Red Epic by Joshua Clover

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   “There will be a revolution or there will not.   If the  latter, these poems were nothing but entertainments.”    So declares Joshua Clover, with a kind of touching grandiosity,  on the back cover of his Red Epic from Commune Editions, a gutsy new press based in Oakland, California.    Taken as seriously as he insists, he puts himself atop the shoulders of the fresh ,  passionate Denise Levertov,  Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Amiri Baraka and others of their generation.  Red Epic is a young man’s book and that makes it difficult to predict whether or not   ‘’these poems”   will be considered  “entertainments’’ in the future.   That he so obviously wants them to be more than that, cannot be a guarantee.

   Clover teaches English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Davis, and the Comparative Literature aspect of his resume helps explain his welcome appetite for poets who write in languages other than English.   His compositions vibrate with a fiery, compelling energy, usually so intelligent that one can’t help but see their validity, even when not buying into them completely.  It has  been awhile since I have read more than a few poems by the same author and wondered if he’s for real, while at the same time admiring the bravura beauty of what’s on the page.

                           Stalin’s beard ruined it for everyone.

              Ovid saw this simple fact early on.

                          We are subject to invisible and

             impersonal forces.

                         They go to work on us.

                                                                 We flair in our chains.

The work of the world transforms the body over and over.

Things in nature seem more concrete

                                                              Than humans with their airy discourse

but when spirits hum in every rock and river

                                                                          the situation is reversed.

To undergo the metamorphosis

                                                       into a tree among trees

                                                                                              is to become

more abstract and more free.

                                                 This combination is lost to us now

     Thus the strange illumination

                                                  Of Ovid’s words.

                                                                              The transformations continue.

   This is the last part of a piece called “The Transformation Problem,”    and it is dazzling in its concreteness, though definitely not technically a “concrete poem.”     Clover bleeds and burns and like the poets mentioned above,  he also knows his classics and how loaded with meaning and ammo are words like transformations.    He clearly wants to remind the reader , with Ovid, and a reference to Ezra Pound earlier in the piece,   that the ardor of the dead white crowd isn’t likely to die anytime soon and can be cannibalized with well-calibrated effect.

“Apology” is just as incendiary, even as he gentles the mood  with a reference to Frank O’Hara  :

O capital, let’s kiss and make up

And I’ll take back all those terrible things I said about you

To my friends and in poems.  What do poets know

Of capital anyway?  It’s exhilarating, the daily life of money

As it shifts and deliberates like Frank O’Hara buying gifts

In a haze of cosmopolitan thirdworldism en route to a weekend

Out of town yet so affectless this becomes itself a signature

Affect.  Via the artifice of the Dow Jones  you often appear

To be in New York but I suspect that if consciousness is a story

You are in charge of narrative structure and so the Nasdaq

And the Footsie and Nikkie index cannot be said to happen

Anymore than sentences happen.  Like true feelings

You are everywhere at once.    That’s Neoplatonism

For you or simple immanence but either way the road leads

To St. Augustine and don’t get me started.   Nice city.  God job,

Joshua CLover   Can we say serious fun with a laundry list of allusive material?   Yes we can, especially with his juxtaposition of O’Hara, that New-York-of-New-York poet,  that celebratory lapsed Catholic, and St. Augustine, with CITY OF GOD as one of the saint’s claims to fame.   Let’s get spinned  here, and love it.   Let’s look  at God and mammon with  eyes wide open,  as Clover does with a pitch-perfect if not surprising mention of Britney Spears.   This mash-up sings, especially when one considers what O’Hara might have done with Britney Spears and what theologians before during and after Augustine have tried to do with the concept of immanence.   And how all poetry discussion, directly or indirectly, deals with these concerns.   All the time.

   There is nothing restful about any of Clover’s poems, and that can often be refreshing.  He is also peevish without being depressing, as in “(Stop it with your strategies)” :

Stop it with your strategies.   The longest social experiment in history

Has been abandoned, nobody like it anyway, the cigarettes were awful.

Now we live in cities where daily life is so sensual one retreats

Into abstraction.   Dirty canals, cars on fire, autumn.  Under the glass and iron

Of the train station bar the train station pigeons fly into your hair.

You listen to a song no one will remember in thirty months, no one

But this poem, this decay of the little event that happened at the point

Of purchase.  People are arriving or departing, it’s impossible to tell

   This poem  displays a person measuring out his life in coffee spoons, hearing the mermaids and being pretty sure that the spoons aren’t full and the mermaids aren’t singing any more.    The last line is devastating when one considers the final  word:   

You’ve taken everything else, the Pop Years is over, here comes China.

     China, where a once-hopeful revolutionary government destroys its natural environment, helps destroy ours, incarcerates people at will and is frighteningly opaque and duplicitous.     And still we make music.

   Joshua Clover is not an easy poet.   Everything he does could be composed in bold-faced italics.   One simply cannot imagine him reading aloud in anything but a decibel approaching a shout.   Does he ever slow down?   It is a reasonable question, especially when pondering  his last poem,  “Questions of the Contemporary:”  in which he rather frantically repeats the word “Gucci,”  before moving on to Lenin.

Avoiding stasis and getting away with incongruities, this book works .


Barbara Berman is the senior Rumpus Poetry reviewer. More from this author →