Colin Lee Marshall reviews the latest experimental poetry by former Hong Kong professor Robert Kiely.
Robert Kiely, How to Read, (Crater Press, 2017)
Beneath the Poundian didacticism of the title How to Read – the most recent pamphlet by poet Robert Kiely – is a suppressed rhetorical question. However incongruously stilted this question might seem amidst the book’s lightshow of contemporary tropes, its undertow remains necessarily discernable. For while How to Read is undoubtedly a book about reading – and more specifically, perhaps, about reading that might be thought to occur at the bleeding edge of internetese – it is a simultaneously a book that is necessarily unsure about quite how to read.
This uncertainty makes the book somehow both deficient and timely. Immediately, the reader begins to detect the influence of certain contemporary poets. Most notably, perhaps, Kiely seems to have borrowed liberally from Sean Bonney’s 2011 opus The Commons, not only deploying a litany of totemic dates (in this case, years of various Hong Kong riots) in a manner that evokes Bonney’s book, but also repurposing one of the book’s signature verbal interdictions: “BANG”. Like The Commons, Kiely’s book is also bent on raising the dead, writhing with “those who disappear and resurface” or who are “missing, or returned as ghosts”. But whereas Bonney’s revenants are woven into The Commons via bravura motif splicings, such that the text attains a kind of incantatory dissonance of the spheres, Kiely’s revenants are lonely and fragmented. As such, they are very much in keeping with the general tenor of How to Read, a book that is often brittle, nebulous, and disintegrative.
Perhaps this is not a slight. Perhaps too much has changed since The Commons was brought to press six years ago, such that we now need both to tell and to be told, to momentarily relinquish the alchemical, folksy hex, and peremptorily explain our uncertainty regarding just how dispersed and alone we feel:
We are astride Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which like a pyramidal rubix cube in a tricky .gif is shifting, and we get each sensation as it, well, I’m not sure how, or what the criteria are, but basically you sometimes feel fulfilled and self-actualized while starving and lonely, or have a sense of belonging while feeling unsafe, etc.
At first glance this poetry seems decided a priori, infected with what is at once both undeniable truth and stultifying ideologeme—namely, the fact that capitalism is our dazzling, pernicious enemy. How can a contemporary poet not say this? How can they not read a “building’s roots [as] capital flows” or squeamishly luxuriate in the coruscations of the gif? How can they not strive for a perfected cognitive dissonance which they must then shatter? All the same, the confabulatory hedgings of the expected gambit lend the excerpt an air of interesting uncertainty. This uncertainty is precisely where Kiely’s book both fails and succeeds. It fails because striving for a mimesis of capitalistic, inter-reticulate enervation circa 2017 is diachronically dissatisfying, however impressively one might register the paratactic tab-hopping or memetic bathos of the addictions and grammars that inform it. It succeeds because we quite frankly need some respite from the masterpiece, some hedgings and approximations, some poems that aren’t afraid to say “I’m not sure”, “basically”, and “etc.”
The poems in How to Read appear at first to shun each other, to exact a centrifugal force that can leave the book feeling slack and blanched. We might therefore be tempted to think that at best the text serves merely as a forlorn and faulty index of the conditions that gave rise to it. The person who wrote these poems seems at once identifiable and alien: a super-mediated netizen dispersed in a pixelated wash of cathexis, ressentiment, and fear, heaving to spew up a palely diffuse “favourite character”. There is a danger that the reader might turn away from all this with cruel hauteur, seeing in the poems too many totems-turned-gewgaws (“up against the wall”) and not-quite-bad-enough bad puns (“debt whispers / with no interest”).
Turning away, though, is always an ethical dilemma. Most readers will have at some point felt the urge to stop reading in medias res, to refuse to expend any more energy on a text whose use value seems uncertain. Likely, we will have at times felt pangs of guilt at this withdrawal, felt ourselves as sites of complicity in the great illusion of proper reading, by which certain texts are imbued with an authority that makes them worth reading, while others are banished to the genizah of our dismissal. There is no facile solution readily at hand; but perhaps we should at the very least pay attention to texts that emanate with acute self-awareness from this problematic, as Kiely’s book does: “eyes duct-taped / to the exhausted / canary in the mine and the mine / is a metaphor for, like, the future and stuff”. The final line here is a rebuttal of the objective correlative, recasting the metaphor as a bloated simile, the clarion call of Gen Xers and Millennials bleeding onto the internet with ill-defined surplus.
This “bleeding” isn’t merely figurative; for there is a fair amount of actual blood in How to Read, mixed with other human fluids, organs, and exertions. This suggestive grume evokes Keston Sutherland’s ‘Marx in Jargon’, an essay that resuscitates the German word “Gallerte” from Marx’s Kapital so as to convey the nuanced complexity that English translations of Marx’s text have elided. Writes Sutherland:
The image of human labour reduced to Gallerte is disgusting. Gallerte is […] a ‘semi-solid, tremulous’ comestible mass, inconvertible back into the ‘meat, bone [and] connective tissue’ of the various animals used indifferently to produce it.
Sutherland’s resuscitation is an attempt to draw attention to Marx’s original satirical intentions, to show the commodity not simply as a crystal of homogenous dead labour, but as a repository for heterogeneous physical and mental exertions that have been boiled down in such a way that they can never again be separated from the emetic aspic. How to Read is very much concerned with thinking this disgusting immanence: “The Phillips Economic Analog computer is / filled with blood”. It is also intent on thinking the reverse: “cargo is in the blood, blood / in the cargo”. Just as a “laptop infected” reveals the commodity’s biological corpuscles, a pair of “eyes cracked” reveals the body as a site of heterogeneous human mulctings dissimulated into the fragile crystal of the commodity. These effects are also endemic to our speech acts:
to speak is to spit the clot in your
mouth, to spit the clot is to raise
a fist, is to prove you exist
to spit pure denial
The expectoration here can be either tubercular or disdainful, depending on how we read. We are asked to think about our speech either as a moment of insalubrious pscittacism or as an inoculation against the very same.
This kind of semantic mirrorplay is at its most successful, in my opinion, when read as an injunction to stop and think about the ethical burden of reading in a climate of myriad conflicts. The complexity of this burden is approximated best not by a flash of binaries (however arresting), but by a consideration of the plurality that is betokened by any rapprochement or severance. This is why the strategically placed centrepiece of How to Read is the book’s most remarkable poem. Below is an excerpt:
You build a bridge an then you burn it. You build a bridge and then you burn it. You build a bridge and then you burn it because you have to relocate. You build a bridge and then you burn it because of a war. You build a bridge and it is shut down because the econ- omy tanks and the maintenance cost is too high and then it is burned.
The lilting prosody of the first three sentences prolapses spectacularly in the fourth. By the fifth sentence, any vestiges of song have completely disappeared into a string of prose whose matter-of-fact slipshodness seems all the more schismatic because of the gravity of the information that it is relaying. Things reach something of an apogee in the eighth sentence of the poem:
[…] You build a bridge and then you bury the workers who built that bridge in the foundations of the next bridge and you burn the last bridge and don’t talk about that bridge anymore, no one does.
This poem manages metastructurally to think its own function as a site of connectivity between the disparate fragments of How to Read. Its plethora of bridges encourages an ethical thinking that is not simply transpontine—i.e. pertaining to a simple “them” on the other side of the bridge—but multipontine, evoking bridges in their palimpsestic history as structures of communion and severance. Writes Kiely towards the end of the poem: “You forget what bridges are for”. What are bridges for at this point in time? How do they function both as metaphor and architectural structure in the multifarious histories of their erection and conflagration? How to approach them? How to read them then, now, and in the future?
Colin Lee Marshall is based in Seoul, South Korea. Several of his poetry reviews are available online, and a pamphlet of his visual poetry, Nidors, is available from Crater Press.
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 Keston Sutherland, Stupefaction: A Radical Anatomy of Phantoms (London: Seagull, 2011) p. 41