Tuesday, April 06, 2010

kari edwards, obedience (factory school, 2005)

From the moment I opened this book I knew it would be a crucial work, and I’ve saved it for a few years, glancing in every now and then, until my attention seemed oriented toward it in the right way. This is, for me, a good time to read it, having drifted away from emphatic engagement, in my own poetry, with political and philosophical questions (not that they’ve been absent), having in the last year written more in response to a sense of physiological energy, bodily intuition, more in arenas of the force of language and of its more nonsemantic characteristics, beginning lately to miss the centrality of that engagement, those questions.

I don’t think I’m going to try to excerpt from obedience here—not that there aren’t plenty of great lines, great thoughts. I’ll just note some things I admire about the work.

obedience engages with philosophy, with substantial thought about the metaphysics of space and time, the ontological constitution of things, thoughts, bodies and identities, in a way that reminds me of how necessary this kind of thought really is in engaging with the politics of everyday social existence, with the language that defines and limits us, that determines the range and possible meaning of terms like environment, sexuality, need, spirit, conversation. So much, for instance, depends on a concept of causality, which links things in chains of effects, and reflection on the being and becoming of things in the intersections of space and time involves critical reflection on the concept of cause. In this sense, the book is a meditation.

The meditation is emphatically oriented toward a utopianism, always pushing pure possibility into the foreground. I mean to contrast “pure possibility” with the “possibly actual,” where the latter indicates the range of what can be conceived as coming into being, given our current nexus of fundamental concepts. “Pure possibility” is the source of unlimited calling-into-question, of possibility not tied to what is, and questions are of the utmost importance for edwards’ work. Hir philosophical thinking means to reconceive fundamental frameworks, in order to present, through the poem, specific indications of the workings of a desirable world. obedience, unlike some recent work with whose engagement and commitment to emphatic thinking I am sympathetic, never falls into the trap in which the reiterated gesture of mere negation produces a consistent dark tone, a tone that can seem louder than the thought that produces it, sacrificing the creative thrust of negative utopianism for the sake of a feel of aestheticized protest.

I’m sorry that this is so vague. It will take more time than I have right now to figure out for myself how this works in edwards’ book, let alone to convey it to someone else.

How it works certainly has something to do with all the particulars in the poem. It’s not all time and space. There are rocks, rooms, knives, body parts, mosquitoes, leaves, viaducts, colors, emotions. These are generally non-archetypal (meaning that they don’t stand as citations of some larger argument), and remain both independent of and linked to the philosophical material. Sometimes they become near-metaphors, and this kind of operation, in which something kind of pushes something else in a particular direction of meaning, rather than being subsumed in the work of representing it, is worth further investigation.

edwards’ formalism is worth remarking. Zie often works with the page as a unit, or with a particular set of margins, or length of line, or reiterative character that structures a section, but these are rarely foregrounded. Sections don’t have rigid identities (which parallels edwards’ concern with destabilizing gender and other identities). Their boundaries are somewhat porous while remaining definitely present. Sections feature kinds of writing that are different, but not drastically so. I’d call it a gentle formalism, though not a soft one—there’s a good deal of structural meaning (meaning generated by formal movements and juxtapositions), but content is usually structuring the form as well. The movement of the boundless sentence, for instance, gets tied into the conceptual concerns of the poem.

This is my muddiest post yet this April. I’ll just say that this is a unique, provocative, moving book with which I’ll need to spend more time, and will quit this writing while I’m not ahead. An improvisation follows.

return to scale
where concept comes in
the incomparable
in a snail
of relation
not the impermeability
of a body
strange to have
enough to cry
doesn’t have a body
one has an honesty
that kills
one has a body
its skin an organ
part of an organ
completed in contact
fenceless mapping
in porosity
to resist
the turning of thought
a question
into answers

systems shit
disinfected things
negation is not
to innoculate
that’s abstract
I try to stare
into blinding shadows
sockets blaze
skull predicts
its artifact
dying in
to scale
heart divides
runnels all over
racing ice
not “I will
be gone”
but the going
in staying
as web
of skin skull
and dirt water
burning after
that shows up
as a window
everywhere I look
through it the clouds
of names
in the unnamed
world we will
with every No

exactly this scale

the one died into
each breath out

the window

before this there’s time


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