By Joshua Clover
Commune Editions, 2015
84 pages, $12.16
Reviewed by Laura Carter
I’d like to start with the end. Not necessarily because of a belief in teleology, but because this book begins with the end. There is a quote by Jean Renoir—“The truly terrible thing is that everybody has their reasons.”—and the last phrases of the book Red Epic, the latest book by Joshua Clover, “Why do things keep on / because reasons.”
And what is a reason? If we can believe etymology, it’s a little ratio, where things are similar. It’s a little paradise, perhaps, with the slightest tinge of melancholy.
The epigraph and dedication of Red Epic let us in on a couple of things. The book is written for comrades, and the epigraph is from Diane di Prima: “remember, you can have what you ask for, ask for everything.” A book of poems declaring singular impertinence from the get-go sounds wonderful. So, upon reading, I realize that the Entertainment Weekly is only partly right in calling Clover “a sincere trickster,” for while there is some irony and playful humor in these poems—which range from monologues by Prince Valiant of The Capital to sly posturings that let us know the speaker prefers cats to humans. It is best to read Clover with a grain of salt, not necessarily because of the press’s political mission, but because the mirror his work provides is one of currency and moments.
In the book’s first poem, “My Life in the New Millennium,” Clover sets up what may be the collection’s thesis. “Once fire is the form of the spectacle the problem / becomes how to set fire to fire.” If this is the telos of Red Epic, I am all for it. If the persistence of reasons is what gives spectacle its form, then reading Red Epic as a mirror of spectacular capitalism is a way to look at this project.
Some of the poems, though, may seem to belie this aim. There are poems, such “Apology” and “LTCM,” that take a more confessional approach, in some sense shedding reasons for a more feeling approach to the century as our speaker-poet would have it, once again relying on a seasoned cultural and historical vocabulary to make the poems work. There are even indictments of strategy, as in the aptly-titled “Stop It with Your Strategies,” in which we get a glimpse of political fervor.
So, my main question about the book brings me back to its thesis: to set fire to the spectacle. Red Epic serves as a mirror because that’s what poems do. And if the spectacle itself mediates real relations between humans, as Debord writes, then we have a lot to go from here. For there are the poems of wordplay and shifts in affect and voice that the book compromises. The beginning poem offers a thesis, so it’s a lead-in, and in poems like “Poem Ending with a Line from Niedecker,” we get a tone of citied forgetfulness: “I keep my mind under my arm / where I hold my / head when I walk.” The poem then shifts to direct address, “You know all too well / that the best poetry is not / the least revolution,” and we are brought to the telos that dialectically propels the book, in poems like “Transistor” taking the form of imperatives for the duration of its prose.
Direct address escorts us away from the spectacle, providing an anchor in the world of floating capital. This is a good move and Clover does it well. In “Fab, Beta, Equity, Vol,” he writes, “dude that’s not emptiness it’s abstraction / asserting itself on the home front now / who will love in your hollowed carapace.” He deftly shifts to more axiomatic lines in other poems, saying, as in “(In the city it was warmer),” that “Everywhere the poetics of currency float even in the poetry” and “Facts modeled in three or four dimensions but not a story.”
What would a story look like in the spectacle’s wake? Would the land of Dostoyevskian reasons leave facts behind in its wake, maybe even something like nature? It may be too late to wish for that, but despite all plausible answers, I confess that I do, and that the thesis of Red Epic moves us—delightfully!—toward that end as readers.
So. Maybe—just maybe—we can hope for something like the end of Vernunft (or reason). Or are reasons something different? I think they are, and it is my hope that Commune Editions will present more startling answers to this (a)historical dilemma.