Extemporalis on the New Masculinist Lyric: In which will be discussed Douglas Kearney’s The Black Automaton (Fence 2009), James Wagner’s Geisttraum (Esther Press 2010), and Steven Zultanski’s Pad (Make Now Press 2010).
For what feels like some time, I have been saying things in passing and in private about “the new masculinist lyric.” Things about form and content, things said, like so many other passing and private things, as if the thing of which other things may be said, exists, and by so saying, making it so. And so with the new masculinist lyric, we see the bold instantiation of a form freshly formed, yet as pedigreed as any Pomeranian. That ought be butcher—Pug, perhaps, or Pinscher. For 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.
The project of shabbing and rehabbing the contemporary lyric has been an ongoing concern for some time; in her thoughtful essay, “New Definitions of Lyric: A Response,” Marjorie Perloff historicized the 19th and 20th century lyric, taking to task some of the latter century’s criticisms of the former for over-simplification. Like Adorno, who argued in “On Lyric Poetry and Society” that the famed universality of lyric “is social in nature,” Perloff maintained that much earlier lyric poetry was a site of thick social engagement: Blake castigating the uncivil order of his poor London, Wordsworth grappling with unreasonable death, “men speaking to men,” albeit in the presumptive panglot of the Englishman. But whereas Adorno, writing in 1957, felt this social function was primarily linguistic—language being the device that brings the subjective concept into objective material form (thus “the lyric work is always the subjective expression of a social antagonism,” and great lyric a subversion by the bourgeoisie of itself:)*—Perloff, in 1997, looked to the matter of particular words as they were specifically socially situated and motivated (the universality of lyric being found in the ache of its very historical condition, which, like death, is “thus all the more terrifying in its finality”). In a her 2002 introduction to American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, Juliana Spahr echoes both Adorno and Perloff, finding “exciting” “how the social and cultural keep intruding and developing an aesthetic frame,” albeit her excitement is predicated on this female intrusion into the lyric, rather than something inhering in the poetic form. The historical difference being the conscious deployment of gender.
Like the new feminist lyric, the new masculinist lyric moves “away from an individual space towards a shared, connective space” (Spahr); the shared connective and collectives spaces manifest by these three poets smartly speak to the guyness of today, in bass and tenor voce. So that in The Black Automaton, Douglas Kearney plays two lyric games that ultimately harmonize: though his poems visually break down into those overtly lyric in form and those overtly concertized, these material structures are betrayed by their shared content. And shared content makes a container more or less constituent. The poems that appear concrete demand just as much lyric engagement as those that look like lyric poems from across the room. Maybe more so, for the concrete poems overtly impress upon the reader the necessity for really (and variously) reading, providing something like a graphic schema which here is something like the IKEA tool—useful for making but without IKEA-independent utility:
The formally lyric work overtly plays with the sound of sense (“the first black you met was on the radio. / this is true even if you lived with blacks”), but that itself is a false distinguishing sense, for in both structures, Kearney employs what’s called lyric in the out-there, the real world of song, some hollered, some spoken, some Disney. (“See, [it] can kiss the sky!” and “sissyyyyyyyyy” and ” ‘jus look at de worl aroun you right ere on de ocean floor’ “) Kearney has said that he is avoiding mastery, which may well be, but he is not shying away from virtuosity. Too, these games are games of hi/low, though we can slug each other into the hereafter over who (“Swimchant for Nigger Mer-Folk”) is zooming who (“In a Station at the Metro”). Kearney is an action poet, not of the obvious variety (e.g., the vidpoem or perf), though there is that—his performance/reading of his work is so atheleticized that, like Christian Bök or a male walrus, he fairly scares off any other would-be dominant males–but in the occupation of the shared collective/subjective conscious space.
In the Baudelaire section of The Arcades Project, Benjamin cites “on the allegorical element” one of Chesterton’s passages on Dickens, who wrote that he once habituated a coffee shop where the words “Coffee Room” were painted on an oval glass plate, facing the street. He was so miserable then that he noted that “a shock goes through my blood” whenever he saw the words backwards subsequent. Chesterton: “That wild word, ‘Moor Eeffoc’ is the motto of all effective realism.” Leaving aside the unfortunate juxtapose of wild and Moor, though leaning into Eeffoc, with its conjunctive and efficacious properties, so too does Kearney’s work employ literality literally. In comparison, James Wagner’s chapbook Geisttraum (Tales from the Germans) takes realism from another source and down another track. Wagner’s language is the religious American Middle West: plain, transparent and similarly constituent of its own allegorical surface. A sussurating surface that threatens always to slip under itself and away. (“Less than 600 people in the town. Four taverns. A fifth in the bowling alley basement. / He went with his grandfather to the bars. Either eating fried pork rinds or Charleston Chews”) Where Kearney’s masculinism is primarily concerned with the trauma of the perverse, with what happens when a male body is put in linguistic extremis, Wagner works with the trauma of the terse, the male voice that chokes on its own inability to vomit or scream (“The brother walking around with a fishhook in his finger. The brother walking around with his hand after slamming it in the car door. The brother on the ground from hitting a birdhouse with his head. The brother hitting the telephone poles on his bike”). The poems are written as sets of simple declarative sentences, mixing opinion and observation as these things have been traditionally conflated in historiography and masculine prose and prosody. Wagner’s writing about sexual abuse of a young boy or boys by a priest or priests is not written as outrage or injustice, just the greater outrage and injustice of the statement of fact (“The brother with the compound fracture out his chin”). Between Kearney and Wagner, one sings, the other doesn’t, but it is important to note that one man’s singing may make church, while another man’s choir is a site of sexual subjugation.
Another lyric effect is produced by the repetition/refrain in Steven Zultanski’s work. On the back of his Pad, Zultanski sets forth the book* as a “catalogue of my attempt to lift each and every item in my apartment with my dick,” calling this indexical gesture “a parody of masculinity.” It is that and more; the dick as ubiquitous, always plenty (“My dick can lift the white hat that reads ‘Shooting Center’ in blue letters from the top shelf of the closet”), never enough (“My dick can’t lift the Hotpoint refrigerator”), kept, contra Freud, but oh-so-Lacan, incessantly unhidden (“My dick can lift the book The Sex Which is Not One by Luce Irigary”). In blandishments that are the very image of a modern English major, dick serves as metaphor for capitalism (manifest in the dialectic of the single subject and the stuffed habitus of anyone’s apartment) and metaphor for psychoanalytic structuralism (manifest by the barred subject dictated by the Symbolic and Real phallus); i.e., dick = Dick. In all this good tits to the wind stuff, the dick acts as an obvious gag, itself an obvious joke, both gags becoming less jokey and more obscure in the dick’s castrated and animated enactments as the catalogue rolls on (“My dick can lift the girlfriend’s scrunchy peeking out of the blue bag”) and on (“My dick can lift the lift the ex-girlfriend’s light-blue ‘J’adore Bardot!’ t-shirt”) and on (“My dick can lift the eighty-eighth 18 x ¾” brad….My dick can lift the eighty-ninth 18 x ¾” brad…My dick can lift the ninetieth 18 x ¾” brad…My dick can lift the ninety-first 18 x ¾” brad”). The trauma of the masculine discourse in Pad is underscored by the incantatory properties of “my dick can” and “my dick can’t,” which ring as Echo to every Narcissus. (“My dick can’t lift the floor.”)
In her essay, Perloff came down in favor of the palimpsest as the lyric form of the then-moment; the “writing over” that doesn’t entirely efface what’s come before, but incorporates it as a way of going forward. Spahr found that poetic innovation in her collection of contemporary women’s poetry was a way for gender to re-inscribe the lyric; in hip-hop culture, biting both links and distinguishes one lyrical work from its predecessor. Kearney, Wagner and Zultanski’s poems are in part the voices of “men speaking to men,” but they are men who write over, with, and in, the speech of other men as they speak quite particularly in their own shared connectivity—one decidedly, and consciously, male.
* I am ducking for the moment Adorno’s later critique that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” though anything after Auschwitz which emphasizes the social, or collective, will has its own grounds for moral condemnation. And at this point, it seems more accurate to note that Duchamp, not Auschwitz, revealed poetry’s basic barbarism.
* As another aside, it looks as if the book is via print-on-demand (there’s that telltale fresh yet delicate sheen, coupled with a kind of blunt uniformity), which I liked as a dickish movement as well.