Novel Pictorial Noise by Noah Eli Gordon
(Harper Perennial, New York, 2007)
I could have found any number of entry points into a discussion of Noah Eli Gordon’s Novel Pictorial Noise (NPN). You can see some of them in another review I wrote for Litter. Perhaps because I’m knee deep in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine I have chosen to discuss NPN here vis-à-vis Rae Armantrout’s back-cover allusion to “what we’ve come to circa 2007 … a moribund psychosocial system.” I love everything about Rae Armantrout, so I hope she won’t mind if I say I get what she’s working towards, and “moribund” works, but “psychosocial” seems just too small to describe what’s truly moribund here.
I take it as given that, to quote Huncke, we’re guilty of everything. I take it as given that, as Davison Budhoo wrote, “ … the blood is so much, you know, it runs in rivers. It dries up too; it cakes all over me; sometimes I feel that there is not enough soap in the whole world to cleanse me … ” I take it as given that, to quote Mr. Mayfield, if there’s a hell below, we’re all gonna go.
Since I’m a poet, and, to quote a character from the great “60s novel”, William J Craddock’s Be Not Content, “my karma’s doin’”, I come back and back and back to that question: “poetry after Auschwitz”. I’d rewrite the question: “poetry after Auschwitz, from which we’ve learned nothing of use.”
“The World Bank introduced Structural Adjustment Programs in 1980 to increase export production in debtor nations to provide cash for debt-service payment. Under “structural adjustment,” developing countries typically are required to devalue their currency; dramatically cut spending on social services, medical care and education; eliminate barriers to foreign multinationals and trade; privatize national assets; deregulate business; decrease wages; restrict credit and raise interest rates.
Due to the radical reorganization of national economies, people in "SAPed" countries often pay for their governments' loans with extreme poverty, hunger and disease. Using figures provided by UNICEF and UNDP, the editors of the IMF-World Bank Watchdog estimated that more than six million children under the age of five have died each year since 1982 in Africa, Asia and Latin America as a result of IMF / World Bank policies.”
(Susan Meeker-Lowry, “A people's alternative to Structural Adjustment”)
1982-2007. 25 years. Only counting kids under 5, that’s 25 Auschwitzes right there.
Poetry after how many more than 55 Auschwitzes? Poetry, like every human contrivance, that has to carry the weight of “guilty of everything” (even if only subliminally)? Poetry that can’t help but be caked in blood because there’s not enough soap, can never be enough soap, to wash off -- because everything we do is caked in blood?
Well … yeah. Yeah. Poetry. (My friend Alan writes: “… people in extremes need poetry. If they don't get it they turn to religion!”)
Poetry … But how?
I can’t claim that Novel Pictorial Noise has the answer to that (of course, I can’t claim anyone has). But I can say that the work found therein reads as if Gordon is aware of the need to grapple with what, for me, is a megaproblem. That’s something. Perhaps that’s the only answer there is. To grapple with it. To be response-able.
And grapple he does:
… centuries of labor congealing into the desk lamp that lets me mold my own two cents from this paper-clip panopticon …
Even the enabling light source is socialized/historicized/economized/politicized, as is the only possible material with which to construct his response to the only available subject matter, which too is a very special sort of prison … I wonder: does “paper-clip” in “paper-clip-panopticon” suggest that the prison is written as well as real? That the real is written? That written and real are inextricable? Hmmm …
Is everything always-already already written by the time we are thrown as it were into “here”? In caked blood? Including the “I”?
Power’s got a fulcrum that’s half self-portrait …
There’s no possibility of an innocent subject, object or process here:
The lever will pivot regardless of where it’s placed down.
Wherever it’s placed down. Even in a painting of a peaceful landscape, even in the language used to describe a painting, language, which in itself has nothing overt to do with power (unless figure/ground relations are power relations). Or, perhaps better, even in the reading of said language (question: is language caked in blood, or are the readers of language caked in blood?):
… is this a picture of the distance between yellow and blue, or is it merely a means to ground the figures, a maxim bled of its proverbial exigencies …
A maxim … I can’t help but hear an echo of the name of one of the first WMDs of modernity …
I don’t feel very articulate here. I feel overwhelmed. But how can I not be? Check this out. Gordon writes:
… in proposing the helicopter as the only subject retaining any seriousness, one is currently giving rise to the fundamental ineptness of abstraction.
It sounds good, but god knows what he’s getting at. But who cares? I want to tell you that, according to Arnaud de Borchgrave’s “Iraq exit logistics”, Washington Times, 6 October 2007, helicopters, before they can be returned to the US, must be shrink-wrapped. Shrink-wrapped. Knowing that for some ungodly reason helicopters must be shrink-wrapped before we can exit Iraq does fuck with my reading of Gordon’s “only subject retaining any seriousness” and “fundamental ineptness” to the point that my not feeling very articulate becomes the most understated understatement of which I am capable.
Why should a thread understand a carpet? Unimportant that my arrows point anywhere …
But but but (and note the rhyme) …
One packs in what one can, as the real point of art is the subtle reiteration of the is, ain’t it? The way I see it, we’re all partially tainted.
NPN is a very suggestive read. Its “subtle reiteration of the is” has got me spinning. If that’s a comment on the is these poems reiterate, it’s also a comment on the poems. Not every work can do that.
I sent the above to Alan. Our conversation continued:
Alan: [This strikes] me as not so much a review of Gordon's book, as a brief essay, or meditation on the “poetry after Auschwitz” question, and maybe the title of the piece should reflect that? Just a thought.
I note that you praise Gordon when he makes explicit statements such as “we're all tainted” or “Power’s got a fulcrum that’s half self-portrait …”. But maybe someone like Naomi Klein is better at spelling out the facts, and poetry has a different purpose -- it allows people to “sing in their chains”. John Ashbery (who I'm a little obsessed with at the moment) seems a prime example of a poet who resists authority without making any explicit political statements -- but, for example, his appropriation of different registers of language or his refusal to preach or be didactic, is perhaps an expression of freedom or resistance. Jane Austen was favourite of soldiers in the trenches of WWI, and I found Ashbery the only poet I could read in my (what seemed at the time) serious illness of last year.
Here's another thought: poetry's not so much a statement as an act.
JBR: You’re right; this is a meditation with Gordon’s work as its occasion. I don’t really disagree w/anything you say, but I do think there’s room for explicit statement in poetry – for every kind of statement. If it’s con- or de-contextualized appropriately (whatever appropriately means). Gordon moves smoothly from the explicit to the ambiguous and back again, among other moves .... I singled out some explicit statements because they fit my meditation. I’d hate to leave you with the impression that his poetry is OVERTLY political. Though “awareness” does reverberate ...
Isn’t a statement an act?
Alan: Well, maybe... or at least *making* a statement is an act. Shelley's “Mask of Anarchy” or Adrian Mitchell's “Tell me lies about Vietnam” are wonderful of course. All I'm saying is that poetry doesn't have to be politically explicit to be politically active or effective. Re: the Adorno thing, poetry is like weeping or laughing, an expression of grief or joy, made all the more necessary by the horrors of human history.
JBR: Making a statement is certainly an act. But I wonder -- only wonder -- whether a statement remains an act after it’s made, at least in potentia, especially if it’s written, since it will continue to affect others, who will react to it. For example, the title “Tell me lies about Vietnam” instantly morphs into “Tell me lies about Iraq” and generates a serious stomachache.
But yes, poetry doesn’t have to be politically explicit. My thought, put it much more didactically than I perhaps should: The author must make certain demands upon her/himself in order to create a poetry equal to the times he/she lives in. If those demands are met, then the poetry can’t help but be politically “active or effective”.
I guess my question/despair is: given that, apparently, “Auschwitz” didn’t teach us *anything*, and that dozens of “Auschwitzes” have taken place since the original (and we know there was no original, that imagining so is just a polite fiction we’ve devised in order to keep our despair manageable): what are the appropriate demands, and can they possibly be lived up to?
Tho of course since that despair is tempered, as you note, by the existence of artists who have somehow figured this out, or have been born reasonably equal to the world ... I should probably rephrase the above as: what are the appropriate demands I can demand of MYSELF, and how can LITTLE OLD ME possibly live up to them? That’s my real ARGH in all this.
John Bloomberg-Rissman¹s most recent publications are World Zero and No Sounds Of My Own Making. He is one of four collaborators on the recent hay(na)ku sequence ³Four Skin Confessions², which can be found at http://chainedhaynaku.wordpress.com/. His current project is called Autopoiesis, of which he has completed 60+ parts and expects it¹ll be time to move on to something else when he puts paid to no. 100.