In Their Own Words
Anthony McCann's “Mouth Guitar”
These small gruntings I make while trying to get comfortable—
they churn in the dust like more dust.
But the pillows are finally stacked correctly
so that more rupture can begin. I read:
"This has been lubricious"
"Throat sap in the trees"
And then closing the book.
My flesh is as dark ramps to your fears and their fleetingness.
You cannot predict these sudden implosions
but touching another, you decide to begin.
So little has drooled through my brains this morning
that I can give you the complete account of it:
in blue glow
Raptures of Hair
in the Machines of the Light
I am here today though my throat is prenatal
And so many words, though they have to be covered with pain and ferment
so that rooftops can glow
carnivorous bowling goes on
I didn't wish to be touched like a face
in the bland topical seemings of that place.
But returned to our seemings it goes on a long time, mouthing
deliberately: you still have to perform them.
And so much severity they have as down the shifting hills
stumble the weathered lips, with the blissed-out face far behind them.
Later a small dream climbed up the leather stairs
parallel to the earth and your perception of the house
reappeared in an expression of violent blue lines. That presence
with the image in it became considerably more present.
The recognition remains constant
though the bodies and faces have changed
in this moment spared of all hope.
You see yourself there in a girl/boy suit
from when they still made worlds at home
hiding there, in abstract space
while the voices migrate above you.
Something frontier, buckskin and fringed
The two sides are connected by shock
And Mother, in the middle of gestures
But you must not do it like that.
I returned from the street where I had searched all the bins for your ticket and receipt. The early light exposed the brutality of the neighbors, always hacking up the plant life, right there, where it glows. But I have tried to fold my judgments into my body where they are transmuted into new sounds, song—and the comedy of a man my size climbing out of that little car and discovering once again all the stains on his hat. I don't think he was "a good man" or that he should have shot all those people, but a few more cops would've been fine by me.
blue world green world
with sunlight on its hands
I see I am approaching the splendid host, right there
where she lives, on the twig
I ask if she has any more pigments left
whether these feathers on the branches are for guests
and am delighted when she answers, "Yes."
And you, being there near the cold, but not true, presence
Does you hear what I is saying?
Is you is?
(Neighbor, I whispered.)
It's a "human moment," dressed up in skins
ankle-tethered to the glowing land—
It rattles and drags, it pauses and leaps.
(Neighbors, I whistled.)
But these sodden busts of cement and blood
are so nimbused by the growing density of the seen
whose moment saps them of all characteristics
that we all flicker there, in the stammering name.
Still, after blending and hugs…like a filthy mass,
the sky beat above us
booming with space whenever a sound...
and only the fear of space prevents us.
Let's move in closer and examine its mouth
and the shapes the sun makes when it enters your mouth.
Mightn't these shapes be sufficient
to represent sadness, the pause in your head,
and the way your coat moves
as it glides out beyond you?
Through that forest of cops in the forest
I couldn't perceive the trees they allowed.
But the leaves tapped at the solid glass block
and Nowhere, or deep, a small phone was heard.
It blinds me with pleasure:
of the Day
Then Space again—
And then one morning, just like a squirrel,
pain arrived suddenly
but much bigger and faster than anyone told me. A blur
of whiskers and panic, it climbs straight up the wheel;
it won't stop even to think.
Why do you want to go there, we all say. But pain goes where it is.
A voice on the tape said burn the motherfucker. A voice on the tape says
burn him out now
while on the street the little tents shook
with the voice and the motions of the bodies inside.
We made much of that space
where bodies leapt up
and of the distance in everything's lips
where we always found something real
later, to reflect on later, and repeat.
Then the fluid, that turned out to be "the voice" in the diagram,
goes through each body and ends at the dump
and a mouth heaps forward the beats in the dirt.
The problem is that it is expectation
that guides these slow thoughts over the plants,
and projects into a finer expression
all the fingers I forgot.
Did that shape just come out of my body?
There it flickers, unresolved.
Breathing…each…my toes inflate.
Handing over the money, crossing the street.
Now the pulsing afternoon
takes each belly in its hands
lifts it up towards some glass
and all that's inside
While he crawled on
with his body
or the state
they shift their curtains
And in that drooling shade
the kids grew older and away
"Neighbors," I whittled, " there is no longer any cultural form that would allow me to directly address you (perhaps there never was), but my animate body is (right now) sliding down a hillside of fragrant herbs, spring flowers and the usual trash. I roll and roll on past a sequence of forms, locked into each other, slurping and hot"
We should begin each day like these word-hands imagined
folded asleep on their bodies and sheets
or reaching up to the window (where sex is asleep)
or in a mammal suit, where we appears on the land
to scuttle, and stand and glare back at the land.
New voices dangled from each of the leaves.
All this awaits us—
touching and mouths,
word play and laughter,
with sex in our mouths.
It just starts again, or it starts to repeat.
But the sex, for all we spoke of it, was no more theoretical
than the lamplight on the leaves and the last
car at the end of the lot—that brittle car was ours.
I could hear the age humming: the industrial age, where it ended
in words, in some bodies on stage.
But when we pulled back the curtain
the apparatus was there, it hammered and stank,
where we fed it raw hands.
So the hourly scenes
plucked and zoned for mixed use. The feeling drifts
of being you
through shoulders to the trunk.
And you return to the surface
again and again
consulting the funerals there
"ribbons are flung, ribbons of cloud"
in a sequence of bald disaffection
though the music is lovely, and real.
From Thing Music (Wave, 2014). Reprinted with the permission of the author.
On " Mouth Guitar"
As some may recall, February 2013 was marked in Los Angeles by the "manhunt" for an ex-LAPD officer named Christopher Dorner. Dorner, unable to find justice for what he saw as his unfair dismissal from the force for filing an allegedly false report accusing another officer of brutality, had taken up arms against his erstwhile comrades and their kin. It was not a good moment for the LAPD. Not only did Dorner murder the daughter and future son-in-law of the officer who had represented him in his hearing, but the police response included the shooting of a 70 year old hispanic women and her daughter who, while delivering papers near the home of an alleged Dorner target, were mistaken for Dorner, a 34 year old, well-built, African American man. Additionally, Dorner's detailed charges of institutional racism in the LAPD played directly against the public image that the "new" LAPD, only recently released from federal supervision, had been seeking to broadcast. Other stories included the false-tip motivated storming of a Lowe's store, a police announcement informing citizens that officers would not be responding to many 911 calls because of their need to protect themselves (and the Oscar ceremony!) from Dorner, and reports and images of bald or closely shorn African American men wearing "don't shoot/not Dorner" t-shirts. At the center of all this mayhem was an enormous piece of writing: Dorner's Facebook "manifesto." My poem "Mouth Guitar" gathered shape during this super-charged time and though it isn't, or at least doesn't seem to me to be, directly about any of these events, it is marked in multiple ways by those days, by Dorner's manifesto and its rhetorical moves, by the news of the manhunt, and by the strange tone daily life took on during this so-called "siege." *
Recently I've found myself thinking and writing about Dorner again. He seems to have returned to mind through a curious connection of circumstances—my return to the habit of the gym, my recent reading in the grandly public (and also, at times, grandiosely macho) work of Charles Olson, and the fact that I write this now in the Mojave Desert, with a view in the blue distance of the San Bernardino mountains where Dorner died. I think it's the gym that first activated my memories of Dorner—as it has led me to think about men, my fellow American men, about gym crafted masculinities, and about the male persons and bodies crafted in American institutions like football, the military and the police. I've been thinking about bodies made to be the bodies of the law, bodies made to be hard as walls, bodies of enforcement made to channel the legal violence of the state here and overseas. These thoughts led me fluidly to Dorner for he had one of those bodies. He had an enforcer's body, a man-body made on the field, in basic training, in the gym. He was a football player in high school and college, and then he was a soldier (in a riparian unit with the Navy). He was a combat veteran and an officer. And then he became a policeman. And then he was a murderer, an outlaw. And then he was dead.
In the manifesto he tells us about how he had believed in America and in himself as an American, as a strong, honorable American man, a true soldier. He talks of how these things had sustained him in his lifelong struggle with the horrible realities of American racism. Dorner's document is of more interest than the usual scribblings of mass-killers, not only because of his particular grievances with a historically (famously so) corrupt and racist municipal police force, but also for how it documents one rather seriously troubled black American man's struggle with the structural realities of persistent virulent racism. Reading Dorner's rant it is easy to see as unsurprising what happened when his sense of his own physical and ethical power—of his very sentience as potential but legitimate violence—is stripped of its legitimacy, of its authority. Given the importance this legitimacy seems to have had in his maintenance of his self in the face of the racism endemic to the spaces in which he moved it would seem there would have to be a crisis at this moment, when his strong arm becomes just an arm, no longer the arm of the law.
I imagine him now as I was also imagining him then, while he was in hiding up there in those mountains and I was down in LA writing this poem. I imagine his life, his body—how he'd lived his adult life crafting this increasingly militarized, tightly disciplined self and flesh, lived by its code, its postures, its imperatives. And then disaster strikes; following his narrative, due to the very strength of his rigid integrity, he is punished and stripped of his good name. They took away his name; this was the main complaint of the manifesto. In it he says he will do what it takes to get it back. And what it takes, of course, is death. It makes terrible sense; if they've taken away his name it follows that they've left him only this body, this enforcing body, with nothing left to enforce but its own vanishment (and the vanishment of a few victims, taken with him, as it were, as his pillow). Together the manifesto, the haphazard acts of warrior revenge, and the final shootout enacted a public disappearance and resurrection in strict accordance with a tight and terrible theo-logic. As he enforced the vanishment of his own flesh, he occasioned the resurrection of this other body, the word-flesh of his name. He turned himself, with all the force of his rage, through the combined magic of murder and manifesto, into his name, into words. He vanished in public, on the web, on the page. He achieved the necessary velocity. He put it in writing; he disappeared. Christopher Dorner died here. **
Something like this can make you wonder about writing—what is it really? Is it at root some kind of terrible theo-necro-magic? Here, this is my body, etc.? Yes—and no; maybe. Like many other poets, I've thought and taught and written quite a bit about the relation between the the imaginary social space *** of a poem and death. Certainly Dorner's manifesto is necro-writing, prosopopoeia: from the start it assumes the position of an already dead speaker. By the time you read this, it reminds us again and again—this rhetoric complicated by the fact that I and so many others read his writing in the days before he actually expired, when he was hiding in that no-man's land between his social and biological deaths. This basic language scenario takes me quickly to poems, specifically poems written in the first person, poems—let's say—of living poets, poets who in the moment one is reading their poem might as well, as far as the reader is concerned, be dead. In a way, in a poem "I" is always a ghost, or a ghost-suit, a performance that will keep on talking after the body is gone.
I think one of the reasons I find the manifesto so fascinating and disturbing is the way it complicates my interest in the more utopian possibilities of such poetic necrosociality. **** The social necro-space of address created by Dorner in his manifesto is obviously not an appealing, companionate necro-sociality, it's not a poetic dimension filled with both the various intimacies of love and that ultimate healthful emotional distance of death. Dorner's circumstances and purposes were very specific, obviously. He did not seek to companion; he sought to curse and to haunt. He wasn't interested in poetry, but in revenge. His writing was a deeply troubling attempt to burst onto the necro-social stage of a white dominated culture, a culture he was deeply invested in, but from which, nonetheless, he had come to feel absolutely and violently alienated. His writing attempts to recuperate and transfigure a violent and shattered person: a person shattered by the violence which traversed him. The differences from the poetic sociality that I remain invested in seem clear and yet this central rhetorical move Dorner makes partakes of the same death magic as many poems do.
His writing troubles that magic and troubles my poem, as his story troubled and continues to haunt "post-racial" LA and the "new" LAPD. Partially in response—or so it seems to me—"Mouth Guitar" made its own self-conscious effort, in the midst of that manhunt and imagined municipal siege, to try to address its neighbors, its polis, its place and its police. I guess the poem is maybe mostly concerned—thus its title—with how a body publicly addresses other bodies in writing. But what poem isn't, at least at some occult level, concerned with this?
* That winter and spring I was very interested in trying to loosen up my work so that it could potentially let in anything that was happening around me as I was working on a poem. I had been reading Larry Eigner very closely for more than a year at this time. That winter also found me entering a new sustained period of close reading in the work of John Ashbery. Proximity to Ashbery's famously porous and nomadic sentences and Eigner's wide-open, one-note-at-a-time, piano-fingered syntax helped me let this Dorner moment in.
** In the last few sentences here I'm echoing some lines from "Mt. St. Helens," a searing poem by Eileen Myles about language and death and the place and place-taking that a poem is. Myles' work accompanied me throughout the writing of Thing Music.
*** Following Peter Gizzi, another poet crucial for me in the writing of this book, I call this space 100% real and 100% imaginary.
**** This use of the term necro-social is taken from Los Angeles poet Kirsty Singer's unpublished scholarly work on Jack Spicer.