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Not Unpacking but Seeking – Los Angeles Review of Books

FIRST, THE PICTURES. They don’t come first — not even the cover, which the opening “No” of text wants to wipe clean — or all that often, but they work in gentle conjunction and counterpoint to the essays’ insistent refusal through form. The carved lines of woodcut show animals returning the favor to humans: an ox with a whip driving men on a plow, a fish on a river shore catching a man, a cow facing a guy hung from a hook with a carving knife between his legs. And then, the most apparently domestic: a woman in a dress with a gun and a sword, about to leave home for hunt or battle, as a man sits with a swaddled child, waving goodbye. In the 18th century, these scenes were titled The World Turned Upside Down, or the Folly of Man, Exemplified in Twelve Comical Relations Upon Uncommon Subjects. Today, the image of woman flipping the shape of gender relations remains, if not fantastic, an unrealized desire.

Then there is Anne Boyer’s reply to Ivan Chtcheglov’s 1953 essay “Formulary for a New Urbanism,” with what she calls a fable and a rewriting, “Formulary for a New Feeling.” Its last words are: “The war against us will have been given up years ago.” Chtcheglov, member of the nascent Situationist International, called for the construction of a new architecture, a new city built on play, to combat the banality sweeping the world. Where he begins with the lost poetry of billboards, the obstacles enclosing life on every street, Boyer turns to the obstruction of forgotten, undeveloped sensation. Her architecture starts with the body: “The codes must be sought in the serious locales of fingertips and thigh muscles, also in the hamstrings, the molars, the minor joints, the mammoth comprehending digestion, the ardent and responsive scalp.”

As future capitals of the world, Chtcheglov seeks the intellectual, Boyer tenderness. What could be too easily read as a division between man as productive force and woman as healing touch, a proposed reversal of dominance, is more subtly woven, playful. This can be seen in a couple of corresponding phrases:

Between the legs of the women walking by, the dadaists imagined a monkey wrench and the surrealists a crystal cup. That’s lost. We know how to read every promise in faces — the latest stage of morphology.

Between the equanimities of the people walking by, the girls will know okayness and the women will know effortlessly eloquent awe. The people and the animals will easily read faces — that gentlest instructive morphology.

Chtcheglov’s claim appears early, Boyer’s diversion late, almost as a kind of return: instead of a tool employed toward development, morphology becomes an insistent practice of renewal; instead of a continuous drifting through the boredom of city streets, à la the Situationist dérive, there is a continuous feeling of feelings, a restructuring of somatic life. Construction becomes corporeal, not to neglect the physicality of buildings but to enfold them in an emotive scope. Both writers distrust aesthetics as an autonomous concern, recognize its inadequacies, and share a common refusal. Seeking new forms incessantly means sacrificing the old, an expulsion of what can’t be held, desire left to drift on its own and settle like dust on sidewalks and feet. Boyer, with her future tense (the girls will know), points at the persistence of patriarchy, even within the supposed avant-garde, as an archaism to be abolished. Moving from crotch to face, Chtcheglov hardly lifts the gaze, ensuring the reproduction of a familiar dominance. Between equanimities lies desire that doesn’t default to passion or passionate heroism, even the collective kind.

A Handbook of Disappointed Fate is filled with such allusive and subtle replies; the book envelops its critical objects, shears tucked in the wool of the lamb. It is full in the sense that you can return to sentences you thought familiar to find that their light has shifted, or trace their shadows across the pages as the essays turn toward and away from each other and any concepts or conceptual structure they purport to share. There is a density that demands not unpacking but seeking. “[E]mancipatory writing and thinking is a collective project,” Boyer writes in “Please Stand Still the Doors Are Closing.” This is a fact that needs reminding, in and over and against all failures: “We brave our errors in thought for the possibility that to see them demonstrated will allow others to get toward a rightness we missed.” “Toward a Provisional Avant-garde” looks to correct the manly metaphors of war and machines in favor of “extreme care.” “How to Go From [Poetry to Art]” and “How to Go From [Art to Poetry]” work through an opposition that is both as simple and more complex than that between autonomy and wealth — work toward but not to a resolution. “Erotology III” scans a morphology of faces informed by a multiplicity of desire. “Erotology II” moves from the pain of objectifying love into the painful fracture of night and day. “Erotology” disputes the singularity of longing, “the overdetermination of each unheld.”

Boyer positions herself against the dialectic of master and slave, or man and woman, against reproduction based on force, against society ruled by exchange. Her 2015 book Garments Against Women already took up themes of negation and sensitivity, spread the double meaning of “against” to touch the fabric of resistance. That book of poems in prose was only slightly less expository than Handbook’s essays, a touch less exploratory in its forms, more tightly concerned with the form of the sentence. In Handbook, that concern broadens, bending the essay’s meaning. Boyer’s distrust — of writing in particular, of the world’s bullshit in general — sharpens as it unfurls forms of expression within and against a language bent toward assent, forms of living a kind of life that constantly feels refused. It’s almost too easy to bring up Adorno (but Boyer mentions him, pleasantly: “Everyone wavers between Adorno and the damp sorrow unfolding under her own nose.”), who wrote in “The Essay as Form” that “[t]he essay, however, does not try to seek the eternal in the transient and distill it out; it tries to render the transient eternal.”

The work of feeling involves recovering what gets expelled by raw power so that it might find time and space to flourish and overgrow what tried to deny its reality. The effort of reading a face is a demand to recognize its multiplicity, emotion in concrete and fleeting shapes, consent not to be or see in others the single thing capitalist productivity demands.

Fred Moten, whose recent trio of essays bear the collective title consent not to be a single being (2018), makes an appearance here also, in “Please Stand Still.” Boyer was in Los Angeles to read with him, one of her heroes. But before the reading, there is the heat wave that has fallen on the city, her recent disability from cancer and its treatment, and her attempt to navigate the insult of public transportation and take in the “inflictive yawp” of Matthew Barney’s museum show River of Fundament. Boyer muses within the disgust for distributed suffering and its discordant objectification in art. The reading is at a church that also hosted, among various community functions, The Burrito Project, in which people get together to make food for those who have none. A scheduling mistake puts poetry where some were expecting burritos, and Boyer stands by the open door of the crowded, overheated room, listening to Moten and apologizing for disappointing their expectations, apologizing for poetry’s failure, for her own. But the reading, her reading, takes over, she forgets her compulsive plan to throw her wig into the crowd, finds the night after all exhilarating, “as if the heat had inspired a communal delirium of meaning.” Poetry’s failure gets taken up too, and Moten reminds her later, visiting Kansas City for another reading, that “a person cannot live on burritos alone.” And Los Angeles, failing or perhaps succeeding in its vision of the future, recedes from particularity into oppositional, collective longing.

Two essays, back to back, both called “Kansas City,” take on Boyer’s hometown. The second looks at its historical doubling, the violence of its racialized 19th-century split. The first approaches history’s appearance in Occupy, that multiple and localized seizure of public space and imagination, its furious transience and persistent need. It is full of the words of others, bouncing off and resonating with the poet’s own. She learns that, since 1967, a gathering of six people is considered a riot, and we see again the brutality of law’s isolation of individuals as consumers and words as functionaries. In ’67, too, Guy Debord’s Situationist exemplar, The Society of the Spectacle, appeared, and in May the next year, the uprising in France; that whole year across the globe various aborted versions sought their own expression, which with their 50th anniversary now are finding a sort of canonization, maybe more elegy than revival. Though that would depend on what’s still to be done, on how we, whoever we are, might come not just to understand but also to realize the meaning of words like riot and feeling and art and community.

Refusing enforced bounds is a beginning that must be begun again and again. Meditating on Langston Hughes’s testimony before the US Senate’s Communist Scare Committee in 1953, Boyer writes that “[p]oetry, when it regards law, regards law as that which is made of the same substance — language — but itself as what exceeds law’s bounds.” Included in a footnote is a fragment of the exchange between Hughes and a certain Mr. Cohn — whom we can quickly identify as Roy M. Cohn, the lawyer who represented a young Donald Trump in a countersuit against the Justice Department’s charges of violations of the Fair Housing Act. The power of profit at the expense of suffering doesn’t just continue, it develops.

And there is also music: Bo Diddley (“There is nothing so precisely historical as the virtuoso’s magic deluge of the now”); Mary J. Blige (“After great pain, a utopian sociality comes”); Missy Elliott (“It takes a genius to turn prepositions into a politics”); Willie Nelson (“We will dance soon”); and Kid Rock (“And how does Empire end?”). There are questions for poets and difficult publications of poetry and the fury of the lambs. There is the near nowhere of Kansas City and the occupation that makes it so:

Some days I would swear to you that nothing but this place exists. When I leave the occupied space of the city, the ordinary space has ceased to feel real. The ordinary world is a theme park now, faux-hygienic, grating, insincere. My feeling for the occupation is almost exactly like love, vulnerable and half-mad, but I am handing my heart not to another human but to an unfixed, circulating crowd.

Boyer calls it “a rip in the everything,” something she’s been waiting for her whole life, a place from which we shout. Fifty years ago, if you trust the imagery and narrative, the streets were alive with movement. In the last decade, certain squares have amplified the echo of refusal. The sound it makes will depend as much on the balance between tear gas and paving stones as on the combined forces of chant and caress. Against the vehicles of expulsion are set the felt bricks of common need.

¤

Kyle Proehl is working on a PhD in Comparative Literature at UC Davis. His has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, X-Tra, Art Handler, and elsewhere.

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