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No Unbarbed Region Now:
Poetry, Consent, and Resistance
In Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, historian and anthropologist James Scott argues that resistance to hegemony occurs in “hidden transcripts,” performances that challenge power even while seeming to consent. I read Laura Elrick’s Fantasies in Permeable Structures as a work attuned to hidden transcripts, challenging not only the hegemony of these political and economic times, but also the hegemony of those institutions — including art and activism — expected to provide public transcripts of official resistance.
The book begins with two epigraphs, one from German visual artist Rosemarie Trockel, often described as a feminist, and a second from black poet Will Alexander. These epigraphs delineate the book’s central concern and approach: the complexities of “model” behaviors of resistance — problems that Trockel’s feminist work takes on — and the notion of imaginative language as resistance — Alexander’s “heightened aural gambit” and “ratio as ruse,” a tradition well-explored in African-American language arts.
Elrick’s approach is not to engage the “us versus them” language of the traditional left and of much of what is called political art. Rather, Elrick employs language in Fantasies in Permeable Structures as trickster, in degrees of relation with dominant structures, as the stealthy self-described “saprophyte” of her introductory note, “[flourishing] in the cracks and crevices of dead materials, metabolically decomposing as it feeds.”
“The public transcript,” according to Scott, “where it is not positively misleading, is unlikely to tell the whole story about power relations.” True to the nature of fantasy, Elrick’s verse project skirts public records of power relations. Recalling Dickinson’s line, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —” we are invited to
Take turns, curve
with me a while friend. Resonant distance
Alter touch, reading contours, articulations
as if to say: begin here. In the shared presence
of evening. . . .
Instead of the valorized tradition of speaking truth to power, the work here is not limited by what Scott calls “a view of politics focused either on what may be command performances of consent or open rebellion.”
But Fantasies in Permeable Structures takes this point even further, entertaining the possibility that the artist participates in and even perpetuates the dance between domination and resistance; culture work appears complicit in the activities of the system that would commodify everything. Or, at the very least, the work suggests that poetry is not immune to commodity culture. For example, section XXII’s extended list of what seem to be conditional statements on success includes “If you spend if you practice. / If you drive march or publish.” The list at the end of the same section includes “A film” and “A book,” “Or a fashionable magazine” and finally ends in “A poem” only for section XXIII to begin, in a 19th century voice, with “What enfenced region?” implying, as I read it, that poetry may also be cultural property, necessarily demarcated and up for ownership.
Additionally, Elrick could be referring to the occupied territory of war or art, warning: “No unbarbed / region now.” And who is “absorbed in their strange fingery pursuits”? The poet or the day trader? The factory worker or painter? After all, it is the same repetitive stress injury of data entry, factory-line piecework, or writing that “stiffens the wrists fuses hands / rips the elbows then spits out / the rate . . . “
In pointing out the symbiotic relationship between artist (even if avant-garde) and the deadening process of commodification, Fantasies problematizes poetry’s lineages — from romanticism to modernism to post-modernism. Riffing on “Amazing Grace” and the hymn’s promise of “salvation,” Elrick writes:
feeds the stabling grace. Distortion. Saving
us to slink away from what we fear:
our fears we cannot
In an attempt at a concluding sentence that would fulfill the expectation of the previous line, the complete verb remains undelivered. The protest here is in stopping short. Yet the potential “wildness” or “distortion” of this rhetorical multiplicity, of an art practice itself, serves the interests of stability, keeping the artist herself slinking away from what she fears and keeping the system intact. I read this element in Elrick’s work as a brutally honest element. Knowing that poetry might not save us, might the poet actually be on the brink of putting down her pen? This is a complex and tense place from which to write.
Again the poem’s speaker warns art-makers and intellectuals: “To obscurity you will go and think / it depth / said the vase the book and the barrel . . . “ and “Why not skid / deftly off some former mode slid lustily/along its hidden branches (flexing smarts?)” Here the “flexing” intellect is gendered work, even if innovative, even if practiced by women. It is showy; to whom are we “flexing” and is this not an aspect of poetry — and the poet — as object, as commodity?
In lines that address modernist forerunner William Carlos Williams, the speaker wistfully complains, “You were supposed to fix my gallery . . . / For the lack of what’s found there ripped.” Here I read “ripped” as the “ripped from the headlines” of TV’s “Law and Order,” equating news with entertainment, a reality of our age that forces a revision of Williams on the nature and purpose of poetry. If there is no more “news,” then Elrick revises Williams’ famous lines: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems,” suggesting that instead of “men [dying] miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there,” the resistance is off-screen, off-stage. And who is this “you” that is supposed to “fix my gallery,” to make things right for art? Modernist forefathers? Kind-hearted philanthropists? The legislature and courts? The NEA (National Endowment for the Arts)?
I also read “ripped” as a reference to Trockel’s use of textiles, signifying feminized work. Taken even further, “ripped” is Penelope’s unraveling, her halting surface, an alternative treatment of time and inscription. While everyone else’s stories make news or are attempting to do so, hers is another famous night time ruse: power rests in the undoing.
While this “ripping” and its correlate, sewing, is clearly gendered, the poem’s speaker moves away from any romantic notion of sewing, admitting “here I commodify these sorrows,” taking us quickly to sites of sweatshop labor, economic survival, capitalism’s partitioning, and the loss of any connection to craftswomanship:
Utility seams on sleeve for dress / piecework.
Utility seems a sleeve on dress / bobbin
spools and unspools, sexed. Eye to eyelet.
Where’s my purse? It sank to sea-bed their supply.
Containers. sustain. containment. . . .
Fantasies in Permeable Structures addresses gender with utmost complexity in its depiction of the differences among women, feminism’s conceptual Achilles’ heel. Scott points out that “power means not having to act or, more accurately, the capacity to be more negligent and casual about any single performance.” Elrick’s understanding of power and everyday performances is illustrated in section X, a bar scene where the speaker notices a “would-be / Princess of French Annam” who is also there celebrating a birthday “yet she affords to be / untidy in glamorous accumulation . . . “ thus locating the privileged position of this “sister” at the bar. The speaker continues:
Meanwhile, outside night-lit intersection lies
the crumpled clothing of a woman thrown
to star of sirens. Stunned gather, as our party
swaggers past. . . .
It is precisely this intersection of power — recognizing dress as sign, as there are two kinds of disheveled — and difference among women that feminism and many feminist texts do not handle well, if at all.
By doubling back to the language of class, economy, and labor in this scene and in others, Elrick’s work addresses the commodification of everything, including feelings, time, even the transformation of the street-level life of the city — from small businesses to box stores. Her fantasies announce that “grassy knolls of good / PR is fervid feeling” and
the darkest DEMON
ever known. Day Minder. Also known as
Palm Pilot (insta wicked). This way to perish
yet walk on through corporate streets
target markets all. . . .
Elrick takes up these themes seldom-addressed in poetry, and she does so with humor. This is another move of resistance — above all, the boss never wants to see the workers laugh. And the poets, so often, want to be taken seriously. Yet, an extended seriousness doesn’t sit well with Elrick. Evoking a 19th century poet-hero voice, the speaker mocks, “O Literature! Lost / on a commercial sea, and I a poor farcical / sailor . . . “ What immediately follows, however, is stark data, in italics, presumably from the news:
Infantryman Edgar Fernandez
21, son of Mexican immigrants
had been scheduled to be discharged
before the winter’s snows fell
And so the larger social and political context never foregrounds or backgrounds the life of the individual; interlacement is the mode. There is a sense in this work that it can not be otherwise. In section XXII, in a recognition of empathy as one of the outcomes of this interlacement, Elrick asks us to imagine:
Or choosing to jump
so as not to burn. Having the evidence
but losing the case. Like being a target or
not being the ‘intended’ target. Lists
circulate. . . .
It is true that art can monumentalize the very structures it intends to critique. Hopelessness often abounds, art replicates alienation, and a kind of romanticized depression ensues. Elrick warns: “this woundedness is also / put to use in cynical logics. A capital / fatigue at more reports . . . “ And while she notes “A tendency to feel / disoriented in times of political repression,” her work peels back layers of this “Über real” to show us that there is still love, friendship, “chirping birders,” even poets gathering at readings, still a desire to blow kisses across the street to a baby, even if the friend’s baby is “lonely.” Elrick transforms “robot paradise” to “robust presence” and though “This is your boundary / it is porous” signals vulnerability and risk, the work reminds us that “you are supple and stiff / and here you are in process.” This voice of reassurance threads through the book, the promise of “More weedy gaping shadowed places form” — a line so wild and impossible, lyrically, that Elrick repeats the line and we get another chance to get it right — the saprophyte’s mantra now belongs to the reader as well.
To be depressed about this world would be to consider this a unique age. Of course it is, and it is not. Early in the book Elrick calls out, “Hudson Valley Land Tenants / with your tin horns Summon me” and she continues being summoned by and summoning Free Soilers, Wobblies, Freedom Riders. Important is the transitive nature of the verb “summon” and that Elrick employs it in both directions, a recognition of history’s presentness, and a recognition that, as Leslie Marmon Silko points out in her essay “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination,” “You are never the first to suffer a grave loss or profound humiliation. You are never the first, and you understand that you will probably not be the last to commit or be victimized by a repugnant act.”
Fantasies in Permeable Structures admits that there is living to be done. Organized in 32 sections of 32 lines each, evoking a prosody exercise or perhaps modeled after Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Elrick’s is a diarist’s approach. Her choice on form here is dead-on; this structure provides the only way, I would argue, to let the light of daily living into the work.
In what almost feels like a fulcrum between dailyness and event, inside and outside, section XIV centers around the speaker making her way home during the 2003 blackout in New York City. Elrick describes the “thronging crowd” and streets as
Great writhing arteries, tossed
over rivers, our cost-bits flowing
neither singly nor in pairs but as one
variegated / whole I am not a soloist
but hermaphrodous a porous cell completely
uncontainable, overflowing homes
throngs in the property of blocks it
things—somewhat on its own—outside
its bursting parts—presage to revolution.
Despite the hopeful “presage to revolution,” the next section begins with “But it passed. In just two cycles of the clock.” Hence, the fulcrum: this moment of “bursting parts” swings back to “separate scores / and individual constraints.” Elrick is right to note that life is not one moment or the other but both.
Episodes of exuberance and restraint come to the reader of Fantasies in Permeable Structures in enjambed lines of nearly regular length. But the meter does not lull. A composite work of quotes, italics, fragments, ellipses, lists, caesurae, Elrick’s is a lyric of starts and stops. The effect is tumbling, additive, evidence of a delight in noticing and in words themselves.
But this is not the voice of the poet-hero who looks out with taxonomic, Wordsworthian nostalgia, fashioning lines that are easy to consume. Rather, with “Linnaeus in his grave,” Elrick locates herself amid “realities / that shift the naming stills. See what of me / more or less remains is but a habit / of language.”
The self, Elrick recognizes, is not singular, stable, projecting only in an outward direction onto what is seen. Self, landscape, and language are constructions, as in
Natural—it’s artful as an urban park
landscaped to trick the muses. The Muses
are in lingerie tucked up into trees secretly
they flicker when you look, and disappear.
In this way we pave it. Who doesn’t
need release? . . .
Here is evidence of an ecopoetical stance that does not regard nature, observation, and notions of inspiration and psychological well-being as gender neutral, ideology-free zones. (For more on this, visit the PennSound web-site to listen to Laura Elrick’s eco-panel presentation at the Segue Foundation reading in January, 2006.) Elrick is motivated by a poetics “Both of the object seen and the eye that sees . . . ‘“ as the very first line of the book’s first section tells us.
Fantasies in Permeable Structures, therefore, inevitably pushes toward “you” and “we” — eco-oriented pronouns. And yet Elrick does not avoid using the first person. If axis x is the personal/political, and y is plain-speech/denaturalized language, then this work occupies all quadrants. In the book’s beginning “To The Reader” note, Elrick describes the work as “intimately public and fiercely personal,” noting that Fantasies in Permeable Structures “does not seek to claim an exclusively authentic experimental idiolect.” Also part of an ecopoetical stance, I read Elrick’s resistance to “authentic” as a move toward an expanded repertoire of alliances among language artists of all kinds.
James Scott ends his book with a meditation on language as a model of resistance, concluding that “the most characteristic of human institutions, language, is the best model: a structure of meaning and continuity that is never still and ever open to the improvisations of all its speakers.”
Elrick’s well-conceived, explosive and delicate, reverent and irreverent language work transcribes and inscribes complex performances of resistance, about which the social scientists theorize:
we may be pressed to edit strains, confuse
official versions of itself (striding technical peaks
naming the bluffs… ) We also know of song
We know of night-warm dwelling not diminished
by the light. . . .
A work that does not shrink from difficulty, Fantasies in Permeable Structures asks, what off-stage cracks and crevices of truth do we ignore, lured to the stage already built for us by the very institutions that dominate? How do the arts of language both commodify and resist, consent and protest? Elrick’s extended and embodied exposition posits: “And we protect it, written here / (economies entangled in the vein)” “and our fingers tense from inking / the page shuts itself up, breaks the current.”
It is fitting that Factory School, “a learning and production collective engaged in action research, publishing, media display, and community service,” should publish this work as part of their “Heretical Texts Series.” On the collective’s web-site, editor Bill Marsh explains the scope of the series:
This series intends to investigate, and perhaps challenge, the assumption that poetry, as art and communication activity, is political. Central to the Heretical Texts mission is a focused imagining of ‘political poetry’ as a form of public intervention, invention, and invocation that calls on (and up) language to call out a public, a people.
Fantasies in Permeable Structures answers this call. This work, along with sKincerety, published by Krupskaya in 2003, establishes Laura Elrick as a poet committed to society and self in language — permeable structures, all.
Jill Magi is the author of Threads, forthcoming in fall 2006 from Futurepoem Books, and Cadastral Map, a chapbook published by Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs in 2005. She teaches in the interdisciplinary liberal arts program of The Center for Worker Education of The City College of New York and runs Sona Books, a community-based chapbook press and web magazine at www.sonaweb.net.
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