Follow Harriet on Twitter
There Exist These Opulent Gardens
What does it mean to have senses at the end of the world, and what does it mean to have them in common? I was wanting to weep on Wilshire Boulevard, wanting to weep for Soul Cycles and fraying palms and anthropocenic heat waves and cosmetic injectables, but I couldn’t even cry, I’d sweated so much, who had gone to see Bjork’s ex-boyfriend’s expansive consideration of the plumbing.
I wrote a poem about the art show as an excuse to sit 45 seconds longer in the air conditioning:
I needed the purple line or the red line to Union Station then the San Bernardino line back to Claremont back to my host, Aaron Kunin, needed to find enough phone battery to find him, actually, in Claremont, but I was feeling so hard for the people in the heat wave, the bus stop people sweating like I was sweating, the sweating people themselves the tragic consequence, I thought, of the historical forces that enabled Matthew Barney’s gilded shit.
We’d been planning to become scale artists, Cassandra Gillig and I, meaning not artists of scale (Matthew Barney, probably, was an artist of scale, his material mostly the maximal, a hack blunt intrusiveness of the mega-operatic), but artists who made scales to install in the public in which a person or people could weigh themselves or aspects of themselves against something or someone else. On one side of the scale—the future—and on the other side, you actually got in it, you’d see if you could outweigh it, balance it, but this was just one example: could a half dozen children weigh more than the police?
I’d do nothing at all as a scale artist but build public and sometimes encradling ways (a scale of the softest substance, in which one could weigh their intentions against gentleness itself) of social self-measuring, so I could get why Barney would want to make some big-time sculptures. But it was so hot, I thought, that Barney’s art show became something else: it was an inflictive yawp, a barbaric touch down, the vulgar win of who is the biggest asshole, who does a victory lap over pillage. The shit world, the bowels, the expulsion, the exploitation, was covered in high art’s goldishness, and outside, on the buses and in the bus stops of the overheated world were the people in their work uniforms, hard-faced and sweating.
Sometimes there’s this division people make between the aesthetes and the utopians, or the bourgeois appreciators of beauty and the Marx-y total critique of everything existing-ers, but part of my problem with the aesthetes was that they weren’t aesthetic enough and part of my problem with the total critiquers of everything etc. is that they were way too into aesthetics. None of this mattered to the Los Angeles skyline nor the sign of the Rolex store glowing a green 6:32 PM as dusk spread over the hot-as-tomorrow city of Los Angeles, as if light itself and its diminishment was a device to tell you when to shop or go to work. Capitalism wasn’t only an economics, it was a set of relations and a system of organizing lives. Part of this organization was the distribution of suffering, and a subset of distributing suffering was who would sweat more, and where—hot yoga or the bus stop? It organized who would make art and who would suffer from it, who would write about it privately in her journal in the hot fall of 2015, then later, for a hundred dollars an entry, at U.S. poetry’s most neo-liberalist institution’s highly search-engine-optimized blog.
I was coming out of illness, against the punitive inefficiency of the public transportation, against class society, against to be a poet in a city all for art and to be a disfigured person in a city of the beautiful. And I was supposed to go to church. I actually wrote down, “to go to church with what is necessary.” It was the Church of the Epiphany in East LA—a place devoted to both art and social justice—and I was going to return to poetry by reading there with one of my favorite poets, Fred Moten.
The room we were to read in was hot, filled with metal chairs, had no air conditioning, no fans to speak of, and was packed with so many human bodies there weren’t enough chairs in a large room full of chairs, all of the people waiting in the end-times-hot night for poetry. I stood by the open door before my reading, listening with one ear to Fred Moten’s kids play with an iPad and listening to Fred Moten dazzle with the other.
Periodically people would come in, stare at the scene, be mesmerized by Fred. Then they would ask me “Is this The Burrito Project?” I wanted to answer yes. It felt so bad not to. In a slip up, a meeting of The Burrito Project and a reading (me and Fred’s) organized by The Poetics Research Bureau had been simultaneously scheduled for the church. The Burrito Project met to roll burritos for the hungry. The poetry reading fed no one.
If only we’d known, we could have combined the two, but No, I’d have to whisper to the people who would come in, It’s not The Burrito Project, I’d tell them. No, I’d say, this is a poetry reading. The Burrito Project’s been moved, I’d say, check the Facebook, I’d say, I’m so sorry.
I’d gone to the bathroom and cut off my sleeves with nail scissors in an attempt to cool down and to keep my chemotherapy-damaged skin from too much burning. I’d planned to actually throw off my wig at some point, maybe after I read a fable about lambs and the cunning of the powerless, thinking it would be punk as fuck, I told Stacy Tran after, to throw my wig to the crowd. But once I was reading, I was so into poetry that to be punk as fuck slipped my mind.
The night worked out. It was as if the heat had inspired a multi-delirium of meaning. Though the city was particularly wretched in how it seemed to be the future I’d been dreading, the one in which the weather was always the story, the city was particularly beautiful in how it seemed to be a site of future thought that I was needing, too. Fred was great. Harmony Holiday gave a rousing introduction of gratitude that Fred hadn’t, by a foundation, been declared a genius. And I got to see so many friends and hug them, but everyone who had entered the church, asking me the question—Is this The Burrito Project?—reminded me that despite its fine qualities, poetry was a total fail at producing burritos.
After I became sick, I followed the controversies of U.S. poetry only barely, as if the institutional structure of U.S. poetry was a point in the horizon I could only sometimes see through the thicket of all the other struggles. But from what I could tell, a lot of what was happening there had to do with clarifying these contradictions. And I suppose it’s an old point, the mixed quality of our existing, the way one thing can never be everything—Bernadette Mayer’s: “This planet should be sent to a lunatic asylum / But it’s not poetry’s fault / For being so concerned / With love beauty sex and ideas.”
I have no complaint with Los Angeles, in particular, just that’s where I was when everything was hot-as-all-end-times and poetry was inadequate at rolling burritos. I could get despairing about it, but talking about it to Fred later, he reminded me that a person can’t live on burritos alone. He’s right, but still, that Brecht poem about Hell kept playing:
Contemplating Hell, as I once heard it,
My brother Shelley found it to be a place
Much like the city of London. I,
Who do not live in London, but in Los Angeles,
Find, contemplating Hell, that it
Must be even more like Los Angeles.
Also in Hell,
I do not doubt it, there exist these opulent gardens
With flowers as large as trees, wilting, of course,
Very quickly, if they are not watered with very expensive
water. And fruit markets
With great leaps of fruit, which nonetheless
Possess neither scent nor taste. And endless trains of autos,
Lighter than their own shadows, swifter than
Foolish thoughts, shimmering vehicles, in which
Rosy people, coming from nowhere, go nowhere.
And houses, designed for happiness, standing empty,
Even when inhabited.
Even the houses in Hell are not all ugly.
But concern about being thrown into the street
Consumes the inhabitants of the villas no less
Than the inhabitants of the barracks.
Tags: Aaron Kunin, Bernadette Mayer, Bertolt Brecht, Cassandra Gillig, Fred Moten, Harmony Holiday, Matthew Barney, Poetic Research Bureau
Posted in Featured Blogger on Monday, January 25th, 2016 by Anne Boyer.