A double review of Must a Violence by Oni Buchanan (University of Iowa Press, 2012) and In the Pure Block of the Whole Imaginary by Richard Meier (Omnidawn, 2012).
Poetry is always associated, to a certain extent, with enchantment—not necessarily magic, but a heightened state of being that moves above (or below) prosaic reality. Poetry is the language of passion; prose is that of fact. “A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language,” writes W. H. Auden. “Prose doesn’t need emotion,” contends Ezra Pound. “Poetry,” however, “is a centaur. The thinking, mind-arranging, clarifying faculty [of prose] must move and leap with the energizing, sentient, musical faculties.” In Pound’s view, a poet resembles an archer shooting from horseback. Good prose offers exact descriptions; poems must be precise about states of mind and experience that are fleeting, transitory. Therein lies poetry’s magic.
What happens when enchantment dies? According to T. S. Eliot, “the historical sense,” something indubitably prosaic, becomes “indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year” (Pound postpones the death of the naïve poet to thirty). Suffice it to say, an exclusively passionate relationship to language does not long outlive a poet’s youth.
And, to complicate the question, what happens when enchantment dies out of a culture as a whole? The sociologist Max Weber was quoting Schiller when he used the expression “the disenchantment of the world” to describe the disappearance of a magical, integrated sense of nature under the heel of science and technology. The English-speaking reader hears echoes of Shelley in Weber’s description of “primitive” society as an Edenic state where the world remains “a great enchanted garden” and where all men are necessarily poets. These first poets—divinely inspired—are more like troubadours than authors in the modern sense. One might say that in terms of poetry the world’s disenchantment begins with the rise of the book as a commodity. In the film Orpheus, Jean Cocteau shows how the reign of the book silences the voices of nature and the gods, turning the poet into a cabaret artiste, a charlatan who retrieves his inspiration by listening to the radio.
Oni Buchanan finds sources of energy in violence. Must violence follow from disenchantment? Buchanan thinks so. The pressures of our rapidly evolving societies—the pressure of history itself—make violence inevitable. Like Jorie Graham, Buchanan calls into question the way we conceive our relations with the natural world, especially the relationship between humans and animals. The Darwinian view, now more or less conventional, states the relationship as follows: “animals have an evolutionary past. Only humans make history.” But some scientists and thinkers have announced the emergence of a new paradigm: the anthroposphere, a world in which nature is being reshaped by human activity. We have drawn animals into our orbit. The basic dilemma Buchanan confronts is the following: the human world is an entry, or fall, into history and out of an unmediated relationship with nature. We are, as Kenan Malik observes, “both inside nature and outside of it.” But this is now the condition of all life due to the immutable actions of a singular species—ourselves.
Malik states the conventional view as follows: “All non-human animals are constrained by the tools that nature has bequeathed them through natural selection. They are not capable of striving towards truth; they simply absorb information, and behave in ways useful for their survival.” Buchanan shows us a different picture: intelligent, sensitive animals imprisoned in a cage-like existence by barbaric (or simply negligent) humans. These animals suffer from anomie like us.
It’s okay to take a nap, Little Pig.
It’s okay to take a little nap
in the middle of the afternoon when you might
be tired, Little Pig, or if it’s
too hot out, it’s okay
to take a nap if you need to lie down
or rest, if you feel a little bit sleepy
and the cedar chips seem restful, if it seems
comforting to lie down a little bit
or to stretch out, it’s okay, Little Pig.
You can lie down in the sun or in the shade
as you like. You can lie in the open
or in your little house if you need
some privacy or if you want to dream,
if there’s something more, you can dream
about what’s outside, about another
world, Little Pig, where the grass grows high
and you can eat in the sun whenever
you like, and other little
pigs like you nearby eating grass—
“Animals,” writes Malik, “are objects of natural forces, not potential subjects of their own destiny.” In the world Buchanan depicts, humans are equally imprisoned. We have lost our existential privilege through the technological tools that give us access to such immense power. We too find ourselves acting out a drama, not creating one. Animals, in Must a Violence, are like us, and we are like them. The paradox of our attempt to tame nature is a loss of control, both of ourselves and the processes we have unleashed.
Charles Baudelaire became the inaugural poet of modernity by thematizing the fragmentation of experience and juxtaposing an idealized past to a chaotic and anxious present. In Paris Spleen Baudelaire essentially invented the prose poem and offered its most important theoretical justification: “It was, above all, out of my exploration of huge cities, out of the medley of their innumerable interrelations, that this haunting ideal [of a poetic prose] was born.” Like Baudelaire, Richard Meier is a poet of cities. Moreover, he recognizes the tension between the book form as a product of urban high capitalism and the traditional lyric. Shelley Gave Jane a Guitar showed him working out this tension in forms approximating those of conventional poems. In the Pure Block of the Whole Imaginary, in the vein of Baudelaire and Rilke but equally of Virginia Woolf and Victor Shklovsky, is a radical departure: an assemblage of untitled prose pieces registering the minute impressions of experience upon consciousness. Crucially, and perhaps because it is in prose, there is no clash between the book’s form and its matter.
As with all romantics, Meier’s theme is liberation: how to create a different, defiant way of moving through the webs and networks that encompass and dominate us. With its fragmentation of experience and decentering of identity—if only in the sense that the human, as Buchanan shows, is no longer a privileged subject of experience—modernity raises the question of agency. To that degree Baudelaire and the romantics were as modern as we (or we are only as modern as they). The flip side of agency or freedom is fate. Nothing preoccupied romantics from Hölderlin onward more than this curious concept, which seems almost to require a belief in the supernatural. Yet the romantics felt abandoned by God and exiled from nature. They found fate immanent in the structures we weave about ourselves, in the ways we are acted on by outside forces, be they only the self-defining wills of other selves conflicting with our own. Bad faith lies in failing to recognize the nature of the conflict that conditions existence, in denying its significance. One then lives as if sleepwalking; one abdicates to force.
According to the philosopher Bernard Stiegler, the loss of a sense of agency is linked to the experience of disorientation. Speed, for Stiegler, plays a “primordial role in the contemporary experience of disorientation.” Speed is not only metaphorical (the transmission rate of data, for instance), but literal: the fearsome velocity of the manmade objects that traverse our environment. Baudelaire chronicled the disorienting properties of speed, both of objects and signals, on the human nervous system in the mid-nineteenth century. Modern neuroscience has added little to his insights. It merely allows us to give scientific certainty to our feelings of confusion and entrapment.
Buchanan and Meier confront modernity as a problematic locus of experience, “a forest of symbols,” as Baudelaire termed it, but Meier considers disorientation in a way that envisions the possibility of overcoming it. “People wish to be settled,” Emerson claims, but “only insofar as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” Poetry unsettles. Being disoriented and being unsettled are different. Stability and freedom may become compatible in movement, but movement requires attention, care, and vigilance. Meier’s meandering sentences, for all their variations, exhibit the poise of a mind anxious but not unhinged, alert to change, focused on navigating an experienced world that comes at us as alien even as it is our own collective creation:
We were at its drifting center in the city people live; the edge can be as absent as the rhyme in the pure block of the whole imaginary as it doesn’t move through space.
The edge may be as absent as the rhyme, but Meier’s prose is actually poetry—poetry tough enough to contend with the jagged dramas of modern life.
About the Reviewer
Robert Huddleston is a poet, translator, and essayist. He grew up in the Washington, DC area and in West Africa, studying at Dartmouth College, the University of London, and the University of Chicago where he earned a PhD in comparative literature in 2006. His work has appeared in various journals including Boston Review, Chicago Review, Mantis, and Like Starlings. He currently lives in New York City and teaches at NYU.