Nightboat Books


An Ethic by Christina Davis

9781937658090finalAn Ethic
by Christina Davis
Nightboat Books, March 2013
68 pages / $15.95  Buy from Nightboat Books or SPD








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.

Sphinx Hour

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.


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October 21st, 2013 / 11:00 am


25 Points: Radical Love

fannyhoweRadical Love
by Fanny Howe
Nightboat Books, 2006
627 pages / $19.95 buy from Nightboat Books or Amazon








1. While reading Radical Love I was living close to the ocean and swimming every day. One afternoon I was feeling sad so I swam out farther than usual, surpassing all of my customary stopping-points, until I was so far out that I suddenly doubted if I’d be able to make it back. I recognized in what I was feeling the preliminary symptoms of panic; racing heart, flushed cheeks, repetitive thoughts about the panic I was feeling which only succeeded in increasing the panic. I floated on my back, trying to breath steadily. The stretch of beach I’d walked on only minutes earlier was now impossible to approach, a landscape which in its brazen totality had become not only remote but imaginary.

2.  I realized that the ocean was terrifying because it was the opposite of lonely; it was abundant. By traveling so far from the shore I’d become an indistinguishable element of that abundance. The terror of my slow, lucid ego-death coupled with the necessity of moving my legs to keep myself alive was a stronger feeling than any kind of loneliness I’d ever experienced.

3. I arrived at Fanny Howe through an interview she did with Kim Jensen of Bomb Magazine.

4 . In the interview she describes her poetics as a reaching towards the ungraspable, the fragmentary, the bewildering. Her preoccupation is with the bentness of time. The freakish all-possible of moments, the vastness of living in simultaneity. How can two people be in two places at the same time? Or: How do we express actions occurring simultaneously?

5. There is a rare precision to her words. They scrape softly and insistently at a very particular feeling. In feeling it for the first time I realized it was a feeling I had always felt. A familiar estrangement. Like seeing a stranger in a dream for the second time.

6. The feeling is intimate with the abject. Between subject and object, the barely separate, like a limb cast-off or a corpse. It follows that many of the subjectivities in her novels are displaced and marginal; madwomen, children, monks. Kristeva writes that the abject inherently exists apart from the symbolic order of language, as a trauma irreconciliable with subjecthood. Fanny Howe makes a language for which abjection is immanent (a new subjectivity?)

7. A Sensual Metaphysics. There’s a body-depth to her narratives, a sense of being weighted, but not weighed down.

8. “She went to the caravan on her sister’s black bike through the dark and felt this way the happiness of being a hard sea animal that machines its way gracefully through the ecstatic interiors of the outside world.”

9. “She began to harden with the first baby. A firm heel slid across the palm of her hand, under her navel, now like a moonsnail with a cat’s eye at its apex. Her wastes, and the baby’s, moved in opposite directions from the nutrients. Her breasts tightened to tips of pain. She entered her psyche daily on rising…”

10. How do you write from inside madness? Most accounts of people going insane seem to come from after or outside psychosis, stressing the role of narrative as a stabilizing and ultimately redemptive exercise. In these texts there is more of a return to madness through narrative. No one is saved and everyone is ecstatic. READ MORE >

September 26th, 2013 / 2:37 pm