Archive for May, 2009

The power plant. A georgic. (draft as of 5.24.09)

Posted in Uncategorized on May 25, 2009 by rdunder

The power plant. Or. The lightning.

A georgic.

Begun Inauguration day, 2009.

Fort Collins, Colorado.

Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Boulder, Colorado.

The epigraph.

“Maybe fire is the opposite principle to light, and comes to the use of those who do not go the way of light. Fire has to consume to give all its light. But light gets its knowledge—and has its intelligence and its being—by going over things without the necessity of eating the substance of things in the process of purchasing their truth. Maybe this is the difference, the different base of not just these two poets, Bill and E.P., but something more, two contrary conceptions of love.”—Charles Olson, “GrandPa, Goodbye”

Or.

“We shall build a tower that will reach to the stars!” Having conceived Babel, yet unable to build it themselves, they had thousands to build it for them. But those who toiled knew nothing of the dreams of those who planned. And the minds that planned the Tower of Babel cared nothing for the workers who built it. The hymns of praise of the few became the curses of the many – BABEL! BABEL! BABEL! – Between the mind that plans and the hands that build there must be a Mediator, and this must be the heart.”–Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang, Metropolis

Or.

The epigram.

Sometimes all I want is a little more power.

Invocation………………………..(1)

“(There is a myth that Prometheus did more than steal fire from the sun and bring it down to man: it is said that Prometheus fathered man.)”

There was a stadium.

My father hurled the bolt like a javelin.

The stadium became a brain

where electric branches dart from synapses

and this poem billows up like thunderheads.

I am made of lightning.

My father sat in the cave. Black hair covered him. It was as invisible as his long teeth and simian jaw, but flashes from the storm outside briefly silhouetted his body.

Our troop roiled in the murk, bodies swapping blows. An antelope stank somewhere close. I crouched on a rock watching for my father’s fleeting profile.

Sudden light invaded the cave.

L’á venir.

A tree outside caught fire.

My father stood.

He picked up a stick.

He marched toward the flames.

He carried back the power plant.

Our troop howled with fear and shied away from the shadows that shivered on the cave walls. My father had to coax each one of them to the stack of branches that he set alight and kept burning. Some tried to touch the flame and cried in pain at being burned.

I drew my father on the floor with my finger.

Stick figure lifting his torch.

My father gave me light to draw by.

I gave him my first drawing.

By morning my careful lines had been replaced by a panicked dance of footprints.

Electricity is brevity and power at once.

When my mother was in her twenties and her grandmother Hazel was in her eighties they worked together to write a history of Hazel’s early life in Leadville as a daughter of Cornish miners, her move from the mountains to the plains to become a teacher, her marriage, her family, a living-history.

My mother compiled the scattered notes her grandmother would send in the mail, crafting random flakes of memory into orderly rows of chronology. She typed up two copies, one for her own family, and one for her uncle’s family in Sterling. Hazel asked that the copies be kept within the families, the family.

Against her wishes

I can’t help but leave a fragment from this history

on the floor of the power plant. Anyway

my mother sent me this quote

and gave me permission to use it.

“For light we had candles and kerosene lamps. Then the big day came when Leadville got electricity in homes. I ran all the way home from school to see the lights. Each room except the parlor had a drop cord that hung from the ceiling–one bulb. The parlor had a chandelier. What a joy to turn on a light. We had no wall outlets.”

Martin Drake………………………..(2)

My father works for the Martin Drake power plant in Colorado Springs. Other men make radiators or poems. He makes lightning and puts his sun in your house.

I made up the name Martin Drake.

Martin. Bird wings electric current quick.

Drake. Snake breathing fire

and for draconian.

The power plant is a martin drake.

My father is a martin drake.

But the power plant is not named Martin Drake.

The power plant doesn’t know its real name.

It’s dressed up in blue metal.

Trace my wires back to their beginnings.

You’ll find the power plant.

Martin Drake was a man the power plant is named for.

I didn’t make up the name.

Go to the power plant. Find the classroom. Pull down the canvas roll wedged between the back wall and the ceiling. Printed on the roll is a schematic, a map of the process. Colored lines delineate the machine’s parts: the coal loader emptying to the oceanic fire in the burners that boil steam pressurized through pipes to blast against pinwheel turbines, sparking bolts day and night. Grey scribbles are the clouds hot enough to sublimate my father’s bones in an instant. Finger sized bushes of orange stand in for the fire that could cook his eyes into gas.

If I followed this schematic into the power plant it would lead me nowhere.

It could even lead into the fire.

When my cousin was a boy he thought the power plant was a cloud factory.

I thought the clouds it made were ashes from the coal fires.

My father made Vesuvius.

While I was writing this, Craig Arnold, a poet I’d seen read a year earlier, went missing on the island of Kuchinoerabu in Japan. He was researching a poem on volcanoes. A search party tracked his footprints to the edge of a cliff but his body could not be found.

A factory of obscuring clouds.

Actually.

Cooling towers temper the steam used to spin the turbines, allowing the condensed water to re-circulate. On cool and humid days the rising vapor saturates the damp air and makes a white fog. The clouds are often mistaken for the smoke from a fire.

Pliny’s vaporous pine disintegrates.

The power plant doesn’t have time to be a cloud factory

because the power plant is an explosion on schedule.

This storm with quotas can’t admire

its wispy clouds.

It doesn’t care for its floating hair.

Floating on air.

For forty hours a week my father left our house for the power plant. In the first years he was there he worked a eight hour shifts, either day, night, or swing. Later he switched to twelve hour long shifts, all day or all night. When he worked night shifts he had to sleep most of the day.

When my father was working nights we said he was working graveyards.

….

While my father was at work he did one of two things.

He laid down in the burners while the Martin Drake tore him to pieces

made him spinning steam then sparks

shot him into every line cable wire

bulb battery capacitor transistor

diode tube and screen

all of him burned away

nothing made back into coal

and somehow he returned to us

to eat dinner again.

The other thing he did was stare

into a burning bush

that had not yet been consumed.

I’m not sure which one of these two things he did at work.

When Moses came down from the mountain the radiance of God was on him. As he spoke the commandments of God he was so bright that no one could look at him. After he finished speaking he covered himself in a veil to obscure this aura. He would only lift it when he went into the tabernacle to speak with God.

Cells eat like coal burners.

Earth is a small metal ball.

Conductor for currents crossing

a universe that spends itself for fuel.

The present burns the past

to charge the future.

The power plant is a small or large machine made of everything.

Try negative theology. A negative charge.  La via negativa.

What is not the power plant?

Sacrifice………………………..(3)

A statue. Marble.

Two sexless human forms. One is named Love and the other is named Labor. Both of the forms wear Greek masks the words “Love” and “Labor” imprinted on the foreheads. It is not clear whether the masks are correctly assigned to the names.

The body with the Love mask is stretched chest up on an altar. The body with the Labor mask form holds a knife overhead, pointed at the other’s liver.

It is not clear whether the masks are assigned to their proper names. Or if the names are the right ones for the human forms. Or if the forms are even human.

Career day. My father brought a miniature power line and a small gas generator to my second grade class. He carried a frilly dressed baby doll in a thrift store sack. He turned the machine on and my father’s hum turned the air into glass. The man pulled insulated gloves all the way to his elbows while explaining the danger of downed power lines.

He pulled the plastic child from its plastic womb and tossed it against the wires.

An electric shock feels like many things.

A bone cracking shiver.

A reptile snap of jaws.

A phosphorous camera flash.

A flame that burns itself.

The doll caught fire, cradled in the wires. It pitched from its electrified hammock and fell to the floor. A smell like rotting tires rose from the victim. Polyester clothes melted to pink plastic, dripping on the floor, a new fluid of this tortured body.

My father has a power I do not.

It makes him have Abraham

hands with each hair

upright like a lightning rod.

The power plant cares for its children like Medea.

Which is quite a lot. However.

People made of lightning should not touch their babies.

They will become lightning.

In Frankenstein or: A Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley omits any detail of the chemical process by which the creature is brought to life. Victor Frankenstein, the narrator, claims to be redacting the information from the careless disposal of other scientists. In fact, Shelley’s imagination had outstripped reality’s permission.

A silent adaptation made by the Edison Electric Company in 1910 condenses the creature in a cauldron of chemicals, shredded flesh hanging itself on a palsied frame. At the end the creature confronts himself in a mirror and vanishes, becoming only his reflection. Victor rushes in and finds the creature’s image taking his place in the glass, stealing his selfhood, until that semblance disappears to reveal Victor’s. The implications of the scene are complex, but the title card just reads

“THE CREATION OF AN EVIL MIND

IS OVERCOME BY LOVE

AND DISAPEARS.”

James Whale’s 1931 film version has the creature lifted up toward the storming sky on a mechanized gurney. A strike on a sphere-topped lightning rod powers the machinery that animates the creature. It was after Whale’s version that the creature became known as “Frankenstein” as though he had taken on his creators’ name. As a son.

The creature could not speak. In the first full sound cinema production.

Giving life

is sacrifice.

My father has two children.

Two growing bodies his labor has fed.

He has attended both our cries.

One lets fire lick its guts.

One has coal stained skin.

Both have lightning in their heads.

One is a neuter. One is a son.

Which one? Me

or the power plant.

Twelve years after I saw the baby doll burned on electric wires my father told me that he doused the plastic child with hairspray in the parking lot before he came in. Without a starter the doll never would’ve burned so quickly.

That same year Andrea Brown at the Colorado Springs Gazette interviewed me a story on this poem. The paper also sent a cameraman, Christian Murdock to tape me reading in front of the power plant at night. He set up his gear like robots in front of me. I read from my copy of the poem and wondered if I should look up more. I only stared into the lens once and for a moment. By the park there was a stucco church with a cross on its roof.

After the taping the cameraman talked to my mother and I about an accident he’d been sent to photograph the day before. A nineteen year old girl had been burned to death when she was trapped against a burning gas pump by her own van. A driver had lost control and crashed into the 7-11.

The cameraman arrived on the scene and took pictures trying to avoid any close shots of the gas pump itself. He returned to the office and turned in his photos, one of which immediately ran with a story on the paper’s website. When the cameraman and his colleagues looked the photo later they digitally lightened some of the shadows around the pump and found a darkened form. They immediately pulled the photo from the story package.

Two bodies caught

by the same man’s camera

holocaust in the same “glowing furnace of witness”.

Or is it three bodies

and could it be my camera?

Did I not soak this poem in gasoline

so my father’s currents would burn it?

A month later I watched the video. It followed a commercial for the oil and natural gas lobby. My prefacing comments were shot in normal color, but when I started reading the video switched to a negative filter. A negative charge.

Hair and skin turned blue.

Poem luminescent in my hands.

Glowing shadow veil across my face.

I read the book so nothing can hurt them.

But something will still hurt them.

The power plant was hidden in the haze of night turned light, but when the negative switched off the building was still there, burning its bubs like eye-lobes.

My father works at the Martin Drake power plant in Colorado Springs.

He is not Abraham. He never set a dagger

nor a hand on me.

He didn’t even burn a doll in my second grade class.

It was another man doing a safety demonstration. Not career day.

The power plant is not Moloch. Despite what Fritz Lang says.

Despite what Allen Ginsberg says.

My father dislikes “Daddy”

by Sylvia Plath

because of her hyperbole.

I’ve argued with him

saying that poetry is spectacle

and spectacle need sacrifices.

But today I’m not sure of that. I think a sacrifice might be a dumb show

a sheer display of bloody power.

Look at the power plant.

Flue stacks are concrete tree trunks.

If you squint they look like Auschwitz.

But why would you squint?

In laboring light

to put in his son’s eyes

my father had to turn

from irises that widened

right at him.

His light is so intense

that I’ve had to turn from him.

Sacrifice is the fossil fuels and dollar bills burned to make me

and this poem. My inheritance is my father’s burning.

Teaching……………………………(4)

“And fire has proved for men a teacher in every art, their grand resource.”

From my father’s lectures I have produced these notes, which I will now set alight for him. Because the most important lesson he ever taught me was

to make fire you need

heat

air

and a fuel.

My father’s favorite singer is Johnny Cash

who sang “Love

is a burning thing

and it makes

a fiery ring.”

My father plugged in his Telecaster

at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.

He sang “I don’t wanna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”

Pete Seeger tried to cut the power cable with an axe.

In D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back

my father lands on England

carrying a light bulb big as a grapefruit.

When a reporter asks my father who gave him the light bulb

he says “A very affectionate friend.”

When a reporter asks my father what his “real message” is

he says “Keep a good head

and always carry a lightbulb.”

My father is both of the robot men from Daft Punk.

He played at Red Rocks on the eve of Colorado Day in 2007.

Both of his silver heads bobbed beneath a light show pyramid

thirty feet tall. It was the power plant in discothèque and our city danced to it.

It was Melville’s birthday.

My father dedicated the set to him.

Without my father Lil Wayne is just a wheezy kid on a street corner

in New Orleans with no mic

and no record deal.

400 stainless steel javelins stab into New Mexico

desert air.

My father arraigned them in a 1 mile

by 1 kilometer grid

and called his work Lightning Field.

Despite the name

lightning strikes on the rods are rare.

The installation’s artistry

comes from the play of light on and shadow from

the poles over the course of the day.

Christopher D. Campbell wrote an essay arguing that the epilogue to Blood Meridian is a depiction of the construction of Lightning Field.

“In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and the enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there.”

My father stole a flashlight from God’s cabinet.

Then he taught everyone to build flashlights.

That’s how come we have flashlights.

Percy Shelley says my father is as cool as Satan and a nicer person too.

Herman Melville says my father is reminds him of Ahab.

Wires run from the power plant to a movie theatre

lighting a marquee reading

FRITZ LANG’S METROPOLIS.

A charge runs into the projector

illuminating steel hallucination

onto a canvas sheet.

Three pistons. The outer pair thrust down

when the inner piston thrusts up.

An eccentric disc.

Eros in cogs and whirr.
`
The machine dance becomes a clock

then becomes a dance of workers.

Two lines of men pass in opposite directions through a pair of gates.

The men going out move twice as a slow as the men going in.

The lines are each six abreast and extend across the shot.

“Between the mind that plans and the hands that build there must be a mediator

and this must be the heart.”

But the heart is a thoughtless fist. A dumb pump.

A burning gas pump.

The heart is more like the power plant than it is like love.

The head must let its mirrors fall

to see through the fingertips.

The hands must reach inside the skull

and fill their palms with sparks. Besides.

I have a head and hands both. So does my father.

The power plant burns allegory into ash

that collects on rails and corrodes paint.

A modern hospital needs good wiring to keep its patients alive.

This is why “pulling the plug” has become a euphemism for euthanasia

and why the squeal of a flatlined electrocardiogram

or electroencephalogram

is death’s own tone.

Coal History………………………..(5)

I make the coal trains run backwards.

They demonstrate their history

pulled back to their origin like fishing lures.

Tesla………………………….(6)

In 1899, still riding his fame from lighting the World’s Columbian exhibition in Chicago, the Croatian born scientist Nikola Tesla opened a lab in Colorado Springs.

A photograph shows the coil fenced in wood slats.

Two discharges array in the shape of butterfly wings thirty feet across.

Coil’s invisible roots manifest as light.

The white hair of a mad scientist.

Between the discharges a man

sits in a folding chair.

He is reading a book. A bolt strikes inches away. He doesn’t move.

The man is a lightning rod no lightning touches.

He reads the book. Nothing can hurt him.

Because the man won’t be there when the bolt strikes.

The photograph is a double exposure.

I can unite station to station without the aid of wires.

I can make a charge flow through air.

But still I don’t have a power plant.

“My project was retarded by laws of nature.

The world was not prepared for it. It was too far ahead of time.

But the same laws will prevail in the end and make it a triumphal success.”

Which is to say

I can’t make it cohere either

but I’ve kept the blueprints

and when I die you may order them.

Nikola Tesla was close to death. He was delirious, and tried to dispatch a messenger with a letter for Mark Twain. It was January 1943. Twain had died in 1910.

When the messenger returned saying that Twain was dead, Tesla reportedly replied, “Don’t you dare tell me Mark Twain is dead. He was in my room, here last night. He sat in that chair and talked to me for an hour. He is having financial difficulties and needs my help. So you go right back and deliver that envelope—and don’t come back until you have done so.” By January 7th Tesla was dead.

A schoolboy in Croatia, Tesla was stricken with a series of illnesses. The doctors all but gave up on him. To pass the time he was given a few volumes of Twain’s work. The books absorbed him. Tesla’s spirits were bolstered and he made a sudden recovery.

Some scholars have questioned whether any of Twain’s books could’ve been available in Croatia at the time.

He reads the book but he can still be hurt.

Power/Politics………………………….(7)

“Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.”

Michel Foucault was a man who knew about power.

“Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately
protected. Visibility is a trap.”

Without the power plant

the panopticon is a big dark room.

I hear turbines howl

when security cameras focus on my skin.

Streetlights let us observe

each other as we pass at night.

Eyes keeping safe from hands.

Whose hands hold the other ends of the streetlight wires?

Power is not a force, a practice or a technology.

It is a Proteus of usages.

Where has the power been planted?

I mean to dig it up and show you the roots.

Turn up fields thick with buried light bulbs.

My father served in the United States Navy between 1973 and 1977. He sailed around the Pacific to San Diego to Hawaii to Japan to Taiwan to Vietnam to Thailand to Indonesia to Colorado Springs.  His ship was a destroyer escort named the Meyerkord, USS.

A modern destroyer is run on turbines little different than those in the power plant. My father was a machinist’s mate, working on these turbines and the systems that powered the destroyer. He burned a diesel fuel called JP-5 to fire the boilers.

Certain people work one job their whole lives.

A naval vessel is a mobile power generator.

As NVA troops advanced into South Vietnam, my father’s ship was ordered to assist with the evacuation.

It takes power to deliver a charge

to a prisoner’s body.

To excite particles in a mouth

into answering every question.

It takes power

to illuminate and measure

the locked rooms

where the pain was inflicted.

Measure the space hollowed by torture.

Illuminate the space. The pain can be light. Yet

with these lines

I’ve powered another panopticon.

Another circular cavern lit just for observation.

Al Qur’an, Surah 2.20, my translation.

First lightning almost blinds me.

Only when it flashes can I see

and then I move.

In dark I am blind.

I stand still.

If the lightning had pleased

it would’ve taken my hearing

and my sight.

It has power over anything.

Please forgive my sin of metonymy.

The heart has powers of which power knows nothing.

Punishment/Power outage………………………….(8)

One night my father’s boss told him to burn all the coal in the world.

My father went into the forest and wrung the necks of a million cardinals, plucking their bodies clean, and filling two pillowcases with feathers. He took one bag to the power plant. He pasted the feathers onto the coals so they looked like they were burning.

He took the other bag of feathers to the people of our city. My father gave the feathers to the people, but they didn’t know it. He crept down their chimneys, and put the feathers in their fire places. The people were tricked, and warmed themselves and read books by the color all night. They went to bed and had to set their second blankets aside.

The sun rose on heaps of unburned coal covered in red feathers. My father’s boss was angry and filed a complaint with Human Relations.

So they wire him to the side of Pikes Peak.

Graft cables to his arteries.

Solder the cables to rocks.

Trapped like a circuit.

Every day the martin drake descends

with coal and blood on its steel scaled feathers

to eat his liver.

And every day a kilowatt surge

brings his liver back to life.

You forget to notice the power is on

until it goes out.

In inheriting light

my boon is eventual darkness

sunrise and sunset given at once.

Punished for keeping a fire my father stole.

Although I suppose he didn’t really take it either.

My words have no power to light this cavern.

But neither does my father’s lightning.

My words. These words when they are unread.

What work is lurking there? Here?

What chance of light for this cat in a box?

For a cat in this box?

The work of poetry………………………….(9)

In 1616 Ben Jonson became the first English writer to publish a collection under the title Works.

Andre Breton wrote in the Surrealist Manifesto

“They say that not long ago, just before he went to sleep, Saint-Pol-Roux placed a placard on the door of his manor at Camaret which read: THE POET WORKS.”

Which means nothing to me

but a bad joke.

Breton popularized automatic writing

which saw conscious thought as the barrier to true poetry.

Automatic writing is like sitting

in a dark room

pen in hand on page

to simply wait for the writing to happen.

Both my father and I have reason to deplore this practice.

The muse is not dead

because she was never born.

In Thebes there were two brothers named Amphion and Zethus. They raised an army and killed the king of Thebes, becoming kings themselves. Zethus learned about hunting and herding and cattle husbandry. Amphion got a golden lyre from Hermes and learned to sing.

The brothers decided to build a wall around the city’s citadel. Zethus dug out the heavy stones and struggled to carry and pile them. Amphion played his lyre and sang and the stones lifted out of the earth and arranged themselves in a neat circle.

This is how Amphion tells the story.

Zethus puts on a Marx mask and says it differently

“The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

I can’t work out what these twins mean for the power plant

which digs stones from the earth

to move the world

with an invisible charm of wires like

lyre strings.

Once I asked a woman to decorate the dream house

in her mind. She filled nothing

with rust brown, hardwood floors and foggy curtains.

I filled this poem with coal.

A burner for her.

A power plant to light the buildings

in her mind.

My father took a wife

and gave her a well-lit city as dowry.

This is my work of poetry

to pay for

to power

bulbs and color

the well-decorated

invisible houses

that make working possible.

There is a myth that Hercules freed Prometheus from his bonds. There is another myth that it was Prometheus’s son, Deucalion, who set his father free.

This fragment is the only record of the son’s work.

Epilogue: Three Visions………………………..(10)

I climb to the top of Pikes Peak.

I find my father’s chained body

leaking bile out his pecked side.

I plunge my sparking fingers

into his lacerated liver.

He sits up and looks down the mountain.

See a plain fruited with electrons.

I built a new power plant for my father.

It’s made of neat wires and photovoltaic cells.

There are no pipes. No turbines.

No steam. No coal.

No fire but the sun’s.

I made these visions. In labor.

Silicon lakes washing over rooftops.

Aimed up from every sunward pointed surface.

Offering of sapphires.

Ripe harvest of blueberries.

My father strides in the sun’s true lamp.

Walking in the open as between tilled rows.

Reflections from solar panels cast panes on his jaw.

Windows through which I can almost see him

and that let in enough light to write by.

He reads the book. Nothing can hurt him.

My father and I walk the alabaster city

to a fairgrounds swelling with a dome of light.

Light bulbs in thick bunches

blooming on building sides.

A careful spider’s nest of wires.

We approach a red striped tent.

A signboard outside plastered with

“the World’s Columbian Exposition presents”

an astonishing gift from distant lands

a candle for our wonder cabinet

“the light not of the sun”

like a wick covered in Moby Dick’s wax

“the great acorn of light”

Dante’s vision crackling sparks inside

electricity, flame and light at once

“a lamp to lift beside our golden doors”

“The Power”

But as soon as we enter the tent

we both know that though the power gives light

it is not light.

Does not burn

but the whole world burns to fuel it.

Has no charge

but attracts and repulses at once.

An explosion

crystallizing.

Power is not a name for the power.

The power isn’t even singular.

Leaving off mystery

for labor

we fill lanterns with this thing itself.

We quit the fair and take to the continent.

We build a city of lesser stars.

We spin turbines with our breath.

Filaments bristle on our arms.

Sparks drip from our fingernails. Seeds.

We plant power in this “hell of wide land”

true gleaming living power

that can even be turned off

so that

the stars might themselves emerge again.

We find a boat in the shadows of white towers.

We row out to the woman in the harbor.

Arm in arm my father and I

climb the spiral stairs through her leg

her womb her stomach her breast

her arm into the hand and finally the torch.

A rack of shovels

a burner and a pile of coal.

We race first

old machine against new machine.

As we stagger and slump

our rhythms match.

We labor together to light this eastern sun

this Olympic torch

for this woman to carry back to Athens.

In the stadium

we watch the woman run

last bearer in a gold medal relay.

She passes the finish line

but she doesn’t stop running.

She passes the finish line.

She rounds the loop again.

She might stop running.

But she hasn’t yet.

Will she ever stop running?

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The power plant. A georgic. (draft as of 5.17.09)

Posted in Uncategorized on May 17, 2009 by rdunder

The power plant. Or. The lightning.

A georgic.

Begun Inauguration day, 2009.

Fort Collins, Colorado.

Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The epigraph.

“Maybe fire is the opposite principle to light, and comes to the use of those who do not go the way of light. Fire has to consume to give all its light. But light gets its knowledge—and has its intelligence and its being—by going over things without the necessity of eating the substance of things in the process of purchasing their truth. Maybe this is the difference, the different base of not just these two poets, Bill and E.P., but something more, two contrary conceptions of love.”—Charles Olson, “GrandPa, Goodbye”

Or.

“We shall build a tower that will reach to the stars!” Having conceived Babel, yet unable to build it themselves, they had thousands to build it for them. But those who toiled knew nothing of the dreams of those who planned. And the minds that planned the Tower of Babel cared nothing for the workers who built it. The hymns of praise of the few became the curses of the many – BABEL! BABEL! BABEL! – Between the mind that plans and the hands that build there must be a Mediator, and this must be the heart.”–Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang, Metropolis

Or.

The epigram.

Sometimes all I want is a little more power.

Invocation………………………..(1)

“(There is a myth that Prometheus did more than steal fire from the sun and bring it down to man: it is said that Prometheus fathered man.)”

There was a stadium.

My father hurled the bolt like a javelin.

The stadium became a brain

where electric branches dart from synapses

and this poem billows up like thunderheads.

I am made of lightning.

My father sat in the cave. Black hair covered him. It was as invisible as his long teeth and simian jaw, but flashes from the storm outside briefly silhouetted his body.

Our troop roiled in the murk, bodies swapping blows. An antelope stank somewhere close. I crouched on a rock watching for my father’s fleeting profile.

Sudden light invaded the cave.

L’á venir.

A tree outside caught fire.

My father stood.

He picked up a stick.

He marched toward the flames.

He carried back the power plant.

Our troop howled with fear and shied away from the shadows that shivered on the cave walls. My father had to coax each one of them to the stack of branches that he set alight and kept burning. Some tried to touch the flame and cried in pain at being burned.

I drew my father on the floor with my finger.

Stick figure lifting his torch.

My father gave me light to draw by.

I gave him my first drawing.

By morning my careful lines had been replaced by a panicked dance of footprints.

Electricity is brevity and power at once.

Martin Drake………………………..(2)

My father works for the Martin Drake power plant in Colorado Springs. Other men make radiators or poems. He makes lightning and puts his sun in your house.

I made up the name Martin Drake.

Martin. Bird wings electric current quick.

Drake. Snake breathing fire

and for draconian.

The power plant is a martin drake.

My father is a martin drake.

But the power plant is not named Martin Drake.

The power plant doesn’t know its real name.

It’s dressed up in blue metal.

Trace my wires back to their beginnings.

You’ll find the power plant.

Martin Drake was a man the power plant is named for.

I didn’t make up the name.

Go to the power plant. Find the classroom. Pull down the canvas roll wedged between the back wall and the ceiling. Printed on the roll is a schematic, a map of the process. Colored lines delineate the machine’s parts: the coal loader emptying to the oceanic fire in the burners that boil steam pressurized through pipes to blast against pinwheel turbines, sparking bolts day and night. Grey scribbles are the clouds hot enough to sublimate my father’s bones in an instant. Finger sized bushes of orange stand in for the fire that could cook his eyes into gas.

If I followed this schematic into the power plant it would lead me nowhere.

It could even lead into the fire.

When my cousin was a boy he thought the power plant was a cloud factory.

I thought the clouds it made were ashes from the coal fires.

My father made Vesuvius.

While I was writing this, Craig Arnold, a poet I’d seen read a year earlier, went missing on the island of Kuchinoerabu in Japan. He was researching a poem on volcanoes.

Actually.

Cooling towers temper the steam used to spin the turbines, allowing the condensed water to re-circulate. On cool and humid days the rising vapor saturates the damp air and makes a white fog. The clouds are often mistaken for the smoke from a fire.

Pliny’s vaporous pine disintegrates.

The power plant doesn’t have time to be a cloud factory

because the power plant is an explosion on schedule.

This storm with quotas can’t admire

its wispy clouds.

It doesn’t care for its floating hair.

Floating on air.

For forty hours a week my father left our house for the power plant. In the first years he was there he worked a eight hour shifts, either day, night, or swing. Later he switched to twelve hour long shifts, all day or all night. When he worked night shifts he had to sleep most of the day.

When my  was working nights we said he was working graveyards.

….

While my father was at work he did one of two things.

He laid down in the burners while the Martin Drake tore him to pieces

made him spinning steam then sparks

shot him into every line cable wire

bulb battery capacitor transistor

diode tube and screen

all of him burned away

nothing made back into coal

and yet somehow he returned to

us to eat dinner again.

The other thing he did was stare

into a burning bush

that had not yet been consumed.

I’m not sure which one of these two things he did at work.

When Moses came down from the mountain the radiance of God was on him. As he spoke the commandments of God he was so bright that no one could look at him. After he finished speaking he covered himself in a veil to obscure this aura. He would only lift it when he went into the tabernacle to speak with God.

Sacrifice………………………..(3)

A statue. Marble.

Two sexless human forms. One is named Love and the other is named Labor. Both of the forms wear Greek masks the words “Love” and “Labor” imprinted on the foreheads. It is not clear whether the masks are correctly assigned to the names.

The body with the Love mask is stretched chest up on an altar. The body with the Labor mask form holds a knife overhead, pointed at the other’s liver.

It is not clear whether the masks are assigned to their proper names. Or if the names are the right ones for the human forms. Or if the forms are even human.

Career day. My father brought a miniature power line and a small gas generator to my second grade class. He carried a frilly dressed baby doll in a thrift store sack. He turned the machine on and my father’s hum turned the air into glass. The man pulled insulated gloves all the way to his elbows while explaining the danger of downed power lines.

He pulled the plastic child from its plastic womb and tossed it against the wires.

An electric shock feels like many things.

A bone cracking shiver.

A reptile snap of jaws.

A phosphorous camera flash.

A flame that burns itself.

The doll caught fire, cradled in the wires. It pitched from its electrified hammock and fell to the floor. A smell like rotting tires rose from the victim. Polyester clothes melted to pink plastic, dripping on the floor, a new fluid of this tortured body.

My father has a power I do not.

It makes him have Abraham

hands with each hair

upright like a lightning rod.

The power plant cares for its children like Medea.

Which is quite a lot. However.

People made of lightning should not touch their babies.

They will become lightning.

In Frankenstein or: A Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley omits any detail of the chemical process by which the creature is brought to life. Victor Frankenstein, the narrator, claims to be redacting the information from the careless disposal of other scientists. In fact, Shelley’s imagination had outstripped reality’s permission.

A silent adaptation made by the Edison Electric Company in 1910 condenses the creature in a cauldron of chemicals, shredded flesh hanging itself on a palsied frame. At the end the creature confronts himself in a mirror and vanishes, becoming only his reflection. Victor rushes in and finds the creature’s image taking his place in the glass, stealing his selfhood, until that semblance disappears to reveal Victor’s. The implications of the scene are complex, but the title card just reads

“THE CREATION OF AN EVIL MIND

IS OVERCOME BY LOVE

AND DISAPEARS.”

James Whale’s 1931 film version has the creature lifted up toward the storming sky on a mechanized gurney. A strike on a sphere-topped lightning rod powers the machinery that animates the creature. It was after Whale’s version that the creature became known as “Frankenstein” as though he had taken on his creators’ name. As a son.

The creature could not speak. In the first full sound cinema production.

My father has two children.

Two growing bodies his labor has fed.

He has attended both our cries.

One lets fire lick its guts.

One has coal stained skin.

Both have lightning in their heads.

One is a neuter. One is a son.

Which one? Me

or the power plant.

Twelve years after I saw the baby doll burned on electric wires my father told me that he doused the plastic child with hairspray in the parking lot before he came in. Without a starter the doll never would’ve burned so quickly.

That same year Andrea Brown at the Colorado Springs Gazette interviewed me a story on this poem. The paper also sent a cameraman, Christian Murdock to tape me reading in front of the power plant at night. He set up his gear like robots in front of me. I read from my copy of the poem and wondered if I should look up more. I only stared into the lens once and for a moment. By the park there was a stucco church with a cross on its roof.

After the taping the cameraman talked to my mother and I about an accident he’d been sent to photograph the day before. A nineteen year old girl had been burned to death when she was trapped against a burning gas pump by her own van. A driver had lost control and crashed into the 7-11.

The cameraman arrived on the scene and took pictures trying to avoid any close shots of the gas pump itself. He returned to the office and turned in his photos, one of which immediately ran with a story on the paper’s website. When the cameraman and his colleagues looked the photo later they digitally lightened some of the shadows around the pump and found a darkened form. They immediately pulled the photo from the story package.

Two bodies caught

by the same man’s camera

holocaust in the same “glowing furnace of witness”.

Or is it three bodies

and could it be my camera?

Did I not soak this poem in gasoline

so my father’s currents would burn it?

A month later I watched the video. It followed a commercial for the oil and natural gas lobby. My prefacing comments were shot normally, but when I started reading the video switched to negative color.

Negative charge.

Hair and skin turned blue.

Poem luminescent in my hands.

Glowing shadow veil across my face.

I read the book so nothing can hurt them.

But something will still hurt them.

The power plant was hidden in the haze of night turned light, but when the negative switched off the building was still there, burning its bubs like eye-lobes.

My father works at the Martin Drake power plant in Colorado Springs.

He is not Abraham. He never set a dagger

nor a hand on me.

He didn’t even burn a doll in my second grade class.

It was another man doing a safety demonstration. Not career day.

The power plant is not Moloch. Despite what Fritz Lang says.

Despite what Allen Ginsberg says.

My father dislikes “Daddy”

by Sylvia Plath

because of her hyperbole.

I’ve argued with him

saying that poetry is spectacle

and spectacle need sacrifices.

But today I’m not sure of that. I think a sacrifice might be a dumb show

a sheer display of bloody power.

Look at the power plant.

Flue stacks are concrete tree trunks.

If you squint they look like Auschwitz.

But why would you squint?

In making light

to put in his son’s eyes

my father had to turn

from irises that widened

right at him.

His light is so intense

that sometimes I’ve had to turn from it.

Sacrifice is the fossil fuels and dollar bills burned to make me

and this poem. My inheritance is my father’s burning.

Teaching……………………………(4)

“And fire has proved for men a teacher in every art, their grand resource.”

From my father’s lectures I have produced these notes, which I will now set alight for him. Because the most important lesson he ever taught me was

to make a fire you need

heat

air

and a fuel.

My father’s favorite singer is Johnny Cash

who sang “Love

is a burning thing

and it makes

a fiery ring.”

My father plugged in his Telecaster

at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.

He sang “I don’t wanna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”

Pete Seeger tried to cut the power cable with an axe.

In D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back

my father lands on England

carrying a light bulb big as a grapefruit.

When a reporter asks my father who gave him the light bulb

he says “A very affectionate friend.”

When a reporter asks my father what his “real message” is

he says “Keep a good head

and always carry a lightbulb.”

My father is both of the robot men from Daft Punk.

He played at Red Rocks on the eve of Colorado Day in 2007.

Both of his silver heads bobbed beneath a light show pyramid

thirty feet tall. It was the power plant in discothèque and our city danced to it.

It was Melville’s birthday.

My father dedicated the set to him.

Without my father Lil Wayne is just a wheezy kid on a street corner

in New Orleans with no mic

and no record deal.

My father stole a flashlight from God’s cabinet.

Then he taught everyone to build flashlights.

That’s how come we have flashlights.

Percy Shelley says my father is as cool as Satan and a nicer person too.

Herman Melville says my father is reminds him of Ahab.

Wires run from the power plant to a movie theatre

lighting a marquee reading

FRITZ LANG’S METROPOLIS.

A charge runs into the projector

illuminating steel hallucination

onto a canvas sheet.

Three pistons. The outer pair thrust down

when the inner piston thrusts up.

An eccentric disc.

Eros in cogs and whirr.
`
The machine dance becomes a clock

then becomes a dance of workers.

Two lines of men pass in opposite directions through a pair of gates.

The men going out move twice as a slow as the men going in.

The lines are each six abreast and extend across the shot.

“Between the mind that plans and the hands that build there must be a mediator

and this must be the heart.”

But the heart is a thoughtless fist. A dumb pump.

A burning gas pump.

The heart is more like the power plant than it is like love.

The head must let its mirrors fall

to see through the fingertips.

The hands must reach inside the skull

and fill their palms with sparks. Besides.

I have a head and hands both. So does my father.

The power plant burns allegory into ash

that collects on rails and corrodes paint.

Coal History………………………..(5)

I make the coal trains run backwards.

They demonstrate their history

pulled back to their origin like fishing lures.

Tesla………………………….(6)

A photograph shows the coil fenced in wood slats.

Two discharges array in the shape of butterfly wings thirty feet across.

Coil’s invisible roots manifest as light.

The white hair of a mad scientist.

Between the discharges a man

sits in a folding chair.

He is reading a book. A bolt strikes inches away. He doesn’t move.

The man is a lightning rod no lightning touches.

He reads the book. Nothing can hurt him.

Because the man won’t be there when the bolt strikes.

The photograph is a double exposure.

Cells eat like coal burners.

Earth is a small metal ball.

Conductor for currents crossing

a universe that spends itself for fuel.

The present burns the past

to charge the future.

The power plant is a small or large machine made of everything.

Try negative theology. A negative charge.  La via negativa.

What is not the power plant?

I can unite station to station without the aid of wires.

I can make a charge flow through air.

But still I don’t have a power plant.

“My project was retarded by laws of nature.

The world was not prepared for it. It was too far ahead of time.

But the same laws will prevail in the end and make it a triumphal success.”

Which is to say

I can’t make it cohere either

but I’ve kept the blueprints

and when I die you may order them.

Al Qur’an, Surah 2.20, my translation.

First lightning almost blinds me.

Only when it flashes can I see

and then I move.

In dark I am blind.

I stand still.

If the lightning had pleased

it would’ve taken my hearing

and my sight.

It has power over anything.

Please forgive my sin of metonymy.

Nikola Tesla was close to death. He was delirious, and tried to dispatch a messenger with a letter for Mark Twain. It was January 1943. Twain had died in 1910.

When the messenger returned saying that Twain was dead, Tesla reportedly replied, “Don’t you dare tell me Mark Twain is dead. He was in my room, here last night. He sat in that chair and talked to me for an hour. He is having financial difficulties and needs my help. So you go right back and deliver that envelope—and don’t come back until you have done so.” By January 7th Tesla was dead.

A schoolboy in Croatia, Tesla was stricken with a series of illnesses. The doctors all but gave up on him. To pass the time he was given a few volumes of Twain’s work. The books absorbed him. Tesla’s spirits were bolstered and he made a sudden recovery.

Some scholars have questioned whether any of Twain’s books could’ve been available in Croatia at the time.

He reads the book but he can still be hurt.

Power/Politics………………………….(7)

“Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.”

Michel Foucault was a man who knew about power.

“Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately
protected. Visibility is a trap.”

Without the power plant

the panopticon is a big dark room.

I hear turbines howl

when cameras focus on my skin.

Streetlights let us observe

each other as we pass at night.

Eyes keeping safe from hands.

Whose hold the other ends of streetlight wires?

Power is not a force, a practice or a technology.

It is a Proteus of usages.

Where has the power been planted?

I mean to dig it up and show you the roots.

Turn up fields thick with buried light bulbs.

My father served in the United States Navy between 1973 and 1977. He sailed around the Pacific to San Diego to Hawaii to Japan to Taiwan to Vietnam to Thailand to Indonesia to Colorado Springs.  His ship was a destroyer escort named the Meyerkord, USS.

A modern destroyer is run on turbines little different than those in the power plant. My father was a machinist’s mate, working on these turbines and the systems that powered the destroyer. He burned a diesel fuel called JP-5 to fire the boilers.

Certain people work one job their whole lives.

A naval vessel is a mobile power generator.

As NVA troops advanced into South Vietnam, my father’s ship was ordered to assist with the evacuation.

It takes power to deliver a charge

to a prisoner’s body.

To excite particles in a mouth

into answering every question.

It takes power

to illuminate and measure

the locked rooms

where the pain was inflicted.

Measure the space hollowed by torture.

Illuminate the space. The pain can be light. Yet

with these lines

I’ve powered another panopticon.

Another circular cavern lit just for observation.

The heart has powers of which power knows nothing.

Punishment/Power outage………………………….(8)

One night my father’s boss told him to burn all the coal in the world.

My father went into the forest and wrung the necks of a million cardinals, plucking their bodies clean, and filling two pillowcases with feathers. He took one bag to the power plant. He pasted the feathers onto the coals so they looked like they were burning.

He took the other bag of feathers to the people of our city. My father gave the feathers to the people, but they didn’t know it. He crept down their chimneys, and put the feathers in their fire places. The people were tricked, and warmed themselves and read books by the color all night. They went to bed and had to set their second blankets aside.

The sun rose on heaps of unburned coal covered in red feathers. My father’s boss was angry and filed a complaint with Human Relations.

So they wire him to the side of Pikes Peak.

Graft cables to his arteries.

Solder the cables to rocks.

Trapped like a circuit.

Every day the martin drake descends

with coal and blood on its steel scaled feathers

to eat his liver.

And every day a kilowatt surge

brings his liver back to life.

You forget to notice the power is on

until it goes out.

In inheriting light

my boon is eventual darkness

sunrise and sunset given at once.

Punished for keeping a fire my father stole.

Although I suppose he didn’t really take it either.

My words have no power to light this cavern.

But neither does my father’s lightning.

My words. These words when they are unread.

What work is lurking there? Here?

What chance of light for this cat in a box?

For a cat in this box?

The work of poetry………………………….(9)

In 1616 Ben Jonson became the first English writer to publish a collection under the title Works.

Andre Breton wrote in the Surrealist Manifesto

“They say that not long ago, just before he went to sleep, Saint-Pol-Roux placed a placard on the door of his manor at Camaret which read: THE POET WORKS.”

Which means nothing to me

but a bad joke.

Breton popularized automatic writing

which saw conscious thought as the barrier to true poetry.

Some adherents would sit in a dark room

pen in hand on page

and simply wait for the writing to happen.

Both my father and I have reason to deplore this practice.

The muse is not dead

because she was never born.

I would be inclined to reject Roland Barthes privileging the text over the work if I weren’t so certain that the woven text is not a labored product somehow without form.

In this the text and the power plant are each other’s microcosm.

In Thebes there were two brothers named Amphion and Zethus. They raised an army and killed the king of Thebes, becoming kings themselves. Zethus learned about hunting and herding and cattle husbandry. Amphion got a golden lyre from Hermes and learned to sing.

The brothers decided to build a wall around the city’s citadel. Zethus dug out the heavy stones and struggled to carry and pile them. Amphion played his lyre and sang and the stones lifted out of the earth and arranged themselves in a neat circle.

This is how Amphion tells the story.

Zethus puts on a Marx mask and says it differently

“The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

I can’t work out what these twins mean for the power plant

which digs stones from the earth

to move the world

with an invisible charm of wires like

lyre strings.

When my mother was in her twenties and her grandmother Hazel was in her eighties they worked together to write a history of Hazel’s early life in Leadville as a daughter of Cornish miners, her move from the mountains to the plains to become a teacher, her marriage, her family, a living-history.

My mother compiled the scattered notes her grandmother would send in the mail, crafting random flakes of memory into orderly rows of chronology. She typed up two copies, one for her own family, and one for her uncle’s family in Sterling. Hazel asked that the copies be kept within the families, the family.

Against her wishes

I can’t help but leave a fragment from this history

on the floor of the power plant. Anyway

my mother sent me this quote

and gave me permission to use it.

“For light we had candles and kerosene lamps. Then the big day came when Leadville got electricity in homes. I ran all the way home from school to see the lights. Each room except the parlor had a drop cord that hung from the ceiling–one bulb. The parlor had a chandelier. What a joy to turn on a light. We had no wall outlets.”

Once I asked a woman to decorate the dream house

in her mind. She filled nothing

with rust brown, hardwood floors and foggy curtains.

I filled this poem with coal.

A burner for her.

A power plant to light the buildings

in her mind.

My father took a wife

and gave her a well-lit city as dowry.

This is my work of poetry

to pay for

to power

bulbs and color

the well-decorated

invisible houses

that make working possible.

There is a myth that Hercules freed Prometheus from his bonds. There is another myth that it was Prometheus’s son, Deucalion, who set his father free.

This line is the only record of the son’s work.

Epilogue: Three Visions………………………..(10)

I climb to the top of Pikes Peak.

I find my father’s chained body

leaking bile out his pecked side.

I plunge my sparking fingers

into his lacerated liver.

He sits up and looks down the mountain

to see a city fruited with electrons.

I built a new power plant for my father.

It’s made of neat wires and photovoltaic cells.

There are no pipes. No turbines.

No steam. No coal.

No fire but the sun’s.

I made these visions. In labor.

Silicon lakes washing over rooftops.

Aimed up from every sunward pointed surface.

Offering of sapphires.

Ripe harvest of blueberries.

My father strides in the sun’s true lamp.

Walking in the open as between tilled rows.

Reflections from solar panels cast panes on his jaw.

Windows through which I can almost see him

and that let in enough light to write by.

He reads the book. Nothing can hurt him.

My father and I walk the alabaster city

to a fairgrounds swelling with a dome of light.

Light bulbs in thick bunches

blooming on building sides.

A careful spider’s nest of wires.

We approach a red striped tent.

A signboard outside plastered with

“the World’s Columbian Exposition presents”

an astonishing gift from distant lands

a candle for our wonder cabinet

“the light not of the sun”

like a wick covered in Moby Dick’s wax

“the great acorn of light”

Dante’s vision crackling sparks inside

electricity, flame and light at once

“a lamp to lift beside our golden doors”

“The Power”

But as soon as we enter the tent

we both know that though the power gives light

it is not light.

Does not burn

but the whole world burns to fuel it.

Has no charge

but attracts and repulses at once.

An explosion

crystallizing.

Power is not a name for the power.

The power isn’t even singular.

Leaving off mystery

for labor

we fill lanterns with this thing itself.

We quit the fair and take to the continent.

We build a city of lesser stars.

We spin turbines with our breath.

Filaments bristle on our arms.

Sparks drip from our fingernails. Seeds.

We plant power in this “hell of wide land”

true gleaming living power

that can even be turned off

so that

the stars might themselves emerge again.

We find a boat in the shadows of white towers.

We row out to the woman in the harbor.

Arm in arm my father and I

climb the spiral stairs through her leg

her womb her stomach her breast

her arm into the hand and finally the torch.

A rack of shovels

a burner and a pile of coal.

We race first

old machine against new machine.

As we stagger and slump

our rhythms match.

We labor together to light this eastern sun

this Olympic torch

for this woman to carry back to Athens.

In the stadium

we watch the woman run

last bearer in a gold medal relay.

She passes the finish line

but she doesn’t stop running.

She passes the finish line.

She rounds the loop again.

She might stop running.

But she hasn’t yet.

Will she ever stop running?

An Essay on Revolution

Posted in Uncategorized on May 14, 2009 by rdunder

I believe in revolution.

Dialectical Historical Materialism, as Marx formulated it, is not a revolutionary doctrine.

Dialectics naturalize. They accommodate the thesis to the antithesis, the one to the other, the self to the other. They leave no distance between a thing and that which it is not.

Dialectics totalize. They function like a machine that combines fuel and labor to make a synthetic product.

Derrida called Hegelian dialectics an “all-burning”. The same is true of any dialectic pattern, most certainly including Marx’s.

Revolution cannot be naturalized. It cannot be totalized. It exists always already beyond the dialectic of history.

The true revolution comes not from the order of the dialectic, but beyond it, where its laws cannot reach to give their hand in succor or in violation.

The spontaneous reorganization of the objects at the extremities.

The revolution that is not a revolution in the sense of degrees around a circle (which is a dialectical shape), but a re-evolution of a circle itself; a re-evolution that’s form, purpose and power arrive from beyond the circle and that always already has form,  purpose and power without it.

Because the Communists situated their revolution within the dialectic of history, the Capitalists were able to form a new antithesis to the Communist revolution. A revolution in the form of Global Corporatism.

This new power shares nothing with the old Bourgeois opponent, because even its rapaciousness is greater by degrees of magnitude.

The laboring people of the world are called to turn on this new specter, who is hardly a specter, but really has a giant body that covers the earth and shits and belches everywhere.

The laboring people of the world must form themselves into a new revolution. But one that cannot be swallowed by the dialectic of history, because if it were it would only be devoured by new means of production, means of production that will again crush the hope of revolution.

The laboring people of the world must again become humans, beings that contain the dialectic and are always arriving from beyond it, coming upon it as travelers.

The laboring people must become a spontaneous seizure of energy inside the system that is not of the system, a world wide conquest of all capital from all corporate power, taking place in an instant before even a grain of antithesis can form against it.

This revolution is a Gnosticism. It is an accursed hope.

This revolution is not an end of history. It comes in from outside history. It is all that is not history.

This revolution is like a God from a creation that is not ours. A creation that we can never encounter or even know, but that seems like it could be, if not better, at least better lit.

An Essay

Posted in Uncategorized on May 7, 2009 by rdunder

What is to be done?—V.I. Lenin

1. (Poets must desire to understand economic conditions as well as any force of nature).

In 1902 Lenin titled a pamphlet on the urgency of revolution in Russia with this question. The idea of the essay, that a revolutionary party of intellectuals should be established to direct the efforts of the working class is not important to me, and runs counter to my own views. But the poignancy of the question remains.

I title this essay with a politic quote, rather than a poetic one, because my sentiments are only politic. It is one of the truest truisms of post-Marxist thought that all actions reveal and produce a socioeconomic commitment. In his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy Marx writes that it is “necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production…and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out” [The italics are for an emphasis that is emphatically mine].

Poetry has never been innocent of the profit motive, because poetry is language and language is certainly not innocent.

When I, ventriloquising Lenin, ask “What is to be done?” I ask also:

“What are poets to do about economics?” The question sounds extraneous, exterior to the real question of poetry. But this is just where a new poetic begins, at the edge of the superstructure of poetry, which sits on a base of economic reality. Poetry is founded on a social reality that forms and deforms and punctures poetry’s own boundaries.

“What are poets to do about economics?” knowing that economics are a force as powerful as any Romantic sublime, but that call for engagement and not appreciation.

“What are poets to do about economics?” when economic forces condemn millions to death every year, and have always condemned millions.

In “The Lives of Infamous Men,” Michel Foucault’s introduction to a collection of penal documents from 18th century France, he writes that “those lives destined to pass beneath any discourse and disappear without ever having been told were able to leave traces…only at the point of their contact with power.” Foucault describes a record that comes from an encounter oppressive power, which has its roots in economic inequality. But he also points toward the role of the poet in an oppressive system: to be another kind of recording power, one that gives condolence and a voice instead of refusal and judgment. To be a surface sensitive to all suffering, and an amplifier for that suffering’s cry.

The place I want to find, the space I want to carve for poetry, is the synthesis between its “profit motive” and its “prophet motive.”

2. (The poem is a material object).

It is a question that poets must ask of themselves. What is to be done? Not “what is to be thought?” or “what is to be written about”?

The question presupposes action. An action in the present tense dealing with material objects. Which is what writing a poem will always be.

In an excluded study for Capital, Karl Marx writes about John Milton: “Labour with the same content can be either productive or unproductive. For instance, Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost, was an unproductive worker. On the other hand, a writer who turns out work for his publisher in factory style is a productive worker. Milton produced Paradise Lost as a silkworm produces silk, as the activation of his own nature. He later sold his product for £5 and became a merchant.”

Marx works from a classical distinction between productive and unproductive labor. Productive labor deals with real materials, like lumber or coal or steel. Unproductive labor only organizes productive labor. Marx asserts that Milton’s creation had nothing to do with the material world, that it grew solely from Milton and, paradoxically, the poem occurred without Milton’s effort or engagement with reality.

But in this I differ with Marx. The poem has a window on the world, even if it’s a small one, and the window lets in light.

The poem draws all its power from the material. From the physical objects that make up the world. The poem is material in its sources and its own existence. The motion of fingers on these keys, the electricity in this computer, the text on this page: it is an embodied reality.

I want to be a laborer, porter of object and document; but for now I am merely a poet. The labor of an academic poet is quite paltry and quite well compensated compared to a Maquiladora worker. But I should always look to justify the comparative ease of my work with a commitment to making the work into a productive labor, even if poetry seems like a work of air.

Just do what you can to hold the line against the ideal.

3. (The poem is a public object).

And: What is “to be done”?

What does it mean “to be done”? Every day I look forward to the moment when a poem is “done,” finished. And when is this: when I stop typing? When I complete a third draft? When I print it? When I choose to file it away or put in an envelope to send to a publisher?

For the purposes of our commodity economy a poem is done when it hits the published page with a number and a dollar sign on the cover; when it becomes a reproducible object of definite value. Wash my inky hands and the in-Herculean labor is complete. Send the check. Write the blurb.

But this divides the dynamic of poetry, and lets more than half of it sink into obscurity. The poem never dies in the eye of the reader. It begins (and re-begins) in the first moment that a reader (other than the poet) glances at the words on the page.

In his essay “From Work to Text” Roland Barthes wants to “abolish (or at the very least to diminish) the distance between writing and reading, in no way by intensifying the projection of the reader into the work but by joining them into a single signifying practice.”

The labor of poetry does not begin or end with the author. The reader is not engaged in the extraction and accumulation of already extant meaning. The reader, or rather, the readers, are active creators of a meaning that can only exist within this social context.

What is “to be done” when the poem won’t stop speaking as long as it is read?

Poets must recommit themselves to the public force of poetry. And part of this will come from forcibly reclaiming poetry’s role in the public sphere. American poetry has enjoyed a fifty years’ comfort slumbering in the academy. It is time again for poets to address a public with public concerns that have nothing to do with scholarly debate over poetic theory and practice.

To reposition poetry not as imitation of nature, or as expression of self, but as communication with others.

As the synthesis of what must be done (writing and reading a poem) and what can never “be done” (writing and reading a poem).

4. (Only the starving have the right to an aesthetic).

What is to be done? What is “to be done”? When a poet asks these questions, and in so doing turns toward the public, these become the new questions. The old questions, the (all-too) formal questions, the endless debates of meter versus no meter, image versus no image, experimental versus no experimental, all these fall away like so many discredited rituals.

While I deplore the lengths the Soviet state went to trying to remove any hint of formalism from the nation’s arts, I must declare a fierce and programmatic disgust for any aesthetic framework that comes prior to the social meaning of the poem.

Forms are only there to divest the poem with an “aura,” a la Walter Benjamin, of performance. They are a mere chance for poets to show off their skill, and in so doing, position their work along a scale of commodified valuation.

The sonnet, once the golden song of Empire at its golden birth, is now decaying and should be allowed to.

I reject any poem that favors the aesthetic, the “pure music,” the sweet meat, of poetry over its greasy, dirty ability to be useful language. The value of the poet is not is his or her skill, but in his or her gestures toward usefulness. Quoting Isaiah 55:2: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”

If my poetic is conditioned by the politic and the economic, if it is a superstructure made possible by a base of material labor (labor that is not my own in making the poem, that instead belongs to others beyond me), then I must find a poetic capable of tracing this conditioning. Capable of appraising and then justifying its own socioeconomic inheritance. And, as if such a thing could perhaps be possible, capable of being socially useful.

This is not to say that poets should not attend to formal questions. It is simply that these questions should never take precedence over the poem’s function as a means of socialized communication. By breaking the back of formalism, the poem can open to the functionalism of all kinds of writing. The poem can be a truly multifarious surface, able to comprehend all types of verse and prose (institutional and creative) and then turn them to constructive ends. The test of this new poetry comes not in an adherence to aesthetics, but in an ethical vision, and its ability to use the full scope of the written word to construct this ethic.

A poem must be an instrument, a socioeconomic tool, for it to have any purpose now. The economic structures that prop poetry up, that make a life of letters a viable option for thousands of people in the United States and abroad have become too odious and too well entrenched for poetry to remain uncritical of its own hidden ideological commitments. Poetry, therefore, must turn itself to being only a lever, a simple machine, with which to dislodge power.

The best poem would be a shovel to remove the dirt that covers the mass graves.

WORKERS OF ALL INDUSTRIES, UNITE!

Reed Underwood

May 2009