UNPROTECTED TEXTS: SELECTED POEMS 1978-2006 by TOM BECKETTJOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews:
UNPROTECTED TEXTS: SELECTED POEMS 1978-2006 by Tom Beckett
(Meritage Press, 2006)
So we celebrate breasts
We all love to kiss them
- they’re like philosophers!
(Gary Snyder, “Breasts”)
Set aside whatever Snyder meant as irrelevant here. When I read these lines I was grappling with Beckett’s work and immediately thought: yes, a way in.
Breasts: the image on the cover of Unprotected Texts is of Robert Gober’s Untitled, 1990, a 3-D representation of a torso, more or less (more more than less) hermaphroditic. I take this torso, these breasts, as synecdoche for the body as a whole, prior to/after the conscious elimination of its limiting by cultural gender assumptions. Prior to … An old Jewish belief: we were once both man and woman, one flesh, and we are trying to get back there. Adam was split in two. The Talmud explains the verse, And G-d took one of his sides, to mean that Adam was originally a composite of both male and female aspects side by side.
Not that that’s all the Gober signifies, but Beckett’s certainly very concerned with the unlimited body, the scary body, the pleasure body, the it’s all one body, the our body ...
Philosophers: here’s a bit of Musil on Törless’s first confrontation with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason:
… because of the profusion of brackets and footnotes he didn’t understand a single word, and, when he conscientiously followed the sentences with his eyes, it was as if an old bony hand were slowly screwing his brain out of his head.
When he stopped in exhaustion after about half an hour, he had only reached the second page, and sweat stood on his brow …
By evening, he did not even want to touch the book. Fear? Repulsion? He didn’t quite know …
That’s philosophy, not philosophers. Philosophers? Let’s not confuse philosophy and philosophers. Just as dangerous as confusing poetry and poets. Philosophers -- and I work with philosophers -- are just poor slobs breaking their embodied brains against the mess we’re in. Hegel liked to play cards. Who would have thought the author of the philosophy that had, among myriad other things, “unfortunately … remained bogged down in the remnants of the Platonistic idea of the search for ahistorical truths” (Rorty’s view, as paraphrased by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) liked to play cards? Philosophers are not philosophy.
Anyhow, from Beckett:
I don’t see poetry and philosophy as separate activities. The both proceed from similar questions: What can I know? What can I do? Who am I? Who are you? What can you do? Can we make something together? (Interview)
I remember body parts (freckled breasts, a dimpled ass) and passages from books equally well. (“Vanishing Points of Resemblance”)
Writing and sex are inseparable. Both are utopian projects – messy searches for connection coupled with the exploration and explosion of limits. (“Vanishing Points of Resemblance”)
It’s all about … that certain frisson, which occurs when words rub up against one another. (Interview)
So, breasts, philosophers -- I’ll add poems -- we love to kiss them. We each have our reasons. Mine: because they try so hard. Because they’re sweet. They’re sexy. And ultimately, at least in my case, because I love kissing.
Speaking of poor slobs breaking their embodied brains, I spent weeks breaking mine against these texts, seen through the lens of the title of the book. Unprotected texts? What could that mean? Are there protected texts? What protects a text? I asked the publisher if she could help here. Her unauthoritative yet perceptive response:
… the text exposes the author's psyche and/or exposes the author to potentially negative reactions but it [doesn’t] matter as he's willing to take the risk and leave himself unprotected for said barbs.
My problem with that is it seems to elide the (inevitable?) gap between authorial intention and reader response. What closes this gap is mimesis, in the broadest possible sense. Mimesis: Greek for “imitation” or “representation”. Aristotle and Plato used it to mean representation of nature. Auerbach in his Mimesis used it to mean representations of reality. I’m way too “postmodern” for that. To me mimesis means “a shared language that creates the appearance of a shared world”. If there’s a we, we have to share something. How reconcile unprotectedness, then, with the line in “Rehearsing”:
Um, mum’s the mimesis.
Beckett himself (in the interview) says, re “unprotected texts”:
My art … is potentially about the possibility of unalienated, liberated existence -- desire, jouissance! …
I think this too may elide the (inevitable?) gap between authorial intention and reader response, and doesn’t really address the issue of protectedness. (Though see a comment in 3, below, which recontextualizes this comment, and finds another truth in it.)
He also says
A poet creates a text. A reader in some sense completes it.
If “mum’s the mimesis”, if there’s no appearance at least of a shared world, then … how? If mum’s the mimesis then these texts are pretty damn protected, it seems to me.
But, all this brain-breaking aside, the texts do exist. I was tempted to scare-quote exist, but I won’t. They do exist, in exactly the same sense we do (you can make of that what you will).
But then I started to laugh. I wouldn’t BE a poor slob breaking my brain against the title, coming up with all these half-baked-theoretical-cum-pseudo-philosophical considerations if no appearance, at least, of common ground existed between author and at least this reader. Mimesis is not quite mum, in spite of the assertion. And the texts are indeed available for my “completions”.
So I decided to read them once again, considering that for me they are as protected/unprotected as any other text, and to cease worrying about any special status the title seems to attempt to confer on them.
So I re-read them just the way I normally read.
These texts are smart and sexy, and deal with issues that interest me: desire, identity, etc. Life and death. “Other minds”. The big questions. And they are fun to read. I was happy to read/happy while reading them. Unfortunately for you, dear reader, I’m getting old, and as old folks often do I tend to tell the same stories over and over. So I’m going to quote something I’ve said umpteen times in other contexts to elaborate on “happy”: “when I say happy I mean so damn glad to be alive”.
Jouissance is a French term, which can be roughly translated as “enjoyment” and is contrasted with plaisir. In every sense of the word it is whatever “gets you off.” Something that gives the subject a way out of its normative subjectivity through transcendent bliss whether that bliss or orgasmic rapture be found in texts, films, works of art or sexual spheres; excess as opposed to utility … Leo Bersani considers jouissance as intrinsically self-shattering, disruptive of a ‘coherent self’.
So, there is indeed a tad bit of jouissance going on here after all. Maybe not a self-shattering amount, for me at least, but I do get off. And lest this be taken as damning with faint praise, a little jouissance goes a long way around here.
Anyhow, enough blather. Time to share some of the pleasures of Beckett’s work. I’m not going to explain these poems. I can’t. They are what they are, and you’ll either or you won’t.
First, let’s get philosophical. And mock-philosophical (which is also philosophical). From “Little Book of Zombie Poems”
I’m not going to explain, as I said, but I will note that I can’t count the number of issues philosophers get passionate about that are present in these few lines. If only the pros found their problems so funny, maybe poor Törless would have made it past page 3.
On another level, a craft level, the Zombie poems (and many others as well) have brilliant line breaks, which make me jealous of Beckett’s ear and skill. It looks easy. It ain’t.
You’ll also find folk-philosophy here, as well as the technical stuff. From “You Never Know”:
…That’s the way the ball
bounces. Take what is given you.
Stop your complaining. Eat crow. …
…Adapt to circumstances.
Reverse the situation or relationship. Serve or
Control. You can only get so far. You never know.
And later, towards the end of the book, from “Wittgenstein Improvisations” (and please note the poetic formality of these improvisations. Most are hay(na)ku). These are especially good if you are familiar with W’s Philosophical Investigations:
Are you someone
understand our language?
slab of sentences.
Now, let’s add a little frisson to philosophy:
but a language
sighs, gasps, grunts
fluids we leaked.
I’m particularly taken by two things here, besides the playful/serious take on W’s later philosophy. First, the way the formal hay(na)ku structure allows Beckett the perfect stanza break between “language” and “game”; second, the way he has chosen to end this with a full-stop instead of a question mark, as if there is no question that what we tend to call language is only a fragment of language after all.
Finally, let’s add a little philosophy to frisson. From “Vanishing Points of Resemblance”:
I caress myself, pretend to be touching someone else.
The Subject may be having a convulsion or an orgasm or dancing or in his or her death throes. Who can tell the difference? Sometimes it is impossible to know.
I want to suck my own cock like a thumb.
“… the possibility of unalienated, liberated existence – desire, jouissance …” ??
One final point. Unprotected Texts is subtitled Selected Poems 1978-2006. The first poem starts on page 8; the last concludes on page 161. There are about eight pages (I kept getting distracted by the texts so I lost count) between pages 8 and 161 without poems on them. And there is a serious lot of white space, as well. So here’s my question: is Beckett relatively unproductive? Or is he simply the most disciplined poet around? What would a collected poems look like? If the work in Unprotected Texts is any indication, I can’t wait til one comes out.
John Bloomberg-Rissman’s most recent publication is OTAGES, which was written during the recent Israeli/Hizbollah conflict in Lebanon. His most recent completed project is a 200 page hay(na)ku called NO SOUNDS OF MY OWN MAKING, which in fact includes very few sounds of his own making. He is currently working on a series of semi-ekphrastic LIGHT POEMS relating to the photos of Marcos López. He is well aware that anything called LIGHT POEMS will immediately suggest Jackson Mac Low. But Mac Low’s not the only one being ripped off here. Among other things, these poems plagiarize every Meritage Press publication Bloomberg-Rissman can get his hands on. If you’re lucky, you’ll be next.