Renee Gladman Responds to Rachel Levitsky’s The Story of My Accident Is Ours

tsomaio_covIn the respective worlds of avant-garde poetics and radical activism, where Rachel Levitsky has distinguished herself as an organizer, feminist, and visionary, the recent publication of her novel The Story of My Accident is Ours comes as no surprise. In fact, it is a necessary eruption for both literature and our current political climate. For literature, it collapses genres; it makes us think about character and the calamity of human endeavor as we navigate the entrails of critical theory; it leaves us placeless, timeless, eventless as we find ourselves emotionally invested in the story of “the accident” and in the survival of our protagonists. For the historical moment in which we find ourselves, where social consciousness requires a degree of rigor, where one wants to do something to bring about change but struggles to make sense of the available actions, this book allows us to locate ourselves; however, not in the middle of any particular protest movement, rather within the architecture of our own capacity to revolt, to resist. The Story of My Accident is Ours asks: How do we protest? How do we win? And, no less urgently: How do we love? But, it asks by looking behind itself and coming to terms with the predicament that “we came into the world all at once and all one way,” perhaps the first of many accidents to befall us.

In an interview from 2009, Levitsky explains, “My work considers spatial relationships as an ethical field.” Though this statement is given in reference to a previous book, it also seems to guide the thinking behind The Story of My Accident. But, rather than looking at relationships between people, we’re studying space at the level of the sentence, between sentences. The question of ethics—how we fight, who we fight, how we commune—is inextricable from the question of composition. What can the sentence do, Levitsky asks again and again. What can it contain? At the very least the sentence of this novel provides a repository for “all the particulars” that no longer fit “within the confines of our chest and breath.” However, The Story of My Accident is Ours is not only a place for solemn, meandering reflection, it also is a means for pleasure and play. One of Levitsky’s greatest achievements in this book is devising a sentence that at once confounds and teaches.

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Lisa Robertson Responds to Rachel Levitsky’s The Story of My Accident Is Ours

tsomaio_cov

The music featured in this recording is from Eliane Radrigue’s Transamorem-Transamortem (1973).

Illegible EvidenceClick here to hear the recording.

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Chris Nealon Responds to Rachel Levitsky’s “Love Everyone”

tsomaio_covRachel Levitsky’s The Story of Our Accident is Ours is an interesting book. It feels at once like the product of a very specific moment, the economic downturn of 2008, and the activism the downturn inspired, but it is also written in such deliberately general language that it would be hard to say it documents that moment. The desire the book feels around generality culminates in the book’s second-to-last poem, called “Love Everyone.” Actually it might be the “last” poem in the book; the one that follows, called OUTSIDE, is set off from the body text by a blank page and a new title page, as though it were a coda. So maybe “Love Everyone” is the climax of the book, or its logical conclusion.

The book struggles with generality, and with being in the thick of things. It struggles with the meaning of being the “middle,” as when the poet writes in “We, by Ourselves,” that “There is nothing overtly abject about our material circumstance since we have been supplied the instruction and means for acting out a socially coherent notion of living as though we are Middle Class.” I think the poet wants to understand this – how living in the interstices of the idea of middle-classness can nonetheless open out onto catastrophe. Certainly many “middle-class” homeowners have experienced this puzzlement in recent years, to the point of despair – the foreclosed-upon, the employed homeless. And while those are not the material circumstances the book describes, it is clear that the poet and her cohort – the book is also very deliberate about maintaining a “we” – have come to experience middle-classness as a myth.

I think I can get behind this – not in the sense that nobody’s in the middle of some pyramid of income, but that catastrophe can make even the largely-safe feel precarious. The question is, what’s the catastrophe? What’s the “Accident”?

I think if I understand correctly, Levistsky wants “accident” to have a specifically philosophical overtone, as in, accident of circumstance: it is not the logical outcome a syllogism or series of events. Once the accident has happened, though, it is irreversible. This lends pathos to the book, which lightly touches down on the locution “my accident” to preserve in it the sense that the poet was, say, hit by a car – but only to loop back around to make that personal sense of “accident“ add impact, so to speak, to the way she primarily means it: as the givenness, the painful givenness, of who we are and where we end up. I want to say, “Where we end up in history,” though the zeitgeist-air of the book is, as I say, built on surprisingly few particulars. This is an achievement.

I should turn to the poem “Love Everyone,” since it was what triggered my response to the book. Indeed it’s the last paragraph of the poem that triggered it (the poems here are largely in prose paragraphs). The phrase “Love Everyone” has just been uttered; the poet continues:

The implication of this phrase is most significant to us who involuntarily though loudly resist its totality just as it is becoming so total we take great risk with who and what we are quickly coming to care most about when we argue amongst ourselves about whom, what and how this now common aphoristic and blithe use of language, love everyone, serves. For us, love, especially love, held a unique position despite the dearth of our experience as the one uninhibited extreme we might legitimately hope would enable us to exceed our limitation. Holding onto this idea, that Love was nuanced and potentially meaningful, made us look angry and marginal, for if we were not so, we argued, what did we have against it, against loving everyone.

The passages leading up to this paragraph have been concerned with what it might mean to have tried to “love” one’s oppressors – to have adopted a helpful attitude toward power in the name of safety or peace. The poet is repelled by the possibility that she and her cohort might have behaved this way toward the powerful, and she is wary of what it might mean, then, to love “everyone.” That last complex sentence, with its beautiful cadence, gets at the problem: “ … for if we were not so [angry and marginal], we argued, what did we have against it, against loving everyone.” It’s as though the poet worries that, despite having every reason not to love everyone, the refusal to do so might make her “angry and marginal.” I think what’s being described is a moment of realization in which the ability to resist oppression is being weighed against the cost of being devoured by anger.

I imagine any activist, not to mention any revolutionary, has had to confront this problem. I think this book was written for them.

 

 

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Andrew Durbin Responds to Rachel Levitsky’s The Story of My Accident is Ours

tsomaio_covBeing There

I recently had a dream about Rachel Levitsky. OK, I think dreams might not be the place to start since Rachel’s work is so grounded in reality, but there I found myself, in a dream that was more like the end of some hugely successful TV show. It began in medias res, episode 14, season 5, the final, celebrated season of a highly novelistic drama about which I knew nothing but was central to the plot of. Rachel and I are hurling through the blue sky over Tuscany in a jet toward some village below, where our enemy has set up an anti-aircraft gun that only fires at things that move above a certain speed. We are moving well above that certain speed, so we’re taking heavy fire. Outside my window, the clear sky is filled with black smoke. Rachel is piloting the jet directly into the line of fire. I shout to Rachel above the roar of the plane as it’s being shredded in the air, “What are you doing!? We’re going to crash!” She turns to me and says, “The only way we can slow down and land below in order to stop our enemy is if the gun shoots us down, tricking its computer system into thinking we’ve been removed as a target.” At that moment, the wings are blown off, the anti-aircraft fire stops, and we sail into the narrow Tuscan streets, outside the mansion where our enemy has camped with a squad of goon. We both exit the plane, into the wreckage of the streets, ready to face the enemy. Then I woke up.

I’ve been watching fail videos lately. The nadir of YouTube’s long arc, the fail video is the gruesome (gruesome even when humorous) evidence of a failed stunt or athletic feat, the moment the driver wrecks his car into a wall after racing across open road, the girl is snagged on the rope she refuses to let go of after she leaps off the cliff, the bro falls into the alley between two four story building after he tries to jump from one to the other. It’s a brutal genre, but it involves an international everyone: kids, teens, adults, the elderly. I came to these videos by accident and can’t place what drew me to them. I suppose I was awed by their subject’s willingness to exploit the awfulness of their accident for its (often sad) humor. Many of them could not have possibly escaped the fall, the crash, the jump without severe injuries. And yet there the video is, uploaded for public consumption–so often by the failed stuntperson. Futurepoem author Dana Ward writes: “things do not cathex, they auto-respond; we know this: it’s the principle of the tragic.” I’ve watched enough fail videos that my YouTube account automatically moves them to my homepage. I no longer have a choice: I click, I watch, I shake my head.

The accident of the fail video is not the same as that of Rachel’s novel, at the center of which is an accident of multiple colliding trajectories, between the public and the personal, the democratic and the totalitarian, the corporate and the collective. These accidents are, however, siblings in that they both describe the sudden, virtually unexpected but life-altering consequence of dramatic action (the consequence that, of course, had to happen), whether it’s political or athletic. In her Story, Levitsky collapses the two–the political is athletic and vice versa in that one results in the other through protest, through arriving, as bodies both physical and political, at the scene of the even (or crime)–in order to expose the degree to which they are related and even necessary to one another. For it–the stunt, the protest–to work, you must be there. Poetry itself cannot take a political action, it can only describe political thinking, the potential of political thinking in a language that exists outside of normative politics, like that of the beltway, and this, in a way, feels like the accident. That a poem can make a thought seem efficacious, that it can motivate its reader beyond reading and into thinking. For Rachel, this thinking seems to be the mixed message of what the future–protested, yearned for, or enacted–might be once it finally arrives. What will I be doing when it comes? Will it be what I hoped for?

There remains the melancholy of not being there. I am so often not there.

Although it’s been two years (a lifetime in east coast cultural time), like so many others I can’t get over Occupy Wall Street. I took a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge this past October, around the two-year anniversary of the march that led to the arrest of some seven hundred protesters after they were trapped in the middle of the bridge. I wish I could say I was there when it happened, but I wasn’t; I was with Lonely Christopher (one of Rachel’s closest friends–they often go to the opera together) on the set of his movie MOM, watching the protest and subsequent cop beatings on the  production’s computer. We talked about walking down to the bridge, but we agreed that by the time we would have arrived it would have been too late, everyone would have been arrested and the protest would have stopped.

On one level, OK, Rachel’s book is about the 2006 WTO protests. On another, it’s about everything else, the things that that slippery We so often experiences. One of the most interesting questions the novel raises for that slippery me is how an accident might be made communal, hers and ours. The eponymous accident—the sudden, surprising, explosive intensity of the emancipatory politics of group action—is an event without lead-time or plot that consolidates us with its ricocheting possibilities for both the present and the future. The accident sources and generates a frenzied love because it is precisely from this feeling, which is so easily parodied or mocked, that the communal gathers the strength to protest the WTO or lay out group tents in Zuccoti Park. Near the end of her novel, Levitsky writes,

For us, love, especially love, held a unique position despite the dearth of our experience as the one uninhibited extreme we might legitimately hope would enable us to exceed our limitation. Holding onto this idea, that Love was nuanced and potentially meaningful, made us look angry and marginal, for if we were not so, we argued, what did we have against it, against loving everyone.

Oof, I think it is hard to write convincingly about love. I think it is even harder to write convincingly about love as a kind of radical politics, but it is exactly this risk of love, of failure, of getting together (and the many other risks the novel takes) that makes Rachel’s novel so good. Risk: maybe Lonely and I should have gone to the protest. It’s certainly become a kind of elemental guilt that I feel for not being there.

I like to stop talking by talking about art. The new Chris Burden show (terrible!) at the New Museum, Extreme Measures, is a kind of counterpoint to Mike Kelley’s comprehensive, much better retrospective at PS1. Burden’s art is about the accident deferred or controlled: his pieces, like Porsche with Meteorite, organize the objects of chaos (imagine that meteor slamming into that Porsche with Chris behind the wheel, one crisp LA night) and delineate their roles into potential energy, the spectacle of suspended animation. Kelley, on the other hand, can’t help but explode the designated use-function of objects into the continuous accident of their production, their coming into use, their coming into disuse. Thing clump and hang (like warts, tumors, skin, genitals), monolithic in their rejection of organization, of even the sentimentality that leads us to keep our junk in the first place. They hole up in little cities at the ends of the universe. They never exist except in plans.

I don’t think there’s any poignancy or sentimentality to either of their work, rather there is simply the delicate hand, assembling and disassembling based on nothing but the logics of design–whether that design is “good” or “bad,” “intentional” or “accidental.” OK, that’s really not true. Let me start again, in dreams: rather, there are many hands we cannot see, the many hands that have touched the things that fill our lives, and will continue to fill our lives. These hands, these beautiful hands, they are interested in color and texture, love and friendship, hatred and spleen, life and afterlife, regardless of what and who they are touching. They are interested in touching one another and, in Rachel’s novel, they are touching each other.

 

 

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HR Hegnauer Responds to Rachel Levitsky’s The Story of My Accident is Ours

tsomaio_covThe first time I read Rachel Levitsky’s The Story of My Accident is Ours I was on the airplane en route to Rachel’s home. The couple sitting next to me was in the process of breaking up and getting back together again several times on this cross-country flight. During especially heated moments between the couple, I was reading pages from Rachel’s book like “The Lover,” which begins “To look at a lover from any angle is the meaning of love.” I wanted to read this page out loud to them because I thought it might be helpful in a very immediate and literal way, but I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt them. Instead I read it out loud inside my head.

I overheard bits and pieces of their arguments. Then the man said to the woman, “I don’t even know what we’re arguing about anymore. I can’t remember what went wrong.” I read to the end of this same page: “Still, we often feel as though we could die of this world; we often do.” Somehow, this moment began to feel like it must be a critical moment in my life so I read this page again. I became mesmerized by it, and found myself unable to turn the page. “Our container explodes, we refit accordingly.”

I was devastated and started to cry just a little bit. The woman said to the man, “See? You’re making us both cry now.” I didn’t look up at them. I just kept reading and rereading this same page about the lovers. “This is the meaning of love.”

This page became a world that I could easily empathize with, while at the same time, it became a world so unlike anything on Earth. There are things that happen, and I didn’t quite know how I got there. This would make me read back a bit more. I love when books make me do this. It’s a kind of gentle force that demands that you look again. And every time, it became new and new and new. As I write these sentences here, I’m realizing that this is exactly like everything on Earth. I contradict myself, as do the lovers.

I don’t know what happened to that couple who was next to me. I wish I would have just interrupted them both, and read out loud to them. Not that it would have changed their outcome, but that the strange world in My Accident is Ours might have offered them a place of refuge as it has for me.

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Rachel Levitsky Responds to Frances Richard’s Anarch.

644273_10151308846202856_1379240345_nDear Anarch,
Hi. I’m struggling today. I am trying to make sense of Sandy for a poem that I was commissioned to write. It was silly of me to say yes because poetry dear anarch, is something I have foolishly ruined for myself by trying to make it a place of sense and beauty and formal cohesion. This takes way too much time. There is no time. I mean that: there is no time. It’s not irony that is over, it’s time, time’s order, time’s sense.

Dear Anarch,
Let’s get a little personal. I confess I get personal with all of them and with the young ones too. What is left of formality—the no show—that is not so calcified and rough. It’s funny Anarch. you are both rough and tender, little gestures that make faces, grimaces and scowls and very often the sly knowing grin that dares us not to feel insecure in the face of knowing so very little.

Dear Anarch,
Your way of wording, fronded and shredded  and combobulated and serried. Do you mind I don’t look you up: Ordovician. I know someone named Ordover. Relative Ordover. I am your mammal. Fall me. My chakra. By you left ajar.

Dear Anarch,
It’s not so very embarrassing after all.
Not quietly.
No diaphany.
Over sibilant.

I will sing to you. (Or, you to me.)
Not accidentally.

Notate.

Dear Anarch,
The poem I would like to write about for this is [non-metaphorical furnace]. It’s true I don’t know what to say. Anarch what is it I mean by saying of nothing that it is true. Yes, bloody and full of piss and sex is refusing these tidy restraints. You have opened mouth and let in some furry moth maggot of mind. Do you gather. You smear. You melt monad. Glandular and fuzzily fierce. Piss as piss is/mattering smear.

Dear Anarch,
Eat. A history:
What beats you makes you beat. “…publicly/unmanageable thought-life.”
Chemical sugar over stuffed cut healed subjected shined burnt perforated tessellated.
“A long lick.” A little diabetic.
A lot homeless. That over zealous zealot  mounting, the contemporary perish in hyper chest. Ample in acreage tonnage message.
“…bobbing empty plastic water bottles” “speedy & trending”  “World-mothering air—”
Okay. Not to lose. The storm. To storm.

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Fred Schmalz Responds to Frances Richard’s “Universally Accepted Definition”

644273_10151308846202856_1379240345_nIn Part ii. of “Universally Accepted Definition,” Frances Richard reveals the poem’s conceit in a question: “Is this a landscape or a portrait?” There is also an implied question throughout: what are the social functions of our languages, the conditions under which we proceed? Or, how can we love unconditionally when there are always agreed conditions, accepted definitions? Richards is so close to love here. Pinpoint. We leave ourselves concrete markers (“I know according // to this cliff”) and likenesses (“like crashing” or “Like soapy water emptied // on the ground” or “like a mountain”), but these too are relative, these too entrench their biases, the erasure of which leads to shifts in definition. “I thought you might.” Yes, the answer “can or used to be” accepted. But that takes exercise. What follows are several guidelines for responding to “Universally Accepted Definition.”

You will need a good night’s sleep not a both-ends-burnt candle (sleep in a bed. Sleep as form of both acquisition and erasure. “in the midst of electricity” the pulsations of dolphins. Are you awake? I am on the verge of the sensate, “sucking stellar wind”). Or you can stay up. This may rob you of your certainty. This may reveal you to be instinct-impaired.

Commandeer a dictionary not a computer (veracity of print versus dynamic qualities of the hypertextual. Set in stone. Set in ink. Lingering on the breath. Echo ripping through spacetime. That doesn’t mean what you think it means. Not any more. We are surrounded by electricity in bed and at sea. What power outage means dead monitor discredits. Are you whispering, grass?).  Look up these words’ definitions (1959 copyright. Locked down in print):

  1. shirred – (this is a sewing term) – to make a series of close parallel runnings which are drawn up so as to make the material between them set full by gathers.
  2. quondam – former; sometime.
  3. stellate – resembling a star.
  4. Mountain – any part of a land mass which projects conspicuously above its surroundings; in general, an elevation higher than a hill, with comparatively steep slopes, a base rounded rather than greatly elongate, and relatively small summit area. More or less. If we agree. Refusal to measure how high, how deep. Is that ocean or sea? By whose consent? Is that mountain at the foot of the ocean? Who views it in profile? Who circles in space redefining our permeated atmospheres via photomontage? How violently porous are we when in love, at sea?

Insert Wildlife in forms of dolphin. Goblin. Heron. Moss. Burr. Lilies. Swamp-bred prehistoric fish. Blade of grass. Gnats. Phytoplankton. Leaves. Measure these against determined landscapes: at least one ocean (Rising tide. Weather pattern. Prevailing winds permeating membranes. Container ship. Satellite with sensitive camera lens. The camera never lies, but it tends to discredit through omission, through its ability to obscure). Also Mountain. Hummock. Cliff. Marsh. Freeway. Swamp. Bed.

If aspects of portraiture include revelation of character (hollow dolphin, partial heron, disappearing phytoplankton bloom), how does the unseemly explain our good side? Also the evocation of light, filter, allowance, soap, ashen cloud, fog, egg-yolk, mediate surge. I can see you from space, therefore you are (what?)… impossibly large universe. Universally accepted ocean. Disputed salt-marsh. Disputed dolphin. Disputed landscape pocked by mountains, “mountains” or their likenesses.

Ultimately “last night” is an object as “portal” is an object, though both are disputed, negative spaces, both immaterial, as electricity itself, as rhetorical questions are despite their parceled objects: a billion dollars; a billion leaves. Richard carries us through the process of unlocking arguments, of filling in and obscuring the portrait, addressing our shifting uncertainties, our hubris, the porous happiness at the bottom of things.

 

 

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