Date: Sun, 8 Dec 2002
Subject: Why Daniel Davidson's Culture is not political poetry

Perhaps a reply of this length would be better off submitted to somewhere like Jacket, but (hey, there's always potlatch)---

Gary Sullivan's dare, "neither reader had really read what he was writing terribly closely", was a fair challenge and pretty much the case,--- so I read through the first 45 pp. of the on-line Davidson .pdf and went back to re-read Culture from cover to cover, this time paying attention (!), underlining, cross-questioning. And finding it a much more agreeable experience, by finally managing to by-pass its misrepresentative marketing.

My initially perhaps cursory reading of Culture may have come down to a reaction to its packaging or "false advertising," as it were.

Initially, with the boojum of political poetry very much on my mind, I responded to the SPD catalog's slanting of the book as political, and went in search of it for that reason. Very quickly, I could not ---beyond the broad Language Poetry apologetics of asyntacticalism as revolution (a dogma to which I am sympathetic)--- identify its political resonances; and this omission went on page after page. Becoming impatient with the book for not satisfying the promise its supporters had delivered, I gave up quickly. They sold me political poetry but when I unwrapped it, it was pure poetry.

I was also distrustful, reading the Afterword first, of how large a role the "Breakdown" software that Davidson sometimes used played, described as "an automatic cut & paste generator, taking text and spewing it out, in reordered syntax, endlessly". Where I may be sympathetic to such mechanical prostheses with someone like an Alan Sondheim or their non-automated versions as used by a Mac Low, because the works foreground that very robotics,--- I'm uncomfortable about "wasting" my critical receptivity (reading) on something that plays now-you-see-it/now-you-don't with its own methodologies (and, for example, found my opinion of his book revised downward by reading Brian Kim Stefans' readme interview, where he admitted to extensive use of mechanisms in a book I'd previously, gullibly read as authorial): my Turing Test scores just aren't high enough. I can read my gas meter if I want to read machinery.

The on-line .pdf (whose contents are completely different from the Krupskaya book) was quickly prompting an antipathy in me similar to my first mishap with Culture. The .pdf, unlike the book, however, definitely contains poetry with an explicit/content-based politics, ---although a politics that I find to be pallid, strident, clichéd, and underdeveloped. But let me put that to the side; the book, or at least significant sections of it, became newly rewarding, so it's better to look at how good Davidson can be (and how wrong, although well-intentioned, I think Ben Friedlander and Krupskaya [and to a lesser degree Gary Sullivan, who also offers other inroads: the Iraqi buttons are immensely distracting, though] were about what's worthwhile about it.) (I confess to having, currently, skipped over the opening poem, "Product.")

My reaction, frustrated at the struggle it takes to salvage Davidson's very exquisite passages and sensitivities from a sort of contamination by imported influences (and a certain kind of numb blandness he occasionally made no effort to resist, in the .pdf) could be summarized as: How A Good Poet Can Be Ruined By Late 20th Century Poetry Trends.

Davidson writes only long poems: "Product," 20 pages "Bureaucrat, my love," 40; "Anomie," 26; and, in the .pdf, poems 14, 21, and 20 pages. (...which partially stoked my impatience reading the .pdf. Within its long poems, Davidson favored certain serial or modular forms, ---prose alternating with verse, the use of text-box side-bars, numbered sections of italicized one-word verses followed by regular stanzas--- so that if I didn't particularly care for a device the first few times around, I felt burdened confronting an even lengthier "ad nauseam" of them. With the .pdf material, I felt a disinterest akin to boredom, as each non sequitur was promising only the next hairpin turn. Overstimulation leads to anomie.)

The book's poem "Bureaucrat, My Love" strikes me as its "the best," despite its deceptive title. (My reading, from here on, elides the boundaries between separate poems and reads Culture all of one piece.) Yes, there were, occasionally but only occasionally, traces of an identifiable politique

("spirits of deregulation", in the sense that Reagan made "deregulation" a buzz-word, or the fire arms of "the handed revolver" [p. 33]; the monetarism that so plagues the .pdf: "shifting values and wealth"; "armies of mere ideological coincidence" and "stamps of crime" [34]; "each citizen's perfect cure" [36]; etc.)

but I found those blips rapidly receding in significance as the meat of Davidson's "real" poetic concerns took over entirely. And he could be quite weak at politics: "the owners assume ownership" [118]. Just as fragmentary as my quotations of them, those fleeting glimpses of erstwhile politics are embedded splinter-like in a larger whole that has other, more compelling concerns. Politics may have remained somehow undigested or "split-off" in Davidson.

The poetry in Culture is not, per se, political by any means. Its strengths are that it is

(1) philosophical, philosophical to the point of ontological;

(2) it surrenders to rhapsodies of lyricism so unabashed that they verge upon sentimentality;

(3) it's preoccupied by matters of belief that bespeak a near-religious transcendence; and there's a good return to "non-political" themes such as

(4) dreams,

(5) our physical embodiment and desire in "the body", "skin", etc (although "The Body", the body-as-narrative and so on, was very much a consciously politicized art object in the '90s, after its representation became the focus of the battle against the NEA), and

(Addenda) a sense of separation or blockade (alienation?) epitomized in his concept of "distance" (glimpsed in the figure of "walls" and the doors that lead through them).

Each of these Davidsons has to be looked at, to see how claims about Davidson's political poetry recede out of proportion.


He re-visits big, macrocosmic concepts, almost Wallace Stevens-style, such as "world", often very beautifully

(conjoining one abstraction, "world," with another, infinity: "Cast an eye into the infinite world" [38]; sometimes making the idea tangible by apprehending or juxtaposing it to the sense of touch, as in: "The world opens onto a shell and awaits its skin" [57], "the shape hammers away / and now we are at the center of the world link palms and predict" [58], or "the world wraps completely, / my body" [110]; "to withdraw from the world would not beg in or begin" [57]; "conditions favor another world sounding this rhyme of semitones" [60]),

--- but it has to be kept clear that that sense of "world" is not on the same experiential plane as, say, a world power as a political horizon, or the politics of New World Order: it's not experienced at all; it's either theorized or rhapsodized. Even where not named verbatim, this cosmological intellection of his is there, but never mundane: "plastic multiple universes" [39]. This abstract idea of "world" perhaps reaches its best, most nuanced and autobiographical summarization in the line on the second-to-last page:

Make the words of many into a world of one thing.

The genre of that idee fixe, again, is not political but has more to do with, say, Schopenhauer's philosophical tome, The World as Will and Representation ("the world is insufficient but has its place or I close my eyes" [53]). Rather than historical materialism, what he pauses over is "the real in the imaginary" [30].

What a remarkable, meaningful line, and how true: the public, collective entity of language ("the words of many") narrows down to claustrophic monomania ("a world of one thing"); signification, he implies, is always a case of obsession. Indeed, the philosophical for him is a virtual habitation, and it operates as a surrogate locale or location, someplace you can live: "In slang terms, let's face the town of another philosophy" [77]; "a reminder of the distant home of thought" [115].


Well, beauty's another thing altogether, and you almost have to sit back and drop jaw and all critical pretenses and just let it wash over you, he gets so positively romanticist:

and then the complexity shakes itself
and I am repeated and the fallen air is reaped of
its clay


(This peculiar notion of a person being "repeated," ---a very different, mysterious and metaphysical reiteration than the political repetition seen in Marxist ideology about the social order "reproducing itself"--- recurs, as though lives came in triplicate: "Applying a scale of desire, the woman is repeated" [86].)

More lyrical euphoria:

lights dim and glow
this standing where the shadow of falls has always
been a distant gleam
an endless myth


Blood bores me and all the stones holding still
close to the water's edge.


Why, the very air derives from short gasps.


Late yesterday a scarcity of evening light, as
flowers roam in dust


His lyricism does what lyricism is good for: meaning, implication and content are compressed into a condensation so intact that paraphrase or interpretation can barely extract its sub-text.

Lyricism tends toward crystalization. It must be sung, not understood.

the resulting bed turned down, remote, warmed and
set upon a
further star


...the courage it takes to revert to such unapologetic poeticisms ("a further star")! The gamble, though, is always that quasi-archaic poeticisms bring with them a thoroughly resolved and conventionalized emotional connotation, that is, sentimentality:

As touch out-paces the dim outline, hands grow
lucid and charmed. ...
The grey-green dusk of morning presents an offering


But he's not in the least ashamed of such indulgence. The book ends on a tremolo violin crescendo of lines whose melodrama rivals the line "Here and there, in cold pockets / Of rememberance, whispers out of time" (the conclusion of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror) in their endearing raptures of weepiness (which I like very much):

the related, silvered pastures of moonlight
the instant passing of a face in the distance
if tomorrow, or yesterday, or barely out of sight.
This is what we brought to take with us
then couldn't find. Even then
the wasted, watered landscape grows
faint, constellations seen to glow
when looked at from beneath another side.

This lyricism throughout Culture functions as a departure into The Sublime, with all its many definitions, principally a zone of feeling in equilibrium that is immune or oppositional to the think-think-think passions of his philosophical side. (See Addendum on "absorption", below.)


He doesn't in the least blink away from (avoid) a very counter-political vocabulary of religion, and a Judaeo-Christianized one at that ---"grace," "litany," "sacrifice," the "offering" that "morning presents" (above), "impenitence," prayer, "sanctuary," sacred music, etc.:

"faces emerge in a state of grace" [53]; "absorbing moments / before a deepening litany anonymous / as though we haven't looked anymore / as the sacrifice begins" [54]; "impenitence", with all its attendant redemptions [55]; "gentleness that cold sand prays to and releases" [58]; "Between named distance and the sanctuary of fable" [73]; "rock-hymns" [78].

These vestiges of faith that are operative throughout Culture may take as their object desiderata other than theology's, but the underlying mental (or spiritual) action remains the same, one of belief; the direct object changes, but the verb is the same: "Belief in nouns walk free" [96]; "unassigned disengaged / unbelieving running fingers over its surface" [59]; "pearl of belief" [99] (vide the Christological figure of "the pearl of great worth" as a metaphor for faith).

The residue of creed shows so much through the surface, that Culture has motifs of hymnology that it revises, the way Charles Ives' Third Symphony is filled with old hymn tunes: "Mine eyes have seen the glory or what submits" [70] (original verse: "Mine eyes have seen the glory / Of the coming of The Lord.") (Inasmuch as the same hymn may in fact be an anthem, The Battle Hymn of The Republic, the example would be ambiguous in favor of whether the material were religious/fideistic or political,--- except that similar latent content reappears elsewhere in Culture as unambiguously part of the belief-paradigm: "belief / handles its sword". Vide "His terrible swift sword", from the same hymn).


It's essential to the rationalism of political consciousness that it be, first and foremost, conscious, that is, at the very least awake. But Culture is a groggy sort of book that continually keeps nodding off on itself. It falls asleeps and revives and slumbers back into a deeper dream. And one does not speak of political dreaming:

even where those dreams are embraced with an ironic twinge of sloganeering, as in: "Everyday living through dreams" [40]; "I woke myself from a dream and sleep memories" [57]; "In a fond moment of memory do we all dream the same dreams" [47]; "the impenitence fashioning itself into its own / dream a future of color and shape" [55]; "In the morning dreams awaken with you" [60]; "Again and again in the red light no dream left in pieces" [62]; "I walked last night to another city, into an other room / ...a dream... / an endless patterning" [ellipses his, 106]; "sustenance, as an unsustainable waking" [118]; "I am awakened without sleeping" [34]; as part of a psychology: "radiant wisdom, grief, sleep" [98]; "the smallest particle at sleep" [111].

(Am I misinterpreting his use of dreams and sleep, and is it the inverse of what I'm saying? Are the dreams in Culture a bad somnolence that stands in contrast to some healthy rigor of realpolitik thought? I can't see how. Regardless, they function very importantly, as sleep does, as nocturne, as the lapses between consciousness, but not, I think, as an existential nothingness, since sleep in Culture is consistently punctuated by the alterity of dream life which Davidson remembers "fond"-ly (above).)

Sleep is so central an action that the long poem "Bureacrat, My Love" ends with the line:

doubtless circles around as if waking



In opposition to Davidson's stratospheric philosphical thought, he remains mindful of its irreduceable opposite, the body and the body's sense of touch ("running fingers over its surface" [59]). It is often represented by metonymy through the agency of individual body parts (hands, etc.), but its weight establishes its imponderability through the full, undifferentiated presence of "body" qua "body" throughout the poetry.

Sometimes the answer that might lie within that body is interrogated out, to test if it is truly an element of The Ideal and not of the real ("if my hand touches the plaster dress / has it already touched its perfect body?" [57]), and sometimes that body is carefully, almost supernaturally attended to, apprehended and even heard through a kind of synaesthesia ("Listen to the film in your hands" [61]). It does not remain a barrier to the imagination nor does it succumb to barriers, in a kind of super-human walk-through-walls/eye-of-the-needle motion ("Outside of my body I can move through almost any opening" [52]). If, in instances, the body appears lost in a neutered bureaucratese ("my body, compensations, procedures" [119]), it's invoked just as well in hypostasized, beatific illumination ("hand-held as lights without bodies" [115]) or it disappears and is not seen at all ("where the body goes into hiding" [49]).

To the arguably slight, slight degree, however, that Culture still may also retain a minor theme of politics, as seen in agents of politics such as a police force ("the guard drops from gravity" [118], despite that this example happens to find any such power politics represented as a weak, overpowered force), that dream-like police force meets the body not through violence but in semi-eroticized confrontation with the body's ultimate nakedness: "Officer strips the body, then the shore" [87] ("body" retains the secondary meaning of "corpse", which could lead to an alternative interpretation about mortality rather than eros); when that body is not completely stripped, political force still impacts upon it by seeking to disturb and enter into its clothes ("All passengers are noted and searched" [43]). This theme
of "body" is, then, the antithesis to politics, since it would be what politics tries to subdue or denude.

Almost like a more quiescent distant relative of Artaud's "body without organs", it is so much the kinaesthetic sense organ in its entirety that it exists as one vast cutaneous surface of skin ("Then is the enemy that skin does and does not" [70]; "How beautiful the skin works" [74]; "I complete my skin" [82]) or a magicalized inner network of capillaries and arteries ("light enters into the veins" [113]; "Imagine resting, stately veins / brushed against the surface" [116]). However multiplicitous its purposes in Culture, the body, in the end, may be serving foremost as a measure of all things ("zero through one / about the size of a hand" [58]), a yardstick that gives the proportions of everything else ("devise and repeat / the length of scale, each skin" [102]).

{I do not find the alternative, morbid possible reading of the word "body" to be operative in Culture, because it seems everywhere counterbalanced by the vital, appetitive drive of desire. Indeed, the two are sometimes unequivocally conjoined, if in a slightly counterintuitive order ("the substance of desire / follows hazards of skin" [35]), or the two words function almost synonymously ("the length of scale, each skin", and "Applying a scale of desire" [86]). It can be a sort of currency or fiduciary system of exchange in itself ("moves desire between them" [91]); this interstitial in-betweenness of desire is a terrain of intermediation, a dividing-line ("this map expects to cross desire" [96]). Unlike the stasis that inheres in the alternative reading of the word, Davidson's "desire" flickers by very quickly and kinetic ("Each version / displays its organ. Its blank light, / the rapid desire" [88]).


The central point I'm belaboring here has been that anything that might have appeared lacking in my previous assessment of Culture as "hermetic politics" is, for one, all too amply demonstrable by in fact going ahead and reading the book "terribly closely", since much more elaborated and mutually cohesive dimensions emerge out of the poetry. Were I in fact in error, ---a counter-argument that would basically have to ignore the evidence of the book itself (how more terribly closely has anyone else read it?),--- or how I arrived at that preliminary, more cursory conclusion was the result, I daresay, of how the para-literary (blurbs, marketing) can be at cross-purposes with the literary, and proceed out of assumptions or information about the person to the neglect of the poet.

In defense of that para-literary apparatus, even in its misdirection, though, there may have been other hints in the blurb on the back of the book and the SPD/Kruspskaya that someone else would have found spoke louder to them than the reiterated promotion of the book on the basis of its putative but difficult-to-back-up politics. Gary Sullivan also wrote: "He approached the book almost like a method actor". And Davidson himself wrote: "An excited theatre fondles transition" [75]; and he wrote: "act falling into artifact theater / invisible" [29]; and, transposing and omitting Ingmar Bergman's "Cries", he wrote: "whispers and theaters" [63]. It was all play-acting. It's just that somebody else was more taken in by a face-to-face persona, whereas this reading is based on his writing.

If politics drains out of Culture upon closer inspection, as I think it does here as the stronger, more introverted, poetic dimensions of the book come forward, ---these interpretations are consistent in their all being variations on the contemplative--- that is not to say that the book came utterly without any valid interpretive key or that his loyal executors had somehow betrayed the work, necessarily, by re-casting it in an unbalanced, ungrounded projection based more on autobiography than on the literature of the book's actual contents: that may just be the inevitable distortion that results from all ad hominem criticism that concentrates more closely on the author and the biographical than upon the text itself. Equally upon re-examination, it was only one note of Friedlander's blurb that Krupskaya seems to have seized upon in portraying Culture as political poetry: "Politics for Dan Davidson was . . .", "action undreamt by the revolutionaries he admired". Friedlander also picks up on the same "method actor" theme of Sullivans's: "Not street theater, but the street theatricalized . . . a role".

Books don't sell any more if you promote them as drama?

I do not think that I am minimalizing the vestigial evidence of political consciousness that can be found in Culture, and hardly in favor of some covert agenda about the political. To the contrary, let me be over-scrupulous at the faintest hint: The fragments may be there

(a couple of times, a theme of history, or factories; "armies of mere ideological coincidence" [34]; "yellow bureaucratese" [39]; "statistical evidence", "another satisfied customer" [43]; politics as summed up in law, ----although a law, oddly, associated with the sartorial: "Everyone violates the law in plain clothes" [46], and "each fossil or play of law or cloth to wear" [61]; "I live to the fullest extent of the law" [77]; and his poverty and his aversion to money re-cast as economics: "I pay rent to a man of impeccable etiquette" [39]; "Each of my friends has amassed a supply of wealth" [45]; "foreign debt" [100])

but those bits and pieces are all too often only a vacated verbal residue of the political, "bureacratese" without any actual bureaucrat ---and without any true activist,--- that appears at the most asyntactical junctures and, consequently, at those points where '90s poetic trends leave meaning and intention at its most unverifiable. Sure, I see, here and there, the trace of a sort of scum of politics that floats on the surface of Culture. But it isn't, to my ear, integrated into the composition as a sufficient structural device for it to be read as any mainstay or dominant axis of its architecture that can be interrelated to the other building blocks that are brought into relief here. It's a loose shingle in the building, not a cross-beam.

{If my reading also seems to be overlooking the portrait of the "suffering" Davidson as a dead-end that the work is supposed to have prefigured, it's not because he was some sort of one-dimensional poet too untalented to have thoroughly included explorations of pain into his magnum opus, at times quite plaintively and pianissimo ("a breaking that can't hurt / a barely discernible scar" [37]), nor one so untalented as to allow private angst to overpower and eclipse all other directions, nor to consign that pain to mere post-modern stylistic repression ("The codified systems of silence, hidden by definition" [86]). The book's numerous modalities include Existential insights ("the fresh air-stinging void" [100]), at times with unbridled, Dionysiac vengence ("what can only be ripped apart / in tender, supple cuts and
pieces" [117]). I understate that teleology of reading a death in reverse backward onto the life it coincides with (or I do not in fact at all find it as a sub-text in Culture) because the book that I've detailed here is so versatile, philharmonic, and well-articulated that it's too healthy for that; it's larger than any single, fatal symptomatology (just as it's larger than political poetry) and I can't imagine any sound-minded, poetry-literate psychologist having read it in advance and found some sort of terminal case warning signal imbedded in it.

{But Davidson appears to have been shrewd enough, too, to foresee that "The offending self slips into rumor" [30], that anything art strategically leaves out will have to be filled back in by some future Lives of The Poets. He teases, in a meta- moment, at how his very method somewhat precludes summarization into the reductively personal:

So all this talk adds to the idea of the
seems to be a refraining index never having
localized any subject or what personal?


but the joke he makes of that lacuna reveals a wry attitude that's quite different from post-modernity's righteous, anti-Humanistic conviction about its self-censorship. Maybe because his method was realistic enough to anticipate (a simulacrum of) the personal as an unavoidable accident that, willy-nilly, always comes with language:

To speak is to appear as a continuum
linking resemblances in an apparent world.


Certainly, there is a fragile, tinkling "Handle With Care" breakability that can be heard in the background of Culture, intermittently, the way crystal will ring out if a singer's voice hits too high a note ("boundary of glass" [29]; "Ingenue, is this your heart of glass?" [77]; "Occasional death, trait, hint of glass" [95]; "Her house is made of glass and steel" [109]), but that's what's good and artistic about Culture. It's not grounds for commitment.

All these parameters of his poetry evade the political, because they aim to descend to meditate upon a rumbling, unlegislatable level below the terra firma of the body politic:

Beneath the city, fire, and the cool tunnels
it looked like some weird horror film




Space, while sometimes concretely inventoried in Culture as domestic space ("the bed floor curtain window door room / what is the language of this place?" [116]), also carries abstracted resonances of the poetical-metaphysical Faraway, a Beyond expressed as "distance". It re-appears variously, a nowhere out of Bachelard. That distance can still be subordinated under the domination of language ("Between named distance and the sanctuary of fable" [73], my italics) rather than apprehended geographically, hence, a sign.

He can be glib about it, again recapturing distance in language, this time the language of a pun ("What a distance a day makes" [73], playing on the Esther Phillips disco hit lyric), while still tweaking undertones of left-over meaning such as (grammatological?) difference. Davidson's distance can carry something of the exile of "stranger in a strange land" ("Foreign, distant, the long version spring of neutrality" [101]), and there is a loneliness about it, a solitude agitated by the accelerated loss of the other and the gaze ("the instant passing of a face in the distance" [119], although faces are not legible from a distance; "Rated in the distance below a coming measure, a look" [79]).

Indeed, this powerful motif of distance is intricately linked with other core preoccupations of his, that of a pensive, philosophical-contemplative life ("the distant home of thought" [115]) and themes of his such as his elusive, doubling sense of repetition ("Repeated in the far distance" [96]).

The political is understood to be an arena of action, and where it is not, inaction becomes a passivity resulting from oppression or apathy; but this ever-present distance in Davidson's imagination lessens or eliminates the instances and salience of action, not necessarily out of some lumpen impotence, though, but out of speculative states of rest and repose ("At distance, / more than shape or act, . . . / . . . offering hands in reflection and ease" [98]).

Where, rarely, architecture interposes itself to block and interrupt the tides of that distance, it is symbolic of impasse, estoppages ("Each of us blurs before our own walls" [45]) that are so strong in their definiteness that they render us indistinct, the object betraying the subject. It is unclear whether those blockades have any route of passage built into them, and even if so, if those passageways would only anticipate their shutting ("the doors would close there / are no doors" [57]), stated as a paradox. Which may be why, earlier, he has to jettison his body to get through such openings: they're very narrow ("a small crack in the door" [113]). These doors leading through distances don't behave as entrances or exits. They're more a form of hide-&-seek ("He disappears behind a door that he enters into view" [50]).