Friday, March 20, 2009










A Fault Tolerant Domain
or Watching the Watchmen


It’s not that I am saying that Language poets are like super heroes. That would be silly. It’s just that I experienced an interesting confluence of events recently that made me think of super powers, group formation and getting older.

As it happened, the recent visits of Barrett Watten and Steve Benson to the Bay Area for a conference, Medium & Margin, held at UC Berkeley coincided with my going to see the movie WATCHMEN. Actually it was on the night of one of Steve’s performances that Nick and I were on our way home when we had the wild idea to go to the late show. (You other middle aged people will appreciate what a bold move this was.) I had just read the book as the result of a strong recommendation from David Brazil who said (well, he was talking about From Hell) “Alan Moore is just like Alan Halsey and Iain Sinclair so you have to get this book." Strong words, those! And I trust David implicitly so I went for it and fully enjoyed reading both Watchmen and From Hell. As a Blakean, an Anglophile and appreciator of all manner of science fiction, the only surprise was that I hadn’t read them already.

The fact of the movie being coincident with the visits of Steve and Barry that was of particular interest to me was the 'that-old-gang-of-mine' experience of being in a situation with people with whom I was often intensely situated in the past. Feeling the old feelings of admiration, annoyance, agreement and disagreement, outrage, affection, etc was one part of it. It can be quite challenging to go though that again, whatever it was. But I figured what the hell. Might as well face it and know about it first hand and so I did face and know.

It occurred to me that many of us in the audience might have been (actually have been) on that podium strutting our stuff, making our usual moves with our usual flair. Barry’s talk was an elaborate presentation culminating with a take on Shanxing Wang’s Mad Science In Imperial City, as well as on the works of several visual artists from China. I am fond of the book and of Shanxing Wang who has a uniquely open, passionate approach to poetry, both in his writing and in person. Barry’s implicit claim that Mad Science would not exist without the example of his own and other’s experiments in writing seem completely accurate to me. Suffice it to say that there was a lot it in the talk. Do people still say ‘totalizing?’ Certainly it was intentionally that. Barry has always been about history – making, critiquing, refuting etc. In this conference, he was gloriously in that mode.

Steve’s performance had wondrous aspects of every performance I have seen of Steve’s (a few of which I was in myself) and had a number of new moves, as well. I was glad that some of the younger poets who were there got to see him do his thing because there seems to be a lot of desire here to do performance beyond the poet’s theater model and Steve was and is very about that. It was a good version and then there was a completely other version of his improvisational prowess at ATA with Konrad Steiner and John Raskin's quintet a few nights later that I missed but hear was great.

And this leads me finally to WATCHMEN, to watching one’s old friends demonstrate their super powers to an old and a new audience that was itself partly comprised of super heroes. That was the connection with the movie that had me bemused. Jerry Estrin and I used to play the game of deciding who among the poets would have what role in the Western. Who was the school marm, who the sherriff, gunslinger etc. WATCHMEN was compelling to me for having a group of “costumed” superheroes who have been there and back. They have powers, they’ve been banned and they are seeking to prevail in various ways while one among them tries to kill the others off. And then another among them tries to stop this while seeming to retain his old honor and yet being somehow out of date in his thinking. It is as if the eighties just went on into eternity. Another of the heroes is everyone together at the same moment. Which of us is which? One refines one’s super power over a long period of time. You save your life with it or risk it. It really is that big of a deal. It matters to assert and propose and connect and to utilize every trick in your own book(s), every bit of moxie, every aspect of your particular power to try to put your thing over each time you are out there.

So it wasn’t just that we are all older. Although, lordy, we are that. Or even that we have suffered terrible losses or disappointments or had brilliant successes. Or that we have been banished, celebrated, maligned, attacked, kissed up to or ignored. (And when I say "we," I am not claiming that I am a Language poet because most people know I am not one, right?) In this case, for me, it was the intensity of the formations among us, the bloodlines. The allegiances and enmities, the pressure points between us like the glassy castle at the end of WATCHMEN that is both time piece and out of time piece, a construction that includes everything though it is thought up by one anxious super hero to make sense of his world and his relationships. It is an idea that comes crashing down while the hero simply walks away. WATCHMEN tells an imagined history that is enough like what actually happened to rattle the cage you wish you were in if in fact you weren’t such a wanderer. Super hero noir – the theory of everything and the jam you are in. It doesn't resolve.

The presence of younger writers at the events I attended and (according to reports I heard) at the several I missed, who are interpreting this in their own way and importantly moving on into their own completely shaky and momentous constructions, well I was just glad to watch them watching. And I hope to be around in the future to continue to watch them make their moves -- as this amazing passage by Shanxing Wang which could have been in the novel:

Catastrophe replicates and amplifies itself asexually and self-adaptively in different time zones. The collateral damage of catastrophe knows no boundary in time. A fault tolerant domain.

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