When I first tried to review Personae, I did a bad job, in that I couldn’t do anything but say complicatedly positive things about it. I kept asking myself, what results from praise heaped onto the author, in conversation or in the internets? Does this put food in anyone’s mouth? Does it save a human life? Does it even make a life incrementally better? Certainly not mine. In turn, I find myself asking, what is the goal of a review? To just ‘manically implore’ people to read the book? To provide the critical nuance that distances and individualizes my reading from that of others? To just geek out for a long time and ‘raise awareness’ of an author who my tiny mind thinks merits attention? I hope not any of the above, but I’m left without a good answer. All I want is to point at some facts about my affinity for Sergio de la Pava’s first two novels.
I think his first two books can be presented together despite their glaring differences in tone, form, and narrative approach, and that presenting them together makes them more than the sum of their parts. Much like Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, where a pair of volumes give both sides of the same moral problematic two faces of the common currency of life in our epoch. Towards the end of A Naked Singularity, an exchange is punctuated by a memo from a jail is perhaps the most infuriating and heartrending moment in the book, and betrays a deeper interest in form. The text of the letter has been copied, re-used, and had names of inmates impersonally inserted into it’s sentences on countless occasions, leaving them incarcerated even after their deaths, in the forms which serve as the only record of their existence.
Seeing the final form-letter, without even reading the words there, opened a valve inside me – I cried the entire day and wasn’t even finished with the book. Some summer campers observed me as a curiosity, weeping and furiously turning pages. Though I would go on to the end of the book, everything else seemed to swirl around that exasperating moment of intrusion. What I can say about Personae is that it is indeed a novel, but comprised of stories, plays, allegories, and translations, and with a plot that hovers above the text itself. Together they exhibit some of the superstructure of an epochal conflict between positivist and skeptical thought, one that has gone on much longer than the war on drugs. Since I am not in a position to review it, I decided to ask Sergio for an interview, which he granted.
Read the interview below:
CJ Morello: Hi there. So i heard the PEN Talking Transitions panel the other night where writers and other folks were given the chance to give recommendations to the incoming administration of NYC about how to ensure that NYC remains at the center of the scene of literary production. Your response was distinctly out of keeping with other answers, and you addressed the problem of incarceration. Would you like to elaborate on that a little bit?
Sergio de la Pava: Look, I like art, I like poetry, I love the novel, I love literature,I wouldn’t have devoted a substantial portion of my life to creating novels if I didn’t, but in that context, if I am nominally, allegedly addressing an incoming administration, that is a political situation. That is not an appropriate time for me to ignore what is the plight of indigent and marginalized members of New york City. I don’t think I was talking out of score in the sense that I warned them, look, if you’re going to invite me to this thing, I know that the subject of the evening is supposed to be encouraging the artistic prominence of New York City or whatever, that’s not what I’m going to address in any way. I’m going to address specifically what I made reference to, that crime has declined significantly in this city and really throughout the entire country, and I mean serious crime, burglary, robbery, has gone down drastically in this city and in many other places. Somehow contemporaneous with that fact, arrests rose 20% during the Bloomberg administration. So the idea was to hopefully begin a dialogue, though in that limited context there was no way to address such a complex issue, other than to bring up that anomaly in the hopes that you might cause some people to wonder how exactly we can justify such an inapposite result.
CJ: I hope some people did. There are some crimes we do want to see curtailed and prosecuted, especially violent crimes with deadly weapons. I grew up in Chicago, and there we have more problems than we can reliably handle, especially on the south side. So how do you explain that?
SP: Well I think with the Chicago situation you’re probably not even seeing decrease in crime, you’re seeing the result of decades of the evisceration of these communities through these draconian laws and the selective enforcement of drug laws. So what you’re seeing in Chicago, I’m not a sociologist, I’m not a criminologist, but what you’re seeing is the result of decades of neglect and even worse, active brutalization of these communities. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if you’re incarcerating an incredibly high percentage of people who look a certain way and live in certain neighborhoods, the effects on those neighborhoods are going to be stark. That’s not what were seeing in New York City, we’re seeing a massive decline in things like homicides, and gun-related offenses. So what we are seeing in New york City is certainly different than Chicago, in that what we have going on is the redefinition of the very concept of crime. So the attitude that policing has taken in this city has been to keep arresting as many people as and bring down the barrier to what constitutes a crime. The problem with that is, no matter what ultimately happens with the case, it turns out it’s a really bad thing to be arrested. It is really bad for your ‘career’ lets call it, it’s really bad for your status in society. Even if you never spend more than a day in jail before your release, it’s a really bad thing to end up with a criminal record. That’s pretty clear-cut. And there’s been a movement recently to essentially ban the asking of that question when you’re applying for jobs and things like that. The bottom line is once you get tagged with a criminal record in our society, it’s an uphill battle. And if you have a criminal record and you happen to be a minority, the research shows, there’s basically two strikes against you and it’s going to be difficult to overcome. So Chicago and New York seem to be on two different sides of the coin. What you are seeing in Chicago is basically a consequence of what you have happening in new york.
CJ: So we’re ahead of the curve.
CJ: To cap off the violence section of the interview, you’ve said you’re a fan of boxing but also that UFC is something you enjoy less. I never really watched many fights growing up but recently I was introduced to UFC through some friends in California. So what do you think the salient differences are in the two sports and where does your boxing allegiance come from?
SP: It seems to me that the average UFC fight ends much faster than the average boxing match. I think that the fights have a maximum of? Three or four? The championships go five. And the average boxing match can go on for twelve… I mean when you say I’m a huge fan of boxing, I’m very much intrigued by it, I have an ambivalent view towards boxing as well. In that I don’t like to see people get hurt, and that can become a substantial part of boxing. It certainly seems to be a substantial part of UFC. It could just be the prejudices of what you grew up watching, I grew up watching boxing, there was no such thing as UFC. I trained in martial arts before it was called UFC, when you picked an actual martial art. I understand that there can be beauty in UFC too, I guess what I like about boxing is the ebb and flow, and the prolonged dance between two athletes that will eventually tell me something about those two individuals. It seems to be harder to find in UFC, but I have many people who tell me I’m crazy, that UFC is far better. I agree that from a spectacle standpoint, UFC seems like it’s more likely to yield the kind of spectacular visuals that you might only see in boxing once every ten fights. So you may see a higher instance of those spectacular visuals, but thats not what I come to boxing for, I come to boxing to see the struggle of two wills, and though I recognize that is part of UFC too, the brevity of it, the sheer violence of it, for me makes me difficult to enjoy.
CJ: You said in another interview that we want the novel to be a highlight reel, not every play. The distillation or condensation of the elements that are important.
SP: So I think that context, the question was asking about what responsibility a novel has to ape life. And I think it has very little responsibilities to that. Take dialogue. If I tried to create dialogue that replicated the way people spoke, it would be intensely boring, a lot of um, it would be a lot of how’s the weather. Right off the bat a certain amount of the heightening of life is going to be necessary in something like A Naked Singularity. So the question becomes why you’re doing that and what effects it is you’re seeking to create. So I don’t take it as criticism when people tell me for example “The way people talk in your books isn’t the way they talk in real life.” So it’s like, do you find the way people talk in real life to be so enthralling? Well then you don’t need to pick up a novel. You have people taking to you all the time in real life.
SP: In other words when I sit down to write a novel, mimicing life perfectly, well it is not a documentary. And we know even a documentary really doesn’t do that. And whatever a novel is, and I don’t have the firmest grasp on what it is I’m trying to do, I think really low on the list of those things is replicating quotidian existence. And the flip part is, whenever I try to make a definitive statement related to this thing called the novel, I always find myself contradicting myself. And the truth of it is, there are parts in ANS that deal with the criminal justice system that really do attempt that, that strip away the artifice and the heightening, that really do give a view, a pretty accurate account of what it’s like to unmediatedly come into contact with a trial. But that’s about ten percent of it at most.
January 6th, 2014 / 12:00 pm
“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:
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’:
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,
to point her out
among the stars
her womb a cup
his cock the handle
with a plan
like a man about to
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?
December 23rd, 2013 / 12:00 pm