T.C. MARSHALL Engages
Ursula or University by Stephanie
An Appreciation of Stephanie Young’s Ursula or University
“Whatever” or “What You Will”:
“This thing that I made that failed” (15) is a sort of tagline built into Stephanie Young’s Ursula or University that positions the work poetically. In this new book, she writes from the positions of being a working member of national, local, and personal communities. She shows us her struggles over what to do with the demands of a public situation that clearly calls for political and practical action, while she also includes her private and “literary” concerns from within those communities. That “failed” phrase shows up as a sort of song-like refrain, a chorus that reminds us of some apparent inevitabilities and of what gets done despite them.
The “thing” referred to in the phrase was an earlier work of “neo-benshi” that attempted to combine re-scripting of Jeanne Moreau clips with reflection on Oscar Grant’s killing by a BART cop and that system’s restrictive social functions. It was apparently a meditation on dramatized flows and forces of the powers that be. In the recent book, we first see “failed” as a verb and get it also as a descriptive adjective about that piece that she finally considered a failed work. In the final section of Ursula or University, though, people’s names follow the verb “failed” and make it a transitive one with those names as direct objects. The names are those of several people murdered by Bay Area police actions in 2009-11: Oscar Grant, Kenneth Harding, Charles Hill, and Raheim Brown. This little emendation is a simple poetic move, but in it lies the truth of the poetic tension of Young’s book in telling whom and what she feels she failed. It also helps create the strengths of this work, which lie in the truth of what poetry can and does accomplish.
“Poetry makes nothing happen,” Charles Bernstein likes to say, as though it always fails. He is quoting Wystan Hugh Auden who wrote in defense of William Butler Yeats’ imagination, I think. Those three august gentlemen might offer poetic figures instead of plain answers, but the real question is about what this “nothing” is. It makes me think of an old image from Westerns, where someone in jail would use a nothing like a tin drinking cup to rattle the cages of the Sheriffs and others. In Ursula or University, I’d say, it is this kind of “nothing” that can and must be attended to. When “nothing can be done” seems like the answer, poetry’s mite of nothing is what we must precisely offer to make happen. It is as if we must rattle our little next-to-nothing against the bars of what little poetry can do, take the cup they allow us and keep our jailers awake at night with it. Even such a small power can be taken away. I have on my desk a reminder of that. It’s a yogurt cup from Soledad, used for drinking. It was given to me by a prisoner as a souvenir of how anything firm enough to be made into a weapon—like a ceramic or tin cup—has been taken away from them now just like the chance to earn college units while incarcerated. The thin plastic cup he gave me wouldn’t make much of a rattle against the bars, but it rattles me each time I look at it and think of lives reduced to next to nothing and held down there. In the same thought, I also think of the poems he and his classmates wrote the day Jeanine Pommy Vega and I went inside to work with them. They were evocative and forthright, as if the prisoners had nothing to lose by telling of the things they remembered from outside, like childhood and the streets.
“Failed lives” is a myth we use to police the thought of those guys; to those who have lived in them, those lives and their failures are actually fecund. A failed work turned into an investigation of all that failed it and all that it failed is a project worthy of an inclusive vision. Young gives that to this work all the way. The phrase “Too much work and still to be poets” (11) shows up in “Essay (after Bernadette Mayer),” the opening piece in Young’s book. It is followed by a pair of lines that can be read a couple of ways because they lack end punctuation: “Who are simultaneously-the-beneficiary-of-our-cultural-heritage-and-victim-of-it poets,” which could on its own be read as a question, and the next line that certainly could too, though it’s also a rhetorical one that makes a statement: “Was there ever a poet who had a self-sufficient loss of certainty” (11). This sketch of the kind of poet we’re looking at is a small part of a large poem that ostensibly serves as a prologue to the wide-ranging book and its focus on the work of a poet in a tangled world.
The next piece, “January 2011,” begins to use that last question to frame a fresh project by opening with “I have to begin with this failure. This thing I made that failed.” Those two sentences are the first paragraph. The second is longer, and it ends: “I’m trying to write something about being a poet in the middle of feeling confused about the social stuff, the institutional stuff” (13). In that prologue “Essay” poem, there had been a claim that “we are among a proletariat of poets of all the classes” (12). This starts us off with a twist on class analysis in an ironic truth about her fellow Easy Bay poets that serves as a window onto “the social stuff, the institutional stuff” (15). To look into and crawl out of that window is the daring-do of her book. It provides the “self-sufficient loss of certainty,” as she puts it, that is properly sufficient to stage her self-doubts as entry points for a questioning of the poetry world. Young’s pointed questionings of our tasks as poets and of all the advantages taken by various privileged ones among us make for challenges not just to herself but to the community.
Another important tagline, from that second section called “January 2011” is the phrase: “the mostly white poets I am and hang out with” (19). This phrase becomes syntactically awkward now and then, and it gets variations played upon it; as I first heard it in a reading at the mostly white-privileged Montalvo Arts Center, it stuck out like a thumb in a bandage. It fits, though, as the 1/11 piece prosily moves forward to comment on a poetry community that Young joined first through the Buffalo listserv and then fell further into with “blogs, flickr, myspace, facebook” and, now on the streets of Oakland, twitter. It was, for Young, “terribly exciting at first…, and then it wavered and felt bad.” She tells us she is going for a “critique of the networks and systems that surround and produce poetry communities” and one that “doesn’t leave out [her] feelings” (22).
I take it that including her feelings comes from her personal desire but can also be seen as directed by a dialectic between two poetries: the public image (and lingering Romantic history) of poetry as “about” and “from” feelings, countered by the Modernist swing away from the person. She does not directly discuss this. However, Young uses the Bay Area poetry scene, the scene she visits in NY in early 2011, and the simultaneous AWP meeting as comparative contexts where she attends to her feelings and listens to what they tell her about those social constructions. Her work scene at Mills College in Oakland is another such context, as are the universities that fund conferences and/or employ some of the poets who go to them. She takes notice of the facts about tenure-track employment and distinctive degrees among the panelists at the “Rethinking Poetics” conference at Columbia and how that is but one of the problematic aspects of a scene that a friend of hers describes as “the same old theatre of power” (41). However, some of these profs are also credited with sharply positive interventions. Charles Bernstein, for example, is both pointed out as a seriously tenured Harvard grad, an enjoyer of privileges, and gratefully shouted out for asking that attention be given to “forms of reading, such as the three-day form of listening-as-reading” (49) that all were caught up in at the Columbia conference. Young’s enthusiasm is mostly always about community and what constructs, destroys, or deconstructs it.
Through both her feelings and her analysis, we get a measure of impetus and drag for poetry in the situations in which she finds herself. We sense with Young what impels poetry-making or not as she moves among those who shape today’s avant-garde for the art. Her challenges to herself and to the flow around her illuminate her sense of impetus. The poet is not just a rubber ducky in a stream flow. Such a duck bobs along, bounces off rocks, spins aside in eddies, slows in wide flats, goes under in falls, gushes along below them, and has an average speed you can calculate as you trot along beside the creek and glance at your watch. A poet is, instead, properly helped along by other duckies who, unlike rubber ones, have the will to collaborate. Community is the impetus, but it also must be measured against eddying or getting stuck; we must see that those inertial or frustrating forces, too, can come from others through their acts and rules.
In the poetic construct of Ursula or University, Young builds up a sense of community that seems to open out through the poet’s encounters with what baffles her efforts and what sparks them. We get a positive glimpse of a kind of “community” that does not rule its component individuals but compels and impels them in a lively disorder. At the same time, it provides a kind of antidote to the masked-over anarchy of the petty middle-class life imposed on us all by the market. That market of misrule, whether in its AWP or MLA masks or in the suits and numbers of other job lists or the “open market,” is pulling at the poet’s eye and ear constantly throughout this book. She has no consistent answer to the problematic structures nor even a consistent community from which to respond, but her poetics includes attempts and failures. Her alliances with friends are presented alongside the liaisons with collegial groups or casual caucuses as forms of effective community practice for her. Young’s projection of a grander community stems from these twos and threes and sevenses or dozenses. It rises naturally in their gossip or their marching or their local conferencing. It is not solidarity around common identity, even of being poets, so much as a politics of mutually accessing ways out of the problematic shapes of life in which we entrap ourselves.
This sense of community in Young’s U book reminds me of Giorgio Agamben’s “Coming Community” concept, which, though a bit overloaded with philosophical language in his framing, shapes pretty much the same wobbly thing. It is a community constructed not in likenesses that classify individuals, not in common-ity, but in “usages” that rise as individuals place themselves “among others” seeking “ease” with others. Those terms there in scare quotes and plenty of others are given full philosophical definition in Agamben’s 1990 (trans. 1993) book because his aim is to sketch a philosophical “ethic” of community. As he does this work, though, an oddly slangy word crops up. “The being that is engendered on this line,” he writes, “is ‘whatever’ being, and the manner in which it passes from the common to the proper and from the proper to the common is called ‘usage’—or rather, ethos” (19). That, of course for us modern poets, echoes Charles Olson’s usage of ethos to name the “haunts” of a person, where a person lives as they live in the “cave of their being” (369). Agamben’s “whatever” is not our slangy one really but the “tel quel” of the French, the “qualunque of the Italian, the “quodlibet” of the church fathers and of philosophy. It names the philosophical fold between the individual and groupings: “Common and proper, genus and individual are only the two slopes dropping away from either side of the watershed of whatever” (19). This ethics of the “whatever” is an attempt to free the idea of community from the idea of what we (have to) have in common. Of course, seeing what I have in common with the homeless woman can be liberating, but Young’s cry is not for identification with the black male victims of the BART Police; it is more against the categories policing thrusts upon our lives. The shrug of “whatever” in its slangy sense is flipped in Agamben’s “quodlibet” (what you will) whatever. If you ask me why I demonstrate and I say I have no reason, I may just say “whatever” and mean it both ways.
The other force that Agamben’s book offers to Young’s approach is in these two sentences: “The perfect art of writing comes not from a power to write, but from an impotence that turns back on itself and in this way comes to itself as a pure act (which Aristotle calls agent intellect). This is why in the Arab tradition agent intellect has the form of an angel whose name is Qalam, Pen, and its place is an unfathomable potentiality” (36). Agamben is again talking about being and essence here and of the supreme power in the potentia potentiae and all kinds of other big stuff, but Young’s repeated phrase “the thing that I made that failed” does more than Bartleby’s refusal (Agamben’s reference point in literature for his point) by refusing to refuse to go on. She goes on with an enactment of something that incorporates and re-enacts the elements of that failure, embracing them and giving them their potential back. Ursula or University highlights the unfathomable quality of its recombinant elements: that neo-benshi’s enjambment of Moreau-vian romance with protest against murders by policemen, “the mostly white/leftist poets I am and hang out with,” the “institutional stuff” like that ReThinking conference and its rooms and voices, the “social stuff” of the poetry world and its scenes and a “critique of the networks and systems” therein, the “cultural heritage” we supposedly share, the Steinian wisdom of gossip, the East Bay discussion of poets’ labor and descriptions from their conference on that, “feelings” as “nothing more than feelings,” the names of the dead, the names of authors and their books, “the problem of the person,” the description of Occupy actions and of one’s choices of participation or not, the descriptions of police actions, some earthquake stuff, the recognition of misogynies, the acts of editing & reflecting, or of reading & thinking, the history of freeskools, the sense of friendship, and the “whatever” of it all.
This scramble is certainly enough to incite the “self-sufficient loss of certainty,” and yet, and yet … (as Kobaiyashi Issa says in contemplating “this world of dew”). What I get here from Young’s writing is a sense of person that is delightfully mixed and mixed up. It is not a label-able individual, a dividend of the division into likenesses by matching up exteriors. Young’s person is, instead, actually the kind of a “whatever” that constantly faces whatever is in the adjacent open space accessed by consideration of others and of situation. I think we might return here to Agamben’s fancy talk because he goes right at this sense of person as a basis for “the coming community” near the end of his short book. He explains this kind of self situation as an “ek-stasis” and locates it as “the experience of being—within an outside” (67). It is “determined only through its relation to an idea, that is, to the totality of its possibilities.” This kind of person is “a singularity plus an empty space,” both “finite” and “indeterminable according to a concept” (66). This is not the “perfect exteriority” of politically correct alignment nor that of the profilings by advertising or the police. As Agamben puts it, it is instead the “pure exteriority” and “exposed singularity” of its thus-ness and the “whatever” that it is (64-67). If we refuse to let go of our slangy angle on “whatever,” this can make a lot of sense even to us non-philosophes.
It helps explain the Occupy approach that Agamben seems to have prophesied in his “coming community” idea: “The novelty of the coming politics is that it will no longer be a struggle for the conquest or control of the State, but a struggle between the State and the non-State (humanity), an insurmountable disjunction between whatever singularity and the State organization” (84––his italics). “What the State cannot tolerate in any way … is that the singularities form a community without affirming an identity, that humans co-belong without any representable condition of belonging (even in the form of a simple proposition)” (85). “I am never this or that, but always such, thus. … Not possession but limit [threshold], not presupposition but exposure. … That you are exposed is not one of your qualities, but neither is it other than them (we could say, in fact, that it is none-other than them)” (96). Though he plays with common expressions like “none other than,” Agamben gets deep into philosophical lingo as he closes his book: “Existence as exposure is the being-as of a such” (97). Whatever that means, he’s right with us in this decade and in reading Stephanie Young because what we have in Ursula or University is the quotidian “whatever” version of his philosophical quodlibet. Her book is the serious, fun, funny, more-than-serious redemption of that word in writing and writing’s failures—in poetry in other words.
Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community. Trans. Michael Hardt. (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993).
Olson, Charles. Collected Prose. Ed. Donald Allen & Benjamin Friedlander. (Berkeley: U of California P, 1997).
Young, Stephanie. Ursula or University. (San Francisco: Krupskaya, 2013).
T. C. Marshall lives near Fall Creek in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains where he used to walk regularly with Norman O. Brown; Tom claims to be able still to hear the wise old codger singing Morenita Mía on the trail and asking sharp questions about the biome. Some of Tom’s own creative works in progress can be seen at postlanguage.blogspot.com, on YouTube, & at maizepoem.blogspot.com. His next performance to be YouTubed will come in the Spring and be called something like “Face their Violence or Face the Music.”