Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Kathy Acker told a story once about the find-and-replace function on a word processing program, about a dissertation manuscript, about serious words, stale signifiers, getting instantly swapped out, in mass, for more writhing, visceral terms. A prank with a point, to make it new, shocking as the shaft of tongue arching up the underside of a stubbled scrotum, the taste there, or the view, from above, as individual thick orbs of semen, the color of eggshells in the half-light, are achingly depositing onto that tongue’s plane, its spread surface extended. Here is a book Acker would appreciate on the level both of idea and experience, the necessary use of the 1975 Norton Anthology of Poetry, the rendering of those voices, those oeuvres, into something heroically living, words of sex. Survey as chorus: each individual voice from the canon voicing desire, from Chaucer (“I’m a colfox ful of sly iniquitee, a grove cock moving in and out of thy mouth, by imaginacion forncast.”) through Byron (“My cunt has virtues nothing earthly could surpass.”), Yeats (“Gloom is in my mind, and I have to fuck you so bad. Good girl. Good girl. Go and hear my sea-wind screams, your eyes upon my cock.”) through Whitman:
From this level I plant my sucking on your cock, look up blindly as if there were no other in the world but you, aware. Feel my kidneys, push them up—I sit content with you, my one world, aware—move your left hand through my insides until we both come—today or in ten thousand or ten million years.
Here we get Cummings on nipples, the drag of the conceiving mind, then Lowell, wherein lobsterman is cock, rising red and throbbing at the sight of filled fishnet stockings. We have Blake, “a harmless Ex-Catholic boy, eating Doves & Pigeons” and Stevens speaking of clit and panties and the sea, “the boot you’re so fond of,” then Creeley, rasping out lines that are at once brutal and weepy: “It’s fitting that you so quickly come when I fuck you silly in a bed full of books.” The shock of Acker’s anecdote is there: the familiar made new as hands grip and twist and open it, a fond fondling, a groping informed by respect, which is, after all, one characteristic of that variety of fucking that emerges from love, the sex in which love is made manifest. At times, in these pages, there is an uncanny ventriloquism; other times, not so much. How close to Dickinson is “Your Ass like the first easy Morning’s Ride—at first smells a bit pungent, like chocolate covered Imperceptibles made to seem Perfidy”? But, as I would like to think Acker might say, in a giddy mood, who cares if it makes you hard? “I love you beyond words, beyond what writing means” may well be a line from Whitman, historically, or some new phrase, but it is, regardless, essential and timeless, a necessary and true thought. Who hasn’t said some such thing and can still claim to be human, to have ever lived? And there are leitmotifs, poets singing not merely of fucking, but of love; Shelley-Keats says, here, “I’m sucking thy clit, piping songs for ever new, ever more aware of thee” just as Whitman was aware, this awareness as central, a groundedness in the act of sex even as the act itself inspires a sense of transcendence—to pass out of oneself, but always remaining focused on the other, the partner, the lover, that wondrous cosmos of flesh and soul. What Bellamy does—what the prankster in Acker’s tale did—is call attention to that which, while thoughtlessly revered, gets ignored. Here voices from history speak afresh—“When you fuck my mouth the past and the future are woven in your dribbling cock,” part of the introductory essay goes, a theory for that which follows, laying out one justification for this particular anthology in the most direct terms. Canon, opening for us as lovers, offering a new valence on the old work, infused with vitality, lust, drive. Here, for instance, putting it better than I ever could, is Milton, via Bellamy: “I’m telling thee in plain English—nothing forbids us from knowing each other—fuck me fuck me fuck me—fuck until prohibitions bind thee not, until Death itself would be heaving. We grow large with inward freedom, we fuck until the dying Serpent hath eat’n and lives.”
Official Les Figues Press Web Site
Metamorphosis: the strangeness that overtakes the familiar. One morning you wake up, the story goes... Or, to put it in a more contemporary vernacular, I know a woman, a poet of some note, who used to think (and maybe she still does) that she was being gang stalked, that a loosely coordinated team of people, probably all strangers to each other, organized at random, had picked her as a victim, were following her, entering her apartment, tinkering with small things. A toaster where she didn’t leave the toaster out the night before, or twigs piled in a strange sigil-shape on the porch outside the back door. She had, when I knew her best, stumbled onto some conspiracy Web sites and spent too many hours there, trying at first to make sense of a mysterious local death, a kid on the threshold of a shack in the snow, but then just dwelling in the atmosphere of paranoia. Loss can be salved with fear, but conspiracy is already the familiar, the known. Metamorphosis is that which makes strange. One morning you wake up, the story goes, or there’s a sense of déjà vu, a nightmare loop, repeating, twigs stacked on the threshold, a message you can’t quite decode.
All of this is one way in to Nakayasu’s work, which is far more playful, but not without a sense of threat. Even more, there is the sense of being trapped, confined as in an ant farm, as when, for instance, ants—ubiquitous in this book—colonize a narrator’s circulatory system:
When I was a small child I was told that the watermelon seed I just swallowed would sprout in my stomach and I would grow a watermelon right inside my body. And that if I didn’t get that splinter out of my finger, it would pop out later through my eyeballs. What did happen, however, is that a couple of ants managed to find their way inside, set up a nest, like the ant farm I always wanted, right inside my very own arteries and veins...
The narrators of these stories are ant-plagues, ant-obsessed, and maybe all one individual. Ants wage gang wars in his apartment, ants burrow into his teeth. Ants haunt him, but rarely, it seems, as metaphor, as parable pieces, just ants as ants, and more and more of them, always trailing up, into some new fragment of a micro-narrative. “It begins to rain ants, out of nowhere but the clear cliché of a bright blue sky,” one bit begins, swarmed on all sides by more ant-centric stories: ants on values, ants and disasters, ants and humans, ants edited by an editor when carelessly left lying around (“shorter front legs and the mandibles filed down”). Ants are texts, in this consuming vision, and ants produce texts: “From the mouth of the ant, a scroll is officiously unrolled, revealing a certain amount of fine print.” Pencils are filled with crushed ants, and ants offer templates for action, artistic and otherwise: one improvisational piece, for musicians, which can unfold over years, involves each musician selecting an insect and playing, “accordingly”—“If an inset dies, the corresponding musician should also die, musically or literally.”
So what to make of all these ants, this strangeness parading into the picnics of the everyday? Ants occupying mouths as sites of intimacy or clogging up mouths as zones of brutality—ants as vectors for various desires. Something of the relentless interchangeability, the army pouring out of the hill, its underground corridors. Something of the surprise, even now, as another ant—which should be well expected by this point—comes out of seemingly nowhere to move like a tiny ink spot across the top of my worn desk, one of thousands, one of an infinite number. Something of that essential sleight of hand that is the artist’s move in metamorphosis: one morning you wake up and part of the story’s been swopped out, and suddenly in the substitution it’s ants instead of whatever else it could have been, and the world has been twisted and, in the turning, the sky makes that sound the kaleidoscope makes, all its insides shifting, only instead of bits of glass and mirrors there’s just ants and ants and ants and ants.
Official Sawako Nakayasu Web Site
Official Les Figues Press Web Site
Steve McQueen has a piece—a film, I guess you’d call it, but context can determine form, too, and when I saw this thing it was in a room in a gallery in darkness at the end of many other such experiences, and maybe it brought with it a disorientation, like in an interrogation chamber—on and out of Paul Robeson’s FBI file. Voices read the file’s contents as the file’s contents are shown across a screen, split, and for around six hours this goes on, much of it redacted, but the redaction read aloud, too, as “redacted,” a voice given to the erasure, the silencing of the full scope of the official record such that it could be released to the public, information made free at the expense of content, black bars, marker swipes, the speech of control controlled by blanks, openings opened in the discourse.
Victor is interested in such institutional discourse, official construction of the speech of others and of others themselves, their bodies and being, identity and agency in a world under control. The pieces here emerge, in part, from a process of pastiche, bits of the Bible, redacted, or Freud, cut-up and with new insertions inserted. Also included are documents that are themselves textures of blanks: responses, either free-form (“How does this subject make you feel?”) or specific (date of birth, for instance, on some clipboard-bound sheet culled from some waiting room, with the weight of the waiting room’s power dynamic still thickly on it. Certain titles are redacted here, in this book about voices, their erasure. A passage borrowed from Chajes’s book on dybbuks tells of Jewish woman having their mouths filled with gravel or penetrated by a stake. Foucault speaks of a sloughing, but no more gentle:
The same thing occurred with the intestines, which, at another stage, “peeled off their internal tunics, which we saw emerge from the rectum. The oesophagus, the arterial trachea, and the tongue also peeled in due course; and the patient had rejected different pieces either by vomiting or by expectoration.”
Hysteria, rather than prompting, must surely follow from such horrors, as the babel of synonyms, slipping into new registers, given here (“weight, heaviness, mass, load, burden, pressure, force, poundage, tonnage, influence, leverage, sway, pull, importance, significance, consequence, value, substance, power, authority, clout,” and on and on, for pages) leading to a sloughing of meaning itself, such that plainer phrases seem suspect, duplicitous at face value (“I am of sound mind,” the document says, but what can that possibly mean?).
“If you want / to put something / in a fixed place / between or / among other / things, you can / insert it.” If McQueen is interested in—let’s say—the logic of the state, in the state’s monitoring of the other and in its monitoring of itself, monitoring the process of monitoring before such monitoring can be released in riddled form, Victor is interested in something more specifically gendered, with the apparatus of power here being patriarchal, explicitly, and those silenced, historically, women, given recourse only to rants and dramatic re-uses of their mouths: “Merycism,” for instance, “The ruminatory tendency of humans to regurgitate partially or in whole, without expectoration, partially digested matter.” The unprocessed returns, real, sharp with bile.
Scissors serve as tongue. In this confluence of texts, Dora speaks through scripture: “Dora is black, but comely, as tents and as curtains, because the sun has looked upon her, and she does urinate and defecate.” Bowels open like books: “She would flush thin mucus from the nose using manual or inorganic means, flush fecal matter from the lining of the rectum and anus using inorganic or digital means.” Ancient Egyptians, as a final step in the process of mummification, cut open the mouth. Here, texts get sliced open via word substitution: a home ritual for cutting the umbilical cord (“a joyous moment in a person’s life”) becomes a cutting of the vocal cords, a silencing: “The vocal cords are thicker and harder to cut, more like meat gristle. Don’t be surprised.” But such collision of texts is, here, always surprising. A math problem about apples—incomplete and therefore absurd, more haiku than problem set—echoes an earlier reference to an easy homemade gag, for sex, but also resembling a device used for roasting and serving a corpse at a feast. Here workbook exercises and party planning tips meld, get melded: “Have your partner open their mouth, insert the apple halfway, and have them bite down.”
Some of what is here is that sound—Wittig might call it a language, and might be right, richly signifying, visceral—that comes out along the sides of the gag: a language of resistance, a language that demands the gag be seen as edible, something one can gnaw through, reduce to chunks, fragments to swallow or spit. Like McQueen’s piece, Victor’s book is at once hypnotic and jarring, a lull of aesthetics—amniotic, almost—and a shock treatment of politics, jolting.
Official Les Figues Press Web Site