THE COMMONS by Sean Bonney
(Openned Press, London, 2011)
“The work was originally subtitled “A Narrative / Diagram of the Class Struggle”, wherein voices from contemporary uprisings blend into the Paris Commune, into October 1917, into the execution of Charles 1, and on into superstitions, fantasies of crazed fairies and supernatural bandits //// all clambering up from their hidden places in history, getting ready to storm the Cities of the Rich //// to the bourgeois eye they may look like zombies, to us they are sparrows, cuckoos, pirates & sirens //// the cracked melodies of ancient folk songs, cracking the windows of Piccadilly //// or, as a contemporary Greek proverb has it, “smashing up the present because they come from the future”.”
“Hi, my name is John, I am 14 years old and hate the Tories, and this book exploded my political consciousness, now a brick through a window is never enough, I want to reawaken the dead.”
Both quotes are from the back cover of the book. My name is John, too, and I’ll be 61 by the time this is published, and I too hate what little John hates, and I too know that brick through a window feeling, and I too know it’s never enough, and I too want to reawaken the dead, at least in Walter Benjamin’s weak messianic sense. Whatever you do, don’t laugh. Or, go ahead, but first think twice.
Even Wikipedia gets it: “The commons were traditionally defined as the elements of the environment—forests, atmosphere, rivers, fisheries or grazing land—that are shared, used and enjoyed by all.
Today, the commons are also understood within a cultural sphere. These commons include literature, music, arts, design, film, video, television, radio, information, software and sites of heritage. The commons can also include public goods such as public space, public education, health and the infrastructure that allows our society to function (such as electricity or water delivery systems). There also exists the ‘life commons’, e.g. the human genome.
Peter Barnes describes commons as a set of assets that have two characteristics: they’re all gifts, and they’re all shared. A shared gift is one we receive as members of [the human] community, as opposed to individually. Examples of such gifts include air, water, ecosystems, languages, music, holidays, money, law, mathematics, parks and the Internet.
[JBR: I’d add food and shelter to the list …]
There are a number of important aspects that can be used to describe true commons. The first is that the commons cannot be commodified—and if they are—they cease to be commons. The second aspect is that unlike private property, the commons is inclusive rather than exclusive — its nature is to share ownership as widely, rather than as narrowly, as possible. The third aspect is that the assets in commons are meant to be preserved regardless of their return of capital. Just as we receive them as shared gifts, so we have a duty to pass them on to future generations in at least the same condition as we received them. If we can add to their value, so much the better, but at a minimum we must not degrade them, and we certainly have no right to destroy them.”
But the powers-that-be just say: Fuck that shit. So I can’t help but read THE COMMONS in light of the Occupy movement. Which, in a way, has a very simple message: Let’s Just Take It All Back.
The poem begins with the first bit of an old song, “The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies.” It’s got an interesting recent history, which kind of sums the whole thing in a nutshell. According to The Annotated Bob Dylan, “This is a line from a very old folk song that has many variations. It probably originated in the British Isles.” It was appropriated by Dylan for reuse in his “High Water (for Charlie Patton)” (Love and Theft, 2001), which is fine; old lines from old songs are there for re-use. But Dylan’s re-use of old material is controversial. He has a long-term habit of releasing versions of old songs and copping all the credit. Of enclosing the commons. Thus, when I read the first few lines of Bonney’s poem,
the cuckoo is a pretty bird,
she warbles as she flies
The cuckoo is a
- BANG -
he was a big freak:
I can’t help but hear the bang as—well, obviously as a gunshot that kills the poor old bird—and also as a bang that kills the commons (I can’t claim that anyone but me would hear “he was a big freak” as a reference to Dylan, and to his famous line, now redirected as in a mirror, “How does it feel to be such a freak?” … but I’ve always resented his taking credit for stuff he didn’t write, just as I resent Goldman-Sachs for taking money they didn’t earn).
(Bonney credits Clarence Ashley’s version, by the way).
The mode is somewhere between junction and disjunction, and the content is the fragment (see p. 79 for some of the sources), and the mood is hard-leftwardly politicized.
this is me revolving
certainly, this is spit
like ‘all hell’ where birds
sorry, prowling dogs
wipe / negative decades
live in it like a rapist
this is my silence
big constitutional principle
bright magnetic decibel
nice gravity, nice racist
have your say David Cameron
music / movies / games
finance / cars / answers
I think THE COMMONS is a sonnet sequence, though its somewhat disjunctive nature allows it to be read straight through as well. I’ll provide you two sonnets/stanzas in a row and let you decide.
My character was taken
was not yours, who
secretly my small thighs
& the british anarchist movement
halt, magnetic sea
& shun mad company.
I got my goose shoes on
& talk eclipse, the town is stupid
love fool love,
or we could brick their windows
the aged parents broken,
exposed to annoyance & danger
Back when I was still cruel—
OK, say that again
this time with malevolent roses,
some specks of lords, some
totally harmless character:
the town’s last cinema is broken,
& the rest were maimed & slain.
OK, say the word brain,
this time with malevolent roses
mumbled as in a ‘reverie’
like lingerie & a clean blade
OK, do that again
we got from London what we needed
slaughter the fascist BNP.
Either way one reads this, the anger is unrelenting.
I don’t think we American read enough British and other Anglophone poetry. I think we’re pretty provincial that way. I think we see our traditions and possibilities too much through the lens of nationality. This can have consequences. I mentioned Occupy above. I was speaking with people from Occupy LA and Occupy Riverside and I described my thoughts when Occupy Wall Street marched onto the Brooklyn to the tune of 700 arrested. I asked, “Didn’t they know they were walking into a kettle?” Only one person knew what a kettle was. That really struck me.
I was hoping I could review Bonney’s Happiness: Poems After Rimbaud alongside THE COMMONS, but my copy hasn’t arrived. But I do want to mention it, as the two books sit so nicely alongside one another. Plus, Bonney’s comments at his blog Abandoned Buildings, 27 Sept 011, re: the Happiness help illuminate where THE COMMONS is coming from:
It is impossible to fully grasp Rimbaud’s work, and especially Une Saison en Enfer, if you have not studied through and understood the whole of Marx’s Capital. And this is why no English speaking poet has ever understood Rimbaud. Poetry is stupid, but then again, stupidity is not the absence of intellectual ability but rather the scar of its mutilation.
Rimbaud hammered out his poetic programme in 1871, just as the Paris Commune was being blown off the map. He wanted to be there. It’s all he talked about. The “systematic derangement of the senses” is the social senses, ok, and the “I” becomes an “other” as in the transformation of the individual into the collective when it all kicks off. It’s only in the English speaking world you have to point simple shit like that out. But then again, these poems have NOTHING TO DO WITH RIMBAUD. If you think they’re translations you’re an idiot. In the enemy language it is necessary to lie.
Even if truth is what a lie is.
John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards the middle of a project called Zeitgeist Spam. The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. The third section, In the House of the Hangman, is underway. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, a collaboration with Jerome Rothenberg. He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.