Symposium Introduction

In the late Sean Bonney’s prose-poem nightmare “What Teargas Is For,” you are invited into a hissing cloud of teargas. Bonney is interested in both the physiological and the epistemological effects of this noxious substance—how it drowns the senses in excruciating pain and, for a while, evacuates all possibility of knowing the world. He explicitly compares a cloud of teargas, strangely enough (or not), to The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous medieval mystical tract in the apophatic tradition of negative theology: “In the center of that pain is a small and silent point of absolute Unknowing. It is that Unknowing that the cops—and by extension Charles Windsor—call knowledge. They want it. They’ve got scalpels if necessary but teargas is cleaner.”1

But this poem does not only dwell at the violently compressed conjuncture of riot and mysticism; Bonney backs out of this cloud to litter several concrete details about teargas—the name of a major teargas supplier, a “security solutions” company called the Westminster Group; its share of the market; its corporate board members; its connections with the British royal family. The haunting effect of the piece is that the more details we learn about the manufacture and distribution of teargas—economic and political details that should be demystifying when brought into the painfully bright lucidity of day—the deeper into unknowability and obscurity we tread. The last word of the poem, desperately, is “know.”

The unsettling dialectic of knowledge and unknowing probed in Bonney’s reverie is intimately related to the crux of Anahid Nersessian’s recent book The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life, the occasion of this symposium. Nersessian takes up the manifold pressures exerted upon poetry and visual art by the essential condition of unknowability in capitalist modernity: the condition of being wrapped up in huge structures of coercion, domination, and destruction whose contours and causes we can only faintly descry. If her first book, Utopia, Limited, limned a Romanticism “predicated on dispossession” in adjusting to the limits of the possible,2 The Calamity Form moves from unowning to unknowing in its exploration of the limits of the knowable. In dialogue with Geoffrey Hartman’s work on Romanticism and trauma, she calls this unknowing condition “nescience.” The book builds an analytic of nescience alongside a particular attention to the poetic utterances elicited in Romantic poets by this shattered sense of incommensurability between world and representable experience. For the poets in question, nescience is a strange, sometimes attenuated, sometimes opulently maladroit state provoked above all by “industrialization’s trauma, which, like all traumas, is an experience of phenomenological discontinuity, of the everyday match between what is felt, what is known, and what is actually true gone to irretrievable pieces” (3).

In chapters that range from Hölderlin and Cowper’s visionary paratactic stammerings, to Wordsworth’s and Keats’s intricate evasions, to the null revelations of Romantic painter John Constable’s cloud studies—clouds of unknowing, if ever there were any—The Calamity Form returns to the Romantic era’s dazed encounter with the early onslaught of the Industrial Revolution and the consolidated reign of the commodity form, in order to reimagine this much-imagined literary period afresh. The book’s title is intended to rhyme with Marx’s “the commodity form,” and the disjunctive overlay between the two forms occasions the work’s dazzling explorations of poetic form, which are cast under the rubric of “figure.” For Nersessian, “figures are structural devices that create disorder,” and thus refuse to absorb or represent the world in any linear or causally transparent way; figures perforate any presumption of worldly coherence by opening up “site[s] of misalignment” (15; 18). The main point is not how poems might obscure the material causes of exploitation, suffering, environmental degradation, etc. (though they might), but instead how they offer unique modes of encountering the already obscured, inverted world we live in. Here Romantic poetry’s capable negativity enrolls a repertoire of tools—figures like parataxis, catachresis, obscurity, apostrophe—that, rather than resolving the blockages or “clots in sense” (Halpern) constitutive of modern life, allow us to inhabit, to reframe, to tarry with, and even—not unambivalently—to enjoy them. Some of most beautiful moments of the book take these slivers of delight and alchemize their friction to conjure glimpses of inactually existing communism around the edges of the capitalist world’s stultifying darkness, as when Keats aims at “recapturing the senses for blissfully impersonal purposes” and sees eroticism as “hallucinat[ing] a communist form of work” (115; 121).

I like to hear in nescience not just a negation of knowledge but a practiced knowledge of negation, a nay-science, a furtive gnosis of the no; here it might greet abolition (an affiliation hinted throughout and coiled in the book’s final sentence). And it is here where, as in the central void of Bonney’s cloud of teargas, unknowing might coincide with another knowledge, dissolving this world and hallucinating another one. In this way, the poem offers a dream of cloudbusting, in the words of Kate Bush (one of the book’s confessed heroes). The lyrics of this tragic and exuberant track “Cloudbusting,” while skewing toward a distressed optimism not quite fitting for The Calamity Form’s more melancholy tonality, offer their own late-Romantic twist on the relation between knowledge, unknowing, and language:

Ooh I just know that something good is going to happen

And I don’t know when

But just saying it could even make it happen.

Over the book’s four compact chapters, Nersessian pursues the calamity form, sounding, with almost apophatic verve, its negative-theological niceties. The titular calamity encompasses both the element of real destruction (inclusive of, but not reducible to, environmental disaster wrought by capitalism) and an exquisitely frustrated poetics, one affectively bound up in “calamity’s unique structure of feeling” (4). Calamity is where we live, an ambient, cirrous realm of occulted accumulation and exhausted life. Perhaps we could say: that things are “status quo” is the calamity.

With its perspicacious close readings and a host of acute critical engagements with various theoretical traditions (Marxism, deconstruction, eco-criticism, rhetoric, analytic philosophy, and more), The Calamity Form charts a way forward for understanding Romantic poetry’s twinned desire to summon communal life and to confront what makes community so nearly impossible under capitalism. But it does much more than this. Although English Romanticism, with its peculiar historical perch, provides the book’s main case studies, Nersessian often veers into an eclectically arrayed archive of post-Romantic currents and contemporary art. Such constellations with the present remind us that the Romantics’ era is also “not not-ours,” as she puts it (45); they help us see the deep Cimmerian darkness of the present with differently charged, perhaps recaptured, senses.

It is very much worth adding that The Calamity Form is a sumptuous pleasure to read. Nersessian writes in a singular style, and with the deft and generous intellect that is also on display in her dialogue with the four outstanding interlocutors assembled in this symposium. All four approach the book with rigorous care, and from productively disparate angles. First, Margaret Ronda queries the relation of Nersessian’s interest in a “long Romantic mode” to the tradition of Marxist literary criticism that is part of the book’s oblique inheritance. Adducing poems by John Ashbery and Langston Hughes to reorient the question of commodity and calamity, Ronda’s response allows some of the more submerged interventions in The Calamity Form to surface.

Next, Tyler Harper zeroes in on The Calamity Form’s recourse to analytic philosophy and the philosophy of science to bring the thought of Wilfrid Sellars into dialogue with the book’s central concerns. Harper asks how Sellars’s insistence on the necessary gap between the scientific image and the manifest image of the world might map onto Romantic poetry’s murky adventures in nescience. Harper wonders about the place of phenomenology in The Calamity Form’s critical project, while complicating Nersessian’s characterization of eco-criticism, especially around the question of ecological catastrophe. In raising the specter of Romanticism’s apocalyptic imagination via Byron’s iconic, terrifying vision “Darkness,” he elicits a wonderful exchange on this poem.

Erica McAlpine focuses her response around live questions of judgment, evaluation, and pleasure in literary criticism, issues at the heart of the critical enterprise. An exchange on Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy” leads from the metaphysics, semantics, poetics, and erotics of grape-bursting to thoughtful ruminations from both writers on the variously entangled intellectual, personal, political, aesthetic, and affective investments of reading and teaching literature. Facing up to “the problem of judgment’s seemingly inherent conservatism,” McAlpine keenly asks, “what would a criticism that took up badness and goodness as criteria look like at this moment in literary studies?”

Finally, Rob Halpern’s response, drawn from the postscript to his recent volume of poetry Hieroglyphs of the Inverted World (Kenning Editions, 2021), foregrounds his own poetic practice in a dialogue with The Calamity Form and its orbit of concerns. Taking up the problem of poetic (un)knowing, Halpern’s intense interrogation begins by asking: “But as it, too, flickers and refracts, can my poem’s burnished amber show me something I don’t think I already know about the present?” Weaving engagements with Nersessian in and out of a meditation that broaches Marx and Hall on ideology, Césaire and Lorde on poetic knowledge, and poetry’s own fraught spirals of self-convicting complicity, self-renunciation, and uncanny imaginative beckoning, Halpern’s response turns Nersessian’s own reply toward questions of love, revolution, and half-forgotten radical pasts.

Halpern has also offered a stunning poem from his new volume to conclude his contribution, a tribute and homage to Sean Bonney that also engages the impossible and necessary questions raised in his prose response. Halpern’s poem imagines another poem outside of its knowledge, one that might augur an Atlantis of free and common life under the rising oceans of violence that every present poem swims within:

As if a poem could announce what will have been here

The way a star lodged in the gut of Cerberus might fall

From its orbit to bring us intel from the future whose origin

Coincides with some Atlantean place of new life no longer

Trapped in the cycle of accumulation & extinction

  1. Sean Bonney, Our Death (Oakland: Commune Editions, 2019), 73. The publisher has made a free pdf available:

  2. Anahid Nersessian, Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 73.

Margaret Ronda


In Doing So Be Undone

Reading Anahid Nersessian’s luminous and arresting work of poetics, The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life, I found myself recalling lines from John Ashbery’s apophatic ars poetica from his 1977 Houseboat Days, “And Ut Pictura Poesis Was Her Name.” Ashbery opens the poem by declaring: “You can’t say it that way any more.” Like the earth lopped from Constable’s cloud paintings in Nersessian’s chapter on apostrophe, Ashbery’s declaration gestures toward what it abjures, directs attention to occluded ground. What cannot be uttered, what is impermissible that the poem nonetheless conjures in its absence? What is it, in turn, about this now that makes this old way of saying unsayable? The poem ends with these bravura lines:

The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind

Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate

Something between breaths, if only for the sake

Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you

For other centers of communication, so that understanding

May begin, and in doing so be undone.

In its turning motions, its glimpse of social longing as a desire to express “something between breaths,” its light play with images of emptiness and fullness, Ashbery’s poem embodies a form of the poetics so beautifully evoked in The Calamity Form. These lines articulate their own presence as a space through which some uncommunicable truth moves, where understanding enters and is gently undone, a poetic space that Nersessian’s book dilates and tarries with across its pages. As Nersessian writes in her chapter on forms of obscurity in Wordsworth, such work “wants to make the insubstantiality of difficult experience and the compromised consciousness we have of it palpable” (85). Reading Ashbery by way of Nersessian, I apprehend with new force its particular way of “telling you what it is to know nothing” and its existence within a broader horizon of poems characterized by this quality of poetic nescience.

Ashbery’s poem marks a recent instance of the long Romantic mode that Nersessian charts in The Calamity Form. This poetics, emerging alongside the new productive relations of industrial capitalism, endures into our present as a mode acutely responsive to the challenges of consciousness and comprehension that characterize this system’s total workings. The Calamity Form examines the complex repertoire that poets and artists develop to convey the uncommunicability of this real and the affective and perceptual responses that this uncommunicability elicits. Turning to what she calls the “intransitive” being of figure across a series of poetic texts from the Romantic era and more recent aesthetic artifacts, Nersessian argues that “their organizing presence in a work of literary or visual art corrals that work into their own oblique mode of representation” (12). Nersessian undertakes a series of virtuosic readings that illuminate the oblique, refractory qualities of figure as an index of historical cognizance. The Calamity Form’s experimental method coordinates literary analysis with its objects to find an approach adequate to their particular figurative register. The figures she devotes time to across these chapters are thus not described so much as critically animated through her interpretive engagement. Nersessian’s critical orientation is dazzlingly kinesthetic: it “sidl[es] close,” turns, leaps, halts, compresses, swerves. Arranging its materials in startling, vivid array, the study develops a paratactical approach akin to Jarman’s seaside garden by the nuclear plant.

The work of Theodor Adorno and Geoffrey Hartman serves as central inspiration for Nersessian’s approach across The Calamity Form. Adorno’s attention to the negative aesthetics of damaged life finds sustained correspondence in Nersessian’s readings. If his Minima Moralia serves as ground note for the general sensibility of this study, his essay “Parataxis,” which develops a paratactical reading method via a reading of Hölderlin’s poetry contra Heidegger, elaborates a model that Nersessian’s own readings extend and redirect across the study. Hartman’s 1995 essay, “On Traumatic Knowledge and Literary Studies,” which considers how the insights of trauma theory can generate new approaches to literary interpretation via a turn to the “nescience” of “traumatic knowledge,” is another key source here. Approaching the signs of trauma in a text as that which eludes full comprehension or knowability, the interpreter’s task is not to “attempt a definitive judgment or evaluation” but instead to “disclos[e] an unconscious or not-knowing knowledge,” Hartman argues (544). Hartman’s framings of a literary nescience bearing signs of undisclosable trauma, and of the interpreter as one who listens for these signs rather than working to “expose” or demystify them, resonate in Nersessian’s characterizations of the task of the critic who takes close, inductive measure of the poetics of calamity through the divagations of figure.

To note, however, the guiding presence of these figures in The Calamity Form is necessarily to take account of the essential divergences in her approach. Both Hartman and Adorno’s work is situated within and creatively expands upon key philosophical traditions at the heart of literary-critical inquiry: psychoanalysis and historical materialist analysis, respectively. Their key concepts, methods of analysis, and horizons of interpretive meaning find their essential salience within these hermeneutical situations. Nersessian, by contrast, develops an approach that explicitly resists such situating, whether in relation to theoretical traditions or particular historical contexts, in order to attend to the irreducibly distinctive operations of the literary texts under investigation. She writes that the poetry she is examining does not “claim to be able to assemble a causal network of actors and events capable of being translated into a predictive theory. This is a strike neither against poetry nor against theory. It is just a glance across the distance that exists between them, and a hint that criticism (whatever its aspirations) ought to be responsive and responsible to that distance” (6). Nersessian’s argument pointedly refuses to read poems as “evidence” in any regard—and therein lies, perhaps, her departure from psychoanalytic perspectives that would regard poetry as testimony, however indirect. She wants to develop a brief for literary criticism’s work as relatively autonomous of contextualizing or evidentiary frameworks, whether theoretical or historicist.

This critical feature of The Calamity Form comes to the fore most complexly in Nersessian’s engagement with historical materialism. Nersessian opens the book by asserting that it will explore the “limits of historical materialism for literary study” (1). Nersessian lays out a certain critique of Marxist literary hermeneutics, indicating that the dialectical imperatives and causal accounts central to Marxist hermeneutics operate in a different register than the specific work of poetics, imposing strong readings that overlook the open-ended and elusive matter of figure that a more immanent approach can address. Part of the issue, Nersessian suggests, is that Marxist readings have tended to emphasize narrative both in terms of their interpretive objects and in their broader historical plot arcs, whereas she discerns in the poetry of capital’s calamity an eerie cutting loose of the present from past and future alike and a refusal of the teleologies of narrative.

Yet many of the formidable resources of Marxist aesthetic and literary interpretation seem very much at play in Nersessian’s arguments, if sometimes operating in buried or indirect fashion. Her critique of literary empiricism, for instance, takes its place within longer dialogues within Marxist criticism surrounding reflection theory and the politics of aesthetic form. Her elaboration of nescience dovetails with complex conceptualizations of ideology critique, reification theory, totality, and mediation central to Marxist aesthetic analysis. Despite her critique of Adorno’s emphasis on dialectical reading in “Parataxis,” Nersessian’s readings often feel essentially dialectical in their operations. And of course the commodity and its social logics are the central framework through which Nersessian’s “calamity form” develops its resonance (about which more below). In certain sections—most notably the stunning chapter on Keats and catachresis—these materialist inheritances emerge more directly as intellectual infrastructure of the project.

Nersessian’s determined foregrounding of the limit of historical materialism to her study thus returns me, in another register, to that question of occluded ground that she so deftly highlights in her reading of Constable’s clouds, and that Ashbery’s opening prohibition points toward. She draws my attention, quite fixedly, to Marxist criticism—its practices, techniques, debates—as a determining but obscured presence throughout The Calamity Form. I wonder, then, about the nescience that the book stages with regards to its affiliations with historical materialist analysis, and about its imperative not to engage more directly with these traditions—or, alternatively, to develop a more fully elaborated critique of what she regards as materialism’s limits for literary analysis. Why might the work of Marxist scholars who have attended so carefully to the specifically non-narrative and non-teleological logics of literary form remain unavailable as a resource for approaching “calamity form”? Why might the remarkably rich and supple repertoire of concepts that Marxist literary scholarship has developed precisely to explore the problems of representing the real—what Jameson calls the materialist “study of Darstellung”—that The Calamity Form pursues fundamentally insufficient for its analysis? “You can’t say it that way any more,” Nersessian seems to say. And yet the study enacts a more complex, ambivalent, and active relationship to this genealogy than such an assertion of limit would indicate. I wanted to understand the coordinates of this ambivalent relationship more fully.

These questions extend to the governing analogy of “calamity form” and “commodity form.” Nersessian sets these concepts alongside each other, thereby raising a series of questions about their shared properties and points of divergence. The calamity form, like the commodity form, “names a disfigurement that is at once sensual and cognitive: it effects changes in how we, as embodied beings, experience the material world, and it also makes those changes hard to grasp in explicative, let alone actionable, terms,” Nersessian asserts (4). Yet if the commodity form is the primary element of capitalist economic relations, expressive of its fundamental operations and social logics, Nersessian’s calamity form bears quite different proportions, both broader and more narrow: it is “both the Industrial Revolution and a poetics awkwardly responsive to or co-operative with it, working alongside though not necessarily in cahoots” (4). As defined in this way—as at once transformative historical condition and its coterminous poetic field of response—the calamity form as a concept emerges as decidedly heterogeneous to the appearance and logics of the commodity form within capitalism. I found myself puzzling over the extent of their mutual illumination and the directional force of the structural analogy Nersessian sets forth. To what extent does calamity offer a redescription or new turn to the commodity concept? How might the commodity form’s particular properties and itineraries find analogous dimensions in the calamity form? Might “disaster”—as event or as more temporally extended social texture—offer a way to understand the mysteries of commodification, at another level? How might we read the forms of “social life” that the calamity form makes manifest in relation to the social form of the commodity (that is, the relations it contains and simultaneously obscures)?

I’ve mentioned Ashbery’s poem as one that offered, for me, a new conjugation of Nersessian’s powerful argument. Another poem that preoccupied my thoughts while reading The Calamity Form was Langston Hughes’s 1925 poem, “Johannesburg Mines.” Here’s the whole poem:

In the Johannesburg mines

There are 240,000

Native Africans working.

What kind of poem

Would you

Make out of that?

240,000 natives

Working in the

Johannesburg mines.

The figure that Hughes employs in this poem is antimetabole, or repetition via reversal (here, of the opening and closing lines)—a syntactical “turning about.” In the poem’s turnings, the key polemical question that Nersessian poses—“What’s the point of reading a poem as a record of verifiable social and historical processes?”—is staged and worked through, in Hughes’s case through a meditation on the compositional rather than the interpretive act. Hughes identifies a fundamental divergence between the “verifiable” facts of capitalism’s operations and the form of being that is a poem. Hughes asks, “What kind of poem” could emerge from a bare reckoning with the calamitous everyday of extractive capitalism, its fully globalized modes of racialized exploitation and environmental plunder? What’s the point of making a poem that offers this kind of record, and what sort of poem would it be? The poem lays out these questions and answers them through the figuring of its presence, a figuration that hinges on the turn and return to elemental social facts: the site of production, the workers, their labor. Through its figurative reversal, it could be said to negate its own negation, bearing the awareness of the “strange fit” (following Barbara Johnson) of poem and historical knowledge while refusing to regard this relational unconformity as poetic limit. What kind of poem? One wherein the figurative resources of the poem are vigilantly deployed to illuminate the hard social fact as something more than empirical detail, Hughes answers. Reading Hughes’s (certainly non-Romantic) poem in the charged light of Nersessian’s thinking, I glimpse a different opening on poetic nescience, or a new turn, perhaps, of the ways poems can apprehend the forms capitalist calamity takes.

It is one small measure of the force of The Calamity Form that it leads me back to key poems to approach them anew. More importantly, this exhilarating study returns me to the most essential, challenging interpretive questions for the study of poetry, about the work of figure, the conditional qualities of representation, the relay between a poem and its historical present.

  • Anahid Nersessian

    Anahid Nersessian


    Response to Ronda

    The Calamity Form is a grieving book. For starters it’s dedicated to a friend who died while I was writing it. But the book is marked, too, by more metaphorical losses, bereavements, debts, and damages. It was meant to be a work of ecocriticism that treated some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poems as early documents of the Anthropocene. It was meant to engage more directly with theories of class formation during the Industrial Revolution, to use the work of E. P. Thompson, Carolyn Steedman, Cedric Robinson, and John Barrell to steer its own path toward a critique of political economy in the context of what Marx called metabolic rift. Ultimately, though, the book I wanted to write became impossible, and so—like Wordsworth with his Prelude—I wrote a book about the impossibility of writing.

    It’s thanks to Margaret Ronda that I’m able to understand this failure as a feature and not a bug of doing literary scholarship (or, really, anything) in the face of climate apocalypse. In her 2013 essay “Mourning and Melancholia in the Anthropocene,” Ronda gently chastises much of contemporary ecocritical writing for its “essentially observational and mimetic ethos,” since “the more radical idea of nature’s end demands an emphasis on what is not, on the negative workings of creative imagination in light of a concept’s withering-away.” Work like Ronda’s meets this demand, its “negative, indebted, elegiac” mood a form of mimesis “necessitated by global ecological crisis.”1 This is the kind of work I wound up wanting to do in The Calamity Form. The book doesn’t aspire to policy-making or even to historical analysis, but instead asks why policy and history so often fall out of poetry even when individual poets, and individual poems, claim to be intervening on exactly those fronts. Or, as Ronda puts it, I was interested, here, in “the oblique, refractory qualities of [poetic] figure as an index of historical cognizance.”

    On the subject of mourning and melancholia, Freud’s famous essay raises the possibility that it is much harder to lose people about whom we have ambivalent feelings—an absent or abusive parent, say, as opposed to a stable and loving one. If you asked me before I had read Ronda’s response if I has this sort of difficult bond with “historical materialist analysis” I probably would have said no. But what Ronda, in her characteristically generous and patient response, helps me see is something the book acknowledges only slantwise, through its own melancholic attitude: that it is, in part, the record of a political persuasion finding itself at odds with an aesthetic one, and of the mixture of embarrassment, irritability, and sadness that accompanies that realization.

    Ronda rightly ties my unease about historical materialism as a literary-critical method to questions about narrative. Briefly, and as I say in the book’s introduction, I take historical materialism to be an explanation, which means a mode of analysis that puts things in a necessarily linear relation of cause and effect. Climate change doesn’t just happen, it happens because we burn too much fossil fuel, which happens because of the scale of production required for the profitability of capitalist enterprise. While it’s certainly true that there are “Marxist scholars who have attended . . . carefully to the specifically non-narrative and non-teleological logics of literary form”—most famously Theodor Adorno—I am not quite sure they have produced good Marxism, though they may have produced excellent literary criticism. I mean that in earnest: I am not quite sure, by which I don’t mean I don’t think but I believe it is a question worth asking, especially given the fact that, as Raymond Williams put it, “the concepts of literature and criticism” have since the eighteenth century serviced “a class specialization and control of a general social practice, and . . . a class limitation of the questions which it might raise.”2

    The authors that interest me in The Calamity Form want to be good materialists but end up just being good poets. This bothers them, and it bothers their poems. None of this, by the way, applies to all poetry, or all poetic traditions, or even all Romantic poets: John Clare is a first-rate theoretician of what Robinson calls “the objective conditions, rhythms, and patterns of the proletarianization of English labor.”3 What I wanted to do was inhabit that same tension but as a critic, which is to say, as a person who is responsible at once to the historical world and to the world of the poem. The poem by Langston Hughes that concludes Ronda’s discussion might be read as staging a clash, at once revelatory and despairing, between a critical position and an aesthetic one—or rather, in Ronda’s terms, as a “turning about” of the question of what poetry owes to truth. Hewn into angular, compact shape and oscillating from confrontation to reserve and back again, “Johannesburg Mines” traps us in its own self-reflexivity, in the unanswerable anguish of its place in a place like ours, where neither art nor labor are free.

    The heterogeneity vis-à-vis “the appearance and logics of the commodity form within capitalism” Ronda sees in my notion of the calamity form is meant to take a contradiction and mobilize it as an analytic concept. The thing about the commodity form is that it is both absolutely real and an absolute scam, both (in Ronda’s words) “the primary element of capitalist economic relations” and (in Marx’s) the means by which “the definite social relation between men . . . assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.”4 The poems and, in the case of the last chapter on Constable, paintings on which my book focuses try to unmask the facts of capital but can’t, because their own form likewise conceals a definite social relation, subtilizes, obscures, and disguises it; the closer they draw to the world, the more pronounced their dissimulation of it becomes. This is the calamity that sits on top of capital’s. As Hughes suggests, it is baked into the historical situation of poetry, and so poetry—especially poetry on the left, or poetry that is part of a specific radical genealogy—cannot be otherwise than calamitous. Understanding this problem doesn’t solve it, the way materialism can solve problems of causality or New Criticism can solve problems of structure. That’s what melancholy is, after all: being stuck in a crisis about which there’s nothing more to learn.

    1. Margaret Ronda, “Mourning and Melancholia in the Anthropocene,” Post45, June 2013, (last accessed September 16, 2021).

    2. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 49.

    3. Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 32.

    4. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), 165.

Tyler Austin Harper


Ecocatastrophe and Calamitous Inutility

Calling The Calamity Form a work of literary criticism about European Romanticism is a bit like calling Magritte’s The Treachery of Images a painting about a pipe or saying the Grateful Dead were a rock band—to do so isn’t wrong, exactly, but it also doesn’t quite convey the whole experience. Canonical works of Romantic poetry are here—and subjected to meticulous and often refreshingly off-kilter readings—but Nersessian seems just as interested in riffing on figures and topics rather far afield from Romanticism: the filmmaker Derek Jarman’s gardens, the philosopher John Dupré’s pluralistic ontology, the singer Kate Bush’s contemplations on clouds, the German humorist Willhelm Busch’s comically violent illustrations, Helen Mirra’s conceptual art. And it is in this same spirit of eclecticism that I would ask to be permitted my own non-Romantic digression as I respond to Nersessian’s work: throughout reading The Calamity Form, I found myself considering the author’s thought not only in the context of prior scholarship on anti-capitalist and/or “green” romanticisms—and it certainly offers a valuable contribution to these discourses—but also in relation to a less likely thought partner: the philosopher of science Wilfrid Sellars’s writings on epistemology.

In the roughest and readiest terms, Sellars argues that science has an ontological burden: its warrant is the Real. As he famously put this in his major work Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind: “in the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.”1 Science, in other words, is in the business of telling us what kinds of things are and how those things hang together. Of course, this is not a controversial or terribly unusual view of the mandate of scientific practice (even if folks in Science Studies might have good reason to quibble with it!). But where Sellars does depart from this orthodoxy is to insist that this “scientific image of the world”—whose mandate is really real reality itself—cannot be brought into accord with our everyday, common sense (in his parlance, “manifest”) image of the world.

That is, science does not provide us with a more granular, epistemically “higher resolution” picture of our everyday understanding of things. Rather, these images of the world are different in kind. Complete, lossless translation between the scientific image and the manifest image is impossible. Taking a physics class won’t help you ride a bike, and riding a bike won’t teach you very much about physics. The promise of a world picture in which scientific and everyday knowledge mesh into a cohesive whole is thus a fool’s errand, a bit of inverted epistemic alchemy that promises to turn the gold of scientific truth back into leaden common sense. Confronted with this irreconcilability, the way forward, per Sellars, is not to sink into epistemological despair, but to adopt a “stereoscopic” view of the world that accepts the permanent disjunction between the kind of knowledge that tells us how things really are and the kind of know-how that tells us how to do things, to get about town, to suffer existence.

If my Sellarsian appeal seems perhaps unorthodox in a response to a work of literary criticism, it is done in keeping with Nersessian’s own free-jazzy improvisations that have her seamlessly bouncing from eighteenth-century rhetorical theory to cutting-edge contemporary art. More importantly, though, it is also because there is something deeply Sellarsian about Nersessian’s project, concerned as it is with the capacities of reason in general, and poetic reason in particular, to epistemically capture crises—both economic and environmental—occurring at scales and degrees of abstraction beyond the possibility of our complete cognitive grasp, and that ordinary language is not up to the task of confronting.

The claim Nersessian makes is that the Romantics often use figurative language (specifically parataxis, obscurity, catachresis, and apostrophe) as a means to foreground nescience—not knowing—about an industrializing, internationalizing, and environmentally-exploiting world rapidly retreating from the possibility of epistemic capture. As she puts this quite lucidly: “The argument I want to make about mainstream Romantic poetry, in particular, is that it is self-consciously trained on the difference . . . between propositional and nonpropositional forms of speaking and writing—the difference, in other words, between language that makes a claim about how things are, and why, and language that insists on its own estrangement from positive knowledge” (15). Here, we have a similarly Sellarsian drama transposed to a slightly different register: a drama between language that claims an ontological warrant—that presumes itself adequate to the describing of what is and how what is is—and another kind of language, figurative, that turns on a recognition of precisely its own inadequacy, and even incompetence or impotence, with respect to its aspirations to know the world.

Naturally, as someone who hangs his hat within the environmental humanities and whose work focuses on the history of thinking about human extinction, I am most intrigued by Nersessian’s attempts to tether her interrogation of Romantic explorations of figure and not-knowing-the-world to the question of ecological catastrophe. In particular, I am interested in pursuing two question-comments, followed by an observation, about the arguments The Calamity Form presents.

First, I firmly believe that analytic philosophy can contribute more to literary criticism than we usually allow. Consequently, I was excited to see the work of figures like Donald Davidson and Derek Parfit make an appearance here and found Nersessian’s repeated reliance on philosophical voices outside of the usual continental storehouse to be vitalizing. That being said, the near-total absence of phenomenology—in a work focused on the limits of reason, that contains substantial engagements with Hölderlin, and that frames “the poetics of calamity” as directed toward “an encounter with the inaccessibility of the real”—struck me as a strange omission given Nersessian’s professed concerns here (5). I was left wondering if its absence was intentional and strategic, and if so, why. Likewise, although Nersessian’s primary texts are well-chosen examples culled from what she labels “mainstream Romanticism,” and although her reading of each is invariably deft and often ingenious, it was surprising to see her leave largely unconsidered Romantic texts which engage, in a more direct and more legitimately cataclysmic fashion, with invocations of environmental calamity. With the exception of a passing reference to Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Romantic works concerned with truly large-scale eco-disasters—not only, but to my mind most egregiously, Byron’s “Darkness”—are left off the docket.

In many ways, of course, it is perhaps not surprising that Nersessian leaves such texts unconsidered in favor of poems like Keats’s “To Autumn” or Cowper’s The Task: central to her argument, after all, is the notion that Romantic poetry engages the calamity of capital and its downstream environmental repercussions not directly but through the indirection or misdirection of figurative language. Yet, I still find myself pondering if and how her thinking might accommodate Romantic texts that are less cagey and less modest about their ability to get their epistemic arms around environmental calamity. How might a text like “Darkness”—an 1816 poem written by an author not insensitive to the economic and moral perils of industrialization (having come to the defense of the Luddites only a few years prior) and which describes a total extinction event in which a future Earth is rendered “Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless”—carve out a place within the “calamity form” Nersessian describes?

The odd absence of reckoning with the more brazenly apocalyptic strands of Romantic art and letters brings me, via detour, to the aspect of The Calamity Form that I found to be the most provocative and—if a work of literary criticism can be described as such—courageous. In her discussion of Cowper, Nersessian frames nescience as “a standoff between experience and conjecture . . . [that] contemplates the impossibility of knowing how behaving differently in the past would have made a difference in the present” (48). Yet, there is a double-impossibility Nersessian flags throughout: not just the Wordsworthian difficulty of associating past events and present circumstances, but the broader impossibility of knowing whether past texts might have anything worthwhile to say to our present climate catastrophe.

Indeed, one of the most stimulating aspects of The Calamity Form is Nersessian’s skepticism toward the kind of environmental criticism that assumes that a nineteenth-century poem about the sun or a painting about a cloud—situated before the discovery of anthropogenic climate change—might have anything meaningful to tell us about the contemporary climate crisis. She puts this quite bluntly: “Throughout this book, I avoid reading texts as if to solve them; nor do I intend to pitch any part of its content—from literature to my ideas about it—as an effective contribution to the global struggle against social and ecological catastrophe” (7). And if I find the honesty of this assertion so refreshing, it is perhaps because I began reading The Calamity Form while I was teaching a course called “Climate Fiction”—the syllabus begins with “Darkness” and ends with Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea—populated by Environmental Studies majors who were (understandably!) very eager for me to tell them, precisely, what fiction about climate change tangibly accomplishes in the fight against climate change. My answer, when pressed, was always that I’m not certain that it accomplishes anything tangible at all, but perhaps we might think differently about what the burden of environmental art should be, where its value is located.

It is this same kind of question—about the political efficacy of art concerned about industrialization and/or environmental ruin—that haunts the background, and often the foreground, of The Calamity Form throughout. As Nersessian notes in her epilogue:

[EXT]Like all trauma, ecological crisis overloads the testimonial burden borne by the artworks that try to grapple with it. Chronicling the attenuation of planetary life is tough, and it’s not surprising that the tropes of near-disappearance or partial erasure that scaffold environmental art often recall long-standing, big-picture questions about aesthetic representation: what it is, how it works, and the open question of its value. (170)[/EXT]

After raising the question of art’s adequacy to environmental crisis, she goes on to make the curious claim that “the view that harm is difficult to represent is not a popular one among literary scholars whose work emphasizes environmental themes.” I say this assertion is curious because there are certainly ecocritics, and indeed very prominent ecocritics, that are not at all sanguine about the ability of literature to effectively engage the climate crisis and the human and non-human harm it engenders. Perhaps most notably, Rob Nixon’s landmark work Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor is an extended investigation of precisely the difficulty of aesthetically reckoning with environmental harm. When it comes to “environmental calamities,” Nixon asserts, “a major challenge is representational: how to devise arresting stories, images, and symbols adequate to the pervasive but elusive violence of delayed effects.”2 More recently, and in a similar vein to Nixon, the novelist and literary critic Amitav Ghosh has highlighted the struggle of literature in general, and the novel in particular, to confront climate change. Like Nixon, Ghosh asserts that the climate crisis poses thorny representational challenges, perhaps most notably what he calls a “scalar” resistance to the novel’s formal conventions. As he puts it: “[Climate change’s] essence consists of phenomena that were long ago expelled from the territory of the novel—forces of unthinkable magnitude that create unbearably intimate connections over vast gaps in time and space.”3

I highlight the work of people like Nixon and Ghosh not simply to gently push back against Nersessian’s suggestion that environmentally-attuned literary critics are usually optimistic about literature’s ability to grapple with ecological crises and the forms of violence and suffering upstream and downstream from them. Rather, I am pointing out this aesthetically-skeptical idiom of ecocriticism because it actually seems to me that Nersessian is developing an even more radical, and potentially more valuable, line of thinking here. Although both Nixon and Ghosh are quick to draw attention to the way in which climate change and environmental calamity scramble the usual techniques artists and writers have used to confront other kinds of disaster, both critics seem to remain broadly optimistic—or at least open to the possibility—that we might yet devise forms of art better suited to grappling with such spatiotemporally diffuse, and thus ontologically hard-to-pin-down, ecological phenomena. In other words, their work seems to rest on the assumption that a more environmentally efficacious kind of literature is possible, and that if we merely develop a new “aesthetic strategy” we might rise to the challenge and find a way to, in Nixon’s phrasing, “articulate these vital aesthetic concerns to socioenvironmental transformation” (Nixon, Slow Violence, 32).

Above, I noted Wilfrid Sellars’s rebuttal to the notion that we might find some way to accommodate the scientific image of the world to everyday understanding. His argument is that we must abandon the pipe dream of a perfect synthesis between scientific reason and common sense, rather learning to live in and with the permanent disjunction between science—as an ontological discourse adequate to the Real—and “the manifest framework of everyday life . . . adequate for the everyday purposes of life.”4 In keeping with this line of inquiry, I might suggest that folks like Nixon and Ghosh are not unlike Sellars’s pipe-dreamers, aware of the tension between climate science and aesthetic representation but nonetheless convinced that, with a bit of creativity, some translation might be effected between the world of hard facts and that of aesthetic form, giving rise in the process to a new kind of art capable of actuating socioenvironmental transformation. By contrast, Nersessian appears to be on the road to a slightly more pessimistic, more Sellarsian, and potentially more intriguing assertion: that it is not at all clear that art can do much more, with respect to the calamities of capital and environmental ruin, than telegraph its own impotence, that at best art might learn to live with its permanent epistemic alienation from the very calamitous reality it wants to find purchase against.

Indeed, Nersessian’s (brilliant) reading of John Constable’s cloud paintings hints at precisely this possibility when she draws attention to the potential resonances between the pioneering geologist James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth and the painter’s meteorological forays. She writes:

Hutton’s language harmonizes with Constable’s studies: both allude to apocalypse while sidestepping its endgame, and both monitor the planet from within an accentuated present, which holds clues to past events and may help us anticipate future ones. Still, Hutton is a scientist and Constable a painter, and this makes a difference. (158)

Here, this “difference” speaks volumes, and we might even suspect that Nersessian really means to say “it makes all the difference.” On my reading, Nersessian’s candor about the limits of poetry (literature and art more generally) with regard to either economic or environmental knowing is not tantamount to conceding that the making or studying of aesthetic objects is a fruitless pursuit, ill-suited to a world rocked by the metastasizing crises of late capitalism and anthropogenic climate change. It is to admit, though, that the fantasy of an effective merger between scientific and poetic representation is indeed a fantasy, that there might be no zone of transit between literature and the “real” world of sweatshops and melting ice caps, that at best we might learn to live with the stereoscopic disjunction between the kinds of knowing that measures coastal erosion or carbon in parts per million on the one hand and poetic nescience on the other. Just as Sellars is not attempting to denigrate everyday know-how, but rather assert that—while we cannot live without such knowledge—its value is located elsewhere than in providing truth about physical reality, perhaps too we might ask after an environmental literature whose value lies elsewhere than as a vehicle for the dissemination of actionable insight about ecological collapse. In fact, perhaps the question we should consider asking is not how aesthetic objects can be reimagined to produce tangible results in the fight capitalism or climate change—a question which axiomatically assumes art’s political power—but, as Nersessian asks: “What would it mean to stand by these objects in the face of their political inutility” (135).

  1. Wilfrid Sellars, Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 83.

  2. Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 3.

  3. Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 63.

  4. Wilfrid Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” in The Space of Reasons, ed. Kevin Scharp and Robert B. Brandom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 395.

  • Anahid Nersessian

    Anahid Nersessian


    Response to Harper

    In an earlier draft of The Calamity Form, I wrote about a speech the German physicist and physician Hermann von Helmholtz delivered on February 27, 1855, at the dedication of a monument to Kant. The monument was supposed to include a statue, but the sculptor, Christian Daniel Rausch, was running behind—George Eliot saw a clay model for the piece in Rausch’s studio later that same year—and so Helmholtz delivered his remarks in a strangely negative space. 1 Happily for Helmholtz, the fact that Kant’s statue was missing in action added both drama and credibility to what he had to say, for Helmholtz’s line in the speech, which he called “Über das Sehen des Menschen” (On human perception), was that German philosophy had all but abandoned the Kantian project. Instead of working, as it should, to bring epistemic theory in line with the most recent scientific accounts of the nature and structure of reality, philosophy had been seduced by a mania for speculative idealism, and by “the assumption of an identity between nature and spirit” (“der Annahme der Identität der Natur und des Geistes”).2 If Kant wanted an epistemological basis for our ability to recognize scientific truth as truth—to believe, for example, in Newton’s theory of gravity even though we don’t feel ourselves to be falling toward the earth at all times—people like Schelling and Hegel had convinced an entire generation that there is no difference between things and our subjective experience of them. The task, as Helmholtz saw it, was to turn back to empiricism, to “get out of the world” of private sensation and back “into the world of reality” (“aus der Welt der Empfindungen unserer Nerven hinübergelangt in die Welt der Wirklichkeit”).3

    If this sounds familiar, it may be because Helmholtz’s injunction to go back to Kant has often been taken as the origin of the so-called analytic-continental divide: the splitting of Western philosophical practice into empirically-oriented inquiries into mind, language, epistemology, and ethics on the one hand and whatever it is Heidegger does on the other.4 The notion of such a divide falls apart the longer you think about it, but it has its uses all the same. In the context of this discussion—the one begun so brilliantly by Tyler Harper in his response—it helps us see why philosophers of science in the second half of the twentieth century became so interested in trying to build a model of the world that might contain both objective truth and subjective experience, both scientific and psychological facts, both the underlying, unchanging laws of the universe and the way our access to those laws is historically contingent. Among those philosophers are Wilfrid Sellars, certainly, as well as Ian Hacking, Bas van Fraassen, John Dupré, Nancy Cartwright, and Sandra Mitchell, all of whom have advanced versions of the claim that there is (in Harper’s words) “a permanent disjunction between the kind of knowledge that tells us how things really are and the kind of know-how that tells us how to do things, to get about town, to suffer existence.”

    Harper’s discussion implies, I think, that the latter domain of knowledge is broadly phenomenological in its preoccupations. When he asks if the omission of phenomenologists from my critical “storehouse” (a wonderful metaphor) was “intentional and strategic,” I guess I have to say it was. That’s because The Calamity Form is interested precisely in the poetic fallout of the disjunction Harper describes: in the formal and rhetorical responses that evolved, in the Romantic period, to grapple with the non-identity of scientific knowledge and subjective experience. These poems are less interested in “how . . . to suffer existence” than the fact that existence is suffering, that capital greatly amplifies and exploits that suffering, and that it is all but impossible for them—the poems—to deliver actionable explanations of how capital does that. Notice that here, and in the book, “scientific” is not a word associated with the life or earth sciences, which are the disciplines linked most closely to the study of climate change, but rather with the critique of political economy—the science, that is, of metabolic rift, or in Marx’s words, of how capitalist property relations disturb “the metabolic interaction between man and the earth.”5 Poets like Wordsworth, Cowper, and Keats, and painters like Constable are less interested in how anyone experiences this rift than in how literature registers the insufficiency of mere experience to a comprehensive knowledge of what is happening and what is to be done about it.

    This may explain why I focused on the texts I did. Harper is right that I don’t talk about “Romantic works concerned with truly large-scale eco-disasters,” most notably Byron’s “Darkness,” despite the fact that The Calamity Form is a book about ecological crisis. This too is deliberate, for I’m interested not in how Romantic texts represent disaster but in how they fail to explain it even when they make a promise to their readers that they will. In the case of “Darkness,” the poem is genuinely post-apocalyptic—consider its ending, when even the moon and the clouds have perished and there’s nothing left of the universe but darkness—and it seems to me less concerned with how or why the world’s come to an end than with its own experiment in the limits of hypotaxis. An unabashedly technical writer, Byron uses the poem’s profligate conjunctions—fifty-eight “ands” in eighty-two lines—to negate the very possibility of explaining anything about this particular large-scale disaster, which is not just planetary but cosmic and as much a religious allegory as it is a response to the notorious Year without a Summer of 1816. Compare this to Cowper’s manipulation of the opposite figure of parataxis in his poem The Task, where the relationship between things or events is insisted upon and yet unspecified, a broken linkage I attribute to the poem’s explicit self-identification with the logic of the commodity.

    I want to close with a gentle dissent from the suggestion that I believe no “translation might be effected between the world of hard facts and that of aesthetic form.” I actually don’t think that’s true. I think that there are some aesthetic traditions, and some works of art, and some artists that absolutely resist the idea of a “permanent epistemic alienation from [a] calamitous reality,” that build explicit, exegetical, and educative accounts of the world, and whose commitments to social justice are not merely rhetorical; there are also some aesthetic traditions, works of art, and artists for whom this is only sometimes the case and some for whom it is not the case at all. More to Harper’s larger philosophical point, however, I also believe, as did Sellars, that what we call and experience as reality is made up of various strata of phenomena—biological, physical, chemical, psychological, social, historical, aesthetic, and so on—that do not always or absolutely reduce to one another. At bottom, all this means is that they do not necessarily share the same forms of causality: what counts as a cause in cell division is very different from what counts as a cause of climate change or the cause of a poem or the cause of social immiseration. It is sometimes possible, and sometimes necessary, to try and speak of these diverse phenomena in shared terms, or (to use Harper’s word) to translate between them. But it is not always possible, and it is not always necessary. This belief isn’t optimistic or pessimistic, nor does it carry a specific ideological charge. It is just a description of how some people think things are, and I agree.

    1. George Eliot, entry for Saturday [Dec 30, 1854], in The Journals of George Eliot, ed. Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 41.

    2. Hermann von Helmholtz, “Über das Sehen des Menschen,” in Vorträge und Reden (4th ed.), 2 vols. (Braunschweig: Druck und Verlang von Friedrich Vieweg und Sohn, 1896), 1.85–117; 99.

    3. Helmholtz, “Über das Sehen des Menschen,” 115. An unabashedly technical writer, Byron is, I think, trying with “Darkness” to see what can be done with an early version of the accretive poetics he’ll eventually perfect with Don Juan, an explicitly political work that thinks about history, and historical causality, in a way “Darkness” does not.

    4. For an excellent account of this historical moment, see Michael Friedman, A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger (Chicago: Open Court, 2000).

    5. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), 637.

Erica McAlpine


Joy’s Gripe

A Response to The Calamity Form

How can we reconcile historical experience with poetic creativity? We understand that what happens in poets’ lives necessarily shapes them; and we know, too, that poets shape poems. But does the transitive property apply? Must the activity in a poet’s life shape his or her poetry? On page 4 of The Calamity Form, Anahid Nersessian ventures a hedge: faced with difficult social dynamics brought on by the Industrial Revolution, she argues, the Romantics developed “a poetics awkwardly responsive to or cooperative with it, working alongside though not necessarily in cahoots” (4). To be “responsive to,” to work “alongside”—these are not quite the same thing as to be shaped by or to interpret or amend. Nersessian’s account of the poetry she loves sets up a different sort of relation between poetry and social life that, before her book, felt difficult to describe: being “awkwardly responsive” doesn’t have to mean being un-responsive (just as, for Keats, being negatively capable isn’t the same thing as being in-capable). In The Calamity Form, inability—to respond, to represent, to interpret—arranges its own set of figures, and failure has its upsides.

I paraphrase Nersessian’s foundational premise partly as a disclaimer, because I suspect what follows may feel more “awkwardly responsive to” her argument than directly interpretive of it. This is because one of the aspects of The Calamity Form that I most admire is its willingness to talk freely about the function of literary criticism. Nersessian’s specific interest in “the limits of historical materialism for literary study” is one that I share, and I will offer a few of my own “lightly ordered” ideas here about our discipline’s habits with regard to reading poetry that I hope might work alongside some of her broader ideas about the field (1). To my ear, several of the most moving and persuasive sentences in Nersessian’s introduction (i.e., the more theoretical, less practical, portion of her book) address Romantic poetry’s vexed relationship with historically-grounded truth-telling. For example, on page 5: “the poetry that interests me is likewise built to fray, twisted into a net that, sieve-like, sets loose more than it manages to hold” (5). And on page 13: “the plight of love, which, like writing, clasps experience in vain and prolifically falsifies what it imagines to be true.” And on page 18: “poems knuckling under to the same unanswerable passion” (that is, a passion “to explain anything about their historical moment”). Through these well-wrought sentences and others, Nersessian demonstrates why she finds certain poems’ sense of insufficiency both earnest and appealing; her chosen poets, counterintuitively, reflect the world around them beautifully failingly. And here is where my own interest is piqued. Some of the words she uses when discussing these poems—“insufficiency,” “failure,” “weakness”—are words we usually associate with value judgments. Nersessian is not exactly judging when she calls Wordsworth obscure or accuses Keats of reaching too far with his metaphors, but her book’s elucidation of certain rhetorical tropes of failure in poetry nevertheless associates itself, at least to my ear, with a more evaluative turn in literary study that is worth lingering upon.

Her chapter on “Keats and Catachresis” feels especially suggestive in this regard because of the assumptions that necessarily accompany that word. “Catachresis,” Nersessian points out, “cuts at least three ways”:

[EXT]It is a positive dereliction, a winning effort at going against the grain; it is a mistake; and in any case it is a disturbance, even, as some commentators suggest, an act of violence or an offering of injury. (96)[/EXT]

Within her specific argument about Keats, not all of these definitions apply with equal weight. The first—that Keats’s poems often contain positive derelictions—feels true enough, and the examples Nersessian finds (“poesied” for “kissed,” “full-grown lambs,” etc.) do indeed feel like “winning efforts” on Keats’s part even if—or, rather, because—they “reach.” But to be derelict is not the same thing as to be mistaken. When Keats implies that kissing is like versifying, his metaphor is just subjective enough to remain defensible against mistake. (Who can say for sure whether their lips felt like rhymes besides Isabella and Lorenzo?) That such a metaphor “disturbs” must be true (since all metaphors are disturbances of a kind); and I found Nersessian’s reading of the hyperbolically sensuous excesses in “To Autumn” especially appealing (oozings and over-brimmings and wailing gnats). Her central argument about a certain form of overreaching, often in bodily language—that Keats “tropes capital’s theft of life” and “pit[s] rhetorical misuse against economic abuse” (95, 96)—speaks persuasively to Keats’s radicalism (which she subsequently takes up in her new book as well). Inelegance and misuse become for Keats a kind of method—a method predicated on a poetics of failure.

But Nersessian’s point, which is both a political argument and a comment on Keats’s craft, takes for granted a certain brand of “badness” in Keats’s writing that I think is worth pausing over. In order to complete the logic of her argument, I found myself being asked to judge (with her) aspects of Keats’s language as inadequate or inappropriate in some way, probably because aesthetic judgment and catachresis (Keats’s kind, anyway) are inextricably linked. That is, to know Keats’s radicalism involves acknowledging his forms of badness—and acknowledging his forms of badness involves enlisting our own ability and willingness to evaluate. This may seem like a small point, especially since, as Nersessian notes, “everyone, even his most committed votaries, can admit, if there is one thing Keats is not short on it is bad metaphors” (94). But I confess I have never consciously thought of what Nersessian calls catachreses as failures before. Excesses yes—but not exactly wrong. Her book’s interest in failure on a general level made me think again about what we are doing as literary critics when we claim that a poet’s metaphor or analogy is bad. Who’s to say, exactly, and how?

These are philosophical questions about aesthetic judgment (and semantic questions about terminology), not comments on Keats’s radicalism or his inability to represent the suffering of and in his world. But thinking through his figures of failure, as Nersessian does, necessitates an evaluative critical faculty that isn’t so common nowadays as it once was. And as Nersessian (and Levinson and so many others before her) knows, it is hard to talk about aesthetic judgment and Keats, or to evaluate him, without worrying about politics. How could we ever separate the style of his writing from the cares and failures and disappointments of his life—which themselves were never emancipated from his socioeconomic status, his heath, and the political moment he lived through? Here is one of the moments where Nersessian faces some of the limits of historical materialism she invokes in her introduction—and where I found her argument most excitingly provocative. Because to say that Keats fails poetically is the kind of judgment literary critics usually resist making, and not only because there was no finer or more talented English poet than Keats (other than perhaps Shakespeare or Milton), but also because, when faced with the problem of judgment’s seemingly inherent conservatism compared to most critics’ ideas of democratic equality, it is simply easier to demure.

Others (Michael Clune, Robert Lehman, et al) are working actively in this field and thinking through the ways that aesthetic judgment may or may not impinge on progressive politics. This short Syndicate response—to a very different sort of book—is not the place to paraphrase their larger, complex points, but I am hoping it might be chance for me to pursue some of the evaluative reading practices that Nersessian’s chapter on Keats indirectly suggests to me. I have written elsewhere about Keats’s mistake on Cortez in “Upon First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”—an error that it is surprisingly still provocative to point out. But catachresis or other forms poetic failure needn’t necessarily take the extreme form of mistake. Where are the “regular” bad metaphors in Keats—and how bad are they? And what would a criticism that took up badness and goodness as criteria look like at this moment in literary studies, two hundred years after Keats’s first critics were accused of snuffing out his life out with negative reviews?

I’ll offer two short examples in turn—one good, one bad, in my judgment. (How freeing that feels!) The first can be found in Keats’s wonderful late sonnet “Bright Star”—a favourite of mine in part because of the ways in which Keats defies readerly expectations (first thematically, by relating himself to the bright star instead of his beloved, as you might imagine a sonnet would, and then formally, by never fully resolving the complicated syntactical structure he initiates). There is so much good in it, but I call attention to the phrase “ripening breast” in line 10, as in:

Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft swell and fall

Keats had revised these lines from a previous version which had “Cheek-pillow’d on” instead of “Pillow’d upon” and “my Love’s white” instead of “my fair love’s.” But that somewhat incongruous-seeming phrase “ripening breast” was there even in the earlier version. What I perhaps like best about it is the possibility it conjures of his biting right into her. And Keats is not shy about sexually-charged fruit descriptions elsewhere (as we shall see in a moment). But where this phrase more respectfully earns its keep is in the subtler science of it, which is easier to spot if you remember the earlier version of the line. When Keats dispenses with “white” as an adjective, I suspect it isn’t only because of its bridal connotations or a worry over false chastity. This breast—Fanny’s breast—is turning red, as fruit does when it sweetens. Here is not the marblesque statue of the untouchable maiden in Keats’s “Cold Pastoral” but actual skin that blushes and invites. Away from the cold white starlight of the sonnet’s opening lines, Keats attaches himself to a real, sun-warmed, and blushing body in her bed chamber. “Ripening” does all of that work without resorting to having to say the word “fruit.” This “excess” feels perfectly in balance.

Less so at the end of “Ode on Melancholy,” which features some poor soul with a strong enough tongue to “burst Joy’s grape.” This fruit is slightly rotten to my taste. It isn’t Keats’s awkward sexuality here that bothers me so much as the difficulty of that fruit as a working metaphor. Do we burst grapes? I had always imagined that we crush them. Nersessian remarks (agnostically) in her new book that “a burst is a pretty savage sort of explosion,” and I would add that it is also a verb that usually denotes what happens when things grow too big for themselves, not when you eat them. Bubbles burst—and balloons. Or people burst into places where they aren’t welcome. But grapes aren’t exactly spatial in that way, nor are they hollow. Maybe all this sounds very finicky; but imagining joy as a grape isn’t an obvious cognitive exercise. In fables grapes can be sour; in “the South” they are crushed for wine. And even when they dangle sexually, or are dangled, they grow in bunches rather than singly. Who has ever burst just one?

Don’t misread me: not everything in a poem has to work for the whole thing to work. Keats took more risks in his brief adult life than most poets took across their entire careers. I don’t especially mind this grape, knowing all the other joys in this poem (and across his work), but I would like to be allowed to gripe about it all the same. Keats’s badness doesn’t have to be the same as his goodness for us to accept it (and conversely, he is not always at his best when he is at his worst). We must trust ourselves to know the difference between writing that is excellent even as it fails and writing that is poor. Nersessian doesn’t fully exercise her evaluative faculty when she enumerates Keats’s catachreses, perhaps because she doesn’t need to. But what if literary studies more readily encouraged calls on quality just for the sake of it? By pointing out the failures of poets who are “fixated on the poorly representative and even misleading qualities of their work,” Nersessian’s book reminded me of the silent judgments we are always making as we read.

I have been focusing on Keats in order to keep this response manageably narrow. But there are other moments in The Calamity Form that likewise speak to literary criticism’s evaluative potential, even if Nersessian is careful never to make evaluation feel like her primary intent. Soon after she writes in chapter 2 that “I don’t like Wordsworth,” she notes that “this isn’t about critique” (57). And for her it isn’t; but for others, couldn’t it be? I do happen to like Wordsworth—but moreover I like the feeling her book gives me that I might be able to say so, bluntly, as part of the critical project. Nersessian explains modestly in The Calamity Form that “whether I like Wordsworth or not is not anything to keep anyone up at night” (58). But I find myself wondering, as I read her and others’ writing about poems that fail in spite of their goodness, or that succeed in spite of their badness, whether the aesthetic judgments of trusted literary critics like Nersessian might not be worth staying up late for after all?

  • Anahid Nersessian

    Anahid Nersessian


    Response to McAlpine

    I once knew a professor who, whenever it was time to lecture on Keats’s “Ode to Melancholy,” would distribute grapes to students so they might “burst” them “against [their] palate[s] fine.” This always struck me as a bizarre exercise. For one thing, it amounts to having undergraduates collectively mime a sex act, even if Keats scholars disagree as to what kind of sex act it is. For another, it skates over the weirdness of the metaphor and so bypasses what is so specifically interesting about Keats’s poetics. As Erica McAlpine says, we don’t really burst grapes, and “even when they dangle sexually, or are dangled, they grow in bunches rather than singly.” In sum, the professor’s bit with the grapes forces a theatrical consensus—ah yes, here we are, bursting Joy’s grape, of course—about a poem explicitly concerned with states of disaffection and estrangement, in particular as they’re produced by overdone, hackneyed, or otherwise inappropriate language.

    “We must trust ourselves,” writes McAlpine, “to know the difference between writing that is excellent even as it fails and writing that is poor.” I suspect that Keats’s poetry is at its most remarkable, which is not the same thing as being at its best, when it scuppers our ability to make the discrimination. I learned this from Marjorie Levinson, whose 1988 book, Keats’s Life of Allegory, was the first to say that Keats’s badness—his mixed metaphors, unsophisticated rhymes, indecisive prosody and compulsive ecphonesis, his painfully earnest displays of erudition and his apparently unconscious tendency to make everything a double entendre—made him not good but great. In The Calamity Form, I use the name catachresis to describe everything about Keats’s poetry that is “excellent even as it fails” and maybe also “poor,” since on my account there is an irreducible connection between the Keatsian catachresis and the Keatsian critique of political economy, which the poet understood in terms of the violent impoverishment of the worker’s sensorium. Now, this is not what McAlpine means by “poor.” Nonetheless, the degradation and misuse of language that defines catachresis, and that leads certain of his phrases or lines (Joy’s grape, lol!) off the cliff, would not move us the way it does if it weren’t the imprint or outline of something lived.

    But McAlpine asks about judgment, about “literary criticism’s evaluative potential.” As she observes, there are a couple moments where I slap down personal opinions on the way to making more conventional scholarly claims about rhetoric and form and history. More than one reader has complained in otherwise positive reviews of the book about the opening gambit of the third chapter, which begins with my disclaimer that “I don’t like Wordsworth.” In another moment, I might ask if it means something that those who have bridled at this confession, or about its appearance in an academic monograph, have all been white men, very senior to me in my field. For now, though, I want to think a bit more about McAlpine’s invitation to tie liking or not liking more tightly to “the critical project,” which, for some (though not all) readers and teachers of literature, both begins and ends with “aesthetic judgment.”

    As a person who studies the history of literary criticism and a scholar of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poetry, I feel obliged to state the obvious, namely that the professional cultivation of aesthetic judgment has always been involved in class formation. Still, it seems to me there’s a difference between making large-scale normative claims for criticism as “a process of disclosing and verifying values” that are then reflected on one’s syllabus (Michael Clune) and more local observations like “Keats is not short on . . . bad metaphors” or even “I don’t like Wordsworth” (me).1 Saying that Keats’s poetry is full of catachreses is not the same thing as saying Keats does or does not deserve to be on someone’s syllabus, and my dislike of Wordsworth has not kept him off mine. It may seem like an odd point of comparison or affiliation, but this is pretty much what Samuel Johnson does with Milton or Cowley or Gray, all of whom he put on his syllabus, The Lives of the Poets. Like me, and like my students, Johnson often begins by noting his negative responses to a poem, the places where it stutters or goes static. Of Lycidas: “the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing.” Of the first stanza of Cowley’s “The Muse”: “every mind is now disgusted with this cumber of magnificence.” Of the images in Gray’s odes: “they strike rather than please.”2 But Johnson is reading these poets, not writing them off, and when he says that something is bad or tedious or jarring or clumsy or muddled or bombastic or coarse, it is to provide information about the form of the poem—how it’s put together, how it works—more than to judge its value.

    Here it is probably worth saying something about the idea, somehow still circulating, that attending to the form of the text is something that happens “before” attending to its social and historical situation. That’s impossible, since attitudes, ideas, and instincts about what makes something bad or tedious or jarring or clumsy or muddled or bombastic or coarse are also social and historical: there is, after all, a reason that my saying I don’t like Wordsworth has struck some readers as too personal an admission for an academic book but two centuries of breathlessly reverential commentary on the poet, by those who look a great deal more like him than I do, have not. Still, I believe John Guillory when he says that there is such a thing as “the specificity of aesthetic experience” and that it is “not contingent” on its isolation or repression of social life:

    Is this mixed condition not, after all, the condition of every social practice and experience? It may well be impossible, for example, to experience “just sex,” exclusive of the social meanings of sexual acts. But it would be incorrect on that account to deny the specificity of the sexual. If the revelation of the impurity of the aesthetic tempts one to deny its reality, that logical misstep is the consequence of the historical determinations which have produced aesthetic discourse as a discourse of purity. Internalized as the aesthetic disposition, this discourse seems to determine whatever can be recognized as aesthetic; but the experience of any cultural work is an experience of an always composite pleasure, Proust’s “mingled joys.”3

    The method of reading that makes the most sense to me, and that I take the most pleasure in, embraces literary specificity not as an off-ramp from more exactingly social and political concerns but as what Gottlob Frege might call a mode of their presentation.4 It’s not especially interested in generalizing its observations and calling those generalizations judgments, and still less in claiming its superiority to other styles of engagement.

    1. Michael W. Clune, A Defense of Judgment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 182.

    2. Samuel Johnson, The Works of Samuel Johnson, Volumes 21–23: The Lives of the Poets, ed. John H. Middendorf (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 21.175; 21.60; 22.1470.

    3. John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 336.

    4. See Gottlob Frege, “On Sinn and Bedeutung,” in The Frege Reader, ed. Michael Beaney (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997),151–71. For a relevant, much more technical discussion, see my “Literary Agnotology,” ELH 84.2 (2017), 339–60.

Rob Halpern


Notes for a Hieroglyphic Poetics

Who Knows What Calamity This Is?

—Khwaja Mir Dard


As fascist aggression fomented during the weeks preceding the Unite the Right convergence of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017, I began writing a bunch of occasional poems that would become Hieroglyphs of the Inverted World. Full of rage, disgust, and fear, I despaired in the knowledge that whatever writing I might do in response to that present moment would only reflect my impotence in the face of grotesque violence and fail to make a dent in the social surround, if that were even writing’s aim.

At first, I referred to these poems as “calendrics” as they channeled the daily slough of emotional run-off, lending my rage, disgust, and fear some fabled form to keep it all from recrudescing in a barely somnolent paralysis whose waking dreams arrested sleep. But even at their best, the poems could only promise to quiet those dissipative energies enough to organize them in some provisional structure, like a crystal of entropic decay, where the present might be said to flicker and refract.

But as it, too, flickers and refracts, can my poem’s burnished amber show me something I don’t think I already know about the present? Against the grain of my desire—perhaps in despair, or a more sober realism—I felt myself forming a question that challenges my convictions about poetry’s promise to sense the world in advance of my cognition, its hope of wresting language away from dominant meaning systems, and its potential to make otherwise abstract relations visceral and perceptible through concrete sensation, which the poem might manifest as legible form.

Under the spell of this agitation, I submit my question to a thought-experiment. Giving the poem the benefit of the doubt that it can sense the world in ways that are incongruous with prevailing forms of knowing, I ask the question my faith has repressed: Isn’t the poem’s “non-knowledge” just a negative picture of what I think I already know about the world? Or, can the poem yield otherwise unavailable intelligence?

That’s the title of one of the poems: “Otherwise Unavailable Intelligence” (see below). Upon returning to it months after losing track of its various threads and intertexts, I mistook the title for a phrase derived from Aimé Césaire’s “Poetry & Knowledge,” as if I wished upon the poem’s chance for suprasensible perception—the way my four-year old daughter might wish upon a star—only to recall with astonishment, upon quickly searching the fugitive phrase, that “otherwise unavailable intelligence” quotes a CIA operative’s alibi for “enhanced interrogation techniques.” For a dazed moment, it’s as if I had never considered the relation between poem and “black site,” and in the shade of nonplussed beguilement, I feel the rumored place of my own vocation flicker in the shadow of a rendition zone.

Put another way: Can the poem only lend expressive form to something I already think I know (without even having to think), despite my desire that the poem do something else? “I know that I can’t know anything,” writes Kathy Acker, “but I don’t know what this knowledge is.”

It’s too often been said that the poem contains something obdurate, something otherwise unknowable, incommunicable, something resistant to the currency of exchange, the way a commodity can be said to contain something fundamentally useless, something resistant to the priorities of circulation into whose networks it is set adrift, something otherwise fundamentally negated by those priorities.

But what does it mean for a poem “to contain” something? To hold, keep, and carry? Or, to enclose, neutralize, and monitor?, the way a virus might be contained, or a riot, while its conditions go unchecked.

My thought experiment may have only just arrived at its most depressed moment here: I mean, if my poem can only contain something I already know about the world, and if our collective knowledge of the world has not yet enabled us to abolish its conditions, I fear this is tantamount to saying that the poem can only console the impotence of knowing, while securing that impotence with a rarefied veil of pedigree and form. This contradicts a proposition that’s always been axiomatic for me, that the poem performs like a living organ—prosthetic extension of my senses—enabling some otherwise imperceptible perception of the world, as if for the first time.

Poetic language, then, while aspiring to some “authentic” place “outside” the system that produces it as a kind of excrescence or waste, might at best become the counterfeit of its currency, performing a likeness that arouses and organizes an otherwise silenced emotion, and “only emotion conceives in sensual forms that which isn’t conceivable” (that’s Acker again.)

In The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life, Anahid Nersessian gets at the problem like this: “What’s the point of reading a poem as a record of verifiable social and historical processes? What will that tell you that you don’t already know?” (8). It’s a painful question. For Anahid, “the calamity form” gives cultural expression to disaster without necessarily addressing disaster explicitly or even consciously. In doing so, however, the poem may only be able to lend sensual form to the limit of what one can already cognize about the calamity we’re all unevenly subject to, the social catastrophe that has expropriated our entire sensorium—even its innocuous prosthetic—by way of which we make the world and perceive what we’ve made.

“The poetics of calamity,” Anahid writes, “is directed not toward an encounter with what is real but toward an encounter with the inaccessibility of the real,” an encounter, perhaps, with our inability to adequately represent what is happening (5). Without breathing the ether of old poetical bromides—to attain the unknown!—whose nineteenth-century materialism risks becoming a twenty-first century idealism, I still believe in the poem’s potential to stage an encounter with that inaccessibility, that is, with something all too real, at once intimate, proximate, immediate, yet impersonal, remote, mediated, something inseparable from ourselves though separated from our apprehension by nothing less than thought itself, something we can’t accurately name about the present—let alone diagnose—which my friend Bob Glück calls “the one thing impossible to put into words because a language does not yet exist to describe the present.”

So my poem stares back at me from so much waste, like Benjamin’s “hieroglyphs in whose dark prism social relations lay congealed and in fragments” (that’s Hito Steyerl). It’s like being subject to a hole in thought, where I feel unable to think myself thinking, a vacancy knowledge cannot rush in to fill, a void resistant to our ways of knowing it, while remaining sensually attuned to what defensively resists that resistance.

If only as a feeble part of a collective effort to abolish the current conditions of that impossibility, I want to believe that a poem offers a stimulant for what Saidiya Hartman calls an “abolitionist imaginary,” because “what is required is a remaking of the social order, and nothing short of that is going to make a difference.”

As the incarcerated poet Justin Rovillos Monson writes in the recent Poetry Project Newsletter (#262): “Poetry can flesh out what prison often hides from the world. In doing that, a hidden corner is exposed and given an economy beyond the counting of bodies caged in some field in a rural town called Freeland.” But my own poems can’t pretend to speak of that “hidden corner”—despite my work inside—except insofar as that corner inhabits me in ways that lack a language.

While arousing my body to move toward the bodies of others struggling against these lived conditions—in streets, schools, or prisons—my poems can only inhabit this imaginary as a kind of negative capability, enabling me to feel my relations to real conditions without being able to grasp or know them fully. This has everything to do with one’s “proximity to criminalization and police violence,” as my friend Cyrus Dunham put it recently when speaking about the place from which one writes, and this place, for me, is relatively safe.

Like the commodity form whose name it echoes, what Anahid calls “the calamity form” disfigures the world whose impress it bears like a mudra, or seal, presenting us with something “hard to grasp in explicative, let alone actionable, terms,” nothing as clear as we’d like things to be, while I feel the weakness of my juridical imagination reveal an impoverished logic that has already betrayed my abolitionist desire (4).

Referring to calamity’s “unique structure of feeling” by way of Ecclesiastes, Anahid turns the problem like this:

What is to be done about a world whose complexity is so uncomprehendingly lived, whose harms are palpable and yet obscure, seeming to come upon us from everywhere and nowhere? Here “all things are full of labor” and yet “man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” To feel but not to get, to undergo but not to understand: this is the etiology of trauma and of the traumatic historical event. (4)

What if the poem can only materialize an ephemeral breach, a fragile tear on the skin of what we know, a modest interruption resistant to our own comprehension? I mean, what if the poem can only bring to articulation an impasse, something about the world—or an experience of it—otherwise inarticulable, “at the edge of semantic availability,” as Raymond Williams would have it, something at once “sensual and supersensual,” which is how Karl Marx describes the commodity? I know, I’m not saying anything new here. But what if this inarticulable something were our own unknowing? Anahid calls it a “void of uncertainty” in and across which we must act.

Considering this “void of uncertainty,” Anahid looks to Cindy Patton’s critique of conspiratorial tendencies within early HIV/AIDS activism, tendencies arguing, for example, that HIV was “deliberately spread among gay and African American communities by the United States government.” Patton’s critique is worth quoting just as Anahid quotes it:

Suppose we were sure of every element of a conspiracy: that the lives of Africans and African Americans are worthless in the eyes of the United States; that gay men and drug users are held cheap where they aren’t actively hated; that the military deliberately researches ways to kill noncombatants whom it sees as enemies; that people in power look calmly on the likelihood of catastrophic environmental and population changes. Supposing we were ever so sure of all those things—what would we know then that we don’t already know? (quoted in 7)

Like the paranoid reading that guides it, conspiratorial thinking reduces the unknown world to the known, reproducing what we believe to know about it already. But what if the promise of a poem—and of poetry, more generally—were the opposite of a conspiracy theory?

Like giving a “name to the nameless so that it can be thought” (that’s Audre Lorde), the poem might lend provisional form to a blind-spot so that one might begin to sense something otherwise imperceptible, or paradoxically “see nothing”—when “nothing” is quite something, perhaps even the most substantial of things—recalling Jalal Toufic’s notion that artworks potentially perceive what’s been removed from perception in the wake of social catastrophe. I’m also reminded here of Robert Smithson’s “Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan,” where reflected light gets erased, the way the glow of the grid erases itself in the things it brightens, or the way the factory light illuminates the very world it extinguishes, negating what we look at, even when we’re looking at the things we make with our hands, our minds, our language, our labor.

Giorgio Agamben gets this right when he says, “one cannot see because of the light,” and, I’m moved to think, if a poem were a prepared photo-emulsive mesh upon which that light has been thrown, it might be a hieroglyph of the inverted world.

Here’s Smithson: “To reconstruct what the eyes see in words in an ‘ideal language’ is vain exploit. Why not reconstruct one’s inability to see?” and he goes on to suggest “a type of ‘anti-vision’ or negative seeing” as if proposing a kind of camera obscura, a beguilement of light whereby the image projected by way of a device appears to the human eye upside down, as if, without such a prosthetic of vision, one might see things as they “really are,” as if sensation and cognition were otherwise somehow identical.

Could it be that the end of the poem, if a poem can be said to have an end, is the endless disruption of that identity, just as the poem’s function, if a poem can be said to be anything but a dys-function, is to short-circuit that false immediacy?

Rather than recycling the commonplaces of critique, which often excuse the impotence they protest, what might it mean for a poem to embody an impasse, a breach, or rupture, without falling for the consolations of a precious obscurity?

A poem may be such a void, an agnostic zone—unforeseeable, unanticipated, even “naïve,” in the sense of being unburdened by believable ideas, aims, or goals—where one runs headlong into what we don’t already know.

Famously, for Marx, the camera obscura offers a material analogy for “ideology,” which illuminates the world for us only by disfiguring it, making our “circumstances appear upside-down,” so that things like ownership and dispossession, private property and exploited labor appear natural and unchangeable, as if they’d primordially originated beyond our own doing, undoing us while erasing things, like the legacies of slavery, lost in the appearance of their effects.

Just as the physical world appears inverted upon the human retina, only to be “righted” by physiological processes—electrical impulses along the optic nerve to the brain, where we perceive the image as correct—so too, Marx’s strained comparison goes, does the social world appear inverted, only to be “justified” by historical processes, so that a false image of the world appears to be “right.”

Whether you call it “ideology” or “common sense,” as Antonio Gramsci disfigures that disfiguration, it’s already anti-vision, right?—so that “negative seeing” amounts to the inversion of an inversion, like Andy Warhol’s Untitled (Birmingham, Alabama) pierced under the blinding power of Césaire’s venereal sun. Or, Kara Walker’s Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant—a.k.a. A Subtlety—blinded by the searing light of Etel Adnan’s cosmic moon.

This “hieroglyphic” appearance of the world is a social artifact, like language. “Later on,” Marx writes, “we try to decipher the hieroglyph, to get behind the secret of our own social products.” But the secret of the thing may well be that there is no secret. And so, we endlessly translate, further disfiguring the disfiguration of our hieroglyphic experience, which is never quite our own, in an effort to get at something more truthful about the contradictory “work” of not-seeing.

As Anahid suggests, a poem “cannot be written off as mere ideology,” though it might be a place where the poet unwittingly stages an incompetence to represent “the train of consequences set in motion by contemporary economic shifts,” the logic of calamity being anything but syllogistic, its causes and effects—like a fire scar on a single forested tree, or a wedge of Styrofoam in the Pacific, or a mechanical screw on the Plain of Jars—indecipherable indices of disaster, being all but indeterminate, except for the fabled last instance where the market drives its coffin nail home (2).

“Seeing” things like these—a scar, a wedge, a screw—involves the whole sensorium, the body and mind in a dynamic of sensing, feeling, and perceiving, all sutured to the social violence of everyday life. But even the seemingly natural act of discerning what is a thing and what is not one—be it an image of Billie Holiday, or a bottle of Strega (as in O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”); or, a body bound in the hull of a slaving ship, or an insurance document indemnifying the ship’s owner (as in NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!)—can’t be divorced from the conditions that structure our vision, the way “the images produced by cameras also structure the meaning of sight” (that’s Jonathan Beller). That these “things” and “nothings” can appear here as substitutable examples in the same sentence says something about the conditions of poetry.

Can a poem be this inability to see these clots in sense—whether it’s a shiny transistor in Shenzen, or flammable cladding in London, or a ruined cistern in Sidyana—each emitting a plane of light reflecting other planes to illumine a “pointless vanishing point,” like mirror travel, where the artificial rules of perspective are destroyed, the way Tarkovsky’s sheets of time can’t be reconciled by the present tense of a cinematic frame? Or, is the poem just another clot, the sensual form conceived in the emotion of that impasse? In performing its own inability, the poem might then bear an illegible trace about the world that one could otherwise not say and whose unspeakable aim might be to abolish its own conditions, something the poem is only ever too feeble to do.

The poetics of calamity, then, is directed not toward an encounter with what is real but toward an encounter with the inaccessibility of the real. What it cannot diagnose, it cannot abolish. (that’s Anahid, p. 5)

In other words, diagnosis of our conditions always lies elsewhere, as the poem’s competence is not that of prognostication, but rather a willingness to make manifest the shriveled power of its own diagnostics, not as an end itself, nor an aestheticized failure, but as a point of departure, perhaps for nothing more than “affection and a new way of communicating” (as Acker translates Rimbaud’s “l’affection et le bruit neufs”), a way that contradictorily needs the poem to abolish that need, and thus a move beyond the poem, out of poetry, headlong and recklessly into the world.

My appreciation of a theory of ideology—and its relevance to poetry—owes everything to Jamaican-born theorist Stuart Hall, the Black-British Marxist for whom “there is no social practice outside of ideology,” not even the practice of theorizing about ideology, and certainly not the ideologically saturated practice of writing poems. “It is not possible to bring ideology to an end and simply live the real,” Hall writes, and one would be an idiot to think you could do that in verse, as if a poem could forget for a second that it’s a dream of language dreaming itself—though I forget this all the time.

I am moved to look outside the frame, off-screen, at the park outside my window or the homeless man sleeping there under a box, anywhere away from the poem and to sense the world we’ve failed to make, the world the poem might desire or entreat, register or index, but in the end can only impede, defer, or displace by the poem’s own inadequacy. But these worlds are not two.

Put another way, the poem is nothing more than an incitement to give up on the poem.

Perhaps this figure—the poem as hieroglyph—encrypts nothing but another mystification willing to acknowledge itself as such, a figure that can’t be deciphered, only further disfigured to enrage its feebleness, or arouse the poem’s weakness to exceed its limit in a movement beyond the shattered sight glass: to conceive what’s inconceivable, in an effort to abolish the conditions of that impossibility.1

Otherwise Unavailable Intelligence

for & after Sean


To break the barriers of thought and overthrow the law

Of reason Césaire argues these are the poem’s revolutionary

Motives when you want the thing to be a rock or a vivid stain

On that vile venereal sun to block the light no one can

In their right mind believe in and “I will never seek light”

Notley writes in The Descent of Alette be it for reason or fear

Of photon’s false white bone “he owns the light” she says

The way one might own gold and all we can see is synesthetic

Radiance an aged clamor whose windowless pustules emit

The shabby glow by which I write or the glint of a smashed

Atom the flame of a drone shot down in the nite sky but there is

No light in the sun not an effect of some whacked hallucination

Some camera obscura in whose inverted dream we struggle

To see & to love so I turn that phrase like a muddied tire I stretch

Its syllables like a chain of synthesized molecules designed to prove

The tireless insurgence of life to affirm the way we magnetize

The sounds whose hum exceeds every measure as if I needed to

Prove it’s useful channeling the dub to render meanings

Counterfeiting stones to rhyme with what I can’t even hear

Inaudible substance of catastrophe a heavy-handed conceit

But it leavens my feeble lines like yr snuffed-out star or the soul

In Donne’s Funerall where the poet compares his to a wreathe

Of braided hair laced around his lover’s shrouded wrist

Confusing the spirit that inspires his verse with a cuff

Or cop-lock affirming the vehicle’s power to collapse mystery

And manacle but this model falls flat the conceit’s useless

To do anything more than what poetry has always done

To arouse the ache for communion or the rage that joins

Its loss but today I heard that producing otherwise unavailable

Intelligence was the seductive purpose used to ration

-alize the irrelevance of law so as to rape & waterboard

Rendered men indefinitely detained and I can’t dismiss

The identity of my enchanted poem w/ that carceral drive

To extract information from a breathless gasp the union

Of truth & alibi whose fusion at the heart of the public

Secret unites the unknown pith of any verse worth its salt

With a black site at the center of this interminable war

Whose illegible inscriptions I read impressed on yr poems

Yr voice hammering away at Baudelaire in English the lang

-uage crushed in a vice like fossils of the present they bear

Concrete a violent trace of abstract force be it border or law

Whose labor disappears in the composition of its mineral life

And decays more quickly than I can sense anything at all

When true bone is mashed and we hear nothing it is

Like trying to feel yr own lost limb or what will have been

Here in the bark of a tree or a cracked femur found in the Sonora

When that bone becomes a sign no one can read the equal

Of an extinct bird’s wing or a trace of fluorocarbon in the water

And the cynobacterial blooms whose blue-green aurora mocks

The Northern Lights and makes the present itself prehistoric

As if a poem could announce what will have been here

The way a star lodged in the gut of Cerberus might fall

From its orbit to bring us intel from the future whose origin

Coincides with some Atlantean place of new life no longer

Trapped in the cycle of accumulation & extinction when

The immanence of the coming crash appears about as probable

As the earth falling into the sun or “into anti-matter there

Where mornings go” (that’s Adnan) the way yesterday’s labor

Is extinguished in the present destroyed or consumed not

The way iron rusts or wood rots or paint peels but w/o a trace

On yr mind’s milky membrane the way what was once

Historical enters Eternity as if any of this could ever touch

The purpose of poems when purposeless rhymes mute forgotten

Crimes our own now sanctioned & protected under private

Contract like the one the GEO Group holds for detaining

Immigrants at the Adelanto Processing Center or the one

CoreCivic obtained to operate at Otay Mesa our new

Common place which reminds me now of Andrea’s simile

When she likens my lyric to a “kill box” collapsing space

She says it extends the scene of domination to penetrate

The interior of a prison cell like another hoary figure for the soul

Making the poem’s motive consonant with that of the crime

Scene being everywhere coeval and bearing no resemblance

To the sound a body makes when it screams that way

We cleave to the old mysteries rituals of dismemberment

Like the gift you tender when you have nothing left to give.

  1. “For a Hieroglyphic Poetics” is indebted to Anahid Nersessian. An expanded version of this essay will appear as a postscript to Hieroglyphs of the Inverted World (Kenning Editions, 2021). Much gratitude to Michael Cross and Robin Tremblay-McGaw for reading and responding in ways that prompted radical rethinking, and also to Bella Marrin for suggestions during the process of preparing an early version of this essay for Fieldnotes. George Albon’s stunning work of poetics, Lyric Multiples, recalled my attention to the correspondence between my poem’s “rumored place” and a “rendition zone.” Jonathan Flatley, whose virtual Season of Warhol lecture at the Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester in October 2020, drew my attention to Untitled (Birmingham, Alabama). Other intertexts that go untitled include, Kathy Acker’s My Mother: Demonology, and also In Memoriam to Identity; Giorgio Agamben’s “What Is the Contemporary?”; Jonathan Beller’s The Message Is Murder: Substrates of Computational Capital; Khwaja Mir Dard’s ghazals in Classical Urdu Love Lyrics; Robert Glück’s “Long Note on New Narrative”; Stuart Hall’s “Signification, Representation, Ideology”; Saidiya Hartman’s “On Insurgent Histories and the Abolitionist Imaginary”; Audre Lorde’s “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” and “Power”; Chantal Maillard’s The Semblable; Hito Steyerl’s “The Language of Things”; and Jalal Toufic’s (Vampires): An Uneasy Essay on the Undead in Film.

  • Anahid Nersessian

    Anahid Nersessian


    Response to Rob Halpern

    A few paragraphs into Rob Halpern’s “Notes for a Hieroglyphic Poetics” we encounter a thought gone horrifically astray. Of his poem, “Otherwise Unavailable Intelligence,” Halpern writes, “I mistook the title for a phrase derived from Aimé Césaire’s, ‘Poetry & Knowledge’ . . . only to recall with astonishment, upon quickly searching the fugitive phrase, that ‘otherwise unavailable intelligence’ quotes a CIA operative’s alibi for ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’” He’s too modest to say so, and too curious about other people’s work to use the story just to talk about the social force of his own art, but this anecdote (a murder mystery, really) goes right to the core of what makes his poems necessary. That occurred to me the first time I read this piece, but it seemed even more true when I too went looking for Césaire’s essay to find what Halpern thought he had found there.

    I bet what Halpern probably remembered, or misremembered, about “Poésie et connaissance” was a version of the claim that “poetic knowledge is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge” (“La connaissance poétique naît dans la grand silence de la connaissance scientifique”), that it furnishes us with an intelligence otherwise unavailable to instrumental rationality.1 For Césaire, this opposition of poetry to science has an anticolonial function: if poetry is, in both its primeval and contemporary forms, aligned with the desires and possibilities of a free humanity, science has long been a tool of conquest and control. The poet is therefore, or ideally, a revolutionary figure whose explosive uses of language encourage political as well as epistemic insubordination. It’s an idea that owes much to Nietzsche—at its best, poetry is “the revenge of Dionysus on Apollo” (“la revanche de Dionysos sur Apollon”)—while cannily transposing his enthusiasm for imperial projects and his hated of socialism.2

    Rereading Césaire, I found myself lingering over a part of the essay I’d always sort of scooted past, namely the account of prehistoric poetry, or poetry “aux premiers temps de l’humanité,” in the early days of humanity. I’ve scooted past it not because it’s not beautiful—it’s intensely beautiful—but because I’m usually in a rush to get to the more pressingly political sections. It turns out, however, that Césaire’s description of a poetry of “fear and rapture” (la peur et le ravissement”), “attraction and terror,”(“Attirance et terreur”), “estrangement and intimacy” (“Étrangeté et intimité”), whose sense of perilous urgency we can now only approximate through “the sacred phenomenon of love” (“le phénomène sacré de l’amour”) sounds so much to me like a description of Halpern’s poetry that it stopped me in my tracks.3

    The catch, of course, is that Halpern’s poetry does nothing to pretend it’s anything but excruciatingly of the present, and not just because it’s full of drones and cops and detainees and also the names and ideas of his friends stitched alongside references to John Donne. The obvious thing to say is that it’s of the present because it assumes that here, the sacred phenomenon of love has been profaned, and that the emotions Césaire associates with the human condition in its early unblemished form (fear and rapture, etc.) are now just the ugly affects of a social existence for which desire is indistinguishable from harm.

    This isn’t wrong, exactly, and it’s a good start. You can’t read collections like Music for Porn (2012) and Common Place (2015) and not notice how they twist and travesty the conventions of lyric—and especially early modern love poetry—to mourn “love’s radical promise,” and you can’t notice those conventions without seeing (hopefully not for the first time, but with new eyes) how comfortable they are with military and carceral vocabularies and an absolutist logic of power.4 The sex in these books gives no refuge to pink-washing, no quarter to the hope that queerness might circumvent state control of our bodies, our intimacies, our perversions. And yet, I believe, though I don’t know quite how to prove it, that Halpern reveres love the same way Césaire says our ancestors did “the palpitating novelty of the world” (“la nouveauté palpitante du monde”), and that the unswervingly dialectical commitments of his poetry require any utopianism worth the name to reclaim pleasure as our right.5

    I’d like to talk more about pleasure, and about how what Sophie Lewis chides as “the denial by some leftists of the centrality of pleasure to liberation struggles” might be forcefully countered by a careful, counterintuitive analysis of Halpern’s work.6 But I’m supposed to say something about my book, and about a poetics that, in his words, apprehends its “relations to real conditions without being able to grasp or know them fully.” As I write in my introduction, The Calamity Form focuses on poets whose “proximity to criminalization and police violence” (that’s Halpern quoting Cyrus Dunham) is not close, partly because it’s about the history and legacy of a distinctly bourgeois aesthetics with a very particular position vis-à-vis capital and the state. It’s a critical position but also a protected one, and I wanted to show how its cocktail of anxiety, security, rage, and helplessness is made manifest in the style and structure of some well-known poems. A very different book could be written about alternative traditions and their characteristic or exemplary forms. For example, in my account of Wordsworth, I briefly contrast his adoption of the rhetorical figure of obscuritas, or obscurity, to John Clare’s prolific and precisifying use of adverbs, which “work in . . . overtime to yoke world-historical causes to their local effects.”7 Clare, who was incarcerated twice and died in an institution, did indeed write a poetry that “flesh[es] out what prison often hides from the world” (that’s Halpern quoting Justin Rovillos Monson), and in which an “association of vagrancy with life at the limits of subsistence” makes room, in Sal Nicolazzo’s words, “for surplus population to yield lyric solitude.”8

    My own work is headed in this direction. A couple of years ago, before Halpern and I began corresponding, I went to Manchester for a conference timed to coincide with the two hundredth anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre. Some friends and I visited the library where Marx and Engels wrote and did their research, and later I went by myself to the People’s History Museum, which walks a nervous line between celebrating centuries of proletarian struggle and being a de facto advertisement for the modern Labour Party. In that museum there is, behind glass, a recreation of a secret meeting spot for the kinds of radicals that got involved in the Cato Street Conspiracy, a post-Peterloo plot to assassinate the prime minister and the members of his cabinet. The room is very dark and adorned, predictably, with trade-union paraphernalia but also, and less predictably, with occult symbols and instruments, suggesting a closely guarded affinity between nineteenth-century social movements and much older folk traditions. In the poem that closes his essay—the poem of an otherwise unavailable intelligence—Halpern beautifully describes Sean Bonney’s poetry as making “the present itself history / As if a poem could announce what will have been here,” and that’s what I saw in that room, too, which is why I’m going to write a book about it, and about the failed insurrection that ended with five of its conspirators hanged and beheaded and the other five transported to Australia. The plan is for this to be a work of experimental history embedded in the Romantic period but shuttling often to the present of Halpern’s poems, with their black sites and rendition zones, their broken figures and their love, too. I can’t wait to talk to him about it.

    1. Aimé Césaire, “Poésie et connaissance,” Tropiques 12 (January 1945), 157–70; 157.

    2. Césaire, “Poésie et connaissance,” 158.

    3. Césaire, “Poésie et connaissance,” 159.

    4. Rob Halpern, “Correspondences,” in Common Place (Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling, 2015), 100.

    5. Césaire, “Poésie et connaissance,” 158.

    6. Sophie Lewis, Mal 5 (July 2020), available at (last accessed Sept 16, 2021).

    7. Anahid Nersessian, The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 77.

    8. Sal Nicolazzo, Vagrant Figures: Law, Literature, and the Origins of the Police (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 126.

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