.

The nine bookended poems appear in various forms, forms of address, and forms of authorship. “Mission” is “after Archilochus”, “Baghdad” is based on the sound patterns of the children’s poem “Goodnight Moon”, “Forwarded Message Follows” is an email from “Osama Husein”, “The New York School (or: I Grew Ever More Intense)” is in “a new poetic form . . . I have christened the Mandrake”, “Green Zone Renshi-Renga” is a collaboration with Jack Kimball, and “Poem Upon a Typo Found in an Interview of Kenneth Koch Conducted by David Shapiro” is a numbered series of lines done in a variety of styles and stages of the English language. The remaining pieces include a prose poem, an irregularly structured poem/prose poem and one straight forwardly structured poem. Each one is a discrete piece and at the same time interrelated with all the others, like beads on a string made of a few continually intertwined threads.

“Mission”, “after Archilochus”, which opens the series, immediately introduces the theme of poetry and war, here waged by “civilized” poet-warriors in a foreign land. The pen and the sword march together, sharing the same hands--

. . . We gathered strength for a fortnight, writing poems and sharpening our swords by the sea . . . At a small waterfall we stopped to rest on some moss and gazed at our golden helmets and shields in the reflecting pool.
We spoke in low voices of the beauty around us . . . We spoke of time,
and friendship, and truth. Then each of us drank deeply from the pool.

Aided by the gods, we stormed Smyrna, and burned its profane temples
to the ground.

Archilochus’ soldiers are the “blond beasts” of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals –-gazing into the pool the only reflection they see is the golden glory of their helmets and shields, not their own individual faces. There is no questioning of self or the contingencies of the moment. Everything is seen in the glow of a heroic gods-blessed eternity: "time, friendship, and truth” situated in a place of beauty. Storming and burning profane temples is all in a day’s work, a blitz among many along the conquering way. All the detail of the piece is concentrated in the heroic, “civilized” moments of preparation, of life in the camp--“writing poems and sharpening swords”, contemplating glory in the reflecting pool, “the beauty around us, the dark, darting trout, and the strange, haunting songs in towering trees”. The battle (“stormed . . . and burned”) and place destroyed (“Smyrna . . . its profane temples”) get one sentence and one adjective, to mark their incidental character in the over arching narrative of glory. “We came, we saw, we conquered.”

“Writing poems and sharpening our swords by the sea”--“our golden helmets and shields in the reflecting pool.” O, idyllic, halcyon days! Small wonder that poetry’s first modernist movement, Italian Futurism Marinetti-style isn’t so much a “progressive” acceleration as an apocalyptic nostalgia, a “science-fiction film set in the past” as Fellini said of his Satyricon. “ We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness . . . We will glorify war . . .” Marinetti announces in The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism (1909). No Apollonian, Archilochian Classicism for the former Symbolist--Marinetti chooses the Dionysian--a “radical, innovative poetics” (to use the current term) of the intoxications of speed to forge his avant-garde. “(We were) like proud beacons or forward sentries against an army of hostile stars glaring down at us from their hostile encampments . . . We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.”

It’s speed that brings about Marinetti’s formal innovations in poetry--“parole in liberta”--words, syllables, letters, numbers, scattered in freedom, spatially, visually and sonically across the page and bellowed forth from megaphones. These formal elements come from the effects of speed on the warrior-poet’s body, nervous system and consciousness: “We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.”

Militarism and patriotism are an integral part of Marinetti’s poetic manifesto, as well as the destruction of libraries and museums--a rather paradoxical desire in the light of patriotism until one recalls that libraries and museums are endlessly made anew from the destruction and looting of the old ones, both in “reality” and symbolically, by “taking over” or “securing”, “hi-jacking” a tradition, style, form, technique, and not simply its objects. In Marinetti’s Futurism, with its hyper techno-speeds and formal innovations, the relationship with war as “the world’s hygiene” and glorification is a nostalgia for the sort of Classical purity Archilochus’ poet warriors have. A nostalgia of comparisons nurtured, after all, by museums and libraries: “A racing car . . . is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”

In a very forceful way Marinetti set a standard by which poets have been judged and judged each other since--how to be formally avant-garde in poetry, ideologically avant-garde in politics, and ethically correct in relation to patriotism and war. And--both avant-garde and ethically/politically correct in relation to the speeds of technologies which themselves are deeply implicated in everything from experimental poetries to experimental cyber bombs and systems of control.

Marinetti fought in World War 1, became a Fascist and part of Mussolini’s inner circle. He was joined in Italy by the great American poetic innovator, Ezra Pound, of whom Charles Olson observed, “Pound was a Lenin in poetry, a Czar in politics.” Bernstein and the Language Poets have been determined to avoid this Modernist split, and be radical in both form and ideology/theory. A contemporary Marxist critic noted of Marinetti’s introductory Futurist tour of Russia that radical ruptures of syntax, transgressions of grammar, wild displacements of typographies, techniques also used by Language Poetry, may change language relations on the page but not property relations on the ground. Using a variety of Postmodern theoretical approaches, Language Poetry claims that by changing the structures of power relations in language, those in the world off the page may be changed. The questions of speed and control within real global time as examined in the work of Paul Virilio have opened areas for investigating language which are just beginning to be developed, reopening many of the issues Marinetti raised.

Paradoxically it is also via the “absolute” of speed that Archilochus’s Classical warrior poets reverse the “science fiction film set in the past” and camp out here & now, among the avant-garde, the post-avant, the postmodern poets who inhabit the disturbing landscapes of Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz.

And just what are these Archilochian warriors doing here in the post Auschwitz landscapes? They speak like “civilized” people--of “Pylos, barbarian town” and “lovely Asia” and burning “profane” temples--they write poems and have gods. Are they here as foils to the post-Auschwitz poets’ interrogations, self-reflexive interrogations and interrogations of each other on the subject of writing poetry during war times, or, are they in the Nietzschean sense warrior poets from a period further away both historically and metaphysically than such interrogations will accept? That is--they exist outside the Jewish, Christian and Moslem traditions involved in the wars in the book, pagans, without rassentiment. Looking into the reflecting pool they don’t see a self, an ego, a “subject” in the post-modern conception of this. All they see is the golden glory of armor--helmets and shields, which in turn their poetry will reflect. Archilochus on his métier:

I am a servant of the kingly wargod Enyalios {Ares}
               And am also skilled in the lovely arts.

Archilochus is credited with developing the swift speeds of the iambic, the better to deliver his messages than the slow speeds of epic hexameter. The bastard son of a nobleman and a slave, a career soldier who died in battle, a poet who had statues erected alongside and celebrated on the same day as Homer’s and his verses read for victors at the Olympics games, Archilochus and his “Mission” via the absolute of speed are pagan warrior poets calmly overlooking the tortured and torturing persons, scenes and language of the following poems. The calm eye in the storm, “Mission” presents everything that supposedly no politically--and formally--correct “avant-garde” poet today would write.

Yet isn’t it also a desire of many “radical innovative” poets to be writing both for a good cause in times of war and writing formally on the good side in a war of words? Isn’t there a secret desire to be the poet warrior of poet warriors, and not make the mistakes of those of the past? (Become a Fascist as Marinetti and Ezra Pound did for example.) To be politically and formally correct, to be perfect?! And by poet warrior I mean also the poet warrioring against war, fighting for the best cause, Peace, and finding the best formal ways to do so. (Language poetry, for Bernstein.)

In short—to be the anti-Archilochus?!

(One shouldn’t overlook the fact that for his time Archilochus was “avant-garde” in his development of the iambic, and in “Mission” he’s part of a small advance group--“avant-garde”--of ten soldiers sent out on their own. Hard to beat this guy at his own game! As a poem of his puts it: “The fox knows many tricks/the hedgehog only one. /A good one.”)

What makes Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz disturbing, powerful and rawly fascinating is that it’s a book of interrogations of interrogations, and of pronouncements which purport to be interrogations. Subtitled “eleven submissions to the war”, the book has these words printed on the cover within Scott Pierce’s stylized version of the famous image of Private Englund holding on a leash the naked curled-in-a-fetus body of an Iraqi POW in the Abu-Ghraib prison. Little winged Cupids fly abut the image, their bows merrily loosened from having shot their arrows. If anything, the Hallmark card Cupids make the image and the words “Auschwitz”, “submissions” and “war” even more sickening. Still, “submissions” are what poets do give of themselves as poems, to be interrogated and determined if they are “news that’s fit to print”.

I noted that Johnson isn’t restricting his interrogating to others, but very much includes himself as well. By using both parts of the Yeatsian dictum that the quarrel with others is politics, and the quarrel with oneself poetry, Johnson opens up his poems to a rawness and vulnerability that’s at brutal and black humor odds with the smooth surfaces of “radical artifice” Bernstein advocates. While advocating the use of “skepticism”, Bernstein’s interrogations are restricted to language and aesthetics and attempt to close themselves off from being questioned by either himself or others. Johnson on the other hand submits himself to his own self-interrogations and those of the reader’s. After all, if you’re going to invite Campus Watch, that’s one thing and inviting the surveillance of “the war” is another, but a further far more rigorous one is that of your fellow poets. So as they say, you better take a good look at yourself and “get your story straight”, “get yourself right with God” as you hear people say as they disappear between the guards, down the corridors of merciless eyes, brutal words of hate to the obscenity of torture by “good people”.

Two poems foreground the poet’s situating himself in scenes shifting back and forth between poets and poetry, war and horror: “When I First Read Ange Mlinko” and “The New York School (or: I Grew Ever More Intense)”.

“When I First Read” opens with a scene that’s straight out of the New Yorker with a weird anti-dash of Poe’s “Raven” tossed in to heighten the cocktail hour effect. Here the anti-Raven is a flock of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks: “truly extraordinary, what I saw and heard inside that sudden gift--luxuriant spring efflorescing into a drug-like aureole, as if
which I know
it wasn’t.”

The poet is reading Ange Mlinko in The Poker (though no Poe fireplace in the room) and has “started to bat my eyes, seductively” when his wife calls him for “your date with the grill”. But it isn’t this that interrupts his visionary moments with the Grosbeaks, it’s instead:

. . . for no reason at all, totally unbidden, in all that flocked music and gilded light, I remembered reading, as a passing mention in a buried article somewhere, of four little girls incinerated in a mud compound by a missile fired from a pilotless drone, a compound in a dry and lonely place, where fine carpets were made by orphans for the foreign trade. I know it’s possible that I’m just writing that I thought this then so to suggest my moral sensibilities to you, using a tragedy that is not mine to give some moral pressure to a poem
about much at all. I admit
I am not sure myself! And I admit that my having
written it means nothing, anyway, in the end. But the girls did
die, “were evaporated,” at least that’s what the little article said, and no matter how self-reflexive I get, or
how suspicious you become of my quaint
and insecure prosody,
those dirty-haired,
and never thought about again, by you or anyone.

This section of the poem uneasily tries to make its unsteady way through its own self reflexiveness, self doubts, self-interrogations and past the eyes of the interrogating reader. The initially passive forms of self doubt (“It’s possible that I’m just writing that I thought this then to suggest my moral sensibilities . . . “) shift to guilt (“I admit I am not sure myself! And I admit that my having written it means nothing, anyway, in the end.”) and into self-defensiveness. “But the girls did die . . . no matter how self-reflexive I get, or how suspicious you become of my quaint and insecure prosody, those . . . kids will still be dead and never thought about again, by you or anyone.” The final line is the kicker, a doubling of death—the kids will stay dead, and neither you nor I think of them again. They will have a negative permanence, and a permanent negation. A nasty little brew of spite and contempt proclaimed with a certain triumph!

There’s a brief interlude, in which the Grosbeaks sing and fly away, and the poet sighs theatrically, “just one of those campy outburst things you’d never do in public, I suppose, lest you lose a portion of your cultural capital irremediably.” Even in this small private moment, the uneasy poet is haunted by the sense of surveillance and judgment. Supposedly “safe at home” he’s literally and figuratively interiorized a form of “homeland insecurity”. “I admit I not sure of myself!” he’s told the imagined interrogating reader, and campy theatricality might be interpreted as a further sign of deep seated guilts, hidden secrets, fugitive desires. The War on Terror has allowed the forces of Homeland Security to be turned into a form of interior terrorism that can enter at any moment any home in the homeland and interpret any sigh as a confession to just about anything the interrogators want it to be. And Homeland Security can be anyone in these strange times. Campus Watch, Charles Bernstein--your own wife! It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers revisited!

Snapping out of it, the poet says--“Anyway, there you have it. That’s ‘my story.’” “My story” in quotes making it clear that yes, he has gotten his story straight now to tell the interrogators. “I slapped The Poker shut, waddled downstairs, and
a match
on the fuel-soaked
               Let the grilling begin!

“The New York School (or: I Grew Ever More Intense)” is preceded, as it is supposed to be in this new poetic form, by an author’s note, which in this case explains what the Mandrake is. The Mandrake is made up of fourteen stanzas, seven of them “flower” and seven “fruit”, alternating with each other. The flower stanzas may be written in any meter, rhymed or not, and of any length, and may include prose. The stanzas must refer to one or two poets of a preceding poetic generation, who must be contemporaries of each other, and “each stanza in the flower must exhibit some sense of parallelism in theme and syntactic logic to its companion flower stanzas.”

There are no guidelines for the fruit stanzas other than that they be totally dissimilar as a whole from the flower stanzas in themes and tone, be written in prose and most of them be quoted material. The fourteenth stanza has one further stricture, that it must have some reference to the morel mushroom, seasonal companion of the Mandrake aka May apple as it was known by various English poets of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The first flower stanza:

I turned over the bottle of shampoo, and Frank O’Hara came out. I rubbed him all into my head, letting the foam rise, knowing I was just warming myself up, excited by the excess of what was to come. Soon, I began to make noisy climax sounds. The scent of oranges and oil paint from a general store in the outlaw town of Shishido (with all its exotic wares) filled the stormy air.

The first fruit stanza:

I couldn’t help it, I thought of this: “One day, a fortnight or so after my mother’s death in Shishido, I was up in the hills playing with some friends. Suddenly one of them said, ‘Look, the baby’s hands are all swollen.’ I touched the baby, which was still strapped to my back, and screamed—it was stone cold. My friends began to panic and jump up and down, shouting ‘It’s dead, it’s dead.’ It felt awful having something dead tied to me, so ripped off my jacket and dropped the baby, before joining the others as they ran back down the hill as fast as their legs would take them, shrieking.”

All subsequent flower stanzas begin “I grew ever more intense” as the poet uses shaving cream (Barbara Guest), after shave (Ted Berrigan), toothpaste (James Schuyler), deodorant stick (Joseph Ceravolo), mouthwash (Kenneth Koch) and hand soap (John Ashberry) to clean up. Between each of these, the fruit stanzas begin “I couldn’t help myself, I thought of this.” And horrific visions of war in cities and landscapes with Asian and Middle Eastern names will appear before the poet’s eyes, obscuring his visage in the mirror, which is sometimes explicitly named and most times implied.

The flower stanzas grow out of combined roots of “Mission” and “When I First Read Ange Mlinko”. The warrior poet in “Mission” gazes into the pool and sees the gold reflections of shields and helmets which in turn are reflected in his poems. In “New York School” Kent Johnson watches himself squeezing poets out of the various toiletries items, like genies or geniuses from a bottle. Or as we now know, the various ingredients for making a bomb aboard air liners. Scrubbing, tooth brushing, shampooing, lathering, splattering on aftershave, he’s practicing another version of Marinetti’s “war, the world’s hygiene”. The processes of all this cleaning, all this hygiene induces in him a shocking series of visions of war’s disasters and horrors.

In “When I First Read Ange Mlinko” the poet also had visions, but without the certainty and vividness he now has. I think the difference is the combination of the warrior poet’s mirror and Marinetti’s war as the world’s hygiene. As the poem moves to its final resolution, with the poet using the toiletries to clean up himself and his image in the mirror, it brought to mind the famous trope: “For now we see, as through a glass darkly.”

Small wonder “Mr. Kent” as he’s called in the “Forwarded Message Follows” poem, feels “ever more intense”! It’s no longer a simple household cleaning agents high, or NY Poets buzz, but a sure fire chemical “bomb head” he’s feeling.)

As in so many of the poems and the “Preface” and Afterword”, some “postmodern” poets appear among the far-scattered landscapes of the globalized War on Terror. Here it’s via memory in one of the flower stanzas:

. . . an overdetermined smell (for these are the smells which the pleasures of peace provide) the smell I smelled in Leningrad in 1989, when, wedged between Barret Watten and Ron Silliman, I entered the closet-sized cloister of a Shinto temple to look at the mummified middle finger of the Russian saint Nishiwaki Junzaburo under glass. We looked at each other sidelong, like fish, each hatching our private plots, pretending we weren’t looking at the other.

Ah! . . . The overdetermined smell of the former Marxist city and American language poets . . . and each poet under the surveillance of the others . . . a morphing of the Cold War into new forms of covert agents as the old spies come in from the cold. Smells play a large part in each of the fruit stanzas, evoking different parts of the world, different time periods, and bizarre beings such as the Great Leader and his Four Eternal Qualities and the evil Lord of Quietude. (The dread Nemesis of Ron Silliman, Lord of Languagitude)

In “When I First Read Ange Mlinko” the poet “remembers reading” the article about the four dead girls yet has to admit he isn’t sure if he is acting in good faith in putting them in the poem. Is he manipulating them simply to apply “moral pressure” to make up for the poem not having “been about much at all”? He can’t confront the question other than to peevishly reassert that the girls are dead. There really isn’t any connection to them except as bodies to be exploited.

In “The New York School” fruit stanzas the scenes thought of have none of this abstract, self reflexive, unsure, bad faith quality to them. They are raw, direct and brutal. Child warriors, cannibalism, an entire city on fire, mummified bodies from which blood has poured out at every orifice, drugged America soldiers raping, killing and partially eating a young boy and selling the rest of the meat to a merchant in the market, a girl emerging from a burning car in which her dead family lies, walking in circles in shock while she bleeds to death. . . and in between, during the flower stanzas, the personal hygiene going on, echoing “war, the world’s hygiene” as the poet is visited by the genius of one NY poet after another, by all sorts of evocative odors and shifting scenes of memory and imagination.

With its fourteen stanzas instead of lines, the Mandrake may be thought of as a form of sonnet, and a Shakespearean one, with its turn and resolution coming in the final couplet.

In the final stanza of “New York School” the poet for the first time doesn’t think of a scene of horror. Instead he recalls a recent day of morel hunting with his son, in his last spring at home before leaving for the university. The poet looks at the son and recalls, echoing the first fruit stanza, how “he once (was) swathed and strapped to my back”. He watches and listens as his son happily gathers huge amounts of morels. Sentimental thoughts come to him and he shields his tears from his son. Where have the years gone, how is the world so filled with suffering? The poet begins his self interrogation--and to his own surprise finds this:

I guess when you think about it, I thought . . . I guess I’ve been pretty lucky after all, enjoying the pleasures of calligraphy and sake in all the surplus time the labor of others has more or less made for me. Some of us are like rain, and others of are like the thirsty ground, and others of us are like parasitical mushrooms, especially poets, and that’s just the way things have come to be. The truth is that I felt like running down the hill as fast as my legs would take me, shrieking, seeking I do not know what. But I gathered my composure and turning toward him said, in a deep fatherly voice, Ah, that is wonderful son! {The son has been finding one mushroom after another} The gods of the forest are smiling upon us today.

“For now we see, as through a glass, darkly/But then, face to face/For now I know in part/But then shall I know in full/Fully as also I am known.”

The best known poem in the book is one of the few I had read previously. “Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, or: “Get the Hood Back On’” is made up of six sections spoken by American soldiers, three male, three female, introducing themselves to an Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib prison. In bland friendly terms they list their accomplishments and interests and belief in and love for the truth, before launching into vile descriptions of the tortures they will inflict to soften the prisoner up for interrogation by Military Intelligence.

The final speaker is a poet--“I’ve had poems on the Poets Against the War website and in American Poetry Review and Chain . . . have a blog . . . dig Arab music . . . I’m really progressive . . . “ --and his method is unique in its instruments and ends. Unlike the others, he is not interested in softening up his prisoner. Instead, he is going to murder him--by beating him to death with two hardbound academic poetry volumes bookending his head. One volume will be

“experimental and the other more speech-like . . . and I’m going to do it until your brain swells to the size of a basketball and you die like the fucking lion for real. You’ll never make it to MI because that’s the breaks; poetry is hard and people go up in flames for lack of it everyday. By the time any investigation gets to you, your grandchildren will have been dead over one thousand years, and poetry will be inhabiting regions you can’t even imagine. Well, we did our best; sorry we couldn’t have done better . . . I want you to take this self-righteous poem, soak it in this bedpan full of crude oil, and shove it down your pleading, screaming throat.

Now, get the hood back on.

The book Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz bookends the poems between Campus Watch and its supposed opposite “Bernstein’s ‘Enough’”; the poem “Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz” pairs Language style poetry with its supposed opposite, “speech-like” verse in bookending the prisoner’s condemned head. In the book, supposed opposites are seen as united against popular protest. In the poem, supposed opposites are seen wielded as matching arms in illegally murdering a prisoner of war.

Both book and poem take their titles from the famous quote by Theodor Adorno, quoted in full by Johnson, an important distinction, as usually only the first part is cited.

“I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric . . . {But} literature must resist this verdict.”

For Adorno it is not “simply” the event of Auschwitz which makes lyric poetry impossible, it is that the event happened in the language in which lyric poetry was written. Once this has happened, the language is contaminated with the event, poisoning and corroding language so that writing lyric poetry becomes a barbaric act. Literature must resist this—but how?

In his Bremen Prize speech the great lyric poet and camp survivor Paul Celan said of language’s and his own lyric poetry’s resistance:

It, the language, remained, not lost, yes, in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through a thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for that which happened, yet it passed through this happening. Passed through and could come to light again, “enriched” by all this.

In Kent Johnson’s Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, both book and poem present many forms of current language passing through the happenings of the Iraq War at home and abroad. Johnson can’t say, as Celan did, that he and language have “passed through this happening” for it is still very much going on. What he does offer is a powerful sense that resistance, like language, is not lost. If one chooses this--resistance and what language that remains--there will be all the horrors Celan speaks of, and much of it happens unseen, to oneself, and “(gives) back no words for that which happened.” What does pass through and remain and comes to light, will be “enriched”--and in this way lyric poetry resists and finds its way free of the contaminations and corrosions of the “deathbringing” happenings. By using the ancient trope of a journey through darkness to light, Celan links the language of his lyric poetry with that of Orpheus’ journey through the underworld and his return to light. Orpheus also remains--his remains remain--embodied in the 14 stanzas of “The New York School (or, I Grew Ever More Intense)," the Maenads having torn him into fourteen pieces. And even in pieces, it is said, the poet went on singing his lyrics.

When the pieces in Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, and then the book itself, first appeared, they were parts of the early and evolving discussions on how contemporary American poets might find ways in their writing to protest the War in Iraq and the Bush administration. With the events of this summer in Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Iraq, these questions have been resurfacing on poetry e-lists and blogs again. When the online journal Big Bridge announced that it was going offline for a month as a protest of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the predominant response was one of ridicule. Only a few poets announced their support. The journal’s editor was accused of self promotion and disguising a summer break as a conveniently timed protest, an act of bad faith. The surrounding discourse was on a par between Jay Leno and Rush Limbaugh. The dark side of being caught between the edicts of the Bush government on the one hand and the “radical innovative alternatives” of which Bernstein speaks on the other can, it seems, be like being the Iraqi POW being beaten with opposing volumes of poetry by an American poet. The discussions have moved on to focus on more abstract questions of poetry and politics, with its being taken for granted that Bernstein’s positions, like Bush’s, can seemingly be counted on to “hold the course.” I think that with the continuing intensifications of the situations and events in the Middle East and the coming American elections, reading Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz in the contexts of these events and continued discussions will go on being a very powerful and thought provoking experience for quite some time to come and most highly recommend it. You may need to read it more than you know. I’ve showed the book to a lot of people, especially young people, and the most common response has been why aren’t there more poetry books like this about the war--raw, graphic, disturbing, and talking about poetry and the war--like it really is a matter of life and death--what they can have to do with each other--

I would also add that everybody finds many sections of it absolutely hilarious.
And that’s a natural born fact Jack.

Respondez! Respondez!


By Way of An Afterword: An Appendix

“By Way of Afterword Bernstein’s ‘Enough’” has that statement’s web site link attached so the reader can hear Bernstein’s story as it were and find out for oneself what it is all about. As a responsible reader I did this and include as an appendix to my review this review of what is an appendix to the book Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz. Reading “Enough” I found very useful in better understanding not only Kent Johnson’s response to it, but many scattered aspects come across through time in statements, attitudes and arguments put forward by various writers influenced by or aligned with Bernstein’s poetics.

“Enough” was presented on 9 March 2003 at the Bowery Poetry Club as part of the Launch for the O Books anthology Enough: poetry and writings against the war, edited by Rick London and Leslie Scalapino. It was published the next day to the Poetics list and has circulated on various blogs and web sites since.

Interestingly, “Enough” begins with a standard George Bush message: “Stay the course”. “In these difficult times, let us not draw away from our poetics in an attempt to redress the ominous possibilities of future U.S. government policies or the onerous effects of current government policies.” Bernstein also invokes another tactic Bush has pushed to the maximum, the use of “our” in setting up a dichotomy of “us” against “them”. One learns pretty early in life to pay attention when people begin using the word “our”. How inclusive or exclusive is “our” particular “ourness”? In this case, one takes it “our poetics” refers to the people in the room and the anthology and by extension people sympathetic to Bernstein’s poetics. This is an exclusive “our”.

Bernstein quotes Bush’s “State of the Union Speech”, “America’s purpose is more than to follow a process; it is to achieve a result.” For Bernstein, “This statement alone provides sufficient evidence to oppose his policies. What our America stands on, its foundation, is a commitment to process over results, to finding by doing, to thinking by responding. Solutions made outside of an open-ended process compound whatever problems we face.”

Bush says, “America’s purpose” and Bernstein opposing him says, “what our America stands on”. Again--how in--or exclusive is this “our” and the “we” that follows? Do these still refer only to the poets who share Bernstein’s poetics? Where does Bush’s America end and Bernstein’s begin? And what if one doesn’t feel included in either of these “our Americas”?

Bernstein continues: “If we are to talk of ‘poets’ against the war, then what is it in our poems—as opposed to our positions as citizens—that does the opposing? Perhaps it might be an approach to politics, as much as to poetry, that doesn’t feel compelled to repress ambiguity or complexity nor to substitute the righteous monologue for the skeptic’s dialogue.” Is this saying that the poet’s approach to politics is already in place in approaching the poem? So that whatever it may look or sound like, the poem is always already oppositional when done with this approach of “ours”? And in this way, there is no need to say anything so simple and unambiguous or monological as “stop the war” or “no blood for oil” or “Bush the Butcher of Baghdad”. An advantage of this approach to a “radical, innovative poetics” is that since it posits as a given of its existence its oppositional character, it doesn’t need to articulate anything directly oppositional in words. To be blunt, it doesn’t leave a paper trail. As the saying often seen as a chilling reminder on institutional walls has it: “if it’s not in writing, it never happened.” If the opposition is in the approach, but not expressed in a directly recognizable way, it didn’t happen. (A perfect defense lawyer’s argument, if needed.)

The political approach dispensed with, Bernstein takes on the moral question. “At this trying time, we keep being hectored toward moral discourse, toward turning our work into digestible messages. This too is a casualty of the war machine, the undermining of the value of the projects of art, of the aesthetic.” Who exactly is doing this hectoring? And how is the war machine undermining the value of the aesthetic? Johnson suggests that this is Bernstein’s attack on the Poets Against the War website with its monological, digestible messages to which Bernstein refuses to conform, in the name of preserving the aesthetic in the face of a moral onslaught. No righteous monologue will quell the voice of art’s skeptical dialogue!

Yet in his next line Bernstein states with immense monologic righteousness that “Art is never secondary to moral discourse but its teacher.” One takes it that he means “our” art, the art of his circle, and not the art of the Poets Against the War rabble. As with politics, Bernstein can eschew “monologic righteousness” in poetry, because in his Art he is teaching moral discourse, it is already always there in his work. His morality is the highest, purist form of all. It is Art.

A further value of Art is that it is “unregulated by a predetermined message”. (Isn’t this the dream come true of corporations under the Bush administration?) For Bernstein this means that in times of crisis art can “explore deeper the roots of our alienation and offer alternative ways not only to think, but also to imagine and indeed to resist.” This is disingenuous, because the only alternative ways that one is being offered are those which one is allowed to see, think and imagine within the grid set up by the approaches, statements, directives, rules, set down by Bernstein. The actual small message itself may not be predetermined but the Language within which it is being delivered is. This is the language of Bernstein’s “our”. “Our poetics, our America, our poems, our own forms of ethical aesthetic response.” An alternative yes, but an unregulated one free of predetermined messages, no.

Having claimed Art as the teacher of morality, Bernstein next announces that “Poetry offers not a moral compass but an aesthetic probe.” (What an unfortunate analogy! Sounds like a colonoscopy.) This will “provide a radical alternative to the outcome-driven thinking that has made the Official Morality of the State a mockery of ethical thinking and of international democratic values.” Again, Bernstein is asserting that Art--“an aesthetic probe”--is a morality higher--“a radical alternative”--than any other. “Our art” to be sure. He next devotes a lot of high minded outrage to the outcome- driven evils of the Bush seizure of power via the right wing courts. This is all fine and good, but that was then and this is now, and the reason for the evening’s gathering is the impending war.

In his attack on the Supreme Court, Bernstein once again returns to the word “our”--only now he has suddenly greatly expanded its inclusiveness. He is writing of the contempt the Justices have “for the shared meaning of our common language, shared meanings that are the foundation for the system of laws to which we have given consent through the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.” There’s something a bit jarring in Bernstein’s shifting of the word “our” here. All his previous “ours” have been exclusive, and he has been championing an exclusive language, an exclusive poetics, an exclusive Art and morality. All of a sudden he is speaking of “our common language” and “shared meanings” as though he is “one of us.” Spoken like a true politician! First, go after the base, hammer away at what makes your side special, strong, beautiful, right, and impervious to outside pressures. Then throw the doors open to all the little saps and tell them see, I’m like you, I’m against those rotten crooks in high offices. See, we speak the same language, we share the same values. We’re all in the same boat. Don’t listen to those dull, conventional one-note harping Poets Against the War, come join me in the open-ended process of ambiguity!

I’ve only come up with one explanation so far for a rather puzzling aspect of Bernstein’s conclusion:

“Unilateralism” is not just the course the Executive Branch is pursuing, with disastrous consequences, in foreign policy, but also the policy it pursues domestically, in its assault on our liberties, on the poor, and indeed on our aspirations for a democratic society.

“Unilateralism” actually would seem to describe Bernstein’s own “go it alone” approach, being neither with the government, nor with the Poets Against the War, staying the course of “our” poetics in the face of whatever is to come. To suddenly conflate the unilateralism of “our poetics” with “our common language, our liberties”, “our aspiration for a democratic society” while still rejecting the Poets against the War shows how exclusive the interpretation of “our common language” is. What is puzzling at first and then offensive, is the inclusion out of nowhere of the poor in this equation. In a moment of sound byte political nostalgia for “shared meanings” and sentimentality over “our common language” which he has spent his whole speech distancing himself from, Bernstein out of the blue suddenly seizes on every elitist’s favorite Dickensian image--the poor. The good old generic poor. Always there when you need them! And millions of them, too! Sandwiched between the “assault on our liberties” and “our aspirations for a democratic society” humbly lined up for their fifteen minutes of charity!

At a time of crisis, Bernstein, like Bush, is asking his listeners to make a choice--you’re either with us or against us. Rather than allying himself with fellow poets against the war, he chooses and dictates to others to choose, a unilateral placing of “our poetics” above the lesser forms practiced by other poets in their expressions of protest. Every poet believes his or her poetics is better than others’, but in moments of crisis, if poets want their protests to have an effect, they unite in struggle. Perhaps the problem here for Bernstein is that this is “outcome driven thinking.” That is, it wants the protests to have an effect, to have a certain amount of impact and success. For Bernstein, this goes against his claim to believe in process as being primary. Does this mean that Bernstein does not want protests to succeed, or at least make an impact? Or simply not succeed or matter unless accomplished on “our” terms? How long are poets supposed to stay divided, with some not even believing in results, while those who believe in results steam roller over them, bringing ever more silencing laws, insane domestic and foreign policies? It’s not a matter of changing how you write, to work alongside a fellow poet, write any way that you want, but take some action.

The crisis continues in ever new forms, elections are approaching, Iraq is exploding, the invasion of Lebanon may begin again at any moment, the killing and destruction in Palestine goes on unabated, poverty is growing steadily, gas prices are going up . . . winter will be coming . . . the poor getting colder and colder . . .

“And if there is one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames.” --Antonin Artaud, Preface to The Theater and Its Double


david-baptiste chirot was born in lafayette, indiana, grew up in vermont. lived in gottingen, germany, arles & paris, france, hastveda, sweden, wroclaw, poland, boston and milwaukee. since 1997 essays, poetry, visual poety, performance/event scores, sound poetry, prose poetry have appeared in 90+ print journals, dozens of web journals and sites, 300 mail art calls. several books: found rubBEings (Xerolage 32) ANARKEYOLOGY (runaway spoon) REVERBERATIONS (Lulu) ZERO POEM (Traverse) tearerISm (singlepress) HUNG ER (neotrope) and chapbooks, work in many anthologies in USA and UK. google search david baptiste chirot / blog:


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