Sunday, December 31, 2006
This thinking of S
In a file box under my desk is a large file with Suzanne's name on it, containing numerous copies of drafts of work she has shared with me over the years of our acquaintance. The first page is a handwritten note, given to me when I was going through an especially challenging time. It reads, simply "dear friend I am thinking of you."
This thinking of/about/toward/with a/the "you" is a defining note of Suzanne's poetics—its action a palpable interactivity—activated and actuated with and through you. "wish you were here," she writes in the opening of Tout Va Bien
"And now you are."
We met in graduate school—in a workshop with Myung Mi Kim. Suzanne wrote letters to the class inviting conversation about writing and not writing. One piece she performed that semester, dedicated to another writer, was a headstand in the middle of the room, a perfect articulation of simplicity, grace, precision and risk.
Her conviction that a breach binds more than a bridge is evidence of her particular faith and devotion to poetry's action—that what isn't there joins us more completely and thoroughly than the structures we construct for that purpose. Her piece CANCELLATION (a reading, which she did not attend but had filmed in absentia while a friend distributed a beautiful broadside made for the occasion) is another manifestation of this understanding.
I cannot speak about Suzanne’s work without speaking about devotion.
taut and taught
traces Obsession’s lip
ceasing to desist
a course of course a blinking light
sweeps seas roving illuminatory
Soft behind the locking (i)
Dear Suzanne thought thinking its coiled rope you were a leaf written upon as palm and carried close to flesh you changed hands you arched back and pressed the cage of bone (a) moment's home fluttery and laced Dear Suzanne thoughts flew up from the smallest unit into syllabaries contesting the space behind sky that moon would not stay put clouds fluted over and were understood as cover, dear suzanne you write
"at the center is a nut of this nut it is golden"
"sound out the actual aspect of building as devotional architecture"
Godard said somewhere that for a film you need a girl and a gun. Naturally, Suzanne has both.
Likewise her work shares his playful embrace of contradiction and via its own psycho-surgical maneuvers (intellectual yoga?) explores terrain traversed in the film Tout Va Bien (Yves Montand… Him, Jane Fonda, Her, Suzanne) like 'Can Love Survive Relationship?' and 'Can Revolutionary Thinking Survive Revolution?' However, if Godard rewrites the rules of narrative, Suzanne seeks to rewire the human being
"The self's shrapnel rewounds the self. The self's wounds belong to and reinjure us all. Thus to restore oneself first is a mandatory social act" (TVB).
Keeping in mind an absent referent, say you are writing from the social body of a wound whose only recourse is to speak itself—an articulation involving organic emanations mixed with artificial playback—mimetic rewiring being one aspect of the real a notch closer than—
Suzanne does this and offers it freely
The VICTORY comes in breaking open
"I bring closure, no, I brought foreclosures-I came upon and went,I did thus, I broke it, I broke it hard over itself, came upon it and wept-
I did that thus like that again—breaking upon it, under it stood up on it went
upon it, or I came then over the mark, again I broke it" (TVB).
I'm getting a little kick out of contributing feedback, as a community representative, for this amazing and overdue project (thanks Conrad), partly due to the fact that it was Suzanne Stein who wrote to me that "a poetry community is made up of humans, not of poets." So do I make this address to humans, as a human? Or to poets as a human? Or to humans as a poet? And clearly it would be quite nice to do all four.
Which is to say that the love I have for Suzanne Stein as a person, and the numerous never resolved questions knowing her has opened up in me as a person, are and are not extricable from the love I have for the work of Suzanne Stein, which is poetry, and the numerous never resolved questions knowing that work has opened up in me as a person.
One thing Suzanne has always maintained is that we (and I think she means poets, though I think she means humans, and even more perhaps she means her and I) can't read each other. In that spirit, I hope that Suzanne would endorse if not the content of my misreadings of her work, at least their structure. Since one thing that work insists, to my mind to a radical degree, is that error is not only productive it is therapeutic.
This is one of my favorite pages of poetry:
"That forward-moving praxis traces. We are to put our eye and effort to the actual manufacture of the task. Our best use is to build a better being.
The self's shrapnel rewounds the self. The self's wounds belong to and reinjure us all. Thus to restore oneself first is a mandatory social act. Poetry's microtechnological use is of a religious order (ardor), and it manifests that religio-spiritual ardor as a psycho-surgical maneuver.
It is its other than its viability. Something which does other than that which it's built, or meant, for doing. If it does that which it is built for else than doing, and this act making that same act an actual viability--are we--am I--dutiful, and to what duty are we then bound" (Tout Va Bien)
These three paragraphs thrill me--they resist perfection of mode ("which would be HELL" -- SS) in order to impart in paralogical fashion the paralogical ground to which any ontogeny is bound. So that a "trace" can be imagined not only as the inscribed remnant of, say, an act of writing, or an act of anything that does or makes, but something that's also already in the future--a vision of a trace, or a trace of a vision, unlimited by the standards of prophetic (in all its senses, from Swamic to Spicerian) discourse. (Oh, that's one of the best lessons I've learned from Suzanne Stein person and poet, that there is no chance of forward-moving praxis if anyone persists in complicity with the standards of any discourse. I think that this means, as an example, that going to an organized war protest could be understood as an encoded action that instead of challenging the war machine serves to endorse it, as the war machine is dynamic, not simply brutal; I'm afraid that I live too much in phonemes to tell you about how to most successfully [but not perfectly, that would be HELL] move forward in a way that resists those standards, but I would suggest in any case reading all of Suzanne's works and e-mailing her.)
"Biopsychopharmaceutical poetics, without the drugs"
Poetics as a "maneuver", a "psycho-surgical maneuver." I understand that as a description of poetics as precisely a practice of healing--a "maneuver" I understand as an action undertaken by the hands, given as performance including the performance of writing and reading, and given to the group as a tool of repair. Where does one human body end and the next one begin? Or where does one human body end and what is space? Okay, right. But there's something very important, to my mind, in the questions Suzanne's text above raises, questions about "duty", about "binding" (which is "religion" in its literal sense)--and then the non-question but imperative mandate for self-repair. And it is about the poetry community, after all, since the poetry community constitutes a group (in, yeah, a very weird configuration, or the weirdest) and the group in this case is made of humans, humans performing this action that is "its other than its viability". Poetry as radical self-help--but I'm trying to find a way to talk about it that doesn't make anyone chuckle.
Failing, sorry SS.
Very soon after I met Suzanne Stein, she enlisted me to assist her with a performance in Berkeley. She had agreed to do a reading, decided to show films instead, and then decided to cancel the reading. My role was to cancel the reading, and I arrived with a text made by Suzanne. When the curator's look became truly withering, I stood up and cancelled the reading. But I remember vividly that the small group who attended the reading had been changed (one person told me later it was the first poetry reading he had ever been to!)--and they wouldn't go to another reading with exactly the same expectations or anticipations. And I was changed, too. And that was the best introduction, for me, who had never really considered the fact, to comprehending the ways in which poetry enacts change at the cellular level, that poetry has a use, that a microtechnological procedure necessarily contributes to a macrotechnological procedure, so one person repairs herself and literally repairs the group. These measures have been enormously generative for me as a thinking and writing human being, and a thinking and writing person.
Suzanne Stein's person and works have been and are for me beautiful and life-changing performances, and I hope that this written feedback is the least of the return I can offer for them.
Suzanne Stein's writing seems to me both metaphysically and physiologically determined and psychically self-creative and doubly self-interpretive. It swallows me whole, confronts my cynicism, and yes, changes the (my) world. I read her work as epistemology, ethics, ontology, and much, much more than those component parts.
"If one could write a book that would build a more humane human being while that being read. Employed in the construction of the co-de-edification device a system of INTENTIONALIZEDBUT UNORCHESTRATED POETRIES plus inelidable sciences, perpetrating a PHYSICAL, AMETAPHORIC biopsychopharmaceutical poetics, without the drugs." (Tout Va Bien)
Suzanne's work insistently persists in seeking, and I, as reader and writer, am consistently awed at how this pursuit and what is sought is reflected in the shape and sound of her works. To imagine a world and thus a prosody which maneuvers with and acts out its body. As well as the fact of our being cells. The "psychosurgical" procedure-"Poetry's microtechnological use is of a religious order (ardor); it manifests that religio-spiritual ardor as a psycho-surgical maneuver."
--the work performs on you/me/reader, on poetry, on diction. If I'm going to read and listen to this work, I better wash up and get them scrubs on. It's a procedure without anesthesia. An operation in which the world is undressed and poked/pokes around in the insides. With the precision of a bricklayer, a watchmaker, an architect. And I mean to thus imply poet as builder, as essential funnel for and in the factual-spiritual world.
The unfathomable becomes real via the (poetic) maneuver. Bodies change in the writing of the happening of it. The enacted tracing of viability. The chemistry of intervention. Even in not knowing, we know. In the uttering of an eye there is the other, its pair. The faciality of address. A face in a dress. One addresses oneself, one dresses. One addresses all – the faciality of prosody. As in ethics. The writing enacts an ethics – the imagining is the foundational act.
The poetry of Suzanne Stein is for me ceaselessly groundbreaking. Nothing seems quite the same when I put the poem down / leave the performance space. Not poetry, not poets, not how I think about what we (poets) can and should do:
"Here is the axiomatic triumvirate of we revise the State starting in our own neurology:
First, that we can replace the either/or world with a both/and world.
Second, "every intellect is capable of assuming every shape"
[omnis intellectus est omniformis]
Third, whatever the spirit can imagine, it can also realize"
An axiom is self-aiming, aims at itself, our selves. Any given outcome becomes a viable one. Severed, unfathomable and spirit-full, up from the broken-open grounds.
I want to say thank you.
My friend Suzanne Stein lives on the opposite side of Lake Merritt from myself. 'The jewel of Oakland,' Lake Merritt is roughly a circle and 3.18 miles around. The City of Oakland, and I guess me too, a resident of the City of Oakland, refers to the lights that surround the lake as a ‘necklace’. Lake Merritt is the oldest wildlife refuge in North America. It was not always a circle. It was something else to begin with, something called a tidal estuary, or mudflat. A slough. Then it was a gigantic sewer system. Then it was dammed. And then it became a lake.
Suzanne and I walk around this lake, alone and together. Sometimes I walk more quickly than Suzanne likes, and she asks me to slow down. Other times Suzanne walks through the big groups of pigeons that congregate because people feed them there, and this annoys me, that people feed the pigeons and that I have to walk through them, and the next time Suzanne and I go for a walk I say "can we not walk through the pigeons this time?"
Once, very soon after Suzanne moved to Oakland from San Francisco, she and I were walking around the lake and Suzanne was praising its beauty and the natural landscape and the general open feeling that the sky and the lake have together in combination and how one does not get this feeling, ever, in San Francisco, and I blurted out: "It's not a real lake." Then I felt awful.
I wasn't even sure if what I said was true. I knew the lake was constructed but didn't know the word 'slough' or that from roughly 1820-1860 the slough served as the sewage system for all of Oakland. This kind of feeling awful, like telling your sister the tooth fairy doesn't exist, and why did you have to go and do that? started a long conversation and as a result of this and other long conversations with Suzanne I've learned a little bit more about what a tidal estuary is. I'd lived in the east bay for about nine years before this particular early conversation and I guess I wanted to be something like a good and thorough tour guide to my friend Suzanne. But walking with Suzanne is not that kind of being friends.
Sometimes Suzanne and I argue while walking and other times Suzanne and I are in close understanding and agreement. Other times Suzanne and I are in close understanding even as Suzanne and I are arguing. Suzanne and I look, have looked at the lake as we are walking, as we have walked, alone or together, and Suzanne and I think, have thought about how its water level tends to rise and fall, and Suzanne and I wonder, have often wondered if this fluctuation is technically a tide and when Suzanne gets home and when I get home one or both of us looks up, has looked up 'tide' + 'Lake Merritt.'
Sometimes the air around the lake is brisk, and other times it is thick and heavy and there is a bad smell, especially on the Grand Avenue side. Last summer Suzanne walked around the lake during a heat wave. I was out of the country then and she described it to me later, how the air was yellow or maybe yellow-green, and she was the only one out walking. Often there is a lot of trash in the lake. There are also weeks of algal bloom, especially in the spring, blue-green algae which is the result of nitrate run-off from golf courses in the Berkeley and Oakland hills, nitrate which winds up in various creeks and eventually drains into the lake, because the lake is part of Oakland’s flood control system and pretty much all the freshwater run-off in Oakland drains into the lake. The algae is beautiful, appearing more green than blue-green. It clusters into more and less intense areas of green.
There is a small type of duck at the lake that reminds me of expensive and well-designed ankle boots; shoes are definitely something Suzanne and I talk about while walking--these ducks have dark grey feathers, white-tipped beaks and round red eyes like opaque marbles. I thought this duck was maybe a grebe but I just found out this morning while walking around the lake with Suzanne and Juliana and Bill and Charles that it is called a mud hen. Bill knows a lot about birds. He also identified a pheasant in the sick and wounded bird dome at the lake. Suzanne noticed a while ago that the mud hens appear to eat algae from the surface of the lake. Then I noticed it too, their heads bobbing up and down, eating from the carpet of green-blue algae as they swim through it.
The lake is a landscape that makes Suzanne and I feel better, if by 'better' I mean expansive, and if I can speak for 'us' and what 'feel better' might mean, then it is the lake. Can I speak for Suzanne and I? I keep writing 'Suzanne and I' in every, or almost every instance when I would more usually write 'we', and I do this in order to think more clearly about where Suzanne and I are 'we' and where 'we' aren't, or what complications there are in any given 'we'. But I also do this because I am a confessional poet and I am about to confess that the writing here would sound, to me, even more derivative of Juliana if I wrote 'we' as I did in the first draft, instead of 'Suzanne and I' as I am writing here, which is something Suzanne and I talked about, the first draft of what I am writing here, but Juliana's writing in general and the role of the 'we' in that work is one of the many things Suzanne and I have talked about while walking around the lake.
And Juliana is another person I think and talk and also write with, in parts of Oakland and Berkeley, and while I am trying to finally think and talk here about Suzanne's writing and how her writing is thinking so closely about but also BEING a membrane between form and formlessness, on the way to thinking about that, it seems I must also think about permeability and how writing is a received landscape in which we are walking with others. So maybe it's appropriate that I have such a difficult time filtering one kind of writing out from another, and that in some way I must really want all the salinity and freshwater and silt and nitrate and trash from the run-off of another's writing to be coming into mine and I must want to be sometimes flooding into theirs. I want to be a duck with the other ducks in a flock but also off by myself in the weeds. Is that another way of thinking about it, form v. formlessness? It seems crass to put a 'versus' there, like a dam between a lake and a bay, which is what 12th Street is, basically, although it's a lot more complicated than that, dams are always complicated, there are pipes and culverts and storm drains and a pumping station. What is a lake and what is a creek? What is a bay and what is Suzanne and what is Stephanie and what is Juliana? And how do they go between one another? I go to list the other species in the lake, and that turns into another draft, the one that tells you all about the birds and writers who lived there and live here even now, the draft in which there was more research and then Cynthia said that writing seemed somehow derivative of Suzanne.
So how much can I (we) control or do I desire to control these elements as they move in and out of the body of my writing, a body with which I am trying hard to think, but also a body I am flinging around in love and devotion to the people I walk and talk and think with--
Maybe the lake is a landscape that makes Suzanne and I, or just I, feel better because it is an open space in a densely populated urban area.
Maybe the lake is a landscape that makes Suzanne and I, or just I, feel better because it provides a particular wide angle view and within that wide angle, detail after intricate detail, such as the red-eyed mud hens, in all their particular beauty, and in the beauty of their being together in a flock. But as Charles noted this morning, the lake is also more interesting than 'nature'. I think this is because there are also so many people there, and so much trash to look at, and the traces that the people and the trash leave behind.
And for sure the lake is a landscape that makes Suzanne and I, or just I, feel better because it is one of the places where Suzanne and I talk together, about things such as poetry and fashion and the people Suzanne loves and the people I love and sometimes these are the same people and sometimes they are not. Suzanne and I think and talk about the books and art and experiences I am reading and the books and art and experiences Suzanne is reading, which is usually a lot of things all at once, right now for example I know the things Suzanne is reading includes Democracy in America and American Architecture and Urbanism and the things I am reading include Lub Luffly and Lipstick Traces.
Suzanne and I also think and talk about how Suzanne's body feels and looks, and how my body feels and looks, and how the way my body feels is different from the way her body feels. Suzanne and I are endlessly surprised by how the way Suzanne thinks my body looks is very different from the way I think my body looks, and how by the way I think Suzanne's body looks is very different from the way she thinks her body looks.
"But you're so tiny!"
Walking around the lake, Suzanne and I think and talk too about the structures I am more or less caught in and the structures she is more or less caught in, and where she and I are more or less caught in the same structure, we think and talk about how her experience of being stuck inside the structure is the same as but also different than mine, and how my experience of being stuck inside the structure is the same as but also different from hers.
Suzanne and I think about all of this and at the same time think about the landscape Suzanne and I are moving through, as we move through it, how it is constructed but also natural, and received. Suzanne and I think about the lake, with its history of intervention, and which was not a lake until a little while ago. I think maybe the lake will be something else later, maybe it will stop being a lake. I don't know. At this moment it is a circular landscape shaped by history, by the idea of leisure and civic life in Oakland.
In addition to the lake, Suzanne and I also sit in our apartments and talk to each other, but more usually in Suzanne's apartment, which is a space designed for humans to sit in together and talk. It is a usual studio apartment, with the usual amount of space, arranged by an architect and built in the usual way, but it is also not usual, because inside this space Suzanne has created a space of other but exactly the same dimensions, which is making me think of Baudelaire's "The Double Room", but that is not exactly right and neither are the words which come next. They are weak but will have to do: that other space is beautiful, it asks you to sit down on the low couch and talk some more, which brings comfort of a particular kind, that "queer, divine dissatisfaction" (Martha Graham) which can be as true of conversation as it is of the project of art and art-making.
Then, after walking alone or walking together, after sitting in Suzanne's apartment talking and sometimes drinking wine and sometimes smoking cigarettes, Suzanne and I return to our apartments, to the alone-ness of being in our individual apartments, and then Suzanne and I sit alone and read, and write.
Suzanne and I wish that our days consisted of this, of reading and writing and walking around the lake. Suzanne is I think a little better than I at devoting her time to reading and writing. Nevertheless to varying degrees our days consist of these things, but our walking and talking and writing are also helplessly informed by how little of our time is actually left for these activities after the satisfaction of the other activities our economic circumstances demand of us. Which are not exactly the same, but do share some forms of pressure. Suzanne's life is not my life, and my life is not Suzanne's but Suzanne and I do both have to work full-time in order to support ourselves. Who does not? Suzanne and I dream about this, who does not have to work, and wonder if Suzanne or I could become who does not need to work quite so much in order to support ourselves. I wonder if Suzanne and I would be happy if our only work was walking and talking and reading and writing. I wonder who Suzanne and I would be without our specific and constant economic pressures. I wonder what Suzanne and I could change in our lives to allow more time for walking and talking and writing.
It's clear by now that I do not know how to talk about Suzanne Stein's writing without talking about her personhood, and about some overlapping formal qualities of my life and hers.
It's similarly impossible for me to think about Suzanne's work without also thinking about the trajectory of her interventions in space, which have included The Gallery, The Classroom, The Reader, The Reading. "Is that a real poem or did you make it up yourself?" That's a Robert Creeley joke I just realized is totally un-funny in the context of Suzanne's writing which concerns itself not at all with the 'real' as established by external systems of value, although there is no doubt about this writing's material, spacial qualities. As with the lake, or an urban apartment, given forms shaped by the trajectory of human interventions in space thus far, so with poetry. It is 'man-made'. It is also a real lake.
Foregrounded in Suzanne's writing is why and how poetry may be the best place for human thought to happen, that form which may be containing and constructed and historic and peopled with silt and trash but also endless, actual, malleable. 'Plastic.' Infinite. In some ways very alone. A form which does not deny but finally lets go the economic and other lexicons it is, like all else, shaped by.
Zoom: we are in a poem written by Suzanne. A line breaks with physical care, it is painful to be without form and then shaped for a moment. How can I not feel it? The delicacy of that particular pain, language as the muscles in a leg, muscle fibers which are, like paper, bound together into bundles called fascicles, the fibers broken down slightly as the leg walks or runs at unaccustomed training levels, these tears rebuilt and healed while the body sleeps, or lays on the couch reading and thinking and staring out the window. Then the body leaves the apartment to walk again, the muscles and the language torn again slightly and again reassembled while the body sleeps, or lays on the couch reading and thinking and staring out the window. And so it is also built from sustained low levels of exertion in which the muscles are used at well below their maximal contraction strength for long periods of time.
A poetry creating and then meeting its own formal demands, demands which modulate and morph even as they are met. It is not always a fast process.
It is sometimes difficult and can take a long while to construct a building, or a lake, or a new muscle.
It is even difficult, and can take a long while, to move from one building to another, from one body of water to another, to use one muscle while the injured muscle rests.
And it is sometimes also difficult and slow and painful to live in a house or apartment as it is given, a house or apartment that may not meet the needs of the landscape it is placed in, nor the needs of the people who place their lives inside it.
It is painful to do these things. To train at an unaccustomed level, and experience painful little tears in the muscle fiber. To have the endurance necessary for long, low levels of exertion.
To live in a room as it is given.
To rebuild a room.
It is painful to be without form and then shaped for a moment, or for a series of moments which become Time, I guess, and History. To move between these things in a bubble called a moment, or a line.
Within the form as it is received (the lake, the apartment, poetry) something is changing the us, the we is changing something. It is we, and also individual, and particular. There are the undeniable physical processes. There is a body soft and permeable enough to filter movement, sound, light, language, other bodies, all of which leave their trace behind, the arm and hand of a human in a boat, trailing her fingers through the water.
And there is the mysterious other alchemical process whereby these traces metastasize in text.
Suzanne is writing this other alchemy, the "psycho-surgical maneuver." It is painful and mysterious. It is primary text, I keep saying, I keep saying "psycho-surgical maneuver" to myself as I walk around this circular landscape, which is changing me, the walking, or the talking, to others and myself?
SUZANNE STEIN online:
from A TONALIST NOTES
Suzanne Stein's TAXT PRESS
other online SEARCHES