"Between memory, muscle and fat is a poetics
out of a black, pleather satchel full of photos"
Jonathan Regier (JR): The first time I read Wilson’s book, what really got me was the prose. Prose poetry generates electricity between two contrary tendencies that orient or addle poets (of all artists): the popularizing and hermetic, the accessible and the hard to access.
Jennifer K Dick (JKD): I like what you are saying about the accessible vs the hermetic and hard to access. For me, those touch the surfaces of what I call the familiar in Wilson's book—preferring familiar to popular—and the strange or unexpected.
On first reading Poems of the Black Object, I felt tossed about between the strange, estranging, hermetic, and the familiar. In particular, The familiar lines or parts of lines like “I took the label off”(p27) “my ticket is in my pocket” (p27) or “the snow blower—drives snow into snow” (p87) grounded me, made me feel both comfortable in a linguistic space I knew—one of walking down the street, taking public transit, reading a paper, or thinking of family experiences recounted in the poems: as when the narrator is looking at old photos "A few shots are of my father, teaching tennis to a group of men in Guam, most of them white. Everyone is wearing white..." (p57) The poems are thus filled with lines anyone might overhear on the street or think or pronounce like: "Is she a friend of yours? Yes, in many ways" (p8) or "When you saw the source you said 'Oh my God!' and yelled that there was absolutely no way you were going to do anything with him."(p14)
But what kept me reading Wilson's book was the way the familiar collides with something subtle, at first unnoticed: the strange. For example: “I took the label off so that it could not hide.” (p27) Suddenly there is an eeriness in what is hiding. What hides, can hide, under a label? The picking at a label, lifting it off, is an action being carried out for an entirely more mysterious purpose. Generally in the book this strangeness, the unfamiliar enters the poems in two main ways. One is a raised awareness, an acute perception or revelation of an unexpected action or element—like a thing hiding under a label—in the book. Often that which hides is linked in Wilson’s writing to intimacy, self as body, or—very often—of the body’s race, thus as a space for estrangement or an impossibility to meld or join with any particular group. The other thing that happens which excites me in Wilson's poems is that straight syntax begins to dissolve into a pseudo-collaged often very musical space. The familiar language, our native tongue, suddenly estranges us.
Wilson’s asyntaxic writing, slang or dialect uses often has a violence and affront to it, mimicking a losing of mental balance, a discomfort or, in other passages, mimicking urban life where voices mix. A first example of this starts the book.
Wilson's first poem On The C Train The Black Object Ponders Amuzati’s family Eaten in the Congo moves strikingly from one voice/dialect/register of language to another. It announces its syntactic unusualness with the first line: "Cut the adults. Huck-um dun the chest" (p7). However, it begins from the second couplet to set up a syntaxic and thematic "normality", a pattern seen in a lot of American poems where someone is reading about a horrible news story taking place elsewhere (in this case, in the Congo) while at home, protected in their anywhere-safe-in-our-homes-perhaps-suburbia-USAness. Good middle class educated Americans express a sense of outrage when reading about awful news events happening elsewhere : "In the story of edible blacks, hacked and splayed on lattice,/how am I to finish the dishes" (p7). This line I may have read a half dozen times, or a line like it. What transcends the poetry I've read like this is that, by the end of the poem, Wilson has transported me/the narrative space out of the safe house where the narrator is doing dishes. I find myself/the narrator is a bit lost, has been placed into some new landscape, dizzy and dizzying. This space is evoked solely by the layered set of spoken or spoken-like language as the poem concludes: "Ringworm, rung'un, crunk of nap. Mother to baby: Shut up!/ Don't touch me. Suckcandysuckit. C'mon now chile' (p7). This is not the simplicity I have encountered in the dozens of such poems in my past; it has taken me to a place where I feel a little lost. I ask myself, who is the "me" that does not want to be touched? How did I/the narrator get here? What is this couplet saying? Is this couplet addressing me? The American reading news, like this perhaps threatened person/child, does not want to be touched, moved, hurt. But how to reconcile all the spaces of the poem? Without entirely being able to articulate my read of this poem, I feel transported, put off guard, confronted. I am totally excited to turn the page and see what else this book has to offer.
This push and pull between the familiar and the hermetic takes place on these levels for me. And you?
JR: In particular, I think that this tension (between the complex and popular) gives us one good way of looking at our current infatuation with prose poetry—which Wilson’s book is filled with. With prose we can manipulate literary structures that we find in the wider world of fiction and nonfiction (in journalism, short stories, anecdotes, op-eds, advertisements, etc.). The use of prose poetry might represent a dual movement. There’s a movement “outward” to a wider readership, and there’s simultaneously or soon after a movement “elsewhere”.
JKD: The "elsewhere" took place for me almost more in the non-prose poems, where the syntax skews and veers into various worlds in less grounded ways. Given that you are most struck by the prose poem sections in Wilson's book, are there some poems in particular which evoke for you this outward readership, this "elsewhere" movement you’re referring to?
JR: Let me answer this question indirectly. I get the sense that Wilson’s prose was typed up on a crappy word processor with a chunky screen. It could survive that environment, the old Windows environment from the mid ’90s—the computing equivalent of wood paneling and linoleum. You put most literary flowers in a screen like that, they’ll blanch. Their lovely parts will look puffy or dull or beautified. But imagine how good Wilson’s paragraphs would look. The sourness of Wilson’s charm has the right sour. The color of his charm has the right color.
Wilson’s a writer that literally likes to take a piss. It’s his answer to the tawdry. It’s his answer to the low. Pissing is a vivacious activity for him. It’s exactly what re-radiates. It glitters on its way down and then it splashes. I’m going to quote a paragraph from The Black Object’s Memory:
‘You’re gonna get sick.’ When you say this, you want to lift him up and carry him out to some clean river to soak, watch the rings of filth float from his body. But you also want to piss on him. You imagine his face sprinkled with vitamin-bright urine. You want to unload on his beautiful black beard what you give to the urinal’s mouth, a radiant stream splattering on his dim and tired lips. (p17)
Now I can get to answering your question. Wilson’s poetry is crass, but his crassness is a saving charm. His crassness is outright charming. It’s graceful and smart. Actually, I should say that his crassness is an important part of his style, and that his style is one of charm. Charm is his exercise in the same way that his mother took up running. One keeps fit. One cuts the excess. Even if this obsession is the mark of some despair, it’s the better of two evils. It’s about finding an essential logic of living with oneself and one’s society. And this effort is necessarily one of constant exercise.
Logic that’s alive is bound to be a singular and strange logic. It’s bound to be an idiosyncratic logic. It’s bound to be “new”. Prose poetry is a good medium to express it, because a poet can tweak or outright screw the normal course of written poetry. The “elsewhere”, then, is an elsewhere of cause and effect, of reference. Wilson’s book can be very harsh. But a full-on example of how smoothly (by a series of soft jolts) he can take us across the grain of a weird logic is my other favorite poem, Dream in a Fair:
The leaf bug struggled in the bright lights on the deck as I closed the tennis can
over its body. In a dream, a dolphin is in my big duffle bag. (p26)
I am meeting Dawn at the movies. I am at one, where I am with my brother.
Dawn becomes Donaldino.
Two more twins look at me from a row in front.
They are older and grey; they say, “Hey. There are twins behind us.”
Sense matters. (p24)
And now my question for you: do you hear a common logic in the verse poems? Do you even think that “logic” is the appropriate word so far as the verse poems are concerned? Or is it more a matter of paired references, or sound motifs? (Not that these things don’t have a logic…)
JKD: Logic, when I look at its various definitions, so often returns to systems and methods of reasoning, principles that govern or dictate inferences. Wilson forces me to infer on many levels what I am looking at—as in the section Chronophotographe which combines a set of six short, tightly rectangular prose poems positioned on the page with “fig. 1” to “fig 6” under them. These are followed by five titled poems (some line broken, thus “verse” poems as you call them but the last one a prose letter poem) about the death and life of Herman the German, a porn star. The logic which dictates that these 11 poems should be placed together evades my habitual systems of deduction, but I can force them to the surface.
Both sets are about looking (the first at photos, I gather, the second a screen star), both seem to be about sex (the first perhaps more art photos and the second, porn or a less “acceptable” form of art) and finally both sets are in ways about love, intimacy, nudity, callousness of being naked and seen and the potential exposure of that. Exposure. This word returns me to the photograph idea. But Chronophotograhy is also about capturing a series of images in movement. About time passing, being caught for an instant or the desperate attempt to stop time for a moment in the image. The overall group title thus links me to a position of, as reader, as narrator-author as well, the person taking the pictures—the poems capture the images in movement, but the poet-reader-writer becomes the objectifier, the one seeing or trying to see.
Suddenly a new logic, where I might be seeing the art photo poems moving into the Herman the German poems, where I might be seeing the 11 poems as a single set of chronophotos, begins to form. The movement caught on film is that of a process from life to death. Both poems begin with hard cocks—the full-of-life virility of “boxed hip bone and cock pumped” (p71) at the start of the tiny prose poems and “Herman hung a horse shoe on his hard cock” (p77) which starts the Herman poems—and both come to closure in death, but also in reaching for connection, for the other (loved one? Being loved? Being touched—that impossible connection of photo and original object separated by the lens?). Thus at the end of the prose poems we read “Who will taste the salt in my mouth? Feel the endless rip of the sun, its yellow light forced against the petrified pine” (p 76) and at the end of the Herman poems Herman addresses us, writing about the end of the film Pearl Harbor and Ben Affleck’s death: “You wish he came back. You wish he loved her. You wish he didn’t sink to the bottom of the sea.” (p 82). So these poems also are like the “pilot’s selfish ghost” speaking to the reader, making us look at the series of chronophotographs but where the ghost is a ghose, like the final poem’s signature ends: “Dead, //Herman the German” (p82). Time’s caught and yet we’re still unable to be reconnected to the bodies seen on film. They are ghosts.
The logic, a system of connections, Wilson’s method of jolting us, as you put it, into unexpected connections in disconnected or disconnecting space, acts in this book the same on the prose poem and the “verse” poem level for me. But there is an added element in the final section of the book, entitiled The Black Body. In these verse poems the poet really does sing. And on two levels—the sound of these lines strikes me, but also the way the lines are like notes placed, hung in space, connecting and disconnected there, at times literally floating away from the left margin as if to accentuate their dispersal around the reader. As in Brutal End:
As though I lisp. Punctum:
I am refuse, my tank top killed.
Killed again, I am
in the A&P, white eyes glow from a
mug coon eyed up to the engineers.
O helpless mute of the tile and flooring. With what to pull
you through the screen of my raped and slain face—
an oyster shucker?
An anagram: Don’t let the black cat in. He can’t let himself out.
That boy burnt up his grandma. (p85)
Thus I feel the pained yowling mourning in the strong sound of these poems, but also in their illogical logic. The connections create the emotion, though if I were to try and piece them back together, to stitch in a why, then I would be layering onto these poems a false logic.
These poems are in fact great because they elide being boxed into space, because they are like the cards in a cardhouse, each line, each reference, each sounding off of one reference against another—watching reality-TV kids smashing a house, killing roaches at home, being surprised when called “sir” —precariously balanced against and atop each other. Like in the poem The Lesson, the poems are like the I of the poet-narrator where:
When the wind pushes against my house
and it feels like it might into itself,
I am a cardhouse. (p92)
But how do you read the logic of the poems at the end of this book? Many of these are closing off the themes already read about—race, violence, newswatching, positioning of the self, death, etc. Or even how do you see the groupings of poems in the entire book, its overarching “logic”? I think of the gorgeous responses to single poems that have appeared on Futurepost (Futurepoem Book’s blog), for example at the end of Erica Kaufman’s response to Wilson’s poem Remembering the Dead she says: “We’ve come on a journey of ‘remembering the dead,’ and now that we’ve exited the memory, nothing has changed. But, in some ways, isn’t that why memories are important?” http://futurepoem.wordpress.com/2010/08/11/erica-kaufman-responds-to-ronaldo-v-wilsons-remembering-the-dead/ Do you think that, overall, the book functions in this way? Showing us nothing has changed in the recollection? Or does so much change? I think one thing Kaufman brilliantly points out is that that which is remembered does not seem to be changed, but the reader like the narrator-poet is constantly changing, never fixed. Kaufman demonstrates this when she points out how Wilson deftly places the narrator-speaker in a conditional space of being, “if I am well veined” thus “if” indicating a thus uncertain self, and those things which are recalled and are dead as clearly unable to be altered, thus the flat statement, the affirmation “he is dead”. It is the contrast of and space between these two (if and is) that I think I have been trying to name here—the thing which is dead, passed, recalled and the current self speaking in the poems and which takes us on our own reading voyage. Each time we read the poems, too, they are new experiences for us, for we have changed and come back to them with different life spaces to place in counterpoint with our reading experience. Thus, for me, this book is about a distance between things and that which connects everything. Is that a logic? What do you think?
JR: As for the logic, especially of the verse poems, I think of certain lines and stanzas, one which you quoted:
as though I lisp. Punctum: (p85)
Throughout the book, there’s a very internalized manipulation of Barthes on photography. The book is completely obsessed with punctum—with being pierced. Wilson does a lot of phallic and violent variations on the theme. The only time (I could be wrong) where he actually outright uses Barthes’ term is in the line above, in a poem dedicated to an elderly woman killed and raped by a crack addict. It’s fitting that this poem (also) opens with a photograph:
In the photo, my hair blurs into an ovum of ash,
Skin smooth as a girl’s. The flash finds my eyes,
Two tiny white grids, lips betongued,
as though I lisp. Punctum: (p85)
So, the poem starts with a photograph, with the dead woman (possibly) looking at her own image. Then it moves to punctum, then this line:
Oh helpless mute of the tile and flooring. With what to pull
you through the screen of my raped and slain face – (p85)
This is punctum of a different sort, where inside and outside are conflated. It reminds me of the many analogies that crop up between camera and body. The viewer of a photo is pierced, just like the camera is pierced (in fact, a camera is made to be pierced). Later on in the same poem:
O vacuities. If we are endless holes,
I claim the discordant. I claim the pigsty.
The split subject. (p86)
“If we are endless holes”, our punctuation should capture us faithfully (or faithfully capture the scenes that penetrate us). Which is to say that syntax is the punctum of the sentence. This same poem, called Brutal End, beginning with an “ovum of ash”, ends with the seminal (ejaculatory) creation of matter:
the snow blower—
drives snow into snow,
wind convulsing into matter. (p87)
It’s useful to have these last two stanzas juxtaposed, because we can see another theme that really came through to me in the latter part of the book. I’m looking for a word to name it, and the best I can come up with is “swarming”—the pigs swarming, the snow swarming. It all refers to the same thing: the swarming puncta, the person and society of endless holes. It also seems to do symbolic duty, invoking fertility, perhaps sperm. There’s this image from Self Portrait A: Alimentary :
i have come for the knocked out teeth
the blood shit mouth
my face bears down
in the asphalt path up hill
lying there a giant
Venus at dawn
lain down to light up
the ants gnawing
back into earth (p63-64)
This poem is dedicated to Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant sodomized (“a plunger in the bowel”) by two police officers in New York City. Starting with a horrible punctum, it ends with an image of Venus, goddess of fertility and love. I read the “gnawing back into earth” as a discordant seeding of the earth (body of infinite punctures) by the life that sustains itself there. Incidentally, this poem also begins with the image of an insect:
trees spread hard
as the legs of a roach
thorned up in a low sky
an exhaustion (p63)
How is punctum related to communication, or to texts? It would be hard to consider the sodomizing of Louima an act of mere communication. It was a reckoning, a penetration of awful truth, both about the person who did it and about the larger context of race in New York City. Punctum need not be at that amplitude, but it’s never purely bad or good. It’s never purely death or life. In Wilson’s universe, it seems to be an aspect of nature, and a prerequisite for the corruption and generation of species, as well as for communication:
In the trail of boric acid I lay out for the roaches,
Do the vermin know bealch, flour—they are about to be killed?
How do you know by force
or equation a chasm, a magnet
or by what word is beauty—
begin with being a bore
or being bored through in a market,
the surprise, each time, in being called, sir. (p93)
In the absence of punctum, one can still be touched. One can still be moved. But the desire, according to Wilson, is always for penetration, for unequivocal truth. In Chronophotographe, a series of surrealist, hard-core vignettes that you also discussed, we get this lucid exposé on communication:
Cells river in the bituminous hole. I make a substance, an alloy epiphany the same scene with three barreled and hairy chested men not fucking, really, but making sounds. Gesticulating. Sure, their cocks touch, but they don’t penetrate. What does man A hope to touch? […] Pic 7: I am touched by the inalienable piss slit and perineum, agape. (p74)
There’s a communication without punctum, but it’s a bumbling sort—mere sounds and gesticulations. What Wilson is really fixated on is the holes—the holes of the human or of the camera. It’s about the possibility of entering and of being entered into. It’s also, like you put it, about a reckoning of the present with the past. I like where you and Erica Kaufman go with the “conditional space”, the conditional self that distinguishes the narrator from an unalterable past. Wilson usually introduces the departed by way of photographs and films. For Wilson, the static is the dead; the puncta, the swarming, are of the living.
The logic of the prose poems is to some extent in the verse poems, but the verse poems become much more about the puncta of language: the breaks, the pauses, the breaths, the holes between discordant lines, the lines themselves as piercing organs. As for the global form of Wilson’s poems, I think of the cycles of life and death that he invokes himself. These cycles shape our penetrating and penetrated bodies, whether the bodies under consideration be poetic, social, or purely material.