Review: Vanitas No. 2


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 113 in 2007.

Vanitas, #2, ed. Vincent Katz (New York, 2007)

by Jim Feast

As I remarked in a recent American Book Review, Language poetry (and prose) has broken up into two factions, with organizations, such as the St. Marks Poetry Project, and magazines, such as the latest Vanitas, lining up on one side of another.
I call these factions Communard and post-Communard. The first consists of those writers who hold to the Modernist project and believe an equitable society of increased democratic control of both the state and the economy is still fashionable, that is, able to be fashioned. In this camp are such writers as Leslie Scalapino, Jerome Sala and, lastly, Johannah Rodgers, in whose recent book, Sentences, the possibility of a non-individualistic, communal subjectivity is explored as a replacement for the reigning acquisitive personality of the dominant culture.
When a stage of the Modernist construction collapses, there are two directions open. One path is for true believers, like Rimbaud, for whom the slaughtering of the Communards along with the dissolution of the homosexual coterie that was a pendant to the workers movement, the only answer was a move to silence. But for those who wish to press on, as Mallarmé did, there is the post-Communard alternative. This path consists of retreat to a stronghold of like-minded writers, where they—like Marx who wrote Capital during a moment of proletarian retreat—can undertake a deeper analysis of the coercive society, so as to provide useful information when a new moment of Modernist insurgence presents itself. In this group, I put such writers as Ron Silliman, Bruce Andrews and Susan Howe, and such journals as Vanitas.
However, from the first issue, this magazine has taken a very atypical stance toward the fray. Though the journal is populated largely with post-Communard writers (with a few Communard ringers such as Steve Dalachinsky and the aforementioned Sala), these are poets who are so distressed with the situation in corporate America that, following Katz’s lead, they take post-Communard themes in a more contestatory direction, often with striking success, achieving a kind of politicized depoliticization.
In this brief review, there is only time to highlight one topic, but it is worth at least mentioning the two, other most prominent foci of post-Communard Language writing: 1) the repudiation of earlier Modernist traditions, such as Surrealism, here carried out by Richard “Hell” Myers in a subtly vicious attack on Proust (veiled as a homage) and 2) the questioning of the links between physical and textual reality, shown here forcefully in a performance piece by Frederic Rzewski where each spoken phrase is accompanied by a blow.
Let us look, though, at the third dominant theme, the ingenious creation of new patterns of reading. One politicizing turn is provided by Elaine Equi’s “Ambien.” Like Rodgers, Equi wants to discard old views of the subject.
But where Rodgers begins from the community (a Communard move), Equi stays with the individual, one that grows increasingly spectral. The poem opens with the narrator questioning a companion, “did I just ask you,” as if she needed an independent witness to her conversation. This leads to the need for corroboration of her actions, “Wait, did I just take a pill?” and, in the end, to the need for verification of the simplest movement, “Did I just go into the other room?” I label this politicizing in that in the course of the poem the distracted and decentered individual (key to post-Communard writing) is shown (by the reader being forced to make adjustments to the perception of the “I”) to exist only through a constant scrutiny of the other, as if surveillance had replaced inwardness.
Another example, the last, comes from Lewis Warsh. In his “Consecutive Sentences,” as in much language writing, there is an abrupt shifting between disparate, fragmentary thoughts, controlled by a (usually retroactively discovered) theme. Let’s look for Warsh’s theme.
The narrator has people working for him. At first he tries to dismiss them. “Every week a woman comes to dust the furniture.” Next he glamorizes them, “an old Chinese doctor came to my apartment ... he had been a general in Chang Kai Shek’s army.” Then he admits he is a worker himself. “I lifted a carton of books and threw out my back.” And this first identification leads him to an even greater broadening of his consciousness, “Once I bought a slave bracelet in a jewelry store.” By this time, the underlying connection is clear. Warsh is presenting a proletarian version of O’Hara’s “In Memory of My Feelings,” which is to say the protagonist does not imagine himself (as does O’Hara) in all times and climes, but as omnipresent exclusively in worker’s overalls.
At the end of the typical scattershot-type Language poem, the reader searches (not necessarily successfully) for a unifying gist. For Warsh, this principle of closure is the workers’ perspective, whose growing power is sensed, perhaps, as a prelude to the next Modernist upsurge.
Although not all the pieces in this issue are as deft, many make significant attempts to give post-Communard Language rhetoric a remarkable (and given its past) even shocking pertinence.