Issue 10

This Is Your Object, Use It Wisely

 · Nonfiction

Tender Industrial Fabric (Greying Ghost Press, 2015)
Same Difference (Shirt Pocket Press, 2015)

All the new poetry is about theory. Or, actually, all the new poetry is about poetry, which since modernism has been about theory. When I say theory I mean it in the broadest possible sense, as abstract thought; however, it’s hard not to mean it as well in terms of the institutionalization of certain trajectories of that abstract thinking, in terms of a certain “canon” of writers and thinkers whose work forms the basis of our understanding — in North America — of what “theory” is. To put all this even more generally, all the new poetry is about abstraction — which means it’s about something that happens in the real world, which in turn makes possible the invention of things like “concepts.” All the new poetry is about finance.

On October 10, 2015, in Amherst, Massachusetts, Toby Altman handed me a pack of Oreos. “This is your object,” he said, “use it wisely.” This was the preparatory work for a reading that night, from Toby’s verse drama Arcadia, Indiana. Altman enlisted fellow poets A. B. Robinson, Christopher Schaeffer, and me. Our instructions were simple: you get an object, and you have to do one action while not speaking, and one action while speaking. So, for instance, I marched in place when I wasn’t speaking, and then put whole Oreos in my mouth while I was delivering my lines. A. B. twitched her head to one side when not talking, and clawed at her face with tissues like a robot in a soap opera while she spoke. Chris put leaves in his pockets. By the end of the evening there were crumbs everywhere, and leaves, and tissues. It was a great reading.

Two chapbooks by Toby Altman — Tender Industrial Fabric and Same Difference — are about modernism. They are, after all, new poetry. Are they the new poetry? What is new about them? Reading them one gets the sense they are, in fact, very old. Or they are drawing on a set of categories we do not associate with “the new poetry” as I have described it above. Yet Altman’s poems still deal with finance. They are still poems of their own moment. They just want that moment to admit it’s got 400+ years of history sedimented within itself. They are as thrilling as they are thrilled by their relationship to the past. They like to count to ten. They like to rhyme. They like tropes, they like figures. They like to figure things out with figures. All the new old poetry is about mediation.

It is important to keep in mind that Altman’s relationship to the past is not simply “literary.” It does not only have to do with archive, or with aesthetic “style.” That stone’s been stony a long time. What makes reading these books a delight is how Altman extends that sense of his own anachronism as a poet to the textual configuration of the writing itself. Same Difference, for instance, even as it is not strictly speaking in a received pattern or form, makes use of “echoes” inserted in between the lines of the primary text, phrases that repeat, modulate, modify, complicate, or sometimes just comment on the main discursive unfolding of an argument. What is the argument? Toby tells us:

Repeat after me. Poems don’t work. They have no ‘inner resources.’ They claim
poems don’t work       they have no inner resources
to contain a syrup of flesh, but unfolded they bear something less…certain.
they claim to contain a syrup of flesh         but unfolded they bear something less”

The bolded lines here are what I have called “the main text.” In Same Difference, they are not bolded; the other lines, however, are a light grey. Compared to these lines, the text in Same Difference is bolded. The difficulty I have in rendering the typography of this, even just to do some basic laying of groundwork, seems part of the point of Same Difference. Toby told me he sees it in relationship to the work of David Antin. I will not, hereafter, speak at all of David Antin.

Have you read a scholarly edition of a Renaissance drama? For instance, one of the Folger editions of Shakespeare. The text is on one page; the glosses and scholarly annotations are on the other. If you are interested in this manner of presenting a text, if you think it’s interesting that we take this kind of notational structure for granted, you will love Tender Industrial Fabric. Part of the treat of this chapbook is that Greying Ghost Press has risen to the challenge of Altman’s demanding visual text, by constructing a beautiful book-object in landscape orientation that allows for every “page” of the work to be on its own page. That is to say, Altman sets up each page of this verse drama like it is two pages in a scholarly edition of a text. The verse, or at least the elements of the “drama” part, are on one side of a dividing line; what would be glosses in a Folger book are on the other. The effect of this is that we are always attentive to the objective status of the text; it is a kind of object. This is true of Same Difference as well, but here the intertext — with scholarly editions, with annotations, with, crudely put, the physical shape of the dialectic between text and metatext as it manifests itself in print — is a lot more complicated than David Antin. It is almost impossible to reproduce Altman’s layouts as a matter of quotation. This seems part of the point of Tender Industrial Fabric.

To sum up, thus far: the relationship between text and materiality forms a major part of Toby Altman’s poetics. This does not mean that Altman’s chapbooks are invested in “the materiality of the signifier.” They are, as book-objects, confrontations with the material contours of print itself, but in ways that do not take for granted the capacity for infinity. They are, unlike Conceptual writing, materialist reckonings with materiality, by which we might understand that Altman, unlike Conceptual writers, has a horse in the race of the historicity of poetic form. In case you are interested in betting on this horse: its name is lyric.

But Toby Altman is not a lyrical poet. At least not if by “lyric” we mean the constellation of notions — the ideology — that surrounds William Wordsworth’s famous definition in his “Preface” to the book Lyrical Ballads. In terms of that book, I know that Toby is fond of “Tintern Abbey,” and with good reason. It is the best poem in Lyrical Ballads. But whenever I read Altman, I think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The priority accorded to thought, the possibilities that abstract thinking (or, if you prefer, theorizing) seems to engender in these works: all of this is unmistakably of a piece with Coleridge. And, like Coleridge, even if you do not want to situate his work in the category of the lyric, Altman’s poetics invariably hinges on his engagement with the lyric. I will not speak again of Coleridge.

I will speak, however, of Alfred Sohn-Rethel. Sohn-Rethel argues that our capacity to think abstractly originates in the abstraction that takes place in commodity exchange. This claim, which has enjoyed some renewed attention since the 2008 financial crisis, seems like a way to read Altman’s lyric, which contends precisely with real abstraction. Thus “Petition (for all things, a living music),” from Tender Industrial Fabric:

Is lifted in thought — is furnished in it:
is body-barked and presence bound. (Then what?)
It must wear out — must cleanly house and limb
its aging in things — which will its will unknot:
though I feel its envy rub, garlic tough,
accident named, “Song and Stuff.” (And then what?)
It must wear out — must seek the end of love:
is body-barked and lifted into thought. (21)

This poem, spoken by “the congregation,” who join “their many voices to a single space,” begins without a clear referent, and holds together through repetition. There is here an interplay between the recycled language (“body-barked,” “It must wear out”) and those repetitions we might associate with lyric (meter and rhyme in particular, as well as the fact that this poem repeats the sonnet structure from previous poems in the chapbook). The two types of repetition speak to one another, offering a textualized call-and-response that finds in the united voice of the congregation a fission, or at least some kind of differentiation in unity. This differentiation plays out without a clear referent in the opening sentence, which in turn occasions subsequent repetitions that add an object: “it” must wear out, but is this “it” the “it” in which something “is lifted in thought,” or is it that which is lifted in thought? The opening abstraction of reference from referent feeds into subsequent abstractions, most notably that of the abstraction of the activity of reference, its language, from the function of reference itself. The quality of reference becomes quantity, becomes the fact of repetition.

I have claimed, elliptically, that all the new poetry is about finance. Toby Altman’s chapbooks are certainly about finance. But they are not filled with political statement or polemic. At the same time, their politics is not only “formal.” Tender Industrial Fabric is about “industry”: the drama of the play revolves around a town, Arcadia, Indiana, in which there exists a factory, though the workers in the factory never do anything but versify. The only drama is in the verse, which complicates its indebtedness to the performance history of, say, Shakespeare. But at the same time, the texts we have of Shakespeare’s are by no means definitive, and it’s hard to say what versions were performed, or even which parts are more “authentic” than others. In this way the poetics of indeterminacy does not begin with Rimbaud. It begins with wherever we want poetics to begin. This is, in part, what Altman’s work argues. But that activity can only take shape in relation to the present, in which there is a factory in a town named for the almost-Utopia of Sir Philip Sidney’s great prose romance. I say almost because “Arcadia” refers to a part of Greece (speaking of finance…). I say almost because Sidney wrote his poem on an estate with fences around the perimeter.

The no-place of Altman’s chapbooks is the place where poetry does nothing and that is, somehow, enough. Both chapbooks, in their own ways, dig through the sediment of seemingly pure value and locate underneath it the hollowed-out shell of the labor that made that seeming possible. In Tender Industrial Fabric this is the factory. In Same Difference it is the body. Both things are rigorously abstract, to the point of being a little alarming. I don’t mean that as a criticism: I think it’s important to be a little alarmed about the present, so long as alarm does not eclipse our capacity to make a political commitment. Vladimir Lenin says guilt is fine, but don’t commit libel about it; sprinkle the ashes on your own head. Altman is like Brecht; he never commits libel. But he is also like Rob Halpern, his contemporary: as despairing as he is hopeful, as melancholy as he is darkly humorous. If the tone of these chapbooks were only ambivalent, I would have nothing to recommend to you. But in the course of navigating that feeling, the dominant one of our conjuncture, Altman tries to figure out what’s on the other side of feeling stuck in a heap of dead labor. He hands his readers some poems and says “this is your object, use it wisely.” This gesture strikes me as profoundly Utopian. Poetry could stand to pay some attention to this gesture. Toby Altman’s chapbooks are about finance. If you like poetry and hate finance, you should read Toby Altman’s chapbooks.

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