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David Brazil - The Ordinary

David Brazil, The Ordinary 

(Oakland, CA: Compline, 2012 (reprinted 2014). Paperback, 230 pp. $15.00)
 
Reviewed by David Grundy
 
 
First off, what’s striking about this book in particular is its particular register, in terms both of tone and of formal practice – the two, I think, not really separable. At one point, Brazil writes, “my prosody’s from here” – here being, primarily, his home-town, Oakland, CA, whose environmental pressures and socialities are figured through a highly-developed auto-didactic acquaintance with ancient languages, and with political, economic and theological history, and through the detritus of language and material out of which the poetry’s shaped. 
 
The Ordinary as a whole is in six sections: in a note of acknowledgment, Brazil thanks Michael Cross – whose publications, through Compline Editions and, previously Atticus/Finch truly are some of the most beautifully crafted objects being made at present; and without whom “this book, both as concept and object, would never have come into existence.” The first four sections consist of shorter poetic fragments, often including crossings-out and corrections in pen which sometimes radically alter the shape of the original, type-written poem; the sixth is a metrical and idiosyncratically modernized translation of St Paul’s Letter to Romans, the foundation, according to a tradition of interpretation stretching from Jacob Taubes to Badiou and Agamben, of a politically-emancipatory theology predicated on the rejection of law: whether this law be that of the Torah, the rule of the Roman empire (predicated precisely against the Jewish people), or of law more generally, as instrument of class and State oppression. The section entitled ‘Economy’, parts of which were previously published by Little Red Leaves Press, manifests what is often a more overtly essayistic process, taking the form, in a mixture of prose and poetry, of a kind of diary of thought and hope. Its approach the notion of ‘economy’ comes from various theoretical angles and as a journal-like working-through of the practice of writing itself. Individual poems are dated in pen and written on scraps of paper found on the streets of Oakland – advertisements for church services, housing forms, surgical procedures – which are the detritus of those so poorly provided for within the management of economy as that house which is most certainly not a home (oikos), suffering “the deleterious effects upon body, psyche and interpersonal relation” that are “the life of oikos considered generally”. These are the daily structuring violences that at times manifest themselves in images of extreme and direct – often gendered – suffering: “stop the girl / kid’s mouth with a cock / lest she utter an / irrevocable curse.” Here, nonetheless, is the possibility of a curse that can’t be called back, against tormenters, against the “retro hetero werewolf […] dual hetero foil to your head”: the possibility of that resistance necessary for survival.
 
As Brazil puts it in a group interview for Bomb magazine: “All waste also actually talks. Being struck in the face by history it has no choice. Economy was an attempt to discover the contingent prosody inside of the intersection of objects, days, a space (Oakland) and myself.” These scraps of non-human detritus also find their analogue in those human beings symbolically and materially cast aside within economic processes. St Paul’s “we have become the refuse of the world, the off-scouring of all things until now” (Corinthians 4:13); the wretched of the earth, the proletariat, the “preterite part” excluded from the fatalist-Calvinist ‘elect’ of capital. Economy’s method, then, is a process of composition by incrementation and erasure, as in the ‘redacted’ parts prevalent in the first sections of the book as a whole. “[W]hat congealed / to force his pro-/duct […] forms / a house of waste” (p.): the transformation of living substances to dead ones, the substitution of material labour and labourers by what Alfred Sohn-Rethel would call the ‘real abstraction’ of exchange, that which is given material form by its unconscious, lived basis. These are theological, or, let’s say, metaphysical concepts which are lived by and through: “we’re all walking around with theology in our mouths”; “Cash, I told Dana’s, a negative eucharist.” Against them are posed models of polis which instantiate different models of law, of ethics, of economy: the nomos that must underwrite and, perhaps, reconfigure, oikos – “the ethical body must / incessantly repeat / the spiritual act of its upsurge, / must always be reborn, / must always recall itself / to its name and its / freedom” (TO, p.lxxii). 
 
Such plurality is manifested also in tone, which I mentioned at the start of the review – vernacular usage will come up against, or alongside, words in ancient Greek, theological concepts, Marxist economics, records of conversation-as-community, sometimes within lines of each other; for Brazil, these are all part of the process, part of the field of economy which is his field of study, his social situation. Once again, “my prosody’s from here.” Or: “there’s no other place from which to write what we must / say than FROM INSIDE THIS SHITTY LIFE.” (p.LL)
 
This quite unique approach to prosody, source material and tone is something Brazil shares with the work of his close compadres Evan Kennedy and Jackqueline Frost – with whose Terra Firmament and The Antidote, respectively, The Ordinary has been presented as a kind of trilogy of shared concerns. All three books emerge out of the political organisation and activism which reached a peak during the blockade and otherwise of Occupy Oakland, and all emerge as a record which must in some way reckon with the ultimate defeat of that movement, “in the caesurae between struggles” figuring its lessons and retaining its hope. “hope pours forth / from out the fault, the / one at uproar / withinside itself” (p.LL). So faith, however racked and split, is never lost, as it sometimes is in instantiations of a militant poetics, in poetry itself, in the unique work that it can do. Poetry here does not end up in ironized self-recrimination, nor is it exaggerated in propagandistic claims that can never be lived up – what Brazil in a letter to Thom Donovan from December 2011 calls “the crust of reified sloganeering and narrative claims trying to make a fit matter for the spectacle”.  As Brazil writes in a letter to fellow Bay Area poet Alli Warren published at Donovan’s OTHER LETTERS project: “It continues to be revolutionary to remember, to insist, to stand up for. To be an agent of a very fragile cultural transmissions.” 
 
The sixth and final section of The Ordinary, ‘To Romans’, is the culmination of the book in that its concern is with law –“law law law law, what’s law, what’s the law, what’s the relevant law” (p.cxxiii) – and with the universal. In an earlier poem considering the role of the judge, Brazil moves from a local instantiation of that role – the judge from “Iowa” who “reads thrillers” on his break. The comic disparity between the human manifestation of the structural role (Brazil has to “ask Lord” what that judge does in their spare time) leading onto a broader consideration of ‘judgement’ as such, in which “every day” might be “judgement day”, the instantiation of a practical ethics through daily action and negotiation. So that his poetry is supremely ethical, where ethics must and can only be constituted in ongoing contingent negotiation and struggle: full, as outlined above, of detritus, waste that speaks back, “waste as muse”. The Ordinary itself, then, is not exactly ‘social realism’, nor is it a celebration of the magic of the unjust order that is, but the strenuous hope for its transformation and overthrow, “the future […] legible in the lineaments of the present [which] mingles with those liberatory shards of past history whose light blazes to us all across time with the message of a liberated humanity”, in the endlessly complex figuration of how this might manifest itself in practice.
 
 
References / Other Reading
 
Talk (on Vocation) at the Poetic Labour Project
Correspondence with Alli Warren, 2010, at Thom Donovan’s OTHER LETTERS Project
Letter to Thom Donovan, December 2011, in Donovan (ed.), Poetry during OWS (p.20).
Bomb Magazine Interview (with Donovan, Jackqueline Frost, Evan Kennedy), April 2014.
 
4 February 2015