Tuesday, September 12, 2006

JOSHUA CLOVER—The Totality For Kids

Reading a book by Joshua Clover is like being stuck in a room with a very intelligent guy who is always talking past you. You are always scrambling to catch up with the last thing said. I get this feeling very frequently from my brother, Dante Schnickelfritz, a self-taught computer geek/expert. When asked for some technical advice, Dante hurtles into variation after variation of possibility, each with its own separate intrigues and technical details. You get the whole picture and more, until one is almost reassured that, given the expansive territory one’s problem may occupy, the seemingly little problem has universal implications.

Clover’s area of expertise is not computers, however. He is an expert in “the image,”and he traffics in these to such a great extent that I suspect many a poetry consumer becomes overwhelmed the way one can become overwhelmed by piped-in music at a department store. Too much stimulus. Can’t buy anything. Ahhhhh!

Perhaps I am just comforted by the presence of very smart people talking passionately about what inhabits their world so that I am not put off by this. It makes me feel at home. More than that, intelligent people talking in a room seems to be an act of courage. People exercising their own thoughts and intelligence and not conforming to some punitive authority seems about as bold today as praising the virtues of Communism during the McCarthy witch hunts. In fact, one can almost picture an official these days retracting a statement made during a Senate hearing because it was made on the basis of its being intelligent.

General Abizaid was in Baghdad on Thursday to meet with Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the American commander in Iraq. Speaking to reporters afterward, he said Iraq was not near civil war, in contrast to comments he made in Senate testimony in Washington this month, in which he said that sectarian violence in Iraq was the worst he had seen and that a civil war was possible. “I think there has been great progress on the security front in Baghdad recently,” General Abizaid said Thursday, according to Reuters.

But I digress. Clover’s intelligence announces itself passionately on the page even while it is being denounced as “icy” by those who purport to have the greatest hearts in poetry. They can’t “feel” him out there being passionate about his vision of the world, a world that includes a lot of damn fine thinking to be used as a tool to access his complicated vision. It is a vision of the world filled with absurd beauty as it is filled with those barely able to grasp the magnitude of this kind of beauty. So, the speaker is talking, articulating through juxtaposed images and rhetorical horseplay, a world that looks a lot like “the city” with its nonsensical juxtapositions that have been brought forth by the play of capital. Is the Clover poem an instance of the author holding up a mirror to the city itself.

“How does the city get put together?” is what Clover seems to be asking again and again in his own constructions. He is meticulous about the image of this city he presents. We venture into the weird interstices with him. Does this make Clover our strange travel guide, our own private image geek who rewards our following him with stale bread crumbs that are difficult to swallow without our holding them in our mouths for a while?

Exhibit A.

Here we see Clover in his bio pic for the book jacket. He appears as the great modernist seen brooding with measurable intensity. Yet Clover is more likely to appear in person in a bowling shirt or a baseball cap, part of the great sea of the unwashed. [Just for the record, I do believe he showers regularly.] But in this photo he exhibits truly perfect placement of the hand on the temple. One almost feels (there’s that word again) subatomic particles of thought colliding with the camera lens. I make fun of this photo only because I suspect its mock seriousness is making fun of us (who might take it seriously). More precisely, I’d say he is letting us in on the joke if only we take the time and spend the precious amount of careful observation we possess). Such is the case in the age of the image. The observer has to bring his/her own punch line. We are tethered to the spectacle via a communication game.

The irony of this image does mark Clover as someone who is heavily invested in the image, who is willing to quickly deconstruct the meaning and value of the image that aspires to power. He understands the power of the image to transform, and he is willing to take the “industry of image” head on . . . well, maybe he slightly parries.

The parrying he does arrives in the form of the rhetorical sleight of hand he employs. As readers we come armed with certain conventions in the language, certain natural turns of phrase that exist. Clover will not permit us to use that kind of easy pass to understanding. He keeps that mechanical engine in the language from running too smoothly. However, he does not leave this engine to rust in the fields. He undermines meaning at the same time he circumscribes it at a different level. And the language is formed with a Tender Buttons-like accuracy. That is to say, the ear is here.

But like intelligence, this kind of playfulness is not the preferred strategy of the day. We live in an age of high seriousness, where people are “all business.” Play in the days of Katyusha rockets, heavy water plants and IEDs (all serious as a pitchfork) comes off as an abomination. If not irresponsible [Are we not the guardians of freedom in the world?]. If this notion runs counter to your sensibility, ask yourself when you heard yourself telling a good American joke. Ya’ know . . . there were these three Americans that walked into a bar and . . .

Bulletin. Bulletin. This just in: One might have reason to believe that the bio pic is modeled after a similar pose struck by Walter Benjamin, whose Arcades Project serves as an important influence on The Totality For Kids. Benjamin's project as flâneur is very much aligned with Clover's strolls through the imagined space of the city.

Clover’s project is very close to the surrealists without quite going to the extreme of the situationists who seemed to ad hoc everything in the moment. {this said, Clover’s notion of rebuilding the city in bricolage fashion is very much like the notion of Unitary Urbanism that the situationists put forth in 1960). This improvisation is exhilarating but it taxes even the most willing spectators. The Totality For Kids is put together with more precision. There is mortar between every phrase.

Like many a postmodernist after Pound, Clover’s poems are organized as if a series of walks through the city, each time settling on some curious detail of the place and remarking on the history of its construction. It is a teleology of the city. Why is there what there is?

One such poem that almost explicitly takes this theme is “Valiant en Abyme.”The frame within a frame aspect of the title (en abyme is a visual arts term where the design of the whole is contained within a piece, ad infinitum) reinforces that each sentence is a short walk that keeps repeating itself within the larger walk that is the poem itself.

Valiant en Abyme

Our grand peregrinations through these temporary cities,
These pale window box poppies of the laughing class,
Drifting as if time came in the same long dollops as starlight,
Resemble an epic journey as a coffee bean resembles a llama’s foot,
Though the kitchen table may be far from the desert
It’s near in spirit, a yellow oasis before the wind
Starts its restless sweeping of white-flower dust across the lintel,
Marking the fine edge of things like children asleep
At the opera, piled up near the door, summer passing
On its way out. Prince Valiant vowed to sew the horizons
Into a single idea, to put on the blue dress of distance,
Looping past rivers and mountains as one leaps from bed
To bed to make loneliness lonely, the suburbs were for him
A relief, a pageant of calm desire where he settled,
All the king’s horses grazing on forsythia out back
While the evening tilts back out of the night, a kindly drunk
Uncle, and asks you to stay. Was this the end of traveling?
Or just a change in the story over time, as for example how
Tous les chevaux du roi became Josie and the Pussycats
From one version to the next? So all heroes are deranged
By something quite common yet unexpected, a constellation
Redrawn and named again though the stars
Above the porch don’t shift but seem to sink
Through winter’s pitcher of noircotic ink,
Leaving a single streetlight that burned happily,
Thinking it was the sun, after all it was the day
Of the night and turned the world around it,
We were good sentences and forgot where we started.

Of course, the last line suggests that “to obey the walk” is to somehow forget where one started. This last statement is hard to read with regard to tone. I am not sure if Clover is mocking this blind obedience or rather suggesting that the accomplished walker achieves an immediacy with his/her surroundings. This dual valence in the poem is also reflected in the nature of Prince Valiant himself, who though full of valor, moves out to the suburbs which Clover suggests killed a sense of curiosity about the world because everything was so conveniently located.

But I like this poem mainly because it mentions Josie and the Pussycats. Forgive me, I suffer from nostalgia for the endlessly repeated backgrounds of Hanna-Barbera cartoons.

So much goes on a poem like this too. It is its own city. Neologisms like “noircotic” appear. Finding a phrase like “all the king’s horses” and then a few lines later “Tous les chevaux du roi” is like finding a wrapper for a snack item flung on the ground on one street corner and then finding a wrapper for the very same item a couple of blocks later, only all the words are printed in a different language. The interior of the kitchen table comes into view, and nature (stars, the sun, rivers and mountains and white flower-dust) are fixed in the visual field as well.

Many architectural details appear in the poems of The Totality For Kids: facades, windows, doors monuments, walls, glass frontage, verandas, gates, steeples, passageways, stairs, etc,. These give clues that the imaginative space Clover enters into is a citified one. But it also reminds us how constructed our mental spaces are as well as our physical ones. In many instances the move in Clover’s poems towards talking about sentences as though they were construction projects that frustrate the contractor as well as the inhabitant is also a reminder of this. The artifice of Clover’s oeuvre is everywhere.

And I can imagine a certain kind of reader who is put off by this in his work. Such a reader might ask what is authentic, what is to be earnestly grasped and internalized from such a display. The short answer might be: nothing. All is a chain of signifiers, a dance of referents. But this would be too glib for such a reader. Such a reader wants to have something about human experience revealed to him/her. One might offer confusion as a possible human experience that Clover is exploring. However, I suspect this is not the kind of experience that such a reader would be interested in accepting commentary on.

Perhaps the key that would turn the lock for those who seek the experiential from poetry would be that Clover is exploring the nature of data overload, the experience of having one’s mental faculties dulled because of simply too much input. The server crashes from too many simultaneous hits.

Many times I find myself parsing a line several times like I’ve hit some processing snag that makes the cursor on the screen freeze up, unable to move forward. Too, though, I admit the kinds of computing metaphors I have been using might be hollow for those who, in poems, want more from them about how they react to important life events. They might say that how one emotionally reacts to one’s media diet is an important and interesting phenomenon, but it does not define their life. Yet, the reaction to the mediated environment is extremely important for the informed, curious and mediated citizen. Clover is, in some strange way, chronicling the emotional life of an informed citizen, one whose each and every act is not divorced from being a political act. Even the walk through city is political, especially the walk through the city.

Where the gaze falls is a political event. As Clover’s speaker lets his gaze wash over the items in his poems, we, as readers, are invited to feel his emotional reactions to them. Sometimes they are snarky; sometimes they are so incisive as to be tinged with a sense of regret for having had to and being able to articulate them. These kinds of reactions might not be what are commonly referred to as “emotional,” but they do qualify as emotional even if the wincing and the turning away and the wide-eyed horror are the only kinds of behavior one might see from such a tour down the street. If one missed these kinds of “looking” behaviors, one might only think that the speaker was merely “thinking.”

The cover of The Totality For Kids features a kind of Merzbau-influenced structure that might seem the perfect playhouse for a band of juveniles bent on playing tag indoors. It looks like it was put together by a planning commission of ten year olds. In reality it is a model from Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon series, where he imagined urban renewal based on a space’s use value, its value as a locus of participation rather than its value as commodity.

Clover is adamantly opposed to his language being commodified, much like the Language Poets were. However, unlike the Language Poets, he is not willing to hold up language as the only aesthetic artifact to be discussed. He believes that language maps onto reality. It’s just that that reality is messy. It is fragmentary, hallucinatory, paratactical, prone to slippage of the memory. A poem, then, is constructed much the way the memorial at the former Trade Center Towers has been. It proceeds in fits and starts with many different interests contending for control over the final product.

Clover provides insight on his process in an interview with Chicago Postmodern Poetry when he says:

There are numerous ways to access a promising phrase: reading, thinking, running your mouth. I tend to run my mind over such a phrase for a minute...and then it slips away. A while later, sometimes much later, something else -- an experience, a sensation, another phrase -- calls up that first bit of language, and now there are two things that seem to be somehow part of a complex. That's often when I get the sense that a poem might be beginning. You get past the beginning and into the poem when you find the rhythm that lets you extend substance into space.

The “substance into space” comment lends credence to the notion that Clover’s poetry is the first made explicitly for the building trades.

One of the poems that has appeared frequently in numerous sources isCeriserie. Ceriserie is a term that has mysterious origins for me. I believe it to come from the French for “series series” or a series of series. This, indeed, would explain the structure of this piece. The arc of meaning that jumps across the colon in each “line” is quite often oblique, for example:

Fire: The number between four and five.

Gold leaf: Wedding dress of the verb to have, it reminds you of of.

The poem is reminiscent of Harper’s Index. In that setting the facts become absurd and astonishing at the same time. They become wonders in the art of measuring, the quantifiable run amok. After reading such a list, one realizes that there is no more core data, only the extraneous fact that, when ripped from its context, provides a semblance of insight into our present age. There is not enough to fashion a belief system from the pieces. Yet from these pieces Clover tries to weave a new form (just as city planners must try to forge a city from the shards of the past and a plethora of new building materials).

Is the “series series” a new form for the age of the sound bite (byte?) when the fragmentary substitutes for the fashioned narrative? The fervid associative leap for the refined tautological trope?

One of presumably many pieces in The Totality For Kids that employs the cut-up technique [it’s hard to track down all the sources/samples, and I am not big on that kind of thing] is “Their Ambiguity.” Clover sets up long blocks of prose-like sentences, triple spaced, supposedly culled from Situationist movies, that are constantly digressing from one line to another, yet the swirl of these lines centers around the decontextualization of words and the role of the subject within the drift of the city. Though an I never appears in the poem, a “revolutionary sweetheart” serves as a stand-in, a revolutionary rebuilder of the city and the city of words.

Clover inserts a countertext that runs between the lines of the triple-spaced blocks of prose. In the .mp3 above you can hear how these lines (read by the second voice) are contrapuntal utterances that sometimes underscore voice 1, sometimes undercut voice 1. In all, the piece is a well-developed venture into Situationist detournement, where the bits and pieces of verbal driftwood are assembled to form their own milieu . . . because in that milieu words take on their ambiguity.

Or in Clover’s words from the same Chicago Postmodern Poetry interview:

we're past the moment of choosing between the lyric tradition and the discursive, langpo tradition and that, rather than acceding to this calcified binary, we have to outmaneuver it. However, this does NOT mean simply synthesizing the two, or groovily accepting them both as human activities: the incorporation of vivid, oppositional traditions into a capacious, can't-we-all-just-get-along aesthetic IS the practice of the dominant lyric tradition, and to play it that way is in fact to choose sides.

“Their Ambiguity” is not a synthesis of two apparently divergent dominant trends in contemporary poetics today. “Their Ambiguity” is trying to flank both of these trends and head out into open space, into the open space of the city, where it can tend (contend?) the hegemonic force of its age.

In “The Dark Ages”Clover provides another aesthetic statement about the poem that may have skipped over those who did not attend the class in advanced surrealism like Clover did, when he says:

In poetry the line is something like a lamp-lit way onto which you have just turned, nodding lilies and a couple of desperadoes under the eaves.

More perambulation on invented streets. As for my habit of walking, I often feel compelled to turn off into the dark alleys that rise to greet me before I arrive at the last period. I do this not out of disgust or paranoia that Clover is belittling my idea of what a poem should be. I do this because I am curious where the little stations of its nouns and the public transportation of its verbs will allow me to go. I do this because in one of those dark tunnels I may befriend a rat.

This gesture on Clover’s part I read as a friendly one, and I am puzzled by those who raise their defenses to him and his work. Perhaps many readers feel exposed to his critical eye. The kind of American he sends up may be them! Others would like him to reveal more overtly biographical information. This failure to reveal slights them, and his work is reduced to that of a savant-like verbal automaton. But as mentioned above, is not his continual glance and bemused stare an invitation to play your own game of looking? Perhaps his work is not acknowledging the ready-made palette of human emotion, but in offering up his glances is this not a call to the reader in how his/her gaze can transform his/her emotional life?

I have questions, however, of my own about Clover’s work or perhaps not about Clover’s work so much but about walks through the city themselves.

Why are walks through the city always so fragmentary?

Though walks through the city are spiritually replenishing, is there any reason to believe that one is easily distinguished from another?

Does a walk through the city ever enter upon an urban pastoral, where the squirrels are sucking the juice out of the fallen oranges in the park before any human has awakened?

If one is innocently followed on a walk through the city, does this change the nature of the walk?

If one walks through the city with a dog, is the dog leading you or are you drifting along the dog’s paths of scent?

Is there a scratch and sniff version of the city?

I must admit when Madonna Anno Domini came out in 1997, I read it, and I was immediately smitten, taken in by the intelligence and ambition of its author whose verbal agility and display was without question able to serve as spectacle. One is turned on to hot guitar players in just this same way.

With The Totality For Kids I was less taken immediately, but this is probably because I am less prone to idol worship these days. However, as I lived with the text I began to see that it was informed by the maturity of its project. It was not just a book comprised of “killer poems,” but a book that painstakingly set out to portray a politics through its poems. The world-view in The Totality For Kids is both sharply critical of a city’s space inscribed by the ruts of capital, and it is wildly idealistic about building a future city concerned with cooperative use-value à la Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti. It is visionary on the scale of Pound (even though Pound was something of a flatulent didact and never referenced cartoons in his work). To encroach on the visionary is one of the highest goals that poetry can aspire to. Perhaps it is this vision which unnerves many readers and listeners even while Clover’s torch is leading them out of the predicament of the modern.

With The Totality For Kids read it once, you’ll admire it. Read it twice, you’ll love it. Read it three times and you’ll begin to organize a movement to undertake its vision (which would mean, of course, muttering strange and obscure things in public—a time when, as Clover states in “Their Ambiguity,””When a poem by Mallarmé becomes the sole explanation for an act of revolt, then poetry and revolution will have overcome their ambiguity”).

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