Poetry That Targets Compliance as Complicity

Most of the poems in Andrew Levy’s stunning volume Artifice in the Calm Damages are polemical tapestries of unrelenting rhetorical force. They are broadsides and broadcasts constructed in dense blocks of lines, poetic placards containing torrents of political and poetic indignation directed against myriad systems and subjects, including capitalism, the reader, the poet, and the poem itself. Poetry itself. Institutions of all kinds are skewered, scorched, or imaginatively smashed. Unspoken in all of these poems — works that are joined by episodic essayistic asides throughout — is a visionary celebration of inversion, a radical reconfiguration of transnational politics, art, and culture.

But to get to that reading, one must negotiate this blistering work in its entirety and the experience is exhaustive, or — as with any tour through complicated, debased, and chaotic social terrain — should be. These poems refuse easy escapism, exploring our embattled contemporary existence with globe-spanning sweep and intensive micro-probing. Artifice in the Calm Damages is a disturbing yet crucial primer for conceptualizing our enervated early 21st-century social, political, and mental landscape. This is poetry that might not be straight reportage per se but it is not difficult to get the news—topical and terrible—from these poems, pace William Carlos Williams’s claim in Asphodel, That Greeny Flower: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”

As a title, Artifice in the Calm Damages is a description and an argument of the volume itself and the world it populates. Poetic production and civic participation are both woefully compromised, both damaged goods, art and artificial life trafficking serenely through a broken world. Andrew Levy wants to provide maximum discomfort and rip away any tempering of the repellent reality he persuasively surveys. I appreciate the gesture and the sucker punch: even a simpatico perspective gets walloped. Compliance is complicity, and everyone is fair game.

Despite Levy’s savage indignation directed toward so many targets — including environmental collapse, gun violence, racism, anti-immigration sentiment, literary institutions, and apathy — his tenor and takes on these issues are manifold. His poetics refuse organic, coherent structures, opting instead for fragmented content and subject matter. As an intervening prose piece declares: “Juxtaposition can speed up our comprehension of change.” That change is the abrupt mutation of the poetic line, the shifting focus of its query, and the larger, world-wrenching forces beyond the page: “Writing is active relation. Dissolve the NRA.” A medley of maladies rushes across the poem and compels the reader to rapidly absorb the unrelenting streams of information and representation and yet slow down to consider the mosaic of message, critique, and feeling.

Still, the clashing and colliding subjects and themes encourage an effort to reimagine the relation between them. Disruption prevails over all, but it is a mechanism for both resisting and interpreting systems. In doing so, they become polemics of plurality, exploring and exposing injustices across geopolitical borders, historical timelines, social spheres, and global ecologies. As lines pivot and veer, they seem spun almost randomly — and that is by design. In the short essay “Notes on improvisation in poetry,” Levy explains his method accordingly:

What interests me as a writer and performer of poetry is an improvistory
foregrounding of content and technique. Mapping new pathways of listening
to urban and media landscapes as configurations that can never be heard or
seen all at once; and reimagining ways of inherting what has far too often
been violently repressed […] improvises a plurality of “reals” in a world
moving into continuous transformation and dialogue. No matter how
ruptured or abstracted that life may sometimes appear, or not appear, it’s
all in the mix

Improvisation as strategy, much like Levy’s critical observation, allows him flexibility in his composition and vision: his is a political poetry that lacks a fixed agenda or focus. It affirms a deep commitment to witness, and registers a sense of interconnectedness among the diverse topics he addresses.

The dissection of violence, often invoking scenarios in which young people are victims of wrenching circumstances, is unremitting. The 2012 Newtown, Connecticut schoolchildren shooting victims are showcased, so too an unnamed baby, serially serving in these poems as an exemplar of the cruelty of adults and the world miserable maturity has made. Youth and innocence are ever crushed: However, the authority of the poet to comment on such violence is put to task in self-questioning which comes across less as irony than honest humility. The poem “The Disquiet of Dissolution” ends with: “The poet is sorry to have wasted so much of your time.” Self-critique in “Much that is Admirable” highlights this method by imagining the skepticism of a potential reader reaction: “Clearly, he [Levy] mixes/certain things that should not be mixed together.” A reader might be reminded of Samuel Johnson’s definition of Metaphysical poetry as the yoking together of heterogeneous elements, and celebrate that same heterogeneity in Andrew Levy, Metaphysical Improviser extraordinaire.

A review of a volume of such prodigious invention requires a more comprehensive treatment than I can accomplish here. Also, without prodigious quotation of Artifice in the Calm Damages its resonance, the vertiginous effect of its multiple threads and trajectories, may not be fully appreciated.

Perhaps this extended passage gives some sense of the deep, careful critical and ethical deliberation that accompanies the book’s seemingly endless sprawl:

It feels as though we’re reaching the end
of the line. But however we resolve the poem,
turning it this way or that, it possesses some
equivocal, ambiguous element, even though the
relationships of cause and effect are still unclear, as
are those of the lines themselves.
And those details in the mechanism of the poetry
That we know to be… facts. And
in the equivocation, that ambiguity, we
feel ourselves morally and sensually involved.
Reserving its primitive space, questioning
it seems what’s charming here
where you are. Almost always in harmony
or proximity, in competition with what
makes up your mind. Readable moments in
an age others seem to effect (when effects
lead to nowhere). Our minds intend our ambitions.
our beliefs participate symbolized by
the physical tools they use. The readable pistachio
ice cream, prelapsarian representations,
sessional morality, replete with grammar and
spelling shards. The population, they’re not going
to listen seated on a powder tin keg, a lit
cigarette close to the fuse. Intentional but ineffectual
it has taken the wrong journey away, and
every morning beneath one’s ass the palm of
political reality.

Artifice in the Calm Damages by Andrew Levy is published by Chax Press.

Andrew Levy’s poems explore contemporary life with globe-spanning sweep and intensive probing.Read MoreBooks, Andrew Levy, Poetry, political poetry, Reviews, WeekendHyperallergicRead More

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