Linear tankers lie
on the harbour’s horizon.
The speed of globalization.
crystal-meth focus groups.”
crows crack mussels
at the empty pool, coast
above the transparent penthouse
a speculative building
on the edge
of the public park
capitalizing the view.
The silhouette swirls
her window cleaner
every Thursday. Realtors
facing west, make calls. (“The Vestiges”)
In his poetry collection, The Vestiges, Vancouver poet, editor and critic Jeff Derksen works through a distillation of the historical and contemporary facts of social action, activity, repression and anxiety, stringing details together into an articulation of where geography, politics and culture meet, mix and, more often than not, engage in conflict. “What other present,” he writes, in the opening pages, “seemed so endless, so / expendable. // Tell me what is necessary. // What is / necessary time.” As Derksen writes as the opening of his notes at the back of the collection:
This book is an investigation into poetic research and social expression in precarious times. Feeling that we were living through great social changes from 2001 to 2013 whose implications where somehow simultaneously underestimated or overdramatized, I found myself reading late-modernist poems that took a more embedded perspective on society and its shifts. The position of the poets in these works presumed a sort of clarity despite the complexity of their present. I wondered what it would be like to do a remake of this type of poem. Or, in other less poetic words, I wanted to write in a poetic form from a Fordist time in precarious and post-Fordist times. What forms of social expression would this remake open to me? How would the writing of the poem position me in relation to the language and images of neoliberalism? What would that long interlocking serial form, with its particular rhythms of accumulation and cresting, and with its author located in the swirl of social processes and grounded in a place that is simultaneously stable yet eroding, tell me (and hopefully other readers) about our own stake in the present? There are echoes of many poems in The Vestiges, but consistently it is George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous that struck me as a poetic form and a social stance that reverberated across our own uneven present.
Given the influence this current work has on late modernist poetry, it might explain why the collection, in its spare black-and-white cover format featuring a simple photograph filling the front cover, physically resembles so many of the 1960s paperback New Directions collections I’ve seen over the years. It’s curious, too, that Derksen takes as his prompt Oppen’s fourth poetry collection, Of Being Numerous (1968). It’s a work also recently used as a prompt for American poet Jennifer Moxley’s There Are Things We Live Among: Essays on the Object World (Chicago IL: Flood Editions, 2012) [see my review of such here], both works engaging in direct conversation about how one is supposed to, while citing so much that resonates from recent and far-flung histories, negotiate through the contemporary. As Derksen suggests through opening his title poem with a quote by Oppen (“Not to reduce the thing to nothing –“), his is not to reduce but to mark, motion and expand in the best possible way, and yet, in the smallest possible space.
“Wages against Housework,” Revolution at Point Zero
(The magic words:
“Yes, darling, you are a real woman”)
“Yes, darling, you are a real woman”)
(which are relations of loneliness)
(but to work in a factory is already a defeat)
(Until recently airline stewardesses in the United States
were periodically weighed
and had to be constantly on a diet
– a torture that all women know –
for fear of being laid off)
(by ourselves, in groups)
(i.e., to serve them)
(capital has disciplined them through us)
and us through them –
each other, against each other)
Through his previous poetry collections Until (1987), Down Time (Talonbooks, 1989), Dwell (Talonbooks, 1994) and Transnational Muscle Cars (Talonbooks, 2003), Derksen has been composing poems critiquing globalization and neoliberalism via language poetry throughout his published work. As Vancouver writer and critic Clint Burnham wrote of Derksen’s work in a piece posted on the Globe and Mail books blog (April 26, 2010):
Key here are his strategies of disjunction, the productive reader, and (what I call in my forthcoming book on the KSW), social collage. That is, Derksen’s poems are not expressions of a lyric ego, and neither are they reflections of a static world. Rather, they are interventions into that world, constructions of texts that rely on the reader to produce meaning, that rely on a gap between lines and meanings, and that collage various registers of discourse, from literature to economics, into an unstable whole.
And as his title Transnational Muscle Cars (2003) demonstrates, Derksen is as concerned with class and its signifiers as with neoliberalism and contemporary social theory. Derksen’s poetry works at the level of the sentence: each one perfectly clear, with a subtle ironic twang, but together forming a text of unsettling perspicacity, one in the reading of which we become aware of a new social relation, where the productive reader, no longer just the passive consumer of romantic lyrics, participates in the contestation of meanings and utopian possibilities.
As the back cover of The Vestiges suggests, he very much works in the book-length form of collage, splicing and striking numerous connections across a very wide scope, and pushes hard a series of very troubling questions about how and why the world continues to exist as it does, pushing so many self-destructive small-minded defeats, one after another. Is this, “The Vestiges,” as Derksen suggests, all that remains? “Where things were one made / when an hour was material, at // hand, demands / for what you never had [.]”