This past summer Patrick F. Durgin of Kenning Editions asked me to compose an essay based on the term "somatics" with regards to recent practices in poetry and art. For the remainder of my posts at Harriet this month I will be focused on the term somatics as it relates to poetics, performance, and cultural politics. Forthcoming are also a series of short interviews relating the term to specific poets' works. For now, here is a short excerpt from the essay I composed this past summer.

The poem has not yet determined what a body can do. Somatics? The poem sites the body’s (lack of) determination within a socio-political field. In this way is it both constructive and deconstructive. Feeling (affectivity) can over/indetermine any sense of the thing (poem) having been constructed or it having been taken apart. Lyric (what has traditionally been called "lyric") is the typical mode of this over- or in- determination. Composition demonstrates (it exposits) but it is also a site where states of feeling, perception, ‘being,’ and consciousness are undergone. Like a patient (or Orpheus) goes under. Eleni Stecopoulos: “Orpheus had to climb down the base of his skull because the message wasn’t getting through.”

To lie, in a white space, terrified, following the push of liquids through clear channels, though skins and membranes. To feel terrified, lying, pushing to follow the liquids though membranes and skins into clear channels. To feel the clarity of channels liquefying terror's push right through the skin. To feel no skin, actively. To embrace a membrane between feeling and articulation.

The poem is a site of undergoing, the body undergoing something, a process internally or externally mediated by language, a process that extends from environment, from language use in the (built) environment. As in the work of Deleuze and Guattari, one becomes animal, environment, historical personage (Nietzsche’s every name in history is I), chemical state: they do not merely represent it (the psychoanalytic fallacy). Hannah Weiner is thus ‘our’ contemporary test for undergoing because the journals record and compose the act of undergoing, of being under (as a patient). In Spoke (1984), Weiner jokes about Orpheus—one of her (three?) voices being ‘subscripted.’

Amber DiPietra: “The body becomes the problem.” Weiner’s body becomes her problem in the sense that she must overcome, or merely deal with, somatic exigencies—exigencies of her neural-chemical becoming—through an aesthetic means. Clairvoyant journalism is thus born from oversensitivity in Weiner’s journal, The Fast (1992). Undergoing writing (a somatic poetics?) is not ‘better’ or more ‘authentic’ than other kinds of writing or art. Just different. Coming from a different place/set of concerns/needs (like Kafka’s use of the journal, whereof Blanchot said that Kafka wrote in a journal to observe who he was when he was not writing.)

Can one undergo through the poem the conditions of a landscape, geographical or social location, intersubjective formation, or socio-political incommensurability? To what extent could this undergoing produce a different set of affective or intersubjective coordinates, or simply make visible the conditions that made the work of art/poem possible or necessary? In Rachel Zolf’s Neighbour Procedure (2010), she says that her book is an attempt to compose a series of “mad affects.” What about the mad affects of places? Relations? Histories of relation? The body is an extension of places and beings in ‘space-time.’ Susan Howe: “Once I was driving to Buffalo alone, moving up there for the winter to teach. It was me and my car and the mountains. I had a tape of Articulations [of Sound Forms in Time] from a reading I had done, and I thought I would turn it on as I was passing the place near where Hope [Atherton] had been wandering after the raid—and it was a wonderful feeling because the sounds seemed to be pieces still in the air there. I was returning them home as I drove away from home.” The body both mediated by and mediating the (mad) affect of such places. Could Paterson have been written by just any body? Could Muriel Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead,” or The Maximus Poems by Charles Olson, or “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” by Wallace Stevens? Could (more recently) C.S. Giscombe’s Giscombe Road or Bhanu Kapil’s post-national/post-human oeuvre?

Since to any place inhere the things that have been there, and that (sometimes literally) remain there through their ‘half-lives’ (that remain undead, in other words). And since any body is not just a body, which is to say, never only a finite membrane or container but a complex extension, a bundle of what it has encountered, consumed, sensed, felt, and touched—the body is many different places at once (in neoliberal terms, it has ‘gone global’). Place is, then, extended by many different bodies at once (the logic of virus, outbreak, contamination, plague). Somatics is a site—the aesthetic site—where we undergo these places. The existences of these places within the body become framed, but also possibly moved (expressed, transformed, en route). ‘Remediation’ (the shibboleth for any number of public and corporate earthworks projects post-disaster) then not only occurs within a particular geography or topology, but in or at the body as a site coextensive with such places.

Originally Published: April 16th, 2011

Thom Donovan lives in New York City where he edits Wild Horses of Fire weblog ( and coedits ON Contemporary Practice with Michael Cross and Kyle Schlesinger. He is a participant in the Nonsite Collective and a curator for the SEGUE reading series (NYC). He holds a Ph.D. in English...