Sunday, May 27, 2007

Joshua Clover, The Totality for Kids

I posted briefly on Joshua Clover in my Three Joshuas (Beckman, Clover, Corey) mini-review last year. I was taken with Clover's The Totality for Kids, and wanted to spend more time with it before going on at length. Partly this is because I want to resist being taken in by the sheen, and by the very coiffed nature of Clover's persona--an aspect of poetry that tends to send me running in the opposite direction. But the sheen is a perk in this case. The Totality for Kids rocks: I'm still taken by the book, and Clover himself, whose blog is also worth visiting.

The Totality for Kids is a thoroughly modern text, written, as Judith Butler suggests on the back cover (as if that isn't "sign" enough...) "in the shadow of Adorno." There be theory in this text; this text be shaped by theory, in both subtle and unsubtle shapings. The presence of an index, for example:
Adorno, Theordor W., 3
Agamben, Giorgio, 23
Alduy, Cecile, 30
Alphabet, 11,21,36,66
Anarchasim, 51,52,64
and so on...with more than a dozen references to architecture, cities, money, Paris, suburbs and sun respectively. This is a smart text, an engaged text, a text with reference, a text with relevance, a text embracing high and low, a text which plays with the idea of text--the starburst poem Ca Ira (30), and the playful "What's so American about American Poetry? " which appears in both French and English (the French being decidedly sexier):
Au fond c’est fait au sable.
Heuresment, parce que sans ça, c’était un véritable casse-tête.
French culture and language are obviously major factors in this text, but it's a different engagement than other American poets (Alice Notley, Marilyn Hacker, CK Williams...), who spend a good deal of time and/or live, in France. Clover's engagement is more filmic, more architectural, more Lisa Robertson than the above, but also more Clover: "The sun tutoyers me! Adrift beyond the heroic realism/in the postmodern sublime where every window can lie/Like a priest..." (64).

Other fetching aspects include the references to artists--the poems titled "Whiteread Walk," for example, with their sculptural and mediated sound:
Monumental the lacunae between illbiquitous promenaders down to the
Square past the Open 24 Hours as social forms of grieving we are prohibited
this is the remix the new glitch has been called melancholy of luscious
The titles of the poems themselves are luscious: "Their Ambiguity," "Parable Lestrange," "Feral Floats the Form in Heaven and of Light."

I took a dozen poetry books (Canadian just for interest sake...) down from the shelf and flipped through, looking at word pairings. Of the ten I randomly chose only Margaret Christakos and Darren Wershler Henry compared for freshness, for condensed meaning. This wasn't a study, just a random take, but it's worth considering the number of surprising pairings in a text because to this reader in any case, this can be a mark of a text's velocity, its fuel, or conflict (if conflict drives narrative perhaps combustive language drives poetry...).

The city, its shape and structure, its interaction and movement with people and ideas is at the core of this text--not surprisingly Benjamin, flaneurism, etc. But the city exists more acutely in contrast, and in context, rather than narratively (as with Dionne Brand, for example) or formally (as we see with Marilyn Hacker). In that sense, Clover achieves a grandness not by the cliche of the particular (cliche in our insistance, not in its effectiveness), but by the particular view, the angle and rawness of the included particulars, the wide swing from city to suburb, abstract idea to tender moment: "Two boys in a doorway tending each other's wounds," we get in the poem "The Dark Ages," which knocks around the idea of poetic history, form, discussion of the "lamp-lit" corridors of poetry, where like a magician Clover turns, and turns ideas and images on themselves, offering connection after connection as the narrator moves through space ending at
some town square and the strangers look at (him) as if (he) had done something terrible, an otherwise good man who commits murder after murder to understand why exactly he did it the first time (34).
I've been reading this book along with Judith Butler's Giving an Account of Oneself, in which she asks, among other things, how one can go about doing just that in an ethical, honest manner (what is ethical, what is honest?). In the chapter "Against Ethical Violence," she suggests that one's ability to accept what is "contingent and incoherent in oneself may allow one to affirm others who may or may not affirm one's own constitution." This ability to accept, not limitations, but impermanence and growth, not only makes for more accepting humans, it makes for a more collaborative and open textual experience. There are no conclusions in Clover's text. We aren't affirmed in our humanness like so much contemporary poetry tends to do, no lifelines dangling, no balm, no pat endings. Nor are we left unaffirmed necessarily. Rather, we are left ruffled, tousled, having stood briefly at a corner slouched, perhaps thinking of a cigarette, or considering the inherent sexiness of cities meant for people, not cars, having arrived too early, or too late, or maybe not even sure we're at the right address...and its our ability to be open to this that is affirmed if nothing else. Clover achieves "a casual balance between OxyContin and "poetic prose." New "sensations" do emerge, and new perspectives. In his hands that seems an easy thing to do. Alas it is not.

You can see and hear Clover reading on Jordan Davis' Million Poems show--where yours truly will appear tomorrow, Monday the 28th.

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