‘We shall send the Viege Rouge as far away as possible so that we shall never hear of her again.’ – Tutor of Simone Weil

Saturday, 24 December 2011


aka, reading material I will be catching up with over the festive season & into the New Year...

  • I.b.; or, catenaries - Judith Goldman (Krupskaya, 2011)
  • long past the presence of common - j/j hastain (Say It With Stones, 2011)
  • autobiography of my gender - j/j hastain (Moria Books, 2011)
  • Octet - Nat Raha (Veer Books, 2010)
  • Silveronda - Lucy Harvest Clarke (if p then q, 2009)
  • The Commons - Sean Bonney (Openned, 2011)
  • Happiness: Poems After Rimbaud - Sean Bonney (Unkant, 2011) read; excellent
  • Sweet Advocate - Barry MacSweeney (Equipage, 1999) read; exceptional & rare
  • Bloc Notes - Tracy Ryan (Equipage, 2007)
  • Dry Land - William Fuller (Equipage, 2007)
  • Petrarch - Tim Atkins (Barque, 2011)
  • Ketamine Boxing with Fun Boy - Mike Wallace-Hadrill (Barque, 2011)
  • In the Assarts - Jeff Hilson (Veer Books, 2010)
  • R's Boat - Lisa Robertson (University of California Press, 2010) to re-read
  • Anything On Its Side - Larry Eigner (The Elizabeth Press, 1974)
  • Enough Said: Poems 1974-1979 - Philip Whalen (Grey Fox Press, 1980)
  • Sonnets - Bernadette Mayer
  • Light Poems - Jackson MacLow
(These last four given to me as a Christmas present by the generous Santa that is Tim Atkins.)

Poetics/ theory/ miscellaneous
  • Stupefaction: A Radical Anatomy of Phantoms - Keston Sutherland (Seagull Press, 2011)
  • A Public Intimacy: A Life Through Scrapbooks - Paul Buck (BookWorks, 2011)

Magazines/ journals

Friday, 15 July 2011

Review: The Tree of Life, Terence Malick, 2011

This is SPOILERY, don’t read it if you haven’t seen it & intend to!

I would like to begin this review by stating that I was very much looking forward to The Tree of Life. I was expecting an original philosophical disquisition on human experience, the possibility of an afterlife and beautiful visuals. Whether the film can be said to live up to the first two criteria, it certainly does meet the last. I was happy to pay £8.50 to see Malick’s vision of the birth of the universe and its subsequent afterschocks, from shimmering pulses of star matter to embryonic lizards to dinosaurs, and it’s definitely worth seeing at the cinema for this reason alone.

Composed like a dream, very few narrative threads are made explicit. That is, events are mentioned without explanation of them – the cause of the death at the beginning, though we can assume it is military; what Jack does; why we should care about his epiphany... What happened to Jack’s parents is seen as virtually unimportant to Jack’s psychic integration of their two halves. The strikingly simplistic characterisation which opens the film – the division of the two ways in life given in voiceover by the character of the mother into ‘nature’ and ‘grace’ roughly corresponds to masculine/feminine, yin/yang, aggression/passivity, as well as barbarism/civilisation – is extended to the portrayals of the central character’s parents. However, they both at least have considerably more to work with than Sean Penn in the role of the adult Jack, who is required to do little more than gaze with his saddest eyes out of the trappings of his bourgeois existence in which everything is already smooth, clean, vast – visually echoing the heaven to come. This mechanized contemporary world thus provides a superficial contrast to his rustically lush childhood.

I have tried to think carefully about my objections to the film’s presentation of a Judeo-Christian world view without including overtly religious trappings, universalizing its own Western perspective. It can’t be inherently wrong to make a film about white, patriarchal, Western, heteronormative religion, just as a film that put forward a black, feminist, non-Western, queer perspective might not be inherently ‘right’ (although I have to admit I probably would prefer that. I might even learn something!) I guess my precise problem with Malick’s realisation of his own spiritual perspective is the film’s overwhelming whiteness, endorsement of patriarchy, and passive complicity with the forces of civilisation (not to mention the false simplifications created by the binaries given above). The film’s climactic moment – if such a statement can be made about such a curiously a-tempo film, starting at a high pitch and striving to remain at this level of epic grandeur, only dip into long and somewhat dreary patches of childhood reminiscence – comes when Mrs O’Brien sacrifices her son to her god. This seemed, to me, a way of dissolving a genuine theological problem both ludicrously and offensively. For one thing he’s not hers to give, anymore. For another, anyone experiencing genuine grief cannot simply solve their loved one’s death; it is something they live with every day and probably change their views about frequently. Furthermore, the fact that he dies for his country and is thus sacrificed in patriotic battle confirms the film’s actual complicity with aggressive ‘nature’ of a warring government whilst espousing that we mere submissive civilians maintain the position of ‘grace’. But this was fine because it allowed everyone to go back to drifting about on ocean shores before uniting as one with the cosmos (presumably). I don’t remember ANY body of any other ethnicity appearing in these final scenes (though I did register a black woman holding the mother’s hand in sympathy at one point; this single appearance suggests she was of only tokenistic importance). The final shot swoops past Jack’s face back over the skyscrapers, implying that though paradise doesn’t contain the capitalist and imperialist manifestations of civilisation, it’s perfectly alright that our route to it does. This for me, encapsulates the hypocrisy of Christianity and many other religious attitudes.

Though all the reviews touch on Jack’s ‘midlife crisis’, his central dilemma is not really explained to us. It’s  only suggested by Penn’s tattoos, turning away from his beautiful lover (again a pure object) and some mumbling addressed to his father. I must say that it is the incidental detail captured when we revisit his childhood, from conception to toddler, that really captivates. Malick must be thanked for bringing this phenomenological depiction of childhood to the screen; though later I grew irritated and bored with scenes showing schoolboy transgressions, having never been a nine year old American boy. Again, the exclusivity of this depiction of experience is only problematic because so much received history, literature and film has come from an unproblematised male perspective & assumes it in the viewer. Dialogue only occurs in the past, and it is unusual, characters saying more than they intend to and causing arguments through silence. Malick’s observation of familial dynamics is acute. But where is the final confrontation with the Father that I was expecting, to attempt to address the conflict that is set up by the film itself and allow for the completion of the allegorical journeys of the parents? Malick denies us even this narrative resolution, whilst aspiring to a ‘realistic’, mainstream presentation of character and events in the Fifties strand of the film.

It seems fair to note that the performances in this section of the film are uniformly excellent, including Brad Pitt’s stern disciplinarian father figure complete with crewcut and golfball jaw, and a particularly captivating performance from Laramie Eppler. He plays the brother who is later killed; his gentle presence and tentatively scrunched face when playing with brothers Jack and Steve make for the some of the most beautiful observational scenes in the film.

The film’s ambition reminded me of Tarkovsky’s unique brew of Russian Orthodox mysticism, as exemplified by the uncanny ending of ‘Stalker’; and its contentment with long takes and architectural focus (Jack’s adult open-plan house bears a resemblance to his family’s second home, as shown in the opening sequence, and via the use of full-length windows seems to explore a metaphor of the membranes between realities becoming ever thinner as capitalism/civilisation becomes more advanced). However, Tarkovsky’s cinema never blandifies the concept of an omniscient deity, maintaining a suitably cowed, mortal distance from God himself and creating a tension which both justifies belief and successfully shows the fear in which belief is grounded. I am thinking principally of Andrei Rublyev, the solemnity of which is no less matched by the terrifying conclusion of Solaris, in which man is obliterated by the god whose justice differs from ours so greatly as to incorporate deceit. It is in this respect that Tarkovsky’s materialism shows itself, and for me, makes his work considerably more satisfying than The Tree of Life. Once you’ve read David Cox’s stinging critique of the film as a giant commercial, it becomes impossible to unsee it, especially given its hauntingly whispered voiceovers so reminiscent of ‘autoemotion’. I cannot help but suspect Malick’s film of a similarly manipulative injunction to feel something, anything, to trick you into feeling that you are a part of the utopian yet passively consumerist vision lurking below its illusionary surface.

If Heat Were a Graven Image

Click here to download 'If Heat Were a Graven Image'

Sunday, 26 June 2011


For Patrick, with love

Shallow recollections. Just writing. Sycophant discovery tabulating a mooring. How
blooms to broken pax. Pledged, whetted & blunt. The shiny earth teases worms to its pout,
disgorges energy load. The cipher too tired, co-ordinated raising of weft and hand.
Past armour caked a body live singing, a person without skin. Transcribe me. The text is 
bodied insofar as I am juiced green fields
    Panoply of orphaned distance
    Take refuge in identity.
Can arm tacit trash garlic. Laden in my chequered escape are cheap romance, thick 
permutations, chlorophyll spikes. I am a girl for action, anything you want me to be.
A Mexican white bone tree crawling out of
                                                      the gauze of no-place.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Intimacy in performance art: Liz Rosenfeld and Laurie Anderson

Recently I've been fortunate enough to have a couple of experiences with art which not only makes space for the viewer, but requires your presence to complete the work. There is of course an extent to which another's presence is always required - if a tree falls in an empty wood am I deaf etc. - but we can fairly safely assume that when the National Gallery is locked up for the night, Klimt's couple are still locked in their eternal golden embrace. I wanted to write about Liz Rosenfeld's recent performance at I'm with you, a fantastic monthly event of queer performance work which was very special this time around, taking place in an old leather factory in Stoke Newington.

Liz's piece, entitled Trust Me I'm Yours, involves the 'viewer' - or more properly in this context, 'experiencer' - being blindfolded, then guided by an attendant into a room in which a female voice is already talking, apparently reciting a text. You are sat down in a chair and the speaker takes your hand. It is such a warm hand, and such a relief given the circumstances. Listening, dates begin to appear. (Coincidentally, she read an e-mail written on the date of my birthday last year, Sunday 23rd May 2010.) Narratives form, around artistic practice, vegan cooking & bike-riding: familiar themes of life in alternative and queer communities, then descriptions of jerking off when thinking of the recipient. This makes you wonder about the nature of the relationship between the person you cannot see and the person you are sitting in for. Is it uncomfortable? This piece asks you to sit with every emotion you have and let it go, in your own perfect silence. There is something so liberating at being forced to shut up and engage, whilst being deprived of a major sense which would often be relied on to make judgements. Despite the invisibility of the artist and the initial anonymity of the people involved, there are still presences at the centre of this work, and stripped of their identities, we are drawn into the questions about sexual desire, identity and memory we all share, beyond specificities. I wondered if for Liz, deep intimacy requires a kind of blindness, a willingness not to judge. I felt very safe, and equal, and actually, a profound relaxation. It is peculiar how instantly Rosenfeld could create this sensation, and surely it's surprising given her potential power relation to me. I would argue that it's in the anonymity & joy in submission that the work posits a queering of intimate relationships. After five minutes - I would have liked to have spent at least fifteen in there - you are guided back out again, the voice still speaking, without seeing the person who held your hand.

Wandering through the ingenious exhibition of the work of Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark and Laurie Anderson currently mounted at the Barbican, the viewer is not quite assaulted by, but nonetheless demanded to engage with, a variety of installations and experiences. [This exhibition was superb and deserves a much fuller write-up than I will give it here: it's on until 22nd May, so go!] For now I want to focus my attention on Laurie Anderson's work; much of the work in the show dated from her pre-pop star period, and I was interested to see that she had been producing humorous and forward-thinking work from the early 70s. Her work with violins and miked incidental sound led to the production of interactive musical installations such as The Handphone Table [1978]. The participant sits and places their elbows on the table, activating a fragment of recorded sound which travels through your elbows to your hands, which transmit the sound when cupped over your ears. Such a simple idea, and such a revolution of the way we experience music. Shifting position can adjust the volume and tone/ inflection of the sounds, but furthermore, it takes what once was a public experience - since even hearing a record usually meant playing it in a room which anyone else could enter - and makes it private in a way that headphones can't. The differences in our bodies means that no person can possibly receive this fragment of sound in the same way as another person. Intimacy is an echo down space and time, and here it is startlingly contextualised in its materiality. Similarly, Anderson's filmed hologram of herself telling a story, which is then projected onto a tiny white sculpture, cannot be viewed by more than three people at a time, simply because it is small enough that it demands close attention. Anderson described this piece as a way to give performances without being present. It is an eerie experience because despite the great reduction to the body of the artist, her presence remains deeply compelling. Yet when the image stops showing, the stump of white preserves her anonymity in a way that 'coming out of character' at the end of a performance doesn't. The functionality of this piece suggests the infinite possibilities of material, and conversely, the undisclosed potentials for truer relations with one another through minor adjustments to our interaction. The absence of the artist's body in these works does not declare its unimportance; on the contrary, obscuring its visual image brings us, each one, to our sensory core.