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
Sean Bonney, Our Death (Oakland: Commune Editions, 2019), 73. The publisher has made a free pdf available: https://communeeditions.com/our-death-sean-bonney/.↩
Anahid Nersessian, Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 73.↩