All too often, writers approach the lyric “I” as a singular entity, a shimmering manifestation of the individual and his or her beliefs about the world. Such an attitude, perhaps unwittingly, reinforces a dangerous set of assumptions about the boundaries between self and other. Consciousness no longer appears as the product of dialogue, made and unmade by one’s interactions within a community, but rather, we observe at a distance. This visible separation between subject and object in so much of lyric poetry, and within our own thinking, limits what is attainable when considering literature as a vehicle for social justice. By setting the individual apart from the collective, we foreclose any possibility of holding ourselves accountable for a ubiquitous and at times destructive cultural imagination.
With that said, Joshua Clover’s work is a rare exception to this disconcerting trend in contemporary lyric poetry. He offers a vision of the self as essentially relational, implicating the individual as they participate in the machinery of language, dissemination, and censorship. Through his provocative appropriation of a decidedly academic lexicon, and the vocabulary of continental theory, he asks us to consider the ways that freedom and disenfranchisement often exist simultaneously. The various texts that circulate within culture ultimately limit what is possible within conscious experience, popular media being merely another form of violence that the psyche is made to endure. Even as these disparate pieces of found language are refracted and deconstructed, we realize there is no escaping mass culture and its “lurid cartoon-colored kisses.” Clover certainly helps us to see these familiar texts anew, yet he also reminds us that we cannot unsee them. The individual is revealed as a locus for appropriation, transformation, and dialogue, but this conversation is one that we can never politely exit.
How will we ever change the subject, then? What miraculous display of tact is being called for?
* * *
The desperate ones know how all-that-refers
must in the end rise from the bed of the real
& ascend into the theatrical evening
where our false light stutters neon neon none...
Clover’s first book, Madonna anno domini, explores the individual’s inevitably conflicted response to the mass culture that circulates around them. Seduced and repelled by “the postoperative light/of the TV,” the speakers of these poems call our attention to the subject’s entrapment within popular media. We imagine an escape from culture while acknowledging the necessity of shared knowledge for community, dialogue, and even thought itself. The collection is filled with these striking moments of self-awareness, in which consciousness reflects on its own limitations.
Clover’s stylistic choices enact these larger theoretical concerns. Frequently drawing from a repertoire of inherited forms—couplets, tercets, and quatrains being merely a few examples—the poems in this collection create a provocative tension between freedom and constraint. In many ways, technique becomes an extension of content, reminding us that innovation, experimentation, and change are possible within received structures of thinking and writing. Consider this passage,
planned to practice the compliance
position with my hands on my
head not trying to rise but was
interrupted—as in fantasies
of S in riot gear. This was
the poppy vision. I admit
I found the whole thing exciting.
We have all seen this footage
Clover works within the confines of received forms of discourse to expand what is possible within them. We are presented with a pristine form, which in the last quoted stanza is broken, dismantled, fragmented. Because the poem ends there, the piece gestures at what it would mean for extension, inviting us to imagine additional ways that the carefully constructed order within the poem could be subverted. Clearly the reader’s imagination is the most unruly aspect of this poem, and it is Clover who skillfully guides us toward these possibilities.
A halved couplet, a torn newspaper. In much the same way that we lack agency over the culture that surrounds us, we rarely choose the artistic tradition we inherit. The poems in this collection show us that it is necessary to work within received structures to create a space for dialogue, conflict, and transformation.
Now the auditorium has grown crowded. One by one, the professors are raising their hands.
* * *
Clover’s second collection, The Totality for Kids, differs from his first in its preoccupation with the forms of discourse that circulate within the academy. Although invoking Michel Foucault, Jorie Graham, and other decidedly canonical figures within his earlier work, this later collection is characterized by its incisive interrogation of traditional scholarly forms of writing. Frequently appropriating the vocabulary of continental philosophy for subversive ends, Clover’s creative engagement with this theoretical content is provocative in itself. With that in mind, the wonderful allusiveness of The Totality for Kids could certainly be brought to bear on the questions raised in his first book. Here, too, we are asked to consider the ways we can work within received structures of thinking and writing to question, undermine, and ultimately transform them.
As the collection unfolds, we see that literary artists can make necessary contributions to conversations unfolding outside of their chosen medium. The resources of poetry prove instrumental in setting forth claims about the relationship between self and other, subject and object, viewer and viewed. What’s more, Clover begins to democratize these conversations. His stunning second book shows us that the creative arts can illuminate questions that circulate within what previously had been considered privileged and protected academic communities. Additionally, repetition, sound, enjambment, and the visual appearance of the work on the page convey this ambitious content where conventional academic forms of writing would fall short.
...always interrupted by the familiar notes
Of a childish song, “no more sleepy dreaming,” we float
Casually on the surface of the day, staring at the bottom,
Jotting in our daybooks, how beautiful, the armies of autumn.
Here Clover creates a fascinating tension between style and content. Although depicting the characters’ visible oblivion (which comes through most clearly as they “float...on the surface of the day”), this reverie is cut short by a startling last line. As Clover depicts their intense solipsism, the poem subtly hints at the violence surrounding these individuals through a provocative use of couplets. Indeed, the enjambment becomes a kind of violence that is done to the language, foreshadowing the moment of terror at the end of the piece. Although certainly echoing Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin, Clover shows us that poetry offers a visceral, embodied experience of what previously had been ethereal and intangible ideas.
What does this make possible, then?
* * *
the names are social
but the century is private
the inferno is social
but the mind follows
the head thinks we can leave
thinks we can go
Clover’s most recent collection of poetry, Red Epic, explores the ways academic knowledge can be brought to bear on questions of freedom, inclusion, and social justice. Much like his first and second collections, he fully acknowledges the fact that mass media, and the cultural landscape we have inherited, limit what is possible within our thinking about the world around us. Yet he also considers the myriad ways that activism is possible within received frameworks. For Clover, rendering academic conversations about culture—and the ways we can engage with their central questions—more inclusive offers a starting point for bringing conversations about ethics beyond the boundaries of the university.
As the book unfolds, we are made to see the implications of continental theory for the most commonplace interactions. By conflating high and low, Clover prompts us to consider the relevance of this seemingly academic knowledge for effecting change within the world around us. In many ways, poetry affords an interstitial space in which these disparate types of language and experience can be placed in dialogue with one another.
He writes in “Contempt,”
This illuminated surface of events, this present tense, this staring at screens we have been doing to escape the flatness of these deadpan days. This calling movies dreams, this calling memories Rome. The colors in Contempt come from a world with more minutes in each hour, but a real world, a world almost remembered...
Here Clover evokes the disdain for mass culture that has become fairly commonplace within academic circles. This idea comes through most visibly in his use of high diction (and words like “illuminated”) to describe such commonplace tasks as web surfing. Yet this learned contempt becomes the object of criticism in cases where it ends there, without giving rise to action. In many ways, Clover’s description of the imagined “world with more minutes in each hour,” with its impossible and idealized temporality, encourages us to see large-scale social change as being equally impossible without our active participation.
* * *
A crowded theatre, a blank screen. The projector just beginning to spin.
We cannot change the repertoire of images, symbols, and narratives that circulate around us. Yet these three collections ask us to imagine a utopia within the imperfect cultural landscape we have inherited.
It is books like these that make beauty seem possible again. It is books like these that encourage us to create it.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty books of poetry. Her awards include two Yaddo residencies, a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, and a Visiting Artist Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her poems and essays appear in The Gettysburg Review, New American Writing, The Mid-American Review, Third Coast, The Columbia Poetry Review, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She is currently working toward both a Ph.D. in Literature at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo and an M.F.A. in Poetry at New York University.