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102 pgs. Palm Press. http://www.palmpress.org/ Paper. $15. 0-9789262-8-5
David Buuck’s first full-length collection, The Shunt, consists of work written between January 2001 and October 2008. It engages with the sense of urgency characteristic of this decade, the sense of constant, constantly mutating crisis that has dominated public perception of finance, politics, and personal life. In general, we have been in danger in this decade—whether the danger has been losing our jobs, losing our savings, dying of anthrax, losing our benefits, losing our homes, dying from suitcase nukes, dying because our health-insurance providers won’t pay for treatments, or losing our self-esteem or moral certainty because we can find no effective way to act on our deeply-held beliefs. Buuck, as I understand his work, views this atmosphere of crisis as a put-on, a con-job more coercive than force.
His book dramatizes the absurdity of the sense of crisis, using word-play and surprising substitutions to point to the tactics of media manipulation that keep the crisis from getting stale. Buuck suffers from the anxiety, just like the rest of us, but nonetheless demonstrates how hokey and old the crisis is, how the crisis refuses to grow up but just keeps sputtering out the same tired threats on everything we need and love. When Buuck writes, “here comes / the crash /again” or “(repeat for thirty days / (repeat for twelve years / (repeat” the reader can feel and share his weariness with living in interesting times, the intensity of his desire to get past the cycles of trauma and fear and move on to a mature politics.
Ultimately, the sense of crisis is fueled by the financial objectives of corporate elites, who insist upon an unsustainably high rate of profit for executives and investors. Much of The Shunt critiques the effect of these financial objectives on everyday life. Of the California economy in 2001, Buuck writes:
the 3 largest locals –
ag, tech, & prisons –
(H-1Bs the new
Treaty of Guadeloupe)
“highly-mobile” – uh, that’s people?
Rx 3482960 household debt ratio
dwelling without foundation
to disposable incomes, subprimed
real estate flexes proof
is in the putting it that way. . .
aligned by other than shared ironic
detachment from the dayjob
Here Buuck coordinates the aspects of the crisis into a grim picture of socioeconomics in 21st century California. As a demand for excessive profit simultaneously drives up the price of real estate, through speculation, and drives down worker compensation (through the definition of more and more workers as “temporary”), the only place for the economy to go is a vast expansion in working class debt. In this shift, the productive power of the working class is characterized as debt rather than ownership (leading ultimately to the view of debt as a form of ownership, of the mortgage as an asset). This helps us to understand how the crisis can at the same time have been a boom; it is because, as Buuck writes, “the debacle never comes. / belated, bet-hedged into after- / futures.” And even now that the debacle has come, now that we have been forcibly reminded of the distinction between ownership and debt, the crisis still fails to fully materialize, still situates itself primarily in “after-futures” of anxiety.
Writing in 2008, Buuck further explores how the crisis is permanently tied to future-projections:
off in the distance, “tomorrow”
’s a video-game, a simulcast,
a set of shadow-icons
pegged to the budget-chart
“reality – plus
the future within it”
In other words, because present day economic activity in our highly-leveraged society is dependent on forecasts, predictions, and projections, the crisis will always be palpable and pending; the crisis is the public discourse that keeps our economic system stable by guaranteeing collective compliance. Because of the looming crisis, we have no choice. The form of our society, at least in the decade of the 00s, is that we are constantly experiencing the leading edge of a great crisis the bulk of which remains (permanently) ahead of us. In this environment, we can all safely say, “I trust my instincts – once / they’ve been medicated.”
Of course, “the crisis is an accountant / ’s wet dream” as the sense of impending crash motivates rapid price fluctuations in futures markets. Buuck writes:
it’s 36.99 & tonight
we’re gonna parlay
like it’s 19.99 – per
The remarkable use of the word “parley,” which refers both to speech and negotiation in general, and to a specific type of wager, is characteristic of Buuck’s close attention to terminology. A parlay is a bet in which two or more bets are linked together—a parlay is only won if all of the included bets are won, and if you win a parley you win big. The sense of crisis enables radical increases of value for speculative investors—wins which have the effect of deepening the underlying problem and making the crisis worse. In a speculative economy driven by the production of debt, there is never a final bet, so all the wagers won along the way remain permanently in question, all the profits ride on a future which can only culminate in crash. Because the crash is permanently pending, never to fully materialize, the short-term profits can be immense, but cannot lead to a sense of prosperity. Indeed, the unsustainable scenario of wealth without prosperity leads to zero-sum thinking in which wealth is only made of prospective loss. In this situation, infrastructure disappears because it has less profit potential than debt; wealth is a passing wave which will break on the (receding) shore of the crisis. . .
In such an environment, immediate physical reality and sensory experience are essential—as temporary as wealth but much more accessible. The Shunt studies language as a physical, sensory reality, concerning itself with the stutters and substitutions that characterize language in real-time. This concern is most effectively dramatized in the book’s first section, “The Jhoke,” described in the notes as follows:
I tied a length of rope between a lamppost and a bike rack. . . stringing the rope through and around my belt. Thus tethered to the line, I set an egg-timer to 18 minutes and began a series of ‘jokes,’ each improvised aloud while crawling the length of the line, carrying a plank of wood on my back on which I transcribed whatever I was saying/reading.
The resulting “jhokes” give a sense of language as stolen from the tension of the moment. The second “jhoke” reads in its entirety as follows:
A man … walks … into a … bar … room de … bate … over … the role … of … the writer … in war dash … time … I … ’d been … making … the … argument … that … the … eh … body dash … burden of … one’s experience … of war … dash time … need be art … art … articulated … as … ex … per … iential … lized … scripts … for … dot dot dot … how do you … spell ellipsis? … dot dot . . . the bartender … izer pours … me … a … grin and … bear it … and says …
In this text, the many pauses represent the insertion of the body into discourse. The body’s labor and the pause as the body prepares to utter speech are made visibly present by the ellipses, dramatizing how the body takes up time, how the body delays the progress of philosophical or financial discourses. Indeed, Buuck may be suggesting that it is the body itself, its solidity, that prevents the crisis of our times from ever fully materializing, the body that holds everything together by insuring a place for the present tense. Against financial and philosophical regimes that dominate us by manipulating future expectations, the body slows down and gets real.
Consider the joke without the pauses; it would be “A man walks into a barroom debate over the role of the writer in war-time. I’d been making the argument that the body-burden of one’s experience of war-time need be articulated as experientialized scripts for … The bartenderizer pours me a grin and bear it and says”. In this version, intriguing yet facile art-speech is interrupted by the bartender’s good humor, triggering a pair of tenderizing puns. But in the version with the pauses, the contingent nature of each syllable as a physical manifestation is foregrounded as a series of present tenses in which “art” is gradually, stutteringly “articulated” at a rate of one “ex” per each “iential.” In this version, there is a yawning gap before the experiential goes on to be “lized” and the lie in experientialized is exposed as a dangerous afterthought.
Much of David Buuck’s writing develops out of or feeds into performative settings, including lectures, guided tours, dramatic enactments, and constraint-based performances like “The Jhoke.” This engagement with performance suggests uneasiness with the ritual of the “poetry reading”—rather than going from place to place reading the same poems in the same way, Buuck crafts performances of his writing that engage specifically with the location and social context. His work with the Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics (BARGE) emphasizes an attentiveness to local environments of the San Francisco Bay area. This has included guided tours of the toxic Treasure Island site, as well as examinations of the gradual change in urban locations.
As in The Shunt, Buuck’s performances employ acts of attention as a form of cultural resistance. For Buuck, the material conditions of our embodiment and surroundings can act as a buffer, a space to slow down and call into question the narratives of crisis and transformation that shape our lives.
The Shunt cannot free us from the tensions of a decade of constant crisis, but it can offer us the body as a guarantor of real-time. By pointing out how the crisis is not new but rather a constant aspect of our lives, Buuck tries to show us how stale it is, and thereby to liberate us from being “shame-shaped into over- // choreographed pantomimes / of pre-apocalyptic glee.”
Rather than being excited or activated by the crisis, we can “grin and … bear it” at the slower pace of embodiment and attention. Of course, this is no cure. We are still “inside paren-ethical framejobs” where “the news / scams me into / codependency.” Nonetheless, The Shunt finds something that poetry can give us in this moment—the moment itself, on furlough from the dominated future. These acts of attention set an alternative pace, pointing away from crisis thinking and toward a more gradual and curious experience of our time.
Stan Apps is a poet and essayist living in Tampa, Florida. His books include Info Ration from Make Now and God’s Livestock Policy from Les Figues. A chapbook of Sonnets is forthcoming in the g.e. series from Books and Bookshelves, and a big brick of essays is soon come from Combo Books. Stan’s blog is at nonprovocativeurl.blogspot.com.