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Poet and critic Ammiel Alcalay once described his method and his hope for poetry:
By making words and languages reorient themselves across time and face each other under new conditions, my intention is to re-awaken the ancient force of poetry—as fact and testimony.
Alcalay carefully insists that the facts and testimony of poetry reside in reorientation and relation rather than in any instance of content per se. In history, the poem can’t help but record it, but in choosing the structure of that helplessness a poem can do more than just register the historical processes that determine it; it can testify semi-consciously to their operation. Alcalay’s instructions for reorienting words and discourses sound remarkably like collage, a procedure that transforms the original motives and contexts of the material it cites in order to yield the new. It is through this logic of citation—a critique whose materials are also its object—that a new testimony emerges from the collaged poems of Giles Goodland’s Capital.
All speech is citation, entirely sourced but only more or less identifiably. The difference between collage and non-collage consists primarily in the identifiability of sources. Collage therefore often seems a dream of control, of knowing where one’s language is from (because it is not one’s language) and thus being in a better position to estrange it toward testimony. But collage is not merely an arrangement of productive frictions and suspicious smoothness across distinct sources; it can also be an argument for resetting already existing syntax instead of inventing new orders. Each citation-stanza in Goodland’s poems is the equivalent of a single word in an uncollaged poem. In scaling the syntactic unit up to the level of quotation, Goodland implies that the business of poetry is to treat the structures of instrumental language use—the language of business—rather than to lay them aside for an entirely other way of writing. Or it must come to that other way without ever leaving, by imposing enough procedural laws on the citations and their interactions that they will, as Goodland put it in a 2006 interview, “refamiliarize people with what is behind texts.”
Here are some of the structures of Capital:
1) The poems are in alphabetical order, though not every letter is represented.
2) Each poem’s title must be two words, and the second word must be “Capital.”
3) Each prose stanza must have a single periodical source from a single year.
4) The stanzas must be in chronological order and the poem must “begin” in the early-to-mid ’70s and end in the mid ’00s.
5) Each citation must include or imply a word that is either the first word of the title or a synonym for it.
6) No stanza except the first can begin with a capital letter (there’s one funny exception to this).
7) No stanza but the last can be given terminal punctuation.
8) All stanzas must be one to three justified lines in length.
9) Each poem must be followed by a chronological list of the sources used.
I catalogue some of Goodland’s apparatus before quoting from the action it produces because these decisions themselves function as open-ended testimony. Why, for example, the early ’70s to now? To document the era of globalization? To track one oil crisis to the next? One war to the next? The life of the Internet? And why only one citation per year, as though a single deracinated and partial sentence could emblematize that time? Why the incomplete but perfect alphabetization? The presence of these many operations on the already said is meant to produce questions such as these so that we may refamilarize ourselves with what is “behind” both this text and those it deploys.
It’s clear that the “what” that is behind is capital, that flexible concept denoting wealth or a factor of production whose chief feature is its ability to pass inexorably through labor and make more of itself. In Goodland’s hands, we encounter capital constantly but variably in poems called “Child Capital,” “Dream Capital,” “Flight Capital,” and the like. The persistence of capital in the poems’ titles reflects its substrate existence, endlessly modifiable and always there. The “kinds” of capital listed on the contents page eventually seem like placeholders or empty modifiers rather than enduring particulars. This suggestion is further urged by the book’s title, which strips capital of even these modifiers and becomes most like branding, making use of market necessity to suggest a direct engagement with the base of things.
On the other hand, while the welter of modifiers indicates just how fungible they are, so is the term they modify. We can ghost “Capital” with all the other more likely phrasal terminations—“Child Care,” “Dream Residue,” and so on. Capital can assume another name or form as easily as those names can adorn it. Which leads us to the interior of the poems: there we see this endless game of substitution and synonymy played out most aggressively. These are the first three and last two stanzas of “Burnt Capital,” the book’s first poem:
Like fuel into a fire' the production of
capital and the circulation of capital
thus exist in an inseparable
fall of capital; Kissinger offers: if cease
fire and POW return, then
shifts, seven days a week, in a small wooden structure. Fires kept
breaking out and fumes . . .
let's just say you did want to put your
hands in boiling water. These gloves
would protect you
but now, we want you to take all of
that data and weigh each individual
category as a percentage of capital.
The logic of selection here is in part one of pertinence, with each year-stanza referring back in some way to “burnt,” the modifier of capital which superintends it. In the absence of pattern satisfactions, such as a readily available rhythm or conceit, we track this loose pertinence in the same way we would engage diction in an uncollaged poem because there’s really no difference—this game of relevance dramatizes how fundamental word choice is to collage and how expressive. In “Burnt Capital” we encounter “boiling,” “charred,” “flame,” and even outliers like “consumed,” all played against a relentless conclusion in “fire.” But where is the synonym in the last stanza? Sometimes the candidate isn’t immediately clear, at which point pertinence diffuses across the entire citation, permeating it with a relevance located in no particular word. It will turn out in this case that the synonym has simply migrated back to the source of the last stanza, which is the ABA Banking Journal’s 2006 article “Avoiding burns in hot market”; the serious play of this last stanza forces us to consider banking and its language as a form of burning (converting labor power to the ashes of wealth) and fills us with a desire to look behind the text when it doesn’t provide us with the keyword we’re suddenly trained to expect.
In fact, the list of citations following every poem is another form of that behindness, a citational Fort Knox that both backs the poem and allows further investigation should we choose to recover original contexts from their new conditions. One of the beautiful effects of knowing it’s there as we read Capital is that we read each citation not merely for its content or for how it interacts with the others around it but for how it fits or departs from our associations with its source. Take for example, the opening of “Waste Capital”:
Girls who meet in a mysterious collision
of emptinesses. It’s the dream of the
or early signs of it (such as blood in the
urine or butterfly-like eruptions on
where they can employ sweated labour
and use the air, the water and
The poetry here resides not merely in the “mysterious collision” of syntactic continuities across disjunctive semantic commodities, but also inside those commodities: one wants to know from where that first stanza comes (a 1977 Newsweek article called “Altman’s Desert Song,” presumably about the American director). This is true of every citation in the volume—we encounter each wanting to know how it’s pertinent to the title (its keyword) and whether we can guess the nature of its source. Since each stanza therefore is the site of superficial differences, one becomes aware of shopping everywhere for a distinctness (of source, of synonym) that is itself common. In order to encourage this acquisitiveness, Goodland is careful to repeat many of his sources (including the Newsweek Altman article) and even some of the same language from those sources, across poems, so that their persistence forms yet another allegory of capital: that which drifts through apparently isolated events and things, much as the poems often use continuous syntax to bridge adjacent citations.
The new syntax these collisions often afford does not always rely on the native interest of each citation; sometimes, concepts produced only when the stanzas “face each other” are the gorgeous, apt point:
oil situation (Mexico has reserves to far beyond the dreams of avarice that the government is
a gauzy approximation of a signature
at night, illuminated by gas. An
archetypal elevator would have taken
(from “Dream Capital”)
This seems as good and compelling an account of the intersection of the profit motive and representative government as any other: the vague sign of a proper person made visible as power. There are many such moments in Capital, though they are not always so beautiful or productive. The question becomes, as it does with some conceptual art and with what the writer Kenny Goldsmith has called “uncreative writing,” how many instances do you need to undergo in order to receive the full point? In Goodland’s book, however, that question may be part of the point. Relentlessly pushing past a sufficient encounter with its methods of sampling and splicing, Capital inundates us with the broken messages, cant, and convention to which we are equally subjected when not reading poetry—and when not reading at all. The volume’s 30 poems of roughly 30 stanzas suggest that there is no outside, no place or time or form where we are not in capital and the histories it has made.
Geoffrey G. O’Brien is the author of four books of poems, most recently People on Sunday. He is an Associate Professor in the English Department at UC Berkeley and also teaches for the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison.
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