The Totality for Kids
Joshua Clover

University of California Press, $16.95 (paper)

Perhaps because they have proved so indomitable, the gears and glitches of industrial society have long been favorite targets of modern poets. Ezra Pound scorned the provincialism of the British and American bourgeoisie. Allen Ginsberg mourned the friends devoured by the military-industrial complex of postwar America, inspiring many lesser talents to decry the narrow comforts of consumerism, themselves narrow and comfortable targets. While it is not difficult to think of contemporary poets whose spirit of defiance rivals Ginsberg’s or Pound’s, few have expressed it as puckishly as Joshua Clover did a decade ago in his debut volume, Madonna anno domini.

The first poem, “The Nevada Glassworks,” sets the tone. It pits the creative destruction of atomic America, epitomized by the Nevada Test Site, against the play of the postwar generation, embodied by Clover’s mother imagined as a California teen. But Clover doesn’t put it in such a drab way:

Ka-Boom! They’re making glass in Nevada!
Figure August, 1953,
mom’s 13, it’s hot as a simile.
Ker-Pow! Transmutation in Nevada!
Imagine mom: pre-postModern new teen,
innocent for Elvis, ditto “Korean
conflict,” John Paul George Ringo Viet Nam.
Mom’s one state west of the glassworks, she’s
in a tree / K*I*S*S*I*N*G,
lurid cartoon-colored kisses. Ka-Blam!

The poems of Madonna anno domini are kaleidoscopic, containing a rich spectrum of forms and allusions which, as they tumble from poem to poem, resolve into the same image: a collision between destructive excess and fine excess, between the forces of annihilation and those of play and exuberance, between Ka-Boom and Ka-Blam.

The clash of Ka-Boom and Ka-Blam is also the central drama of Clover’s long-awaited new book, The Totality for Kids, and it unfolds in poems with less hectic tones and a more refined style. Ka-Boom is global capitalism, a repressive totality that makes all experience liquid. “Taking advantage of the exchange rate I have acquired a certain afternoon in 1953 / Though it meant selling the rights to the word peignoir / And the neighborhood where you first heard it,” Clover writes in “The Other Atelier.” Ka-Blam is whatever endeavors not only to chart totality but outwit it. It is a fine excess, and Exhibit A is Totality itself. Gone are the languid notes that clotted Madonna anno domini, as in these lines from “Bathtub Panopticon”: “I listened to Cortez, the atonal opéra mécanique, / you could spend a siècle waiting for it to begin, / cancel every date, another siècle before the fin.” Instead, lines are taut and images crisp: “An old woman carries a bale of lilies down the street, each a white burn on a green fuse.” Clover offers his own bundle of forms, including prose poems, free-verse sonnets, Ashberian Tilt-A-Whirl lyrics, Palmeresque monostichs and a calligramme (of either the sun or a street grid’s étoile). Clover coins several nifty neologisms—celesticons, noircotic, lacklustrine—and he has even supplied an index, which while excessive—after all, only collected or selected poems usually get one—is not quite as fine as it could be. It tabulates key names and notions, but oddly enough not the titles of poems. The index of Marianne Moore’s Observations, the only other indexed volume of poems I know of, does that and much else, creating a rich map of subterranean connections.

Still, Clover’s index is useful as a Baedeker to Totality. Clover tracks the flow of people and sensations through cities, but instead of describing the cities themselves in a Flaubertian manner (as, say, Anne Winters does in The Key to the City and The Displaced of Capital) he invokes place primarily through citations. “We are bored in the city, there is no longer any temple of the sun!” begins “Poem,” borrowing a sentence from Ivan Chtcheglov’s “Formulary for a New Urbanism.” Chtcheglov’s 1953 text was inspirational for Guy Debord and his collaborator Raoul Vaneigem, and it is after Vaneigem’s tract “Banalités de base,” which its translators rendered into English as “The Totality for Kids,” that Clover has titled his book. As its index reveals, Totality is studded with quotes from and allusions to the writings of Chtcheglov, Debord, and Vaneigem, as well as those of their guiding spirit, Walter Benjamin. Clover’s principal metropolis is not just Paris but Situationist Paris. The “brief capital of disturbances,” a city of glistening commerce streaming through Haussmann’s grid, it is a zone waiting to be organized anew by psychogeographic maps and the fl��neur’s magnetizing drift.

Such renewal seems unattainable, however, since what most preoccupies Clover in Totality is not potential change but inertia. Urban meanderings end in cul-de-sacs of irresolution: “But what shall / We hope to see there? The marriage of the beautiful / And the trivial? / That the sky finally / Emptied of clouds must say a new thing?” Other poems are studies in deferral. “Auteur Theory,” Ü Kantine,” and “A Boy’s Own Story” all begin with an identical phrase, “And then at the last second,” followed by a recombination of the same 19 clauses, all of which begin with either “before,” “ during,” or “under.” Similarly, a sense of paralysis pervades the concluding lines of the book’s final poem, “At the Atelier Teleology”: “Et in arcadia ego, we walk in the garden of his turbulence, Et in arcadia ego, we are in a station of the metro, we are lost in the editing of July, we too lived in arcades in arcades you will find us.” The phrase “we walk in the garden of his turbulence,” culled from Brain Helgeland’s goofy film A Knight’s Tale (2001), certainly lightens the mood. The line is spoken by Geoffrey Chaucer (played by Paul Bettany), and while it sounds mysterious its spell is broken by allusions to Ezra Pound’s and Erwin Panofsky’s modernist standards. We may live in arcades, but they are the tombs of avant-garde precepts. The scene is an impoverished pastoral. Clover seems to doubt that Chtcheglov’s utopian hacienda will ever be built. What’s the obstacle? Is the dead hand of the past, or the avaricious hand of the present, too strong?

* * *

In an essay about the poetry of Lisa Robertson recently published in the Chicago Review, Clover discusses Robinson’s fascination with the relationship between architecture and transience, claiming that “all built things will betray their origins—or, in Robertson’s terms, never arrive at the design. But they won’t all do so equally. The artist . . . can struggle against this fatality, willfully, negatively.” Taken to its logical conclusion, such a struggle safeguards art by preventing it from existing at all. Art might be defended from the impurities of modern life, William Gass has written, “if painters refused to show, composers and poets to publish, and every dance were designed to be danced in the dark. That would be a worthy no. But it will never be uttered.” Clover, in fact, does utter a no of sorts: “the original concept, ‘the design’ or the undamaged life, can’t be represented,” he writes, since “the finished work of art is the death-mask of its conception.” But he doesn’t call it a day: “what can be expressed is the distance between there and here, between autonomy and ‘the administered world.’”

That proposition is also a recurring conceit of Totality. With a nod to the Situationists, Clover stages confrontations between himself and a stifling city. In “Aporia,” he pokes fun at the vacancies of the suburbs: “Peoria! With your unshaven boys / Smooching on the street corners or talking / On the phone while skating headlong into / Tourists who throng the ghosty avenues / Of Peoria!” “ So I went out into the nervous system of the air,” Clover writes elsewhere in the book, “Into the brutal red dream / Of the collective—humming there behind the parade / Of the ideal citizen—in which I took my place // Saint of the negative in my velvet suit.”

The audacity of these lines is typical of Totality, and beneath its fine velvet nap lies a knotty predicament. How can Clover claim autonomy for the activities of the artist while also insisting on the pervasiveness of the culture of Ka-Boom? If art were autonomous, its autonomy would prevent it from realizing its dreams in a world beyond art, a world where every town is a Peoria, every Peoria an aporia. “The imagination resembles nothing so much as a salon for special expositions in a museum closed because it’s the first of May,” Clover writes in “For the Little Soldier.” At best, there is always an unresolved tension between art and the administered world that shapes it. And for Clover, the inertia created by that tension has at least as much to do with the intrinsic untrustworthiness of representation, its inescapable death-mask, as with the depredations of global capitalism. Does the autonomy of art, then, lie in its uselessness, in the aura of what it can’t ever represent?

What does seem clear is that in the shadow of totality, Totality is a diminished thing, as well as a retreat from the ambitions of Madonna anno domini. “While I / Abroad through all the coasts of dark destruction seek / Deliverance for us all, think in that language: its / Grammar, though tortured, offers pavilions / At each new parting of the ways.” These lines are from John Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” and they propose, by way of a semi-ironic invocation of John Milton’s Satan, a strategy for surviving the shocks and indignities of modern life. Such pavilions crop up throughout Madonna anno domini, and their often hallucinatory and perplexing perspectives belong to dazed speakers reacting to a debased world. In “Radiant City,” the fires set in Los Angeles during the riots that followed Rodney King’s beating become “1700 infrared // poppies blooming in the over- / head footage of south central.” In “Totenbuch,” an unidentified observer describes the delousing of a woman in a concentration camp: “Across the tracks her scalp took on the feel / of a cigarette foil’s papered side.”

In Totality, instead of pavilions there are diversions. “Of course there are many systems to put those dreams there inside her amphitheatrical skull operated by people known as affect workers like you and me and Drew Barrymore. We help people feel certain ways and are paid a living wage plus the little bit extra called the hook or the sting—a small but pleasant feeling like a tiny holographic version of meeting the president,” Clover writes in “For the Little Soldier.” The gentle irony of the last clause can’t distract from the fact that for all their Situationist élan, the dream systems of Totality are bleak. The book contains several fine ones, among them “No More Boffins” and “At the Atelier Teleology,” as well as some grimly clever remarks, such as “The most awful thing / About the phrase ‘Every Germinal must have its Thermidor’ / Is that one never gets to say so anymore / And really mean it.” These lines are emblematic of the book’s realm of diminished expectations, where brio fails to offer pavilions. After all, Clover does get to say “Every Germinal must have its Thermidor,” but in a manner that makes the phrase sound pleasant and small. The lines that resonate the most, crystallizing not only the experience of reading Totality but also the ambivalence and dejection at its core, are the ones that close “Poem (We always send it to the wrong address)”: “Meanwhile but I am happy / To see you! It’s enough but not of anything.”