Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

Joy may be exhausting, but funny? political?

Not sure if this adds up yet, but I need to get to Murakami, so I’m just going to send it.


Though there were a number of clues (the back cover comes right out and says it), on first reading it didn’t really occur to me to think of Susan Holbrook’s Joy is So Exhausting as a work whose politics should be taken seriously. I caught many of the references to queerness, and the name-drops of Peter Mansbridge and Ian Hanomansing (23), of our Prime Minister in the insistently Sudoku-ed headline “Harper proposes free vote on same sex marriage issue ” (36). I caught how insistently themes of sex and sexual identity made their presence felt in the book. Still though, the presence of references to sex and politics isn’t enough to persuade me that a cultural artifact’s politics should be taken seriously. And in the case of this book it was especially difficult for me because it seemed so silly in so many instances.

I think that that was the reason why, on first reading, I had a hard time buying into the work; why I found myself often skimming forward in the longer poems, jumping to the end searching for the epiphany that would tie everything together, unlock for me the deeper meaning structuring the progression within the poems, and maybe structuring the book as a total work. It occurred to me that it might be that Holbrook’s political beef might lie with something pre-narrative (not quite the right word), probably language itself, which could account for the lack of what I might intuitively recognize as an exoterically available meaning structure (how’s that for ugly?). But I didn’t trust her enough yet to trust myself to invest the labour it would take to read her for it, not confident that I wouldn’t just be projecting patterns. And the possibility seemed to be belied by the work having been framed by Holbrook by joy (exhausting as it may be) and filled with silliness. Most of the most brilliant figures I know about who famously saw and really felt the oppressiveness of the power structures embedded in language had also been famously bleak, and if funny, only wryly so. That language dominates us is a bleak thing to acknowledge unless looked at just so.

“I saw in this book an anarchic paradox in which the constraints and repetitions imposed on the poems by the author became their vehicles for freedom and uniqueness” (Mooney’s talk, par. 2).

Both for its contents and for the enthusiasm of its delivery, Jacob Mooney’s talk was an eye opener. As in the quote above, he advanced the idea that Holbrook’s procedures were not limiting, but vehicles for free artistic expression. He pointed out how easy it was to miss the labour and thought that had to go into every one of the mountain of decisions her procedures confronted her with.

I buy that, but still it seemed to me that it was those poems that were the least obvious about their procedures that read as the most free, or “serious” as another participant put it, referring to “Really Just,” the collection’s opener. But that they were also the least thigh-slappingly funny. To account for this, Mooney said something like that we’re either laughing at the humiliation of the poem, or we’re in a position of sharing the uncertainty and hazards with the poem, and don’t laugh. Interesting but unsatisfying. This may be true for Mooney. It seems very plausible that a poet would be in the habit of personifying the concept of the poem in general, and as a result, be delighted by its humiliations, or empathize with its struggles. But I don’t think most people are so comfortable with the form of “poem” to do that. And stepping back, why should we care about the abstract form of “poem”? Am I wrong to suggest that “poem” is completely meaningless without its content? Undeserving of anything from us? I don’t really think that’s controversial.

I propose another interpretive route. Surveying American mass culture in the 40s, as refugees from Germany, Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno observe:

Laughter, whether reconciled or terrible, always accompanies the moment when a fear is ended. It indicates a release, whether from physical danger or from the grip of logic. Reconciled laughter resounds with the echo of escape from power; wrong laughter copes with fear by defecting to the agencies which inspire it. It echoes the inescapability of power… To moments of happiness laughter is foreign; only operettas, and now films, present sex amid peals of merriment. But Baudelaire is as humorless as Hölderlin… What is infernal about wrong laughter is that it compellingly parodies what is best, reconciliation. Joy, however, is austere (Dialectic of the Enlightenment, 1987 ed.: 112-3).

What’s described is a structure of three related distinctions: laughter versus not laughter, and good (reconciled) laughter versus “wrong” laughter, and the entire structure, for being fundamentally reactive to fear, is shown to be in contrast with joy. I find this persuasive. and I suspect, based on her response to my question about the political implication of the laughter in her most transparently procedural poems (something like “I’d imagine its quite disturbing”), that Holbrook might share a proclivity to find it persuasive as well. As a side note, in contrast to Mooney’s account, this approach puts power structures explicitly implicating people front and centre in its understanding of humour.

How do we account for the simultaneous presence of joy, laughter, and politics in her poetry, using this typology?

Maybe she’s not trying to subvert language generally, but really only language forms that carry with them some kind of implied institutional authority (corporately-written instructions on how to insert a tampon, or train a puppy; professionally written things like the home-inspection document and writing guide mashed together with Walt Whitman’s authoritative voice in the poem on page 61, etc.) Taking as a case “Insert,” which seemed to generate the most discussion in class: there’s delight, but it’s very pointedly and not subtly subversive. Can it be said to be a joyous poem? She certainly takes satisfaction in the sculpted details, notably the line which she underlined last week “The tomboy should now be comfortably inside you” (15), but that line, even now, strikes me like a particularly sharply constructed sandcastle juxtaposed to the receding destructive power of a tide. The the poem seems so overwhelmingly to be about and for the subversion of the piece of  symbolically charged tampon instruction text, that the beautiful little things built in its wake are hard to appreciate on first read. But they are beautiful and rich, and not really funny, or at least not funny in the same way as the humour of the poem’s conceit (which is mostly, I think, delight to see the poet overcome the frightening power of the original text). The funny machine generates destabilization in language and opportunities that Holbrook seizes expertly. She then sculpts these shards of loosened clay into truly joyful monuments of free expression, which you can only see once the shadow of the machine recedes, or, maybe more accurately, when your eyes adjust to its continued looming presence.

To put it more simply, I take slight issue with one of Mooney’s characterizations: I don’t think that the procedures are the “vehicles” for Holbrook’s freedom. I think that it’s with the detritus left in the procedure’s wake that she’s comes alive as a free creative subject, using them to express things that come from her life, from outside of the poetry itself. In these spaces she expresses something lived; something notably including but not limited to the experience of new motherhood, which animates “Nursery,” the poem that I think was both the most joyful, and in some senses austere–a document of roving one-sentence impressions of her world through time through the simple but significant lens of moments breast feeding.


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