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Rob Halpern and Taylor Brady
Snow Sensitive Skin
reviewed by
Thom Donovan
Atticus/Finch Press, 2007

This review is about 6 printed pages long. It is copyright © Thom Donovan and Jacket magazine 2009.
See our [»»] copyright notice.

Bare life


While Snow Sensitive Skin continues Rob and Taylor’s projects as they remain independent from one another, it is also a work of incredible affinity and dialogue where a sense of separate project (or project at all for that matter) breaks down completely through the struggle for a shared compositional process. Third party to Snow Sensitive Skin’s affinements is Michael Cross, the publisher and co-designer of the book, who collaborates in any work he undertakes to design and publish. Countless others form fourth parties to the book as the book constantly addresses others’ works, citing those others, and drawing their work into its vast critical-lyric force field. Not least of these fourth parties include many from the Bay Areas, where Taylor and Rob both hail, and the Nonsite Collective (, whose activities Snow Sensitive Skin extends and deepens.

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In Snow Sensitive Skin the reader finds itself among a multitude of disasters. These disasters include those of land use, democratic erosion and the shrinking of commonly shared social spaces, the endangerment of bodies as they become the objects of medical practices, warfare, labor exploitation and other disciplinary agendas.  Situating these disasters are numerous allusions to George Oppen’s “shipwreck of the singular”―the Objectivist poet’s own articulations of the relationship shared by lyric and social disaster:


One detainment for another, anything to explain the sudden appearance of that rock rising from the current.”

“It occurred to us at first to call this ‘shipwreck,’ but nothing came across. Now everything does.”

“So this is what the afterlife must sound like still sweet
Breathing on this rock where our situation foundered
Finding air on the ground and rights to go on producing

                                 — our own impossibility

“and to say these things we cannot see
           —say ‘shipwreck’ whose light is a kind of
                       darkness and renders the event it is
                                 impossible to perceive—

                                           would be to know


What is crucial in each reference Taylor and Rob make to shipwreck, and to the rock upon which our plans and projects so often founder, is that they are having an argument with―and thus reenvisioning―Oppen’s original claims for a lyricism of responsibility that would oppose lyric’s ironic disavowal (alienation; bad faith), as well as the facile belief in the poem as a site or pure presence (Logos), or unmediated communion between writer and reader.


Snow Sensitive Skin revisits other well-known propositions from poetry, political theory, philosophy, and contemporary art over-turning each of these propositions, calling them into question for our present, and thus injecting them with new values and effects.  So that Spinoza’s statement, “we have not yet determined what a body can do,” takes on an entirely new meaning considered in relation to the experimental treatment of soldiers by the military industrial complex. Likewise, Kierkegaard’s “who will not work will not eat… ”, also quoted by Oppen in “Of Being Numerous,” makes one “unsure” attending the ridiculously exploitative labor practices of our current global economy.


Central throughout the book is what Giorgio Agamben has dubbed the problem of “sovereignty” as it evaluates and cultivates (i.e., uses) life to its own advantages and purpose. In “bare life” Agamben locates a threshold of the human as both animal, and speaking (thus political) being. Such is the Aristotelian origin of the term: that what is defined as human is actually constituted by a caesura of animal and human categories, biological and political subject. Where the human is abandoned in its political life (or, inversely becomes sovereign), its bare life reveals itself in a “state of exception” otherwise concealed by a symbolic order. That is, it forms an antinomian position―what Agamben calls an “indiscernible point” ―within a particular legal-political field.


Throughout Snow Sensitive Skin one reads bodies subjected by the aims of sovereignty. There is the military body―the bodies especially of soldiers currently in Iraq―that is used as the vessel of American imperialism to police its domination abroad. While these bodies are obviously complicit with the aims of American foreign policy expressed by military force, they are also forms of life ‘free’ for use and experiment by the fact of their economic and ideological conditions:


Today we write home, asking for money and for meat as our own vague structure’s been taken for military purposes. What remains fascinated by the soldier’s mysterious sound device. With an ear to his chest, no world listens in. Disposed organs, the inner life itself, everything inside has been posted and marked for ‘use,’ but we don’t even know what this word means anymore.


As in Taylor’s Yesterday’s News and Occupational Treatment and Rob’s Rumored Place, these bodies conversely demonstrate an erotic potential beyond the uses and abuses of their labor power. In queering them, as I believe Snow Sensitive Skin does, they become the objects of potentialities which may overdetermine their military function. In their sexuality, a sexuality affected by their militant appearance, they may embody an aporia of the war machine in its nomadological aspect―what must be continually checked and contained by a polis to contain deviance and maintain docility.


Snow Sensitive Skin locates a plethora of other bodies as sites of biopower. No longer should we look to the body without organs as the site of emergent intensities, but organs without bodies as the sites of expendable labor, disciplinary techniques, and exchange values. In the fairly new situation of both genetic cloning and organ farming humanity has finally reached a limit of life and of what a body can do. In the substitutability of organs, discrepancies of wealth and power abide as organ donation and replacement provide undeath for a privileged few (and here would be a place to put Taylor and Rob’s project in relation to Jalal Toufic’s work on “the undead in film,” as well as Judith Butler’s on legal-philosophical discourse after Sophocles’ Antigone and other abandoned subjectivities).


The present disciplinary control of bodies through biopower embodies a disaster neither Michel Foucault or George Oppen could have foreseen. However, in biopower’s distribution, the specter of operativity rears its head. For to be operative, as ever, it to serve the anthropological crisis of a project begun in modernity and intensified by the intersection of the military with neo-Liberal economic and epistemic forces.


In lieu of biopower’s certain operativity, Snow Sensitive Skin invites a kind of inoperativity, a disablement or unworking which the poem may hope to activate through lyric. Significantly, the word “use” recurs again and again throughout the book:


In the streets, a warren of privation, we wake with the word use in our mouths, wondering what it could mean, this rain of steel thrown into air, rush of current down a disused channel, sloughing skin.

These organs of trifling importance, so many useless breasts and bladders, living needs, inside of which the whole thing comes to this arrest.

Low-level radiation, amphetamines, soil exhaustion, spasms, we use ourselves up recuperating what we’ve used.

Turning now to use, we wonder what it means ‘to produce new unoccupied places,’ and the dissident designs to live there.

The current has its uses until it’s ours to use.


Taylor and Rob’s overturnings of the term use brings to mind Augustine’s famous lament: “If they had only used the world without using it.” To use the world without using it in Snow Sensitive Skin―a paradox―would broach a state of grace (“Signs of grace, they don’t ‘develop’.”; “Faults strike tremors into sense, signs of grace whose development’s no development at all”) felt or witnessed as “interruption”: an interruption of exchange value, development, and ‘progress’ so-called;  in other words, of established orders, and the violence those orders do not cease to make possible.


Curiously, in the first pages of Snow Sensitive Skin, reference is made to the work of Amy Balkin, a Bay Area-based artist who has created an extensive work in which she documents her purchases of public smog credits ( By doing so, Balkin intends to establish a “clean air commons” that might off-set corporate control of the atmosphere. What Balkin reveals through Public Smog, are various structural and ideological contradictions inherent in an economy that would allow clean air (or pollution, in the case of the corporations who are the major purchasers of public smog credits) to be bought in the first place:


—my carbon credits public smog
our outposts on the commons
being waste expands there
no limit to what’s left over-
time remains say life itself
where gulls wheel scout mark
mountains of what won’t decay
no future reference a bird-
filled sky affirms

           —what guarantees the working day


In Taylor and Rob’s various allusions to Land Art and land use “interpretation” movements, they position their reader within an ongoing discourse central to ways we think about use, and therefore the forms a commons will assume. In the interest of not using (up)―that is, not “developing” or “progressing” for exploitative ends, not entering into economic exchanges that are going to do harm to real bodies and to a natural environment highly sensitized by human existence―Taylor and Rob encounter our various complicities with historical and genealogical formations of power. Lyric, too, is complicit in these formations insofar as lyric is used to various ends (if only to conceal the fact that it is being put to use), and that it may also use up.


Against using (up), Snow Sensitive Skin proposes new use values for poetry, and lyric poetry in particular. These use values are critical, for certain; but, more so, they concern discourse about (common) sense and nonsense, thought and action, actuality and potential (discourses which may link the work of poetry and philosophy in vital ways). Significantly, the term that recurs nearly as often as use in the book is time, where time itself―producing the creative time of an emergent measure or relation―may be the  poet’s sole recourse before lyric’s tendencies to reproduce conditions of violence.


Like Oppen before them, Taylor and Rob want to reinvent lyric where lyric should no longer serve measure per se―the regulative and “the calculable”― but that which, beyond our calculations, constitutes a genuine activation of bodies coeval with one another. Against the reification of a mass-disciplined sensorium, a new common sense must be wagered. This body is what I believe their lyric mediates and what, inversely, mediates their lyric. For in lyrical valuables are sites of common sensibilities as they must evoke the uncommon, what is strange and thus not-yet-recognizeable in its emergence. Such is lyric’s possibility, as it was also for Louis Zukofksy before the Romantic lyric of Cavalcanti via Pound―a lyric which Zukofksy revisited in order to invent a lyric for unalienated social production and exchange after Spinoza’s connantus and Marxist use value.


Yet, as Rob recognizes in his “Post-Disaster” (forthcoming in the conclusion of his book with Palm Press, Disaster Lyrics), no lyric can remain uncomplicit with the forces it finds itself in relation to and which presuppose it:


But what do we mean by disaster? Perhaps nothing more than the shape-changing confluence of state, police and capital, that old troika by whose logic everything we can’t see appears as if already calculated from within dominant regimes of representation―our democracy of total visibility―forcing into the light of language and law precisely what resists these violent operations. Lyric can only be complicit with it.


Despite this fact, a fact which haunts Zukofsky’s own efforts to find an unmediated, affective poetics in “A – 9,” I locate immediacy in Snow Sensitive Skin’s deployment of the line, where caesura and compression produce immediacy as a consequence of extreme mediation (craft, working-over, condensery, fine-tuning).


In the lyric values of Snow Sensitive Skin inhere similarities with Oppen’s lyric, where the lyric often concatenates words and syntaxes to suggest/suspend multiple meanings and tonal registers―a lyric that keeps moving despite a reader’s attempt to arrest it recursively―as well as the sense of the poem suffering the pressures of its intentions to produce a continual interruption tantamount to thinking the unthinkable in lyric, a negative dialectics. Not ineffability―a mystical silence attributed to much verse after Oppen―so much as utterance shored by the negative powers of cadence, rhythm, and syntax.


Against the various social forces Snow Sensitive Skin describes and critiques, there is the music of the book that opposes various dominant social durations: the durations of assembly line, of exchange value, of offshore drilling, of strip-mining, of military discipline and the orchestral dynamics which follow from marching orders, of language as it reproduces the social forces which might otherwise irritate it (hence snow sensitive skin―a skin giving forth to the blanknesses of potentializing force?): “It’s our own forgotten substance, misused and fallen back upon us, irritating the oversensitive skin.”


As such, in its sonic potentials, Taylor and Rob’s book becomes, like much African-American music before it, art rock (noise/punk/skronk), “new” music, and non-Western musics, an emergent interval for the social to inhabit and by which it might reinvent itself. In its connection to the sensorium via the nervous system―a “direct line” to the brain―the music of lyric makes a new body against the ways social forces engineer and thus endanger an embodied consciousness.


In a recent essay on Taylor’s work, “Sensing the Common Place: Taylor Brady’s Dialectical Lyric” (forthcoming in ON: Contemporary Practice vol. 1), Rob recognizes that the work centers on a problem of how common sense must continually be overturned by itself, and that Taylor’s work is such a site of overturning. If we have no other common sense it is obviously in what we share through love and other affective modalities, the sites of which are skin, but also words―language.


In Snow Sensitive Skin, the lyric becomes the site of these modalities―the atopian places from which they speak―as they are constituted coevally between writer and reader, addressor and addressee, collaborator and collaborator, friend and friend, lover and beloved as an allergy or irritant to the sensibility that will not remain constant, where too often constancy sounds like marching boots or machinery. In lyric intensities we locate an interval not beyond mediation but produced by it wherein we are stamped by the time of others, by the loss of what remains as measure―what sheds sense from senselessness, ecstasy, emergent ways of being in common.

Thom Donovan

Thom Donovan

Thom Donovan curates Peace On A events series in NYC and edits the weblog Wild Horses of Fire ( He also co-edits ON: a magazine for contemporary practice (, and is an ongoing participant in the Nonsite Collective ( His poetry and criticism have been published variously.

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