JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
“Either Way I’m Celebrating” from Either Way I’m Celebrating by Sommer Browning
(Birds LLC, Austin, Minneapolis, New York, Raleigh, 2011)
Either Way I’m Celebrating
They’re saying irony is dead.
And for a few minutes I thought
I might die too – a woman
who would buy a fifth of liquor
and a pregnancy test just to see
the look on the clerk’s face.
It’s always strange to be born
before the cusp of some new age,
hanging onto nothing as if it were
Los Angeles. I remember glaring
through the windshield of the family
Pacer, watching a thirty-foot man
crack jokes on the screen.
My parents were laughing,
but I didn’t get the way something
huge and astonishing could be flat,
could not exist at all.
Is it ever possible to read a poem “in isolation”, so to speak, as if it isn’t part of a greater whole? That greater whole being the location it’s found in, whether a webzine, a book, a room; the author’s life; the reader’s life; the world at the moment of writing or reading; everything anyone might ever feel or know.
I’m supposed to be reviewing “a” poem.
So. Do I admit to having opened to another page of this book, and to having found one of Browning’s comics, a one-panel drawing of a sandwich, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason being the meat, or the cheese, or the grilled veggies, or the tofu? Once I’ve seen that, how can it not enter into my reading of this (and every other) poem?
More broadly put, how can it not now enter into my every life experience from now on?
So admit it I will. I will admit that I don’t know how to do that well-wrought urn thing. I will simply bring myself into a state of response-ability, and read and respond to this poem.
Oddly enough, though I didn’t realize it when I chose this poem (I chose it for the title, which I love, and which reminds me of a line by Stacy Doris, who is on my mind at the time of this writing: “Not knowing how to get to the next minute is a festival”),
“Either Way I’m Celebrating” deals with this issue (that “reading” (and the living said reading entails) is an act of “response-ability”).
“They’re saying irony is dead.” I read the first sentence as referring to a literary situation – which is at least somewhat true, in the historical sense. There is something called “The New Sincerity”, for example. I suppose it’s a tiredness with “postmodernism” and a wish to return to a solid (or solidish) ground. I’m reminded of the “return to classicism” after WW1. Just last year, The Guggenheim (NY and Bilbao) had an exhibit on it called Chaos and Classicism. This search for solidish ground is not unique to the arts, however. It’s one reason for the return to religion we’ve seen over the last 30 years or so. It’s what gives rise to “the new authoritarianism” around the world (which was, of course, given its openings with 9/11 and the crash of 07/8.
“And for a few minutes I thought / / I might die too – a woman / who would buy a fifth of liquor / and a pregnancy test just to see / the look on the clerk’s face.” These next lines reveal that Browning says no, in fact, not only does she say no, she says, impossible. Writing (and living) is a performance (think Judith Butler here). Once one knows that one is performing, a certain irony is inevitable. And (this is where the Kant sandwich comes in) with that knowledge and irony, the whole Kantian Enlightenment comes crashing down. Admittedly, it’s in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals rather than in the first critique that we find the categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Nevertheless, there can be no universal law in a basically ungrounded ironic world. Browning, “a woman / who would buy a fifth of liquor / and a pregnancy test just to see / the look on the clerk’s face”, clearly rejects the Kantian worldview.
Why? She explains: “It’s always strange to be born / before the cusp of some new age, / hanging onto nothing as if it were / / Los Angeles.” She rejects it because it simply isn’t possible – now. Here she reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, before whom our wreckage is piling up and up and up, and who is unable to stop it. It’s almost as if Browning believes that to behave unironically, as if we had something rather than nothing to hang on to, would be to surrender, to betray, her “weak messianic power”, and that her ironic performativity is a kind of fidelity …
“ … hanging onto nothing as if it were / / Los Angeles”, can be read two ways (by me, at least). First, as a person who has lived in SoCal since 1960, I get the joke: everything in the world is here, but where is it? I always think that LA is what dystopic dreams are made of, in the first world, at least. But, more than that, Browning is from LA (Venice, apparently), therefore the lines could mean “hanging onto nothing as if it were the past.” Speaking of the past, the rest of the poem takes us there:
“I remember glaring / through the windshield of the family / Pacer, watching a thirty-foot man / crack jokes on the screen.” Several things. First, “glaring”: is she glaring as if a reflection of the glare of the screen, or is she glaring in anger? If the latter, why anger? There’s a little class thing going, with the Pacer (certainly not your West LA car of choice, where anything less than a 7 Series BMW is trash). But I don’t think class is the issue here.
“My parents were laughing, / but I didn’t get the way something / huge and astonishing could be flat, / could not exist at all.” I think the anger is that of someone realizing that it’s all a simulacrum, and that her parent’s don’t seem to get it. What a betrayal! As Bill and Ted said, when they first went to hell, “Dude, we were totally lied to by our album covers!” Which might explain the frisson she gets by performing the way she does in front of the store clerk (a little bit hostile). Browning (or her narrator – I don’t distinguish here) was postmodern as a child. There was never a choice in the matter. There was never any ground.
But then I remember the title. “Either Way I’m Celebrating”. The might glare a little, but the post-Kantian simulacrum is not a total bringdown. It’s still possible to enjoy one’s performative self. (While the performance for the clerk might be a little hostile, it’s probably hella fun as well). And I recall the late great Stacy Doris line as well: “Not knowing how to get to the next minute is a festival.”
[Editor’s Note: This is one of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days. While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another. So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review. To wit: NEXT. And an Afterword on John's reading process is also available HERE!]
John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means "important to him". Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.