Response to Michael Cross and Rob Halpern Reading San Francisco Aug. 2, 2008

Lately, in addition to the various institutional settings (Small Press Traffic, The Poetry Center, various bookstores, etc.),The San Francisco Bay Area poetry scene is happening in people's homes. The other night, August 2nd, Tanya Hollis and Taylor Brady hosted a reading by Michael Cross who is visiting the Bay Area from Seattle and San Francisco's own Rob Halpern. What a reading it was too. Tanya and Taylor's flat was packed with people;there were at least 30 of us there. Michael read first. I was not familiar with his work prior to the reading but I am looking forward to reading more of his own writing and the work he publishes as part of his amazing Atticus/Finch chapbook series. As Taylor said in his introduction, Michael's work is rich with a deep and varied lexicon. Cross read from his book Throne in which words like "plinth" recur and alliteration abounds. The sheer pleasure of linguistic jouissance startles as inthis example:

what visage does, debeller, razed, expiating
bas, our auctor wedged da twixt
the visor's amice grey made gaze
to palm some steely rubric-a-touch
harnessed her face lacks thingnesses sides
between the heat of the subject and the heat
of her lawfulness, sighs against
the pressure, kid, wrinkles, bellows,
apophantic facing the subject's front to come

Rob read a couple of short pieces from his forthcomingDisaster Suite
and then from his newly published Imaginary Politicsfrom Blake Riley's TapRoot Editions.The book itself is a beautiful letterpress, hand-sewn work in the unusual size of 10 x 5 inches. Beautiful work Blake! The writing inside is no less astonishing.

I've been reading Walter Benjamin lately and thinking about his angel of history (see quote below**)and then reading Paul Naylor's Poetic Investigations: Singing the Holes in History whose introduction includes a lovely reading of Benjamin's angel which Naylor uses to argue that the writers he examines--Lyn Hejinian, Nathaniel Mackey, Susan Howe, Kamau Brathwaite, and M. Nourbese Philip--are "writing history poetically." I bring this up because hearing Rob read last night brought Benjamin and writing history poetically to mind. How hard it is to mobilize a poetics that can engage history from inside and in a complex fashion and with human scale. Benjamin's angel of history is blown into the future from paradise while it bears witness to the piling debris, the catastrophe that history is. The way Naylor reads it, Benjamin's angel is both witness and messenger. See Michael Cross's review of Rob's Rumored Place (Krupskaya) in which he eloquently discusses Halpern's work vis-a-vis Benjamin.

In Halpern's writing a number of strategies enable the writing of history poetically. The writing serves as both witness and messenger. In Rob's work, the body is the fulcrum. For example:

....We were once ourselves, but
then traversing the trench, a fault between dim pockets
of ruined life forms, I felt something, a kind of mind
without sex, a shudder with no reference, yr breathtaking
crevasse, a loss I can't mourn, which I've hastily mapped
onto this making of waste....So now there's nothing, the shadow
of yr name having melted to my cock, their skin, my
urethane veneer. The moon, the stars, a spangled heaven,
all nesting deep inside the thing's old sunken groin. Our
bodies hewn and, feigning being bodies, sundered by
forces real.

The "I" that is mobilized in this writing is never outside looking in but rather implicated and also resistant.

the forest and the rain, yr face, my verdant slick. nothing
resembles, nothing to see, an abundance without birds.
erection and machinery, no tongue on my thigh, the
world that made you possible, gone now, too. i feel dirty.
my soldier running, or my image for that, a corruption in
the record. such clean subordination. broken subjects,
surface areas, and coastlines now contiguous with the
vastness of that blank, repeating what won't go down

a thing i'll never hear arouses me,
begging you to enter the objects i'm investigating. his
hair. his wood. his barn. his clover. relics of my rapture,
birds remain outside my sentence. you say, i don't believe
a thing you write. i say, i don't remember myself, it could
have been anyone--

And then there is something I can only name as love.

Unwinding into national moods, looting all the shit
our forms so endlessly fulfill, nursing on withdrawn
spectacular slaughter. Now undo this habit. It won't take
long, and then we'll emerge, together, in a hole blast
thru the audio feed, our ears, at last prepared to hear,
discovered in the mud.

and wry criticism:

Now a word for all my Christian Zionist friends. Love,
being a model for the war. Take the IMF, an AK-47 or
machete, my purest intermediaries. Fuck me with the
things our meanings make.

What other writers these days engage with and write from a position of such exposure, vulnerability, abjection, even. But not as a solipsistic, self-aggrandizing pose. This exposure acknowledges and is situated in an address to the other and is an ethical engagement. I suspect that it is the intersection of human relation and the dazzling and horrifying discourse in which we founder, resist, repeat, ask for, use and misuse love and perpetrate individual, institutional and social crimes that takes this writing to the brink of the articulable. Its sheer capaciousness and ability to take us inside engenders hope and awe.

From Benjamin's Theses on the Philosophy of History:

Mein Flügel ist zum Schwung bereit,
ich kehrte gern zurück,
denn blieb ich auch lebendige Zeit,
ich hätte wenig Glück.
—Gerhard Scholem, "Gruss vom Angelus" *

*My wing is ready for flight - I would like to turn back. - If I stayed timeless time, - I would have little luck.

A Klee painting named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
from: http://danm.ucsc.edu/web/KhazarDANM202thesesOnThePhilosophyOfHistory

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