Michael Simeone

Michael Simeone: On "You'll Be Fucked Up"

Sesshu Foster’s “You’ll Be Fucked Up” stages a kind of introductory tour of the American west coast. But instead of working in an accumulative mode, creating new knowledge and experience over distance and time, Foster’s journey is fundamentally negative of memory, identity, and agency. Whisked along the west coast landscape by an anonymous and predatory “they,” the hypothetical victim addressed by the poem disintegrates under the influence of his new home. Oppressed by the look but don’t touch mentality of the California spectacle, he consents to total subjugation and obedience.

The menacingly ambiguous “they” of the poem serve primarily as guides for the mythologized landscape of California. Facilitating an inverted geocultural orientation program, their tour schedule ensures that their guest is perpetually displaced: “they’ll take you to San / Diego and put you on a plane, they’ll make up some / itinerary of churches and parades, they’ll show you / Hollywood, you’ll get driven up and down Sunset Boulevard, around Melrose clothes boutiques” (3-7). Rapidly shuttling their guest between nameless and generic places like the “churches” and “parades” and iconic features of the California landscape (San Diego, Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard, Melrose), they prevent any attempt on his part to establish a personal connection with the places around him. Superficial representation dominates as a cognitive mode. His encounter with the Baja coastline demonstrates the logic of tour most explicitly: “maybe a glimpse of hundreds of miles of smooth sand / dunes along the Baja coastline, inaccessible even by / 4-wheel drive” (9-11). Catching only glimpses of brilliant places and things that cannot ever be touched, the guest is at once impressed with the splendor of what he sees and interpellated into the superficial logic of the spectacle.

To this end, the nameless American hosts also do their best to negate their victim’s ability to sense anything immediate or familiar. Their very first move is to snatch away his possessions: “They’ll take your things away / when you’re not looking, they’ll take your shit and / discard part in the dumpster” (1-2). This deprivation even penetrates the body of the guest, “and bit by bit they’ll take out your teeth / and eyes, your sexual parts and your hair, your original / shoes and sunglasses will be put away” (11-13). they even reduce the body to a formless lump of nondescript flesh; the selected parts are both markers of identification in phenotypical distinction as well as ways to interface sensorially with the outside world through the human. The resulting corpse like husk is both anonymous and senseless. Establishing the victim as suspended in a visceral/material/geographical/cerebral vacuum, the narrator brings full significance to the title line of the poem, “you won’t even be wearing your own shoes or eyeglasses, ideals or nightmares, / you’ll be fucked up and nothing will be yours” (20-22). The American host has created a specimen invested in absolutely nothing, apprehending everything from remote distance but never truly encountering anything set before him, “somebody will be out playing / golf and they’ll leave you in the car, / by then you’ll know how to wait” (16-18). Both literally and figuratively, the whole activity of life has been collapsed into a simple matter of waiting for something new to watch or something else to happen.

This state of personal evacuation produces terrifying and mechanical compliance. The authorities bluntly and effortlessly articulate their demands without fear of resistance; their speech is a monologue with no response necessary: “they will say yes, yes, they / will say yes and no, no and yes” (22-23). Emptiness and obedience more explicitly converge in the final lines: “they will take you / to where you can see the waves starting far out at sea, / coming in across the big patches of light on the ocean / and moving across the far distant point, they will do / the talking and you won’t care at all” (24-28). Here, the ocean is both beautifully expansive and eerily anonymous, gorgeous but unknowable. Blown away by the American spectacle where it seems the only space for difference rests in the commodified “Thai and Italian restaurants” (8), resistance and identity have all been erased, and the ultimate conclusion lands on an image of frightful apathy, “you won’t care at all.”

Ironically, touring areas associated with paradise and sunny bliss has emptied out the real pleasure of encountering and inhabiting beautiful places. Through their attempts to accumulate experiences and pleasures for their guest, They have actually taken away more than they could have ever given.

 

Copyright 2006 by Michael Simeone

Michael Simeone: On "Denmark Vesey"

The narrative of Kramer’s “Denmark Vesey” is preoccupied with the hazards of living in a society that communicates largely with the spoken word. In the poem, uttered words are often fleeting and uncontainable. From beginning to end, the ultimate success or failure of Vesey’s revolt depends heavily on the strategic use of closed mouths. But although Kramer convincingly imitates much of the oral communicative mode in the poem’s treatment of rumor and secrecy in the antebellum South, the predominant discursive mode of the poem, at bottom, resembles that of television and radio rather than the spoken word. Like television and radio, the oral communication presented in “Denmark Vesey” facilitates rapid and nearly uniform distribution of information, centralized means of transmission, and negotiation of distance through illusory proximity. Given both the time of the poem’s composition during the 1950s and Kramer’s political affiliations with communism, “Denmark Vesey’s” engagement with contemporary media serves as an investigation and indictment of both 19th century slavery and the prying eyes and publicized spectacles of McCarthyism during the Cold War.

Resembling television and radio in their ability to rapidly distribute information, many of the poem’s instances of oral communication are presented in a way that creates the illusion of information traveling across great distances with electric speed. The spread of information after the Santo Domingo revolt, “And though the lords of Charleston raised a wall / to keep the news away, it was not tall / or thick enough—the news reached one and all” (47), abstracts the news from the materiality of its oral channels. As readers, we do not see individuals speaking with one another to mechanically transmit the information. Instead, news of the revolt “reached one and all” in fewer than three lines; the information about the slave uprising achieves total dissemination in an exaggeratedly brief period of time, telescoped and virtually instant.

Similar patterns of (near) instantaneous data travel appear in other parts of the poem. The stories of the Haiti and Domingo plantations “reached like a nightmare into every bed…”(50), indicating that uniform and wide reaching patterns of information have spread throughout the entirety of the white community. Again, as readers we only see the end result of the transmission of the news, casting the illusion that the information travels faster than the material constraints of the spoken word. Furthermore, the paranoid caveat “Beware of the informer moon! / Beware of trees that tell for a price! / Liberty now has no public place” (53) demonstrates the effects of data tranmitted at electric speed. Fear of the sky and trees signals a disintegration of secrecy in the face of an eerily pervasive apparatus of information acquisition, transmission, and distribution. Without the concept of rapid data travel being implied by the rest of the poem, the pan-optic wilderness could not achieve the same terrifying institutional unity. Here, the southern countryside closely resembles the nightmare vision of Cold War America found in Edwin Rolfe’s “Little Ballad of the Americans—1954” where “The chief of all Inquisitors has ruled the wire-tap legal” and “They’ve planted stoolies everywhere” (7-10). Through its characterization communications media in the 1820s, then, the poem can simulteously implicate and criticize Negro slavery and McCarthy-age paranoia.

As perhaps the most peculiar feature of Kramer’s poem, Vesey’s custom-made gallows also participates in a paradigm of knowledge acquisition not characteristic of the 19th century. The gallows itself is huge, “high enough to hang a cloud” (63), making it a public visual domain capable of being “seen for miles around.” Historical accounts of Vesey’s execution do not mention such a grandiose device, making it clear that Kramer specially opted to include such spectacular stage for Vesey’s death. The mythically tall gallows expand the scope of the execution’s audience and transform the isolated demonstration into a televisual event, for the image of Vesey becomes ubiquitous across several miles and is not constrained to a single locality. The way Kramer describes the execution also mimics the television in its mobilization of the spectator’s gaze. We know from the moment the gallows are introduced that they are quite tall, yet those looking on have no trouble discerning the smallest details of the execution: “And when the sun made bright the eyes in Denmark Vesey’s head, / the slavers could not easily believe that he was dead” (63). The distance between slavers on the ground and victims in the sky has neatly telescoped for dramatic effect. The execution is at once removed and apprehendable, locally experienced yet part of a centralized network of information distribution. These are key paradoxes of experience and reception negotiated by televisual communication that are not characteristic of the spoken and written word. Ultimately, Vesey’s death enters public knowledge in a way that only a television audience could fully understand; he is remote but visible, made available to an expanded public through a special device that allows him to be the object of looking.

It’s unsurprising given the historical context of this poem that the narrative is inflected by electric age media, but the influence of media here is not content-oriented (besides the oblique reference to the state, this poem clearly passes as an 1820’s scenario); it seems subtle and structural instead. Relations between characters and the ultimate undoing of the poem’s hero are influenced by contemporary techniques of information collection and dissemination, making this a poem just as much about the human cost of electric-age communication as it is about the evils of slavery. Indeed, it seems the two themes cannot be separated.

 

Copyright © 2004 by Michael Simeone

Michael Simeone: On "Crystals"

By recounting the birth of modern gynecology, Thylias Moss' "Crystals" not only demonstrates the frailty of imagined class and racial distinctions, but also merges problems of class, race, and medical ethics within a more-overarching and terrifying project, the subjection of the visceral female body to the far from concrete, abstracted and empowered institution of phallic discourse.

Of course, this is not to revisit well-worn discussions of phallologocentric discourse; rather, I would like to show that the already disturbing account of Sims' operation is made more horrific by an underlying inequity in genital representation that the poem teases out of the incident. It is through this differential in modes of representation between the sexes that the upper class, white, and medical institutions are able to be subsumed within the overall agenda of phallic seeing, knowledge production, and empowerment.

As Chris Straayer has noted in her study of contemporary American cinema, the male genitals are an abstraction never concretely realized. Shot after shot, film after film will reveal the genitals of women, yet men are never subjected to the same kind of visual realization and subsequent disempowerment. The phallus remains abstract, separate from the penis, and both a symbol and tool of male power. An upright stance, a huge rifle-these are the closest one gets to realizing the male genitals. By their unknowability, obfuscation, and apotheosis into the abstract, they have become the basis for discourses of bravery, righteousness, power, and more.

A similar dynamic plays out in Moss' poem, allowing Dr. Sims to metaphorically employ his genitals without risking a reversal of the scopic flow of the incident; all prying eyes remain fixed on Anarcha. Moss ensures that, as readers, we follow the gaze of the experimenting physician, "probably pregnant again, her vulva inflamed, / her thighs caked with urinary salts; from the beginning / he saw his future in those crystals" (8-10). Both the clinical surmise that she is "probably pregnant again" and the sudden vision of "his future" assure that the reader takes on the gaze of Sims when viewing the physical symptoms of the disorder.

Further details guarantee that the female genitals become the primary sight, not site, of Sims' medical work. After its invention, the speculum is boiled down to a single core function, "too large and sharp / to be respectful, yet it let him look" (21-22). Distanced from its overall role in the process of curing disease, the speculum becomes simply a probe, not an instrument of medicine. The "stretching of the vaginal walls, tunnel / into room; such remembrance of Jericho [.] when his mind was to have been on her comfort and healing" (24 -26), emphasizes Sims' preoccupation with defeating barriers that deny his visual access regardless of the cost. His subsequent celebration foregrounds the scopic core of his achievment, "his bragging in the journals / that he had seen the fistula as no other man had ever seen it before. / Now they all can" (36-38). The final line, "Now they all can," not only institutionalizes the seeing of the poem within medicine and masculinity, but also ensures that by the end of the desription of the operation, it is clear that the patient in question has been altogether forgetten. She is just "fistula," an exhibit, a landmark in the knowledge of female anatomy.

That Sims is able penetrate, violate, and exploit Anarcha because of her race and class standing is rendered perfectly disturbing by Moss' work. That all of this is executed through the chauvenist clinic and the penis-shaped speculum, however, makes it even worse. Sims performs his sexual barbarism through prosthesis without risking the exposure of his own genitals. His acts are mediated by both the pewter spoon and the institution of the clinic. He enjoys a kind of terrifying impunity that embodies and enforces the abstraction of the penis into the phallus as an inscrutable instrument of medical law and social power. Moss concludes her poem on this power differential brought on by Sims' unmittigated looking, "It should be noted / that Anarcha's fistula closed well, / sealed in infection, scarred / thickly / as if his hand remained" (47-51). Consummating his hunger for looking has granted Sims a kind of possession over Anarcha, forever grasping her in her most vulnerable and taboo places.

 

Copyright © 2004 by Michael Simeone.

Michael Simeone: On "The Horse"

"Merwin and Metamorphosis"

"I go on the assumption, which I cannot avoid, that there is some link between a society's threat to destroy itself with its own inventions, and that same society's possibly ungovernable commitment to industrial expansion and population increase, which in our own country remove a million acres from the wild every year, and which threaten more and more of the wild life of the globe."

--W.S. Merwin

Here, Merwin formulates humankind's relationship to the environment in all too familiar terms. The human, unique to almost every other species, seeks its own destruction and, in the process, the destruction of all other species. Merwin's take on ecology seems particularly fated, where it is a question of when, not if, the environment finally collapses under the control of human beings. In Merwin's "The Horse," similar notions of receding nature permeate the atmosphere of the poem. By invoking a tradition of mythic transformation, Merwin is able to both demonstrate the encroachment of humanity into nature and, by adapting the mythology he invokes, pessimistically foreclose any hope of escape from death.

The poem's basic story, a horse that one day transforms into a dying tree, is in dialogue with a whole tradition of mythology that uses trees as new bodies for those who choose or are obligated to escape the world around them. In Ovid's Metamorphoses, two "tree myths" are worth mentioning (although people changing into trees happens all over the place in ancient myth), both for their relative popularity throughout the western imaginary and their thematic coherence.

By far the most well known of the three, the story of Daphne and Apollo details the sun god's passionate chase of Daphne, daughter of the waters of Peneus. Apollo, driven by lust, attempts to seize and rape Daphne after a long pursuit, but in the final moments of the story, Daphne prays to her father for deliverance and is transformed into a laurel tree. The end of this transformation, according to Daphne, is to "change me and destroy / My baleful beauty that has pleased too well" (48-49). Faced with no other options, metamorphosis into a tree becomes a simultaneous act of escape/transcendence, existing in continuously through contemporary taxonomy.

The second myth is the story of Myrrha, a royal daughter who tricks her father into several episodes of incestuous sex. One night, after her drunken father discovers what has happened by illuminating the dark bedchamber with a light (you would have thought he would have done this before), he flies into rage and immediately draws his sword (snicker, again) in a fierce attempt to kill her. Myrrha flees, pregnant with her father's child and exiled to solitude. In her wanderings, Myrrha tires of fighting the authorities and hunger and offers a prayer to the gods, "I'll not refuse-the pain of punishment, / But lest I outrage, if I'm left alive, / The living, or, if I shall die, the dead, / Expel me from both realms; some nature give / That's different; let me neither die nor live!"(90-95). At this utterance, Myrrha is transformed into the tree of her namesake, preserving her in an eternally liminal state of living.

For both myths, metamorphosis into the arboreal realm serves as not just physical deliverance from peril, but also, on a more abstract level, and re-balancing of the dominant logic of the myths. The fleeing Daphne, unwilling even in the face of a god, must be eliminated from the tale's structuring calculus of male desire. Simultaneously ennobled and eliminated, the tree provides the vehicle by which the myth's ideology is not terribly upset. Likewise, because Myrrha is not alone in her horrific crime of incest (we get the sense in the myth that daddy was a big pervert), death would seem too harsh a punishment, especially since her father sees no punitive repercussions for his deeds. Myrra's existence as neither living nor dead provides a sound exit strategy, an uplifting alternative to death (too harsh) or overthrow of the patriarchy (impossible). In both, the tree serves as a way to escape and transcend without disrupting the dominant physical and ideological forces present in the myth.

Now, to Merwin again. Given his assessment of humanity, it seems safe to assume that the horse (and the natural world it stands for) is threatened a priori. As if persecuted by the untiring destruction brought on by humanity, the horse suddenly assumes a form that allows escape from the life it once had, joining the ranks of others in western fantasy who have taken the form of trees. To emphasize the effect, Merwin portrays the metamorphosis as mystically elusive. Caught in the midst of regular behavior, its new form catches it in an instant, yet pinning down the exact moment of change seems impossible: "it reared and tossed its head / and suddenly stool still / beginning to remember / as its leaves fell" (10-13). Following "suddenly stool still", the line "beginning to remember" confuses our sense of time, enveloping the horse in the stream of a kind of timeless consciousness. The details of the change remain purposefully obscured, begging readers to fill in details from their own imaginations and inviting other myths to be articulated to the poem's interpretation.

Unlike traditional metamorphoses, however, the horse's only recourse is not simply a tree, but a dead one. Merwin mocks the myths before him by transferring his character into a corpse. Now, it must meditate on death as it watches "its leaves fall." Warped by some unseen force, Merwin's horse assumes a form that at once teases us with the potential for its transcendence and perpetual existence (arboreal metamorphosis) and distorts and reinterprets the same expectation that could have infused the poem with any kind of hope. In the natural sphere of this short poem, it seems even miracles are aimed toward death.

Copyright © 2004 by Michael Simeone

Michael Simeone: On "Bully"

Espada’s “Bully” is marked by layers of irony that work to implicate the monumental totems of US nationalism in a playful but immensely subversive toying with the word “invasion.”  In a largely Puerto Rican school in the US named after Theodore Roosevelt, vainglorious invader of Cuba, Espada uses the same racist tropes white nationalists use to convey their anxiety about immigration to speak of a similar “invasion” of the US by the very people’s Roosevelt sought to subdue.

The opening stanza functions as a kind of deconstruction of the monumentality that seals up the dominant narratives of the state.  He describes a statue of Roosevelt situated in the school auditorium of a school that once shared Roosevelt’s name but has since been changed to Hernandez.  Emanating from the statue is a “nostalgia” for the Spanish-American war, an entirely fabricated war broadly considered to be a morally despicable act of conquest.   Unable to reconcile the statue with some narrative of statesmanship, the speaker’s attempt to draw out Roosevelt’s nostalgia for war not only voices a condemnation of the war but also contaminates the language and images of memorialization with the contagions and violence they so often seek to conceal.  

[E]ach fist lonely for a saber  or the reigns of anguish-eyed horses,  or a podium to clatter with speeches  glorying in the malaria of conquest.

Implicating him in the aggressive but invisible counterparts that are unspoken correlaries to early twentieth century nationalism, the speaker takes a perverse pleasure in noting that the very “mongrels” that he fought to eradicate as a progenitor of nativist white nationalism have actually come spilling out from around any effort at containment or submission.  The destruction that he unleashed against the brown Other has returned to undo him as the “army of Spanish- singing children” devours the “stockpiles” of the cafeteria and “leap naked across murals.”  The murals, we presume, are the legacy of heritage lessons that now cover the institution. Roosevelt is surrounded

by all the faces  he ever shoved in eugenic spite  and cursed as mongrels, skin of one race,  hair and cheekbones of another.

The point, of course, is that “mongrelization” is now a fundamental feature of life in the US and the staid and sober Victorian mustache that adorns his face under the disciplining gaze of the torturous monocle is sprayed with graffiti “in parrot brilliant colors.”

The moniker “bully” that Espada assigns Roosevelt resonates with even more irony in that the most aggressive, imperial nation on earth thrives on stories of the little, insignificant common person who eventually kicks the bully’s ass. That is, that a treasured theme of Americanism is the subversive undoing the tyrant who lords over the wishes of the masses.  The installation of belletristic icons like Roosevelt in American schools is actually antithetical to a spirit of democracy which the hordish throngs of stormtrooping Puerto Rican children storming through the hallways of Hernandez undo through their subversive recasting of his portraiture.  As mongrels all, we spill over into each other.          

Copyright © 2004 by Michael Simeone.

Michael Simeone: On "A Colossal American Copulation"

I'd just like to briefly comment on the standing conversation on MAPS regarding Adrian Louis' "A Colossal American Copulation." It seems that at present, most of the critical work treating the poem is largely concerned with Louis' paradoxically resistant and cooperative relationship to dominant culture. Both Marsh and Beatty see the poem as taking dominant culture as its object, a model that is mostly accurate but effaces a crucial element of self-hatred present in Louis' work; the speaker of the poem is just as much a reflexive target of the poem's invective as the U.S. culture that surrounds him. This is not a poem about "flipping off the U.S" (Beatty); rather, it is a poem that treats the speaker's haunting dissillusionment with his own life given the frivolity of U.S. culture and the inevitable decay of the physical body.

Firstly, before anything else, I'd like to make a case for the moral indignation present in these lines. Beatty notes that "Louis undercuts the moral force of any item in his long list of 'fuck you's," but this is far from the case. Louis' poem is veritable freight train of "fucks," all irreverantly applied, accumulating a kind of vitriolic, hateful, and sanctamonious momentum that simply cannot be offset by the injection of lines such as "fuck a duck" (which, by the way, I have never heard uttered playfully. In fact, "fuck a duck" is far from harmlessly playful; it is the epitomization of frustration and agression without object. It is anger without a path of release. The line may be absurd, but it is a cruel, contained, and frustrated absurdity). This and similar "playful" variations (fuck you very much, fuck it again Sam, etc.) certainly contain some ludic interpenetration of tradition and discourse, (as does the whole poem), but it is a stretch to say that, given the violence of the poem's speech and the moral valence of many of its targets (vietnam, for instance), the poem's moral force has been undercut.

Indeed, the poem is a kind of angry whirlwhind, sparing little (only mother teresa escapes, but not unscathed; she still gets to be the object of a blunt "fuck you," and despite its retraction one line later, the illocutionary act of telling mother teresa fuck you speaks to the poem's near total lack of concern for the sacred, the respected, and the empowered). Through cursing things like his first sexual experience, his first cigarette, and Bob Dyalan, the speaker not only implicates elements of his life in the upkeep of a frivolous culture, but he also self-loathingly denies the pleasure that any of these things gave him. He thus not only negates the world around him, but also negates himself as a creature capable of happiness.

Crucial to this disillusionment with existance (NOT just U.S. culture) is a realization of the decay of the human body over time. The recount of his personal history through substance abuse serves as a grim reminder of the deteriorization of the speaker's own body, and his pre-emptive fuck you-ing of the man that will see him dead again speaks to the materiality and transience of human flesh. Most notable to this point, however, is his choice to round out the poem with an attack on the disease that affect's his "woman."

Here, the speaker is not lamenting his own choices, attacking the U.S., or even engaging in any kind of disturbing irreverance; he is literally shouting against decay, "Fuck Alzheimer's."

The conclusion of the poem, then, functions less as a nihilistic assertion of the middle finger (Beatty) and more of a frustrated realization of the speaker's position within a frivolus and unjust culture, an aging body, and the unforgiving attrition of life experiences and the passage of time.