ARTIFICE IN THE CALM DAMAGES
by Andrew Levy
Chax, 176 pages
reviewed by Johnny Payne
The traditional identification of poet and prophet is acceptable only in the sense that the poet is about as slow in reflecting his epoch as the prophet. If there are prophets and poets who can be said to have been ‘ahead of their time’, it is because they have expressed certain demands of social evolution not quite as slowly as the rest of their kind.
Trotsky said it best: “All through history, the mind limps after reality.” The aloof intelligentsia continues to believe in the power of reason alone to move the world. No amount of revolution has yet changed this fact. As a recent electoral outcome pretends to remedy the hyper-capitalistic state of siege in which we all currently exist, neoliberalism, a name which in itself has become insufficient to describe the evolving phenomenon, applies an over-the-counter balm to a suppurating gangrenous wound.
Into this hyperkinetic stasis comes Artifice in the Calm Damages by Andrew Levy. It is a series of meditations on the self as written repeatedly onto a historical palimpsest in an attempt to describe a personal politics adequate to the age of dread in which we exist. This act requires a pilfering through of the self, though not in the conventional manner in which a poet might revisit his childhood, or love affairs. It is, at bottom, a history of mind.
Levy, in his poetry, is both in time and out of time, fast and slow, that his method of composition stages the flux of a disconcerting, cognitive-ideological fugue state of existence. It is a state of shock, like experiencing the shocks of a car with a shot engine. You drive, not like the Angel of History flying, head backward, body forward, beleaguered yet elegant in pushing against the wind of the future-past, but jolted on a rutted dirt road, with your hands on the wheel, feeling yourself stupid and jerky, gunning the engine but not quite in control.
Detected and corrected,
The resting places within the poem are allographically
—From “Destroying Exculpatory Evidence”
All the way down to the fonts, the cursive or blocking handwriting, the poem’s unique stamp can easily get effaced in the complexity of the political age. The demand for instant meaning, declaration, relevance, doesn’t easily allow for the “resting places” of personal meditation on the self and on the act of writing. Levy’s very style of writing, while theatrical, often feels like a fertile prelude, rather than the grand gesture of meaning. He is constantly hedging his bets, inviting us into long lulls of cognition, ones that require patience. The poet exists as an enlightened copyist, as a scribe, a witness to devastation, issuing warnings of the now and trying to awaken historical consciousness. That is the artifice in the calm damages. There is found text, and quotations with or without attribution, as the voices of wisdom speak in turn within each poem.At its height, we are given excerpts like the following:
“Get your breath,” Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn said:
“When you utter a word before God, then enter
into that word with every one of your limbs.”
One of his listeners asked: “How can a big human
being possibly enter into a little word?” “Anyone who
thinks himself bigger than the word,” said the zaddik,
“is not the kind of person we are talking about.”
—From “Nothing is Free of Presence
Here, sacred knowledge, while ultimately usable, runs counter to applied knowledge. The enjoinder to dwell in such questions and riddles suggests that any philosophy, ultimately, gets evaluated as a wisdom tradition. Sacred and secular (materialism vs. kabbalah) are not seen as being in opposition. They are streams of thought that issue into the same big river. Reading these pages, one thinks of the great parable makers, entirely comfortable with living inside indeterminacy, not as a “language experiment,” but existentially—as though one might say, “Speak a combination of sentiment, sense and nonsense, because we might be here a long time.” The sentimental satirist Isaac Babel comes to mind, eye sharp yet deeply committed emotionally. Economics may lie at the heart of our malaise, and Levy fully explores that reality in his poems, yet the playful qualities and the beating heart of the book belie either mere pragmatic dogmatism or head-scratching flight into language in itself. Significant value resides in this dialectical gesture of inward gathering, whether abstruse or simply shy of declaration, and the outward thrust of praxis. The latter is repeatedly arrived at, but all in good time, and as a continuous process rather than a thunderous blast of insight.
The enigma of existence censors and remakes, as
well as mission control, is ridiculed by another group at
the nearest borders of heaven. Such consumption
of anthropomorphic thinking splatters in the blink
of an eye.We do not see the beginning—one can’t help it—
or the end. No promises are made.
—From “Nothing is Free of Presence”
That is the genius of this volume, to eschew the prophetic, teleology, and to focus on that blank slate, that refusal to promise, and to present a ‘clear enigma.’ The book is path-breaking in that regard, when the language poetry phase has exhausted whatever modest value it possessed in shaking up sensibility and has passed into sheer commodity.
Real things become garbage.
Your request for information and its corresponding
Rhetorical analysis is caught forever in the structure
Of words. The garden as a heterogeneous site
Is a collage of the real?
—From, “Gender-specific Headfuckery”
It is that “real” as alpha and omega that keeps these poems grounded in a discourse of action, rather than fetishizing the “aloof intelligentsia” of which Trotsky so long ago complained. Gramsci said it clearly: “Given the principle that one should look only to the artistic character of the work of art, this does not in the least prevent one from investigating the mass of feelings and the attitude towards life present in the work of art itself.” Such a statement, which should now be obvious among even those of us who believe that form precedes content, has gotten muddied by Anglo experimentation of the late 20th century, the winds of which blew their crumpled paper into verbal arroyos, skipping its way toward an ideological landfill, without them ever considering words as an actual form of material reality—rather, they were supposedly only ‘signifiers without referents,’ which is ultimately skewed Platonism masquerading as radical displacement. For once, in Artifices, the overworn term “reification,” so abused by post-structuralists, lands. Hearken below to Levy’s tender marriage of high concept to image. Reminding us he is first and last a poet, he uses here, as in many places, a striking and mysterious image to situate us within his thoughts.
The smoky and sline heart can be forgiven or withdrawn,
And that may help us understand something about who
is being deceived and who no longer has anything to
Unveil. There may be a serious flaw in our delirium,
A series of traps for the capture of objects.
—From “Destroying Exculpatory Evidence”
Again, the calm damages are patiently, steadfastly cataloged by Levy with subjective objectivity, emphasis on the “object.” Damage happens to humans as beings, their physical suffering going beyond idealism toward dialectical nominalism. It is a conjectural version of W.C. Williams’s “No ideas but in things,” half-destroyed detritus that is charged with illumination. That’s what we have to work with.
Let us imagine as far as we please; a limited number of phenomena,
may decompose the act which divides an impalpable but probable
body of metaphor, fathers and mothers never to be restored
except as lovers in the abyss.
—From “Lovers in the Abyss”
Trotsky spoke true when he observed that Futurism’s violent oppositional character did not absolve it from reckoning with the past. Its advanced-guard nature didn’t necessarily speak to the objective needs of the working class (into which we can now add an eroded middle class, turned virtual working-class unable to afford property, and for whom participation in consumer culture no longer satisfies, or masks the ideological contradictions in which they exist). He speaks true in declaring: “it is not necessary to make a universal law of development out of the act of pushing away.”
That is the dilemma that the forward-looking writer faces, yet Levy’s grounding in the affective, such as sincere, non-ironic contemplation of rabbinical wisdom, effaces secularism as a goal in itself. In the calm damages, knowledge is wherever you find it. In the verses below, language in fact finds you, and in that resides its power. You don’t just use language to form thoughts. Language breaks you open, it pushes against you, insinuating respect for its nature as language in itself. It disturbs, and out of that disturbance, consciousness evolves.
Only a debased
Class believes one owns words. But the meaning of words
Continues to be contested, to be built upon. Sometimes you
Don’t have to invite them, they just come up into your living
Room. You can get used to them being there in the basic
Atomic structure of matter. A petro-melancholia made to fit
Until you have to throw yourself out.
—From “Beauty in this Digital Eden”
It is there, in the intersection between petro-melancholia and absolute knowledge of one’s “deer-like self,” that this transcendent collection resides. Beckett’s characters resided in trash bins. Gorky’s The Lower Depths drew pessimistic, if insightful, conclusions, setting up a limited situation regarding human endeavor and the possibility of self-understanding. Levy’s message is, if deliberately and necessarily inconclusive, more redemptive. It fucks with our heads, offering no permanent or secure location, taking away with one hand what it has given with the other. In the end, there is no single authoritative set of playful-serious declarations, rather the artifice of the real. There might be a benign “master narrative” that would guide political action, but we don’t know what it is. Meanwhile, we make sallies into the immediate sphere, doing what work we can.
I believe the best times are still ahead for our species.
At this time, I prefer a small to a medium-sized platform.
And yes I like to swing straight ahead sometimes. I write
Explicitly circular. The social comprehension is perceived
At once. Abandoned by my brother, ice cubes become
A giant rumbling. The goal is to take them hostage.
—From the poem, “Because you’re a Socially Aware Person”
Johnny Payne is a poet, playwright, director, and novelist. His recent books include his book of essays on French and Latin American poetry, under his alter ego Étienne D’Abattoir; the novel Confessions of a Gentleman Killer; and the plays Death by Zephyr and Cannibals. He directs the MFA in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University.