THE MALADY OF THE CENTURY
By Jon Leon
Futurepoem Books, May 2012
88 Pages / $16.00 Buy from SPD
In consideration of the work of Jon Leon, it is necessary to consider Jon Leon, the poet, simultaneously as an apostle and a construction. Anna Kaven (nee Helen Emily Woods) ended up, at a particular point in her career as a novelist, changing her name from that which she was born with to a name she had invented for a character in one her own books—Jon Leon has always simply insisted on living as a character in his work, as the character in his works.
There is a level of both the inter-textual and the extra-textual interaction present throughout his entire oeuvré; something that becomes apparent throughout his career. As Dan Hoy points out in his case-study of Leon, there’s a particular overlap of reality with a poetic construction of reality:
“We mixed agitprop, erotic dance, and horror to construct a total environment of focused bliss.” Jon Leon, Hit Wave
I’ll risk substituting tropes here and suggest the above sentence from Jon Leon’s Hit Wave could be taken somewhat literally as a nod to his overall objective (construct a total environment of focused bliss = enable and induce the experience of the impossible) and strategy (mixing agitprop, erotic dance, and horror = forming a triangulation of world, life, and nothingness).
The few reviews that I’ve bothered to read of Leon’s The Malady of the Century seem to locate its motivation in some sort of grotesque irony, a decadence, kitsch. This reading is a needlessly academic understanding of Leon’s work I think; a sort of insistent justification of the poetry as poetry for other poets. From Hit Wave:
I called TJ in the daytime, always before noon, to discuss with him the prospect of my gems, the possibility of elevating the word poetry to something with a little more suss. He alerted me to the fact that Poet’s Arcade was calling me “the world’s #1 non-academic poet.” “Poetry needs more readers and less writers” I told him. He agreed emphatically.
This is, perhaps, what Dan Hoy means when he tags his critical posts on the work of Jon Leon at Montevidayo with the tag “people who get it.” To read Jon Leon as poetry, to read it as kitsch, to read it as fiction, is to miss the point, to miss what’s exciting about it.
Intertextually, there is a world of overlap in Leon’s oeuvre. Hit Wave seems to be a core text (along with, I would say, Kasmir, which is not included as a part of The Malady of the Century) within the reality of “Jon Leon.” It maps out a career trajectory, and includes mentions of heaps of both chap-books and broadsides, texts. Some of these exist in the reality of our real world (as opposed to the reality of the diegesis of the text, where they all exist), and some of them might exist in the future. Hit Wave can be read as a structural guide, but then again taking it so literally might just be stupid.
Jon Leon’s career, thus far, has been based on a consecutive interest in a pure impossible glamour with the ephemeral, fleeting mobility of the invisible poet. Limited edition chapbooks released as PDFs of scans of text written on Hotel stationary pop up for sale and then disappear, never to be mentioned again. One of the chap-books included in The Malady…, which, as far as I know, never existed autonomously, is called Mirage—an utterly apt name for a fragment of Leon’s work. The contingency of Leon’s whole is fleeting. A crisis of faith, perhaps, lead to a limited edition cassette tape entitled “The Need to Exit the Self,”—which featured Leon recording himself musing on various things, crying, talking shit about Guyotat, and further—has disappeared from notice. The artist himself being in charge of his own website, constantly editing his own history. Is he lending himself to the idea of the artist-ghost, or has a dissatisfaction motivated this fluctuating body of work?
The nature of the texts lead us, as readers, to refuse to focus on technicalities, instead allowing the contingencies of what we know to feed us the gospel. And thus, I’d like to propose, perhaps, the existence of The Malady of the Century as a cipher to the first ‘movement’ of Leon’s gesamtkunstwerk. And by gesamtkunstwerk I mean reality.
Having read much of what’s collected in The Malady of the Century previously, albeit in disconnected bouts of encounters with black market copies, late night paypal transactions, and fugues of drunkenness, to revisit the works collected here in a single context, to read straight through, the trajectory is revealed.
The first line of the entire book tells us the only thing about Leon’s past we need to know:
A black God touched me today and I knew I was a poet.
The final poem of the book, ADULTS ONLY, completes, in its first manifestation, the entire life of the poet Jon Leon. The book is a life-story. There is both no outside and an absolute outside, suggested by uncollected texts such as Kasmir, The Hot Tub, Alexandra, The Painting Show, and more. Jon Leon is a poet of contingency. His poetry is the only poetry of realism—and of course, by realism we can’t even bother meaning ‘realist’ in a historical-literary sense, no, that’s too naïve. Leon is not a poet’s-poet, he is a man in the world, and so we have to understand realism as it’s defined by the speculative realists at the forefront of post-Kantian/correlationist thought. In discussing the work of Quentin Meillassoux, Alexander R. Galloway defines ‘realism’ as such:
“…realism means quite simply that an external world exists independent of ourselves and our languages, thoughts, and beliefs.”
[clearly an idea such as that given above cannot be defended within the context of a poetry review, to take up arms against such an idea is ostensibly refusing what's become an entire school of thought developed throughout the network of philosophers writing and working across the globe, Meillassoux's book working as an inspiring launching point which finally allows us to move into our future, outside of the iron-clad grip of critical theory which, through to its death, still insisted upon the idea that there is no outside]
So if Leon’s book is a cipher, what is it that is being decrypted? Well, there’s several levels to address this issue from. First of all, I would suggest that the book works to decrypt and linearize Leon’s entire oeuvre. It’s a concession from a pin-up artist, a collect-call made to the world as a whole that has, up until this point, been missing out. It’s a mode of putting Jon Leon outside of Jon Leon (whose oeuvre almost entirely consists of self-published works).
Secondly, Leon’s book is a cipher to the idea that poetry is an hermetic, antiquated form that finds presence only within a hyper-self-contained zeitgeist of myopic poets, whether inside or outside of academia. It’s a revelation: reality television is nothing when Leon’s poetry exists.
Finally, Leon’s book works as a cipher to the nature of the world as we understand it. Leon, in an oft-quoted line from Hit Wave says,:
Why would people sell themselves short and not just live the life of pure creative glamour.
If there is a message through all of this, it is as given.