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Copper Lyres (Materiality of Poetry in the Age of Digital Reproduction & Ecoprecarity, Part 2)

then with your tongue remove the tape
Jean Toomer, “Her Lips Are Copper Wire” (1920)

Italo Calvino, Le città invisibili, Turin: Einaudi, 1972.

In a meditation on “The Invisible City” within his 1961 magnum opus The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects, Lewis Mumford presents the electric power grid as a positive example of the “vast impersonal network” that had already begun intelligibly to perforate and exceed the metropolitan complex, transposing the original functions of the city into “forms capable of swift transportation, mechanical manifolding, electronic transmission, worldwide distribution.” Mumford writes in a utopian key of the new urban constellations and boundless “cooperation” that could emerge from decentralized global networks: “In a well ordered world, there would be no limits, physical, cultural, or political, to such a system of co-operation: it would pass through geographic obstacles and national barriers as readily as X-rays pass through solid objects.”

Written during a period of immersion in urbanist discourse and architectural theory, and in the thrall of electronic communications such as those churning on Wall Street, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972) stages an endless high-stakes game of chess between Marco Polo and a structuralist: Kublai Khan, who sets out to master the grid and, by extension, his own territory by way of knowledge. Though Calvino’s Khan perceives that his empire is in reality an “endless, formless ruin,” in which every triumph over enemies means becoming “the heirs of their long undoing,” he treats the chessboard as an aspirational system undergirding his jurisdiction’s “infinite deformities and discords.” By way of inarticulate grunts and pantomimes, the Venetian merchant’s accounts of all the cities in the Khan’s empire disclose “the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.” “If each city is like a game of chess,” the fictional emperor says, “the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire.”


From the perspective of Calvino’s Venetian merchant, though, even the geometry of a chessboard reveals itself as a product of hybrid material origins embedded, like a historical script without end, in the wood:

“Your chessboard, sire, is inlaid with two woods: ebony and maple. The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought: you see how its fibers are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can be made out….”

Until then the Great Khan had not realized that the foreigner knew how to express himself fluently in his language, but it was not this fluency that amazed him.

“Here is a thicker pore: perhaps it was a larvum’s nest; not a woodworm, because, once born, it would have begun to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves and was the cause of the tree’s being chosen for chopping down…. This edge was scored by the wood carver with his gouge so that it would adhere to the next square…."

View of New York City at night. Courtesy of NASA

The sanitizing illuminating grid of planned urban centers, public utilities, and the Internet might be perceived as autonomous, or autotelic, by virtue of this rational geometry alone, like the grids on canvas Rosalind Krauss interpreted in 1979: “By its very abstraction,” wrote Krauss, “the grid conveyed one of the basic laws of knowledge—the separation of the perceptual screen from that of the ‘real’ world.” We know, and yet don’t apprehend, that it ain’t so. As I’ve written elsewhere, the notoriously labyrinthine urban form that underpins all the Invisible Cities Marco Polo documents and projects—Venice—is one where every Cartesian charting scheme must of necessity go astray, in line with erosion and the tides. The grid, archipelagic, is always permeable, always leaking.

This kitchen eyesore of a girl’s nahbility

Reading HILL in Delphic syllables

39 acres of one’s own

Rusted prospect with gym-glass floors’

Glimpse of smart-growth

Mister Fabricant on exterminated land;

Waiting for Bernd and Hilla

And republican grids impervious

Of unbranded towers

To the tune of 5,000 cars per hours’

Torturous bottlenecks at major 4F arteries:

Viz. the ERR-0 water tower, token of the ex-copper rod mill across the street.

I started answering to a disquieting interrogation of our complicity as writers in the act of perception, research and transmission at home, from Terry’s kitchen window and my own screen. Here’s some of what I’ve learned about the material substrate of the wireless imagination. Copper wire is used in power generation, transmission, and distribution, in telecommunications and electronics circuitry. Though gradually being replaced by fiber optics, copper cables once used for telegraphy and telephony constitute a crucial mass of the Internet’s material substrate. Tangles of twisted-pair copper cables from a “carrier hotel” in Manhattan at 60 Hudson Street photographed by Peter Garritano, originally built as Western Union’s headquarters in 1930, make that clear. In these colocation centers, copper and fiber-optic cables, servers, fans, and security machinery connect to form the Internet.

Shortly after we arrived on the dead end from Queens, the corporation that operated the rod mill found itself in trouble due to the nationalization of Chilean and Peruvian copper and increased labor unrest. Via a lucrative ownership and real-estate flip called a sale-and-leaseback, the enterprise was incorporated into the holding company of a Chicago clan, now a charmed constellation of namers, philanthropists, and Cabinet personnel. The postindustrial landscape of my suburban dump was quieted, but lives on to an ambiguous extent in the water and air.

Far more troublingly, its origin in the copper mining at Cerro de Pasco, Peru, which made syndicate founders J. P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, the Vanderbilt family, and others we’ve heard of through their museums and prizes super-rich, vaunts Dantesque bolges to show as continuum. Extraction bores holes in the high Andes, and it builds mountains—or pilings, of toxic mining tailings that lace the neighborhoods of a city that the Blacksmith Institute a decade ago identified as one of the ten most polluted sites on earth, inhaled.

Over the past two decades, the Andean region of South America has emerged as the world’s most productive copper region. In 2007, almost half of the world’s copper was produced from the Andes. Conflicts over mining projects in Peru, now the world’s third-biggest copper producer, have “held up billions in potential investments over the past decade.” Controversial enterprises such as the Tia Maria Mine, aiming to mine 120 thousand tons of copper cathodes per year during its eighteen-year life span, pit the Peruvian government—bolstering the economic interests of a multinational corporation—against its people; demonstrators have called on the government to cancel the copper project over projections that it will pollute nearby agricultural valleys, as others have, again and again.

Meanwhile, the salvaging of copper in the slums of Accra (at Agbogbloshie) makes for a particularly lethal postscript to that process of extraction as wires are burned to strip away the tape for the copper beneath as quickly as possible, often by kids who need to pay for school. Agbogbloshie also made the Blacksmith Institute’s list of the world’s ten most polluted sites.

How can one conduct an archaeology of responsibility for such cooperative disasters in the dim vast of trade? Reading the translator’s preface to César Vallejo’s Tungsten: “I cannot help thinking how strange it is to live in a world in which a great fortune made from Central and South American mines should then be devoted to fostering humane studies..."

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ode to the West Wind” (1819)

Poetry can break the grid into its material parts, tell the story of its dust, strip the home of its image of solidity: so that its “image of immobility [is] replaced by an image of a complex of mobilities, a nexus of in and out conduits” as perceived in Lefebvre’s The Production of Space: as Gordon Matta-Clark made apprehensible in his Splittings of 1974.

At the stripped housing of 6018 North, late February 2016: a structure whose peeled walls vaunt their infrastructure of copper wire for telephony, pipes for plumbing, even early-twentieth-century copper tubing for calling in the servants from the cellar: How to render this structure a copper lyre, or better, an Aeolian harping on the global conduits of non-harmony?

Poetry allows us to breathe what Calvino calls the “pulverization” of utopia, to breathe it for better or worse, which is fundamentally different from understanding; poetry samples from what can be perceived in a reciprocal exchange while admitting to being uncomprehensive: it inevitably falls short of, and therefore resists, the cartographic pretense of being visually intact.

This is why, with The Data That We Breathe, we set out to build, as the alarm of the obsolescing networked age, of the house and the signals piercing it, particulate and communicative, us would-be Pans, a copper choir. Piercing an image of solidity and replacing it with a snarl of conduits that takes in as much as it generates: that replaces production with the inhale.


Part one, "Aeolian Harping: Materiality of Poetry in the Age of Digital Reproduction & Ecoprecarity" can be found here.

Originally Published: May 31st, 2016

An artist, translator, and teacher, Scappettone was born and raised in New York. The recipient of a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2005, she has lived in Italy, Virginia, Japan, California, and Chicago. Her collections of poetry are the chapbooks Err-Residence (2007), Beauty (Is the New Absurdity)...