Illustration by CL Martin.
 
Death and Disaster Series
Lonely Christopher

 

The question remains pressing for radically oppositional communities: How can the necessity of radical visionary utopianism be renewed in a culture that is narcissistically addicted to excess under capitalism? When our major attempts at political and social change are governed by social networking, our poètes maudits are as dashing and well-mannered as James Franco, and the micropolitics of queer subversion look more and more like American Apparel ads? In queer poetry, as I will briefly sketch, the problem can be traced through the writers in O’Hara’s lineage, who have opted either for a poetics of identity politics and vapid confession or a poetics of shallow and complacent irony, erasing any path of visionary separatism, while also leaving the détournement of radical artifice in the dust. The few who do attempt to follow the dark visionary path of John Wieners tend to lack the gumption and talent, or else give themselves over to a Hot Topic variety of punk that eliminates any counter-cultural significance. An unprecedented swerve out of this deadlock is twenty-seven-year-old writer Lonely Christopher’s new book of poems, Death and Disaster Series, which delivers a visionary radical poetics for the present.

• • •

 

In 1977, before Frank O’Hara was a well-regarded and canonized poet, Marjorie Perloff wrote the first comprehensive study on his work. Dealing not with his sexual orientation but rather with his radical poetics, Poet Among Painters placed O’Hara in the lineage of Apollinaire, Williams, Auden, and Pound, while also emphasizing his counter-dogmatic resistance to conventional poetries immediately around him. He didn’t fit into the raw, expanded field (Olson’s intensely willed overly significant breath, Levertov’s organic writings, Ginsberg’s howling, Williams’ sublime banalities) any better than the cooked, contracted field (Ashbery’s elegance, Pound’s pompous epics, Eliot’s precision, Stein’s complex paradoxes, or the controlled, pared-down language of Creeley). Instead, O’Hara had his own ‘field’ that was not, at least while he was living, a school.

Nonetheless, as Perloff notes in 1997, O’Hara’s reputation created at least one school after his death—most obviously, the New York School. But his work’s self-reflexive quality has allowed him to sit well with Language poets as well, who see artifice that acknowledges its own fabrication as a way to point to the splendorous but superficial and class-determined surfaces of American life. Such radical artifice can be read as a critique of the valorization of surplus wealth, as well as demonstration of the way that pretty, absorbing, and seamless language is implicated in that valorization.

Depthless is perhaps the most pervasive aesthetic register for camp and queer writings since O’Hara.

Yet another important reading of his work has viewed him as the precedent for gay male identity politics: the non-macho politics of the everyday coupled with the campy adoration of mass culture and high art. Social theorist Andrew Ross’s seminal essay, “The Day Lady Died,” published in 1989, jumpstarted this legacy:

O’Hara’s poetry rejects the big, global questions of politics and economics, even the big “artistic” questions of aesthetics. His is certainly not a heroic poetics of self-reliance or self-making in the transcendent, Emersonian tradition, nor does it make a pragmatic religion out of individualism, in the American grain. Instead it subscribes to the micropolitics of personal detail, faithfully noting down dates, times, events, feelings, moods, fears, and so on, and devoting a bricoleur’s disciplined attention to details in the world and in the people around him. O’Hara’s is a code of personal politics, which says that at some level you have to take responsibility for your own conduct in the everyday world and towards others; you can’t rely on organized politics or unorganized religions to change that. It is a code, which starts from what we find lying, unplanned, around us, rather than from achieved utopias of the body and mind.

Ross’s emphasis on fleshing out a banal world, the politics of everyday life, and making the personal political is the flipside of O’Hara’s use value to Language poetics and Perloff. But it is ultimately this view that tends to dominate O’Hara’s mainstream and academic reception, as well as his influence on second-generation New York School poets. Thus, Language poet Barrett Watten has dismissed the acolytes of O’Hara for ditching the investment in radical artifice detailed above, complaining that many followers of O’Hara have settled for vapid poems that follow the confessional formula of ‘I do this, I do that.’ This mode is in sharp contrast to the O’Hara who, as Perloff notes, eschewed confessionalism: his “major poems follow Romantic models but he almost always injects a note of parody, turning the conventions he uses inside out.” But for many New York School–ers the interruptive radicality of parodic self-consciousness would be subordinated to seamlessly absorbing confessions and self-righteous identity politics or cloudy, delicate, flowery lyric.

O’Hara is therefore a contentious cipher for two competing positions: one that insists that the confessional, affective, personal, lyrical, feminine, gay, queer, and quotidian are aesthetically interesting in and of themselves, and one that requires that aesthetic products have an ironic critical awareness of the nature of identity and other constructs mistaken for “natural.” Standing at the margins of this debate is the difficult and abject poetic sensibility John Wieners, who was never canonized quite the way O’Hara was, and was even removed from the recently revised Norton anthology of postmodern poetry.

In Perloff’s O’Hara book, she notes that Wieners and O’Hara were friends with much in common: “both loved to parody established genres; both wrote bittersweet lyrics, at once formal and colloquial, about homosexual love; both regarded all Movements and Manifestoes with suspicion.” Yet O’Hara’s legacy has far outweighed Wieners. To put it quite crudely, this is in large part due to O’Hara’s relationship to a large coterie that included, of course, the art world. Indeed, this builds interest in his work, and is why Perloff’s book is called Poet Among Painters. Moreover, although he may have had a disdain for poetry ‘movements,’ O’Hara’s parodic “Personism” manifesto has nonetheless set the standards for a kind of anti-dogmatic dogma that has influenced manifestos into the present, such as those of Flarf or Conceptual Poetry. Meanwhile, Wieners’s borderline hysterical emotionality and paranoia, often dismissively ascribed to his mental illness, is deemed unintelligible. As Andrea Brady notes, it is this “depth” that renders Wieners so different from O’Hara, whose writing so often reveled in the shallow and depthless facts of American life.

Indeed, depthless is perhaps the most pervasive aesthetic register for camp and queer writings since O’Hara. From the comedically light works of camp such as Wayne Koestenbaum to darkly punk works of Dennis Cooper, the depthless reigns large. Koestenbaum’s work resonates more with the incisive and smart irony of O’Hara but in Cooper’s work we find a more properly eighties version of irony: a vapid, complacent, and impotent cathexis to surfaces that eschews the radical irony of Watten. This newly complacent irony, which becomes a megastar in the academy (through Baudrillard), the art world (through “The Pictures Generation” artists), and pop culture (through MTV), has also remained an enduring precedent for avant-garde writings at large, as exemplified most fruitfully by poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s appropriations of banal cultural documents, which emerged in the early 2000s.

However, Goldsmith’s work could not succeed if it were merely empty and meaningless. Rather it seems to merge the meaningless and the meaningful in a way that fits the billing of Hal Foster’s concept of traumatic realism, exemplified by Andy Warhol (who is Goldsmith’s single biggest influence). Foster explains that Warhol’s brilliance lies in being at once, “referential and simulacral, connected and disconnected, affective and affectless, critical and complacent, [feeling and unfeeling].” Thus, Warhol realistically illustrates the mind of the traumatic subject. This theory refutes the two dominant readings of Warhol: as either subversive and affective (Barthes, Foucault, and Deleuze all made this claim) or neoliberal and empty (as Baudrillard argued). Foster’s Warhol manages to reconcile piercing bloody subversion with vapid neoliberal complicity, as well as deconstructive irony with queer romantic affectivity. In visual art this Warholian resolution has been milked sufficiently dry: creating works that critics and audiences alike can go home titillated but not offended by since the work is at once so hot and so cold that it leaves us with works that are lukewarm. What is so striking about this debate, as it has emerged so prominently in recent poetry discourse, is how quick critics are to pick a side, calling conceptual poets like Vanessa Place or Kenneth Goldsmith either affectless, empty, and vapid or meaningful, emotional, and subversive. Perhaps the delay in seeing this work through the lens of traumatic realism comes from estrangement of poetry criticism from art criticism, with each taking turns at lagging behind the other.

Goldsmith’s own description of his latest work, Seven American Deaths and Disasters, parallels traumatic realism, but instead borrows a term from Sianne Ngai—the “stuplime”:

Whereas the stuplime begins with triviality and rises to transcendence, cliché often begins with sublimity and degrades into dumbness. Like stereotype, cliché is an oversimplication of complex phenomena—often through a fatigue-inducing process of repeated exposure—relating in a gross, yet comprehensible caricature. Because its source is so debased, the stuplime can only move toward sublimity. But the cliché has the ability to teeter between states, being at once truthful and exaggerated. The seed upon which a cliché is built remains firmly embedded within, ready to re-reveal itself at any given moment, evoked by a variety of conditions including reframing, recontextualization, removal, one’s mood, and so forth. The power of a clichéd news photo, long dead to us through overexposure, might instantaneously reassert itself under the right conditions.

If the stuplime is the conventional mode for unconventional art, and can be routinely redeemed either for its queer poetics of the everyday micro-queer subversiveness or for its Duchampian radical collage which exposes ideological faults, then what escapes this conventionality altogether is work that retreats from participation in the symbolic political and ideological orders altogether. Examples include the escapist utopian anarcho-queer tactics of an entirely different counter-tradition of artists, exemplified in poetry by John Wieners and given critical exegesis by Leo Bersani in his book Homos, where he writes that Jean Genet’s use of “culture’s dominant terms…[is] designed not to rework or to subvert those terms, but to exploit their potential for erasing cultural relationality itself (that is, the very preconditions for subversive repositionings and defiant repetitions).” In other words, Bersani is arguing for a private utopian visionary separatism. And, when he writes this book, in 1995, he is responding particularly to eighties irony, filtered through the Leftist academy vis-à-vis Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, inspiring a slew of dissertations and art practices that opt for an irony and subversion that requires a cool acknowledgment of the culture’s dominant terms.

The visionary lyricist in exile is the sort of remedy Bersani craves. This poet risks doing the very opposite of Goldsmith’s proscription: beginning with the sublime and degrading it into dumbness, and looking like a pretentious fool, a poète maudit lacking self-criticality and irony. Plenty of contemporary poetry and art follows Rimbaud, Crane, Artaud, Bataille, and Ginsberg on a very superficial level, probably due to the fact that many learn of the poète maudit from Hollywood movies portraying them as seductively cool druggies played by rich, straight, and sexy movie stars. But where can we find a poet in the spirit of Wieners, a poet who goes deep into honest self-degradation?

• • •

Influenced by Samuel R. Delany, Christopher Knowles, and Henry Darger, Brooklyn poet Lonely Christopher’s work depicts a prickly, dangerous, upsetting world that somehow reveals the unthinkably awful without making it palatable (commercializing it, redeeming it or politicizing it). He shows that one does not have to sacrifice the beauty of visionary difference to the mediocrity of shared queer commonality forged by social networks. This is in contradistinction to the style of many queer poets of the moment, who do little more than make frivolous mention of social media, celebrities, art world institutions, or offer a jargoned feminist/queer theory critique of those institutions, hoping to get validation merely from the use of buzz words. Or, in a slightly more self-critical variation on the theme, poets who make fun of themselves for being limited by these buzzwords but refuse to take a stab at doing anything else. Thankfully, Christopher’s new book of poems, Death and Disaster Series, has come in to take those stabs.

Series is a prolonged elegy to Christopher’s mother, who died in August 2011, and was written from the time of his mother’s decline (“Poems in June” chronicling June 2011) to only about a year after her death. This “Death and Disaster Series” does the opposite of the “death and disaster” artworks provided us by Warhol and Goldsmith: this is not a work that appropriates the banal in order to render it sublime. Rather, this is a work that draws from personal experience in order to make precarious beauties that lack any sort of monumentality in the face of darkness. In that way, his work can be seen to follow the neglected tracks of Wieners, who called what he wrote obsessional, not confessional, poetry.

If Wieners obsessively tried to write the most embarrassing thing he could think of, Christopher betters him with even more guttural honesty: “My boyfriend fucked me tonight without a condom / or lubricant; my anal wall started bleeding and / he cut open his dick before he came / and I shit blood.” But even within the goriest of passages, there is often a delicate treasuring of the poet’s personal glimpses of beauty. Nonetheless, in stark contrast to Wieners, Christopher also shows outright hostility towards the world, the reader, the culture, and himself: “I will kick in the pants the ambiguous / God who lets my mother stew / in her dying unrest.” And how does he kick God in the pants? “By loving boys,” of course. And here, as throughout Christopher’s oeuvre, anger is coupled with lust: passages of grief for this mother are not kept squarely away from passages about his perverse sexual fantasies: “I love a boy’s cock / it makes me think of AIDS / it gets me off. / My mother dies.”

Series paints a destitute picture: a world that, in the end, bears no mother, no God, and no money. Yet nonetheless it is full of private enjoyments: filth, sex, grief, and poetry—enjoyments that are just as ‘edible’ as the world of market goods—”The only thing / I’ve eaten / in / the last / two days / is / a boy’s ass.” This edible yet destitute world is offered in contrast to the world of the market, full of imperishable money that cannot rot, and likewise humans that are not permitted to die. His ethics derive from a concerted effort to live, “as a force,” against this market, and as the person he “should be no matter how unimportant or unsustainable / he is.” And that means being a force, and a person, who recognizes that biological death and rotting bodies are a reality that cannot be wiped away through belief in the transcendentally sacred grandeur of the market’s monuments.

His hurt is only so central because of privilege and that privilege deeply qualifies the very hurt it claims as central. 

Nonetheless, it is hard not to read this book as a monument for his mother, one that even toys with (at least in its title) spectacle. Christopher never retreats from his book’s market status by claiming to be solipsistic, removed from commodity culture. After all, he is lonely, not alone, and he even ends one poem by imploring, “pay me.” His honest appraisal of the economies he’s in only better allows him to follow a negative path. His doubt and self-criticality never ease up, and he can hardly even take refuge in his own handpicked things of abject beauty. He endures the consequences of knowing life’s termination without seeking redemption. Even still, jovial gaiety creeps into his world, most often, through external objects of affection: he can look upon the cuteness of “a tiny fluffy puppy” but not without this preface, “I must dedicate this much / of my brain / to being socially / / economically retarded” in order to make art. Likewise, in “You’re the Top,” named after a Cole Porter song, Christopher figures himself as the bottom of any given pairing, mordantly adding, “You’re Frank O’Hara / I’m getting better.”

Christopher has a rare ability to not let the idyllic beauty of his words take precedence over the darkness he has found through his mother’s death, a darkness that is authorless and destitute. Despite the wallowing egotistical emotionality of this work, Christopher writes, “There is no such thing as hurt / only privilege / and darkness.” The mention of privilege and darkness relativize the centrality of the confessional poet’s emotional world. His hurt is only so central because of privilege and that privilege deeply qualifies the very hurt it claims as central. Moreover, the privileged authorial voice is only possible because it sits in opposition to a darkness that is larger than poetry. This viewpoint has more in common with the bleak nihilism of contemporary philosopher Ray Brassier than with most contemporary poetry, which almost always seeks consolation, either through emotional expression or linguistic play—the two poles of poetry which Christopher say surround the truth: “dumb confession” on the one end and “dumb language” on the other. Still, even with his knowledge of utter meaninglessness, he goes on. He writes his elegy to his mother, for “loss is not so / complete / that it / does / not / (leave room for suffering).” Indeed, it is the incompleteness of loss that makes loss that much more devastating for the poet: if the poem is still being written than there is evidence that loss hasn’t wiped him out completely. And thus, Christopher teeters on the edge of presence and absence, refusing to give in to either, lest he fall “on fire into the structure of / compliance.”