Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 20, August 2012)

Angela Hume

“There is no touch that is not each / to each   reciprocal.”

—Robert Duncan

First, a constellation: body, contamination, symptom, song. First, a measure: body losing or lost.

This is not a call for a lyric of infinite mourning.1

“Let there be writing, not about the body, but the body itself,” writes Jean-Luc Nancy.2 Why write body?

In a quarter or a third of the world very few bodies circulate (only flesh, skin, faces, muscles—bodies there are more or less hidden: in hospitals, cemeteries, factories, beds from time to time), while everywhere else in the world bodies multiply more and more, the body endlessly multiplied (frequently starved, beaten, murdered, restless, sometimes even laughing or dancing).3

In the West, we prefer not to see, smell, or touch body. We conceal body in disgust, shame, even fear. At the same time, we so blatantly subject body—commodify, contaminate, politicize, propagate, administer, exhaust body—both near and far, human and other-than-human, affirming, in the end, body’s centrality to all formations of power. This phenomenon has a name: it is called biopolitics.4

The city’s fringe, the industrial farm, the airport, the supermarket: in these biopolitical spaces, body—flesh, water, will, energy, desire, disease, waste, rot—is managed, permitted or prohibited, exploited, pacified, processed, administered, and/or eliminated.5

A symptom, lodged in body, is biopolitical. Contamination, an invasion of body…a malignancy on the skin or in the lung or bladder of a man; pesticides, flame retardants, and PCB’s in the blood and urine of a pregnant woman; plastic in the stomach of a Pacific ocean fish—the consequence so often of a policy, a choice, made by one or several privileged parties—is biopolitical. And harm—the blasting of chemical gas or firing of “non-lethal” projectiles into the faces or breasts of human protestors—in the name of safeguarding “democracy,” is biopolitical.

“The concept of the ‘body,’” writes Giorgio Agamben, “is always already caught in a deployment of power. The ‘body’ is always already a biopolitical body and bare life.”6

Bare life: that which may be killed but not sacrificed.7 That is: that which, in the aftermath of its destruction, is not experienced as lost.

And so, a question to ask becomes: how to lose body? How to realize loss as integral to the experience of embodiment—of touch, taste, sex, song, sleep, excrement, toxicity, decay, death? In and through the most daily of acts, how to lose body in spite of (i.e., refuse body to) that zone of indistinction that characterizes so much of political space in modernity?

To lose: to become deprived of, by death, separation, or severance.8 Also: to become merged in, deeply absorbed or engrossed in; to become bewildered, overwhelmed.9

It may be true that lyric has long imagined loss. To think the earliest lyric, one might go back to Apollo, making music with his lyre, or to Orpheus, charming animals, plants, and objects with his. But the classicist Nicole Loraux offers very different figures: that of tragic Electra, crying out aiai, and that of tragedy’s chorus, singing its lyric passages.10 Loraux suggests that lyric is a dominant trope in Greek tragedy, often sounding out a space for “antipolitical” (that which behaves subversively in the face of the city-state) lamentation.11 Lyric in Greek tragedy, argues Loraux, is seized away from Apollo, divorced from the lyre, and wedded irrevocably to aulos, or mourning. And so, no song without mourning; no mourning without (lyre-less) song.

Recall Duncan:

                                It is across great scars of wrong

          I reach toward the song of kindred men12

Lyre-less song, furthermore, as body’s song, the most daily of all.

                I see always the under side turning,

          fumes that injure the tender landscape.

                From which up break

          lilac blossoms of courage in daily act

                striving to meet a natural measure.13

Song whose measure is its struggle amidst and as damage—that which “up breaks,” through injury. Here the spondee-trochee, that strange variant, subverts and expels the iamb—from “great scars of wrong” to “I reach toward” (my emphasis on stresses)—and the musical gives way to unruly “natural” measure: “I see always the underside turning” (spondee-trochee-trochee) and “From which up break / lilac blossoms” (spondee-trochee / trochee-trochee). Meter casts off lyre, a ritual of mourning and resistance.

What Michael Palmer in a reading of Duncan calls “undecidability”: “the music of poetic logic, music’s call, as defiant alternative to the instrumentalist and materially oriented ideology of the society at large. A song arising from the ground…”14

To lose is also: to become merged in, constituted by and constitutive of: “I too / that am a nation sustain the damage” (to go to another moment in Duncan).15 To think loss is to think dialectically. To sing from the ground.

Furthermore, to lose is: to become bewildered. Bewilderment, for Fanny Howe: “a way of entering the day,” both a poetics and an ethics.16 A mode for grasping “the experience of a certain event as scattered, and non-sequential,” leading nowhere.17

But a nowhere that can only be now—the actual, material world in which we live. What else to call it? How else to know it? “Can [revolution] be done through poetry itself? Of course not,” writes Brenda Hillman. “[But] the values that make poetry great can assist us…in habits of mind—uncertainty, risk-taking, a profound engagement with doubt…”18

To lose body: to commit to a poetics of radical doubt.

Once again, this is not a call for a lyric of infinite mourning. Alternatively, it is a wager: that lyric might intone those slight, spontaneous, irreducible moments of contact between and within body; that lyric might exhale precisely that which is subordinated, obscured, or canceled in and through the administration of body that is now the rule of the West; that lyric might suggest form for the loss that is so constitutive of body and of ecosystem today. That lyric might write body.

“Text: my body—shot through with streams of song,” writes Hélène Cixous.19 To recall Cixous—for any poetics of the body must acknowledge the French feminists to whom it owes so much—but to think writing body beyond the feminine. Writing body: not so much feminine practice as material practice (perhaps what Cixous meant all along), that transgression that occurs at all levels of earthly contact…human, other-than-human, living, nonliving, always somewhere in between.

I write this piece upon completing a manuscript comprised primarily of lyric fragments. Why lyric fragment? Fragments in field—imagistic, acoustic, actual—behave like body, like ecology. Sometimes excessive, often accidental, always precarious, fragments inflect, document, relate, alter, sigh, dwell, fail. A fragment, the space between fragments, can be an orifice—dark, sexual, easy to get lost in. Fragment gives way to interstice.

Fragment, furthermore, is paradoxical in a way that body is: while singular as a blade, a definitive thrust in space and time, fragment is also absolutely porous, enmeshed. Everything penetrates it; what’s outside gets in. And anything inside fragment’s field, like body’s, is always at risk of falling out.

“Swerves, oddities, facts, miscues, remnants—threnody and meditation—the perpetually incomplete task of tracking what enters into the field of perception,” writes Myung Mi Kim of fragment and field.20

Fragment: that part of the totality that refuses the totality.21 That which “[lives] in the cavities between what things claim to be and what they are.”22

“Body—shot through…”—that is, body: fragmented. Body: losing: severed and/or merged, overwhelmed.

Of seventeenth century “physico-theology,” a strain of experimental literature that attempted to imagine its way toward creaturely others, Joanna Picciotto writes: “by entertaining perspectives that were divorced from their own persons, readers [of physico-theological literature] were able to experiment with a radically expanded field for empathy.”23 How might lyric practice today—a lyric of, between, across body—facilitate new encounters with and in environments we think we know and (to borrow Picciotto’s language) explode our “fields for empathy”? Might we begin to imagine fragment as not so much in field as in field-for-empathy”? In this field, might we begin to lose body—experience deprivation of, but also become merged in, bewildered or overwhelmed by body—in previously unrealized ways?

As a register of ecological entanglement, of body’s loss, lyric becomes powerful, lending form to and ontologizing moments of earthly touch, “each / to each reciprocal.”24

[But this last phrase, Duncan’s, is from a poem on Law. And where to begin, on Duncan and Law. In the poem’s context, “each / to each” may be read as two forces: the hidden “laws” of form, measured by earth and collective experience, and the intensity of individual witness. Lyric is only ever a dialectic of the two. For this reason, the extent of the loss performed by lyric remains always just beyond its grasp.]


1 Here I allude to—and attempt to defend myself against—Jacques Rancière’s critique of what he terms “the ‘ethical turn’ of aesthetics and politics,” in which (according to Rancière) art dedicates itself to “the interminable witnessing of…catastrophe.” See Rancière, “The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics,” Critical Horizons 7, no. 1 (2006): 10.
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2 Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus, trans. Richard A. Rand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 19.
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3 Ibid.
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4 Biopolitics is nothing new; Michel Foucault traces biopower back to the eighteenth century. See Foucault, “Right of Death and Power Over Life,” The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Random House, 1978), 134-159.
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5 I echo Giorgio Agamben here. Agamben calls the structure of this new political space—a space that (he argues) structures all of modernity—“the camp.” For Agamben, the camp is a permanent state of emergency in which life and law enter into a zone of indistinction and the exception becomes the rule; it is the “new biopolitical nomos of the planet.” See Agamben, Homo Sacer, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 166-180.
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6 Ibid., 187, my emphasis.
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7 Ibid., 82.
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8 “lose, v,” Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford University Press).
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9 Ibid.
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10 Nicole Loraux, The Mourning Voice: An Essay on Greek Tragedy, trans. Elizabeth Trapnell Rawlings (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002), 36-38.
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11 Ibid, 26.
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12 Robert Duncan, “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar,” The Opening of the Field (New York: New Directions, 1973), 64.
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14Michael Palmer, “Take the X Train: A Discrete Series: For Oppen,” Active Boundaries: Selected Essays and Talks (New York: New Directions, 2008), 7.
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15Duncan, “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar,” 64.
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16Fanny Howe, “Bewilderment,” How2 1, no. 1 (1999).
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18Brenda Hillman, “Red, White, & Blue: Poets on Politics,” Poetry Society of America, 1 June 2012, http://www.poetrysociety.org/psa/poetry/crossroads/red_white_blue_poets_on_politics/
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19Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1, no. 4 (summer 1976): 882.
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20Myung Mi Kim, Commons (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 107.
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21Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 45.
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22Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 2007), 150.
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23Joanna Picciotto, “‘Thou Art My Sister’: Physico-Theology and the Peopling of Nature,” unpublished paper, 21.
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24Robert Duncan, “The Law I Love Is Major Mover,” The Opening of the Field (New York: New Directions, 1973), 10.
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