The Arrival of Descartes to Cole Phelps' California
Also from ‘The Air Loom Gang’
Cole Phelps, the leader of the community, had divided Southeastern Pennsylvania into small cube-shaped portions and transported them one by one across the country, through the canyons and across dangerous rivers, to California where he re-organized them into more pleasing arrangements, here planing off an unruly set of hills, there elaborating the right-angle of a border into a baroque set of contours. In the same way, he populated his hybrid country with subjects—first drawing out the voice of each, then the reason, then the body, so that in transit the indeterminate space between the two kingdoms buzzed with detached psalms and recitations and small arguments, and the vague heat of logical proofs, and trailed finally by confused looking farmers and lawyers walking silently and thoughtlessly after their constituent parts.
After a time Cole Phelps, hearing rumors of Descartes the maker of dolls, mirrors, and war-machines, sought to bring him to his court—traveling to the rooms of the famous inventor and inducing his services with descriptions of the vast wealth and luxury of the West. “Look here,” he pleaded, “it’s as simple as this—your body severed into its various assemblages, packed into the most accommodating crates of velvet and rosewood, each crate guarded by strong, mute soldiers with no fear of death—and then at the end of the voyage, you find yourself whole again, looking out on an ocean as changeable and animal as you please
But Descartes was not convinced—not by these cajoling words, nor by offers of gold, companionship, or the resources of Cole Phelps’ extensive scholarly archives. “I hate to resort to this,” sighed the weary Phelps, “but as both king of this twinned land and as an officer of the Los Angeles Vice Department, I do possess in my power the de-humanizing force of the law’s sovereign head as well as its punishing hand.” Descartes trembled and opened his mouth to speak, but it was too late, for Phelps had mobilized the pure force of the law and reduced our man to abject stone, which was speedily chipped apart and packed carefully into a sturdy oak casket.
When poor Descartes came to, he was in an opulent chamber, with large windows overlooking the ocean, gold-colored, held in abeyance by the cliffs Cole Phelps had erected as a demonstration of his charity. If the king had two bodies, thought Descartes, one might as well adjust to that fact—or divide, like a simple thing puzzled by its extension in place and event and tricked by its confusion into becoming multiple—or simply refuse to cohere into a thinking and doing unity in the face of all threat or promise afterwards. “Yes,” he thought, “I shall begin tonight—a final, irreversible split between the dumb compliance of the flesh and the peevish mind, forever ready to betray itself at the sight of trouble. The one I’ll stick through with swords, and pack it away beneath the floorboards—the other I’ll lure into this mason jar here, and when it follows its useless fancy inside, I’ll cork it up—and then, body and mind disposed with, I can begin to think about making my escape.”
But, looking about him, he began to reconsider—doubt asserted itself in the voluptuous objects around him, the silk cushions, the bottle of wine uncorked on the table. He stared into a hand-mirror considering his dilemma.
A bird sang on the window-sill. Pitching forward oddly, as if dragged by a small steel hook, Descartes vomited onto the carpet. A long thin stream of contentless bile—and he shat himself, too. Sweat poured off of him, and shivering on his feet he began to drool long strands of saliva mottled orange and red and brown. Weeping overcame the man, and a paralyzing chill. His eyes took it all in without registering the mess of viscera on the carpet, the menagerie of trained animals observing with cold pity in the cages around the room and there was no distinction between the flesh of his bare feet and the smoothed keratin and the reeking mounds of horse and panther and human shit and the Persian rugs and the wooden floor and the air wheezing against the smell of matter reduced to its huddled degree zero. He smeared his wet mouth on the back of a velvet sleeve, daggered. That old familiar rot in his teeth, the pressure of a loose organ on his tongue. That buckling mounting in his knees until the detonation.That was the promise of the monad to him—a thousand thousand horrible things bound together with a thousand thousand horrible ideas. All of the shoes waiting in the closet—pointed-toe shoes, soft boots, elegantly wrought sandles—fit his deformed feet perfectly, although he would not discover this for some time yet.
1) First of all, I don’t really like statements about poetics because they make me feel like middle-management in some obscure mode of production— second of all because I feel that poetry in particular demands that the writer remain in the dark to a certain extent— which is perhaps a little too “practice of outside”-ish to remain practical. That being said, there are many people I consider good poets who, in interviews, strike me as good theorists too— but almost never as good theorists of their own poems.
2) I often feel troubled about deploying the “I” in poems, but I think back to Robert Gluck’s statements on the balance between “the awareness that fition is a lie, that representation is inevitably a distortion”— and the commitment to representation or the inextricability from the “Supreme Fiction” of the subject. “I would say that honest fiction is one that if mindful of its own power relations.” “Insofar as writing knows these contradictions […] that is the degree that the writing knows itself as writing.”
3) In that case, I’m interested in an “I” that’s ostentatiously flattened and affectless- - in my poems, I think, voluptuousness or investment is always encountered as a soft alterity. Perhaps this is a cheat— an attempt to ford a path between language writing and new narrative that sinks and drowns all my oxen in a shitty river called new sincerity. I don’t know.
4) So that a by-product of this is that abjection is experienced in my poems as something that occurs ”at” the focal lens of the poem’s language but which doesn’t adhere to that lens in a systemic way. To return to Gluck’s thoughts on the “necessity” of representation, there’s a very odd tight-rope that has to be walked as a mentally ill writer who experiences a great deal of privilege in almost every other space. Abjection must be dealt with as a component of a “private” ideological dynamo but must not be reified as, again, systemic in the sense that it might be for other writers. Another reason for casting the “I” in, almost, a different line-width or medium. Think of Herge’s ligne clair art style as filtered through Brecht, I guess— the “character” as caricature or ontological gestus-creature against a much more picaresque or even grotesque backdrop.
5) Who knows, who cares.
6) Overall I would say that the most important influences on my writing are New Narrative and Ben Lerner, even though I don’t really read the latter anymore (and haven’t even read his novel). There are some poets I like better as a reader but that’s kind of a totally different question, right?
Looking at your latest "Albertus Magnus" piece, you've almost got yourself a random-chance structure. (It's 8x4, but at an extremely quick first glance, I almost thought it was 6x6, which would fit for dice.) Although it's not, that does tangentially make me wonder if you've ever had any luck (pun intended or not - your call) with poetry not written, but read through random selection. (Something like Lily Hoang's Changing, &c.) It seems like an interesting concept, I've just not seen much of it.
1. I haven’t ever really gotten the hang of it, although I had some good ideas from Uutpoetry a year or so ago. I have a hard time making the leap from procedural derivation or soft-core aleatoric methods to actual randomness. I like being a tyrant in the space of the poem too much, which sucks.
2. I haven’t read that Hoang but I think my room-mate has it— if he does, I’ll check it out.
3. Hypothetically, if anybody reading this poem was a real dork, I guess they could use a 4-sided die?
I have a soft spot in my heart for this poem because it has been through one workshop and many revisions and many rejections. And now it is resting happily over at The The! Everybody wins.
Good stuff here, guys!
I missed this during my semi-continued internet hiatus but I always check what thetargetbird has been posting and reblogging to when I’ve been gone because Kevin never makes me irritated and he approaches poems as contingent weird miracles possibly and that seems like its for the best. This poem is awesome. It’s one of those poems that makes you kind of angry because now it’s definitively written and you’ll never get to write it. I want to run up to this poem on the street and shake its hand. I’m going to vote for this poem and its going to carry the state.
Hello, I was wondering, and sorry if you've noted this somewhere, but do you have any works published for sale?
Hi, I’m not sure if anyplace I’m published sells back issues, and anyway I’m really bad about keeping track. I think you could still buy RBS #2 and of course Red Skeleton #1 for free, probably if you googled around the online Tinge archive too. Sorry I can’t be more helpful, I am honestly really bad about remembering where I publish things.
Futurism is more interesting than Surrealism because Breton never blew up the moon, he just said it was a flower and treated women like shit. I mean what if someone wrote a Futurist version of Nadja, can you imagine how much better that would be!
This is an excerpt from around page 80 or so of this long thing, tentatively called “The Great Refusal: or: Doctor Universalis Fights the Lights.” It is partially a friendly homage to Elizabeth Smart and partially a little bit about the German poet Durs Grunbein.
Room temperature is room temperature. Room temperature is a fluid medium you can pass through as a body. It is an accident. You can pass through a fluid medium as a substance. You can consider your body as properly essential as an overseer of this kind of hypothetical situation. I won’t hold it against you. I’ll even go along with it. In fact, I love you. Please consider yourself acted upon, or considered as a fixed quality in the construction of this poem. The room I’m writing in is a different temperature than the room I pass through to get to the room where Jon and his girlfriend are watching television which is different from the room next to that, where I refill my coffee cup and notice that the back door is open and it is raining. In two of these rooms the lights are on—the kitchen and the bedroom—and in two of these rooms (the living room and the stairwell) there is light only from adjoining rooms and the television.
I feel good saying that the stairwell is a room even though you might not agree—it’s hotter than any other room, and strong smells bottle up in it. Indexing this space as a room fills me with a vigorous confidence. It’s a room I don’t like much.
Room temperature is the temperature returning to the bedroom with a cup of coffee with the knowledge that outside it is raining—the curtains are drawn because Abby got dressed for work and the large strange-looking air conditioner with a thick coil is louder than the sound outside but with the knowledge that outside its raining I can discern, if I pay close attention, that the cars that pass pass with the sound of driving over wet roads, and if I lean over and pull on the curtains with one hand I can see that the sky is totally gross and milk-colored and without my glasses I can barely suppose that the motion of rain coming downwards interferes with the little grid pattern of the window-screen to add a little to its fuzziness and that’s probably why I can make out even less than normal. Room temperature is the coolest room in the house, which is the bedroom, even though Jon and Skip, his girlfriend, have a floor fan at the small choke-point in the living room between two couches blowing on them eating cream-puffs in the morning and laughing at the television, so that their knees and ankles are cooled off, and in the bathroom I bet rain-water is puddling on our dangerous convex roof and spilling in through the open window.
I’m room temperature not noticing certain things that do cost concrete amounts of money and energy, like the light on at ten in the morning, because it’s overcast, and the loud large air conditioner, and I’m becoming such a temperature taking for granted a particular cool dryness that I only notice for a second or two passing in or out of it. Room temperature is a huge help for people who get sick easily, like me, it’s a little like acting like existing takes place in a vacuum and your habitus is a set of ideal environmental conditions and a cooling apparatus that produces something like white-noise as a by-product, so that you don’t know if it’s humid, or raining, and you don’t notice that you’re sneezing until it shakes coffee onto your exposed ankle, and even then you notice the coffee more than the sneezing, and you can begin to think about the subject in pretty romanticized or even foolish ways, as something autonomous from its conditions and looking around itself with a kind of casual discursiveness glibness, or an absence/undecidability or plasticity of valences. Maybe the room where Descartes had his dreams was room temperature—in Rosselini’s movie about his life he seems insular in his four-post bed and has to be roused out of it by servants or maids. He was sleeping very deeply and thinking as a mode resembling the comic-book version of astral-projection—that is, sending something like his body but silvery, ungestalt and rarified out of his sleeping body to poke around the world with an unheard of freedom and transparency.
Descartes reminds me a little bit of Doctor Strange, so maybe that’s why I like him more than some people do. An astral form is always-already ungestalt because its lines are thinner and it is inked more lightly than solid bodies. If we didn’t see it proceed from the actual body of Doctor Strange or Descartes it could be the ghost of anybody. We become terrified when we see it because it is inked more provisionally than we, and it’s colored a uniform pale blue, and its outline might be traced in morse dots instead of a consistent contour. This body could be any body, or it could signify a pure potential body. That’s pretty spooky. It’s natural to want to avoid that. An astral body is “defaced” because it left its face on its body. Most ghosts in fiction presuppose an originary violent act that disfigures the genius of the body from out of itself. That also makes most people uncomfortable, myself included. I don’t believe in ghosts but that doesn’t mean I want to see one!
Let’s forget what I’m talking about—Descartes’ astral form, anyway, is a silvery blob in the shape of Descartes that, believe it or not, is more rhizomatic than you expected—it flies, it turns invisible or faintly solid like ectoplasm, and it passes through walls and objects globbing on to particular surfaces and bodies according to its whims. So that Descartes approaches something like pure vitality or animation coursing somewhat lazily from site to site. Here perhaps he guides the hand of Yeats’ wife on the train to spell out some stuff, or he flits into a jar on a wooden shelf and throws it at the wall. Or whatever. Think of Descartes’ astral-form as a little bit like the genius loci but dislocated, rattling around the edgework of a given phenomenology or a thing in a pinball machine. I’m assuming that we’re both assuming that this guy can travel just as easily through time as he can through space, I mean, I’m assuming we’re both just taking that for granted here. Isn’t there a little bit of romanticism if you read Descartes very closely, or when you’re sleepy? And if you read around him in a spiral, touching a maelstrom around his snoring body, brushing back the curtain? Durs Grunbein would agree with me, and the cleaning woman he seduced with his lumpy lips and poodly hair. Probably, and the sailors on the ship who thought he was a warlock. Descartes’ astral form has hands, as a legal fiction, and we can suppose him moving his hands in precise figures to enact different magical effects.
It’s particularly easy to imagine a ghost moving around in city streets when it’s raining and the streets are empty. I can posit Descartes’ astral form turning into gas and pouring down someone’s throat at Huntingdon station and expanding and contracting in their lungs to make them laugh. And other people waiting for the train turn and look at this person cracking up in the middle of the station and don’t say anything in particular. And Descartes is a room-temperature fluid in the lungs of any given person in any given subway station in a city somewhat emptied out by gross weather. He’s an accident inhabiting a form and making it multiple. Does that make sense? Or he’s a wet sub-sound making rapid oscillations from an air-conditioner.
Or he’s a silver balloon that describes a passage through a house with all it’s doors open—that looks aleatoric to me but follows invisible conditions, and visits station by station until its rounds are consummated.
Hey, wait, you say, how do I know all this? Suppose that instead of writing all of this in real time, as soon as I noticed the rain and the silence of room temperature I turned into a fine mist and passed beneath the fine holes in the window screen and floated down the street to Huntingdon station, and passing back into a bodied-shape I snuck behind an aluminum bench and crept down on my hands and knees and hid beneath it, covering my body with a newspaper and furtively spying on Descarte’s eerie transit through Philadelphia. And suppose that I caught him in a bottle and plugged it up with a lid, and have him on my desk making panicked faces around the room? Does that seem realistic to you, or plausible in the context of this poem? When you think of my elbows and knees, are they damp from the station, and smeared with dirt? Do you read my poems and think, ‘what a powerful and enigmatic figure!’ Do I become a weird edifice like Charles Olson or, like Ezra Pound to a particular generation, a sad dim ghost with shackled powers? Or do I, rather, not become an edifice? Am I being presumptuous? Do you think of my elbows and knees at all?
This blog has laid dormant for long stretches of time this summer, which I feel weird about. I’d like to sheepishly apologize to anyone who has been waiting for an update these past few weeks, or who has begun following me in this banal interregnum.
The situation is, basically, that I’ve been working on a very long serial poem, which has fluctuated from 200 pages to its current, leaner, 75-odd at my latest revision, and shows no sign of being finished. I tend to feel odd about posting works heavily-in-progress here, and I’m also hesitant to put up very long pieces, knowing a thing or two about the attention span facilitated by tumblr as a medium. I’ve also been on vacation in Vermont and dealing with moving back from Maine to Philadelphia. (and reading a lot— a lot— and trying to digest a lot of that reading)
So, I’m sure I’ll be returning to shorter form stuff as the semester kicks off again in a few weeks, and in the mean-time I’ll just remind you all that my ask-box is always open for questions or comments.