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Get the Fuck Back Into That Burning Plane
20 pp. Ugly Duckling Presse. US $10. paper
Lawrence Giffin’s first chapbook, Get the Fuck Back Into That Burning Plane, revisits the voice and tone of high-modernist abstraction, the mode perfected by T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens in their long poems, and perfected again, in a burlesque variant, by John Ashbery. Giffin’s version of high-modernist abstraction is alienated and bureaucratic, the language of a failed attempted at generality, comprehensiveness, and spiritual relevance. This work asks us to rethink Eliot and Stevens, the bored bank-teller and unworldly insurance lawyer. Giffin reminds us that these titans of modernism were marginal and disappointed men, whose rigorous poetry constructs a transcendent consciousness that compensated for their airless lives. The controlling intelligence of Get the Fuck Back Into that Burning Plane is a man like them, an intelligent man with few options, loyally going through the motions of the day-job before taking over the universe with majestic rolling vowels and nuanced Ciceronian grammar on the evenings and weekends.
Rhetorical abstraction always aims at comprehensiveness, as if the open questions raised by broad strokes of abstraction can surround or incorporate all the complexities of reality. One could say that Eliot and Stevens took “the white man’s way” out of their very real marginality; they pretended to be universal, adopting a rhetorical advantage from which their words could seem to encompass and comment on everything. For Giffin, this move to transcendent universality is a leap into false consciousness, and Get the Fuck Back Into That Burning Plane is a study of the false consciousness through which a middle-class individual identifies with the power and the motives of the nation-state.
The book assumes that a middle-class individual has radically limited agency and minimal political influence, and that in fact the power to agree or disagree with policies (without the possibility of changing them) is all the power he has. Furthermore, the book assumes that an attempt to achieve comprehensive understanding is one way to mask feelings of marginalization, and that the underlying psychological motivation for high-modernist style was the ambition to identify the writer’s consciousness with philosophical or historical necessity. Above all, Giffin’s book emphasizes that identification is not influence.
Simple, how the choice stares into you,
convincing us it’s yours and you of our concern,
so that one must make up for fudged stats,
so to speak, that is, to admit
the priority of untold accidents yet live
as fully as compliance weaponry,
the commodity’s depthless edifice,
whoever’s moment of clarity through
creative writing that may turn out to be.
Political choice, the power to agree or disagree with policy, when it is divorced from actual political influence, becomes instead a tool for manipulating the consciousness of the citizen. Unable to shape policy, the citizen can only give the finger to or else rubber-stamp policy. This binary choice which we exercise when voting, our vote for or against the status quo, serves to convince us, if we agree, that the policy is ours, at which point we become willing to excuse the deficiencies of the party in power; part of the bargain, when we identify with them, is that we will “make up for fudged stats” when they need it, that we will do the necessary cognitive workarounds to avoid being disillusioned when contradictory facts come out.
What we get in return from identifying with a political party/economic philosophy/supposed majority is the ability to feel part of a massive and powerful sense of agency, an ability to feel our inclinations guiding history. For writers, such identification leads to “moment[s] of clarity through creative writing.” Giffen condemns such moments as a part of the armature of the state. These seemingly transformative moments in which a person feels comforted by understanding and a sense of progress are, to Giffin, moments in which nothing significant happens except the prerogative of external powers to manage one’s consciousness are confirmed. Transcendence is for Giffin no more than a channel through which contradictions are drained of energy and disposed. As he writes: “Even your dumb-as-fuck consciousness / can provide the sole source of negativity / in a universe of excessive positivity.”
Giffin is at his most aggressive as he constructs an image of an inner life deprived of agency or relevance, the sense of personal entrapment that is the flipside of transcendent clarity. He writes:
The memory of owning nice things
is practiced in the emotional life.
It distorts the latter in the former
and puts a face to his profile page,
not from a lack of understanding
but of a living that we are now.
In other words, the discomfort of our emotional condition seems better in retrospect, where it is mellowed by association with the “nice things” whose purchase has been our achievement. Furthermore, this mellowness of achievement is reflected in the internet reflections of contemporary life, where individuals are depicted with a rosiness characteristic of memories. The only element of the emotional life that cannot be salvaged by property (whether real property or the intellectual property of internet self-representation) are actual emotions in the present. It is precisely present-tense emotions, then, that confront the contemporary citizen as his number one problem. This is why:
One longs to live it out unconsciously,
to have already returned from living abroad
and found oneself being the change one wants to see,
as if it would have been correct
to recognize its cognizance as such
at some later date.
To avoid present-tense emotions, the citizen would rather live as his own property, as a self modified and improved by calculated adjustments, a time spent living abroad adding to the value of the self just as surely as a new porch will raise the valuation of a house. Similarly, a political act, if it is in the safe, personalized mode of a lifestyle choice (“being the change one wants to see”) can add value to one’s sense of self, making it ever more enjoyable and comforting to look at oneself from “some later date.”
Giffin goes on to define exactly what is so wrong about the present:
And all the fair and excellent properties
that recalled our beauty and sexual prowess
in periods of immense progress seem
now to watch us from within
the windowless requisites of their use.
The qualities that make ourselves such “hot properties” are, in the immediate present, unable to be used or enjoyed, “windowless.” Looking at ourselves retrospectively, these “fair and excellent” qualities of ourselves such as “beauty and sexual prowess” brought us “immense progress,” and we can take pride in our achievements (the achievements emphasized here seem to be social and sexual). But how much pride can a lonely person take in past sociality or a chaste person take in past carnality? The immateriality of our past experiences makes them an unreliable form of chattels.
In the immediate present, “No man is himself in everydayness, / not even you, Francis.” In everydayness, we are denied our powers if we make no use of them, if we can find no use for them. It is not enough if they bolster our identities as part of a soothing image of past achievement, if we are nonetheless alienated from our abilities by a lack of meaningful engagement with the social.
In such a situation, “The last man / is always a kind of bureaucrat / in endless quarantine on a deserted planet.” Because the social is defined by external economic pressures that can best be navigated through a conformistic pursuit of self-interest defined as domesticity, life in society is bureaucratic and resembles quarantine. In such a context, Giffin defines a sense of freedom as a false consciousness that his narrator strives for: “There, my powerlessness, as the distance between givens, / would amount to the purest freedom.”
Powerlessness can only become an “amount,” a quantity with value, by fetishizing subjectivity as a personal quality that exceeds experience and adds value to experience. This is to view subjectivity as a property, a furniture that makes experience more comfortable. Giffin emphasizes this equation of subjectivity with personal belongings when he writes, “When I am feeling not at all myself / I go into my house / where all my cool stuff is.” “Cool stuff” is a figure for the pleasures of alienation, which are the pleasures of involvement in one’s own subjectivity.
By contrast, “When I feel alive, / I am feeling you feeling me feeling / this rhythm.” This image captures a certain charm of awkwardness, as if dancing with the eyes instead of the feet. There is a desire to escape from the narrator’s perfect rhetoric of alienated subjectivity, into a space that is more redundant and disjunctive, a space where
speech has its uses, always
within earshot of another if not
the same, and registers its effects
These more syncopated, complexly enjambed lines reflect the degree to which social environments problematize both perception and rhetoric, creating the preconditions for healthy improvisation.
It seems clear that Giffin views American cultural norms as excessively limiting of individual choice and meaningful socialization; he verifies this when he writes:
When you sang, “Justice
will be served / And the battle
will rage / This big dog will fight /
When you rattle his cage / And
you’ll be sorry that you messed with
The U. S. of A.”
did you really mean to imply
that America is a cage?
Giffin decisively leaps on the implication, suggesting that even the most right-wing Americans are on some level aware that their identification with the state rests upon a deep sense of powerlessness. For him, the knowledge of powerlessness as the cornerstone of contemporary subjectivity is the first move toward rhetorical interventions in the social. Get the Fuck Back Into That Burning Plane makes that move, by taking on the high-modern armature of transcendental subjectivity and dramatizing it as a form of failed compensation for all the liberties society can’t spare us.
While Giffin has no previous books under his own name, he has published three volumes of conceptual writing under the moniker “Martha Dandridge Custis.” These books, the Comment Is Free series, explore the phenomenon of comment-box democracy, in which various Americans utilize their free speech to vent on the internet. The books sample from comments on various internet forums to produce a witty (and sometimes ominous) collage of political imaginings. It is probable that Giffin’s critique of subjectivity in Get the Fuck Back Into That Burning Plane derives in large part from this immersion in the rhetoric of comment-box rants.
I recommend reading Get the Fuck Back Into That Burning Plane in conjunction with the Comment is Free series, to get the full effect of Giffin’s innovative approach to poetics.
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.