All Good Possibles: Ken Babstock, On Malice
Ken Babstock read last Tuesday evening at Book Warehouse on Main St., for the Vancouver launch of his latest collection On Malice, which appeared a little earlier this fall from Coach House Books. The book gathers three extended pieces and a skewed sonnet sequence: “Perfect Blue Distant Objects,” “Deep Packet Din,” “Five Eyes,” and “SIGINT.” The emphasis falls variously in each agglomerated text on distraction and noise, on riddled and riddling semantic textures, on versions and variorums. A little like Tom Raworth, Babstock inclines his ear closely to the saturated, thickened flows of mediatized language — “the streaming of form from the machine” as the closing line of “Deep Packet Din” puts it — catching at and contingently arresting on each page those overlapping currents, those soupy waves of vestigial sense. Each poem presents itself as a species of media drill core, a striated section of repurposed data-packets, reconstituting voice as shifty aggregates of sedimentary, lexical samples. Reading these lines, I rarely know quite who or where or how I am meant to be, or to be positioned: “The excess space junk making / prayer beads of morning’s screaming / party.” Speech cannot settle into consistency, and the speaking subject asserts itself as verbal ragpicker, as audio splicer. “May we become / noises,” somebody eventually does pray in “Perfect Blue Distant Objects.” Just so.
Over the past year and a half I have heard Ken Babstock read three times: at Tuesday’s launch, in late October at the Vancouver International Writers Festival (as one of eight featured in the Poetry Bash), and last spring at the Play Chthonics series at the University of British Columbia, which I was coordinating. At each reading he concentrated on presenting slices from “SIGINT,” the opening sequence from On Malice. Given the complexities of this poetry and my own limited space here, I’m going to concentrate on making an initial foray into reading “SIGINT,” rather than attempting to come to terms with the book as a whole. Even as networked arrays, each of the extended poems of On Malice is constructed and derived from a principal source, an originary pool from which its draws much of its noise; “Perfect Blue Distant Objects” refigures an essay on optics by William Hazlitt, while “Five Eyes” “mines vocabulary” (as Babstock puts it in his own notes, without which — or at least without a thorough Google search — I would have a pretty hard time figuring this out) from John Donne’s tract on suicide, “Biathanatos.” “SIGINT” is a set of thirty-nine hybridized sonnets, which seem to gather voices at an abandoned surveillance station atop the artificial Teufelsberg in Berlin, but are also built from translations of Walter Benjamin’s manuscript notes about his son Stefan’s language acquisition – records of a preschooler’s various word-games, puns and whimsical infelicities. The choice of the sonnet form may have a little to do with Benjamin’s own posthumously published Sonette, a Jugendstil-ish sequence he began composing after the war-protest suicide of his friend, the poet Fritz Heinle, in 1914 — a segment of literary history that may also link to the Donne piece. Despite any gestures at late modern formalism (Benjamin’s sequence, for example, uses Shakespearean and Rilkean sonnets as formal models), Babstock’s poems tend to be fractured both metrically and structurally, hacking their generic/genetic source-codes. Each poem consists of four tercets, substituting a hypermetrical thirteenth line for a couplet, an imaginary “incident report” of collisions between birds and aircraft, animal and machine, in Soviet airspace between Siberian and Berlin. Place names invoked in these seemingly arbitrary last lines are also ordered, approximately, alphabetically, another gesture at factors of thirteen: twenty-six letters divided by two. The sequence itself is broken symmetrically into three parts of thirteen poems. Thirteen, not quite fourteen: these are sonnets gone to pieces. But rather than collapse, the form also suggests reconstitution — not teleology or closure, but asymptote, approach. These are sonnets in the process of self-acquisition, self-fashioning, assemblage.
The Teufelsberg station, haunted by Cold War spectres, figures in the poems as a listening post that attends to human aftermath. The poet, in Babstock’s sequence, takes on a role derived from Benjamin’s reading of Charles Baudelaire, a cultural ragpicker: “’Everything that the big city has thrown away, everything it has lost, everything it has scorned, everything it has crushed underfoot he catalogues and collects. He collates the annals of intemperance, the capharnaum of waste.’ . . . Ragpicker and poet: both are concerned with refuse.” Babstock’s poems collate by listening to mediated human noise, attending to the “rattle again of splintered waste” that aerials, ears and dishes manage to pick up. The poems both catalogue shards and orts of discourse and aspire to regenerate meaning tentatively from semantic refuse: “It is, I’m afraid, a symbol, dear rubble.” Writing wants to devolve, fearfully, into replicant transcription, copy-editing: “I can only read out / what we get back.” What those fractured symbols might impart to us remains in abeyance, the mechanics of representation still fraught and insufficient. “What gets learned,” our frustrated ragpicker asks, “from all this listening?” “One can listen all night,” we’re told, without imaginative gain. Yet traces remain, nonetheless amid what feels like aleatory jumble, of a “devotional commerce,” a vestigial lyric religiosity, a texture of sense; or, what the poems at one point name “a surplus of negative affect” onto which the voice opens, as a prayer to language itself, a call to recover from informatics welter — by what the poems call merely thinking, by cognitive and creative effort — whatever might be left to us of singing: “in the post-informational gloaming” we “can never not finish reading it as song.” Melopoeia prods readers, as listeners, into affective involvement: “I have just thrown / the feeling into your mouth. Now you tell it.” What Babstock offers as poetic throwing — and even as throwing up, an abjected language that also frames itself as “desiccated scat” and refuse —hangs in the hiatus, as the small lurch of the line break here suggests, between repression and disclosure, like the uneasy stall of a double negative (“never not finish”). “There will be no clarification,” our collator notes, so we need, even at this late moment, to”[t]hink of a good reason not to quit listening,” so that we might somehow move past reiterative stasis. ”I am practicing dead songs,” the poet aggregator declares, but, amid “constant surveillance,” swallowed in “the knowledge industry,” the first person singular, the speaking subject, still inclines to sing: “I’m repurposing myself.” The call to listening shifts reading away from semiotic anxiety (“I’m afraid”) toward an aesthetics of mouth texture, of shared speech and permeable selves, a remaindered eros: “Because you involved me.” The hiatuses, the fractures and absences onto which these poems open, are also — as linguistic surplus, as negative tropes — spaces of desire, of human longing:
Because I am sleeping in love’s room
now, the moment will have
received a promise to wait.
At such moments Babstock’s sonnets become sonnets, although the trimmed tenth syllable of the pentameter in the first of these lines, “now,” thrown forward into the next line, also marks a disjunctive temporality, an abeyance: passionate stall.
Listening to Ken Babstock read these poems out loud — briefly, quietly, even undemonstratively — gestures, despite their apparent recalcitrance as texts that might be decoded, clarified or understood, at reciprocity, at shared affect:
Perhaps you truly don’t own it but it’s
in your mouth now so take it
for a walk.
(Again, a pair of skewed pentameters, sonnet shards.) At the Book Warehouse reading, like a poetry nerd, I found myself taking notes, transcribing stray lines, a little like the ragpicker of these texts. It turns out, perhaps, that I was inadvertently answering that call, getting involved, pulling a few good possibles from what I thought I heard, taking his words for another brief walk. Just so.
–Kevin McNeilly is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of British Columbia. His book of poems is Embouchure (Nightwood Editions, 2011). Poetry and audio can be found on his website, kevinmcneilly.ca. He blogs at Frank Styles and at Flow, Fissure, Mesh. This post appeared on his blog and is reproduced with permission.