Thursday, December 22, 2011



Irresponsibility by Chris Vitiello
(Ahsahta, Boise, ID, 2008)

{I realised today that this review was written precisely one year ago, on a rainy evening in east London. Before the riots… Before the strikes… Sometimes we let things lie wet for a while. Then we come across them, and hang them out, and the colours seem brighter. NM, Paris, 1st of December 2011}

One evening this week I returned from work exhausted. The weather hung low over London, I was distracted and generally disheartened by professional uncertainties. I looked around my still relatively new apartment. Still no internet. Never a TV. Only books.

These moments can be revelatory. What do you feel like reading during these instants? I scanned across my bookshelves, volumes like so many jars of vaguely nauseating candy, reiterating an internal monologue: “too dreary”, “too pretentious”, “too confessional”, “too old”, etc. I then remembered Irresponsibility had recently arrived.

I wanted to read it. To reread it.

But why… This is never so easy to say. I wanted to read Irresponsibility because I had felt, on first reading, that these poems had come out of a time of crisis, had been made in the midst of a certain erosion and decay of belief. Of a world and a worldview. Of the beach and of knowledge, sanded episteme and unclear epistemologies.

A coming-to-terms.

I was not in crisis, but I wanted to feel the edges of my disheartened self. I remembered what I took to be the book’s concern with questions of knowledge: of what we know, and how, and what good it does us.

I felt it did not shy away from this possibility: it does us no good.
Closing your eyes is
lying to yourself about fooling yourself

I liked this. I wanted this. I remembered too Irresponsibility’s resolutely intellectual analyses. I wanted this too. I want poems to be smart, dense forms of an interlocking logos, to scream into our faces: THINK. Or to persuade us, cajole us, but with an end to knowledge. “And reference—we’ve all got that going on” (27). Indeed. As:
If the idea is optimally down
Or moved along and the sentences are dull
Or all the same length or awkward I’m
Not going to do anything about them

I want my poetry, sometimes, not to give a damn. Cadiot and Hocquard are here: the French literalist vantage points. But I wasn’t overly interested in this. But visible at least, in this: “self-reflexivity”. I like self-reflexivity mainly because it shows the term itself to be a pleonasm. Only reflexivity is possible. Self-reflexivity is just the doubling of an inevitable circle, a fairground mirror reflecting into infinite space.

Writing is reflexive if flexible. Irresponsibility makes no apologies. I love it for that. I like books to tell me why they are they (not them), and why they are there, instead of just pretending that everyone finds their ontology obvious. No ontology is obvious. The existence of a book is never clear. It is usually, or used to be, seen as miraculous. In this way, Irresponsibility is like a charming drunk who never stops introducing and reintroducing himself, only in ever more engaging ways.

Introduction and reproduction. “To see the wind I look at the trees”. I forget which page this is from: imperfection. Mistakes being important. Perception and the limits of knowledge.

This week, I had been reading Robinson Crusoe and marveling again at Robinson’s desire for finite order. For measured understanding, precision and exact charting, which then gives way to absolute obliquity and obtuseness in such lines as : “Today I shot something that resembled a cat”.

This is of course a paraphrase, but I want to introduce error into criticism as Vitiello does to poetry. As has been rarely done this well before. “Making a mistake is an argument” (82). This is of course dangerous. “Exploitation instructs” (82).

I remembered defending Vitiello against a friend who stumbled across Irresponsibility’s several pages of listed prime numbers. I presented this as perhaps the problem of ways of knowing, of the quest for certainties, of the comfort and rocky grappling point such numbers may give us faced with the sea, wind and sand, which imagologically dominate the book, setting up permanency and transigency as two primary rhetorical devices. When my friend said this was a vain “idea-gesture” like so much conceptual art (valuable for what it stands for, not what it is), I replied that Vitiello’s list of prime numbers moved me.

I was being honest. I felt how small and absurd we are in our naming and recording. Robinson putting his foot on Friday’s head and presuming “Master”.
To be is the verb behind all verbs
except to be

There is only cause and contingency all the way back, in language as in metaphysics, and we do not know the maker. So, “stop reading here and do something else for 45 minutes” (67). I didn’t obey, but I am thankful for the order.

It is important, I think, that the listed time is “45 minutes” and not “1 hour”.

Think about this.

My friend asked why Vitiello punctuated his “great lines” (“Everything points to not writing things down” [36]) with other “less interesting random stuff”.

I said this was an apt summary of my life.

“Writing this erases what it actually is” (20). One would have thought erasure had been exhausted by Mallarmé. But our own erasure is more than a trope.

Often, I get tired of saying that books are “extroardinary” or “adjective”.

I wanted to read Irresponsibility when I didn’t want to read anything else.

There is nothing to add after this.


Nicholas Manning's new collection Homo Sentimentalis: A Guide In Verse To Modern Emotional Intimacy - which Kent Johnson has called "probably the greatest single-poet book of love poems in the field of avant American poetry since For Love by Robert Creeley" - is forthcoming in early 2012 from Otoliths Books. His study of sincerity in 20th century poetics is forthcoming from Éditions Honoré Champion. He teaches comparative literature in France, where he is the founding editor of the The Continental Review and maintains the weblog The Newer Metaphysicals.

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