long past the presence of common
by j/j hastain
Say It With Stones, 2011
87 pages / $12 Buy from Say It With Stones
by Trey Sager
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011
28 pages / $10 Buy from UDP
This week I went to an art museum showing contemporary work by two gay male artists. The two exhibits were chosen to put the pair in conversation with each other: Donald Moffett, who worked with Act-Up in the eighties, and Glen Fogel, who was born in 1977. I wandered through the exhibits looking at the projected paintings, arms emerging from holes, wedding rings and re-painted love/hate letters. Afterwars, I walked outside into the cool autumn air and sat down in the sculpture garden next to the museum. I’d been trying to make time to read j/j hastain’s new book long past the presence of common, and I finally had made the perfect moment. The sun was setting through the trees, the air was warm enough.
I started with the blurbs, this strange apparatus that tells us something about the poems before we experience the poems. I re-discovered something I already knew about j/j’s work: that it was, at least at on some level, dealing with gender politics and liberation. Brenda Ijima said the new book was “emancipatory writing” and Kevin Killian said, “If you are looking for a book of avant-garde poetry with a revolutionary dimension, you would do well do take this book to heart.” Grand statements, yet I made a note to take time with the book, since I do trust the recommenders.
And then I read the poems. I found myself alternately intrigued, confused, drawn in, adrift and then in some prose sections flooded out by a high tide of theoretical terms and declarative sentences. A discomforting and yet compelling mix. I was left wondering what exactly was happening in lines like: “each meta bliss that is being attenuated turned into an applicable cavern” or “This project is a promulgating document of sounding.” The challenging mix of an exceedingly large vocabulary with complicated ideas of cyborgian genders and distopian love meant I was left sometimes grasping at straws.
The poems seemed difficult to me, difficult like Charles Bernstein talks about difficult poems: normal, not popular, hard to read and “like this because of their innate makeup.” I reminded myself it wasn’t me, it was the poem. I let Bernstein remind me that, “No poem is ever really difficulty free. Sometimes working out your difficulties with the poem is the best thing for a long-term aesthetic experience and opens up the possibilities for many future encounters with the poem.” Moving beyond a flippant judgment of whether the work is good/bad or I like it/I don’t like it, I wanted to cultivate a long-term aesthetic experience with these poems, negotiating the radical conceptual project at the heart of hastain’s work.
So, I am willing to work on my difficulties with the poems of j/j hastain because I want to know what j/j is doing. I want to engage, not step back. And I am fully aware that I’m not sure what pronoun to use and so I think I will just use j/j. j/j identifies as trans / genderqueer in numerous spots on the web, and I don’t think I’ve seen j/j use a pronoun. Maybe the poetry itself reveals something on this point, as j/j writes, “perhaps I could rant better if a pronoun felt safer to me.”
So after I read j/j’s book I felt like I had all of this apparatus around the book, saying how important it was, how revolutionary it was and how emancipatory it was, but the poems seemed a bit hard, sometimes slippery and difficult to pin down. And a poem probably should be difficult to pin down. And, now that I mention it, why would anyone ever actually want to pin down a poem? It sounds like I would be wrestling the poem and finally I’d slam it down on the mat and I would win. And this seems like some kind of masculinist trope for poem-reading, and it doesn’t seem right at all.
Later that night, after attending a reading of local writers and an art fair opening party, I was making my way to bed, when I was forced to stop because my roommate had taken over the bathroom. I had a moment so I pulled my copy of Dear Failures by Trey Sager off the shelf. Months ago, I’d displayed its gorgeous letter-press cover with its front out on my shelf because I was so enamored with its look, yet I had not actually opened it.
I was feeling melancholy after a not-so-productive day of trying to write and coming up short. I was looking for some kind of solace, and the title seemed like an invitation to sulk and so I opened it. And the poems bowled me over. The first poem begins:
I wrote your suicide note from the perspective of a tree.
In that classic of defences,
it seemed like a good idea at the time.
One is the thing one destroys,
or wants to destroy.
Everyone is everything is nothingness, so say my Buddhist friends.
I think the idea was too obtuse to handle.
These poems are open and airy, breezy and colloquial, easy and rewarding to first reads. They seemed clear, straightforward, accessible. They had moments of lyrical beauty, small epiphanies dotted throughout and they work as distinct poems (with titles and defined boundaries and sizes). I was instantly comforted by the poems. Yes, I felt comforted. I even took them to bed with me and fell asleep reading them.
hastain’s book on the other hand is full of poetry that demands attentiveness and delivers no easy epiphanies. As I’ve re-read the book though, I’ve noticed its erotic joy in lines like this one:
don’t you come down
you hold yourself up’
The poems (and the erotic energy) flow forward, mainly without titles or any pre-defined boundaries. Occasionally, there are some dividers at the tops of pages: asterisks or multiple parentheses or the word “Scene” introducing the prose / theoretical / declaratory / essay sections. Something about the way these various parts jostle together makes them unruly and unrepentantly prodding. The onward flow of the poems rewards multiple readings, and they definitely come alive after a second or third trip.
hastain quotes Tatsumi Hijikata: “I feel extremely at ease when my inner self is not recognized even by myself.” j/j is continually “trying to show” in the book and yet, I’d argue, in the most powerful moments, continually stepping back from reaching a totalizing description or self. Continually emerging and continually pulling back. There’s a sense that the writing is consciously performing the contradictions and juxtapositions of the body: “how the body is the scroll for speaking the body.” hastain is involved in “this exigent work to create neoteric liberties–through ways and methods that are not related to formerly prescribed shapes that are based in binary or limit!” Honestly, I’m less interested in these totalizing or exclamatory moments in hastain’s work (in other places in the book, we see “our enjoin is the offered pronoun / for the development / of new entireties”), because they feel prescriptive in an anti-prescriptive kind of way. But I appreciate these sections because I feel hastain reaching for transformation, for a different way of moving and being embodied in the world; however, I find the more disjunctive parts, the less declaratory parts more open and inviting. Parts like this:
I feel that black street contour and the rain that vivified it wholler
we are now this type of quality in me
all claiming yet unable to be
hastain is mining childhood here, the sensual details of a road in the rain, playing with vocabulary and a shifting location in time, detailing a need to project selfhood and existence of self. In the end though, there’s a sense of yearning in these poems, a drive for transformation coupled with a lingering sense of impossibility.
Sager’s work is completely committed to the beautiful failure, poetically and emotionally. I found out after reading more on-line about Sager and listening to a reading he did at the Bowery on PennSound that each one of these poems is a letter written to a failed poem, a poem that didn’t quite make it as a poem (in his judgment). Like in hastain’s work, there’s a continual emerging and a continual pulling back. Sager is often funny and (at least superficially) light, yet there are deeply melancholic moments that I find beautiful:
but I haven’t gone, I’m too afraid.
“Your successes you get to share with the world,”
my friend Lee once told me, “but your failures, those you get to keep.
Your failures are yours.”
Trey Sager talks a lot about his failed experiments with language, the procedures and processes to which he subjects language. He mainly discusses these experiments as he talks to the failed poems; he talks about making list of nouns to build a poem, making lists of phrases with the word love and then deleting the word love to make a love poem and doing an “opposite translation” of a T.S. Eliot poem. He sees all of these other poems as failures and decides leaves them out. I’m left wanting to see the “original failures” (maybe another book called The Original Failures? Come on, Ugly Duckling, you can do it!) And yet, Sager is out there, not after meaning exactly, but after descriptions of these failed experiences of making meaning, of “trying to show” and coming up short.
This resonates with a section from hastain’s book:
the way that these languages are inherentlyslanted
yet worth lifetimes of attempt
Each of these books both invites and defends, accepts and demands, provoking reverberations of meaning and potential interpretations. Despite my initial responses, I don’t think either one of these books is “easier” or more “difficult” than the other. I think each book asks the reader to spend some time in thought, in contemplation. Each one asks us to meditate on the attempts and the failures. They both seem to be one thing at first glance, but deepen and complicate themselves after further engagement.
But I also don’t want to fall into the trap of making these two books out to be the same. They aren’t. They are very different. But then, as soon as I set out to delineate their differences, I begin to think I am establishing binaries and I remember hastain’s entreaty from one of the more essay-like sections:
And this is what this essay is about: making contact, instead of immediately establishing of binaries. And yet, my brain tends to set up categories: cisgender vs. trans, straight vs. queer, accessible vs. difficult, New York School-ish vs. L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E-ish, sincere vs. guarded, open vs. closed. I agree with hastain that we should refuse these binaries, since they ultimately shut down more thinking than they produce.
In the end, while initially seeming difficult, hastain’s book yields to a plethora of interpretations on further examination: a rhythmic, rigorous process of transmogrifying gender constraints, language and the liberatory potential of erotic interactions. Sager’s book seems initially straightforward and affective, but then also reveals complications, silences and contradictions: pain and longing, silence and defeat. The poems are often in conversation with his therapist, in addition to the failed poem, and often end with melancholy tones, like the ending of Dear Me. The poet ascends a mountain with his sisters and attempts to spread the ashes of their late mother on a mountain:
of my mother’s ash into the air,
the wind spit her dust back at us, onto our faces and hair,
and into our open mouths.
There is an echo of this experience of death mixing with the living also at the end of hastain’s book:
living is what we vowed to […]
which requires types of death but is never the death of
any of our most
It’s strange to see how the process of writing this essay has resulted in finding all kinds of echoes, reverberations and common structures of feeling in the two books. Initially, I was focused on how wholely different the two books were. But after actually reading and re-reading them, thinking and re-thinking them and writing and re-writing this essay, I’ve come to conclusions very different from my initial impressions. This essay has become a habitat where these two books (which may otherwise never have met) seep into one another, smear against one another, breaking down some old, clunky binaries in the process. And I’m reminded that this is why I’m committed to writing, because otherwise I don’t know how to think at all.
John Pluecker is a writer, interpreter, translator and teacher. His work has been published by journals and magazines in the U.S. and Mexico, including the Rio Grande Review, Picnic, Third Text, Animal Shelter and Literal. He has published more than five books in translation from the Spanish, including essays by a leading Mexican feminist, short stories from Ciudad Juárez and a police detective novel. There are two chapbooks of his work, Routes into Texas (DIY, 2010) and Undone (Dusie Kollektiv, 2011). More at johnpluecker.blogspot.com.