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Poetry Matters: Neoliberalism, Affect, and the Posthuman in Twenty-First Century North American Feminist Poetics

Poetry Matters: Neoliberalism, Affect, and the Posthuman in Twenty-First Century North American Feminist Poetics

by Heather Milne

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Poetry Matters explores poetry written by women from the United States and Canada, which documents the social and political turmoil of the early twenty-first century and places this poetry in dialogue with recent currents of feminist theory including new materialism, affect theory, posthumanism, and feminist engagements with neoliberalism and capitalism. Central to this project is the conviction that a poetics that explores the political dimensions of affect; demonstrates an understanding of subjectivity as posthuman and transcorporeal; critically reflects on the impact of capitalism on queer, racialized, and female bodies; and develops an ethical vocabulary for reimagining the nation state and critically engaging with issues of democracy and citizenship is now more urgent than ever before. 

Milne focuses on poetry published after 2001 by writers who mostly began writing after the feminist writing movements of the 1980s, but who have inherited and built upon their political and aesthetic legacies. The poets discussed in this book—including Jennifer Scappettone, Margaret Christakos, Larissa Lai, Rita Wong, Nikki Reimer, Rachel Zolf, Yedda Morrison, Marcella Durand, Evelyn Reilly, Juliana Spahr, Claudia Rankine, Dionne Brand, Jena Osman, and Jen Benka—bring a sense of political agency to poetry. These voices seek new vocabularies and dissenting critical and aesthetic frameworks for thinking across issues of gender, materiality, capitalism, the toxic convergences of nationalism and racism, and the decline of democratic institutions. This is poetry that matters—both in its political urgency and in its attentiveness to the world as “matter”—as a material entity under siege. It could not be more timely or more relevant. 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609385781
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 05/15/2018
Series: Contemp North American Poetry
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 278
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Heather Milne is an associate professor of English at the University of Winnipeg, where she teaches feminist studies, queer theory, and contemporary poetry. She is the coeditor of Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics

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Strategic Embodiment: Materiality, Proceduralism, and Biopolitics in Jennifer Scappettone's From Dame Quickly, Margaret Christakos's What Stirs, and Larissa Lai and Rita Wong's sybil unrest

Neither Fish nor Flesh: Jennifer Scappettone's Materialist Poetics

From Dame Quickly (Scappettone 2009b) is striking as a material object. Its pages are eight and a half inches tall by eleven inches wide, making it much larger than most books of poetry; the wide pages accommodate Scappettone's often extremely long lines, and in some cases, allow for more than one column of poetry to be printed on a single page. One section of the book is comprised of vibrant collages of texts and images printed in full color on glossy paper. The care and attention paid to the form and design of this book reflect an appreciation of the book as an object or material "thing" and can be read as a manifestation of Scappettone's overarching interest in the reclamation of matter and materiality and the ways that matter can function not only as a container for content, but also as an active site of meaning-making.

From Dame Quickly was published in 2009, two years after Scappettone's essay on strategic embodiment, suggesting that she may have worked on the projects simultaneously and they likely informed each other. From Dame Quickly can be read as a manifestation of Scappettone's argument in favor of strategic embodiment; she describes From Dame Quickly as "an attempt at a new materialism" (2009a) and articulates her poetic process as a setting down of "dumb matter which has not yet been inscribed, the matter/mater of the feminine, the earth" against poetic forms that have been "emptied of material" (2009a). She develops a poetics that challenges the gendered relationship between form and matter, and more specifically, the ways in which the female body has traditionally been associated with matter, passivity, and silence. Scappettone reclaims matter, framing it not as "dumb" but as an active site of signification, disruption, and agency.

The disruptive logic of the feminine is introduced in Scappettone's book most directly through the figure of Dame Quickly, who is invoked in the book's title and also in an epigraph derived from Karl Marx's Capital that reads: "The objectivity of commodities as values differs from Dame Quickly in the sense that 'a man knows not where to have it'" (2009b). By placing this quotation at the beginning of her book, Scappettone locates her project as materialist and grounds it in relation to a female character that Marx borrows from Shakespeare. Dame Quickly is a minor character in several of Shakespeare's plays, including Henry IV, where she is a bawdy tavern keeper who, as the pun contained in her surname implies (Quickly/Quicklay), is associated with sexual availability and promiscuity. In Henry IV, part 1, Falstaff refers to Dame Quickly as an otter, "neither fish nor flesh," and suggestively contends that "a man knows not where to have her." Dame Quickly replies by amplifying the sexual innuendo contained in Falstaff's accusation, "Thou art an unjust man in saying so: thou or any man knows where to have me" (Henry IV, part 1, act 3, scene 3). For Marx, Dame Quickly signifies the collapse of the boundaries between public and private entailed in prostitution; sex in this context goes from being a private exchange to a commodity that circulates in the marketplace, but one that makes men uncertain as to "where" they should "have" her. This ambiguity is amplified by the collapse of the sex act and the body of the prostitute under the sign of the commodity. Passing entirely over the disorienting effects this conflation might have on the sex worker's understanding of selfhood, Marx focuses on its destabilizing effects on her customer, thereby erasing her subjectivity and turning her solely into a commodity, a material object ascribed a value in a capitalist marketplace. Scappettone's sustained engagement with Dame Quickly in this text challenges the sexism that underscores both Shakespeare and Marx's representations of this figure, and relishes the ambiguity and instability of signification that seemed to confound both Falstaff and Marx.

The preposition "from" in the book's title might suggest that the poems are told from Dame Quickly's perspective, although the poems are too fragmentary and elusive to be traced to a single speaker. Scappettone layers fragment upon fragment to construct multivocal, refracted, nonreferential poems. Michael Cross identifies a tendency in Scappettone's writing to bend language through "a multitude of registers, so that as the poem unfolds, the thing is turned and turned before us, and with each revolution, it is not what it was moments before." Her long sentences "refract into any number of clauses, spinning out and shifting under our feet" so that, like Falstaff or Marx, the reader is left somewhat disoriented (2014). However, as Scappettone explains, one of the underlying motivations for this project is a desire to reclaim matter, including the materiality of language. A focus on language as matter entails a focus not on logical sematic progression so much as on fragments of language and utterances as objects unmoored from context and set in striking and unanticipated relation to one another.

"Thing Ode" (Scappettone 2009b, 24) is arguably the poem in this collection that most clearly illustrates Scappettone's attempt to develop a new materialism in her poetry. "Thing Ode" evokes the female body and matter through fragmentary strands of text that are combined and recombined to generate meaning through juxtaposition and shifting contexts. As an "ode," the poem pays tribute to "thingness," or to the objective existence of material objects, yet "things" in this poem are not concrete and finite objects as much as they are abstract concepts and functions. "Ode" subtly references its homophonic twin "owed," creating a productive conflation between praise and debt, surplus and lack; "thing" is both the object of admiration and that which is "owed" to another in a capitalist system of exchange.

The opening lines of the poem read:

Say, what thing — Darling — what thing keeps you up at night? — security collaboration,
It is unclear who the speaker is or what her relationship is to the person she is addressing, although the word "darling" could indicate a degree of intimacy. What is clear, however, is that the implied sources of the addressee's anxiety, the "things" that keep her up at night, seem to be linked to contemporary geopolitics and capitalism: "security collaboration," "client satisfaction," "global pipleline[s]." Scappettone then goes on to evoke the feminine through an oblique reference to Dame Quickly:

a garrison'd ecosystem waxing margins of the sure thing now neither fish nor flesh nor a damn of Mater equipping itself to torque and spin this leak of social substance?
Here the "torque and spin" of the feminine, the "damn of Mater," and "leak of social substance" rupture the stability and containment of the "garrison'd ecosystem" and the "margins of the sure thing." Neither fish nor flesh, both producer and commodity, the feminine signals a productive collapse of conventional meaning. "Mater" is the etymological root of both "mother" and "matter," a connection central to the poem's interest in the relationship between the feminine and materiality.

Through references to Dame Quickly and the sex trade, the poem gestures to the connections between women, sex, and commodities: "the genitive case / of a narrow home, / horum, harem; darling at your side, / I became again, I learned to taste the good soldier" (Scappettone 2009b, 25). "Horum" and "harum" are both the Latin genitive plural forms of hic (here). Scappettone changes the spelling of "harum" to "harem": this shift in spelling signifies an important shift in meaning as well. Historically, harems have functioned as female-only spaces in Muslim cultures, but within the context of a popular culture informed by Orientalism, harems have a long association with sexuality and prostitution. "Horum," when placed next to "harem," implicitly evokes "whore-um," a double meaning that is rendered particularly apparent when the poem is read aloud. Scappettone is obliquely referencing Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, and more specifically, a scene in which Dame Quickly hears Sir Hugh Evans quizzing William Page on his Latin grammar and, upon hearing the boy recite the genitive case of this verb, assumes he is uttering vulgar slang. The line becomes a source of comedy in the play, and serves to emphasize Dame Quickly's lack of formal education and predilection for hearing and conveying sexual innuendo. Several of the phrases in "Thing Ode" are actual lines spoken by Dame Quickly in Shakespeare's plays. These lines are decontextualized, disassembled, and join a polyphonic chorus of other poetic fragments. The poem continues:

the clients wanting sober ceremonies, with sighs,
The speaker has become so caught up in her study of language that she must be reminded of the importance of materiality or "things." "Things" here is explicitly masculinized as the "sons of earth" and "manly characters." Scappettone problematizes the conflation of matter/mater with the feminine, and opens up new ways to understand matter as other than passive. However, several lines later she invokes the feminine through reference to the "servile and effeminate / age we devoutly embrace / the rare branding of / bodies in motion" (26). Whether the "we" in this context embraces the "servile and effeminate age" or the "rare branding of bodies in motion" is unclear. In any case, the bodies here are branded, insofar as they are both "marked" and "marketed" (L'Abbé), but they are also in motion, suggesting a refutation of passivity and stasis, qualities typically associated with the feminine.

Scappettone posits matter/mater as "that which has not been inscribed" (2009a). In so doing, her poetry might be read at first glance as presenting bodily materiality as what Judith Butler calls a sign of irreducibility, as that which bears cultural construction but is not itself a construction (1993, 28). However, Scappettone's exploration of matter, like Butler's, ultimately challenges this irreducibility. Butler problematizes understandings of matter as prior to or outside of discursive systems. In tracing matter back to its etymological roots, Butler also explores its relation to mater (mother) and matrix (womb), noting the same long-standing associations between women and matter that Scappettone explores in her poetry. However, Butler also demonstrates that for the ancient Greeks and Romans, matter was not a blank surface awaiting inscription. On the contrary, she argues, classical understandings of materiality and signification understand them as indissoluble (1993, 31).

Insofar as matter appears in these cases to be invested with a certain capacity to originate and to compose that for which it also supplies the principle of intelligibility, then matter is clearly defined by a certain power of creation and rationality that is for the most part divested from the more modern empirical deployments of the term. To speak within these classical contexts of bodies that matter is not an idle pun, for to be material means to materialize, where the principle of that materialization is precisely what "matters" about the body, its very intelligibility. (Butler 1993, 32)

Like Butler, Scappettone explores matter's generative capacities. The body in "Thing Ode" is conceptualized through rather than outside its relationship with language; matter generates language and language itself is understood as material, as illustrated in the following passages:

the introjecting suck of speech's bust (25)
For Scappettone, matter is not inert and passive. Kicking "heels against the alphabeted mass" indicates an agential body rather than a passive one, and configures language as material. Verbs like "open" and "whirled" suggest activity rather than passivity, and a "first plié toward bodilessness" suggests, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, the possibility of escape from embodiment and materiality through the embodied act of dancing. Scappettone develops a materially and corporeally grounded feminist poetics that problematizes the distinction between body and text, matter and language and shows how a poetics of "strategic embodiment" can "strip bare the essentializing acts of determination and domination that buttress a regressive social world" (Scappettone 2007, 184).

"Thing Ode" is prefaced with two epigraphs that, taken together, link the project of analyzing the relationship between form and matter to feminist procedural poetics and "strategic embodiment." The first of these quotations, from Bruce Mau and the Institute without Boundaries' "Massive Change" exhibit, reads: "We will build intelligence into materials and liberate form from matter. ... Instead of designing a thing, we design a designing thing. In the process, we have created superhero materials and collapsed the age-old boundary between the image and the object, rendering mutable the object itself" (2004, 24). Mau is a Canadian designer whose book and touring exhibition "Massive Change" (originally curated by the Vancouver Art Gallery in the early 2000s) explores the ways in which design might be used to address major social, cultural, economic, and environmental problems. For Mau, design holds the potential to become an active, or even an activist, agent of social change, a "superhero" material. The object that is designed — the "thing" — is the site where that social change takes place. Such an object would, like Dame Quickly, fulfill the roles of both commodity and producer; it is not just a "thing designed" but a "designing thing." Mau's claim to "liberate form from matter" and design not simply a "thing" but a "designing thing" informs Scappettone's project, where meaning and significance are located less in relation to the poem as finished product than they are in relation to process and the questions that inform its production. Process and form become scriptive agents in her poetry.

However, Scappettone is not so much interested in "liberating form from matter" as she is in querying the distinction between form and matter and asking questions about how the distinction between form and matter is imbued with gendered assumptions. How might "matter," the physical matter of the gendered body, become a "designing thing," or a scriptive agent in its own right? How does this relate to poetry? The second epigraph, borrowed from Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young's "Foulipo" essay (2011), provides a possible answer to these questions; the quotation reads: "... and yet caught in the cultural anybody of the momentanity that said we had to be thingal and younghede ..." (2011, 24). Scappettone draws extensively on Spahr and Young's "Foulipo" essay/performance in her essay on strategic embodiment. "Foulipo" emerges as a critical response to the male-dominated Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) tradition of constraint-based writing. In composing "Foulipo," Spahr and Young deploy strategies derived from Oulipo, including the N+7 technique of replacing each noun with the seventh noun following it in the dictionary. They also "slenderized" their text by removing all of the "r" s in portions of the essay. They explain the intent behind these procedures using the aforementioned slenderizing technique to great effect:

What we wanted fom foulipo was a numbe of geneative and estictive, numbe based pocesses and constaints that helped us undestand the messy body. One that did not pesent a beautiful, complete and obviously gendeed naked body but one that still lets us deal with the I AM HEE, one that lets us get dessed and undessed, one that lets us constain and expand. (Spahr and Young 2011, 42)

When these sections are read aloud, the reader's voice acquires a lisping and infantile tone that undermines her authority. This lisping voice becomes one of several performative aspects of the talk. Spahr and Young took turns reading out the non-italicized parts of the talk. The italicized portions were read over a loudspeaker, while Spahr and Young repeatedly undressed and dressed (Spahr and Young 2011, 15). Meaning is conveyed as much through bodily performance in this essay as it is through the actual words on the page. The dressing and undressing and the lisping voice remind the reader/listener that bodies do matter, that far from being inert and passive, the body can function as a productive site of meaning-making. Furthermore, their "Foulipo" essay/performance demonstrates the political potential of procedural techniques where the subversive and political force of the text lies less in the content of the words and more in the material form of the text and the procedures enacted on the text. In the case of Spahr and Young's "Foulipo" essay, these procedures, developed out of careful and considered political analysis, are inextricably linked to the material, gendered bodies of the authors/performers of the text and to the arguments they advance in their essay. In other words, the essay's arguments are in large part made through the material presence of the body.


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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Introduction: Feminist Poetics as Cultural Critique, or, Why Poetry Matters Part One: Economies of Flesh and Word: Biopolitics and Writing the (Posthuman) Body in Late Capitalism Chapter One: Strategic Embodiment: Materiality, Proceduralism, and Biopolitics in Jennifer Scappettone’s From Dame Quickly, Margaret Christakos’s What Stirs, and Larissa Lai and Rita Wong’s sybil unrest Chapter Two: The Affective Politics of Disgust: Nikki Reimer’s [sic] and Rachel Zolf’s Human Resources Part Two: Poetic Matterings: New Materialist and Posthuman Feminist Ecopoetics Chapter Three: De/Anthropomorphizing Language: Posthuman Poetics in Yedda Morrison’s Darkness and Marcella Durand’s "The Anatomy of Oil" Chapter Four: Water and Plastic: Trans-Corporeality in Rita Wong’s undercurrent and Evelyn Reilly’s Styrofoam Part Three: Geopolitics, Nationhood, Poetry Chapter Five: Not in Our Name: Intimacy, Affect, and Witnessing in Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, and Dionne Brand’s Inventory Chapter Six: Post/National Feminist Poetics in Rachel Zolf’s Janey’s Arcadia, Jena Osman’s Corporate Relations, and Jen Benka’s A Box of Longing with Fifty Drawers Coda Permissions Notes Bibliography Index

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