Zach Savich & Hilary Plum on Paul Killebrew’s “Ethical Consciousness”


Zach Savich: Let me start personally. Remember when my dad died? I read Ethical Consciousness shortly after. One thing grief granted me was the advent of weeping as an aesthetic response–I mean weeping in a way that isn’t linked simply to grief. Why do you think Paul’s book made me cry?


Hilary Plum: Yes, I read this book in the weeks before, while pacing the floor of your parents’ living room. At that time everyone slept on different schedules, which is to say, your sister and I sometimes slept, but you and your mother and father didn’t. I can’t answer your question, but I know what you mean. For instance, the poem “To My Enemies,” which ends, “the scene where / the technology / of society’s disenchantment / startles at the sound / of dishes crashing / across the restaurant, / only to find itself / in the gaze / of racialized desire.” Those last lines have been in my head for months: it’s their motion, which I can’t explain and which keeps presenting itself to me as possible explanation for a dizzying range of phenomena.


At the time I tried to say something to you of sentences that suggest, that create, (that intone?), an emotion or quality of thought, even as one could not parse their syntax to find that emotion or thought within, or could not parse their syntax, properly, at all. Since I already knew something about Frost, you tried to explain to me John Ashbery. Tell me more about this? Or, another way to ask a different question (“only to find itself / in the gaze”), if emotion can rise like a ghost out of syntax (is this tone?), can an “ethical consciousness” do the same, and what should we call this?


ZS: I love you for suggesting that to “intone” can mean to evoke or incite tone (rather than corresponding to a particular tone, an intoning tone). When I finished crying, I thought, “People will read this book and think of Ashbery and Schuyler. But only as much as they always should.” Schuyler because of the short lines, at once tense and poised, exacting in their depiction, but also conjuring the complementary absence of a surrounding context from which the depiction was exacted, which one can feel as loss (“Two street lights / pulsed orange / flowers through / a dull fog”). Ashbery because of the attentive drift of syntax, ruminative, so epistemology spins from the casually authoritative musing of phrases, often around a general yet intimate “you.” Take a sentence like this: “Could you also / pass through entirely, or is that / one of those / axiomatic falsehoods / upon which so / little of existence / finds any footing and / that yet / persists?” The tender persisting reminds me of Ashbery, as does the creation of tone (is this what I was trying to say about Frost/Ashbery?) through sentence patterns that amount to half of meaning (“Could you x or is that y upon which z…”—a good Mad Lib!).


I suppose that, as a pattern of thought and thus of behavior (if only the behavior of language), this kind of syntax could suggest a form of “ethical consciousness,” not only in its meditative concern, but in its phrasing alone, a posture akin to the postures through which one is “ethical” (a judge’s reflective slouch, a protestor’s raised hand)? Let’s return to firmer ground. In this book, “ethical consciousness” also crops up overtly—through what we could call thought experiments into the nature of the self and its relationships with varied sorts of society. The virtuosic long poem at the end of the book, “Muted Flags,” has one of my favorite examples of this, when its narrator realizes that “it seemed likely” that people around the world happen to say some of the same words at the same time, which forms “an incidental choir” that also accrues into a kind of lovely, collective exquisite corpse. There’s an app that tracks this? Soon enough. If you were making other apps inspired by Ethical Consciousness, what would they do?


HP: You know very well that I have never seen an app. Or, in the words of Killebrew’s “Blind Preference”: “You / are like a ditch / feeding itself / to the lawn, / a regular guy / making his way / through the ocean. / States are built on / promises like you.” By you, I think I mean I. And this inability to distinguish ourselves from our interlocutors, to tell our speech from the incidental choir’s, is another chord that “Muted Flags” makes resound. I want to splice these thoughts together to make a proposition like this: it is the “tender” persistence of the I amid the looming absence of surrounding context—note here, now, the soft threat of loss—that allows or demands our ethical consciousness. Like the scene in “Muted Flags,” in which the speaker—an I whose identity permutes, or loses and finds itself while still speaking, throughout the poem—is mugged and says of his mugger:


I must have
looked at him
so strangely,
not, as he might
have expected, shocked
or frightened, but
as if I’d
just walked out of 
a dark theater
into the daylight,
and he were
soliciting strangers
for bit parts
in the inevitable
apocalypse.


Here even the theater won’t stay put; we can’t say when we are and aren’t in it. The speaker has twenty bucks and splits it with the mugger, who waits for him faithfully when he goes to make change. And so you and I float on, and later in the poem, in a leap that gives me a joy I also cannot explain, the speaker abruptly addresses “your recently successful / run for Congress. / Or, more precisely, your sudden disappearance / as a recognizable self / during the campaign.” This Ashbery-ish attentive syntactical drift, which in Killebrew becomes a breeziness of understated intelligence—aren’t we all regular guys? is this not the ocean?—is a means continually to implicate everyone on any side of this speech. We’re caught, unsure if we’re accuser or accused. So that lines like “States are built on / promises like you” both affirm and condemn us. Maybe another way to say this is that I become momentarily aware of the posture of ethics as posture: as we raise a hand, prosecutorial, righteousness blooms then fades and speech tumbles on: “All / we have seen / is fifteen feet / of road, and yet, / here we are, / the Treaty of Versailles.” If there could be an app this self-aware, one of these days in some poem Killebrew will simultaneously design, critique, and dissolve it, as he does with other conceptual art projects others would be thrilled just to dream up (e.g., the excerpt from his new “Negro Yachtsmen I Have Known,” just published on Thermos). But given all this, what makes Ethical Consciousness so funny?


ZS: Probably the same quality that has caused me, in the year I have known Paul outside of admiring his books, to present him with the following gifts: a set of Alf trading cards, a pair of spy glasses (with mirrors to let you see behind you), a bottle of bourbon chosen for the rad eagle on it. In the book, there are several kinds of humor, many of them played straight (that is, no pause for a laugh track):


a) There’s the humor that emerges from the kind of intricately whimsical concepts you mention. In “Experiment,” for example, the speaker of the poem—let’s call him Paul Killebrew—tries to pass through a wall  by tuning “the particles / in my body / to align / with the empty / spaces between / the particles / of the wall.” This is stoner science presented soberly, as though any such experiment will, even in failing, reveal something about the nature of the world, and so it does. 


b) There’s the humor of one-liners, often tinged with pseudo-profundity, foregrounding not just the punchline but the point of view of one who takes the joke seriously. Like the start of the first poem in the book: “My disease, if I / have one, is life / in its entirety.” Which is both funny and not at all. Or the start of “Deliveries,” in which a few one-liners stack up: “Does the vacuum cleaner / mind / that it’s in the lake? / What am I today, the news?”


c) There’s the humor of discombobulation. Which can come from gentle blips in expected or conventional usage (“The dominant / palette was / 1961”; “Now everyone has his eye”) or from larger deviations (the end of “Actually Present,” e.g., which goes “Something / something something, something / something something”). In that poem, and others, this perspective can turn the represented world into geometrical configurations that recall the unfinished landscapes at the edges of video games; thought becomes similarly configured, programmatic and disoriented (“but I wanted to rearrange thin bars of thought / into a ladder-like system of total devotion”; “I lived mostly as a walk / through frozen iterations of a neighborhood”). Still attentive, but trippily so. So that “flecks of consciousness / bending along / contours of the soul” reveal “never more surface, / just more tension / as the surface / spreads.” That isn’t funny, exactly. But it tilts your head like a joke might be in the works. But then the set-up continues past the point of any bada bing… 


One could go on. Another type—or related aspect—of humor in the book is a kind of exuberant glee that is present in even moments of graver reflection (“Just simmer down, silverware,” begins “Teach Me to Box”). I think this glee is similar to the fabulous painting by David Rathman on the book’s front and back covers. It’s worth mentioning that while you and I were living in a place in which we were lonely, I often enjoyed watching this video of a Neil Young performance. My theory was that everyone we knew and missed had a corresponding avatar in the crowd shots, so watching the video was a way to hang out with them. This cover is a lot like that, and perhaps humor in the book is, too, offering a way of looking that reorients things, and then extends beyond comedy. Or emerges from a kind of—should I call it sadness?—emotional need that makes the concepts, the one-liners, the discombobulations feel necessary.


HP: They do feel necessary, and beyond comedy, so that I laugh when I’m reading but not when I’m remembering. Because—and this too is a quality these poems’ share with the best comedy—there is a way (tilt your head and you’ll see it) that these poems are indictments and the charges serious. I don’t mean that this is their sole or lasting function. But it is a function: gleefully, amiably enough, we indict and are indicted by ourselves. But who’s we, who is in these poems? I agree with you and Neil that it may be everybody. I wish I could say how Killebrew does this, how diverse speech acts, welcomed into this intimate, tricksy voice, become diverse people, people who then encounter each other in a society as troubling as the one we live in. What I mean is something like: “the implacable now / takes me back inside / the government compound, enveloped / by its pressed brown gravel and humorless / architecture, an architecture that anticipates me / like a fact anticipates being buried.” Or that I too am waiting “for someone to stand up and insist that I, / for all my faults, am really just a compendium, / not blameless, exactly, but also not worth calculating, / past the decimal” (from “For David Park”). 


Really all I’m saying is that I’ve been living in these poems since last winter when I first read them, and I think you’re in there too. And I want to live in his new work, which—we’re in luck—Thermos published yesterday. Meet me there?


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