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Verses of Witness in an Apocalyptic Era

John Wieners, Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike, cover

“I don’t mean YOLO I mean they are hunting me”



I feel I shall
have to be punished for writing this,
that omniscient god is the rich one,
cared little for looks, less for Art,
still kept weekly films close for the
free dishes and scandal hot. Some how
though got cheated in health and upon

—John Wieners, "Children of the Working Class"

Turn one way and it’s all chatter. The chatter is clear, prosaic. Institutions treasure this particular form of language. Monikered as transparency, it reveals less than it conceals. This is the beauty and also the problem of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” “So much depends upon” it. If poetry existed in a vacuum, then we could have chickens and wheelbarrows and all would be well. Wondrous and beautifully transparent. But the image also manifests within and from Global Capital. Often, then the response is inversion. Histories of Surrealism, DADA, elements of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry result in an obscurity that cannot speak beyond an initiate or an elite.

I am writing. I am writing in a time when things have been thrown. Vast alienations. The material of language and the voice of poetry, what are these things in the face of the brutalities of infinite wars and starvations?  Put differently, we are living in dark times. The brutalities of reactionary politics. Scorched earth isn’t just metaphoric, but rather the end result of climate change and environmental disaster. Charlottesville. The daily regimen of massacres. I will not say the problem is new. Ecclesiastes knows it well. To learn to speak and create under the sun. Fast forward and industrialize it and we are left with the Holocaust. Which in many respects continues and mutates. The further intensification of globalized capital works in tandem with the digital revolution, resulting in the demystification and desensitization of thing and language.

How can we retain the mystery of poetry in an era of demystification?—shot through from Weber’s iron cage and Marx’s demystification (Capital) to present forms of transparency. A critique of transparent theories of language within poetics. As Susan Buck-Morss notes, “Without theology (the axis of transcendence) Marxism falls into positivism; without Marxism (the axis of empirical history) theology falls into magic. Dialectical images indeed emerge at the ‘crossroads between magic and positivism’.”  Here, without some theological or quasi-mystical grounding of the possibilities of language and verse, poetry falls into the realm of demystification instantiated by the reification of commodity production. We must go down to the crossroads, try to flag a ride. In Men in Dark Times, Hannah Arendt wrote aptly, “Those who are on the lookout for representatives of an era, for mouthpieces of the Zeitgeist, for exponents of History (spelled with a capital H) will look here in vain. Still, the historical time, the ‘dark times’ is …visible everywhere in this book.” She borrows “dark times” from Brecht’s famous poem “To Posterity.” She notes:

Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on this earth.

Amidst this time, these dark times, where and to whom do we turn? I speak here of a poetics not of transparency, nor of obscurity, but of a chiasm. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics notes that chiasmus is denoted by “a placing crosswise from the Greek letter X.” Typically, chiastic structures are demarcated by an ABBA structure that is phonological, lexical, morphological, or thematic. While the term itself didn’t emerge into English until late-nineteenth/early-twentieth centuries, it’s found throughout biblical structures of rhetoric, sound, repetition, meaning. And it is there that I first learned and understood it. For me, chiastic reversals (ABBA), are how I read sound, structure, language, and meaning. For me, I want to focus on the chiasm as a figurative X marking the spot between transparency and magic. Too much transparency and we have a book report. Too much magic and we’ve lost all grounding in what binds us together here on this earth. And to me, perhaps what is so appealing about Buck-Morss’s (via Benjamin) take on the world is that it deploys just such a chiastic dialectics that goes down to that pivotal point. I want to explore the explosive poetries of between where we inhabit the world. This scorching earthly home.

Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé occupies just such a nexus. Perhaps the chiastic structure is historically most eloquent in her dynamic “Rebirth of Slick.” The opening three stanzas dis- and re-locate historicity.

& sashayed
& solar                     I’m a moodless seedling
on the day Jay Z was born
& Fred Hampton was killed

Watching TV & thinking “White people are crazy”
Watching YouTube & thinking “Kanye West
is crazy”
Looking in the mirror

Everything crazy is the best
It’s what I learned from aunties
& empty bottles after midnight
The birth of a bullshitter
            in dark lipstick & big dreams

The vector of Hampton’s brutal murder with the natal arrival, the news of Jay Z recasts one of the most horrific crimes of American history in another culturally meaningful light without erasing, but remembering. Never to forget. Never. The speaker does not remain in the past, nor does the speaker remain a voyeur watching, but rather locates meaning in the metacognition of looking within. And it’s nothing of the “pure products of America go crazy” (contra Williams’s “To Elsie”), but rather a turn on that into the lived world of relations, from aunties. And natality’s the crux of her verse. The poem’s closing notes:

I was born this way: unsatisfied
My color is a bridge with no other side
In a second life my voice is a drum kit
Reigning over green hills like weather
          I am king & anthem
          know how to relax

A bridgeless Crossroads. A doubling of possibilities. To the beat of. To be both king and anthem. Author, authority, song. And its witness. And the witnessing emerges from the context of race, producing a generativity and passage that is both apocalyptic and natal. This apocalyptic doubling, this “empty bottle” manifests in another, albeit wholly different register in Joanna C. Valente’s “The End of the Universe is an Empty Gin Bottle,” in her compelling Marys of the Sea:

all animals but one
                closeted in black holes
                              across space; before living
                                              I was we, canoeing
                                                              around the rings of Saturn
                                                                            then fell into

                                                                             life to rise out atoms
                                                               ripped apart one-by-one;
                                                summon your body
                                    of performance.

A closing in, a closeting in which there is no I for I cannot live within the closet. Explosive natural forces. Astronomically and astrologically consonant. The force and generativity of a black hole, that emptiness. And with it comes a reckoning to perform. As in front of a mirror. Reflectively. An unveiling. That within the darkest hour, when there are no hours or areas left, to generate and perform and make a summoning. It is not unlike a second life. The poetics of Parker and Valente are markedly different. Yet, both thrive at a nexus of theological and historical possibilities in the darkest of times.

Once when locked up after a particularly bruising mental breakdown, I found myself up against and moving in with those you may never see. This roommate called me Casper and said I was the nice one. There were human feces covering the walls. It was no refuge. To call it anything less than hell on earth would be inaccurate. There are no metaphors here. Torn out hair. The rubber rooms. The historical continuum of Whitman’s America spun out (and always was spitting out) in another direction, this one, a carceral of wards of the state. I’ve been to many horrifying spaces in my short time here on this strange earth home, but none so stultifying, none so shot through with alienation and horror as the psychiatric units of Cook County, or what is left of them. These are unhealthy times and this isn’t exactly the America I imagine Whitman was enamored with in Leaves of Grass. John Wieners’s “Children of the Working Class” provides a light into, a writhing writing, seething and seeing not only what we can see, but also what and who we cannot, as he writes from incarceration in Taunton State Hospital in 1972.

there are worse, whom you may never see, non-crucial around the
spoke, these you do, seldom
locked in Taunton State Hospital and other peon work farms
drudge from morning until night, abandoned within destitute
crevices odd clothes
intent on performing some particular task long has been far
there is no hope, they locked-in key’s; housed of course

and there fed, poorly
off sooted, plastic dishes, soiled grimly silver knives and forks,
stamped Department of Mental Health spoons
but the unshrinkable duties of any society
produces its ill-kempt, ignorant and sore idiosyncrasies.

Wieners’s Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike (an Arcades Project in its own right) could not be more relevant than it is today. And perhaps that’s why I’m particularly taken with the way Wave Books thoughtfully and effectively incorporated much of it in Supplication (2015), an edition of his selected poems. Wieners bore witness “not to Whitman’s vision, but instead the/ poorhouses, the mad city asylums and re-/lief worklines.” As James Wright would have it, to live “In Terror of Hospital Bills”: 

Still have some money to
To eat with, alone
And frightened, knowing how soon
I will waken a poor man.

Through that apocalyptic moment, in that horror of all where all bets really are off, “my life was never so precious / To me as now.”

Different strange relation to life matters when there is nothing else left. The preciousness of being in this world, at this time, which isn’t to say that’s a goal—for to sink down or be down at that Crossroads—the crossroads where Robert Johnson tried to flag a ride, Parker’s “bridge with no other side,” Fred Hampton’s apartment the morning of December 4, 1969. Wieners’s hospitals. And how Valente’s verse sings after and through trauma. No. I am not calling for such spaces of trauma. Rather, in the face of the crisis of life within oppressive relations, in that silent void before a scream, I want that “silence to teach me to sing” (Jim Carroll, “Wicked Gravity”). It would seem to me that these great writers, my dear reader, are doing precisely that. And for that, I sing their praises every day and give thanks to their verse of witness.

Originally Published: April 18th, 2018

The son of an Episcopalian minister, Philip Jenks was born in North Carolina and grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia. He earned a BA from Reed College, an MA in creative writing from Boston University, and a PhD in political science from the University of Kentucky. His books of poetry include On...