Book Review Essay: On the Money
Review of Joshua Clover’s Red Epic
(Commune Editions: 2015)
Paragraph 1 follows:
When I first moved to New York from Chicago back in 1988, I remember telling folks back home that I felt like I had moved into a bank. So many glassy buildings. So much grey marble and linoleum. So many interiors, lit by that uncannily cool grey light. At the same time, though, as a fan of the poetry scene, New York was also, for me, still the land of literary legend. It was on these streets, not far from the office building where I worked, that Frank O’Hara once strolled, meditating in the daily emergency, composing poems on his lunch break.
Wallace Stevens famously remarked, ‘money is a kind of poetry,’ but few writers have managed to explore their coexistence. Perhaps because there’s so little dough to be made writing verses, it’s hard to conceive of poetry and capital in the same mental breath. It’s as if each of these pursuits – writing poems and making money – are the repressed ‘other’ of the other.
The satiric wit in Joshua Clover’s Red Epic often arises from the fact that the book refuses to deny that capital and poetry are part of the same world. Both the commercial and the anti-commercial frequently bump into each other in this book. In fact, the language associated with one is frequently hired to describe the life of the other. Here is how ‘Apology,’ a poem addressed to capitalism itself, begins:
And I’ll take back all those terrible things I said about you
To my friends and in poems. What do poets know
Of capital anyway? It’s exhilarating the daily life of money
As it shifts and deliberates like Frank O’Hara buying gifts
In a haze of cosmopolite thirdworldism en route to a weekend
Out of town yet so affectless this becomes itself a signature
Affect. Via the artifice of the Dow Jones you often appear
To be in New York but I suspect that if consciousness is a story
You are in charge of the narrative structure and so the Nasdaq
And the Footsie and Nikkei cannot be said to happen
Any more than sentences happen. Like true feelings
You are everywhere at once…
The personification of capitalism above implies something basic about the quality of everyday life in our era: we’re living in a time when money not only has a life of its own, but gets to have all the fun. If ‘the United States themselves [were] essentially the greatest poem of all,’ in the days of Whitman, today, the States have been replaced by the market – and its increasing ability to solicit every nook and cranny of our conscious and unconscious lives.
And yet, despite the power of capital alluded to in such lines, it’s also surprisingly vulnerable. The personification above works both ways. If capital is a person (rather than some borg-like abstraction), one would think it would exhibit its own emotional hang-ups. Still addressing capital, the poem picks up a few lines later like this:
While studiously skirting the question of whether you yourself
Are a thing and I can imagine the anxiety this causes but capital
Don’t you ever lie on the couch near the coffee in the late morning
Flipping through a magazine you picked up in one of your
Supermarkets in California until you come to a photo
Of Britney Spears in flip flops and drag — you know
Sort of like googling yourself? Just to verify your own
Existence in real life. What a relief. Could poets
Ever hate idealism as much as you do? No ideas but in
If ‘capital’ is undergoing an identity crisis (‘do I exist or not?’) as these lines suggest, I think what’s causing its insecurity is hinted at in the rewrite of the William Carlos Williams line (‘No ideas but in things’) – the capitalism, of our time, has replaced ‘things’ with ‘money.’ In other words, for all its dominance, the system is strangely immaterial – ‘money’ is certainly more of an abstraction than material goods. As Clover has written about elsewhere, the current stage of U.S. capitalism (in our case, beginning somewhere around the late 1970s), based more on finance than manufacturing, is particularly prone to the ‘irrational exuberance’ of the investment bubble – and the panics that erupt whenever one of those bubbles pops. (‘Autumn’) As such, you can read these poems, in part, as a reflection of a historical shift.
From the fall of the Wall – up until, say, the Great Recession of 2008, we were living in the era of TINA – shorthand for Margaret Thatcher’s pronouncement on capitalism: ‘There is No Alternative!’ In the aftermath of the last crash, such absolute certainty is harder to come by. Add to this the fact that alternative economic orders seem to be slowly, but with real certainty, arising in our midst. I’m thinking here of the burgeoning free and near free exchange of information and, increasingly, services and goods across the web – what the new utopians, such as Paul Mason and Jeremy Rifkin, term the ‘collaborative commons.’
Clover himself has stated he believes there will be a ‘transition from capitalism, perhaps in my lifetime’ (adding, cautiously, that it could be to something worse). Aside from being a poet and academic, I’ve read that he is also an activist who has participated in anti-capitalist protest, and was involved in ‘Occupy Oakland’, and continues to take part in student organizing and many social struggles. (Beattie) Accordingly, another aspect of these poems which marks the shift I mentioned is the eruption, at brief moments, of a militant tone one usually thinks of in relation to eras when revolution was blatantly in the air – say like the late 1960s/early 70s, or further back, the 1930s. Here is from ‘Transistor’:
There will be a revolution or there will not. If the latter these poems were nothing but entertainments. If the former it will succeed or fail. If the latter these poems were better than nothing. If the former it will feature riots fire and looting and these will spread or they will not. If the latter, these poems were curiosities…
‘Transistor’ itself is a part of a longer piece titled the ‘Fire Sermon’. The allusion to a section of Eliot’s The Waste Land, in this case, is telling. Where Eliot’s ‘Fire Sermon’ bewails the decay of a civilization, the poems in this book sometimes allude to things actually catching aflame. (The cover of the book, in fact, shows a lit match.) In any case, after seemingly interminable years of postmodern indeterminacy, the clear commitment informing such lines is refreshing. At times, the rhetoric grows direct and Manifesto-like. Here’s from ‘The Gilded Age’:
An age which no longer loves poetry has betrayed itself
There are not two kinds of poetry there is only one:
Jacobin and unyielding
The first principles must be beyond dispute
The best poetry will have contempt for its era but so will the worst
It must be made from everything
including text –- this is the minimum formula for realism –
but it does not align itself
with texts –- it must align itself with work – meaning hatred
of work –- it must desire
change so much it is accused of being in love
with annihilation –-
must in fact love annihilation – the rest is sophism —
Most of the poetic exhortations in this book point to a poetry of the future – one in which the revolutionary outbursts of our own moment spread into something bigger. For now, these ‘outbreaks’ are embedded in a present, one at the tail-end of an era that, as the poem ‘LTCM’ puts it, took us ‘from Dada to Prada’, and whose own ‘Rimbaud’ revealed himself as ‘Howard Hughes.’ In other words, we live at a time when radical change is still less than certain – one in which the ‘revolutions’ in culture and fashion that the economy requires just to keep what it peddles still sexy, can out-shout the appeal of political ruckus. Or, as Clover writes in ‘Omnibus Omnia’:
Its bank account and the sidewalks are full of citizens bemusedly
Lining up to be alive and later there’s a Zhang Ziyi movie
Playing down at the Panorama that wasn’t there yesterday.
A small change but – could this be the crises we hoped for?
Or just a cyclical correction like the rise and fall of hemlines?
If an ‘epic’ is, as Pound defined it, ‘a poem containing history’, Red Epic lives up to its title. What makes this book exciting is the way it captures, precisely, a key contradiction of our era: capitalism is both overwhelming, and beginning to show cracks. Interestingly, Clover has stated elsewhere that he does not think ‘poetry, or any artistic practice, has much political efficacy in the present situation.’ (Beattie) But reading this book, I wonder if the flipside might not be the case. That is, if the practice of poetry doesn’t necessarily make for good politics, perhaps, keeping Clover’s own activism in mind, a strong political life makes for good poetry. Put another way, this book leads me to wonder if to clearly see the dynamics driving our own world, it’s necessary to dream and organize for another one.
Beattie, Ian. ‘Interview with Joshua Clover.’ Masonneuve. 5/9/12. http://maisonneuve.org/article/2012/05/9/interview-joshua-clover/
Clover, Joshua. ‘Autumn of the Empire.’ Los Angeles Review of Books. 7/18/11. http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/autumn-of-the-empire