SENTENCES, PARAGRAPHS, ESSAYS, POEMS
God Was Right
by Diana Hamilton
Ugly Duckling Presse
Published November, 2018
by Trisha Low
Coffee House Press
Published August, 2019
Samuel R. Delany, in an interview from 1983 with Sinda Gregory and Larry McCaffery, says:
It’s highly reductive to take the toddler’s tentative or passionate utterances, her one and two syllable grunts, his blurble and blab, merely as practice words; they’re questions, exclamations, protests, incantations, and demands. And tangible predicate or not, these are sentence forms. The late Russian critic M.M. Bakhtin hit on the radical notion of considering the word not a locus of specified meaning but rather an arena in which all possible social values that might be expressed with and through it can engage in contest. But what calls up those differing values? What holds them stable long enough to get their dander up, if not the other words about, along with the punctuation that, here and there, surrounds and, there and here, sunders: in short, the different sentences the word occurs in? Without the sentence, the arena of the word has no walls, no demarcation. No contest takes place. Even historically, I suspect it’s more accurate to think of the sentence as preceding the word. “Word”—or “logos”—is better considered a later, critical tool to analyze, understand, and master some of the rich and dazzling things that go on in statements, sentences, utterances, in the énoncés that cascade through life and make up so much of it.
I began this review eighteen months ago, when, in the first months of parental leave, I found myself at home, huffing my newborn’s fumes, reading aloud on a sheepskin rug. I read Diana Hamilton’s God Was Right, poem by poem, mouthing the words to my baby as if each were a lesson. No: because each was a lesson. I re-read the book when I returned to work, pencilling in the margins at my desk. By then, Trisha Low’s Socialist Realism had been published, and I read that too. A review of one became a review of both, brought together by a desire to write about sentences and paragraphs and what it means to read ostensibly prose forms – the essay, the memoir, the letter – ‘as’ poems. Or, what it means to read prose written by poets. Or, what it means to read poetry that appears to be, but in fact is resolutely not, prose. Or, how to read a book – of poems or of essays – both with and against its publishing context, with and against genre.
Returning to writing now, with a toddler’s questions, exclamations, protests, incantations, demands – her passionate sentences, as Delany would insist – animating my thinking about language, and about the massive worlds that are constructed as the habitats for desire, dissent, and relationality, I am interested most of all in reading Hamilton and Low for their investigation of what poetry can do with sentences and paragraphs, and how poetry can be understood less as a form that writing might take and more as a mode of reading writing’s forms.
Both Hamilton and Low are poets: they publish as poets, write criticism as poets, read as poets. Hamilton’s book was published by Ugly Duckling Presse as a book of poems (the back cover metadata simply says POETRY). And yet, it is a collection of poems that are also other kinds of texts: four self-identify as essays, one is a memo, one a note, one an autobiography, one a letter. Low’s book, on the other hand, was published by Emily Books, an imprint of Coffee House Press, and is marketed as a book of ‘essays’ – a ‘book-length essay’, to be exact. And yet, it reads as much as a book-length prose poem as it does an essay; it has more in common, for example, with Brandon Brown’s Four Seasons or Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely or, as it happens, Diana Hamilton’s God Was Right than it does Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts.
Knowing these two authors – knowing their work up to and including these books and knowing them personally, too – I am particularly interested in how these different publishing circumstances might shift a reader’s orientation to poetry as a practice (in the case of Hamilton) and the poet as a figure (in the case of Low). If Hamilton’s poems moonlight as other kinds of texts, then in Socialist Realism, Low herself moonlights as a different kind of author. In both cases, the relation between poetry and not-poetry is a central dynamic. But rather than simply pointing to this relation – and thereby making a simple, albeit useful, comment on genre and the soft, contingent boundaries that are made and unmade by convention, expectation, and transgression – these two books do something more compelling. They suggest that all writing can be read in the manner that one reads a poem, that is, with an acute sensitivity to the processes through which meaning is configured in a particular textual event. This is not to suggest that poetry provides the singular model for sensitive reading, but that there is a poetics to any text, and attention to this poetics – the situation and manner in which a text is made, the author and their world, the materiality of language and its intense social histories, signs bending, breaking, and bonding – is both learned through an engagement with poetry and possible to take up anywhere else. This manner of reading approaches an essay not only in terms of what it argues, but how arguments take shape, become persuasive or not, deploy rhetoric, appeal to certain feelings and values and assumptions; it approaches the note, the memoir, the review, the letter, in order to perceive the small gestures, habits, artifices, and cues that comprise these forms and their material histories.
In ‘2nd Essay On Bad Writing’, Hamilton re-examines her earlier work:
Once, I wrote
that poetry doesn’t make arguments: it does
something else instead, I argued,
in an essay that was not a poem.
If I had argued it in an essay
that was a poem, it might have been
“interesting,” where interesting just means
“there’s something to be said about that,”
and what I might say about that would include
some acknowledgment of the intentional contradiction
meant to complicate a clearly reductive idea
of the work poetry can or cannot do with something “clever.”
But I wasn’t being clever, when I wrote that.
I was being naive, so
I was wrong, when I wrote that, and I’m probably wrong
still, I was defensive, when I wrote that,
I was defending “poetry,” I thought,
but Poetry doesn’t need my defense.
It can make its own arguments.
The logic of an essay, argues Hamilton, is distinct from the logic of poem. In a poem that is also an essay – a poem that offers propositions, tests ideas, stakes a claim, follows a concept along a particular trajectory – the logic of the essay form becomes complicated and expanded by the more flexible, lawless logic of a poem. A poem that is also an essay may make an argument that reveals, after all, the construction and artifice that comprises argumentation: a poem in which logic becomes not an external principle that organises thought but a mood that accompanies certain kinds of expressions of thought. Hamilton mimics the formulaic constructions of logic that appear in books of philosophy, using bulleted lists, intricate syllogisms, and appeals to an in-common reason that measures and disciplines thought; ultimately, however, these formulas fail, the terms fold in on each other, and the logic of dream or fantasy or memory turns the construction on its head. In showing the peculiar poetics and habitual neuroses, anxieties, and perversities of a particular kind of philosophy (the canonical works she studied at graduate school), Hamilton offers both a critique and a generous reading. The generative space of a Hamilton poem, in other words, is the best place for a philosophical concept to find itself transformed.
In the poem, Hamilton recognises that her prior argument rested on the idea that poetry does ‘something else’, something that cannot be adequately described in terms of the essay or its forms of argumentation. She recognises that if she had made this argument in a poem, it would have revealed a clever contradiction: poems are not essays, except poems that are also essays; if the claim is correct that poems cannot make arguments, then the poem that makes this claim in the form of an argument must either be false (and the proposition remains true) or true (and the proposition is revealed to be false). Hamilton, it seems, takes the latter position, and changes her original proposition:
Poetry makes arguments, I mean:
That’s this book’s argument
This renegotiation is significant because, as Hamilton points out, the politics of contemporary poetry – ideas about precisely what, if anything, constitutes ‘political’ poetry, and arguments about what forms, if any, are more conducive to radical or revolutionary politics – have been the site of much discussion and disagreement in the ten or so years that Hamilton has been publishing poetry.
This discussion and disagreement can be crudely summarised as a fight over the relationship between poetry and subjectivity. On the one hand, and in debt to certain strains of the modernist avant-garde and conceptual art, there is a position that maintains that the politics of poetry is to be found in its form: in the elision of subjectivity (often imagined as naive, bourgeois, egoistic) and in the use of fragmentation, abstraction, and parataxis. In short, in the notion that the political potential of poetry is to be found in the transformation of the materiality of language. On the other hand, there is a position that maintains that the politics of poetry is to be found in the relation between a writing subject and the world, or, more specifically, in confrontation with the processes of subjectivisation that produce the writing subject and which complicate the poem as a social text. God Was Right, as Hamilton goes on to say in ‘2nd Essay on Bad Writing’, is in part an exploration of her own transformation away from the former and towards the latter idea of the possibility and politics of poetry. One way she does this is by proposing the term ‘Fictional Poetry’—
i.e., poetry that uses style, plot, characterization,
or forms of fiction. What’s “fictional” is a quality of aboutness
that prevents overemphasis on form—and on the repetition
of form that often characterize the appearance of schools—
and resists the belief that the shape a poem takes
is always the source of its politics / interestingness.
literariness / purpose. Instead, the books I want to write
about don’t mind being about things: about love,
about childbirth, about borders, about sex, about gossip,
Hamilton is talking here about the kind of poetry she wants to read and write about, but as God Was Right demonstrates clearly, it is also a desire manifest in her own poems, which are resolutely ‘about’ things (kissing, consent, animals, marriage, friendship, romance, heartbreak, fatness). Following Hamilton’s own definition, these poems are ‘fictional’ insofar as they use ‘style, plot, characterization’ to generate ‘a quality of aboutness’ and also, crucially, because they ‘lie’, that is, they engage in ‘the old utility of making-something-up to say something / “true.”’ (‘I mean,’ she clarifies, ‘poems that tell stories’.)
Complicating the reading of Hamilton’s own poems by her notion of the ‘fictional poem’ is the fact that these poems are also, for the most part, as I have already said, essays. So the forms of fiction that are taken up to tell a story (for example, dialogue) become tangled with forms of exposition that are deployed to make an argument (for example, dialogical thinking). The result is a poem that is not only about something, but that explores ‘aboutness’ through a variety of forms: the story, the memory, the fantasy, the dream, the confession, the proposition, the letter. And perhaps most importantly, these poems, which are about something as well as about the aboutness of that thing’s becoming in/as a poem, are also records of Hamilton’s own political education – a record of her learning and sharing, trying and failing, reading and rereading, speaking and listening, contradicting and transforming. The poems are stories that contain their own appendices, stories with embedded essays that show how stories are made and what conditions their telling. In this sense, God Was Right is not only an incredibly intelligent book ‘about’ what it is like to live and read and write in this world but also an incredibly generous book that shows its reader precisely how Hamilton mediates experience into ideas that in turn become a poem or an essay.
‘Persuasive Essay for Sex Ed’ begins:
“Here are some strategies,” the teacher says,
“for consent, and for how to balance it
with what will surely be your growing sense
that ‘eagerness,’ of a certain type, can be a turn off.”
“At some point,” she advises, “You will find yourself
you wanted to have sex with before
they got on top of you, even though
it now feels like you’ll die
if they don’t get off of you.
Your first instinct might be to get them off
as quickly as possible, which you’ll presume
requires you to feign pleasure in case
they’re noticing this upcoming death
of yours, the years you’ll spend near vomiting
at the memory of how you did this, daily
for a year, so you moan, you find the fastest
route to their orgasm, you put your feet on the nearest
wall to provide resistance for more apparently eager
gyrations, they take forever to come, it becomes clearer
that you hate it, they finally roll off and ask
‘Did you come?’ and you say ‘In my own way.’
This is a bad first instinct.
This poem is not only about consent, and the woefully inadequate and often destructive program that gets called ‘sex education’ in the high school classroom; it is a poem about the lived experience of becoming a sexual subject, and the realisation that the sex we are told is normal, or, god forbid, desirable, is in fact, often the sex we do not want, the sex that stands in direct opposition to our desires, intimacies, and pleasures. In the poem, the student and the teacher merge together, one learning from the other as one learns from experience or through whisper networks. Across the collection, Hamilton’s critical reflections on what it means be socialised into and constrained by gender, sexuality, race, and class (subject positions that are, of course, historically contingent and therefore inextricable from the material conditions that produce our deeply, absurdly catastrophic world moment) move between diagnoses of entrenched and internalised shittiness (‘our souls are eaten away so early that we are jealous of our mom’s / weight loss due to cancer in the swimsuit aisle’), readings of texts and figures (‘Lionel Trilling dies without answering the titular question to his essay, “Why Do We Read Jane Austen?” But one answer is simple: because we happen to have already read Jane Austen earlier, and we want to remember how we felt’), direct addresses (‘So I’m writing this essay after all, to say: // Fuck you if you think bad writing is more offensive than rape’), philosophical propositions (‘I believe it to be a religious text, in the sense that I believe calming / down when looking at the face of an animal is religious’), and humour (I was telling a man about my dream of opening an animal sanctuary that would also be an artists’ residency/living space for people other than cis men to hang out with cats, write, and otherwise recover from the various trauma traumas of their lives before and after the sanctuary. The man, a scholar of animal studies, pressed me on whether I would allow tomcats at the sanctuary, given the gender restrictions on human residents’).
Hamilton’s emphasis is on learning ways to diagnose and resist that which is unjust, exploitative, or just plain wrong, as well as transforming her own learning into a self-aware poetry, one form in which the processes of subjectivisation can be articulated and analysed. The poems in the book each articulate a complex argument that is made, corrected, altered, and annotated throughout the writing; in this sense, the poems register the deeply textured processes through which subjectivity is shaped through constant study. Hamilton lays bare for the reader two distinct forms of learning to learn from: learning to identify in one’s life the conditions that make it livable or not, bearable or not, meaningful or not; and learning to move from this knowledge towards social and collective action. A poem has its limits: to paraphrase Hamilton, we should never expect poetry to do more than it does. But if there is a best possible version of a poem, then surely it is the kind that Hamilton believes in and writes, the poem in which, as Rob Halpern writes about a different writer, Bruce Boone, storytelling becomes ‘a strategy for answering an otherwise unanswerable need to locate oneself by way of social forces in excess of what can be experienced by any single individual, forces which nevertheless situate the individual within a network [of] stories that can’t be coherently unified and told’.
Trisha Low’s Socialist Realism opens with a retelling of a scene from the 1949 film Adam’s Rib. In the film, Doris (Judy Holliday) is arrested for shooting her philandering husband. In her account of the event – in which the husband copped a bullet in the shoulder – Doris recalls her insatiable hunger. She buys a gun, eats two hamburgers and some pie, and then while waiting around to unload the gun she ate several chocolate bars. The prevailing mood of the whole experience? Hunger.
This retelling is punctuated by paragraphs in which the author describes arriving in California – by car, of course – to live. California, that ‘hollow final destination’, is the last stop on a journey that begins with a childhood in Singapore, an adolescence in England, a college education in Philadelphia, and graduate school in New York City. This journey, Low points out, is a journey to the West: ‘I came to the West with a desire to reinvent myself even if I didn’t know how. I wasn’t expecting much of this destiny, but I did expect to find some kind of home. What I found was a sobering lesson instead—a thin and sweet delusion, doomed’. And so the book begins: this is a book about confronting the desire to find or make home – about the homes we must leave, the homes that would destroy us if we stayed, the homes we take as sanctuaries that turn out to be mirages, and the homes we imagine for the future. It’s also a book about the disappointing and insatiable hunger of wanting that which we cannot reach. Doris’s hunger is surely not simply a symptom of her hurt and rage, nor an effect of her failing to kill her husband; it’s a hunger that cannot be satisifed by burgers or candy or even murder because it’s a hunger that indexes a much bigger history: a history of the marriage contract, the property relation, the sex/gender binary. Doris’s hunger is a political desire as it is written in the body, a desire for something more complex than revenge. Her hunger is for a version of home that doesn’t include a man you want to shoot.
Throughout Socialist Realism, Low thinks about her own hunger for home. Home is often imagined as a place that exists in the past – that which cannot be returned to – and yet as Low repeatedly points out in this book, if home is a place where one can live, can continue to live, then it is a place that exists primarily in the future. And part of the problem we face in a moment ablaze with constant, total crisis, is that imagining a future at all, let alone a future safe enough to be home, is extremely difficult.
But there’s something more complex to Low’s notion of home. It’s not just what we seek in a bearable version of the future. It’s also a very simply wherever we happen to be; transitory, impermanent, imperfect, awkward. And so there’s something discomfiting about the logic that underscores Low’s writing: we want a future that is worth living, but to do so requires something almost impossible to imagine let alone fight for, and we worry that we are not brave or strong enough to fight for what seems impossible, and so the reality we inhabit – of a shattered and ruined world – is one in which we have to both survive within and prepare to keep enduring, and that shattered and ruined world, which is the one we have until we don’t, may in fact be not where we happen to be but also a source of a certain comfort, a comfort we hold close and are ashamed of, or hold close so as to know what destroys us, or hold close in the way we hold an enemy by the throat. What Low repeats, in different forms, is a fear: we are not only in a cruel-optimistic relation to a world that will take from us precisely that which it promises; we are daily confronted with the enormity of breaking that relation, of breaking the world, of turning down its promises and exposing their rotten cores:
Home, what even is it? I’m not sure, but I know I want it—because home is a chronic matter of wanting. Of forcing desire, despite itself, into a shape—one with a beginning, middle, end. It’s about futurity. “Going home” is necessarily a journey, but it’s also the security of destination. It’s knowing you have a place to rest after all your time spent wandering, even if you have to trick yourself into believing it exists.
I don’t think it’s strange to want revolution, just as I don’t think it’s strange to desire utopia (how could we not?), but to embrace this desire is also to recognize its emptiness. First used by Sir Thomas More in 1516 in a the book of the same name, utopia has come to mean a perfect place where everyone has what they need and nothing needs to change—someplace better than the one we know. But the word comes from the Greek ou, for not, and topos, for place, meaning no-place. In other words, it refers to somewhere impossible. I think this is apt. I don’t believe any utopia we imagine can ever come into being. Such perfection is, by definition, beyond what our reality is capable of.
If there’s repetition and recursion in Low’s writing, in her tendency to ask herself the same questions or to make the same kinds of observations or conclusions, then this must be the point: the activity of building a politics, of living a political life, is for the most part a series of repetitive, recursive gestures that can be incredibly boring, or at least feel like it; moments of sudden eruption or transformation or clarity are rare; we find ourselves for the most part asking the same questions over and over, repeating the same concerns and judgements, hearing ourselves in each other’s voices (or not, and despairing the absence of resonance). This tension that underscores Low’s writing derives from a larger tension about the relation between political being, its structures of feeling and habits of expression. It’s a tension explicitly referenced in the title of the book itself.
Socialist realism names a mode of representation in which an image of revolution is constructed as indivisible with everyday life. The fact that this mode of representation becomes synonymous, as Joshua Clover points out, with the project of revolution qua the state, delimits the image of what revolution might be considerably. It gets stuck, as he would say. Early in the book, Low recounts visiting the Tate Modern to see a show of Malevich’s work. Malevich, she recalls, was compelled to transform his practice to conform to the ‘reality’ of the Soviet’s self-image. She warns, via Malevich: ‘if we choose to believe that the revolution is already over, the perfect home already built, things may, in fact, turn sinister’. Later in the book, Low writes: ‘Joey texts me to ask if I’ve decided to assimilate myself into what he thinks is the predominant aesthetic of Bay Area poetry—what some might disparagingly call socialist realism. He’s not joking. I snort softly through my nose.’
What does socialist realism mean in this characterisation of a specifically Californian sensibility, a poetics that, as Low mentions early on in her book, her New York friends describe as ‘always seeking revolution’? Low’s reading of Malevich seems to suggest that revolutionary desire, when it is manifest as a daily practice, an ‘always seeking’, is precisely the opposite of socialist realism, which represents and fixes on a static image of revolution. Or perhaps the critique being made is of a perceived performativity, a sense in which ‘always seeking revolution’ becomes a kind of brand: a poetry that misrecognises the representation of revolution for revolution itself.
Low’s rejoinder is this book, which asks the question of how to represent revolutionary desire in writing when that desire is wracked with self-doubt, ambivalence, fear, and feelings of both futility and possibility. It is not possible to write the perfect revolutionary poem – on this point Low, Hamilton, and ‘Joey’ would agree – but it is possible to include writing in the broader project of learning how, and when, and where to struggle; how to learn from struggles won and lost, and how to plan for struggle as an ongoing effort. And this is done with particular vigour in the second half of the book, where Low thinks about gender, sexuality, race, the politics of friendship, the complex dynamics of masochism, the figure of the teenage girl and violent fandom, self-immolation, and family. In these studies, which weave in and out, adding layers and textures to each other, Low considers how to write an incomplete and uncertain memoir that traces the different threads that speak to the much larger, more unwieldy and decidedly collective histories that write us. Who among us, she reminds us, is not a character in a story that includes war, displacement, empire, and grief?
Like Hamilton in God Was Right, for Low, the passage from a particular idea of what writing should be (‘They all agree that any type of writing that has already been established is uninteresting and inferior. Even then, she loves melodrama but reviles “feelings” in Art. She believes all representations of “feelings” inevitably render them inauthentic and trite’) to an altogether different one (the book, Socialist Realism) requires not just a re-engagement with subjectivity but an interrogation of how the subject comes to be in the first place, and under what terms. When, in the Bay Area, she starts to work on a text that would eventually become Socialist Realism – working somewhere between poetry and prose, writing about her life but alongside theory and other cultural objects – she felt like she was being rewarded for finally writing about her identity, for finally being ‘vulnerable’ in her work. (This, she points out, is an odd thing to say to someone ‘who routinely performs, of her own volition, suicide notes she may or may not have written at various points in her life’.) The problem, in other words, is not just what forms poems take in their expression of a politics but what kinds of reading practices become habituated in particular situations or periods and in relation to certain political ideas. In our moment, as Brandon Taylor wrote recently in an interview, ‘It feels as though there is a great deal of pressure to generate art that seems to exist solely for the purpose of slotting it onto a peg and running it out to the market like dishes in an automat’. Or, like Low herself writes, ‘I’m upset because it feels like you can’t write the personal without it fitting into some larger cause. These days, there’s no room to make art unless its loyalties are straightforward, like how we want identity to be’.
Throughout the book, Low is frustrated by the terms on which she is read. Low’s relationship to poetry and its scenes remains an unresolved tension. Is Socialist Realism a book about leaving, or wanting to leave, poetry behind? And if so, what is in front, if poetry is behind? In my desire to read this book as poetry I am responding in part to my own ambivalence about poetry. Why is it, I ask myself almost daily, that ‘poetry’ is the thing I remain invested in? Why poems? The only answer that satisfies me requires an understanding of poetry as a mode of reading and a not a mode of writing (or, probably more accurately, a mode of reading as well as, and disaggregated from, a mode of writing): poetry as a readerly approach that focuses on the act of writing and the things that get made, destroyed, and remade through language; poetry as a readerly approach that recognises the tiny gestures that comprise the biggest meanings. When I read Socialist Realism as poetry, I read it as trying to register, in the act of writing, the work required to develop a politics and to live with it. In this sense, I read Low and Hamilton’s books as united in their aim to produce a poetics of their respective political educations. The key difference is the unit of meaning that organises their poetry: for Hamilton it is the sentence and for Low the paragraph.
Hamilton’s poems, whether line broken or composed in prose paragraphs, are made of sentences. She is deft at producing elegant, complex, rich sentences, often appearing in the form of an entire line-broken verse paragraph. In ‘Attempt to be Adequate to the Experience of Loving an Animal’, the sentences are formatted in long lists, separated by em dashes. These lists, which on first look appear to be single thoughts coalescing towards a larger point, are actually long sentences oddly broken by the dashes:
Then, he gave me a print of a photograph of an eagle
—taken by an artist he’s financially supported.
—This man and I grew up
—just a few hours from each other, and
—had much in common.
—The eagles, goats, and cats permitted us
—to stay “in common.”
This poem’s peculiar use of dashes echoes an earlier poem, ‘Essay on Bad Writing’, in which Hamilton steps through an argument about the way that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are deployed as codes for gendered assumptions about literature’s value. In that poem, the dashes summarise the various positions that Hamilton finds herself negotiating, rehearsing, altering, and rejecting. When the dashes reappear in her poem about loving animals, they are looser, more arbitrary. Here, the poem’s argument is less defined: she is trying to find a way to describe the feeling of being surprised by one’s own love for an animal, a feeling which is an unexpected confrontation of a larger identification: loving animals, as Hamilton argues, is no mere character quirk but an entire structure of being. Loving animals is both religious and entirely inadequately described by religion. And so in the first poem, the dashes are used in order to show the exact hinges and pivots in her argument; in the second poem the dashes are used to show the eccentric reason that underscores this theory of a structure of being predicated on an intense, interspecies love. In both cases, despite the dashes and their placement, the poems comprise complete sentences.
The sentence, following Delany, is not so much a strict grammatical unit as it is a ‘flexible, sinuous, complex’ construction that speaks to, and of, social relations. Even a one-word sentence – like ‘Fuck!’ or the single syllable of an infant assigning a sound to a thing – signals a ‘real history of material pressures and complex influences’. Hamilton’s poetry shows the considerable capacity of the sentence to make worlds for ideas, to trace the small and local histories of her thinking into poems which, in their honesty, rage, humour, and intelligence are not only deeply enjoyable to read but also incredibly instructive. A reader will likely finish this book and want to write their own poems.
In Socialist Realism, the writing is organised by paragraphs. Tab-spaced paragraphs link together in sequences that are cleaved by double-spaced paragraph breaks. The result is three kinds of paragraphs: one paragraph (sometimes a single sentence) on its own; paragraphs in short sequences; the sequences as their own paragraph-aggregates between hard breaks. This organisation does not conform to a particular logic: while Low’s writing moves back and forth between disparate time periods that thread together an account of her life via expansive readings of art, film, theory, and popular texts, neither the paragraphs nor their breaks necessarily demarcate what time is being occupied nor what is being read in a given moment. Instead, they figure as more ambiguous spaces, acting as both breaks in thought as well as relations between thoughts and their overlapping histories. If we take the sentence to be that which carries an idea, a desire, a judgement, a will, an opinion, an offering – if we understand the sentence as the construction of meaning toward a certain end, then we can take the paragraph not merely as a collection of sentences (and therefore a collection of ideas, desires, judgements, wills, opinions, or offerings) but as a complex narrative space in which sentences come to act upon each other, change their meanings, cause problems, and set up future thought. Gertrude Stein famously articulated the difference between sentences and paragraphs by claiming that paragraphs are emotional, and sentences not. I have never taken this construction to imply that sentences are unfeeling, but that paragraphs – in their intensely social function of stressing the points of contact and disjuncture between sentences – bear witness to the transformation of feeling into more organised narrative forms. For Low, the paragraph and its other, the break, work to emphasise to the reader the fact that writing about one’s life necessitates the construction of a narrative form workable enough to give shape and order to experience, which remains, in its perception and representation, hectic, non-linear, and ever-shifting.
An obvious influence in Low’s work is the group of writers who have come to be known by the name ‘New Narrative’, many of whom still write today but who began to write with, for, about, and alongside each other in the late-1970s around the Bay Area. For these writers, the repudiation of representation in avant-garde writing was impossible to reconcile with the experience of being a social and political subject. As Robert Glück writes about the early days of New Narrative:
I experienced the poetry of disjunction as a luxurious idealism in which the speaking subject rejects the confines of representation and disappears in the largest freedom, that of language itself. My attraction to this freedom and to the professionalism with which it was purveyed made for a kind of class struggle within myself. Whole areas of my experience, especially gay experience, were not admitted to this utopia, partly because the mainstream reflected a resoundingly coherent image of myself back to me—an image so unjust that it amounted to a tyranny that I could not turn my back on. We had been disastrously described by the mainstream—a naming whose most extreme (though not uncommon) expression was physical violence. Political agency involved at least a provisionally stable identity.
The questions for Glück, as he recounts them: ‘How can I convey urgent social meanings while opening or subverting the possibilities of meaning itself? […] What kind of representation least deforms its subject? Can language be aware of itself (as object, as system, as commodity, as abstraction) yet take part in the forces that generate the present? Where in writing does engagement become authentic?’ New Narrative work has attempted to answer these questions by writing ‘about’ friendship, sex, pornography, desire, community, solidarity, and despair and that which structures and conditions, constrains and disciplines them. Rather than rejecting narrative as somehow and by default in the service of a false totality, these writers wonder how narrative – understood as a ‘device for registering social meaning’, as Bruce Boone puts it – could become one mode in the larger project of reading, talking, and organising together.
‘From our poems and stories,’ writes Glück, ‘Bruce abstracted “text-metatext”: a story keeps a running commentary on itself from the present. The commentary, taking the form of a meditation or a second story, supplies a succession of frames. That is, the more you fragment a story, the more it becomes an example of narration itself—narration displaying its devices—while at the same time, as I wrote in 1981, the metatext “asks questions, asks for critical response, makes claims on the reader, elicits comments. In any case, text-metatext takes its form from the dialectical cleft between real life and life as it wants to be’. These central concerns – how to learn from poetry the intensive possibilities of the word, the fragment, the image, the lyric; how to read, share, and understand the critical concepts offered by theory; how to tell stories; how to write for a very specific reading public; and how to develop a certain kind of utopian poetics – are shared by Low. Glück writes of the ambivalent desire he feels towards a version of poetry that he cannot write because he cannot imagine how it would be possible, nor desirable, to renounce representation; Low, writing in 2019 and with a different idea of utopia than was available in 1981, echoes a similar ambivalence towards the poetries she grew up with. Her book is an account of learning from, losing, and only ever partially recovering a relationship to poetry and its promises.
In Socialist Realism, the stories that are collected in the book are not intended to form a coherent autobiographical account, but they are nonetheless narrative forms that work to complicate and illuminate each other and that study the considerable risks and problems with writing about one’s life. Low’s paragraphs are movements in a bigger narrative, bringing a reader’s attention to the associations and cessations that are inherent to the process of storytelling. A story begins when it begins, except, of course, it doesn’t:
I keep trying to figure it out anyway. The possibilities, that is. It’s a year ago. It’s now. It’s five years later, I mean three. I’m in Oakland. I’m in New York City. I’m alone. I’m with Staiti, touching their skin as though it’s gauzy, like a dream. I’m at a bar, everybody is. We’re yelling about art, no, politics. It doesn’t matter because we’re really yelling about The Wire. What is the origin of the phrase where is home? But more important, what is its sharper, truer meaning? Something simpler, like what do you want? If there’s any answer apart from “Something better than this.” Dress it up however you like. Sorry, what I meant to say was, “Hey, how’d she get a literary agent?” No, “When the revolution _____.” Whatever. We end up making out anyway, everyone pressed against the wall with the wrong person and their shattered ideology. Every reiterative question a performative facade against the breakdown of a pose. I’m a comrade who strongly believes in the power of communism. I’ve been easily seduced by fashion and decadence. I’m lost. I’m over there, in the next moment, thirsting after capitalist dick, hell, every time I move my body through different registers, places, times, I go to a different reception hall. I give them my coat. They give me a name tag. I don’t try to read it because I don’t want to know, which script. I figure it out anyway. I look at people around me. They all look the same. We speak in the same tone. We all talk small. He said, she said, etc.
This week I’m reading Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment by Juliana Spahr. Early in the introduction, she writes: ‘I began this book with an old question about how to understand the vexed and uneven relationship between literature and politics.’ ‘No one is more convinced’, she continues, ‘than writers of literature that literature has a role to play in the political sphere, that it can provoke and resist. They assert it all the time. While often theoretically sophisticated, much of this assertion is fairly ahistorically optimistic.’ Part of the problem, she argues, is that literature is understood too broadly and abstractly, and that this understanding of literature as such makes it hard to examine the material and structural conditions under which specific works of literature are produced, read, and taught. As she writes, its ‘half-in and half-out relationship with capitalism is what gives literature the autonomy to provoke, to speak truths to power. But it also makes it vulnerable to other sorts of conscription. The market, in short, is not the only force that might conscript literary autonomy.’
Spahr’s project wishes to understand why so many literatures in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries that begin with utopian and revolutionary hopes end up far away from them. And relatedly, why ‘moments when literature is in close proximity to resistance movements are so fleeting and also, more recently, so rare.’ Both Hamilton and Low share Spahr’s ambivalent relationship to questions of what literature can be said to do; and yet, all three are clearly invested in the idea that forms of reading are both possible and meaningful in which this or that text, this or that moment, this or that concept, is moved between people or becomes attached to organised movements of people. I read God Was Right and Socialist Realism as two books that, by working with the sentence (for Hamilton) and the paragraph (for Low), as well as with the practice of writing prose under the sign of poetry, attempt to examine the specific circumstances under which they come to write in the first place: the nation-state, the family, the university, the canon, the market; gender, its relationship to the body; sexuality and its brilliant vectors of desire; intimacy; shame; friends; enemies; pop songs; the particular quality of small, deep-fried snacks. To share these things is ultimately to share a small story, equally sad and hopeful, about learning to build a poetics and a politics.
Bruce Boone, cited in Rob Halpern, ‘Realism and Utopia: Sex, Writing, and Activism in New Narrative,’ Journal of Narrative Theory, Volume 41, Number 1, 2011, pp.82–124.
Joshua Clover, ‘Communist Realism’, Reading Capitalist Realism, Alisons Honkwiler and Leigh Claire La Berge (eds.), University of Iowa Press, 2014.
Samuel R. Delany, Sinda Gregory, and Larry McCaffery, ‘The Semiology of Silence,’ Science Fiction Studies, Volume 14, 1987.
Robert Glück, Communal Nude: Collected Essays, Semiotext(e), 2016.
Juliana Spahr, Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment, Harvard University Press, 2018.