This review is 1,177 words
or about 2 printed pages long
Rob Halpern writes, in his timely first volume of poetry, Rumored Place,
Gaps in the intelligence, passing into being — the doze and faze, a
gilded lapse — a bald white vacancy — being the shudder of some
objective force — bound inside no agency — the complete idea of a
deluge — cinched in national brackets — fucked there — detained, “and
safely so” in containers — made of Chinese steel — these articles of
faith — where they were shot — dumped.
This brief excerpt, from “SITUATION — BEING ON A ROCK,” previews some of the major themes at work in the text, though it rehearses only a single mode of critique in Halpern’s brimming repertoire. The author shifts seamlessly through thick narrative blocks, some resting at the lip of confession, only to compress our attention(s) through shimmering lyric tirades; all of this in, around, parallel to Donne, Browning, and Rimbaud, filtered by the lens of Marx’s militancy, only to return to the landing site of the subject amongst others. In short, Rumored Place is at times a bleak dystopic vision, one part science fiction wasteland, one part sordid, sadomasochistic flicker, Marx over Donne in the Tenderloin, “history thrust[ing] being up the fundament.”
And yet, despite the negative tone of this somewhat improbable précis, Halpern manages to retain the afterimage of utopic possibility, thanks in part to his reading of the poets Robert Duncan and Tyrone Williams. In “This Place Rumord to Have Been Sodom,” a poem certainly intimated by Halpern’s title, Duncan writes,
This Place Rumord to Have Been Sodom
might have been.
Certainly these ashes might have been pleasures.
That the rumored place might have been Sodom is, of course, appropriate to what Taylor Brady calls Halpern’s “embodied eros.” That Sodom might have been, however, is key to understanding the strain of optimism in Halpern’s sometimes suffocating text. In a letter to the poet Tyrone Williams, Halpern writes,
History isn’t haunted by what happened, rather by what didn’t happen. But I think it’s also haunted by what hasn’t happened yet, a specter haunting from a future we’re still unable to imagine...And in order for us to be faithful to that promise, don’t we have to let our selves and our work be similarly haunted?...But more to the point, it’s yr use of the future anterior tense, the what will have happened, that’s beginning to suggest to me a grammar to inform a response to the crisis...It’s a rogue tense, pressing on oblivion’s horizon, reaching to break this continuum of catastrophe, or at least to open a place from which to ask, what will we have done to have made this other future?
I can’t help thinking of Benjamin on Turgot in the Arcades Project: “Before we have learned to deal with things in a given position they have already changed several times. Thus, we always perceive events too late, and politics always needs to foresee, so to speak, the present” (italics mine). I’d like to couple Halpern’s notion of event with Benjamin’s awakening — somewhere between the evening of the past and the morning of the present; and yet, even at his most Benjaminian, for instance, in the poem “Theses, on the remembrance of things to come,” there’s a sense that, rather than “the present polariz[ing] the event into fore- and after-history” (as Benjamin has it), the future makes of the event an alternate present. Halpern writes,
— as in Gaza, total devastation ensures these marginal environ-
ments — lodged between what might have been here and what will
From the above, it’s quite clear that, for Halpern, the conditions of the present are entirely untenable:
shredding maps for fuel, counting and subtracting stones, though
pocketing few, trying to trace our labors if only to negate them.
Becoming this impossible subject, standing in for nothing rose to fill.
Marked by all these market shares, shattered by its names, the
violence of our consonance
However, the event infiltrates the stasis of the enframed to intimate the new, the other, an entirely different present altogether. For Halpern, the subject is a product of fidelity to a fissure — a kind of indeterminate cipher by which and through which history happens.
Ultimately, the key to the future perfect tense, and finally, the book’s utopic promise, is firmly embedded in these “fissures,” the “blanks” or “gaps” to which Halpern repeatedly refers, often marked in the text by a horizontal line in brackets. He calls this figure the “nonplace of emergence,” a sensible rupture in the text, or else, a utopian placeholder that marks the unnamable trace of the event on the present, yet to be determined by a future still open to possibility:
Becoming whatever space exclusion fills in us [—————] moving
counter to being and all that exists. Here, we will have worked to
abolish the need to work and made what can’t be made. But the
expense of ushering the other place is more than we currently earn.
Longing in these signs for unison — there being no real leg to the
bend, no arm to the punch — issuing the gap in which we lie, waiting
to be subsumed. Sounds of quaking aspen fill the still grave hush.
Leaves shimmering in a shale ravine.
In this sense, Halpern is anticipating an historical time, leaving open the possibility that an event in the present will have been, will have created sustainable subjects other than the over-determined beings we’ve come to recognize as ourselves. He describes this event as a “barely discernable shudder” passing through the subject, or as he has it in “SITUATION — BEING ON A ROCK,”
Filling throats with so much rock — there being no such devastating
thisness — no containers no steel no trench — mere mnemonics of
which — echo before the thud — thrusting back intenser spume,
spitting out great wads of it, as if we could ever parry such a blow —
the pale white skinny — sinking down, a bony ash — no concrete
evidence to substantiate the assets — no correct theory to account for
what has taken place — this event still moving thru us.
In this sense, as is wont with Duncan, the subject emerges through a fidelity to becoming, “Being something other than a name, still subject to these events, we cannot be nor identify at all —” However, as Halpern’s achingly intimate portrayals suggest, the subject experiences the possibilities of the future in the midst of the “failing forms” of the present. Thus, with “arching back, the shudder violates like a fist of blazing coals.” The key, however, is to avoid betraying the event by remaining faithful to “futures bound to the promise all this language found.”
In short, Halpern’s Rumored Place happens as events. It ex-tends or leaps into the discord of its content as surprise, pushing itself outside of a looming foreclosure; as such, its happening remains beside what’s known. The book itself is a “a thing recording the conditions of its own inscription,” holding open the site of a possible other way of being, a rumored place, “a broken expressing expressed.”