Category: Prose

Rosa Was Right

Reading Rosa Luxemburg’s “Reform or Revolution,” much of the book struck me as almost alarmingly applicable to our current situation, especially Luxemburg’s thoughts on the bourgeoisie’s readiness to “sacrifice” the “democratic forms” of government the minute they threaten to become instruments of truly popular rule:

“In this society, the representative institutions, democratic in form, are in content the instruments of the interests of the ruling class. This manifests itself in a tangible fashion in the fact that as soon as democracy shows the tendency to negate its class character and become transformed into an instrument of the real interests of the population, the democratic forms are sacrificed by the bourgeoisie, and by its State representatives.”

Trump is, of course, a far cry from fascism, despite the bluster and panic. Still, I can’t help but notice the development of anti-democratic sentiments among the petite bourgeois here in the U.S.A.:

1. On the class’s right wing, we have Trump supporters, a largely middle-class population who felt it necessary in this moment of crisis to elect a pseudo-strongman who has repeatedly made his disdain for democracy known. It’s not a principled disdain, mind you – Trump doesn’t dislike democracy so much as he dislikes the fact that democracy prevents him from doing what he wants when he wants.

2. On the class’s left wing, we have the middle-class liberals, some corners of which seem to be descending further and further into hyperbolic derangement. “Trump,” they insist with increasing urgency and decreasing self-awareness, “is a singular existential threat to civilization who must be stopped at all costs.”

The liberal middle class expresses its anti-democratic currents in subtler ways: They start by laying all the blame for Trumps’ ascendence on white working class voters. (It’s a myth.) Then, rather than analyzing what sort of social, cultural, and economic factors would drive people to vote for Trump, they precede to argue that support for Trump can only be understood as a moral and intellectual failure – a personal flaw, rather than a choice informed by material and ideological factors. Then, the middle-class liberals start tearing into the imagined “White Working Class Idiot Evil Racist Trump Support”:

 

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Above are two screenshots of posts made in a “liberal resistance” Facebook group to which I belong (mostly for shits and giggles). Not every member of this group speaks this way; in fact, these sorts of posts are still in the minority – many of the other posts are increasingly outré conspiracy theories of the “Russia Did It” variety. Still, these posts are common enough to constitute a trend – a trend I’ve experienced in other liberal spaces as well.

The anti-Trump-voter discourse doesn’t explicitly disdain democracy the way some of Trump’s more fascist and fascist-friendly supporters do, but the sheer vitriol directed by many middle-class liberals toward white working class voters is disconcerting. This trend won’t necessarily develop beyond these largely ineffectual grumblings, but at the same time, the discourse isn’t too different in form from the way some Trump supporters talk about those populations whom they believe should be disenfranchised (i.e., everyone who isn’t a white cishetero man). I could see this anti-working-class rhetoric as the incipient stages of the ascendency of the liberal middle-class’s own strongman – though he probably won’t be a blowhard real estate tycoon. He’ll probably own a really cool tech company and wear Converse sneakers.

On Sunday, They Rode Off

After promising her nothing he comes close to touching her hand for emphasis for empathy. There are several reasons for this phenomenon: Mass impoverishment, mass unemployment, hyper-inflation, hyper-populism. The virtue of learning and acquiring knowledge by ordinary means is in its worry and disappointment. St. Patrick, in the act of sending the serpents into the sea, is Damballah, the great serpent deity – since there are serpents in the picture. Come and expel all evil and danger from us both now and forever. The floor below us lies in ruins.

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DAILY WARM-UPS: SPELLING AND GRAMMAR

No. 177a

Using the following format, write a poem about your MFA program in creative writing.

First line: a noun

Second line: three adjectives describing your professor(s)

Third line: a line expressing an opinion or feeling about your tuition bill

Fourth line: What are you going to do with your degree?

 

 

No. 106a

Write a brief description of a scary movie you’ve never seen. Change all of the victims’ names to the names of writers you don’t like. Using abbreviations, label the Final Girl. It can’t be you. You’re the killer.

 

 

No. 79a

Change each cliché into a fresh expression: interiority, the American Sublime, lyric poetry, conceptual poetry, postmodernism, New Sincerity, enjambment, metacommentary.

‘I Nearly Faint From the Love I Was Nearly Capable of’: On Jenny Zhang’s Dear Jenny, We Are All Find

Jenny Zhang traffics in the tropes of that amorphous genre variously called “alt lit,” “Internet poetry,” and “hipster poetry.” To wit: obvious provocation (there are poems here called “Comefarts” and “Seriously, Unless You’re Chinese, I Want You to Fuck”), text-message lingo (the title of the collection seems like it could be an autocorrect mistake), and a form of highly specific lyric poetry driven by a self-mocking tone of disenchantment bordering on outright contempt (to a “questionable youth” who is “tired of the way society treated her like cattle,” the speaker of “I Saw a Skulk” replies, “Mooo.”)

There is a problem with categorizing Zhang this way. It’s not that the labels are inaccurate, but that they tend to conjure up some nasty sentiments in the minds of many readers, especially in the wake of alt lit’s highly publicized “death” in 2014 That’s unfair to Zhang, whose work deserves at least a second look. Her bracing, disorienting poems do a lot to separate themselves from Tao Lin’s narcissistic posturing and Steve Roggenbuck’s YouTube screeching about Justin Bieber.

Start with the title, which turns out to be much more than a joke about spellcheck. In the context of the poems within the book, “Dear Jenny, we are all find” acts as a linguistic matrix in which two of Zhang’s major themes – her Asian-American identity and that brain-frying anxiety which, according to The Atlantic, typifies life in contemporary America – meet, ring against one another, and emerge opened up in some way.

The title comes from “My Mother Leaves Me a Message Where She Pronounces All Romance Languages in a Deep Voice,” the final poem in the book:

We are all find she says
bonjour well because
well she is Chinese and anyway
we don’t use R’s

So, the title’s not even from a text message – it’s quoted verbatim from Zhang’s mother. (I feel comfortable assuming that Zhang is our speaker in most, if not all, of these poems, based on the way the collection frequently namechecks and addresses recurring friends and family members. That being said, it’s less likely that the speaker Zhang is a perfect replica of the poet Zhang and more likely that Zhang is speaking to us through some stylized half-version of herself. The whole vibe is sort of New York School meets Confessionalism, though that doesn’t quite do the book justice.)

The flippant remark about how Chinese people “don’t use R’s” begins to get at Zhang’s complicated relationship with her heritage.

During “A Science,” Zhang declares, “We do not eat at Chinese restaurants unless owned by first or second wave Orientalists sure of their own past.” There’s a lot going on in this sentence, as is typical of Zhang’s work. The rigid dining criteria, which depend on intimate knowledge of the restaurant’s proprietors, suggest a measure of community. But this sense of connection is troubled by the use of the word “Orientalist,” which implies a fetishization of the East, and the fact that the past is “their own,” not “ours.”

It matters that “fine” is garbled into “find.” Zhang clearly isn’t “fine” with her heritage, though she repeatedly attempts to be (see “Founder”: “I wait for my people to seize me”). In her struggle to fit herself into her family’s history and the social landscape of her nations (America, China), she often finds herself isolated (“no one person has learned my language / I continue to learn everyone’s language.”) On occasion, though, something hopeful is discovered, even if it can’t be caught and kept, as in this stanza from “My Mother…”:

I might as well have been out there
which is where I am
out here and the deepness of my mother’s thoughts
so weighty and impressive
I nearly faint from the love I was nearly capable of.

I’ve taken to calling Zhang an “anxiety poet” because of how deftly she handles the manifold forms of this psychosomatic terror. Sometimes, Zhang’s difficult identity is the cause of her anxiety; other times, however, it’s a lover who may be leaving, or something someone may not have actually said, or any of the other innumerable things that can trigger at least a mild panic attack in even the most well-adjusted.

In “The Most Boring People Who Think They Are the Most Important People,” Zhang paints social anxiety with nauseating strokes:

this semen balloon floats
above your head
because you seem boring
and others critique you

Earlier in the same poem, someone correctly guesses that Zhang is menstruating, and the whole situation becomes something out of a self-conscious C- or D-level horror flick:

you are right
to notice the bad smell
was my period
I fling blood clots from my vagina

“I’M BAAAAAD” ends with the failure of Zhang’s efforts to tame unstable world, and the poem itself falls apart along with everything around her:

my whole existence prone
to proving things
for the sake of knowing
for the sake of aaa
for the sake of aaaa aaaaa
for the sake of aaaaaa aaaaaaa
for aaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaa ahwei.

Once again, we’re left to countenance the fact that Zhang is not fine. At this moment especially, she seems far from it. However, she does seem to have found something: the limits of language, which is exactly the kind of place you want your poets hanging out, in my opinion.

Excerpt From ‘Into the Darkness Which Passes for Rooms’

Into the Darkness Which Passes for Rooms (A Prose Chapbook in Progress)

1.

My therapist and I no longer speak. It was an amicable break-up. Imagine a couple who divorces over champagne on a nice patio in spring, and imagine them laughing through it all in the way you laugh when everything feels right. I said, “I’m moving to Connecticut, and so I can no longer see you for obvious geographical reasons.” He said, “I am happy that you feel capable of moving. Remember when you couldn’t even drive a car down the street to get to my office?” This was a gross misrepresentation of the situation: his office was not down the street, but down an albeit brief stretch of highway. Also it was kind of a dick move, like saying to an amputated diabetic: “Hey, remember when you had a leg? Good times, though.” Still, I got his point, and it was a good point to make.

Imagine a couple divorces over champagne on a well-wrought patio – stone, furniture, spring – laughing through it all the way you laugh when things are going too well.

2.

When I was seeing my therapist, I did not have a cat. In fact, the cat and the therapist never co-occurred. I stopped seeing my therapist in June of 2012. My cat was born in September of the same year, and I adopted him in December, also of the same year. Though on strictly technical terms, my cat and my therapist are currently co-occurring, in the sense that they are both alive. But the cat is in my apartment; he wakes me most mornings at four AM for food. My therapist might as well have died the minute I left his office. And when I did leave his office, it was like stepping out of some necessary Sodom, I kept looking back: I tried to turn into salt. And because I didn’t I assumed he was razed the way God razes what is wrong: his office hardened into scar, his body contained somewhere in the tissue. If I consider that he still exists – and, worse, is still treating patients – well, I can’t do that. My heart breaks. Like knowing your lover is making sex tapes with other men. Like sitting down and watching those sex tapes. She screams at the moment of climax: You’re doing so well these days. I’m so proud of you.

3.

You are not supposed to love your therapist, though it happens. I remember that being a plot device in an episode of Frasier: one of Niles’s patients falls in love with him, they call it projection, hijinks ensue, a marriage is strengthened, someone probably says “soupçon” at some point because, be honest, is there ever an episode of Frasier where someone doesn’t say “soupçon”? But I loved my therapist, and it was different from romantic love, and it was also different from platonic love, and maybe this sort of love is supposed to happen: my head is a tiny apartment; inside we acted in tandem out of necessity: there was no space for independent motion, and when I tried I broke things like dishes and weird trinkets.

You are also not supposed to love your patients, and this probably happens a lot less than loving your therapist, but I can’t imagine it never happens: to avoid boring itself, the world makes sure to execute each possible configuration, usually more than once. So: small child gets cancer; therapist falls in love with patient. But I also can’t imagine my therapist was in love with me. He was a nice guy. Married if I remember correctly. But he knew what his job was.

4.

I mentioned the cat because he speaks a language that I think is the language at the end of the world. Or, more realistically, at one edge of the world: the bare sharp glass of first-order desire: to sleep, to eat, to move, to know someone is there, to press one’s face into another face. Sometimes my cat gets so nervous there is blood in the litter box. He has a condition called FLUTD: Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disorder.