We live in an era of the performed self. Where ideology once hailed, Kim Kardashian now smiles. From reality TV to Facebook, from Snapchatting to every form of text- or image-based avatar, a sense of self—or, more precisely, senses of selves—depends on a technologically mediated audience for its/their existence. Yet the more this exhibitionism is transmitted via technology, the more it’s datamined, subjected to surveillance, snooped on—what’s at first innocently called “sharing.” This sharing is usually connected with something to sell, even if it’s a selling of self, while the civic modes of rhetoric are all shot through with profit. No wonder leisure time is in such short supply and represented by a sleep-deprived Miley Cyrus. But that’s because, ultimately, she doesn’t own anything, either.
The opening poem of Christina Davis’s An Ethic contains the apt observation, “only the long illusion we are landlord,” echoing a postcolonial ethics of learning to be a stranger in the place where you were born—non-nativist. When everything has been taken, and then taken away (Freud’s “fort/da” game without the “da”), it becomes the new categorical imperative of sorts to step out of this process. This isn’t a question of scarcity, because the world is already too much, which is why the mostly unconscious perceptual-ideological filters exist to keep it at bay. An Ethic speaks of an entirety, an enormity, and yet does so in a reticent language and sparse poems, as no matter how hard they try to enter this world fully, a shared world, a world shared before “sharing,” before you try to convince me that you have what I need, a nagging gnosticism haunts them. It’s the animals wearing crowns, but all crowns, as Sleigh Bells anthemically chant, get set on the ground.
I said to the man, “I do not know
if I am a good
or a bad.” He said, “To be a good person
you must first be a great animal.”
And so I let the crawl
come unto me.
This is when the body ceases to be a container, when the walls do fall, but only because of a proximity to death: the death of the/her father early in Davis’s book, the seeming destruction of everything when a home disappears, or bodies naked and craving a momentary extinguishing. An Ethic teeters on this abyss, with one foot pointed out of this world while the mother’s voice calls the subject back, or else it’s the words of surrogate fathers: Oppen, Eliot, Whitman, Seferis, Thoreau. In fact, I can’t remember a book of poetry filled with so many parental figures, as opposed to, say, the parents confessional poets like to complain about, which I think partially explains Davis’s reserve. “The father” only ever grudgingly gives permission to speak; “the mother” only ever provides an illusory shelter from the war, the war every father brings home from the war, the father as colony.
Yet the hesitancy in Davis’s language is also a precision in addressing the book’s fundamental concerns: not the outline of an ethic, but freedom and constraint, love (filial, erotic) and loss, the apparatus of power threaded through every aspect of life—down to the micro-bio—except for the thick grass that absorbs the corpse. It’s the wettest part of Davis’s at times eerily Dickinsonian poems that have clearly been chiseled, reworked, are almost flinty as a result of the time it takes to make them, a beautiful care and attention, which is an ethic of its own, the poem as impossible “grail- / stone,” because ethics are easy in space, and more difficult in time. Give me room, and I can be very good (which isn’t the same as well behaved); give me time, and I can be even better. But these days, everyone’s time is spent earning money just to pay the rent or buy a bigger flat screen TV. The entirety of Davis’s poem “Dissent” reads: “In the kingdom / of images, the blink // is the infidel—.” Post-Sphinx, Oedipus gouged out his eyes when he discovered that he had killed his father and slept with his mother. Those existing separate from the realm of myth only get to do one of those.
The somewhat surprising revelation at the end of Kafka’s brilliant parable “Before the Law” is how much the protagonist is responsible for his(/her) own predicament because throughout Kafka’s work absurdity—and worse—is so much larger than the individual, is systemic. This acknowledgment of our own involvement in the delusions we generate is a fundamental requirement not of an ethic, but any ethic. What are our complicities with the systems that ensnare us? Cages appear in a variety of forms in Davis’s book, as does deferment with its future reward, which is where it comes closest to what might be considered a traditional ethics. Yes, but ethics is the opposite of a withholding, which is what the whole Protestant approach got wrong, while, some would argue, simultaneously setting in motion the metaphysics for an obsession with acquisition. The poems in An Ethic wobble along an axis made of time and space loaded with death and the unknown, as Davis tries to find the right balance between holding on and letting go. That’s the most vital individualist ethics—Hīnayāna, Buddhists say.
In a related and equally pernicious form of the innocence of social media “sharing,” among the first commercials for online trading to appear on TV after the financial collapse of 2008 and the major banks’ complicity in those events featured a talking baby. How stupid do they think we are? LOL. I could outperform 90% of stockbrokers over the long haul by simply investing in a low-fee S&P index fund. So what are they doing with all that money, and why were they shouting “Get a job!” at Occupy Wall Street protesters in lower Manhattan when they’re the parasites making money—and just as frequently losing it—off of other people’s money? No wonder Davis writes, “There have been things I, / instead of time, / have all by myself destroyed”; no wonder Sun Ra said, “We work on the other side of time”; no wonder Baudelaire proclaimed “Anywhere out of the world” and waved a pistol at the barricades in 1848, threatening to shoot his father. Loss makes the ground feel shaky. An Ethics enacts, which isn’t quite the same as performs, its solidity.
Alan Gilbert is the author of two books of poetry, The Treatment of Monuments (Split Level Texts) and Late in the Antenna Fields (Futurepoem), as well as a collection of essays, articles, and reviews entitled Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight (Wesleyan University Press).