Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Qu'est-ce que c'est?:
A Review of Jonathan Ball's The Politics of Knives

The Politics of Knives
Jonathan Ball
(Coach House, 2012)

In an April 2011 interview, blogger Kevin Spenst asked Jonathan Ball, Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to editing your own work or someone else’s?” Here, in full, is Ball’s reply:

I’m sick of all these boring, bland emotions that everyone thinks are precious and worth writing about just because they have them currently or had them once. And thus perceive as universally interesting throughout epochal time. Always the same emotions, communicated the same ways. If you put an original spin on it, find a prettier way to say it, it’s still a cliché. My joke is that as a straight, white male, aged 18-35, I feel my emotions are adequately represented in the culture. I edit to strip out emotion. If any emotions remain, they are then connoted or otherwise fundamentally tied to the language and tone and therefore necessary, or result from collusion between language and reader, and my ugly face is out of the picture.

There are reasonable concerns lurking behind this posturing—a disdain for sentimentality, a suspicion that the inner life of his demographic is overrepresented in the culture at large, a thirst to overcome egotism as a prime motive for artistic creation—but Ball deliberately swerves clear of any sober reckoning with such issues, with his contradictory claim (for example) that “original” ways of expressing emotions are “still a cliché,” or his even more bizarre assertion that his “ugly face” is somehow “out of the picture” once he has edited “to strip out emotion.” This last point embodies two key delusions, particularly common among the self-identified “avant-garde” but indulged in frequently enough across the poetic spectrum. First, there’s the implicit assumption here that emotions as expressed in poetry bear any intrinsic relation to the author, rather than being just another set of variously charged elements in one’s periodic lexicon. Granted, much bad art suffers from over-earnestness (though arguably under-earnestness is just as problematic nowadays), but rather than mandate what amounts to verbal lobotomy by excising emotions from poetry, the ambitious artist might instead take up the challenge of re-kineticizing words like “love” or “sadness” or even “soul,” whether (depending on one’s poetics) as talismanic verbal meaning-units or as sentiments essential to any nuanced account of human experience. No matter how one thinks of poetry—I often prefer to think of my own lyric work as conducting ‘experiments in sincerity’, with all the potential for performative insincerity such a designation implies—it seems dogmatic, smug, and lacking in historical awareness to dismiss wholesale one of poetry’s chief wellsprings since antiquity.

Which brings me to the second delusion embodied in Ball’s desire “to strip out emotion”: the idea—speaking of clichés—that by disdaining feeling, one is somehow excising one’s subjective ego from the text. This delusion often manifests in ire-venting towards the so-called “lyric I,” as though the first-person singular pronoun inherently bore a hint of the megalomaniacal fervour at the root of all our civilization’s greatest injustices—as if the personal really were, in a dully literal sense, the political. This can produce (at one extreme) the robotic inexpressivity of the so-called avant-garde at its worst and (at the other) the irritating habit of many lyric poets to repetitively substitute “you” for “I” in conveying what is quite clearly autobiographical material, in a ham-handed stab at dramatic distance. Over longer stretches, the absence of the first-person pronoun and/or its emotional freight is often so marked and so obviously deliberate that the reader is never not fully alert to the presence of the author, whose shadow over the text grows darker the more grimly determined s/he remains to excise that pesky selfhood from it. This is certainly true of Ball’s three books, each of which finds the author, in his resolute avoidance of “emotions,” looming over the text like a superego, absent in words beyond a few requisite postmodern gestures of authorial self-reflexivity, and yet ever present in concept, puppeteering us through meticulous edifices built to alternately challenge, amaze, disturb, and harangue—but never quite (to take recourse to one of Sir Philip Sidney’s two key objectives for poetry in his 1575 Defence of Poesie) to delight us. Put simply, if Ball’s “ugly face is out of the picture” throughout most of his three books, that’s only because his unignorable presence as authorial impresario serves as a frame nearly as eye-catching as the picture within it. But now this review gets complicated. Taken as a universal proscription, Ball’s excising of emotions is condescending nonsense. As a personal credo, however, it has helped him produce one of the most singular bodies of work among younger Canadian poets—texts alternately infatuating and infuriating, but always infused with an arch theatricality, a smart awareness that art’s ability to exhilarate depends as much on artifice as any genuine feeling.  

Ball’s first book, Ex Machina (Book Thug, 2009), succeeds to a remarkable extent in embodying the absurd but germane premise, described by the poet himself in a 2011 interview with CV2, “that we are the reproductive organs of poems … and that poetry might thus be considered a parasitic type (domain? kingdom? class?) of organism.” Ex Machina achieves this success by multiple means: the precise, often fragmentary sentences, delivered with disconcerting objectivity, that have become a hallmark of Ball’s evolving style; a narrow set of motifs—mechanistic imagery, undercurrents of violence and disease, thwarted readerly desire—relentlessly revisited; and above all the book’s form, 65 numbered sections each occupying a single page, each line within them footnoted with a number urging readers to another section, pulling us into short stark loops that tug at our curiosities by evoking the form of Choose Your Own Adventure novels, then inevitably short-circuiting—presumably to confront us with and frustrate our philistinic voracity for resolution. For example, opening the book at random to section [52] and reading the first line, I encounter:

The poem is written.[51]

I then move to section [51], as directed, and read not the first but the second line:

It is the root, the cause of authors.[57]

Turning to section [57], my eye is caught by a longish paragraph that serves as its fifth unit:

Those who internalize the poem, during the course of their processing. Who are sick with desire, symptomatic, unable to continue their normal functions, who must be isolated from their previous social contacts, who excrete new poems, seed new books: whose reading mutates into a more virulent form, writing.[02]

Section [02], second line:

The book that you write, to discover.[52]

…which takes me back to the section that began this loop, to restart, renavigate, read straight through, or stop reading as I desire. This isn’t usually a profound or portentous enough exercise to sustain the book’s vaguely hectoring tone, but given over to for an hour or so at a time, Ex Machina can indeed begin to give visceral substance to its theoretical preoccupations: as we succumb to its viral creep, even the poststructural truism that subjectivity is constituted in language begins to take on an actuality, a now-ness, as we almost feel ourselves reading, writing, and being read-slash-written at once. Slight as Ex Machina is, then—there ultimately aren’t many words here, and they’re all  cogs in the same single-engined machine—it’s both fun to read and occasionally immersive, neither of which should be sold short. The book also provides us brief but memorable glimpses of Ball’s fecund imagination—on evidence above, for instance, in the grotesque metaphor of writing as a virulent mutation of reading—a fecundity displayed at much greater scope in his widely acclaimed second book Clockfire (Coach House, 2010).

It isn’t difficult to see why Clockfire has been praised alike by critics as divergent in their tastes as Sina Queyras and Carmine Starnino, for the book embodies a rare combination of accessibility, experimental cred, and linguistic craft. Structured as a series of theatrical scenarios, ideas for impossible-to-perform plays arranged alphabetically by title, Clockfire reimagines the theatre not as a venue of cathartic spectacle but, very often, as a kind of sadistic holding tank in which the audience finds itself at the mercy of the cast and director’s dark transfigurative impulses. “Any Animal” is typical in this regard:

Prior to performance, audience members collect, with the program, a slip of paper and a pen. The paper bears the age-old question: ‘If you could be any animal you wanted, what would it be?’
            The audience write down their names and choices. The ushers gather their responses and relay these to the actors in the green room.
            The actors take the stage, which is adorned with the most advanced medical equipment available. Then the actors (in reality, a team of surgeons at the top of their respective fields) begin the laborious process of transforming the members of the audience into their animals of choice.
            All props are sterilized, and patients are allowed to recuperate in nearby facilities. As there can be no predicting the choices the audience will make, a wide range of specialists stand by. Should any protest and wish to leave, ushers remind them that the world has changed. That the performance has already begun.

This is fantastic writing on every level, from the carefully weighted sentences to the macabre imaginative conception. Granted, it doesn’t demand close reading the way most good poetry does—indeed its status as poetry might readily be questioned—but there remains much in this piece to notice and admire: its verbal economy (embodied in Ball’s rhythmically felicitous choice to begin “Prior to performance” rather than “Prior to the performance”), the way a string of declarative sentences (“The papers bear…,” “The audience write…,” “The ushers gather…,” “The actors take…,” “Then the actors begin…,” “All props are…”) leads us with almost cruel equanimity through the gruesome twist, then the closing shift to ominous fragment, and of course how all these elements conspire in the service of the sort of thrillingly gross idea that a true genre writer might splurge a whole story on, but which Ball efficiently dispenses with in several crisp paragraphs. “Any Animal” stands as a clear highlight within Clockfire, but is by no means anomalous. In general, the longer pieces like it tend to resonate most forcefully, while the shortest often seem underdeveloped or even phoned-in. The worst of these, “Something Comes Out,” reads in its entirety: “The audience enters the theatre, and something happens inside. Something happens to them. And something else comes out.” On the one hand this can be read as a clever meta-commentary on the book’s relentless project of theatre-as-infliction—most of the audiences in Clockfire are imagined as having unwittingly bought into some grotesque Faustian gambit—but on the other hand, in taking up (like all of Clockfire’s 98 scenarios) a page to itself, a piece like “Something Comes Out” is insubstantial enough to make one at least wonder whether that particular swathe of tree might not have been saved. Far more typical, however, are successes like “Any Animal,” and for the most part Clockfire resounds as a marvel of relentless imaginative energy and eerie verbal precision, a book that bears comparisons to Borges’s unclassifiable compendia A Universal History of Infamy and The Book of Imaginary Beings.

The Politics of Knives is another matter. Unlike Ex Machina or Clockfire, the book is not a closed system; that is, it does not refract a single conceit through a series of verbal prisms, each producing new colorations of it. Rather, it pursues a series of conceits, embodied in nine sequences loosely united by motifs of violence—whether concrete (the sequence “Psycho” meditates on and within Hitchcock’s murder film), more purely textual (the title sequence consists of redacted paragraphs, their black bars like slash marks across the page), or suppressed and simmering (violence is often less a presence in the book than a feeling, a grammatical-imagistic residue). Its lack of intense focus as compared to Ball’s previous work partly explains the diffuse impression the book leaves, but there’s also a verbal blurriness that often goes beyond elusiveness to become, if not quite impenetrable, then at least frustratingly hermetic. This comes across in the book’s opening piece, the first of three “Manifestoes” that make up the sequence “The Process Proposed”:

First Manifesto

When she spoke, she did not speak
but with exhalation of wires.
Twelve awaited another.

When the process proposed.
Left her nothing but
time-limited amounts.

So iron sought skin.
And she said, ‘I shall leak
oil and wars for oil.’

Then a no-place gathering.
‘If I must be a muse,’ she said,
‘then I will be terror.’ And came.

Even with the word “muse” in the penultimate line, I have no idea how I would read this if the book’s Acknowledgments didn’t inform me that it “was written as a perversion of the traditional invocation of the muse.” Even this insight, while it does open certain aspects of the poem—the way the first line’s contradiction cleverly lampoons the idea of inspiration as evanescent muse-speech, the way “Twelve” likely refers to the Muses awaiting their newest sister (though this is still puzzling, because mythic tradition holds eight or nine Muses—the twelve Olympians perhaps?), and the way “the process proposed” hints at both the standard avant-garde exaltation of process over product and the union of poet and muse as a kind of marriage—the piece as a whole still rings flat. The “exhalation of wires” is an interesting image, and the references to “oil” and “terror” lend the poem a politicized edge (this is a 21st-century technomuse, raring to shock and awe), but I’m left with the nagging feeling—confirmed by the other two pieces in the sequence, which closely echo the first in form and content—that this would all be more persuasive if it were more concertedly versified rather than being simply a more fragmentary version of Ball’s usual prose style chopped into lines and stanzas. Now I’m not suggesting that the professed experimentalist ought to have turned formalist here, but some fuller deployment of the sonic resources of the language—perhaps just assonance and a hint of stress-pattern or metre—would likely have helped lift the intriguing fragmentariness of this piece into something truly seductive.

As it stands, too many pieces in The Politics of Knives never rise above “intriguing”—and for myriad different reasons. “Wolves,” the book’s other foray into verse, embodies almost the opposite problem to “The Process Proposed,” with its tense sonic patterning and prayerlike cadences failing to mask the fact that content-wise, it registers as little more than an incoherent torrent of doom-laden Big Bad Wolfisms, often verging on cliché. Two other sequences, “In Vitro City” and the closing “That Most Terrible of Dogs,” lean far too heavily on repetitious anaphora as an organizing principle. The latter contains much compelling writing—“Waiting for my luck to bygone. Waiting, glorious in insomnia. Waiting for the anniversary of the fetus overcome. Waiting for a series of vicious courtships. Waiting, boastful and rectal, quoting panhandlers…,” and I could go on—but over the course of four-plus pages of every sentence beginning with “Waiting,” one starts to feel interred in sameness, no matter the vitality of what comes after. As for the former, all but one of its nine short sections—each given its own page of course, as Ball once again makes liberal of use portentous whitespace, this time to dubious effect—begins with the phrase “in vitro city,” and many proceed from there to build momentum through further anaphora or, as here in the fourth section, epistrophe:

in vitro city, protesters are not welcome. the riot police are not welcome. former members of the regime are not welcome. troops are not welcome. broken toys are not welcome. torn clothes are not welcome. perishables are not welcome. with this sex they are not welcome. in that skin they are not welcome. without money they are not welcome. you are not welcome.

This passage, with its stock evocations of martial law, food banks, and gender/racial/class injustice, strikes me as the work of neither a restless experimentalist—that final turn to the second person is so expected as to be almost obligatory—nor a writer of much political depth. This is typical of the collection, and touches on perhaps the key shortcoming of The Politics of Knives: most of its engagements with politics and violence remain purely theoretical, or more properly, purely verbal, so that we never sense the author’s investment in anything other than the somewhat patronizing constructs he cobbles together from the abstracted lexicons of these spheres of very real compromise, exploitation, and suffering. As a result, the book’s portrayal of violence rarely transcends the cartoonish—I’m reminded here of the Talking Heads’ jittery 1977 anthem “Psycho Killer,” a great song that (unlike The Politics of Knives) entertains no incisive pretensions—nor does the book end up being “political” any more than the death of a family pet is “tragic.” A partial explanation may reside in the passage cited at the top of this review.

In another, more recent interview with Open Book, Ball elaborates the theoretical underpinnings of The Politics of Knives with reference to cultural theorist and provocateur Slavoj Zizek, who muses in his book Violence that perhaps humanity’s unique propensity to violence as compared to other animals is rooted in our capacity for language. “When we name gold ‘gold’,” Zizek writes, “we violently extract a metal from its natural texture, investing into it our dreams of wealth, power, spiritual purity, and so on, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the immediate reality of gold.” Interesting stuff, to which Ball adds:

I think a further violence, a more personal and political violence, occurs when we use language to develop narrative. Even the simple story of our day invalidates other viewpoints on the external events, which are meaningless in themselves, and forces them into a sensible order. We use language, and narrative, to impose upon the world an order that suits us, and we use violence for this same purpose.

Several things chafe here. First, Zizek’s analysis of the violence of language—part of what he calls “symbolic violence”—is enmeshed in a larger analysis of its interrelation with two other forms of violence, namely “subjective” violence (that is, concrete violence perpetrated by an identifiable agent) and “objective” violence (that is, the violence of systems—capitalism, for instance). Zizek’s project isn’t primarily linguistic, then, but emancipatory: Violence is only a tract about language to the extent that words undergird a whole matrix of inquity. That Ball extrapolates from Zizek to emphasize the “more personal and political” violence of narrative is actually a de-politicizing move all too common among liberal academics in their reception of theory that is, in fundamental ways, Marxist in provenance. Furthermore, it’s incoherent: yes, narrative can perpetuate violences—we see this every day in the selectivity of media reportage—but to go further and claim that “even the simple story of our day” is a form of violence because it “invalidates other viewpoints on the external events” is like saying that living and making choices is inherently violent to the possibilities we never actualize—that turning right constitutes a violence to whatever lies off to the left. (Hey, doesn’t Robert Frost have a poem about this?) And yet this is the meaning-vacuum into which The Politics of Knives is theoretically sucked. Whether consciously or not, a sequence like “That Most Terrible of Dogs,” with its numbing inertia (“Waiting… Waiting… Waiting… Waiting… Waiting…”), seems written out of this conviction that narrative itself is inherently violent, so it refuses to provide more than a few abortive hints of a trajectory, spending itself instead in ominous hamster-spinning. Far worse—as I’ve said, “That Most Terrible of Dogs” contains excellent writing—is “K. Enters the Castle,” a sequence that re-imagines, over the course of nine page-sections, Kafka’s unfinished novel with its protagonist not as a searching, questioning, exasperated human being but as a silent camera, thus draining the story of all tension and leaving us to witness whatever filters through its roving lens:

Then into the Castle, its emptiness, gone the bustle and noise, gone officials and scribes, cold stone spread empty. Not a noise, not a breeze sifting snow. Camera tracks through its streets, up cold stairways, down corridors. Nothing to capture, all the Castle abandoned, crumbling walls and cathedrals, strewn with papers. Lifeless papers spilled through the courtyard. Papers stacked along halls. Papers swept into corners. Under dust, stone, shelves tumbled haphazard, sheets crumpled and torn. K. takes no photographs, nothing warrants recording. No shadow moves, not a paper flits free.

This is arguably the most dynamic of the poem’s nine pages—and yes, I know Ball is doing it on purpose, and yes, I agree that the choice of The Castle, as Kafka’s great exercise in narrative frustration, is a clever one that might lend itself to a fantastic single page of poetic meta-commentary, but no, I don’t think this works. I think Ball—a writer with a demonstrated flair for compressed compelling narrative—has out-clevered himself here: a sequence whose impact resides in repeatedly informing one’s readers that nothing it brings to our notice is worth noticing lends itself to writing like the above paragraph, the loudest signifiers in which (“gone,” “gone,” “Not,” “Not,” “Nothing,” “Lifeless,” “no,” “nothing,” “no,” “not”) tell us all we need to know about it. The sequence even ends on the words “empty words,” as if to highlight its theoretical savvy; but in disavowing the violence of narrative, Ball perpetrates violence on his readers, treating us like proxies of the endlessly experimented-upon audiences of Clockfire. Out of the picture indeed.

And the static sadism continues. “He Paints the Room Red” meticulously sets out, over eight longer-than-usual pages, a vaguely Lynchian scenario of a nameless bald man whom we watch, via camera over the course of what the text tells us are several days, as he types in a hotel room, palm trees swaying outside the window, then finishes typing, paints the entire room red—window included, everything except the stack of typed sheets—then leaves the frame, returns undressed but bearing gas and matches, and sets the everything including himself on fire. The sequence intrigues, with the slowly unfolding hint of narrative allowing Ball some moments of grim tension (“In a buttoned shirt, wine-red, like the chair. Like the cans of unopened paint. Bright nightmares.”) until, in the closing section, he can’t resist haranguing his readers once again:

I do not know his reasons. I do not understand any of this. You’ll object. You’ll say: he’s your character. You’ll say: you wrote him, we read this, we know.
    You will blame me, and maybe you should. You will say: where is our story? But you watched him. As he burnt it. And you did nothing, just like me.
    I’m in a hotel, far from home. A palm tree sways outside the window. Does the palm tree understand? It was here the whole time too.

Yes Mr. Ball, we will blame you: for defaulting to a gimmicky self-reflexivity so overdone it’s arrière-garde by now, for pulling the old ‘you’re culpable for the violence you just witnessed’ trick on readers who just want you to make something happen, for trying to ride bunk theory to real literary payoff. This from a writer who had the temerity to wonder, in a recent review of Carmine Starnino’s new book of essays Lazy Bastardism, why Starnino “is wasting time on such losers”—a musing which, given that Ball immediately goes on to claim that “Starnino is at his worst in high praise,” leaves us open to infer that among the “losers” Ball alludes to one might include Margaret Avison, Earle Birney, Irving Layton, David O’Meara, Eric Ormsby, and Karen Solie—a clutch of the writers for whom Starnino reserves his highest praise. Later in the same review Ball claims that:

Everything Starnino loves in poetry — formal rigour, ambition, intellectual engagement with the world’s complexity, tactile and aural obsession with language — has become the domain of the avant-garde he hates. Everything, that is, except for deep-felt emotion, the one thing that might allow him to embrace and love these lefties.

For the record, I find the binary on which Ball repeatedly insists—between the “avant-garde” and those lyric “losers” he disdains—silly and unhelpful. And his attempt (“lefties”) to ally avant-garde poetics with leftist politics seems little more than a cynical ploy to tar with a conservative brush anyone who might dare criticize his aesthetic values. Let me assure you then: my poetic tastes (and, given Ball’s willingness to be dismissive of other writers’ imperatives, very likely my political beliefs) embody the leftist values of communalism, inclusivity, and solidarity far more than Ball’s do. But to wield his invidious distinction for a moment: I too admire the qualities he lists, and in the past year-plus have found my sense of poetry’s boundaries vertiginously shifted through the work of writers like Susan Holbrook, Erin Mouré, Lisa Robertson, and Jordan Scott (to name several who might be reductively classed among the Canadian avant-garde). None of these writers eschews emotion; a major concern of a work like Mouré’s The Unmemntioable, for example, is to probe the losses effected by the attempt to embody emotion in text, while the impact of Scott’s Blert partly depends, for better or worse, on our having forged an empathetic connection with the author, whose biographical stutter inspired the book. But of course I’ve also found rigour, engagement, ambition, and linguistic skill in much recent work that Ball, out of sheer blind dogmatism, would likely disdain. These qualities are not the domain of the avant-garde, but rather the shared province of good poets, no matter where they may register on Ball’s quaint experiment-o-meter.

Unfortunately, these qualities are not even in thorough evidence in the self-declared avant-garde artifact under consideration here: while perhaps ambitious, The Politics of Knives undertakes a narrowly cerebral approach to its complex concerns, resulting in language that, while often vivid, rarely stirs from its cold inertia long enough to be truly tactile. Even the title poem, which revels in the blunt physicality of words—

Grasp the sheath well as you ppppppppp. Only in broken mirrors have the goals of assassins been realized. Pppppppppppppp, every shard its own currency and pppp, it is easy with a quality stone. 

—remains so resolutely impenetrable that it ends up illuminating little about the violence of redaction other than how frustrating redacted texts are to read. Only in “Psycho” does Ball’s writing approach the haunting vitality of his best previous work. Even the theoretical aspect of this sequence comes off more successfully, as Ball cleverly employs the first-person plural (“When she’s gone we stay with him, through walls hear her moving. In holes place her eyes, her skin in black bra.”) to designate not just the film’s Norman/mother murderer, but the hungry eye of the lens and the viewer/readers behind it, whose thirst for flesh and violent spectacle implicates them in Marion Crane’s killing. (Though even here, this sort of point has been made much more cogently in theory, for example in Laura Mulvey’s classic essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”—which Ball, with his film background, has no doubt absorbed.) The highlight of the sequence—and arguably the book—comes with the sequence’s penultimate section, which lowers the theoretical mask and lifts into something approaching elegy:

She’s dead but her eye still drains open. She’s dead face perfect, the floor screen. She’s dead while the camera keeps looking, as we stalk through this room mopped so clean. Plastic, the car trunks her wet body. Knife-chewed flesh the swamp’s swallowing. She’s dead and this letter for her, hurts our ears but they can’t stop talking. Now employed the detective finds fresh death. Late-night snack, what long nights these have been. We can rewatch the scene with no music. We can watch and rewatch that same scene. She’s dead as they search through her cabin. She’s dead all this black for blood red. She’s dead though he knew of no money. They have her theories but she’s dead.

As in the entire sequence, the inventive syntax here nicely conveys the obsessiveness of the film’s murderer, the lens that shot the film, and its rabid fandom alike. And the details drawn from Hitchcock—“the swamp’s swallowing,” the car’s “trunking” of the body, “this black for blood red” (this last referencing the film’s famous use of chocolate sauce for blood)—are cast compellingly into text. The real triumph here, though, lies in the way Ball restrains what is throughout the book his overuse of anaphora, turning the device to ideal effect by ending the passage with three successive sentences beginning with “She’s dead,” followed by a final sentence that shifts the phrase to end—a mounting rise and fall that registers as almost ceremonious, dirgelike. “They have their theories but she’s dead”: this sentence might serve as a figurative critique of The Politics of Knives as a whole, a book at its most affecting in confronting a humanity from which it seems, much of the time, determined to avert its gaze. But no doubt I’m just a conservative loser—oh yeah, I forgot one—who doesn’t understand.