S P A C E S  O F  D I S C O M F O R T

Public Lynching 
August 30, 1930.
From the Hulton Archives.
Courtesy Getty Images (Image alteration with permission: John Lucas)from Citizen: An American Lyric

On not just any Sunday, but yesterday, the 6th of December, California College of the Art's Timken Hall was filled beyond capacity. Oversold.

After being introduced by CCA MFA student Rachel Kass, Karen Green, whose recent book Bough Down has garnered many accolades, including winner of The Believer Poetry Award 2013, sat cross-legged on a plastic chair on stage and read, beginning with this:

The doctor wears his pink shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I see his flaws clearly before he gives me the shot which will put me to sleep until after the holidays. He is making a mercy call, and the needle is part of my invention. Pink is a new color I am seeing.

The Googled pills are all different colors.

I don’t know how not to imagine submission, even after all this. Someone says I need to be contained but I think he means constrained. I let him take away my sight and my hearing while he applies pressure in another language. He is very kind about assessing my needs, but there is a strident protestor type inside who recoils and starts assembling contempt and mirrors.

What dreams the support guys have:

Their sensible shoes wear out, they have the code blues, patients eat their own fingers down to the first knuckle; there are contraptions to keep hands down, mouths shut. They dream of consequences. They have their McSanctuaries to dream in, and yet. Faux-science is replaced with newer, quieter faux-science. The machines chirp like fledglings, they don’t beep. Some souls are so lost they make their own privacy, they don’t need walls. The support guys are trained to say, Why do you ask? They are trained to know when to train a patient to say, Why do you ask. In their dreams they forget how to treat people, they forget how to work the machinery, how to deflect, manipulate and regurgitate accidents, they kiss their patients on the gurney while it rolls away, they run in slow motion to catch up, there is nudity under the lab coat, they beg for forgiveness in tongues. They remove the wrong eye, the one that sees.

The movers say it is fire season, they’re used to it. Acres are burning and the concierge comments on the beauty of the sunset, the eye shadow palette of the apocalypse. I took ashes to the hotel in a hatbox. I left the murder of crows rotating from the studio ceiling, I left too many holes in the wall. The support guys have replaced the cells in my brother. I’m coming, wait for me. I’m sorry I missed your call. I have to make a stop to drop off paperwork. I cut my hand and the papers are bloody. I tell the life insurance guy, It’s not what you think.

 Green's text is punctuated by her collages like the one above. She didn't include images of these at the reading, but I wish she would have, particularly since both Green and Rankine's books--though in different fashions--are engaged with text and images. You can see more of Green's poem here at BOMB magazine.  About Green's book in the Los Angeles Review of Books Maggie Nelson has written:

Karen Green’s new — and incredibly, her first — book Bough Down, from Siglio Press, is an astonishment. It is one of the most moving, strange, original, harrowing, and beautiful documents of grief and reckoning I’ve read. The book consists of a series of prose poems, or individuated chunks of poetic prose, interspersed with postage-stamp-sized collages made by Green, who is also a visual artist. Collectively the text bears witness to the 2008 suicide of her husband . . . and its harrowing aftermath for Green. The book feels like an instant classic, but without any of the aggrandizement that can attend such a thing. Instead it is suffused throughout with the dissonant, private richness of the minor, while also managing to be a major achievement. 

I am looking forward to reading more of Karen's book.

"In the Hood"

After Karen, CCA MFA student Melissa Josephine Ramos introduced Claudia Rankine. On-screen, Rankine projected images from her book Citizen: An American Lyric, beginning with David Hammons' "In the Hood," made in 1993 after the LAPD beating of Rodney King; this image graces the cover of Citizen.

She also showed us a photograph of Hammons in New York City as he sold snowballs, which you cold hold and then "feel whiteness melt in your hands."

David Hammons

Opening her reading with the statement that "Citizen came to me through community," Rankine explained how she asked numerous friends to recount an experience when each was doing something ordinary and suddenly something was said that reduced the person to his/her/their race, and racism entered the discourse.

Reading from the first part of Citizen, comprised of some 12 separate sections and anecdotes, Rankine began with:

When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among pillows. Usually you are nestled under blankets and the house is empty. Sometimes the moon is missing and beyond the window the low, gray ceiling seems approachable. Its dark light dims in degrees depending on the density of clouds and you fall back into that which gets reconstructed as metaphor.

The route is often associative. You smell good. You are twelve attending Sts. Philip and James School on White Plains Road and the girl sitting in the seat behind asks you to lean to the right during exams so she can copy what you have written. Sister Evelyn is in the habit of taping the 100s and the failing grades to the coat closet doors. The girl is Catholic with waist-length brown hair. You can’t remember her name: Mary? Catherine?

You never really speak except for the time she makes her request and later when she tells you you smell good and have features more like a white person. You assume she thinks she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better cheating from an almost white person.

Sister Evelyn never figures out your arrangement perhaps because you never turn around to copy Mary Catherine’s answers. Sister Evelyn must think these two girls think a lot alike or she cares less about cheating and more about humiliation or she never actually saw you sitting there (5-6).

Displaying a number of other images from her book, Claudia talked about where in the book they appear and what she was interested in doing with them. Among these were Michael David Murphy's "Jim Crow Rd," a screen shot from Hennessy Youngman's ART THOUGHTZ: How to be a Successful Black Artist," photos of Caroline Wozniacki imitating Serena Williams, and from the Hulton Archives at the Getty Museum, the photograph, "Public Lynching" from August 1930 (pictured above), and others. About the latter image, Rankine said that the Getty initially was somewhat reluctant to let her use it but once permission was granted and Rankine asked to alter the image, to remove the hanging bodies, they were somewhat relieved since one of their concerns had been that the image would be an incitement to re-enactment. Rankine noted that she is interested in the crowd of onlookers, the spectators, since "they are us," pointing out that violence happens because we let it and because we benefit from it.
Rankine read from a variety of sections of her book and then, because she needed to catch an early plane, she left us to watch a draft of a short film she is working on with her husband John Lucas; the piece is a meditation and deconstruction/interrogation of beauty as whiteness, by way of, among other things, various advertisements for skin lightening products from a diverse array of countries.
Claudia Rankine has a deep and pleasing reading voice and I enjoyed hearing her read and discuss her work and its relationship to the images in her text. I included the first section of Citizen in my Art Culture and Social Justice class at Santa Clara University this fall and I've been thrilled to be working with this text, witnessing how it engages students, particularly as we've been in conversation about how Rankine's text works, how it uses form--not just its complex deployment of pronouns, shifters that engage and implicate the reader, but also, in this first section, its attention to setting, to the diverse array of public and private, urban and suburban spaces in which racism is enacted. We noticed how victims and bystanders, perpetrators and witnesses in these scenarios are inescapably bound together in these scenes that reveal each of us is playing a part. These poems, in other words, make textual and perform in their formal architectures, that crowd beneath the tree in 1930. Only it is 2015 and there are crowds on subways, in Starbucks, in front of storefronts in Ferguson, in the streets, and in these crowds people of color are the narrators. Sometimes the crowd is a crowd of two. These are crowds that are doing a variety of things and are comprised of a variety of people--sometimes standing by, sometimes protesting, sometimes unaware, sometimes speaking and not hearing and sometimes hearing and pretending not to have spoken. Claudia Rankine makes legible and audible spaces of discomfort, because, as she said yesterday in Timken Hall, the space of discomfort is a more civil space, maybe she said more civic space, than what we've been living in--that space that pretends we are a post-racial society, that space in which white imagination projects any number of fantasies onto the black subject become once again, object; that space in which, as one of the pieces and narrators in Citizen frames it: "Americans battle between the 'historical self' and the 'self self'" (14).
Other xpoetics posts regarding Citizen include:


The Instead--Emily Abendroth and Miranda Melllis

Emily Abendroth and Miranda Mellis in the California Native Garden
at the Arboretum in San Francisco hosted by the Carville Annex

On Sunday November 1st, I spent the afternoon sitting in a stone circle in the Arboretum basking in the pleasure of hearing Diana Block read from her new novel Clandestine Occupations, a book built around 6 female narrators, all involved in social justice advocacy, and Emily Abendroth and Miranda Mellis read from their ongoing exchange or correspondence project--The Instead--due out from Carville Annex Press in the spring. They've described it below.

But first, I can tell you that their constraints and considerable intellectual and creative powers/prowess have produced a beautiful, whip-smart piece that traces thought's and advocacy's engagement in the daily; the piece explores, among many other things, the overlap of sod and fracking and prison sites, Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," workout boot camp, Brian Massumi, and Gregory Bateson on play, authority and discomfort in pedagogies, shifts/splices/changes.

Miranda's close-reading of Lamar's video and Emily's reading of boot camp pedagogy through the bridge of Lamar's song blasting in the studio was particularly pleasing and densely layered. These close-readings reminded me of the many communal readings performed by the band in the novels comprising the ongoing series From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate by Nate Mackey. In Bedouin Hornbook, for example, the band is in San Francisco when they come across some graffiti on a boarded-up storefront. It reads: “‘Mr. Slick and Mister Brother are one of the two most baddest dude in town, and Sutter Street’” (26). Each band member interprets the message differently. Their conversation, a performative debate or critical dozens if you will, occurs before a crowd, one that participates with laughter and critique of their own.

To the pleasures of reading--on our own and with others, in humor and horror, criticality and hope--as provided to us by Emily and Miranda!

The Instead [24/48/72/96/120] is a record of a series of five email dialogues conducted during prearranged, bracketed time periods between two time zones, states, years, and people: Emily Abendroth & Miranda Mellis. The first dialogue unfolded over 24 hours between 11/18/1411/19/14; the second over 48 hours between 12/29/1412/30/14; the third over 72 hours between 4/11/154/13/15; the fourth over 96 hours between 6/27/156/30/15; and the fifth over 120 hours between 9/1/159/5/15. The dialogues are punctuated by pauses during which each person went to work, or off the grid, or to sleep or . . . to wake up/return to new thoughts, notes, and questions.

The selection that follows below is a short excerpt from Emily and Mirandas second 48 hour dialogue session.

EA: I think its interesting to think about how writing or other art practices might at the very least endeavor to de-mask relations even if they cant, all on their lonesome, change them. In other words, we might not be able to write the undoing of prisons or the dissolution of militarized borders but we can use our writing to unleash questions and activate inquiries that might assist in bringing the necessity or efficacy of said systems into such a deep position of suspicion or destabilization that the writing participates in collectively motivating or propelling acts that push us closer toward that undoing. This is the work that language can potentially do when it refuses to demurely accept the naturalized or the normative protocols of its eras status quos.

For instance, what happens when we replace the phrase police violence” – which is critically at the forefront of so many peoples minds right now with the phrase the violence of policing? A lot happens actually! Suddenly were training our eyes and minds to look, not for a few individuals who exhibit exaggerated acts of aggression within an otherwise functional system but, at a system whose very existence is predicated on the violent enforcement of restrictive codes of behavior meant to protectthe property, lifestyles, wealth, and political ideology of a very specific segment of the population only (along very predictable and historical! race, class, and gender lines).

What about when we speak not of prison violencebut instead the violence of prisons? Not about gender violencebut the violence of gender? Again, I think a lot of important work can potentially take place in those re-framings. Perhaps even exactly the kind of labor that your vision of the archer conjures in aiming their arrow at a specific point where the intersectionality of various systems of oppressions is made legible and the depth of the reverse engineeringrequired reveals itself.

I think the word decarcerationis and can be powerful in that way and Im glad whenever I hear that it successfully strikes as such to othersears. When the Philadelphia-based group that I work and organize with, Decarcerate PA[1], first named itself several years ago, we were excited to have generated a moniker that was also a verb/an action, embodying a demand for the reorientation we were seeking and not just a description of the problem we were confronting. But while I definitely agree that prisons are a striking locus point for viewing the intrinsic violence, disequilibrium, neglect/abuse, and deeply rooted supremacist/imperialist tendencies of the nation as a whole in an amplified state, I think that folks who are closely and critically examining the relations at play in schooling, health care, gender inequality, transphobia and militarism, etc. are also doing the work of mapping many of these same dynamics and intersectionalities. I think that maybe the task for each of us, in our various counter-power organizing efforts, is to turn what were working on into a keystoneof that kind (whatever its focus), so that it becomes a vehicle of transport for drawing connections to other people and struggles and disparities, rather than one that isolates (y)our organization from others or puts it in a position of fighting for its unique priority on a scale or ladder of issues that are actually all deeply linked.

Im curious if you think of that kind of intersectional mapping work as something that fiction can also do? I certainly think of your fiction as often achieving or making room for something like that a kind of intricate tracing of complex links and dense connections that in other forums or arenas sometimes get designated as having to be ignored or left behind because it all gets too messyor too hard to articulate in the form of a single slogan or request/demand. And I definitely think I frequently go to poetry or to a writing practice in general with the personal need to open up that kind of space, whether or not I actually succeed each time in creating it. A space to not have immediate or correct answers, a space to rest in and wrestle with indeterminacy. In that vein, I wanted to offer this other passage, also from Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, in their essay Politics Surrounded:

In the clear, critical light of day, illusory administrators whisper of our need for institutions and all institutions are political, and all politics is correctional, so it seems we need correctional institutions in the common, settling us, correcting us. But we wont stand corrected. Moreover, incorrect as we are theres nothing wrong with us. We dont want to be correct and we wont be corrected. Politics proposes to make us better, but we were good already in the mutual debt that can never be made good. We owe it to each other to falsify the institution, to make politics incorrect, to give the lie to our own determination. We owe each other the indeterminate. We owe each other everything.

I love how the indeterminateand the everything(at least in terms of whats of consequence) become parallel terms in this closing, each understood as something that we owe one another, coupled with an obligation to give the lie toinstitutions and cry wolf on the weak to non-existent forms of self-determination that were consistently bribed with as compensation for our obedience.

Its interesting to consider that one of the important spaces/uses of fiction or poetry might not be so much to invent, but rather to try to pull the wool off of current conjuredor fabricatedrepresentations of the daily real politic. And that this effort to comprehend those forces of the mundane, both banal and fantastical and frequently monstrous, might require powers of mind that weve been explicitly encouraged to leave uncultivated or underdeveloped. The novelist/essayist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has written: I most seem to understand the inner logic of social processes when I am deep inside imaginative territory.

Where do imaginative territory and the inner logic of social processes come into contact as you are writing or conceiving of a written piece? Or, to take it out of the realm of writing alone, when you are making breakfast or brushing your teeth or teaching?

MM: The inner logic of social processes which are misogynist and ageist will tell me when I am brushing my teeth to lament their condition. Sure: my teeth are not new. They bear the signs of the passing of time! And various other signs. Once my front tooth was knocked out. A friend picked it up. At the emergency room, the attending physician asked if anyone had the tooth. My friend held it up. This doctor, whose hair went down to her waist, put that tooth back in. It didnt re-rootit was dead, unplugged from my nervous systembut it has dwelt, if not lived in my mouth ever since, magically holding up, a little tomb, and its discoloration tells the story of the sudden flight it took! I can laugh nowthat happened when I was sixteen. It was a waking nightmare at that age of intense facial self-consciousness. One is so out of control when it comes to the face. People socialized as female are taught to obsessively try to control what others face when they face our face. Theres that trope of the dementedly made-up female face, exaggerated eye make-up, smeared lipstick, when the face becomes abject, pleading for a rest from all this impression-control. Some kind of long-term experiment is being performed on how much mental space people will devote to trying to control something that (a) cant ultimately be controlled and (b) doesnt matter.

In J.M. Coetzees novel Elizabeth Costello there is a scene in which the main protagonist analyzes an animal experiment such that it becomes an exemplary parable of the stupidity of reductivism, as well as the damage done when the unexamined assumptions of power go untested. Elizabeth Costello (I think of her as Cotezee’s avatar) rejects the idea that animals do not possess reason. She recounts an experiment that was conducted in the 1920s by Wolfgang Kohler with an ape named Sultan who was deprived of bananas until he figured out a way to get them. He stacks crates to reach bananas suspended beyond his reach. What Costello emphasizes is the stupidity of setting the stupid task, which by its very structure precludes a real exploration, and ignores the pain and confusion of the context. She imagines Sultan thinking: “What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of me, that leads him to believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire than to pick up a banana from the floor?” That is, the experiment asks the wrong questions: “a carefully plotted psychological regimen conducts him away from ethics and metaphysics toward the humbler reaches of practical reason.” This is like the corporatization of education. This is like the mercantilist policing of bodies that teaches us to focus on appearances rather than experiences, on controlling impressions rather than reveling in the sensuous immanence of our bodies, of textures, colors, the play of forms. So rather than proving or disproving the question, the experiment does a third, unintentional thing: it sabotages intelligence, structurally reducing us to the less interesting thought. Reducing my relationship to my teeth when I am brushing them, to worrying about how they appearwhich I am inculcated and invited to do by the misogynist, necro-politicking patriarchy that precedes mewould be to think the less interesting thought.

Excursions into imaginative territory can instead make me wonder at the fact that teeth are an extension of the nervous system, that they are solid, immersed in the fluidity and space of my mouth, that they show me the inside of my body, that they allow me to eat, and they also show me my innards logic as death, my skeleton. The inner logic of social processes, such as the structure of health care, insofar as I have access to it, can allow me to imagine that the socius thinks my teeth matter, and therefore that my life matters (in that having teeth allows me to eat and continue to live). That inner logic, since health care and dentistry are not accessible to me unless I can fulfill the condition of earning sufficient amounts of money, also tells me that if I stop fulfilling that condition, stop earning money, that my teeth, and by extension my life, dont matter. I have to keep earning my teeth, so I can chew up the commodity world. This thought is the end point of a possible, as yet, unwritten parable in which from the state of someones teeth we can extrapolate the teeth of ones state. We can look into the inner logic of social processes, and see intertwining systems. Parables are compressed, distilled versions of complex logics that imaginatively counsel us as to their effects. I love Kafkas parable about the leopards breaking into the temple. But lately, I have had this Kafka parable on my mind a lot:

I can swim like the others only I have a better memory than the others. I have not forgotten my former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it my ability to swim is of no avail and I cannot swim after all.

On the one hand, no justice without remembrance. On the other hand, no change without forgetting. If our memory of our former inability to swim is stronger than our  knowledge of how to swim, even if we know how to swim, we wont be able to swim. Sometimes one has an idea for how to solve something and one sets out to enact changes and bring about a solution and one is confronted by treatises on The Hopelessness of Changing Anything and The History of Impossibility In General. That wont work, because when we tried to do that before…” The memory of the former inability to swim prevents swimming. This is of interest not only with regards to learning but with regards to social change. We think of learning as remembering, but the parable says, remembering may also entail forgetting. This parables root system is connected to the story of Lots wife, Edith, as well as to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Both are told not to look back. Edith (my grandmothers name) looks back and becomes a pillar of salt. Orpheus looks back and loses Eurydice. On the one hand, fuck you Hades, etcetera. On the other hand, the moral of the story is, know when to look back, and know when not to.

[1] decarceratepa.info


Tonya Foster & David Buuck Reading at the Poetry Center Oct 22, 2015

A late October afternoon, students thronging the campus walkways, parking challenging! I'm at San Francisco State for Tonya Foster and David Buuck's reading at the Poetry Center.

In the audience, students, Steve Dickison, Emily Abendroth, CA Conrad, and others. David, equipped with visuals, began the afternoon. His was a somewhat improvisational talking through some of his  BARGE (Bay Area Research Group Enviro-aesthetics) project, with sustained attention to his "Buried Treasure Island: a detour of the future," punctuated by readings from Site Cite City and a sung rendition of "Dead Men Don't Bite."

You can hear David read/sing "Dead Men Don't Bite" here at the Poetry Center's Vimeo channel.

I don't know why I missed David's Treasure Island work when it was happening in real time, but I wish I hadn't. It strikes me that his project might also be called, in the parlance of the Composition and Rhetoric world, truly multimodal; it is comprised of tours that are performative "detours" on Treasure Island with people in hazmat suits as "ghosts of the future," framing ignored "views" of the island and city beyond it as tourists and others gaze at the military industrial complex in the form of the Blue Angels streaking across the sky.

There is
  • the event of the tour itself,
  • and all the research and work that went into developing it, (the project drawing attention to the toxic dumping ground the island became courtesy of the US Navy),
  • the text, podcasts, guidebook,
  • and the photos that accompany them, or are produced around and after the events.
  • Then there is David's reading and singing and talking about the piece.

I loved how he detournéd panels once bearing graffiti which were then painted-over; he labeled them as in a gallery or museum--"untitled municipal painting."

Here's a section from "Buried Treasure":

Notes On Method: Paranoid Landscapes (2008)

                                  The sick/ of magic/ lining up                                                         --CA Conrad

Throughout the work on this project, BARGE has had to re-adjust its methods to fit the 'facts on the ground,' even as those facts filter themselves through ever-more paranoiac scrims. By listening to the materials instead of imposing one's narratives upon them, and letting the symptoms proliferate into new forms of understanding--the telling itch, the site-specific discharge, the rash judgments, and above all, the 'black spot' where the no-go zones meet flesh--one could open up the terrain for uncanny encounters with the site and its hauntings. For instance, when the window opened behind me and the voice hailed me with her version of events, to be narrated in a kind of speculative poetics that the guidebook had yet to accommodate, the feeling was not of surprise as much as the recognition that this encounter was meant to happen at exactly this juncture in the field work. Thus the strange white car that would often be waiting at off-limit sites right as I was approaching would turn up in the rear view mirror at exactly the moment I was wondering aloud where it had been hiding. Of course one would turn a corner and suddenly come across a three-legged dog trotting down an empty street. Of course there as a Naval "Ghost Blimp" that disappeared from the island years ago, only to show up in Daly City, its engines running and its pilots missing. Psychogeographic research became a kind of landscape-fugue, a cognitive napping, where somnambulatory dériveations chart the ground-scores by which the island improvises song within that seeming null state between past and future. No map could hope to chart such fever-dreams, what with the open containers full of poisoned land from other sites, the fenced-off littoral zones, the underground petrol tanks bellowing beneath the fault lines--all real time objects of a land-based dream-work that has yet to be fully translated into the new cartography. In the converging crises, when the contradictions work themselves out through the post-disaster, post-oil ecologies to come, the survivors will have had to make use of every site for spectral nourishment, every nook for plant life, producing oxygen for the new lungs, fever and ferment for the new species-dreaming   (53).

I am looking forward to reading David's book!


Tonya began her reading by noting that "poetry doesn't happen without community," and then she read a portion of something she said is old though she is still very much "mired" in it. This piece with its lovely alternative titles aimed at different contexts and perhaps audiences: "Pay Attention To Where You At: A Mathematics of Chaos," a.k.a. "Its Difficult Subjects: Jamming Between Misery and Majesty," a.k.a. "Its Difficult Subjects. Talking Shit. At the Crossroads."* This work is engaged with a deep love for place--whether that place is Harlem or New Orleans, while it is also a powerful meditation on disaster and catastrophe and grief. She quoted Blanchot, "the disaster takes care of everything." Tonya's take is complex and surprising. She notes that as a kid, the possibility of a deluge created a kind of innocent excitement. A day of rain might mean a day out of school. That was then, and momentary. I am looking forward to seeing this piece published.

She then read from her new amazing book, A Swarm of Bees in High Court. I love this book; its pleasure in plying language; its sharp observation and critique. There's so much attention to prosody. It is rife with anaphora, alliteration, and a kind of staccato rhythm a/mi/d/st words rendered multiple. Here's a few sections from various poems.


Beside her, he lies
curled--sleeping apostrophe
--possession and "O!

           mission accomplished."
Again to t/his sweat. Now sleep.
But not for her--sleep

           less eyes like stagnant
city pools. Saltiness, then
this thirst for ice.


Knots of a woman
who ain't numb with want. Who's not
effaced by shut eyes?

Nots form this woman
who sugars her mustards, who'll
want but never ask.

In her body swarms
swarms of cells, of tissue, of
sounds--"achoo," blood, "shush."

In her body, swarms
mundane sadnesses--wearied-
womb, "little cash," years.

Her self is a sleep,
is snake-eyes, knothole, whistle,
skull, gristle, and nerve.

Her self is a sleep
from which t/his voice might wake her.
To what? To what?

from Aubade

To be--the water
that bandies a body, the
body of a once

young wo/man n
a bayou of sound & words in
the pre/ab/sense of sleep.

To be--a boat as
in raft or pontoon. Each word,
a boat in which s/he

is, in which s/he is
sentenced and bandied about.
To be about to...

To be about...

To be bandied about by water,
to be busted and broke,
to be bored, grief-bore, work-bore.

to bleed,

to be backache, bone of nightshifts,
to be barren as salt lick, to bear bellyached and bloat,
to be news and less.

To be--tethered between seer and (un)see.

To see and to be
seen?--what it is to live on
perennial blocks.

Her voice, no matter how loud or clear, is rendered silence, his do--
shadow projected across a page, across a street, an age, across
two bodies in bed        (59-60).

You can listen to a brief bit of Tonya's reading on the Poetry Center's Vimeo channel here.

Oakland-based writer David Buuck is the founder of BARGE, the Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics and co-founder and editor of poetics journal Tripwire. Recent books include SITE CITE CITY (Futurepoem, 2015) and An Army of Lovers, written with Juliana Spahr (City Lights, 2013).

Tonya M. Foster is the author of A Swarm of Bees in High Court and coeditor of Third Mind: Creative Writing through Visual Art. Her writing and research focus on ideas of place and emplacement, and on intersections between the visual and the written. Her next collections are a cross-genre collection on New Orleans, and Monkey Talk, an intergenre composition about race, paranoia and surveillance. Her poetry, prose and essays have appeared in Callaloo, Tripwire, boundary2, MiPOESIAS, NYFA Arts Quarterly, the Poetry Project Newsletter and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts.

* Thank you to Steve Dickison for assistance with these titles!


Madhu Kaza's Accademia: A Tourist's Guide

I am so pleased to share with you Madhu Kaza's Accademia: A Tourist's Guide.  Kaza looks closely at Venetian art, "letting [her] attention land where it wanted," keeping alive rather than collapsing the gap between the art's contemporary moment and the present as she notices and marks her encounter with it in real time, seeing who is in the streets of Venice, in the paintings on the walls, observing what one might find by zooming in, attending to the small detail, seeing the discrepancies and resonances across time. Enjoy!

Accademia: A Tourist’s Guide*
Madhu Kaza


[detail of “Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo,” Gentile Bellini. c. 1500]

* Located in the Dorsoduro section of Venice, the Gallerie dell’Accademia hold a collection of pre-19th century Venetian art.


What if I walked through the doors of Europe (I am an immigrant, but not there; the doors swing open easily) casting aside much of my education, the narrow ways in which I’d been schooled to think about culture, history and art? What if I wandered through France and Italy not in a posture of submission, and not as a student of Western Civilization? I know Europe well, even if I’ve hardly spent any time there. I know how greedy (how desperate) it is for affirmation of its superiority to all other places. There is so much that is particular and beautiful there, no different from any place else with its own particular beauty.

What if I walked through the galleries of the Accademia letting my attention land where it wanted?

When I saw the painting, “Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo,” I wondered what the canals were like in the 15th century; today no one swims or bathes in the water. But I didn’t spend much time reading about Gentile Bellini and the nature and symbolism of the “miracle” he depicted. Instead this image made me think of the bodies of migrants and refugees that were in the waters off the Italian coasts. I’ve long been trained to look for beauty and to prostrate myself in the pursuit of knowledge. But I noticed when I had left the galleries that all the photos I had taken were of details, and that when I had looked at the paintings I had looked through them, reaching for something else: a correspondence.


[detail of “The Marriage of St. Monica,” Antonio Vivarini. c. 1441]

Why anyone might love Lila, the brilliant friend in Elena Ferrante’s novel, My Brilliant Friend, is because she is a brutal girl with a voracious intellect-- no saint. She won’t be loved by a man.

The Camorrist Marcello Solara has asked for her hand in marriage. She flatly says no and abuses him. She had already threatened him with a knife long before he fell in love with her. Perhaps that’s why he fell in love with her. In time (two thirds of the way through the novel), he begins to attend dinner every night at her parents’ house and acts as if he owns her anyway. She refuses to speak to him or acknowledge him at all. He tells her that if she begins to see anyone else he will kill her.

There’s a scroll of text at the bottom of the painting by Vivarini [not included here] that reads “this is how St. Monica was sent to her husband by her father and her mother.”


A woman not unlike “La Vecchia” was sitting on a bench near that hiccup of a bridge that leads inland from the Giardini landing. Giorgione’s portrait shocked me when I came upon it after all those 15th century paintings of Madonna and Child or of various saints in their blessed robes. Or portraits of noblemen. Giorgione flew across the centuries toward us, that is how it seemed. I felt suddenly that Giorgione was someone I knew, or could know.


This is a country of the old and the dying someone said to me. The woman on the bench at Giardini was smaller in frame than La Vecchia, her features more refined. She was not quite the peasant, but she was an ordinary woman. She sat with three other elders on that bench and the rest of them seemed jovial. She sat very slightly apart. It was how she held her hand, that’s what I noticed. In a fist, almost pointing to herself.

With time.

[detail of “La Vecchia,” Giorgione. c. 1506]


[detail of “Angel Announcing and Virgin Announciated,” Giovanni Bellini]

You’d know in any case that he was an angel by this detail. Messengers are always fleet-footed (winged near the ankles, in truth). Look at his beautiful sandals. Light of step, he touches ground but he is of the air, always about to lift away.

And the folds of the dress, like crumpled paper.


There was one Bangla child this morning on Via Garibaldi in bright blue shoes, scooting around with one hand on the handlebar of his blue scooter and holding a pink balloon in the other. He was maybe three or four, an age at which one delights in spells of worldly and bodily autonomy. Such was his joy and assuredness that I did not look past him in search of parents. But of the African and South Asian communities of Venice, those who live and work here, so far I have otherwise only seen men on the street.


They have always been here.

detail of “La Cena en Emmaus,” Marco Marziale. c. 1506]


He’s a beautiful man (in the 15th century way). When I look at the portraits, snapshots, selfies of our own times in which people are most often smiling, their expression reaching towards the viewer, I look for what’s not given, what’s unknowable. I search for a sign that a person has faced a camera and kept something for herself.


There’s no need to look for this opacity in 15th century portraits. The figures don’t reveal themselves easily. You can read the signs: the clothing, the color, the ornaments that demonstrate their status, but they remain recessive. And so, what delights me, here, is this hand, how it moves the portrait of the man forward. His hand rests lightly at that border, the threshold between his world and ours.

[detail of “Portrait of a Young Man,” Hans Memling]


I sat on the steps of Piazza San Marco, opposite the church, in late afternoon unable to move. I wasn’t yet ready to stand up and walk back into the sun. But something else, too. I felt in those moments that whatever was happening in the world, whatever there was to see, it was also happening here, but in the reduced form of stone and flesh. Then a group of Indian tourists walked by, weaving color back into the world.

In this portrait of Italians and Levantines, this is where I see Indians.

[detail of  “Sacra Famiglia con Santa Catarine e Giovanni Battista,” Palma il Vecchio]



Cities and Signs. In each city, perhaps, I will end up finding the same things, though differently arranged. A ruin, a library, a museum, a hospital, an orphanage, a wound, a gift. Built in the 16th century the Hospital of the Incurables was once a place for syphilis patients to come and die. Later it became an orphanage. Later still the building functioned as a juvenile court. I’m not sure if its true that the building now houses some part of the Academy of Fine Arts. It sounds true. And isn’t it true that there was a plaque on the same brick wall that said Joseph Brodsky loved this place?


Madhu Kaza was born in Andhra Pradesh, India and works as an artist, educator, writer and translator in New York City. Her performance work on the theme of "hospitality" has been produced in New York, Minnesota, Baltimore, Boston and India. She has published translations of poetry from Spanish and a collection of short stories by the Indian writer Volga from Telugu. She is at work on a novel currently entitled “Afterlife.”