How might decadence influenced by social conscience reconfigure the twentieth century?
This question, embedded in The Totality for Kids, is borne with antic lassitude in the library, skittish goth stance on the boulevard, and hypo-allegenic intoxication under the overpass. Above all, Joshua Clover is self-aware, dancing in extremis.
In other words, Clover’s connoisseurship has finessed a Baudelairean modernity that transfers its own disequilbrium and spleen into terms entirely contemporary and intelligible, and keyed with the sociolect that is life now.
And more. The Totality for Kids shows great capacity for synthesis. That is why though the poetry might be characterized as O’Hara’s “Second Avenue” brought up to date, this inadequately accounts the registers of social spaces and public discourse integral to the poems. But neither do these poems argue from a secure position of permanently disengaged cultural negation: for even cultural studies must be tethered to the limbo that is our historical subjectivity.
“Poem” [“So I went out...”] shows the domain.
So I went out into the nervous system of the air –
Bearing beneath my lettrist overcoat my village
The monumental city long ago breathed in
Went out into the signal and static –
Rivermutter steeplebell and traffic –m net of noise
Knotted by sirens
Into the brutal red dream
Of the collective – humming there behind the parade
Of the ideal citizen – in which I took my place
Saint of the negative in my velvet suit
My howlings pressing outward against the million
Other howlings – the deformed din of the 1-AM
So you see the net drawing close – the false escape
How my unhaussmannized town
Within a town was myth below of the new
Towers reaching after the breathlimit –
And there was no way not to be during – architecture
And violence are the natural language of crowds –
Cameo appearances by Ginsberg and Celan, Mayakovsky and Ashbery emerge, not through their names but through their words, and these slipping glimpses that we read substitute for the poets themselves moving through the populace, appearing to us in a written transmutation of the boulevard. So “Poem” at once establishes an archive of its collaged citations and performs that archive: with past co-present with the present even as modernity of the romantic sort increases its reach to embrace contemporary life.
The city is inexhaustible. As critical topic and key term also, the city allows Clover to modulate from literary poetics to social theory and back again easily, and to this end he exploits the coincidence of certain patterns between, say, Situationist dérive and romantic associative drift. Nor is cultural shock contradicted in Benjamin’s thesis of history, he who builds on Georg Simmel’s sociology of the city in his discussion of the cosmopolitan tendency to “nervous stimulation” which leaves the pedestrian agitated yet in a state of anomie. The city as text shows itself archivally, so that the early theories of sociology and recent upheavals in Situationism are effectively coincident phenomena. Enmeshed in its own psychogeography, which we read through intermittent traces, circa 1845, 1900, 1939 or 1968, the city – let’s call it Paris Los Angeles – discovers the compatibility of cultural criticism and sensuous apprehension within the sedimentation of knowledge that informs the modern lyric.
Recirculating currency – in both senses of the word – “Chreia” dallies in the wherewithal of modernity. “At this time” is the phrase that circulates the past, present and future events and situations, equalizing them through a quasi-mythologizing temporality. Through this, Clover establishes situations for a mesmerized public that Musil would recognize. Here is the first part:
At this time there was an expectation of terror meaning cops in Kevlar and the green civic garbage cylinders sealed with discs of steel.
At this time the new train ran to an underground forest sheathed in books.
This time many years after the towers near the sex of the city were found to be twin cruets of jizz and sang.
We all floated with the same specific gravity in the constantly moving stream of money as of this time.
Recycling as a theme of the era of waste brought up to date also becomes method in this prose poem, a display of desultory permutation of cultural capital in four movements.
In Clover’s unhausmannized volume of poems, consistency of approach would be meager or worse – indeed, false. The key terms of drift, shock, destruction, not to mention totality, mandate coherence conceived otherwise. “The totality for kids,” the startling translation of Raoul Vaneigem’s key Situationist text Banalities de Bases in 1966, when the tract first appeared in English translation, and with which Clover ends his anti-epic poem “Their Ambiguity,” undermines grand narratives. With its whiff of obstreperous action that could as plausibly self-destruct as much as act the fool to the empire’s ambitions, “the totality for kids” argues for a historiographical poetics too complicated and conflicted to be resolved or comprehended through any one scheme. And so, too, Joshua Clover’s The Totality for Kids. “At the Atelier Teleology” sets the standard for discontinuous poetics. A poem in three movements, each of which pays homage to poets through a cohort or genealogical affiliate, O’Hara’s Mayakovsky in free verse (polarized through “A True Account...”), followed by Michael Palmer’s recursive notes in couplets, and continuing as though written through Beckett’s translation of Apollinaire’s Zone. Apollinaire (whose very DNA was symptomatic of nomadic Europa) conveys the trans-national spirit that articulates modernity through virtual travel as much as through dreams. As though mimicking Beckett’s Apollinaire:
In the morning citizens loiter on the little bridge beneath the latest billboards
Talking on mobile phones in popular modern languages and the jargon of birds
Like “Directors workers and beautiful shorthand typists go their way”, the simultaneity effect both of information and of information overload in Clover’s atelier discharges a poetry of noise and non-sense familiar to the city person.
Free verse and prose poetry are surely modernist coinage and these forms that comprise “At the Atelier Teleology” seem to be recapitulating the modern innovative moment in order to give reprise to these and perhaps also to remind us of their now institutional status. The archive in which even Rimbaud and Pound, along with us, find their unsettled repose, concludes this poem.
The Totality for Kids assumes, however, that the city is an ongoing and an open construct, just as it is an ongoing and open phenomenon. Relative to O’Hara’s “Second Avenue” with its bitter-sweet chromatics of agitated city life, Clover’s immersion in city life is less casual, less about spontaneity or its avatars, and more deliberate, certainly more theoretical in its poetics. Clover’s tussle with the sun in “At the Atelier Teleology” as conducted through O’Hara’s, displays its reference: citation not revelation directs the passage to knowledge and away from experience. And as he reads O’Hara, Clover actively places the poet in an aesthetic ideology: “I say Frank O’Hara was an anarchist,/ Nothing else explains all that joy. Exclamation point!/ He was not a systems guy.” Clover’s imitations are calculated to convert the stylistic and rhetorical mimckry at which the New York School is so adept to an overt lamination of first- and second- order discourse, yet to enfold this metapoetics into a trope. For although Clover can engage the postmodern Foucaldean perspective on knowledge as well as any, The Totality for Kids embodies the episteme that situates the city where the sun once was, and that city is replete with histories, modern and as well as postmodern.