Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rob Halpern's Review of Occultations / PhillySound Feature

I'm really so touched by CA Conrad's attention to Occultations, by how hard he worked in concert with Rob Halpern, Brenda Iijima, J. Townsend, Thom Donovan, and Jules Boykoff, to put together the interview, the featured poetry, and, of course, the community commentary. All the mini-reviews were touching, deeply so, each so insightful if a little too kind. I do want to draw your attention to Rob's review for a very specific reason: in the midst of a move (tenure track job!) to Michigan, Rob wrote a really in-depth piece, one that were he interested in credit, could have been published in a journal someplace, so thorough and investigatory it is. I want to thank him for this. He emailed me a pdf of it a couple days before it came out, and of course I didn't get back to him in any timely way whatsoever (my M.O for emailing). So I don't think Rob's piece gets the props it deserves for sheer amount of time he took to ponder the work, write it. Rob doesn't do things half-assed, which I admire. His compulsions end up making others happy.  I hope Conrad doesn't mind, but here's Rob's review, which were it a review in the sense of "hey read this great book," I wouldn't post here. But as per Rob's work overall, the review is rather an essay thinking through issues both of us, and I take many of you, are interested in. Many thanks to all for the feature! That I post Rob's writeup here is no reflection on how good/touching each of the pieces are. 

Link to the entire feature is on the right side of the blog here, under Book Info & Reviews. 

Re-Printed from PhillySound , Feature by CA Conrad

Militant Bodies, Common Bodies : Some Notes on David Wolach's Poetry

It was David’s affect that attracted me first — open, vulnerable, patient, disarming — all the qualities a queer boy like myself longs for in other guys, whether there’s some amorous prospect to be realized or not. This was several years ago, but the impression remains fresh. David and I introduced ourselves to one another in a dining commons at Bard College. We both had summer gigs teaching in the Language and Thinking program, a scene of deep collaboration around poetry and pedagogy, which would become the setting for our new friendship.

There is a critical militancy that complements David’s affect — permeates it — augmenting, rather than contradicting, all his qualities that move me. Within a few minutes of our meeting, we got to talking about student activism at the Evergreen State College, where I had spent some time as an undergraduate, and where David currently teaches. We found common ground discussing campus politics — always a distorted mirror of larger social forces — and how our various political engagements, both there and elsewhere, changed our lives.

David’s militancy moves from the union to the classroom, from the clinic to the street, through institutional zones and practices where our collective well-being — the commons — is always being stimulated and suppressed, aroused and seized.

I don’t use the term “militant” casually or commonly, but I like the idea of linking it to the commons. Against the grain of dominant “common sense” — grotesque ideology — militating and communing are not at odds. The militant body may even be consonant with the common body, at home in it — the body as commons? Habeas corpus — to have the body — becomes our common ground, if only because of the hostile social processes that disable, subject, constrain, and debase all our bodies commonly. And yet the body also potentiates a resource in excess of anything we can currently name.

In his introduction to the recently translated Genocide in the Neighborhood, a work that emerged from Argentine activist groups responding to the situation of the disappeared, Brian Whitener notes “ ‘militant’ doesn’t mean military […] militant signifies a stronger commitment to politicized collectivity”, and this may get at the sum of David’s practices, pedagogically and poetically. Whether in a classroom or a waiting room, a poem or a chant, a community of friends or a union of laborers, David’s writing and person activate this commitment to collective engagement, while militating for an enlarged politics.

At a recent Nonsite Collective event where David facilitated a discussion on “The Commons and the Body”, I quickly cribbed a few notes to help me introduce his poetry to the group. I wrote: “In David’s writing, the body becomes an occlusion in common sense.” The phrase came unexpectedly. What was I getting at?: the body as resistant to any regime of knowledge — be it medical or military — that would make of it a ward.

The body manifests in David’s poems not as an object, but as a situation where too many social processes, institutions, and apparatuses converge — medical, military, labor, financial, environmental — in often hostile ways, despite whatever benign appearance. David’s body is a body in revolt from the object status to which these apparatuses subject it, and his poetry is nothing if not an agitator in the interest of this revolt.

This is “the body-as-a-hole” (Occultations 77). This is the body struggling to affect a radical displacement in orders of common sense that determine what can and can’t be seen and said. This is the body as supplement and void — in excess of what counts and thus not legitimately here — challenging everything that serves to enforce orders of state. This is the body as nonsite of the commons, the commons being what is not here, the only thing we can share in truth, a set of social relations we’ve failed to actualize, a blank of pure potential, where we’re always dying, and always becoming. This is the body as an assemblage of intensities linked to multiple scenes of power that contain all our utopian and dystopian possibilities: all the vicissitudes of care and harm. This is the body as the critical situation of our undoing: the body as a commons in the way failure is a possibility we don’t know what to do with.

Tortured body. War torn body. Environmentally ill body. Ecstatic body. Immolated body. “What work this dying is,” he writes. David’s poems consistently make the occulted links between various scenes of the body’s expropriation perceptible. And while the poems affirm not knowing what a body can do, they nonetheless register what the body can’t do insofar as its flows have been obstructed, expropriated, owned, and forced to persist in irresolvable conflict with militarized production, environmental degradation, and geopolitical debasement.

David’s writing portends the body as a kind of “dissipative structure” — (according to chaos theory, a form of organization that resists its own conditions of dissipating energy and eroding resource) — a body at once vulnerable and resistant to every form of social erosion, a vulnerability and a resistance commensurate with the struggle to organize under conditions where the commons and the body alike go on sliding entropically toward exhausted resource.

Organize what?: a community, a union, a classroom, a collective, a poem: “organization” being a dynamic movement between all these organs. Prosody as organized pulse.

In David’s poems, the body-in-pain — chronic pain, constant reminder of mortality — is lived like a third world niche market — frontier of development — where the only lexicons available for speaking or singing of first world illness collide with the perverse semantics of the so-called “developing world”: the body as casualty — what can’t develop any more — sung in “the language of paper / cheap and easy,” when all you can do from here is “hold yr breath & pray / for the lynched.”

Under these conditions of ongoing war and environmental disaster, what has been occulted — nonsite: withdrawn from view — is as much the war-torn body, or the flood victim body, or the fallen militant body, as the memoranda that make these bodies possible, all of which are inseparable from the sick body here,wherever we might call home. 

David’s writing proposes to resurrect the failed body as potential and resource. And in this sense, too, his work proposes a perverse model of our occluded commons — body-as-a-hole — the body that fails to count within dominant regimes of visibility. This is the body as “collateral damage”, and it shares what can’t be shared with the militant body fallen in the streets of Gaza, and with the transgendered body violated here on Mission Street.

Just as the commons may be thought of as a nonsite whose history is the story of its own expropriation, this body is a disappearing act: negative ontology of our only common resource. This is the commons as the blank in history — history of the future that haunts us now — and David’s poems propose “degraded lyric as convergence of [these] aporias / The strange tremor of unusual poverties / Of not knowing what will come of this” (Occultations 117). The militant body — the body as secret agent of our commons — hangs on that not, the withdrawn secret of a counter-capacity waiting to be activated, waiting to surge.

This may be our occultation: the militant body as site of common refusal, zone of uncharted futures. This is also the body whose patiency suspends all property relations, to one another and to our life processes — “giving oneself over as shared resource” “given over to community” (David’s notes) — rendering the corpus open, disarming, and vulnerable to forms of unanticipated care, while resisting any form of knowledge that would further subject it.

Here is the abundance of the patient body — “a capacity without limit” — whose unruly excess persists in revolt against a grammar of proper agents and objects, a system that disables, limits, constrains.

David’s writing is the militant affirmation of this patiency.

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