Sometimes Whole: Gathering Isles, Disrupted Centers and Occupying Forces in Juliana Spahr’s and Eliot Weinberger’s Post 9/11 Poetics
“Poetry, which looks like a list, has always been susceptible to list-making… Sometimes whole worlds seem to be contained in the catalog [sic], however brief.” (Eliot Weinberger, “Similes of Beauty,” Karmic Traces, 136)
Eliot Weinberger’s formulation, in which poetry can contain the world, is seductive in an era of fragmentation. His suggested form is the list, which is one of the irruptive formal traits of the New Narrative identified with queer leftist writers such as Robert Glück and Dodie Bellamy; in their work, the list works to stop narrative flow. It is often reflexive, calling attention to the work as text, and it often refers to the real. The list is thus a political gesture that disrupts the narrative illusion and links the text to the world. This is an essay about listing, considering the new mediated forms of aggregation and syndication as poetic and rhetorical forms and tropes, occurring specifically when poetry enters into the political. It is grounded in a belief that this is an arena where poetry belongs and where it can motivate change because both language and form are freighted with the political. It therefore enquires whether, in an age of simultaneity (as Fredric Jameson has argued), linear narrative is either possible or productive as a method of encountering and describing the events that surround us in the moment.
In the poems that I consider, Juliana Spahr’s book-length thisconnectionofeveryonewithlungs and Eliot Weinberger’s two-part “What I Heard About Iraq,” “whole worlds… however brief” are presented specifically in their brevity and wholeness through cumulative repetitions. Weinberger’s prose poems contain paragraph after paragraph beginning “I heard,” followed by direct quotation or substantiated fact about the war on Iraq, while Spahr presents a litany of news events that is “susceptible to list-making.” Challenged about the prevalence of lists in her poetics in an interview, she comments: “I like lists because they are inclusive. You can keep sticking things into them. And they don’t require categorization. So each item in the list can be as important as the others. I especially like the list as lament” (Boyko). The lists in thisconnection are laments, both for the erotic and romantic relationship(s) that provide the lyric context and, through this personal feeling, for the threats and violence around the world. That an interpersonal relationship can enlarge the self to include not only the “beloveds” (in Spahr’s term) but the global population as individuals and as an interrelated whole. Only the list, as a poetic form, can approach a representation of thisconnection. Spahr notes that, “Beloveds, weeks ago the doubleness of the news broke me down and I stopped writing and stopped loving all humans, mainly myself” (57). This kind of writer’s block, produced not by confronting the self but by confronting the difficulties of speaking the self in relation to the world and vice versa, is construed by Spahr’s colleague at the University of Hawaii, Susan Schultz, in her recent study A Poetics of Impasse. Schultz writes that such a breakdown and silence is a recognition of the difficulty, and thus constitutes a productive site for beginning to imagine ways of speaking about that impasse. In Spahr’s work, it seems that the quasi-mechanical act of making a list – echoing as it does the lists of headlines automatically generated by CNN and RSS – offers a form of speech that both describes that impasse (how can I do more than just list the day’s events?) and a way beyond it through the radical and intersubjective juxtapositions it puts forward.
The relation of bodies and languages as systems of connection emerges in the use of the Steinian principle of repetition to provide a non or anti-narrative thread or trace. Often, the repeated word or phrase is about the nature of language, form and narrative itself:
In recent days, I hear rumors that ships are being fueled and then are slipping out of port slowly at night.
I hear rumors from mothers in the street talking to other mothers…
I hear rumors of ships refueling and of ships slipping out of port while we sleep in our bed, even as I can’t see them in the news. (Spahr, thisconnection 37)
“Rumor,” a kind of information technology, is mediated in each usage by its source or lack of source. The “rumors” move from being about ships to being “of ships,” as if they are emerging from the vessels themselves (after all, one “can’t see them in the news”) and they do so via the conversation of “mothers in the street.” For mothers to be outside domestic space suggests a reversal of norms, an emergency situation, but/and also mothers such as the Madres del Plaza de Mayo, the Argentinean mothers, grandmothers and other women who protested the desaparecidos of the junta by taking to public space. “Rumor,” as a form, mediates between public and private in its relation to gossip; it is the work of women. But it also implies the Biblical “war and rumours of war.” Rumours are spoken, passed from body to body, recontextualising war as something that happens between people (as much as nations) and that impacts the body and interpersonal sphere. Bodily and ephemeral, it is a trace that one “can’t see… on the news.”
Traces and their operation as connectors are of deep concern to Weinberger, appearing in the title and content of his best-known collection of essays. Karmic Traces moves globally, from Iceland to India, finding the trace of each in the other. His argument for an “East-West synthesis” (“Jon, Olaf’s Son,” 23) made in 2000 seems all the more urgent in light of “What I Heard” and the events it describes. The traces that he follows through the ephemeral and antic areas often excluded from Western dominant discourse could be gathered under the rubric Weinberger offers for Hugh MacDiarmid’s synthetic Scots poetry, that “its ultimate mysticism anticipates the computer age, where an unprecedented precision of measurement and description has only made the universe far more mysterious” (“MacDiarmid” in Karmic Traces, 100). What I want to argue here, by tracing the connections between the two poems, is that an aggregative poetics which embraces the allusive incoherence of “the computer age” by recognising its continuity with older anti-linear practices could offer a way to contain – and thus to correct – the legacy of militaristic late capitalism, with its insistent product of a linear narrative (of supremacy) at all costs. That its narrative legacy is fatal in many physical ways is undeniable; fewer have acknowledged the less immediate and obvious damage done to and through language, and especially the project of experimental poetry, by poets such as George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, who have appropriated the uncertainties and fragmentation of postmodern discourse to reply to their critics: “ ‘It—my view of—of the situation was that he—he had—we—we believe, the best intelligence that we had and other countries had and that—that we believed and we still do not know—we will know.’ ” (Rumsfeld, quoted Weinberger 178). Spahr and Weinberger ask how “we will know” when information technology is predicated on the very narrative that they seek to question.
“as we rethink our selves, the political enters
and the issue twists to become about our ability to touch
information” (Spahr, Response, 73)
As “the political enters / …the issue twists to become about our ability to touch / information” as we touch (or in order to touch) each other. Describing the recognition of vulnerability that she argues could have forestalled the US’ hypermacho reaction to 9/11, Judith Butler writes simply that “we’re undone by each other. . . and if we’re not, we’re missing something” (23). For Spahr and Weinberger, the something we’re missing is the relationship between touch and information in an era of constant news streams. They turn to poetry to resituate the media’s abstractions about deaths and injuries in lived bodies; equally, the prose poem’s aggregation reinserts the tactile and haptic into the circulation of important information, with poems resembling and drawing on the poet’s hand-crafted archive.
Formally different but politically concurrent, Spahr and Weinberger reinstate poets not as legislators, but as newsmakers. Their forms are not those of the ballad or newspoem, but of BLAST!, appropriating the doublespeak of headlines and soundbites. They take the abilities that poetry shares with news media – to condense, through striking symbols, and to emphasize, through repetition – and use them reflexively to critique the media’s lack of self-reflection. They also draw on the shifts in news media that are occurring due to developments in communication technology, as well as changing poetic forms. Weinberger notes that his prose poems:
‘Republicans’ and ‘What I Heard About Iraq’ were inspired by Charles Reznikoff, who sifted through countless volumes of court records to produce his booklength poems, Testimony and Holocaust. The research for both essays was largely dependent on an archive I amassed thanks to the extraordinary, unpaid labours of the poet Geoffrey Gardner, whose one-man Anarkiss Newswire has been collecting and e-mailing thousands of articles from the world press once or twice a day, nearly every day of the Bush years. (225-26)
The order in which he states his work’s explicit debts – firstly, to Reznikoff’s massive archival projects, and secondly to the newswire – slyly suggests that, in fact, developments in communication technology have followed the lead of Modernist poetics, the newswire with its litany of headlines taking its shape from Pound’s blasts.
Weinberger’s prose poem is built out of quotations, and indeed quotations about quotations. It is these second, and even third order, texts that form the points where both language and narrative are in crisis. Weinberger is at once spectator, author and judicious editor, providing no editorial comment except for the arrangement of the ropes with which senior Republicans hang themselves. While the poem appears fragmented on first glance, providing soundbite after soundbite over a period of several years, with a cast of dozens, these points result from connections across the dates and pages, and from their implicit thematic focus on the “war on terror” ‘s war on signification and meaning. Late in the war, as the WMD falsification is revealed and the insurgency refuses to welcome the invasion forces with open arms, Weinberger quotes from a journalist who quotes Rumsfeld as having assured the media there were WMD and that the invasion would be welcomed “with open arms.” He then quotes Rumsfeld’s denial: “I heard Rumsfeld interrupt him: ‘Never said that. Never did. You may remember it well, but you’re thinking of somebody else.’ ” (177) The kicker is that Weinberger himself has quoted the Defense Secretary’s words earlier in the poem.
Weinberger draws on the inexorable linearity of the timeline of a single, if multi-faceted event; Spahr, however, tells it slant, creating a palimpsestic temporal simultaneity and globalised spatial equivalence – or rather, mirroring the simultaneity and equivalence constructed by information technologies. While the voice of “What I Heard About Iraq” positions itself as the omniscient and omnivorous voice in/of the wires, Ed Murrow’s ghost in the machine, Spahr writes about writing from Hawaii, geographically and politically peripheral and yet connected to the unfolding events through its own history of invasion and through its contemporary use as a refuelling station for US Navy ships in the Pacific. Monica Famborough, reviewing the book for Cutbank, argues that Spahr’s location is information that touches us all in its specificity: “[w]riting as a resident of Hawaii, the state that perhaps most exemplifies the U.S.’s geographical and political paradox, Spahr explores the concept of complicity. If we are all like Hawaii, apart yet connected, in what ways are we complicit in the activities of our various contiguous parts?” Spahr notes plangently that the urgency of her poem is local, in a couplet that is also suggestive of the dynamics within the poems: “We live, after all, on the gathering isle. // Oh this disrupted center with all its occupied forces” (thisconnection 64)
Hawaii is the gathering isle. As Spahr investigated in her previous book Fuck You – Aloha – I Love You, it is occupied by America and white colonisers – but so is the poem, and indeed the poet, who operates as the “disrupted center” or dispersed lyric ‘I.’ The radio waves and television signals that bring news “occup[y]” the poet in a dual sense: using her time and creativity and, implicitly, as an invasive force that parallels news media with the events that it reports. The invasion of Iraq has made this parallel explicit and obvious, from embedded journalists to computer-simulation training for bomber pilots, yet the relationship between media technologies and the military is pervasive. Telegraph and radio were invented to serve military needs. World War II, the first war to be shown in film and television broadcasts, saw the development of lightweight, portable cameras and sound equipment (like the Nagra) that subsequently made possible cinéma vérité, a documentary practice that sought to undermine and expose the formal strategies by which the media concealed its editorialising and perpetuated grand narratives. As Donna Haraway describes in “The Cyborg Manifesto,” digital technologies such as the internet emerge from military intelligence research, rather than from commercial applicability. Thus, to be “occupied” by news is to be taken over by military technologies, connecting the reader/viewer’s intellect – and body – with the “hearts and minds” of those subject to American military invasions.
For Spahr, this is “thisconnection” that she describes through her juxtaposition of being in bed with her “beloveds” and processing the “news from elsewhere.” The poems go beyond juxtaposition, however, to posit an equivalence and “occup[ation]” in which the news suffuses even the intimate bodily envelope because it speaks of other bodies and skins. She writes to her beloveds: “When I speak of yours skins, I speak of newspaper headlines in other countries and different newspaper headlines here” (Spahr, thisconnection 20). The uncanny plural of “yours skins” and the abstraction of headlines suggests a diffusion that runs parallel, in the poems, to its local detail – and the tension between the apparent universals of lyric (bodies, love, nature) and the ephemeral and awful minutiae of 24/7 news coverage. Spahr not only mingles bodies and headlines, but headlines of different types, bringing together (or rather, refusing an artificial separation of the media’s conglomeration of) world events and celebutainment. This visceral insistence on “thisconnection,” which is also a disconnection, between the frivolities of celebrity and the shock and awe of trauma and war points insistently, like Weinberger’s “I heard,” to the way in which the media obscures the embodiment that absorbs it, produces it and that is its subject, alienating media from the human beings creating and being represented. Bodies – those of lovers and those of war victims – form traces through each poem, with touch always in relation to, rather than alienation from, information.
“more than identity our attraction is to puzzle
the lineage of close encounters
anecdotal data, exhaust residue, radiation levels
five times the norm” (Spahr, Response, 73)
In order to “puzzle / the lineage” of the Iraq war, and to locate it in “the lineage of close encounters,” both Spahr and Weinberger turn to the internet. The web is implicitly the “connectionofeveryonewithlungs,” as much as the more physical gaseous exchange described in the first poem through the repeated phrase “as everyone with lungs breathes” (thisconnection, 4-8). Inside the hall of mirrors that constitutes mainstream media in the US, the internet can function as breathing room, a source of fresh air rather than the recycled neoaircon pumped around by Fox and the other networks. Republican blogs such as FreeRepublic.com and the Drudge Report not only report the news, but can also shape it (as with the 2003 hysteria around the Dixie Chicks begun by FreeRepublic or the Drudge Report’s posting of a photograph of Barack Obama wearing a traditional turban in Kenya). The dominant order’s fear that the internet could derail its narratives can be observed in the Department of Homeland Security’s mandate to access personal email and browser histories, as well as the pressure applied to internet service providers to spy on customers or – as in China and many other countries – to shut down dissident sites.
Spahr notes the way in which the invention of the “war on terror” has been used to mandate internal controls on information in the US, even as the government claim to be promoting democracy and freedom of the press worldwide. As the US troops move into place on the borders of Iraq, she notes that “We speak of the stinger antiaircraft missiles and the massive ordnance air-blast bombs when we speak of SAP AG and the Microsoft RPC hole and the Denial of Service attacks” (73). SAP AG are, according to their website, “the world’s leading supplier of business software,” to the public sector including the US Navy and NATO’s command and control systems. RPC stands for Remote Procedure Call, a Microsoft hacking issue that was in the news in March 2003. According to Wikipedia, RPC “allows a computer program to cause a subroutine or procedure to execute in another address space (commonly on another computer on a shared network)… RPC may be referred to as remote invocation or remote method invocation.” Denial of Service attacks are explicit attempts to prevent legitimate users from accessing a particular server or site; strategies include flooding the network and disrupting network connections. Each of these terms from information technology brings together the invasion of Iraq and the computer that Spahr is suggestively using to obtain her information (and to write and circulate the poem); in the first case, to allude to the economic relationship between technological software and military hardware; and in the latter two cases, to map the illegal invasion of a sovereign nation onto the globalised network of the internet. In the case of either an RPC or a Denial of Service attack, vulnerability derives from connection.
In puzzling the lineage of close encounters – between reader and text, between nations, between user and media – Spahr also looks to “exhaust [the] residue” of the trace of military terminology in everyday language. The phrase DoS attack models the way in which the internet is regarded as sovereign, and protected, territory by governments and businesses. This terminology is like pollution, an “exhaust residue” of C3I that points to the compromised origins of communications technology. The media becomes part of the strategy, as Weinberger notes in a telling observation: “I heard a Pentagon spokesman, Major General Rick Lynch… quote the al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri: ‘Remember, half the battle is the battlefield of the media’ ” (223). Yet the battle is not won. Both Spahr and Weinberger make use of the current freedom of the press in the US, and of the global internet, while gesturing to the gaps in – and indeed, created by – the massive information dumps that occur every minute. Spahr builds her non- or anti-narrative from timely (and date-stamped) references to the connectivity of global incidents, grouped and intersecting temporally; both poets’ work is thus suggestive of a newsfeed or news aggregator. Wikipedia describes the function of an aggregator as “creating a unique information space or ‘personal newspaper.’ Once subscribed to a feed, an aggregator is able to check for new content at user-determined intervals and retrieve the update.” An aggregator can function like a gated community, protecting the user from ‘undesirable’ elements of the Web, lessening the opportunity for chance encounters. Such a use of an aggregator mirrors the charge levelled at artforms such as poetry, that they are at once élitist and escapist, bounded both textually and in terms of audience.
Yet Weinberger’s notes that his “essays were written for publication abroad… In English, the articles tended to circulate via e-mail among individuals, turning up on blogs, websites, chat groups, and listservs. For writing of this kind, it is a happy way to publish: the readers vote with their forward buttons” (225). The internet is at once a privileged resource and an opportunity to democratise access to information, not least by hybridising genres and modes in collusion with or appropriation of the mediatised mash-up of reading ads alongside news articles or watching video in a blog. Weinberger is also compelled by the residue, or rather mash-up, of mediated narratives as they surface disturbingly in political discourse. He writes that: “I heard the President… say: ‘… Surely our friends have learned lessons from the past. This looks like a rerun of a bad movie and I’m not interested in watching it’ ” (148). As Susan Faludi has explored brilliantly in The Terror Dream, the actions of the US government after 9/11 draw directly on the national myth of white male aggression as embodied in Westerns such as The Searchers. Her pivotal chapter examines the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch. Both she and Weinberger use the same quotation to underline and undermine the narrative construction forced onto the story by US media: “I heard Anmar Uday, the doctor who cared for Private Jessica Lynch, say: ‘… It was like a Hollywood film… They made a show – an action movie like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan, with jumping and shouting, breaking down doors. All the time with cameras rolling’ ” (Weinberger, “What I Heard” 153-54). The traditional roles of news media and of poetry are reversed here: embedded journalists working with the military produce a highly stylised and referential “Hollywood film” in which the “Action!” of the movie set and the “action” of the battlefield blur, while poetry analyses the production of images and sets out the truth.
Spahr refers to the blurring of this gap when she writes that “Amid ignorant armies and darkling plains, the news has momentarily stopped trying to make sense and the stories appear with a doubleness” (thisconnection, 49). Poetry, which does its work through doubleness, intervenes to lay the senselessness bare. Stories that “appear with a doubleness” make narrative unreliable, not least because of the multiplication of both sources and stories in contemporary media. The movement from the ephemera of webfeeds and TV headlines to the page creates space in which the reader can “exhaust [the] residue” of each (head)line: that is, the reader can approach the news as poetry, whose doubleness challenges us to think and write beyond – and about – the impasse and (im)possibility of poetry after 9/11.
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[Sophie Mayer is the author of the forthcoming book The Cinema of Sally Potter: The Poetics of Performance (Wallflower, 2008) and The Private Parts of Girls (Salt, 2009). She lives in London and connects to everywhere through the incredible democratic right to publish. She particularly enjoys the democratisation of publishing created by blogs and online poetry magazines.[
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