Poetry News

How Do Queer Marxists Propagate? Rich Owens on Samuel Solomon's Life of Riley

By Harriet Staff

Richard Owens reviews Samuel Solomon's Life of Riley (Bad Press 2012) over at Damn the Caesars, reading it through Yeats's "Introduction," "the 1937 prefatory note composed for an edition of his complete works that never appeared." Struck by the claim, "A poet is justified not by the expression of himself, but by the public he finds or creates; a public made by others ready to his hand if he is a mere popular poet, but a new public, a new form of life, if he is a man of genius," Owens considers the options for such a public, settling on:

Solomon's Life of Riley angles toward such an alignment [of "oneself with a broader, more lateralized collective effort to construct a 'form of life,' or ways of feeling and grasping, capable of meeting the confluence of demands disposed in the present"), each of the poems grounded in a strategic deference that subordinates the narrativized self to a more collective endeavor without surrendering, and arguably by way of, an otherwise self-indulgent lyric excess. We see this most clearly, I think, in the title poem, "Life of Riley," a short run of articulated lineated constructions that bear out, among other things, a generalized critique of the American Left...

After excerpting the poem, Owens looks at another, "She Drives the Buick," and its relationship to social formations and lyric address, or the queering of the two:

...Topical concerns run up against more enduring problems, are filtered through them, i.e. "She Drives the Buick" where Queer soldier Bradley Manning's role in the proliferation of classified documents through WikiLeaks is juxtaposed against the problem of Russian pronationalistskiy under Putin:

How do you queer Marxists propagate?
Topical banquets of know-how launched tungsten.
          Bradley Manning or new Russian pronatalism
          forget to be that ugly but don't know how not to
          semi-conduct torture.
Come back to certain names with variations
to indicate the revulsion-complex, so
attraction, coolness, etc. of that person
his famous actions, sense of an unhinging
contingently controls his fame, made
necessary somehow. Then notice how the gay
bitch's verge wilts down into radical queer.
Little Miss Manning's a rich snobby old lady
she threatened to throw a glass of Rosé in my face
but quickly remembered here delicacy and simply
snickered she'd out me on the internet ... pointing
                                                like Maleficent —
(she knows me, she walked with me once upon a dream,
in fact in a childhood nightmare featuring a witch
who was also a wasp, counting children with her
sinister hand, stinging-finger pointed, what could be
more terrifying than counting children well I'm
scared!) — like Maleficent, then, we toss
each other heaps of appropriated shade, I mean,
what kind of man is that. I know you're thinking
this too, and that says most about me. We want
to be Miss Manning and the witch.

The poem is remarkable for its desubjectivizing subordination of lyric interest to an emergent social formation through a lyric mode of address. In a sense, the gesture appears to offer the ground for resubjectification — for a more affirmative and collaboratively built public or social formation. How do queer Marxists propagate? Rob Halpern comes to mind, as do New Narrative predecessors like Bruce Boone and Steve Abbott. And after Hot White Andy, what poem written in English today can deploy the word "tungsten" without immediately alluding to Keston Sutherland? As such, "She Drives the Buick" offers itself as an embodiment of solidarity that sacrifices the subject-oriented center of lyric utterance to a more dispersed and socially oriented desire capable of queering socialist activism and challenging the masculinist underpinnings of a long-since dead New Left that, in many instances, continue to endure. The desire to be, at one and the same time, "Miss Manning and the witch" is an expression of utopian longing but, if this is such an expression, it is one that refuses the crippling expectation of an impossible utopia.

Watch Solomon read poems from Life of Riley below. Recorded by Owens at the Sussex Poetry Festival, Brighton, UK, in June.


Originally Published: October 23rd, 2012