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Bleed Through by Michael Davidson

Bleed-Through-375x515Bleed Through
by Michael Davidson
Coffee House Press, Dec 2013
256 pages / $17.95  Buy from Coffee House or Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Perhaps having power is like having images.” If the concentration of images behaves gravitationally, then may we be approaching a point of collapse? Sure are a lot of pictures out there these days. The basic law of structure formation in the universe is collapse. And perhaps ‘having’ images is an affliction linked to memory, that trick of consciousness which allows humans to substitute pronouns like me and I, us and you, into the visions that bubble up during the increasingly rare moments during which one is not in a state of interface. It seems we have ever more such ‘moments’ to cope with. One inverse outcome of the surveillance state is we now have a population which is pumping images into circulation as never before. Michael Davidson’s career retrospective Bleed Through resists this proliferation as a collection and yet accedes, on a poem-to-poem basis, to the idea that even an initially smooth distribution of matter will fall in upon itself. Images are conflated with words, and disintegrate from line to line, blurring across the sparsely punctuated sentences, as in Ready to Hand:

…it feels like ochre, a middle
in which a memo

is written, black crows
perch on the ledge
a small man below
becomes an object

and I seize it, it
comes off in my hands
like a handle
where there had been an intention

not to hurt
but to effect change
I wrote out the words
as though placing my hands

on a throat
it felt soft
and the blood was familiar
like middle C…

Davidson is well aware of a kind of useful violence latent in the process of reference as a professor of English, but in his poetry he seems to allow himself a moment of reflection. The title suggests that whatever is released by trying to grasp a scene, thing, or person is vital residue, but that the writing itself is in one sense confinement of the energy that suffuses the subject. Confinement here is a communal condition, and materializes as poetry, as criticism, and as image, in ways that are transparent about leaving something out. The ‘leaving something out’ is critical to allowing the subjects room to breathe an air of impossibility, which is what makes these poems semblances of life as a professor. A group of new poems is called ‘Bad Modernism’, scenes ‘between rationalism and whatever is left out’. The subjects that dwell here, in the most recent poems, generally resist being totalized, by way of their gentle intrusions into, and unexplained exits from, the world of each poem. While Davidson’s poetry is often grouped with the language movement, this is probably a bit inaccurate. While sometimes upending grammarians and often explicit about the pitfalls of language, a lyric relationship is still often present, if immaterial. His major output has been criticism, not poems, over the last decade, and this collection, although this collection is hailed as ‘A book we have needed for a very long time‘. I don’t think there’s any literature vital to our survival as a species, but I’m a pessimist unlike Ron Silliman. A grouping of things –systems, signs, speakers– will eventually not exert enough pressure outwards in aggregate to support its superstructure, and this is when collapse is imminent.

The collection spans thirty-five years of poetry, and narrows the work down to a single volume, so it is a well-contained environment. The distribution of the pronouns he uses changes as the reader moves from the older to the newer books, and recently the second-person singular has populated like wildfire in zones that used to be by and large by a first-person, and permutations of the third person. One of Davidson’s new and previously unpublished poems, The Friend, closes when “even the pronoun is laced with lime / as you pack it, ball and powder, / into a long gun, fire / and the report knocks you dead.” The friend in question turns away from the I, and dances gavottes on his back with his wife, turning the narrator into a piano of doubt. But the piano starts to sound like the same melodic register after some time. The same philosophical problems are sounded out via collage. Sometimes sounds of the program of inclusivity and access, sometimes reports that knock someone dead, but always the distant thunder of personal catastrophe bound up with the language of violence and questions about reference, as in the chilling ‘Before the Event’:

In the sex light
he meant a street lamp
she glowed over roiling water
spread along a passage

from him to her
in the street the cars
rolled along the pavement,
he thought

to point her out
among the stars
her womb a cup
his cock the handle

simple blackness
with a plan
like a man about to
mean something.

This poem displays a high correlation between sexual violence and some of the essential components of anglo-american language philosophy which has risen to power in the academy in the aftermath of Wittgenstein. Davidson’s objections to the way of living prevalent in the current academic labor force are present in different ways throughout the collection, although he has been affiliated with UC-San Diego in some capacity for over 30 years. Language poetry at its worst draws attention to its own ineffability while lording the power of the maker in a snide, academic way.There exists no image that contains the pain of having one’s home ravaged by a storm. But one can have so-called ‘philosophical’ interests and admit to being powerless before them. Language poetry at its best seems to perform a collapse of the rules of its system for a user of the language. Davidson’s work is filled with such moments of open vulnerability before the operations of the various systems. After one listens to so much loud music, deafness falls, but once everything is pictured what will become of the shadows?

If the poet’s home is in sound, Davidson is a prodigal to that place. These poems show little concern with their oral representation, but are also scant of image. Sometimes I think, in the future humans will believe that we are had by representation, that it is an organism feeding off our energy, and not that we can be signified into value through its medium. One image in particular seems to betray the possibility: the first photograph capturing earth from the moon. Representation, as an animal, always wants more, and it has science, art, and politics on its side. Davidson’s poetry creates an environment of skepticism around global terms, and brings a lyric voice into historical. In these poems communication and circulation is embedded in space and relations between bodies, while abstraction is mocked and aligned with youthful ignorance in the first ‘Bad Modernism’, which begins:

and there’s plenty to be unhappy about
if I can just get the reception area festooned
in time for their arrival, paper cups
and those little plastic whatsits so that,
gorged on meaning,
they troop through the glass doors
seeking interpretation, first floor
mildly historical, second floor
desire matrix, parents accompany
their indiscretions straight
to the penthouse and someone
hands them a phone…

A bleak portrait of the state of the youth. The ‘I’ begins the poem without time to be unhappy, and is gradually eroded by the work of festooning a reception area for partygoers, who demand history and interpretation among other things. At the last moment the second-person juts into the poem, and it closes “ the smell you smell afar / is something boiling over.” There is a twinge of concern for the environment in the newer poems, although they still mostly operate within cityscapes, oblique but identifiable by landmarks and the occasional proper noun. Bleed Through bears the mark of struggle of writing poems and the violence latent in the revision of the categories embedded in the way one comes to terms with the world.

***

CJ Morello is a poet from Chicago. His work is forthcoming in Gigantic magazine. Find him at cjmorello.com or @siegethethird on twitter.

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