To re-site the body—to remember—
To cruise the city—Lorca meets Joe Brainard!
(from “Hi-Then (salutation)”)
Unafraid to run on his infectious, jangling nerve, Urayoán Noel weds witty word play to his call for a protean identity politics. By utilizing a variety of constraints and poetic structures, his poetry performs the “hi-density politics” he calls us to—a tightly woven and constantly transforming positionality that seeks to out-shift global capital’s tentacular reach.The collection is made up of four sections that pun on various fragments of the book’s title:
HI THEN (salutation)
CITY (erode movie)
POLIS (pop lists, oulipolips)
This skeleton articulates an important strategy for Noel’s work. The puns act as mirrors within language to point to its instability and the opportunities these instabilities afford for non-material production (linguistic play) and as sites for non-locatable subject positions. For example, Noel is able to double the presence of the city (CITY / POLIS) by mis-reading the cognates for “density.” The city that we therefore enter into within Hi-Density Politics is a mirrored space of uncanny alternatives, a crenellated surface against which Noel reflects and projects differences. That this mirroring strategy frequently relies on the pun also echoes the central (but often invisible) role of the body in global exchanges. To appreciate Noel’s word play, we must first be able to hear: the pun relies on our auditory recognition and enacts a doubled form of speech. Hi-density, indeed. Furthermore, the section titles illustrate Noel’s preoccupations with translation, speech, the avant-garde, and mass culture. In this regard, they also function as a key to his poetics practice.The first poem, which is also the first section, is composed in a lively terza rima that nods to Dante’s Inferno.
And my quirky deployment of the terza
Quirks like us (the only us that matters)
The glam/glum gleam—see Kinski-era Herzog
Who scans the city as it scatters?
Drops the props and scores this scarred propensity?
(The city immeasurable in meters!)
Din of dollar stores—dust-binned CDs—
(from “HI THEN (salutation)”)
Though this sounds nothing like the stately Inferno, Noel’s spectral allusion to Dante operates on three levels: firstly, to indicate a cultural critique under the guise of poetry. Secondly, to root his poetics in a self-conscious sense of history. It’s easy to imagine the technologized world we inhabit today as being unmoored from the past. However, Noel insists that its roots are present everywhere, just not in the static state we are trained to recognize. Invoking Dante also invites us to recall western civilization’s ultimately Latin roots. And though Noel acts alone as our guide (no Virgil, here), we can hear the ancient Roman echoes in the Spanish and French he unearths for us.
Rather than descending into an underworld of lost souls, we are instead welcomed to the CITY—here imagined as a space of hybrid possibility and discursive play. Though most often recognizable as New York, the city of Hi-Density Politics reflects a global urbana, characterized by velocity, crowds, squalor, consumerism, and a concert of tongues. As poet, Noel’s job is to “scan the city as it scatters,” to try to articulate it in its flight. And as entertaining as the writing is, it also points to a refreshingly necessary poetics: we can read Noel’s work as “glocal triage” (his term, not mine) in which the city reflects the globalized subject’s symptoms and an accurate diagnosis can only be rendered through poetry. The city “quirks like us,” its tics reflect our being. In this light, Noel’s various explorations in word play and poetic structures become means for sussing out the dynamic, collective identities that arise in response. He writes in ottava rima, tercets, palindromes, scripts, lists, journal entries, notes, games, flarf, and various modes of translation. This virtuoso performance suggests that both the object of Noel’s poetry and the subject positions from which he writes are in flux. It seems, then, that the city embodies both our ailments (fragmentation, information overload, velocity) and a cure: for Noel, the answer is to continue roving and transforming—in an effort to outpace globalization’s own circuitry, perhaps.Though Noel is quick to point out that what he envisions is an actual city, filled with urban debris like rat droppings, malt liquor bottles, and price tags, it is also simultaneously a virtual city. This alternative polis is inflected and remixed by the spectral ubiquity of its disparately various, digital double, expressed in phenomena such as the “bilingual texts on smartphones / lobbying for councilmen / who sell immunities” (“sitibodis”). This virtual reality is also inscribed into and permeates its denizens:
I’M AN “I”: A MOD DOMAIN AM I!
(from “me, o poem! (a cameo poem)”)
Noel’s work is the most electrifying when exploring this partner reality—body as text, as code. For example, the palindrome quoted above neatly captures the subjective “I” and renders it both mirrored and virtual, re-scribing it as a “mod domain,” with echoes of domain names like “TODO.DOT” and “MOCO.COM” from the same poem lurking in the background. The long, blank break between the scare-quoted “I” and its virtual incarnation indicate the invisible boundaries between self and (virtual) reality that cleave us together.Noel also explores the technologized regions of the English language to expose living and unruly Latinate roots.
How many dias
in your diaspora?
How many spores in
sing the proles proliferative
zip-drived aggregate of cuerpos
meanwhile here we do the dance
of the sí-borg in a no-burg
the no-bard in a sea of sí
(from “hi-din sites”)
In these instances, Spanish erupts into the English, highlighting the two language’s intertwined-ness and shared roots in Empire. Latin inflects our language so richly due to its immense success as the language of power: a Romance language is spoken on nearly a third of the earth’s surface, from the Philippines to Chile to Quebec to Romania. Furthermore, by injecting Latin’s presence into technologized words, Noel projects Latin out of the past and into the future. For example, the replicant of the Bladerunner universe, an android being with a human consciousness and the planned obsolescence of a laptop, is re-viewed as a “repli-cante.” The new Latin emphasis transforms the utility-driven drudgery of the worker android into a viral song. This Latinization highlights how technology has become the primary means and ends of globalization’s logic while also offering a contiguous response. Putting the dense critical analysis aside, these are my favorite moments of the collection: they are simply sheer fun to read. Noel’s list of palindromes in “me, o poem! (a cameo poem)” include some cheeky hits, such as
E.DOT I//MOVEON.OBAMA.BONO//E-VOMIT ODE
HELM THE HTML, EH?
There’s a punning wit at work, but also a sharp intelligence: what he captures and pokes at with these palindromes is how virtual space mirrors, warps, and flattens the complex relations of transits that comprise our new global realities. Part of the rasp in his work enacts the rough seams without having to outline the social ills of global exchange. There are plenty of other texts whose onus is to bear witness—Noel’s call is to revel in the semantic play of cultural conjunctures and their possibilities.Though Noel celebrates the opportunities that these virtual registers have opened up to us, he’s also careful not to overstate the reach of his poetry and its impact in the world:
poetics of openingare alwaysoptimisticbeacons in the mistin ways thatcollude with marketscollide with carefulmodes of criticalitythe kind that Ishould traffic inexcept
thatI’m concernedwith another kind of traffic:strophicno trophy inthis dystrophyyet thisis all we sharemaybe enough
(from “babel o city (el gran concurso)”)
He notes that “poetics of opening,” which seek to elude power’s grip, frequently “collude with markets,” and often unintentionally perform their ideological complicity with dominant logics (i.e. Futurism and fascism). I can’t help but hear echoes of a Futurist posture in Noel’s work, with his love of velocity and digital potentials. However, he resists its overt machismo and unreflective idealism in favor of a more tempered, self-conscious positioning. He acknowledges the uncomfortable collusion with capitalism’s imperatives that a pro-technological stance invites. For example, he explores the nuances of complicity, such as the pleasures of techno-consumerism reflected in composing poems on a Blackberry while sitting in a park.As part of his effort to wed a sense of the historical to a new protean identity politics, Noel has also embedded in his book a mini primer in Latin avant-garde literature. We can see this in his ode to Brazilian concrete poet Decio Pignatari, homophonic translation of Cesar Vallejo’s “Trilce,” ghostly traces of Pablo de Rokha, Osvaldo Lamborghini, and re-write of Stéphane Mallarmé. My one criticism is that Noel relies on such an androcentric literary history. I had hoped he would have included some of the female members of the avant-garde. Victoria Ocampo? Alfonsina Storni? I am not well-versed in their work, so if there were echoes in Noel’s book, they are incredibly quiet, whereas his references to the men are loudly announced. If his poetry seeks to truly celebrate multiplicity and difference, then this gendered gap emerges as a scathing absence. It is because of this omission that I can’t help but read Hi-Density Politics in a “new masculinist lyric” light. In her review of three male poets back on April 10th for the Constant Critic, Vanessa Place characterizes this emergent poetics: “the new masculinist lyric is a gesture that is less consistent in its formal shape than in its forming animus. To be distinguished, at this historical point, from anima. I.e., the new masculinist lyric poet is another kind of brother, one who is as public as he is private, who retreats as he is reaching out.” By deliberately citing the animus rather than the anima, Place emphasizes the androgenic impulses of creativity in the masculine psyche: though it adopts many of the central features of the feminist lyric—directed inward, while also seeking out connective interstices and collectivity—this “new masculinist lyric” reflects “men speaking to men” and also writing “over, with, and in the speech of other men” in order to establish their relations. It seems that the new masculinist lyric adopts feminist strategies while foreswearing an interest in feminine presences. Hi-Density Politics derives much of its puckish intensity by riffing off numerous male predecessors’ work. Is Noel interested in a chiefly andro-collectivity, then? In such a light, one could read the impressive virtuosity of the text as a performative “new masculinist” swagger, signaling the new brother on the block. But this leads me to ask whether virtuosity always has to be linked to dominance. I find Noel’s work inviting and engaging—smart without being patronizing. His humor captures the incredibly well-read, delighted geekiness of a pomo comic-con attendee. His poetry is marked with a masculine swerve, certainly, but also disarmingly so. In the end, I am intrigued by Noel’s call to live in “hi-density.” His writing smartly captures the intense crowdedness of contemporary subjectivities inundated with data overflows. However, rather than bemoaning this phenomenon, Noel engages this position as a stance for a radical becoming. By refusing to remain fixed, slow, or pinned to one narration, Noel demonstrates the immense possibilities and pleasures in contemporary being. Part of this pleasure emerges in the jaggedness of exchange, and his supra-structures give us the semblance that contingency and dynamism are not inherently chaotic, but intelligibly complex.
Recent reviews by
Sueyeun Juliette Lee
- A Swarm of Bees in High Court Tonya M. Foster
September 5, 2015
- Ban en Banlieue Bhanu Kapil
June 7, 2015
- Life in a Box is a Pretty Life Dawn Lundy Martin
November 2, 2014
- Things To Do With Your Mouth Divya Victor
May 3, 2014
- Damnation Janice Lee
November 29, 2013
- The Story of My Accident is Ours Rachel Levitsky
May 18, 2013
- Manhater Danielle Pafunda
December 16, 2012
- Obedience Chris Vitiello
August 20, 2012
- All the Garbage of the World, Unite! Kim Hyesoon
April 18, 2012
- (made) Cara Benson
December 17, 2011