Jeffrey Pethybridge is the author of Striven, The Bright Treatise (Noemi Press 2013). His work appears widely in journals such as Chicago Review, Volt, Poor Claudia, The Iowa Review, LIT, New American Writing and others. He is also the North American Editor for Likestarlings, a web-archive of collaborative poetry and poetics. He’s currently at work on a documentary project centered on the recently released torture memos entitled "Found Poem Including History, an Essay on the Epic." He grew up in Virginia.
To Be The Imaginary (In April)
In a Roman legion the Imaginary, was the officer charged with the responsibility of carrying an image of the Emperor in parade, in ritual, and in battle. What follows is a series of figures for poetry, epitomes of spirit, or method, of intent, and consequence. A new metaphor––like a new measure––is a new mind. This essay then will be the imaginary for poetry, the emperor of no country I know.
Susan Howe begins her crystalline book The Souls of the Labadie Tract with a description of the eighteenth century preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards making his parish rounds. As he rode he thought, and to help himself remember his ideas, and insights for later writing, Edwards pinned small pieces of paper to his clothes. The elegance of this intertextuality is like a mathematical proof.
Howe discovers a conceptual rhyme between Edwards’s memory technique––pinning pieces of paper on his clothing in order to fix a “particular insight” in his mind––and Edwards’s ethical-aesthetic vocabulary, what Edwards likely thought of as a theological-linguistic rectitude or responsibility: “Extricate all questions from the least confusion by words or ambiguity of words so that the Ideas shall be left naked.”
Edwards making his springtime rides, the tabs of thoughts pinned slightly flutter in the breeze. The image speaks to the spirit and means of poetry both: itinerant, implicated in metaphysics, and a piecemeal materiality. All our thoughts only a collage of/from the common resource of the Language. And we take this inaugural image as kindred for her own methods of composition. Later in Souls we see the connection extend to include Stevens on his daily walk to and from work, writing on scraps of paper, envelopes etc.
“Poetry,” Howe writes “is love for the felt fact stated in sharpest, most agile and detailed lyric terms.” Following as it does from Edwards’s credo to leave Ideas naked and free of confusions and ambiguities, Howe’s definition of poetry as the “felt fact stated in sharpest, most agile and detailed lyric terms,” strikes me as a kind of conceptual rhyme––the ideas or values return but in a changed form just as sound returns slightly altered in rhyme––as language crosses from a theology to poetry.
It’s April not yet Easter, and to untangle a knot of thought and a half-articulated sentence, I took a walk; barely out of doors into the overcast light, the words resolved themselves.
In section CXLVIII, the antepenultimate section of The Triumph of Love, Geoffrey Hill hazards a quick series of questions and answers about the nature and function of poetry:
So––Crocker, MacSikker, O’Shem––I ask you:
what are poems for? They are to console us
with their own gift, which is like perfect pitch.
Let us commit that to our dust. What
ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad
and angry consolation. What is
the poem? What figures? Say,
a sad and angry consolation. That’s
beautiful. Once more? A sad and angry
If the poem is to be “a sad and angry consolation” then the poem will always already be an elegy––an elegy albeit removed from the traditional consolations of the genre: the religious consolation which mitigates grief with the thought of the dead in Heaven or its like; or the natural consolation which lessens grief with an image of the dead become one with Nature. Hill’s poem is a survivor’s song, a song in the wake of devastations and defeats, a song of and for the wreckage of the long twentieth century.
In his essay “The Emergency,” Andrew Joron argues for a conception of poetry’s potential not in memorial terms, but rather mathematical ones. In Joron’s essay, as in a Venn diagram, a radically “renewed” poetry exits at the intersection of overlapping fields: political emergency, political catastrophe overlap with the emergence of the radically new out of a mathematical catastrophe, which intersects with language, itself a complex system out of which a poem erupts. And since the poem is an “ontologically unprecedented spring[ing] forth,” a radical object that “tunes itself toward a state of criticality, a condition of language in which single words have the wides possible range of effects,”since the poem is all this, it is an elemental force.
Joron is most interested in a range of effects he calls “the Cry,” or “lament,” or “deep blues.” “The blues, all blues,” he writes “are the matrix of the world’s subaltern cultures, an expression of triumph in defeat. The raising the voiceless voice, omnipresent roar of that river forced underground.”
In the sounded cry and the lament, we hear not only the reality of resistance, but its surreality––resistance as “an overflowing of reality.”
Elsewhere Joron has said that “sound is the dimension where poetry, or language itself, intersects with the body at a primary level, and allows poetry to reconnect with cosmic movements and cosmic dimensions. Sound is also an utopian, liberatory dimension of language because it where the body, which is redolent of the cosmos, connects with language at a primary level.”
“The Emergency” is clear-sighted about the history we inhabit, and radically idealistic about the potential of the poem in, through and beyond history; it is an absolutely essential document. And the book fits in your pocket.
In a post over at Jacket2, the editors of Commune Editions (Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clover, Julianna Spahr) propose the riot dogs of Athens as just figures for the contemporary poem. Such a poem they write might provide a mix of “support and strangeness,” and be “a companion to struggles and manifestations.” Their gloss on the riot dog figures poetry as “minor” force, limited to “providing inspiration,” and unable to do much to alter the balance of forces, other than “some barking, some letting you know the cops are at the door.”
If Joron’s concept of poetry as the emergency is idealistic, insisting that the poem through the elemental force of sound has cosmic potential; the poem as riot dog is realistic, chastened even, about poetry’s range of effects, a figure intent upon rejecting some of the inherited arguments about the political dimension of poetry. And yet don’t we feel the suggestion of something slightly above ordinary reality in the fact that the dogs chose the side of the anarchists (and others protesting austerity); there’s something strange that Kanellos and the other riot dogs knew who was right; something archetypal, mystical in that recognition and election by a familiar or spirit animal. The Commune Editions collective reminds us the poem, too, is dogged: chased out of the city proper, and living on scraps, but still there barking from the margins––you get can’t get rid of us!
Some time during the tenure of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa an “unnamed Indian woman” petitioned the Amnesty Committee to grant her amnesty for the crime of “apathy.” Her application read:
as individuals can and should be held accountable by history for our lack of necessary action in times of crisis…in exercising apathy rather than commitment we allow(ed) others to sacrifice their lives for the sake of our freedom and an increase in our standard of living.
I found this poem embedded in an essay by Jacqueline Rose in 2003 or 2004. I’d picked up the issue of Raritan absolutely by chance. I read it drinking the “Rocket Fuel” roast at Osama’s coffee in Columbia, Missouri after, and before conversations with friends: the bright, early days of graduate school.
Ultimately the Committee denied her application for amnesty. The unnamed woman’s confession, and the exacting vision of responsibility and accountability that it implied exceeded the Commission’s Mandate, exceeded how the Commission’s structuring language understood acts both “whose motivation was political,” and that occurred within a bounded period of time (between the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994). The Amnesty Committee judged the exercise of apathy did “not disclose an action or omission which amounts to an offence or a delict in respect of which amnesty can be granted.” In the end the Committee called her application “intriguing.”
This is a story of guilt and failure. This is a story of the radical ethics––a momentary utopia––of an unyielding responsibility. A momentary utopia, albeit disappointed, then disappeared by the custodians of the administered world. Not absolutely invisible yet, it waits, humming, in the archive, waiting for you and your library card, a kind of key (still). A kind of key to cities, Otherwise & If.
Or the poem finds you.
In the current book I’m writing “Found Poem Including History, an Essay on the Epic,” which is centered on the clutch of bureaucratic documents (from the early 2000’s) that have come to be called the “torture memos.” The book understands those documents to be the epic poem of America in the early twenty-first century, and in that book, she is the Guide.
Here, now, in the small theater of your reading, I want to be her Imaginary, and her plea––the poem.