Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cara Benson, The Secret of Milk

I want to distract you from my primary purpose in penning this pamphlet. To do that I will create a space for an abject lyric, not in the sense that the lyric is abject, per se. Its core/content. Perhaps lyricism is the distraction.

The story goes like this: I made a poem. Which according to Robert Duncan was more than singing; but according to Johannes Goebel music is beyond and came after language. Either way, I made a piece of writing that slides along a continuum of music and language in its lyricism. Language here being signs attempting to indicate referents (which can be misunderstood), and music viewed as patterns of sound without intended referents.

There are a few versions of the poem of which I write. All of them include pre-text curated from an article on agri-business as well as lyric stanzas written in response to an advertising slogan. Here is the first, condensed, for space (think originally more floating or white):

Does A Body Good”

As the product, myself, of generations of Eastern Ontario dairy farmers (and where I also worked and grew), I find I'm reacting even before opening poet Cara Benson's chapbook, The Secret of Milk (Tract Series #5, eohippus labs, 2011), referred to by the poet Kate Greenstreet, in her interview with Benson, as “a treatise on the possibilities of lyric advocacy within the tainted world of agribusiness” in Bookslut. What does it mean to produce for one body, by putting another in danger? There is an element of Benson's writing that deals very much with the consequences of the things we make, as writers or as humans, whether in our literary production, or here, specifically, the dairy industry, asking the difficult questions that are usually, deliberately, overlooked. And in certain sections, is she talking about writing or milk production? Possibly, and beautifully, applying a single morphing strain of argument to both. I've always liked the approach, forwarded over the years by writers such as Erin Mouré and Lisa Robertson, of blending literary writing with the formal essay, genres bleeding and folding in and over each other, and, when done properly, each element adding significantly to the other.

We want the reader to enter to produce her poem from the poem so that we don't replicate anti-democratic syntactical strategizing. But what do you put on your cereal? How do you open the carton? At some point the door of the refrigerator is closed and one will hurt her hand thinking otherwise. Abstracting the physicality of shut.

Produced out of Los Angeles, California, eohippus labs is self-described as “a short form literary project and press, co-edited and co-published by Amanda Ackerman and Harold Abramowitz.” The author of the trade collections (made) (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2010) and the forthcoming Protean Parade (Black Radish Books, 2012), New York poet Cara Benson has also produced a number of chapbooks over the past few years, including Quantum Chaos and Poems: A Manifest(o)ation (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2008), which won the bpNichol Chapbook Award.

Milk: It Does A Body Good: Advertising slogan
[Lori Lipinski. Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2003, https://www.westonaprice.org/news/259.html]

That is the first version, sans picture. I submitted it for market consumption to a few literary journals, and though other work from that batch was published, this poem wasn't. Maybe it's not a good [sophisticated, ambiguous, artful, musical, image-filled, allegorical, metaphorical, speechy infused/refused] poem. Too sentimental. Littteral. Processually neoliberal? The picture was cheating. Or the whole composition was too difficult to format online. I tried a second version; actually, once I submitted two versions together so there could be a choice. I operated on the [pre-text] more. I'll give just the changes, for space:

[The majority of commercial dairy cows are kept …, forced to … months out of the year, in an overcrowded ….]

The Secret of Milk reads as a poem/essay/treatise on the mistreatment of animals-as-product, on forcible containment, even including information I didn't previously know, such as the fact that “It is illegal to expose animal manufacturing / practices through photographic images or reporting in thirteen / states in the US.” In their Bookslut interview, Greenstreet addresses the issue of art and advocacy directly, asking:

Where do art and advocacy meet? I hear this question in all of your work and you address it directly in The Secret Of Milk...

This is such a huge consideration in my life, and for so many poets/artists I know. I spiral around it. Some days I feel so strongly that poetry, with all its ineffability and particularity, is perfectly suited to effect something like a paradigm shift. Other days it seems like we’re spilling out of a thimble into a sea of disinterested scrawl and sprawl and commerce. Then of course I don’t want to demand of the writing or making that it has to tackle, well, anything.

What is the balance between individual and society? I want to consider larger concerns, and yet I am not in a position to speak for others. I can only speak to things/ideas/issues and for/from myself, such as I am -- even if I’m working with all source material and thinking the author is dead. That’s not the whole story even when the work I’m sporting says it is. Besides, I need to value myself. Should I not do any of that publicly? Should I not make the poem of the slender stem in my hand because it doesn’t tackle oppression? Just a silly example, but I think resisting an economic or systemic or political or post-structuralist -- an ideological -- read/requirement of the poem can be a radical, er, ideology. I’m definitely not after solipsism. Then -- and here is more of the spiraling in action -- I’m all too easily of a mind where playing with syntax or fabric seems like the proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic. Or, to switch vehicles, an ignorant neutrality on the moving train, which of course isn’t neutral at all, is it. If you’re “against theory” it’s really just because you haven’t looked at what’s underpinning your own work/status. More than that, though, doing nothing “beyond” the art to address the incredible inequities piling up on the planet also isn’t neutral. There are days when I get really mad at artists with their complicit and precious galleries and personas or theorists or writers who think because they’ve read Lacan or whoever that they are somehow avant or radical anything. What’s at stake? Even the installation artist. Or blog posts that say “but is it art?” -- they’re such bullshit.

And they’re not, right? Or at least not categorically. Critique is needed on all fronts, I know. Holding the space for conscious cultural/artistic creation is crucial, I know. Without theoretical considerations we’re sunk, I know. So this is some of what I’m tackling in The Secret of Milk. More specifically, can lyric language take on factory dairy farming? Should it?

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