16 September 2014

Here

Here you do not have to put your hand up and the tallest person is not automatically in charge. Here if you are loud, you can stay that way. Here, if you are quiet nobody thinks you are stupid and they do not make you see a doctor for shyness or a therapist for speaking. Here no one will ask you if everything is alright at home because they already know that what is needed for alrightness at home does not yet exist. Here if you are bad you are not punished with the subtraction of leisure time because here you cannot be bad because you cannot be good, and anyway there is no difference between leisure time and not leisure time. Here you breathe and that in itself is pleasurable. Here you are not measured against the distance from the innocence you are forced to embody. Here you are never found wanting. Here you are not frightened of the tallest person. Here the tallest person is not secretly thrilled by your fear and then secretly ashamed of that thrill. Here capital letters do not exist and nobody cares about full stops. Here you do not have to use adjectives to prove you have an imagination. Here there is no style and the abstractions of mathematics are made beautiful instead. Here no one is special, and there are no charts, and no names on the charts and no stars by the names or empty spaces by the names. Here you do not want to kill your neighbour, or yourself, or the tallest person. Here no one tells you to share because it is the place and not the people that houses the things the people need. Here nothing has a special place and paint is used liberally. Here you can dance with your hips even if they say you're a boy. Here you can kick the shit out of things even if they say you're a girl. Here the ordeal of childhood ends and you will not need to recover from puberty. Here there are no corners to stand in and no doors to stand outside. Here if you do not want to throw a ball you do not have to throw a ball and if you do not feel like reading out loud no one will make you - and no one will laugh at your stuttering voice. Here there are no stuttering voices because no one will force anyone to speak or tell them there are times when they can and times when they cannot. Here you can write how you speak, or how your mother speaks, or how your grandmother spoke. Here you can speak how your neighbours speak and no one will correct you. Here there is no stupid indoors. Here not everything is plastic just because you are small, and you can handle a piece of fruit without supervision. Here you don't have to think about liking broccoli because there will be no taboo on broccoli. Here there is no rabble frightened of vegetables, (though there is a rabble). Here pink is not controversial and has no secret meaning. Here the game is not shopkeep or mother or teacher or killer. Here there is no difference between places you can run and places you cannot run. Here you can dictate your own speed and naps are encouraged.* Here there are no cup cakes and everyone has at least one animal. Here no one looks at you as though you enjoy a freedom they have lost, and you will not be coerced into loving being small. Here you are not be bound by a gaze that says you must cherish your condition before graduating into reality where you will no longer cherish anything. Here longing is accepted but no one is waiting. Here there are no martyrs.** Here all you have to do to sing is open your mouth and sing.

** Here I am misquoting a lyric by PS, sung often to us by H.

5 September 2014

from Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, 1974


'Suffering is a misunderstanding,' Shevek said, leaning forward, his eyes wide and light. He was still lanky, with big hands, protrudng ears, and angular joints, but in the perfect health and strength of early manhood he was very beautiful. His dun-coloured hair, like the others', was fine and straight, worn at its full length and kept off the forehead with a band. Only one of them wore her hair differently, a girl with high cheekbones and a flat nose; she had cut her dark hair to a shiny cap all round. She was watching Shevek with a steady, serious gaze. Her lips were greasy from eating fried cakes, and there was a crumb on her chin.

'It exists,' Shevek said, spreading out his hands. 'It's real. I can call it a misunderstanding, but I can't pretend that it doesn't exist, or will ever cease to exist. Suffering is the condition on which we live. And when it comes you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it's right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can't prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering - unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality. All of us here are going to know grief; if we live fifty years, we'll have known pain for fifty years. And in the end we'll die. That's the condition we're born on. I'm afraid of life! There are times I - I am very frightened. Any happiness seems trivial. And yet, I wonder if it isn't all a misunderstanding - this grasping after happiness, this fear of pain... If instead of fearing it and running from it, one could...get through it, go beyond it. There is something beyond it. It's the self that suffers, and there's a place where the self - ceases. I don't know how to say it. But I believe that the reality, the truth which I recognise in suffering as I don't in comfort and happiness - that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure it all the way.'

'The reality of our life is in love, in solidarity,' said a tall, soft-eyed girl. 'Love is the true condition of human life.'

Bedap shook his head. 'No. Shev's right,' he said. 'Love's just one of the ways through, and it can go wrong, and miss. Pain never misses. But therefore we don't have much choice about enduring it! We will, whether we want to or not.'

The girl with the short hair shook her head vehemently. 'But we won't! One in a hundred, one in a thousand, goes all the way, all the way through. The rest of us keep pretending we're happy, or else just go numb. We suffer, but not enough. And so we suffer for nothing.'

'What are we supposed to do,' said Tirin, 'go hit our heads with hammers for an hour every day to make sure we suffer enough?'

'You're making a cult of pain,' another said. 'An Odonian's goal is positive, not negative. Suffering is dysfunctional, except as a bodily warning against danger. Psychologically and socially it's merely destructive.'

'What motivated Odo but an exceptional sensitivity to suffering - her own and others'?' Bedap retorted.

'But the whole principle of mutual aid is designed to prevent suffering!'

Shevek was sitting on the table, his long legs dangling, his face intense and quiet. 'Have you ever seen anybody die?' he asked the others. Most of them had, in a domicile or on volunteer hospital duty. All but one had helped at one time or another to bury the dead.

'There was a man when I was in camp in the Southeast - it was the first time I saw anything like this. There was some defect in the aircar engine, it crashed lifting off and caught fire. They got him out burned all over. He lived about two hours. He couldn't have been saved; there was no reason for him to live that long, no justification for those two hours. We were waiting for them to fly in anaesthetics from the coast. I stayed with him, along with a couple of girls, we'd been there loading the plane. There wasn't a doctor. You couldn't do anything for him, except just stay there, be with him. He was in shock but mostly conscious. He was in terrible pain, mostly from his hands - I don't think he knew the rest of his body was all charred, he felt it mostly in his hands. You couldn't touch him to comfort him, the skin and flesh would come away at your touch, and he's scream. You couldn't do anything for him. There was no aid to give. Maybe he knew we were there, I don't know. It didn't do him any good. You couldn't do anything for him. Then I saw...you see...I saw that you can't do anything for anybody. We can't save each other. Or ourselves.'

'What have you left, then? Isolation and despair! You're denying brotherhood, Shevek!' the tall girl cried.

'No - no, I'm not. I'm trying to say what I think brotherhood really is. It begins - it begins in shared pain.'

'Then where does it end?'

'I don't know. I don't know yet.'

3 September 2014

30 August 2014

The whole body


Her eyes are trained on a moth. Intent, she cannot decide. There is this embrace with me - her tiny body curled easily around itself and against me, against the curve of my chest. She doesn't want to escape to chase the moth fully and yet she is keen on it in some way or other. She is purring because I am stroking her between her eyes as I have stroked and still stroke the people I love who might sleep beside me. She closes her eyes every so often in pleasure and then flicks them open say when she hears that little silver moth beating its body against the blinds. She sits up alert and tense, beautiful like we rarely or never are - or only are just before coming - where the gaps are sealed between body and mind, where desire is no longer private and no different to need. But she does not want to leave my arms. I consider how love's pleasures trap us - now we cannot get out of bed to make coffee, to stretch, to write books, to fight, to chase a moth because the other is still in it. Then love becomes a cancer and its transformations kill you. I think on the difference between pleasure and joy and come up with not much except that joy's a kind of tearing away where distance makes you closer than closeness does. But perhaps she does not want to chase the moth because she knows she will never catch it. It is really very tiny and fast, and perhaps it is better to be here in the hollow of my chest, and she is well fed and sleepy anyway. What cat reasoning is she working through? But is she making excuses for herself just to stay in my arms because she feels as I feel? Can she hardly believe it? Or is she just lazy? I want her to know that some part of my consciousness is always trained upon her like her eyes are trained upon the moth right now. This is why when you love you will never sleep soundly again and it will begin to deform you until you must escape it or adapt to your new deformations - grow gnarled and different with grace. But also that because both sleep and love are necessary you might learn to let your warm body be curled around with the same intensity of gentleness as the violence with which you fuck. You might learn the difference between resting and death. And partly I want her to leap out of my arms, for her 'instincts' to override her comfort - though perhaps that too is an instinct. I want her to remind me that she does not love me, that she will never love me like I love her and that despite knowing this I continue to love her all the same. I too can sleep alone. I like it! But she does not jump and leap out of my arms. When I wake up she is still there beside me sleeping so, curled against herself and against me. Even when I turned my back in the night she stayed there sleeping. Now, I take this as as much a mark of love as a mark of total indifference. That she has stayed all night sleeping beside me may suggest she wanted to be close to me specifically, but equally this is a comfortable, quiet, warm spot perfect for naps. I can never ask her, do you love me? Or, do you love me like I love you? Love's anxieties find no footholds here. That she is here with her whole body is all I know. I do not love her because she is small. I do not want to have to protect her. I do not love her because she needs me. If she did not need me and still hung around I would know then perhaps for sure that she really does love me. When she scratches and bites me I want her to stop but I am proud and I want her to continue. I want her to leap out of my arms so I can forgive myself for having done this to her by reading into her action of jumping out of my arms the idea that she is still cat animal above all and must hunt and roam and I must not know about it. Love could be wide enough to incorporate indifference also.

5 August 2014

Joe Brainard / I Remember / 1975 | Georges Perec / Je Me Souviens / 1978

Here is the full text of New York School poet Joe Brainard's I Remember - a memoir comprised of a list of memories or fragments of memories, some very personal, others no doubt shared, perhaps randomly arranged or arranged as they were remembered in the writing of them, bounding between and troubling the distinction between the profound and the mundane, building up a portrait of a life and a time composed of tiny details, all beginning 'I remember'.



In 1978 OuLiPian writer Georges Perec's Je Me Souviens was published, dedicated to Brainard and formed from memories of his life between the ages of 10 and 25. Of it he says (in a not so good translation), these are:

"Small pieces of everyday things, such and such year, all people of the same age have seen, have lived, have shared, and then disappeared, have been forgotten; they do not worthwhile to be part of history, nor included in the memoirs of statesmen, mountaineers and superstars.

But sometimes they come back, a few years later, intact and in lowercase letters, by chance or because they were sought one evening with friends; it was something they had learned in school, a champion, a singer or a starlet who pierced, a tune that was on everyone's lips, a robbery or a disaster that was the one of the daily newspapers, bestseller, a scandal, a slogan, a habit, an expression, a product or a way to wear it, a gesture, or something even thinner of inessential, quite banal, miraculously snatched its insignificance, recovered for a moment, prompting for a few seconds impalpable little nostalgia."

Here is a film 'completely theatrical in its approach, which is perhaps the only reliable way to deal with a Perec text on film' (UbuWeb) of Sami Frey reciting Perec's text in its entirety whilst cycling on a stationary bicycle through a seemingly changing landscape.


To my happy surprise, having only just heard about Brainard's poem from a dear friend, Perec's text will be published in English for the first time this month. Find an extract and more info here.

(But between the two, it's Brainard who has my heart.)

9 July 2014

'news of an awareness' // Adrienne Rich's National Book Award acceptance speech // 2006

It's a great pleasure to receive his medal from the fine poet Mark Doty. I am tremendously honored by the legacy of writers who have received this award, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Eudora Welty, Studs Terkel, Toni Morrison, writers who broke ground, worked against the grain, made other kinds of writing possible. I thank those who have helped me persevere. My publishers of 40 years, the venerable employee owned by WW Norton, my editor, Jill Bialosky, my literary agent, the great Frances Goldin, and my everywhere-enabling representative Steven Barclay. Above all my sons David, Pablo, and Jacob Conrad, and Michelle Cliff, my companion of 30 years.

In his 1821 essay “The Defense of Poetry,” Shelley claimed that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Piously over-quoted, mostly out of context, this has been taken to suggest that simply by virtue of composing verse, poets exert some exemplary moral power in a vague, unthreatening way. In fact, in an earlier political essay, Shelley had written that poets and philosophers are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The philosophers he was talking about were revolutionary-minded Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft. And Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time. For him, there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority. For him, art bore an integral relationship to the struggle between revolution and oppression. His west wind was the trumpet of a prophecy driving dead thoughts like withered leaves to quicken a new birth. He did not say poets are the unacknowledged interior decorators of the world.

I am both a poet and one of the everybodies of my country. I live in poetry and daily experience with manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion, and social antagonism huddling together on the fault line of an empire. I hope never to idealize poetry. It has suffered enough from that. Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming intertwining histories to which they belong. There is room, indeed, necessity, for both Neruda and Cesar Vallejo, for Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonsina Storni, for Audre Lorde and Aime Cesaire, for both Ezra Pound and Nelly Sachs. Poetries are no more pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple. Poetry like silk, or coffee, or oil, or human flesh has had its trade routes, and there are colonized poetics and resilient poetics, transmissions across frontiers not easily traced. Poetry has sometimes been charged with aestheticizing, being complicit in the violent realities of power, of practices like collective punishment, torture, rape, and genocide. The accusation famously invoked in Adorno is “After the Holocaust lyric poetry is impossible,” which Adorno later retracted and which a succession of Jewish poets have in their practice rejected. But if poetry had gone mute after every genocide in history, there would be little poetry left in the world. If to aestheticize is to glide across brutality and cruelty, treat them merely as opportunities for the artist rather than structures of power, to be described and dismantled, much hangs on that word “merely.” Opportunism isn’t the same as committed attention. But we can also define the aesthetic not as a privileged and sequestered rendering of human suffering, but as news of an awareness, a resistance which totalizing systems want to quell, art reaching into us for what is still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched.

In North America, poetry has been written off on other counts. It is not a mass-market product. It doesn't get sold on airport newsstands or in supermarket aisles. The actual consumption figures for poetry can't be quantified at the checkout counter. It’s too difficult for the average mind. It’s too elite, but the wealthy don’t bid for it at Sotheby's. It is, in short, redundant. This might be called the free market critique of poetry. There's actually an odd correlation between these ideas. Poetry is either inadequate, even immoral in the face of human suffering, or it's unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet, in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together and more. Because when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder, we can be to an almost physical degree touched and moved. The imagination’s roads open again, giving the lie to that slammed and bolted door, that razor-wired fence, that brute dictum. There is no alternative. Of course, like the consciousness behind it, behind any art, a poem can be deep or shallow, glib or visionary, prescient or stuck in an already lagging trendiness. What's pushing the grammar and syntax, the sounds, the images? Is it literalism, fundamentalism, professionalism -- a stunted language? Or is the great muscle of metaphor drawing strength from resemblance in difference. Poetry has the capacity in its own ways and by its own means to remind us of something we are forbidden to see, a forgotten future, a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, torture and bribes, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom. That word now held in house arrest by the rhetoric of the free market. This ongoing future written-off over and over is still within view. All over the world its paths are being rediscovered and reinvented through collective action, through many kinds of art. And there's always that in poetry, which will not be grasped, which cannot be described, which survives our ardent attention, our critical theories, our classrooms, our late-night arguments. There's always (I'm quoting the poet-translator Americo Ferrari) an unspeakable where perhaps the nucleus of the living relation between the poem and the world resides.

Thank you all very much.

8 July 2014

Stanya Kahn also writes fiction

When Nanette comes over and suggests I put both my hands in both her holes, well duh. Absolutely. What could be more appropriate.

It’s a mystery, a miracle. There’s grease and one and then two, three and four. And then your knuckles just pop right in. It’s nuts. I have no hands. I’ve got a French lady instead. Edward Ladyhands. And the inside of her is so hot and I’m so high, I’m a ball in a socket wired into a natural power source called Nanette. I’m disappearing, I’m pure static electricity, just a mass of subatomic particles. I’m William Hurt in altered states, a throbbing blob in the hallway. I can feel my two hands touching each other across the thin membrane that separates her holes and it’s the people side by side, all of us all together.

Stanya Kahn, Let The Good Times Roll
2007


LA is hot as hell in the summer. Hot as blazes they say, hot as the devil’s a-hole. Dry and vibrating, the air as stinking yellow and brown as the dusty hills. We have AC in the bedroom, but sometimes I can’t sleep at all. I lie awake clicking and ticking and not slowing down. And usually it’s a mistake to watch reality shows before bed. Because then each time I move my leg or roll over, the rest of the team has to decide if that was a good move or should I be voted off. I shift back trying to hold my place in the line-up. I’m doing all the competitions at once: American idol, So You Think You Can Dance, So You Wanna Be a Hilton, Fear Factor/Couples Extreme. I like the show where you try to get fired. One girl took her shoes and socks off in a swanky clothing boutique and sat on the floor chatting on her cell phone, telling her friends how boring and stupid her new job was. The other staff huddled around the cash register whispering about the awful new girl but they still waited til 2:30 to fire her, that’s how dumb they were. The girl won $25,000.

Stanya Kahn, Hell
2007