Politically Un-signified

  • Steven Zultanski
    Cop Kisser. BookThug
  • Gregory Betts
    Psychic Geographies and Other Topics. Quattro Books
  • Jonathan Ball
    Clockfire. Coach House Books
Reviewed by Megan Ruttan

Jonathan Ball’s Clockfire is poetry fashioned through Brechtian drama and apocalyptic nightmare. A series of short poems, Ball’s work is less concerned with poetic imagery than it is with the narration of the impossible and the description of the theatre as the absurd or perhaps the next logical step of performance art. If life is all performance, then Clockfire presents a textual world wherein performance takes over life. The audience and the actors trade places according to a non-existent script. Poetry stands in for stage direction and dramatic dialogue.

Ball’s poetics are confrontational and relentless. The poet demands violent attention, as do the actors in his gory theatre. The poems themselves are deliberately short: they find no answers and purposefully offer nothing but the stage and the minimalist set pieces enacted there. Rooted firmly in theatre and literary history, Ball’s work interrogates the cathartic nature of theatre and the motives—often sinister—for our incessant desire to watch. Instead of being the site of the deus ex machina, this theatre is a god, or rather, the place where we look for new gods knowing that our gods have abandoned us.

Ball’s theatre is apocalyptic. His audience, for its part, desires something completely new, the old wiped away, but Ball realizes that there can never be anything wholly new unless the old is violently murdered. The theatre we desire can only ever be “glimpsed” through the diegesis of Ball’s poetry.

In Ball’s theatre, the end is repeated—performed—every evening. The theatre acts as an arena of auto-thanatos—a death drive— that forces the audience and the actors to perform their own demise every night again and again.

Concerned with history, identity, and the rhetoric of public speech, Gregory Betts’ Psychic Geographies and Other Topics is lyrically political and attentive to the space and distortion of language. Cicero is a touchstone for the discussion of public speech and the ethic of politics, and for Betts’ deconstruction of the linguistic construction of Canadian history. Some poems are overtly polemical while others—a poem found in a wine list—work with juxtaposition. Words are allowed to travel the intertext.

Like many poets, Betts exhibits artistic anxiety and a heightened awareness of self as artistic producer as well as product. Poetry is that “attempt at disorganizing the external world, a kind of feverish rush towards disorientation” but, aside from the product, what then is the artist?

Despite the internal meaning of language and its covert and overt references to rhetoric, art, and history, Betts’ poetry is meant to be public speech, not just a mimesis of Modernist high literature. Language is not simply consigned to poetry but is a shared code, implicit with power that nations use to create themselves. We are never outside the text of ourselves, no matter which geography we find ourselves situated in, be it historical, national, or personal. The “superior goal / is the life-realization of / an awkward sentence,” as removal from the accepted syntax will make real our entrapment within it.

Marxism is the strongest theme in Steven Zultanski’s Cop Kisser, even as the endless string of signifiers in the text tries to escape theme. The laborious repetition of the physically printed word being enacted and written, over and over again, as the poem—that supposed abstract of the artistic life—becomes a material endeavour. The work of Zultanski’s poetry is alive with speed, however, even as it spins its wheels. Despite being longer poems, short line breaks and repetitive phrasing lend alacrity to the work, even if the images and language remain pointedly static.

Dryly humorous at times, the poems themselves alternate between lyric and list but are largely poststructuralist in their addressing of structuralism and political in their de-politicization. Zultanski works within the Marxist dialectic—supposedly oppositional peaks existing parallel to each other and working against each other—but, purposefully, there is no middle space. The absurdity and emptiness of language create nothing between the two fixed positions. As Zultanski writes in “This and That Lenin,” “we have come to the doors of Utopia,” or quite literally nowhere. In this way, Zultanski resists Marxist dialectic in that language moves constantly in Cop Kisser but doesn’t quite get anywhere. The work is done, the dialectic chugs away, but language is brought back to the same words, the same signifiers, that, after constant use, cease to mean anything.

In his overuse of language, Zultanski interrogates it as “administered order”—a forced political system that holds no inherent value in its prescribed syntax; such syntaxes include Ball’s construction of the theatre and reality and Betts’ reworking of history, nation, and literature. Various rules and practices delineate and dictate the way that language is used, but ultimately language is a fruitless and meaningless system. It categorizes words, separates them, but coalesces again into a mass devoid of meaning. Language is at once the assumption of power and the loss of it.

This review “Politically Un-signified” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 145-46.

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