Thursday, July 29, 2010

Rosa Alcalá’s Undocumentaries

A Tree

Williams (Spring and All): “and that ‘beauty’ is related not to ‘loveliness’ but to a state in which reality plays a part.” And a poem by Rosa Alcalá—out of the “American Recycler” section of Undocumentaries (Shearsman, 2010):

A burden stirs this economy. This business
we call “me.” An endless travesty of goods beneath the skin

of the poorest embrace. Salt stirs there, an admirable mineral
at a miserable price. Too, a faint reminder of coal,

of industrial custom. The rest is stock eulogy,
a paycheck clean of union dues.
Marvelously dumbfound’d at that. How completely Alcalá merges personal and public economies (“This business / we call “me.”) “Endless travesty of goods beneath the skin” somehow manages to call forth something akin to Samarkand, and funny Europeans insipidly clothed in newly-bought silks along the medieval trade routes. Scents inhabit the piece nigh-undetect’d (“a faint reminder of coal”) and the emptying out (“stock eulogy”) that occurs is a wholly ambivalent cleansing (like the “admirable mineral / at a miserable price”—meaning finesse’d by sound—“a paycheck clean of union dues” is a compromised thing). (Williams enters into Alcalá’s Undocumentaries in a poem call’d “Deformation”: “The foot inherently / was to Dr. Williams / of more interest / who knew in the uneven gait / the hip / would jostle the mind / to set fire / first / to the archive.”) (In defiance of Anne Waldman’s backcover blurb-assessment that “Alcalá’s Undocumentaries is Archive made Poetry,” I’d maintain that she seeks foremost to trouble that capital-A Archive’s sovereignty by expanding it—“Remembering is a trucking / yourself in”—if not “set fire” to it.)

A sense of unbelonging, of the imperfect, of the temporary (the ardors of play-acting, of double consciousness) pervades Alcalá’s work. Here’s “What It Means to Be Civilized”:
Such guilt. Such pandering to antiquity. These Colima dogs wear our faces, but for them nothing is worth translating from the Latin. That we’ve invented forms for the epic means we depend on the largesse of plaster and paint to mask our own pitiless story. What we translate into is a heroic suffering, always a hexameter wide from ear to eye. These dogs look to a place that expands, and we will clutch to them in our graves, reciting the conditions of our exile. They will leave as our bones pile up around them, proudly for a room full of still lives, somewhere far from Europe.
Or one finds oneself “Among weeds, among variants of native crab grasses” (“Everybody’s Authenticity”), or noting that “Somewhere out there / a bail bondsman and meat flipper lie profligate / in a bed of divided territories, / confident the fence will hold against / recessive traits” (“National Affair”). It may be of use to recall Williams’s reminder—“The inevitable flux of the seeing eye toward measuring itself by the world it inhabits can only result in himself crushing humiliation [sic] unless the individual raise to some approximate co-extension with the universe. This is possible by aid of the imagination.” Lines that arrive directly following the adage “for everything / and nothing / are synonymous / when // energy in vacuo / has the power / of confusion // which only to / have done nothing / can make / perfect,” a sort of retort to the “Let be be finale of seem” citizenry for the sloppy and ungovernable. Alcalá, too, makes distinct the restless unendingness of constant struggle and the “brighter but stiller” work of the “archive”:
Documentary: The lyric of unrehearsed chemicals
acts out the tensions of progress
into a brighter but stiller image
called fact or archive

Undocumentary: The man who joined
old world industries of textile
to dirt trucked in from the Ramapos
is not a video
to behold
And, ending the same poem, talking about “the roundabout mess” of “this type of architecture”—that is, one provisional, off-kilter, unlovely:
There is no retelling the desire to be pulled into a condemned building by a man who will soon live in exile, or the nest of baby swallows in the handicap stall of a public bathroom in Mesilla. You offer it and everyone’s a little uncomfortable with this type of architecture. The night we took the train to Newark to eat rabbit there was nothing anyone could do about the rain. We were subject to families greater than nature, yet there it was every time we left New York. From the PATH station to the restaurant, the houses tried to tell you about me, but even now the details distill to a fringe of dented aluminum. So all this roundabout mess of trying to describe a machine that never shuts down, a father standing in two inches of water or sitting on a wooden stool, a racket of heat, is proof of nothing, except the drive of what can’t be told, a screen pushing off the pile up of bodies.
That Alcalá persists in telling “what can’t be told” (think of Williams’s lines, “Somehow / it seems to destroy us // It is only in isolate flecks that / something / is given off // No one / to witness / and adjust, no one to drive the car”—the thump and dare of the one-word lines, “Somehow . . . something”—and look to Alcalá’s plaintive outburst (in “Child Interpreters”):
Have you ever seen the common nude?
Nude taxi drivers? Nude subway striker
and strikees? The bagel guy nude in his ambulant deli?
Or the uncommon: someone riding out
their dying year—nude? We think beauty
a rabble, so we organize clubs against and for it.
The doughy shirtless bang tensions
from the skin of a drum,
a suffragist lesions a remarkable ass
or a portrait of Henry James.
One final piece, uncomment’d:

This here is the paraphernalia called valediction, or
to validate speech (what we speak now, what our dead
can’t understand), we must place on the table
the noise-makers and the cork, let out the evils, the gasses,
turn sea-change into grip of land. This here
is the mime running the show, this holiday we throw
sand against it and the sound is gradual
losses, the right level of water
to rice. A spit-salve for rashes.

We count backwards until all is gone with a bang.
At least sleep is interchangeable, we shed
into the other with little discernment. These are the sheets
forgotten to a trunk, the music of a girl’s future
chamber. We tuck her name beneath our
chins and carve her recipes deep into muscle. Off we go,
the bed pulls into harbor. But our hands
grown big on corns translate her intuitions
of salt poorly.

Rosa Alcalá