The Ungraspable Light: poetry and the myth of progress

By Jessie Brofsky

There’s a room in the Tate Modern museum in London that displays contemporary art about destruction. On one side is a steel model of a basic apartment building, a rectangle built up and not out. On the other side are photographs depicting the stages of cities falling to the ground in clouds of smoke and debris. In another room is a tower constructed out of radios, each releasing a different sound, collectively projecting a mix of voices, instruments, and static. I watch people walk through—some delighted, some flustered, confused, asking how this qualifies as art.

It’s ironic that many people find contemporary art weird. To some extent, we have preconceived notions of what moving forward in art means, and new forms that don’t fit snugly into these notions can feel backwards. In visual art, we expect to find things that make sense in some sort of order based on familiar principles of logic. However, these expectations discard thinking outside the box and the sweeping disorientation of pushing the boundaries of art into uncharted territory.

Charles Bernstein reads, in 12 minutes and 24 seconds, his poem “Sign Under Test” from his 2006 collection Girly Man on PennSound. However, instead of seeing lines grouped into stanzas with spaces in between, his oral reading blends them all together. Thus, I hear a string of disjointed phrases and a unifying voice trying to make them into something whole. But each line sounds like a mix of a tongue twister and a logic quiz, and it becomes puzzling to think of them in relation to each other when they seem to have nothing but proximity in common.

Steven Connor, a professor at the University of Cambridge, said in a lecture I attended a few weeks ago that poetry readings are scandalous. He argued that the scandal happens when we only perceive the poem in one dimension, in chronological order progressing through time. Every time we read a poem on paper or even on a screen, we are able to embrace the ambiguities of words and grammatical structure. The eye can jump, go back and forth, but the ear can’t. When you hear a poem read aloud, you hear one permutation of possibility, cutting off every other direction of reading, of seeing, of understanding. In Bernstein’s poem, seeing the physical space between the lines on the page inhibits our tendency to read things in their chronological order as if each would build meaning from the last. It helps us accept that not all things connect.

Art by Daniel Toretsky

We’re not quick enough to accumulate meaning in the moment. In fact, there is zero probability of even identifying the exact time as it happens. Even if we go down to the last decimal place, we are still choosing an entirely random number. And when it leaves our lips, we are already beyond that time. Novelist Tom McCarthy said in a talk at the Guggenheim, “So, try to say ‘now,’ I mean ‘now,’ try to say it. Not just to say it, to mean it too. To truly mean it, mean it in the sense of it being true. It’s just not possible. No sooner has the word been formed, a peristaltic movement that breaks down into a grinding thing of the tongue against the wet and gummy place where palate and incisors meet. A corresponding dropping of the lower jaw, contraction of the cheeks and curling outwards of the lips. A scornful gesture as though they, the lips, are sneering at the very content they are delivering. No sooner has this word been manufactured and expelled than it’s already late, and in its lateness false. As its sound rises to your ears it’s not now anymore.” Like fashion, when you say you’re in it, you’re already out. It is marked, as Giorgio Agamben says, by a “not yet” or a “too late.” It is in the same way that poetry cannot be understood upon its utterance for all that it is.

We expect steady, linear time like a flowing river moving towards an ocean of wisdom. But it was only in Europe’s late medieval period that progressive time replaced recurrent religious time, which did not add up but circled back to begin again almost like a form of erasure. And really the contemporary moment in the virtual world can touch all times. But the assumption that time operates linearly tends to conveniently give meaning to the meaningless, ascribing significance to chance. Poetry, which we want to lead us somewhere, giving us knowledge that extends beyond what we already know, becomes a model for this mistaken temporality and for the assumption and illusion that to read through is the way to discern meaning. It makes us go back.

According to the law of special relativity, if there is a beam of light, it is impossible to catch it. No matter what our relative speed is to the speed of light, the beam will always appear the speed of light away. This distance becomes a version of infinity like the space between numbers that expands and plunges forever into the microscopic. At a certain speed, the future is unreachable. Agamben says, “In an expanding universe, the most remote galaxies move away from us at a speed so great that their light is never able to reach us. What we perceive as the darkness of the heavens is this light that, though traveling towards us, cannot reach us, since the galaxies from which the light originates move away from us at a velocity greater than the speed of light.” We can’t read the world as if the present is situated between past and future, as if progress is a straight line or in a particular direction. We as a society value speed so much, but it shouldn’t matter if we can’t manipulate the perpetual delay and outrun time itself. Understanding the impossible “now” is like trying to catch light or view the galaxies, whose light will always be out of view.

In “Sign Under Test” Bernstein writes, “Like I told her, you can add up all the zeros in the world but it will never amount to anything. Whereas two plus two, while barely four, suggests progress./ If progress is a process, what is the purpose of purpose or the allure of allure?” He says “suggests” as if suggestion is deception, playing with the irony that drives most of his work. He doesn’t say that it is progress and thus critiques our assumptions. This poem has no progress or process. It is arbitrary, linked by emptiness, moving nowhere. The elements do not add up even to anything as small as 2+2=4. He asks what the point is of building on a moment and going forward in time when it can be more meaningful to go back. Poetry has historically been a memory device, not about changing, moving in some direction that we think will somehow catch the light.

Someone once told me that if you really like a poem you hear, you will remember lines from it. When I hear a poem that strikes me, I write it down; I look it up. When I read a poem that challenges me, I say it to myself in the shower, or before I go to bed. I never seem to be done with it. Bernstein’s poem makes us slow down, move our eyes left to right and right to left. Like a room in the Tate Modern, we can read the world treading aimlessly, indulging in the confusion that lights itself from within.

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