Negative Review: The Claudius App
September 16, 2013
Sep 16, 2013
11 Min read time
Visitors to the latest issue of The Claudius App, an online “journal of fast poetry,” will discover an aerial view of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan composed in the original 1989 edition of SimCity. Funds: $0. The tri-color meter in the bottom left-hand corner indicates that commerce and industry are thriving, but lo!—residential zones are not. Suddenly, a little square of flame appears in Williamsburg or the Financial District. It takes about a minute for the entire city to burn down. Click where a building used to be and you might find Drew Gardner’s “On Fire”:
Do you smell something burning?
The eye is burning. Imps are on fire in my mind.
I know things. I was in an array.
A kind of recession was happening.
Pleasant or painful, not painful, nor pleasant,
the striking visuals make a scene.
Using stuff up. Consuming.
What does it mean for an online poetry journal to invite you in through a NY-centric hot apocalypse presented by an outmoded simulation program from the 1980s? Such negativity is a far cry from the state-of-the-art fire-breathing Trent Reznor plans to burn the Barclays Center with this fall. Here, the obsolete game-as-medium lights its fires with the levity of camp. Its “new aesthetic” texture makes a tragicomic figure for contemporary poetry: an anachronistic genre of gaming while Rome burns—or dreaming Rome might burn, while in fact the empire goes on using stuff up outside as usual, pleasant or painful, awful but cheerful, the deflector shield quite operational when your friends arrive.
Each of the five issues Claudius has released thus far glows with the same sort of ludic negativity. Much of this spirit manifests in their design, which playfully (and to my mind, beautifully) impedes the fluid browsing experience other online magazines try hard to produce. The first issue features a gray bar occluding a line of text in the center of the screen, maintaining its position in the center of your browser in spite of any attempt to scroll away from it. The second rolls out its table of contents scrambled together TMI-style with phrases from its poems and names of authors. The fourth asks you to navigate via a picture-perfect appropriation of the Poetry Foundation’s iPhone app. These design features, courtesy of Ian Hatcher and “Jacqueline Rigaut” (a relative, perhaps, of a Dadaist poet who shot himself through the heart as a career move), seem designed to entice the curious and deflect anyone expecting easy access.
The content of the magazine follows in this spirit, most explicitly in its ever-negative reviews—of poetry, “Rap Genius,” other online magazines, other negative reviews. In the latest issue, click on the menu marked “DISASTERS” and you’ll find attacks on John Ashbery’s latest volume, Triple Canopy’s recent capital campaign, VanessaPlace Inc’s incorporation, and a much circulated feminist critique of Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl.
I first heard of The Claudius App when its editors, Jeff Nagy and Eric Linsker, asked me to write a negative review of a book I had already reviewed elsewhere with, so I thought, a minimum of praise or blame. I’d like to honor the spirit of their request and magazine by going negative on the negative review.
To my mind, the notion that negative reviews are a dialectical antidote to the vague praise and careerist back-patting often found in poetry reviews is founded on a mistake. There is no good reason to think that negative reviews are ipso facto any more honest, more intelligent, freer of strategy, instrumentality, or profit-motive than positive reviews. Negative is not the same as critical. The negative reviewer is shrewd enough to moneyball the marketplace: he understands that in an economy rife with praise-inflation, vitriol can code as honesty, and ridicule may seem refreshing because it is so rare. His operation risks devolving into spectacle. The idea that negative reviews should be more “honest” or “refreshing” than positive reviews is symptomatic of the fantasy that there might be a place where the dynamics of economy and careerism are suspended, and the voice of truth can pour forth undiluted by ulterior motives. The main problem with negative reviews is that they’re too similar to positive reviews. The poetry criticism I admire most spends less time praising or blaming—which often amounts to leveraging the reviewer’s cultural capital and verbal virtuosity to muscle readers into assimilating that reviewer’s taste—and more time describing and contextualizing with intelligence and gusto. Of course, no reviewer could ever remove his taste or politics from his descriptions; the very choice of an object for attention is a function of such things. But I think we’d all learn a lot more about what’s happening in poetry if reviewers leaned less heavily on overt statements of aesthetic judgment, positive or negative, and more on close analysis.
Having said that, I should add that Claudius’s reviews tend to be more thoughtful and playful than the ideal type I’ve posited above. In Nikki-Lee Birdsey’s “Doubting the Bunny: on Heather Christle,” the spectacle of takedown takes a backseat to meticulously close attention. Anne Boyer’s pyrrhic evisceration of Josef Kaplan’s Democracy is not for the People is so loaded with ad hominem assaults and fun-filled vitriol that the savvy reader may smell a whiff of praise (and better yet, analysis) in condemnation’s clothing, a double-negative review:
Josef Kaplan’s teenage dream should end. He should feel bad about himself. I automatically assume he is ugly. He should worry about his sexual magnetism. He knows how malleable the human mind can be, and those who he persuades with this book are only identifying themselves as weak-minded. It happens to everybody. They look a person in the eye and the next thing you know, they burn Mark Twain, W.H. Auden, Charles Bernstein, and Clare Booth Luce. I’m not even sure what they could possibly mean by this. . . Kaplan’s nihilism was juvenile, and his point—I must admit, I never found that. I suppose Althusserian anti-humanism was similarly incomprehensible in the 1970s, but this is more like a death quiz.
I hesitate to make blanket statements about what sort of “fast poetry” Claudius publishes; it’s hard to imagine a magazine admitting both Vanessa Place and Mark Levine as having easy-to-locate aesthetic coordinates. To be sure, Claudius avoids what Marjorie Perloff has derided in these pages as the “delicate lyric of self-expression and direct speech,” and the “sepia-toned, nostalgic Alternaworld of tea drinkers, telephone conversations, and diction that opts for belly instead of stomach” that Birdsey finds in Christle. Claudius is no stranger to Althusserian anti-humanism. They’ve published many of my favorite discoveries of the past few years, including Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Ariana Reines, Anthony Madrid, Ben Lerner, Catherine Wagner, Dana Ward, Cecilia Corrigan, and more.
Of course, most of the poets I’ve just named can be found all over the place in the hot young journals of Brooklyn and beyond. But Claudius distinguishes itself as one of the few American publications with any nose for the Marxist lyric efflorescence taking place right now among the younger generation of poets in the U.K. scene affiliated with what has been called the “Cambridge School.” Those of you not familiar with this efflorescence should drop what you’re doing and watch this recording of Keston Sutherland reading Hot White Andy—which, when I first saw it, did to me what I can only guess The Waste Land must have done to readers raised on Tennyson or Longfellow. Sutherland is one of the most influential figures in this burgeoning community, which has thus far received relatively little attention from critics and journals in the United States. (For notable exceptions, see the 2009 New British Poetry issue of the Chicago Review, the summer 2012 issue of Fence, and the recent special issue of Damn the Caesars, Crisis Inquiry.) Claudius has twice brought Sutherland into dialogue with his U.S. west coast counterparts, first in a virtuosic exchange with Geoffrey G. O’Brien on each poet’s long-form prose poetry, and more recently in an amorous debate with Joshua Clover on “Poetry and Revolution.” In the magazine’s archive, you’ll find many poets from Sutherland’s milieu: Joe Luna, Marianne Morris, Josh Stanley, Simon Jarvis, Danny Hayward, Francesca Lisette, Frances Kruk, Justin Katko, Luke Roberts, and others. At the risk of forcing the complex into the simple, I’ll say that this community has committed itself to writing an anti-capitalist and often highly sexualized lyric—a kind of poetry that rarely strays far from thinking the depredations of global capitalism in explicitly politicized and sexually explicit terms, while insisting on attaching to the verse resources and lyric affects that many poets affiliated with recent U.S. avant-gardes (LangPo, Conceptualism) tend to avoid.
I want to close with one poem I love that has emerged from this milieu, published in the latest Claudius. Listen to Connie Scozzaro’s “What Is Parents?” here, then go with me through it once more:
Sometimes we have to point
our willies down to avoid peeing
everywhere. You can’t get exasperated
or worried if sometimes it doesn’t work out.
Sometimes the TV is so engrossing you don’t
even realise you even need one. Big boy pants and
nappies are equal in having no value, I love
you all the same.
The first line sets us up for a claim about something “we” all have to do—grand gesture typical of lyric at its most confident—but the rest of the stanza deflates this gesture, pressuring us to hear that “we” as condescending euphemism: the address of a parent to a little boy in need of instruction and consolation regarding the mechanics of taking a piss. Such deflation makes me wonder how to take the expression of “love” at the stanza’s end. Is that love meant as consolation to the boy or reader who lacks the necessary skills for big boy pants? Or does loving “you all the same” mean loving you—in the plural—all equally, as if there were no difference in value among the many possible addressees that “you” could aim for? I love you all the same—meaning, not particularly. The next stanza addresses a much more particular love:
After this good work with something not mine,
I come home to you, we feed each other and laugh. I love you,
especially when we fuck really well, but probably
we fuck really well because I love you so much.
In the heart of the grass, a fountain rushes,
blood in the shape of a rose. For seconds
I understand birth, and the Incredible String Band
play their instruments
well. What is parents?
What are dreams? What is
working when you have no end for it
just today’s food in your belly and proof of address
for library cards, test results; do you have warm feelings
in your rented flat, is this the table you dreamed of,
is this paradise?
“After this good work with something not mine.” We’re not told what that something is; it could be any object of labor whose yield does not belong to its worker. Since “this good work” seems to involve potty-training little boys, I imagine the following situation: the speaker works as a parent for hire, giving her “love” to a child in exchange for money from those who, unlike her, can afford to pay for domestic labor they don’t have time or inclination to perform themselves. In this second stanza, the poem speaks of returning to what is likely a “rented flat” where a more reciprocal love awaits (“we feed each other,” “we fuck really well”). The ironical attitude of the first stanza modulates here towards an undefended expression of a loving affect. This moment of erotic mutuality, a little parenthetical of paradise, leads the poem to think about what kind of larger paradise is really possible when you are working interminably for an “end” or object more “rented” than yours, when a table in that rented flat—a downsized take on the white picket fence and two-car garage, the bourgeois promise of a commodious life—seems the upper limit of what your consumer-culture lets you dream. The poem ends like this:
Torment will find you always
like a cat coming home, you carry me
made of boulders on your back,
I do not feel strong. Your love mushrooms
in the distance, I can hear its collateral: Beloved
women are sometimes birds, sometimes tigers, sometimes
parrots, (parrots). Was Ibsen even good?
Terror blooms like a snakebite,
a dart between the breasts, I can’t stay away,
I water the struggling seeds and weep.
What is parents? My therapist is understanding, but most
people ask me why aren’t you happy
like they’re happy, their spirits bent in the shape of a
smile. Creeps, who haven’t noticed philosophy, or
that the heart is a domino, stacked in a line of many.
I love the distance between those things the putatively “happy” creeps, awful because cheerful, haven’t noticed: the vast abstraction of “philosophy” beside the small specific figure of the heart-as-domino, the enterprise of critical thought beside the muscle of feeling. The power I feel in this last sentence comes in part from the poet’s crossing that distance in a single breath—fast poetry—while stacking her lines with rhyme (happy/philosophy/many) and closing with a strongly anapestic rhythm. Think of the poem as a negative review of a life collaterally damaged by working without end, and by those others whose positive outlook fails to acknowledge what is harmed. This life is the reason Claudius wants to burn the city down. So much for warm feelings in your rented flat.
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September 16, 2013
11 Min read time