The slogan for Maximus Magazine, my online-only foray into the realm of indie lit, is “No ideas but in people.” As an overly-obvious “reversal” of William Carlos Williams’ much more famous “No ideas but in things,” it’s cute, but I’m afraid it’s not enough.
There are types of poets who’d like it if poetry were simply writing about “people” in a way that only ever reinforced their importance – that people are good, and that people are necessarily good to write about. More than a few of these people brand themselves radical and like to write about both abusers and victims – killers, cops, pigs, warmongers, the genocided, the murdered, the politicized – and once they have done this, they will have the view that they have subverted what it means for someone to write about people and the so-called “human experience” in the first place.
I was stuck to my screen, watching a self-professed radical poetry reading by a very famous poet’s offspring, wherein they subjected me to some unusual, foreign poetic form, through which I learned, again, about the tragic death of Breonna Taylor. The poet presented his case for the poem through a series of rhetorical questions, that is, here, questions where the answers were presumed in their asking – his questions were shared with his audience with the understanding that “something must be done.” The logic was that Taylor’s death was deserving of such a meticulous form because her death was so unfortunate & incomprehensible – and make no mistake, it is – but also because it was a news story that an artist was rendering artful. The profanity of one death could become, through this radical reading, thrown up among the stars.
The problem with this line of thinking is neither thinking nor working-through at all; for the most part, it is a reflexive, knee-jerk reaction, an avenue to write poetry for grants, prizes, and the whole world of non-profit public art money. CNN for grad students. Death is an easy subject for the poet; it can be exploited in such a way that would, in the end, exalt “life” where it no longer existed. This reading was another manifestation of a poet treating life & death in terms that avoided looking backward toward the dead in a way that mattered at all; they simply catered to news cycles & other wellsprings of “current events.”
It is a hard thing to face but writing a poem is like discovering a dead body. The poet realizes the redundancy in which s/he finds themselves writing. Even after the great push toward the vernacular, today poetry is still filled with the literary, that is, poetry has not absolved itself of the language of everything that came before it. If there is a single reason that poetry still holds on to its dead, it is because poetry is an art form that needs death to live on. I believe that approaching like this is the best way to avoid the kind of work that only ever seems to think about a future where your work might be, rather than a future where you certainly will not be. Poetry should already acknowledge from the beginning the simple fact of death – our death and our rebirth, the event that brings about a poem.
If two things are for certain, it is death and God. We should embrace this discovery of the dead body; we are already full of bastardizations and darknesses. But what have we bastardized, what have we darkened? God’s image, I would say, without whose vision we would not be. The poet is rotten and gross; our rottenness, our decay, is always that thing we believe we can “improve” upon in the next poem, that there is that possibility lying out there where we, in vain, will create something that will live forever.
Clearly, Joyelle McSweeney’s concept of the Necropastoral influences this muddied, funerary view. McSweeney coined the Necropastoral to mean her view of “a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of ‘nature’ which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects.” It’s not so important that we can articulate what kind of political environment we find ourselves in, or that we must, in our particular political environment, find a way through which we must talk about “life” or “death” under the purview of narratives foisted upon us, but that we are a part of one great, big contingency – those catastrophes and meltdowns and holocausts, destinies and fates and fortunes, where our particular standing or identity is completely irrelevant. The question of “what lies ahead” is a question for journalists and cultural critics and thinkers of all sorts, not poets. The poet looks out toward the growing pile of the dead, who we know we will join, surveys it, and recognizes it as the most powerful evidence that we were here at all.
Through this theory of rotting, we are necrophiliacs amongst the already-dead, lusting after and traipsing upon and doing away with other zombie bodies hoping toward an eternal life on earth, our living-as-the-dead-ness. Does this mean that what the poet should do is write about skulls, Halloween, wearing the color black, and death metal? Well, no; but it does require from those of us with this worldview that we try to write, think about, and put out poetry in our publications that do not attempt to be the poetry that the curatorial Powers that Be will dote.
In any case, that means we will usually have to do things on our own. In my case, after the release of the first issue of Maximus, I started working on publishing a collection of poems called You, the Viewer at Home, Moon for Tom Will, the poetry editor here at APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL. I like Tom’s poetry because it is diseased and infected in ways that are shocking: it’s beautiful plastic, it resists decay, yet his awareness of texture – the contrast between human and non-human – wriggles around uncomfortably, like a Francis Bacon painting. My favorite is his “Pearl Moon,” which appeared in the first issue of Maximus. It goes:
Spraying canned air on our underarms and groins.
Drying like paint as it blows across the moon.
When we made love; it sounded like someone was dragging a string of pearls down the road.
Will goes a step further than Jake LaMotta, who throws ice water down his pants to keep himself chaste, by punishing himself and his lover with canned air. Like a Bacon painting, we’re stuck in a disturbing, hostile, anti-human ecosystem. Where Bacon has his vacuum in a box, screaming popes, mutilated carcasses, Will has his vacuum on the moon, a place where pleasure is never simply pleasure. And any sign of beauty, like his pearls, rumbles along the cratered surface of the pavement moon, scuffed and degraded as he and his lover fuck and bump their skin encased in aerosol burns. Would a lover let him do this willingly? His poem catalogs an abuse and entombs it in the language of death and necrosis.
From now on, when a poet asks, “What’s next?” the answer is, and has always been, “That big field of corpses behind you.” Get off your ass and make something out of dirt. Everything is dead!
— Hayden Church is the editor of Maximus Magazine