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Lawrence Giffin

Political Topology in Contemporary North American Poetry:

Rod Smith’s «Deed»

You can read Matthew M. Gagnon’s review of Rod Smith’s «Deed» in this issue of Jacket.

“If the house is just poetry
we’re in trouble.”
                  — Rod Smith “The Good House”

1. Poetry as a Topological Model for Political Thought

paragraph 1

I want to take the opportunity of the recent publication of Rod Smith’s book Deed to point to what I think has become a persistent thread of inquiry in a number of works written in the last two decades by fairly young North American writers. The inquiry concerns the notion of place conceived as topologically as opposed to geographically or even spatially. I mean place in an ontological sense (if you’ll allow me that so early in the essay). What that might be exactly is not at this point clear, though I hope to have contributed by the end of this essay some understanding of what links the work of the poets I want to mention.


Rod Smith’s latest book, Deed, recently out from the Kuhl House Poets Series on the University of Iowa Press, includes an older long poem, “The Good House,” which was published alone as a chapbook in 2001 by Spectacular Books. “The Good House” is probably the poem that illustrates this notion of poetical/ political topology that I will argue serves a generation of “experimental” writers that is decidedly post–Language poetry.


I should add that not all poets of that generation are concerned with the concepts and themes elaborated below, nor are these concepts necessarily or generically unique to this generation, I simply want to point out a seemingly fortuitous conjunction of a handful of works that not only seek to unfold the concept of place as a politically-charged, preconstructed field of interrelated signifiers, but also seek to take that opportunity to put forward a complicated and sometimes ambivalent notion of politics analogous to the ambivalence of place.


Now, places have always figure heavily in literature, especially in modernist works, where they serve as ground where persons and events of historic import appear. Sometimes, the place itself gets involved in the action, is personified, or is addressed by the speaker. Whether it be Joyce’s Dublin, Eliot’s London, Pound’s Italy, Williams’s Paterson, Olsen’s Gloucester, Breton and Soupault’s Paris, O’Hara’s New York, Ginsberg’s city or Kerouac’s country, place figures in modernist work.


Regardless of the mode of visibility in which the work casts its locations (mythological, historical, personal), the place of place in modernism is mainly that of a determinative Ur-ground: the site where events take place and that the subjects of the work take the place of. This place is usually geographically and historically specific, and it usually settles as the determinative conditions of the events that play across it, which vary hierarchically in degree of contingency.


That is precisely the role of place in most modernist texts, as a meaningful, unifying setting that comes to ground the poem’s or story’s diegesis only by having something else (some action, some character) take its place, by being in some sense taken for granted, e.g., repressed or functioning surreptitiously. Through this process, places in modernist texts serve as referents that occasion the narrative events that subsume geographically firm, historically motivated places, that make present the story of history. The canals of Venice in Loy’s “Songs to Joannes,” much like O’Hara’s bustling and commercial New York or Kerouac’s imminent departures, are metaphors for the infinite drift of desire. The Thames brings all the weight of the Lethe to Eliot’s long poem. Opposed to this, the particular function of place in Smith’s and others’ poetry seek to make the absence of history present in a story.


I think this trope of place is particular to the international modernist consciousness, but that does not prohibit us from using this modernist notion of place from regrouping, under the rubric “modernism,” works by several authors that at first glance appear thoroughly postmodern. For example, Ron Silliman’s “Albany” and Under Albany, much of Susan Howe’s work, especially “Articulations of Sound Forms in Time,” and Eleni Sikelianos’s book-length poem, “The California Poem.”


In each of those works, place and history play off of one another: the specificity of the locale is integral to the possibility of the events that took place there and the event is necessary to the transcendence of the place to a historical signifier. (Ron Silliman really did grow up in Albany, CA; Hope Atherton really did wander around Western Massachusetts; x number of species have gone extinct in California and I got the data to prove it.)


Of Under Albany, Marjorie Perloff writes:


It is interesting that when, in 1997, Gale Research invited Silliman to contribute an autobiographical essay to their Contemporary Authors series, he used, as he explains in a letter (10 January 1998) to me, the sentences of “Albany” “to tell me what to write, where to focus, that moment in the essay. The whole premise of ‘Albany’ (or at least a premise) was to focus on things that were both personal and political, so when Gale called, it seemed like the right place to begin. That poem always has been my autobiography, so to speak” (my emphasis). The resultant text, in which each of the one hundred sentences is printed in boldface, followed by a paragraph of varying length, is called Under Albany — “under,” no doubt, because the poet now tries to get inside, behind, and under his earlier statements so as to make some sense of their psychological and social trajectory.


It is the correct idea to want to get “under” statements that are both “personal and political,” not because there is necessarily some truth buried there, but because it is increasingly questionable how the personal and the political relate today on a level that is not already circumscribed by what was, in fiestier times, called “spectacular society.” That this “getting under” would take the form of autobiography is perhaps a mistake. I think that Smith’s poetry, as well as a handful of others I will mention later, takes the opposite tack, which is, as Smith writes in “The Good House,” to exercise “hope in the inhuman.”


In this, Smith et al. retain the focus on place as a conceptual entry point into the extrapersonal forces that shape our everyday experiences — a notion that goes against the grain of much of American poetry, even Zukofsky and Creeley whose work is a touchstone for Smith’s poetry. This poetry represents an attempt to get “under” modernism, to try to recuperate the radical disruption caused by the introduction of psychology and historiography into poetic composition beyond the usual psychologizing and contextualizing proffered by contemporary poets and critics alike.


Place has often served as a metaphor that gives poetry access to what links individual human existence to structural, historical, and social determinations, but often, poets have been unwilling or unable to stray far from the uncritical recapitulation of “immediate” experience and therefore fumble the opportunity to subvert that experience for a more essential understanding not only of the overdetermination of subjective experience and the terminological frameworks by which we interpret that experience but also of the changing means through which people can effect social change.


The topological model of poetry necessarily gives the works access to inter- and intrasubjective relations, and as opposed to the linear, hierarchical model, it is economic and dialectical.


Of course, poetry is able to highlight these relations only in ways that it can, that is, it can only present its findings as the universality of utterance and not the situational truth value of actual political statements and actions.


The few works that I have in mind that question and extend this modernist notion of place and historical subjectivity are Lisa Robertson’s XEclogue, and her Occasion Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, Rob Halpern’s Rumored Place, Robert Fitterman’s Metropolis series, Lytle Shaw’s Cable Factory 20, Carla Harryman’s Gardener of Stars, Roberto Tejada’s Mirrors for Gold, the work of Madeline Gins and Arakawa, as well as that of Renee Gladman.


But, before discussing what these works share, I would like to turn to Rod Smith’s poem, “The Good House,” as a learning exercise.

2. A Reading of “The Good House”


The poem begins with two short untitled poems where immediately “the egret says/ the house,” and then, “the egret/ thinks, the house, it wills.” The bird of air and water, the static house of the earth — freedom and necessity. Freedom, to speak and to think — the egrets “stretch, & revere, they say/ i have a thing/ instruct in the new circumstance, elliptical, tangible, to their sweet ego.” The necessity of the house: a “subcanvas,” “beckettland or geography.” The individual liberty of the idealist flight of thought transforms into a contradictory liberalism when it becomes social, related to circumstance and instruction.


The autonomy of the circular self-consciousness of the ego’s tangibility is then made elliptical and unfinished. Indeterminacy becomes an issue for the egret, its flight occurs in circumstances not of its choosing — the ego’s circle is displaced by the larger context that stands around it. But “we become intelligible because the egret/ says elliptical,” that is, we become “we” to each other because of an imbalance, because the center is displaced — “elliptical”: ovoid as well as falling short. The egret’s movement is, according to the poem, the familiar solution of loving, and “this explains the egret to the egret in the house,” explains the ideal thought to the thought that must submit itself to the necessity of place, the fundamental impossibility of the sexual relation.


The egret merges with the sunflower (the one growth from earth to sky), and they are frozen not by ice but by a flashing, like a photograph or film,


So, when the poem proper begins, we find that “The good houses the parts, calls to/ them, & wakens — / / in being, the house we will.” The good is possible in the failure of flight of thought, when flight must fall short coming up against the circumstance that houses the “sweet ego,” innocently following its train of thought as if freely.


But now, the two egrets are called, and the house that we will, that is, the house that thought must now encounter, the circumstances with which it must negotiate its freedom, this house is wakened by the good. The good house houses the house that we will, that is, we will only within the house — we must will there, but our sweet egos need to believe that the house is a product of its own autonomous will. But that will is now a “specific love,” not the abstract love of the familiar solution of loving, the merging of two into one, but “a specific/ love to focus the elements.”


The “good part of the house” is both our home and where we will — the place where we get a degree of power in the face of material determination, “hoarse/ needs made by no/ other. The good is capitulation the highest degree of strength relative to its subsumption to earthly concerns: “so knowing strength/ so knowing weakness.”


The house seems to regret the limits it poses by necessity; this regret is therefore the anxiety with which it greets people, its desperate desire to please: “it is stupid & so thinks cordon/ means love.” The dividing up of things by “a specific love” goes to far and into exclusion and privation. First the love focused the elements, then it cordoned them off, and then it became wise and chose elements. That is, first the house was revealed to be a set of elements. Then people discovered that the focusing, the process of representation, could be manipulated and exploited; the distinction between two things could become a distinction between two people. But the house “is wise & so/ chooses.”


Initially, might see in the description of the poem so far one of those famous Marxian series of threes: primitive accumulation, capitalism, socialism. Or, more naturalistically, all against all (necessity), class struggle (exploitation), communism (rational control of the means of production). But let’s table this discussion for the time being, and see what the poem has to say for itself.


The good house, though it lets some bad things happen, is never unfaithful, and its “honesty . . . helps/ the people to know.” But the house is not always a good house. “The good wasn’t built into/ the house but earned.” “The good was an upkeep/ / It was a perilous upkeep/ / There was kindling.” The good, though only a part of the house, is never simply subsumed under the whole of the house — it is something won from the house, extracted from the entire circumstance, earned like wages or trust.


But the liberty of one to see the relation between the good and the house is always cut through by the equal liberty of others to challenge, problematize, and demonstrate, to “relax & recall other houses/ they have known.” The “honesty” that is the entire context of the house “helps the people to know;” “they become/ simple & listen to each other.” But the house that houses the good is never as clear as the elements focused by love. “This house was that house/ to many — & to many there was no/ house there because they hadn’t/ noticed — there was one who/ noticed & was wanted, was loved.” Thus, “anything can be made out of a house/ / though many of them are blue.”


The good house “is given advice:/ / In times of danger ceremonious forms are dropped. What/ matters most is sincerity.” Why is sincerity opposed to ceremony? When danger appears, forms of repetition and order are dropped, that is, they fall and fall short. Danger converts innocence into experience, it measures the distance between the house and the good house, between circumstance and political life. The distance measured collapses, and one always falls short of the other because whatever takes place between the house and the good house distorts the conversion of one into the other. The love that takes place between things, which turns a house housing a thing, some stuff, a bauble into a good house that wills, sometimes cordons things.


What is dropped is the excrescence of state representation during times of police repression, dropped for the singular nature of political demonstration — the only form of sincerity, where a people presents itself. It is not the “vulgar” sincerity that opposes itself to irony and touts its ability to strip away social being to reveal the pure individual, but a “radical” sincerity that dissolves the individual in the group of demonstrating subjects — into a “we” that speaks before the individual — a sincerity that builds upon inherent being-with-others and fundamental historicity, a history not of one’s own making, just like a house that one works on and fixes.


What matters most is the singular, the one growth, that which is not falsified. Something falls short, “There are 8 houses in the heart,/ there should be 9.” Due to a lack of experience or that some information is missing, something takes place between the house and the good house that is not directly submitted to knowledge, and this lack as well as our “innocence” affects the honesty of the house.


The honesty that helps people to know betrays the innocence that does not see the distance between ceremonious forms and sincerity, an innocence that does not see what is excluded from the level of “political” representation. Innocence is knowing what one doesn’t know that one knows. Even though there are “minutes left out” and only “8 houses in the heart,” the ninth house returns here as “economic worry” and “weird abreaction.”


the good house — it exercises
hope in the inhuman, is transformed
by it —
          becomes blatant in its strength
          & is destroyed, the good
          house must be rebuilt
          carefully. The good house
          is in conflict.


The good is always a danger for the house. The good house is the double meaning of “determination,” namely, the exercise of hope in the inhuman that is at the same time transformed by the inhuman. As the good house houses more, its strength increases, and its strength is denoted by an increase in noise and chatter. It seems that at this point, the house is destroyed. For what? By whom? It is not clear. Only that where it was, there must it be rebuilt.


The heart, from whence proceeds desire and love, indicates a direction to the will. The will “becomes modest” because it discovers it is “one thing,” exposed to danger. It is braced by the house and by “holographic, pastoral/ battenings.” But does “holographic” here mean a three-dimensional image based on a pattern of interference or a text written in one’s own hand, accident or intention?


It is unclear, but perhaps the poem means that the two uses are not all that different. If anything, both appear pastoral, belonging to a specific nature: cultivated nature. The house is bound by a half-wild half-simulated landscape, double bound by utopian futurity and return of the repressed of the “wiley resurgence/ of awaiting worlds.” Though it is only half true, the house is not necessarily false; it is “protected/ from what is false/ unfailing,” protected in both its truth and its failing.


What protects the house? Is it the good that protects the house?


It is always a question of where the will belongs. At the same time that the will becomes modest it becomes sufficient and sincere like a holograph that though possibly full of lies and fictions is still a thing made and worked on, bearing the mark of work. But the will is separated from work. Work occurs regardless; the will chooses only not to interfere. “Leave the leaves, let them/ work — this will/ would rather/ underrate that.” Here the “will/ would;” it recognizes its dependence upon the conditions in which it is active.


Work is something the will must approach diplomatically. Otherwise, the will forgets its place and becomes ineffective and swollen. It is only within the house that the will has its “modest” power: “the inner standing/ is ten to the Nth/ / ‘power’ — we think/ we house, actually we are housed.”


The distance between “we think/ we house” and “we are housed” is irreducible. Regardless of what we think, we are housed. The will “would rather/ underrate that,” the fact that it doesn’t work, that it must concede that work to something else (perhaps, to “the inhuman”). For the will, the house is necessary but not sufficient. The will also requires “holographic, pastoral/ battenings.” This fiction braces the will and ties it to something, something it is exposed to. It is unclear. The will is related to the inhuman; and the inhuman, to work. The will is exposed to work, not in order to bring it under its aegis, but to be transformed by it.


That work, that upkeep, doesn’t simply function as the poem’s representation of praxis; as human (or inhuman) as work is, it has historically been reserved for a certain class of individuals, often to their detriment. So, as much as work is where freedom encounters necessity, it is also the form that social domination takes — a misrepresentation of the relationship of freedom and necessity.


Freedom has often been characterized as unfetteredness, as a transcendence of necessity or abolition of constraints, but this is of course because those who have done the most thinking about freedom have historically been people who don’t work. “The Good House” is in its way a critique of that naïve notion of freedom, that reified economic liberalism.


What is noticeable in this respect, is that the poem’s evocation of historically specific human misery is less systematic than its meditation on more existential or universal questions. But now and then, one notices seemingly random mentions of sadness, violence, or coercion — “the police came & went,” “there’s a stack of bad news in/ a box by the back door,” “thanatos turpentine/ or teacher’s bepetment” — but it all seems to appear as nonchalantly as in daily life.


But I think Smith’s poem is distinguishing between the possibility of popular political action and state police action, by constructing a formal distinction between a systematic use of metaphor and a randomized mentioning of violence. The most clever example of the seemingly random figures of power comes in two lines that command an entire section late in “The Good House”: “Excuse me officer I thought/ you were a shape-shifting rat.” Here the police (Jacques Rancière’s terms for the state political apparatus) is not sincere in the sense that the poem has thus far developed and is a kind of parasite that works silently in our homes, invisible but ever-present.


The poem wants to theorize how far one can will in the house — the house seems to be capricious, erratic: “though it/ spares others, some it doesn’t, thought it has a child,/ it is clear, stolid, imperious.” The house is the source of all irony, all contradiction, because it houses so much, was built by so many, and because it is the inhuman part of the human, the thing that desires unconsciously.


At its center, the good house has a “mobius core,” a core that is constantly reconfiguring inside as outside, outside as inside (i.e., elliptical). Here, the will goes both ways: The field upon which one consciously acts takes on the accoutrements not only of one’s class but of one’s consumer status; one is set in this field involuntarily. To be involuntarily American is to know only how to desire products that are signals to enact further violence in the third world. It is a sentiment Smith repeats later in Deed in a poem appropriately titled, “The Given.” “There is no way out/ by my death or consciousness.


The house stands in for the inside/ outside distinction, similarly the public/ private distinction: boundaries that perhaps are transcended by a speaking technology (telecommunications, mass visual media), which makes the home a location of indoctrination to a specific character of social existence and work.


The technology of transcendence
is a speaking, infinite, rescindence.
It does not matter if we trust
the house. Because I am the one
speaking, right now I can say
we. Therefore I think, to the
degree that you can, you should
trust me.


Speech, which is supposed to address another and therefore demonstrate that speech is predicated on equality (this is again a thesis of Rancière’s), here goes back on its word, and this “speaking rescindence” is necessary, mediated by a technology of transcendence, for saying “we,” thought that “we” is the mass of isolated users and consumers. Technology does not lubricate social interaction but orders social interaction in a way that undoes all of the work (actual and social) that had been accomplished that day, leaving the worker no better off than before. This rescindence is infinite because speaking. Infinite because no no way out of the house (not even by raising consciousness or death), at least not for America whose technology has bound every citizen to the same fate (endless war and environmental crisis).


As the Slovenian philosopher Alenka Zupančič writes in her essay, “When Surplus Enjoyment Meets Surplus Value”:


Capitalism is a major producer of differences, as well as a major leveler or equalizer of these same differences. This is what makes it the greatest promoter of liberalism and of all kinds of liberties and rights (especially the right to be different), and the greatest deactivator of any real liberating or subversive potential of these differences. (174)


Online stand-ins for the ego, from blogger bios to social-networking profiles, have become one of the most decisive factors in political campaigning. That is assumed to be a triumph of popular engagement, but the divisive solidarity of Internet-mediated social relations reveals itself to be a form of social-political disarmament insofar as it creates a divisive solidarity, where one’s personal interests only serve to alienate one in the production of demographics (the marking and ordering of people), where the most individual of interests is volunteered in order to be bought back at a premium through personalized direct advertising.


This is a contradiction specific to American liberty — speech, which announces one’s equality with others, is displaced by a speech that orders. Let’s return to a moment in the poem where many of abstract elements of freedom, equality, domination, sincerity are discussed together.


Leave the leaves, let them
work — this will
would rather
underrate that — when it’s
like that

                    thanatos turpentine
          or teacher’s bepetment
     a spell
          toked in the coatroom,


It’s all very late Heiddegger: “The essence of truth . . . is ek-sistent, disclosive letting beings be. Every mode of open comportment flourishes in letting beings be and in each case is a comportment to this or that being,” and, “Letting beings be . . . prevails throughout and anticipates all the open comportment that flourishes in it.” (“On the Essence of Truth,”128–9). And Smith points to the ontological essence of letting-be with the repetition of “leave” and “leaves,” by locating the comportment in the objects and relating it to their “work,” so that all that is left is the little s that is posited in an enunciation that has no subject, “Leave the leaves, let them/ work.”


The will that would rather underrate the letting-be that is primordially attuned to the unfolding of the tree’s leaves. This will is compared to “thanatos turpentine,” what I take to be a violent passion for the Real, for stripping away the layers of painted representation. To tear away what is not essential, literally to ex-foliate, to strip away what belongs by virtue of work, to appropriate the value of another’s labor by legally excluding them from enjoyment.


In Heidegger’s essay, there is a very tortuous route that takes the reader from the essence of truth, which is freedom, to the primordial adequation of truth to openedness, but this openedness to beings causes humanity to err in its relation to truth, but it is only by way of this ontic errancy that humankind is able, in the experience of its errancy, to ground itself in its freedom, which is now not only the essence of truth but the truth of essence. In this, actual errancy maintains a virtuality of truth.


Or, to quote Heidegger again from “On the Essence of Truth”: “The openness of comportment as the inner condition of the possibility of correctness is grounded in freedom” (123). “Freedom for what is opened up in an open region lets beings be the beings they are” (125). “Letting-be is intrinsically at the same time a concealing” (130). “Man clings to what is readily available and controllable even where ultimate matters are concerned” (131). “Man does not merely stray into errancy. He is always astray in errancy, because as ek-sistent he in-sists and so already is caught in errancy” (133). “But, as leading astray, errancy at the same time contributes to a possibility that man is capable of drawing up from his ek-sistence — the possibility that, by experiencing errancy itself and by not mistaking the mystery of Da-sein, he not let himself be led astray” (134).


Lacan formulates truth similarly, following Freud, as revealed by mistakes and errors, and he describes in Seminar I the search for truth mediated by a person’s necessary recourse to speech as “error taking flight in deception and recaptured by mistake” (273).


And to return to Zupančič, “Pure work is not what is originally given, and then lost when one lays the apparatus of signifiers over it: it is a product of this operation,” that is, the truth of work is not what it was before errancy or servitude or the sale of labor on the free market (169).


In the same way, the will is mistaken for truth when all the while it is actually a mirror of the preponderance of material exchange relations. But this does not undercut the potential function of the will. The will is neither good nor not good, only the house that wills can be good, this house that is “the apparatus of signifiers.”


Perhaps, it is by means of the preponderance of that apparatus that we can fully understand what Heidegger means when he says that people are “always astray in errancy,” and that this errancy is a person’s immediate ontic interests. For Heidegger, this errancy isn’t an adulteration of pure ontological openness:  “All working . . . keep[s] within an open region within which beings, with regard to what they are and how they are, can properly take their stand and become capable of being said” (122). In a sense, Heidegger is saying that though ontological openness is the condition for necessary ontic interest, it is only by means of ontic engagement that people can discover what their essence destines them for.


Demo-lition, a will of the people that relates the will to the necessity of work, but of a necessity that leads a path to freedom not through the ordering of people through work (ideology) but a work that brings people to what is necessary and to what is in the house, that is, workers.


In terms of belonging, inclusion, and exclusion, we are reminded of the lines: “In times of danger ceremonious forms are dropped. What/ matters most is sincerity.” Of examining the strange unity of voluntary and involuntary action. It is a matter, first of all, of knowing in which of your names does the state conduct itself? This is effected through honesty, which “helps/ the people to know.” To know that their are 9 hearts, to take measure of the distance between the mass and the state. What doesn’t get counted? What is the 9th heart? The Jew that the Nazi includes by excluding? The Mexican who fuels the American economy and is systematically deported?


And not “Arbeit macht frei,” even Heidegger couldn’t agree. Freedom is the grounds for work, even though for much of human history, work has made unfreedom. And that relates Smith’s “let them work” to Heidegger’s “not let himself be led astray.”


Heidegger says as much by relating agency, freedom, and belonging: “In order to be able to carry out any act, and therefore one of presentative stating and even of according or not according with a ‘truth,’ the actor must of course be free” (123). Freedom is a requirement to action and thus to making any statement that presents one’s agency to others or presents another’s as such, a statement that can either have fidelity to a truth or not, that is, can represent the work of the other or simply appropriate that work repressively — regardless, freedom grounds the possibility.


The point here is: Free people don’t always act freely. But also, more profound for us, collective action arises out of freedom, not as a restriction on that freedom.


We seem to be stuck with terms only for liberal political action, terms that we have inherited, which were left over after a Reagan-administered cultural revolution aligned power with its consumerist rhetoric and that are totally antinomous to notions of collective action, sacrifice, discipline, rigor, fidelity.


But the only possibility for change adheres to the terms that make up the field, the place, of political action, and it just might be the case that notions of liberalism, individualism, tolerance, humanitarianism are reactionary and simply the powerless remainders of desperate, paranoiac conservatism. The shift in emphasis from geography to topology indicates a growing frustration and dissatisfaction.


Generally, contemporary (liberal) thought is wary to draw conclusions, that is, to draw them closer, to draw us closer to the end. Not only does this make a mystification machine out of thought such as Chicago school economics, but since no one is willing to draw the conclusions for fear of being branded a “fascist,” it keeps collective action from ever being tied to anything but untruth (evangelism, militant libertarianism, Islamic extremism).


Similarly, where the Language poets practiced a “negative” politics and were skeptical of engagement, going so far as withdrawing the conditions for engagement (both a poem-culture engagement and a poem-reader one), namely, risk. The new poets are working to conceptualize collective action beyond the sort of postmodern cliché of semi-autonomous, isolated micropolitical instances or an abstract sum-total of rhizomic insurrections.


The legacy of May ‘68 (and the radical sixties in general) is not the particular terms its participants opposed to “establishment” culture — peace, free love, rock music — which are now impotent and laughable. The field has totally shifted. Instead, what we have is an account of a radical, seemingly spontaneous event where workers and intellectuals dissolved their predicates (as worker, student) in order to demonstrate fundamental equality.


Therefore, we should look at the last section of Deed, “Homage to Homage to Creeley,” which is made up of short poems each with a sort of “commentary” attached below. The final poem in this series, “Pour le CGT” (the “CGT” is the French transit union), now only one stanza, was once written with two, the second one (now discarded) rang the bell of ‘68:


We work too hard
We are too tired
To overthrow the government
Therefore we must
Fall in love


Note: I have so far only found this version of the poem on Smith’s CD, Fear the Sky, released by Narrow House Recordings in 2005 (audio available at


But for its publication in Deed, Smith reprints only the poem’s first stanza:


We work too hard
We are too tired
To fall in love
Therefore we must
Overthrow the government


Here, I think, he has captured the spirit of the radical sixties in its contemporary, though disguised, form. The point is not to enjoy in the face of power, as if the blatant tearing away of the customs that veil of truth (e.g., monogamy, normality, fear, repression) will set you free. On the contrary, it is only by taking the ideological helm, by putting the people in the position of power, will we truly experience love (taking up Creeley’s investment in love is probably Smith’s singular contribution to American poetry today). It is not about debunking ideology, ideology is only debunked by ideology, but ideology always serves power and moves enjoyment toward its centers, so put the people at the centers.


The idea is to begin with the “involuntary american” as the sole point of entry for a radical will (volition). Radical thought in poetry is more and more willing to dispense with the notion of autonomous art and its attendant formalisms in order to contribute what it can toward grounding a collective discourse. It begins by taking measure of the place (America) that we are factually in (involuntarily). And it moves from the grounding of poetic knowledge in the American geography toward a topology of the political subject’s position in relation to America as physical location, as state, as global economy, as nation.


Modern history takes the form of the will of the people, at times presented in the organized demand for civil rights, at other times distorted in the nation-state form. The will of the people takes on many forms, sometimes at the level of the state and sometimes not, something according with truth and sometimes not. But this is politics not poetry. Does “The Good House” say what sort of society we should work towards? No. Nor should it. Poetry can have the effect of always pointing us forward to the freedom from which the will, for good or for bad, springs. But poetry is not politics. It may not even be political in a strict sense.

3. Poetry Is Not Monumental


At the beginning of the essay, I mentioned a handful of recent works that have shifted the emphasis of place, from the immanent historicity of a particular place to a phenomenological topology, as an attempt to continue a poetics of historical investigation post–Cold War, post–Gulf War, and post-Communist, in what poet Jeff Derksen has called “the long neoliberal moment.”


Additionally, these works are post-Woodstock, post-Berkeley, and post-Birmingham — and this belatedness accounts for the ambivalent politics expressed in this specific poetic concern. It’s a question of the universality of political demonstration beyond the place that stakes out its event. How do we maintain the pure and violent assertiveness of the Stonewall riots afterward and elsewhere? How do we maintain the insistence of a subjective “we” against the double-bind of the ubiquitous “bad universals” of the “gay” gene and the freedom of choice? This was Foucault’s hope for sexuality: a practice of love that had yet no prescribed historical and ideological inertia, a love that was made and not simply reproduced.


Today, Stonewall seems a vague hallucination, its truth obfuscated by tolerance — the spontaneous assumption of individuals to the level of historical subjects, a collective “we” based not on genetic predestination or a consumerist volunteerism, but in a moment that offered no predetermined outcome, that occured not based on any stated ends, but as an end in itself, the demonstration of invalidity of suppressive police violence. It’s a problem of place as dislocation and displacement; Stonewall was then and there; what is the revolutionary potential of here and now?


But this question would be to accept the modernist conception of place, which treats the historicality that adheres to a specific place to be related to the determinative conditions for social change — much like the Althusserian thesis that the working class must delay revolt until the proper conditions for social change mature.


Thus, the seeming political ambivalence, the unwillingness of some left-leaning thought to come down wholeheartedly on the side of democracy. The house is a place, place is an ordering of bodies, and place is related to time as either inevitability or radical change.


But by picking up the investigation of place here and now, these poets express an inner tension between a leftist inheritance and a contemporary field of action whose terms seem to be the inversion of radical activities of 50-plus years ago. The pervasive permissiveness of postmodern life seems on the one hand to be a by-product of radical demands made in the first two-thirds of the 20th century in America and on the other hand to be the total negation of the fruits of those labors in the total appropriation and reconfiguration of actual subject positions as simulacra.


Poetry is not monumental; at least, it should not pretend to be. If it attempts to memorialize, it risks closing off radical thought from responding to ever-changing fields of domination and liberation.


What these contemporary poets share in their attention to place is a self-consciousness of the smallness of poetry, its limited effects, but also its effective liminality. From the bucolic, to the intimate relation, to the non-sequitur and overheard.


This formal investigation of place appears to be distinctly American. It bespeaks a consciousness located at a very specific spatio-temporal point in the development of neoliberal political and economic policies and in the process of globalization as a whole. What is this contradictory point of protest and complicity, resistance and bad conscience, but the registration within poetic form of the unspeakable complicity of liberal politics with the global production of American markets abroad — which comes across as ambivalence or abstractness, displacing considerations of the actual place of exploitation and resistance to considerations of the conditions of occupying these places and the historical contingencies that inform our status as involuntary Americans but American nonetheless.


This contradictory American identity comes across as the desire to be in the house when it caves in and to contribute to its collapse in order to sift through the ruins.


By taking place to mean the ontological category of being able to be somewhere, being able to belong, place as the structure by which one is counted in or counted out, these works attempt to address exploitation from the perspective of those involuntarily implicated, the abstract treatment of an unspecified and ambivalent political space is meant to mirror the notion of space held by the indiscriminate and ambivalent global practices of neoliberalism.


These poets proceed in bad faith, they do not shy away from an anxiety that at its worst reduced Language poetry to a kind of paranoid schizophrenia, and their work does not lay claim to specific places of struggle or particular political movements because to attempt to represent those people that resist the actions of an America that we all happen to be is merely a pretense to further ideological justifications of U.S. governmental and corporate intrusion.


This bad faith is summed up by Rob Halpern, who also wrote about poetry and bad faith in his essay “Committing the Fault,” in a poem, “Disaster Lyrics”:


. . . But can I really be saying
These things about the new bourgeois bounty I’ve lodged
Inside my flap, opaque backdrops for a slum humanity

Having lost its relation to poetry and buggery
Brunch, and other excrescent by-products like my
Body just doesn’t seem to quit producing this.


Poetry cannot end exploitation; it cannot even combat it. But neither can it really perpetuate it.


So, why a poem? Because a poem can represent the subject’s symbolic position in its world, how it justifies its deeds in that world, and how, through arranging a speech that speaks only half-truths, it can discover the truth of that relation in spite of itself.


Why a house? Because one’s entrance into history occurs within a given frame, and that frame become a question for the freedom that work inaugurates.


Why fragmented and non-sequitur? Though the poem may seek a space for a universalized will, it does not seek to establish its radicality as a monument to categorical political thought, thought that universalizes its particular historical moment to the point that long after the efficacy of its terms has died it still seizes the living.

Works Cited

Derksen, Jeff. “Poetry and the Long Neoliberal Movement.” West Coast Line 51 40(2006)

Halpern, Rob. “Disaster Lyrics.” Fascicle 03(2006) 11 Mar 2008

Heidegger, Martin. “On the Essence of Truth.” Trans. John Sallis. Basic Writings. Ed. David Ferrell Krell. New York: Harper Collins, 1977.

Lacan, Jacques. Freud’s Papers on Technique: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book I. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. John Forrester. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject: Ron Silliman’s Albany, Susan Howe’s Buffalo.” 1998. Electronic Poetry Center. 27 Nov 2008

Smith, Rod. Deed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2007.

Zupančič, Alenka. “When Surplus Enjoyment Becomes Surplus Value.” Jacques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Eds. Justing Clemens and Russell Griggs. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Lawrence Giffin works as a freelance copy editor in New York. He is a member of the editorial collective Lil’ Norton and the series editor of The Physical Poets Home Library ( He is the coauthor, with Steven Zultanski, of an appropriated text on democratic theory, Comment Is Free. He has a chapbook, The Great Crystal Castle, forthcoming from Minus House and poems forthcoming in 6X6 and Trepan.

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