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Century of Clouds
Nightboat Books ($14.95)
Book Thug ($18)
by Tyrone Williams
With three small books—My Walk with Bob, The Truth About Ted, and Century of Clouds—Bruce Boone established himself as a pioneer of a gay-inflected New Narrative in the 1970s and early 1980s. That Boone, New Narrative, and gay politics were all situated in San Francisco is not without consequence, for all three found themselves in dialogue with the Marxist-inflected Language Writing movement, more than half of whose members were also in the Bay Area at the time. One element common to both New Narrative and Language Writing is their struggle with the question of a radical politics emerging from (and, problematically, tethered to) a self-conscious community of activists and writers. But while early Language Writing underscored the unpredictable irruptions through the multilayered surfaces of the syntactical and social, New Narrative preserved the human body from this thoroughgoing criticism and, more controversially, revitalized storytelling as a strategic affirmation of marginalized communities. Cut to the “present”: a young New Yorker, Melissa Buzzeo, has been confronting similar issues regarding the human and political body, though scaled down to the problem of representation. In her two full-length books, What Began Us and Face, the San Francisco problematic of radical politics and communities is microscopically examined as a problem of the between, the impasse, the aporia. But while Boone zooms in and out from the micro- to the macro-scopic, pausing a few times to consider what lies between them, Buzzeo poses the one against larger forces arrayed against it, focusing primarily on the groundless middle.
The republication of Century of Clouds, edited by Rob Halpern, raises at least two questions: why this book, and why now? In his preface, Halpern argues that despite the book’s “outdated” politics, it remains not only a political and social model for “us” but also enacts the very forms it projects; it performs the kinds of social and political models “we” envision. These figures of the collective—“we,” “us”—can be presupposed according to what Dana Ward has called, in relation to Boone’s work, “the radicality of friendship,” a position implicitly taken up in Halpern’s preface. For Halpern, the book “returns now like a lost contemporary, speaking as a friend among friends.” The allusion to, and apparent emendation of, the Wordsworthean ethos—the poet as a man speaking to other men—demands that Halpern insist on the contemporaneity of the book as a model of friendship among political radicals—e.g., the Marxist study group Boone attended in 1977 and 1978—and, most important, a model of radical friendship that serves as the foundation or nexus for an emerging political praxis.
Although the book remains true to the New Narrative rejection of imposed form—its narration is propelled by desire, memory, regret, wonder and so on—it has a coherent and perceptible structure. The two middle “sections” concern communities: one religious, one political. Relatively early in his life, Boone joined a religious order. He faithfully records his sense of both the fraternity and frustration a few of the novitiates felt in relation to the church and its authorities. After leaving the church, Boone participated in a Marxist study group led by, among others, Frederic Jameson, Stanley Aronowitz, and Terry Eagleton. During one of the seminars, Boone famously showcased his pink sticker, publicizing his sexual orientation in order to raise the question of the relationship between gay liberation and Marxist teleology. Boone makes no pretense that his desire to join these communities was not first and foremost driven by the desire for fraternity and friendship. Indeed, in the afterword to this edition of the book, he is blunt about the matter. Yes, he wrote this memoir as a way to change the world—and Halpern emphasizes its performative orientation—but, nonetheless, he concedes that “Ideology . . . has been a pretext for discovering friends.” Later, to emphasize the point, he writes, “In the end, it’s emotion that counts. Just emotion.”
Framing the two narratives on communities are, perhaps, the most telling sections of Century of Clouds. The book opens with the problem of funerals from a radical, secular perspective and concludes with a dance party the last night of the Marxist seminar. The funeral is itself prefaced by an “overture” (Boone’s dream of flight, of “largeness,” of escape), while the party is tagged with a “coda” (another dream: Boone in a meadow of waist-high flowers, running toward those who are calling him forward). The corniness of these “dreams” has a political point, one with Boone’s “elevation” of gossip as an important ritual within communities. Both serve to reinforce communal ties by valorizing the ordinary, the everyday, even the cliché, but of course it is precisely the ordinary, the everyday, and the cliché that, from a Marxist perspective, hinder the arrival of the future. Boone understands this contradiction all too well, facing up to another facet of the quotidian: friendship.
At a crucial point in this narrative Boone raises the question of the enemy, for he understands that there is no friend without a foe, that the neighbor cannot exist without the stranger, and so forth. Or as Boone puts it, in a much more radical form: “Who is the enemy and who isn’t?” Without that second independent clause—“who isn’t?”—Boone’s formulation would remain one with the most conventional, positivistic modes of thought along the entire political spectrum. Even if Boone “only” means identifying the enemy is sometimes a difficult enterprise, but one susceptible to the protocols of interpretation and analysis, the consequences are the same as those that would follow from what I believe he really means: every friend is an enemy. Those consequences: the difference between friend and foe is a matter of time and space, of date and location, since every friend, if he or she is “human,” must fail, must lapse. On this view the “radicality of friendship” that serves as the matrix for an emerging world would amount to the totality of friendship, a totalitarianism of friends, the end, at last, of enmity—and the closure of Homo sapiens, if not the conceit called “humans.”
The context for Boone’s formulation of the friend-qua-foe is a conflict during a volleyball game after one of the seminar lectures. Certain of Boone’s “pushy teammates” began taking over the game, essentially trying to turn it into a singles or doubles tennis match. Because this had happened at least once before, Boone had already planned a response—and, just as important, had gotten the backing of some of the women attending the conference. When the ball is shot at Boone, he catches it and marches to the sidelines, halting the game. One of the women, Sonia, is satisfied by an apology from one of the “pushy” teammates, but Boone isn’t so sure he’s willing to forgive and forget. Sonia admonishes him, asking Boone, rhetorically, “But he isn’t the enemy, is he?” Boone agrees that, “probably the enemy was Standard Oil, Exxon, imperialism, etc. etc.,” but concedes that he does so “with some reluctance.” As he did earlier during his “first intervention” when he announced that he was a gay man, Boone aligns himself with some women against some men at the conference. The friend, the enemy, could be, at any moment, a woman, a man, if only for a moment. In short, sexual orientation, like gender, is as much a conundrum as friendship, as fraternity: who is straight and who isn’t? Who is a man or woman and who isn’t? How can “we” be certain at any given time?
Only, apparently, in the fullness of time. This allusion to the spiritual Marxism of Walter Benjamin, whose “The Storyteller” is one of the ur-texts of New Narrative,” is deliberate, for if every friend is not, at the same time (that is, eternally), an enemy, then how is it, for example, that Century of Clouds languished for so long out of print? The quick answer is simple: Boone’s friends, to say nothing of Boone himself, were not responsible for keeping it in print. But then, one must ask, what were they responsible for? Who was responsible and who wasn’t? And if, as Boone says in the afterword, this book’s politics will too “pass,” that its register of a moment in the history of a gay Marxist with other gays, other Marxists, and other gay Marxists must make way for a future politics, then is it an act of political irresponsibility to resurrect it, to bring it back to life, to burden the present with the past?
If we refuse the very form and rhetoric of these questions, if we insist on the relevance of a book for us in the present, this is because we accept, implicitly, our friend’s failings, and how they inevitably veer toward the enemy camp. Halpern reminds us that Century of Clouds was published just before the onset of AIDS as a public health crisis that was linked, in the public imagination, to both a gendered sexuality (gay, not lesbian) and sexual lifestyle (the baths, not the discos). Given the book’s deliberate teleology—from death and mourning to life and gaiety— we may “now” read, perhaps can only read, Century of Clouds as “A picture of a book in reverse.” Melissa Buzzeo’s Face, from which I just quoted, performs its own act of retrospection as mourning even if, per Century of Clouds, it too wants to change the world. It too is an act, an event, but rather than being poised at the border between politics and friendship, ethos and eros, it is implicitly agnostic about the possibility of bridging the gap between experience and description. While Boone worries that politics and friendship are susceptible to hermeneutics, Buzzeo has little faith in interpretive strategies. Her method and ethos are postlapsarian attentiveness, chastened phenomenology: “The act of following is not like the act of being faithful. It is not forlorn. It is also not required. Nor relinquished.” To be fair, Boone’s worries do amount to doubt within the two communities but, as noted above, doubt gives way to ecstatic friendship, punctuated by cloying dreams. For Buzzeo there is no joy in others, or at least not the others arrayed against one. Hers is a writing layered in the folds of its own isolation even as it gestures toward others, toward a “girl who walks into the present,” as if to suggest that fraternity and friendship whisper to one another even when they have been separated. That is, the interdependence (one may as well say co-dependence) of sorority and fraternity is not only formally analogous to that of friendship and enmity but may also be inextricable from both: all four would interpenetrate and constitute one another.
Thus there are no “men” or “women” or “boys”—only “a girl”—in the poems Face comprises Face, as though Buzzeo would like us to do the impossible: imagine the first face in human history. Faces, these poems suggest, are all we have; anthropomorphism, like appropriation, is precisely what allows us to see, to respond, to remain “speechless” no longer. It is not necessary to affirm this point by listing all the colloquial expressions in English—to face the facts, to face the music, “Facing It” (as Kommunyaka writes), to put a face on it, etc.—but they do illuminate the general problem of alterity. Moreover, these colloquialisms have one thing in common: the presupposition of trauma, trouble, difficulty, crisis.1 Here, trauma underscores the movement from “lake” to “city” to “star.” The “evidence” for trauma is precisely Buzzeo’s repetitious phrases, the endless going over the same, a strategy or compulsion which marks both of her books. In What Began Us, as here, “a girl” enters the text shortly after it begins. And, bodies of water—a puddle, a lake, a river, an ocean, and, not least of all, humans—populate both books.
Not surprisingly, then, Face begins before itself; the postscript to What Began Us serves as a preface to Face. Buzzeo cites a passage from Luce Irigaray’s Ethics of Sexual Difference. I note only the first and last sentences: “Spelled out in images and photographs, a face loses the mobility of its expressions, the perpetual unfolding and becoming of the living being . . . If he [the lover] thinks he leaves her like a dead body, could it be that the lover discovers in her what is terrible about the limits of nudity, or dredges up what he needs to move on to some place beyond the realm of the living?” The trajectory described by Irigaray replicates that of Face, which begins as a kind of ecopoetics: “The lake that lies between. / Is imperfect because it lacks meaning.” The cleaved sentence can only “mean” once it finds its prosthesis—the human: “I put my hand in the water to attach meaning.” The distance required to delude oneself that the lake is immobile is absolute with respect to the face of the other. Or to put it another way: there is no ethos without this ungovernable alterity which will not be gainsaid but must, nonetheless, be said if one is to gain—or regain—anything.
Thus, for Buzzeo, an ecopoetics gambit opens up the problem of the “girl” who walks into “the present,” an “ocean” that is finite but, to sight, apparently infinite. The movement between sensation, perception and reason is thus only complicated by memory. Would that it were not so: “If there could be discovery. The discovery of now in the present.” Trauma, an indelible memory, functions like a palimpsest or mask, one face over another, a memory all too present, eclipsing the face of now: “The discovery of face beyond the puddle as you lifted. Listened.” Of course, that last word—“Listened”—takes Buzzeo beyond mere reportage (“There are reports that they are dead”), for Buzzeo can know that the lifted head is listening only by projecting her face—or the faces of other victims—onto “that” face. Buzzeo moves back and forth between ethos and oblivion: to name and unname, to sketch and blur, to be responsible and irresponsible. Here, as in Boone, the gesture toward irresponsibility, however negated by the countervailing gesture toward responsibility, hesitates between the absolution of faith in an indeterminate future—one where division gives way to unity, to “healing”—and praxis in a present, as secular as a hand attaching itself to handle (and be handled), and thus grapple with, power and “justice.” 2
By the time we get to the second half of Face, Buzzeo turns explicitly to the performance of her writing, what it is doing and not doing in relationship to justice and forgiveness, retrieval and letting go, ethos and oblivion. Though she acknowledges that “the acquisition of speech” is a building up, an “In wall” which dissimulates as the façade of a “door” (“She wonders wall or door”), Buzzeo takes the risk, is writing risk: “To step over the echo of moat she is asked to give up Mouth.” Beyond—that is, within—the moat is the castle, here figured as the city of reports: “In the city there are soggy papers and late papers, seeded papers, early papers. Sentenced papers. Papers that separated themselves. . . . They were not part of belong. Not part of born.” In short, one never quite arrives, weighed down by baggage, one’s speech, skin, body parts (or absence thereof), birthplace, etc.
The last section of the book, “We Look At Star” is a sustained refusal of the consolation of origins, of a homeland. The futility of inscribing a canny tradition—“We are so empty pointing”—is marked as a turning away from the face, from the human, and from the earth. Here, ethos takes on its anthropological/sociological meanings: the customs and traditions of a people. No need to mention the distance between peoples, one equivalent to that between humans and what lies beyond or behind a sky. Buzzeo turns away from the sky toward space, what separates faces: “Because we cannot continue. As such, I write you in space.” Because we live our lives among spaces, among temporalities, we can always, if we choose, face one another: “Because I would ask that in facing we forgive.” The unilateral movement of the gift, the open hand reaching out to the closed fist, is not projected into some unpredictable future. For Buzzeo this present is now, at hand: “Towards a place that has barely been. But that is, already.”
1 In that sense, Boone’s short chapbook, The Truth About Ted, is exemplary inasmuch as it rehearses the gossip that was unleashed to hunt down the truth, to put a gay (or not) face on an alien in the guise of a friend and vice versa.
2 Another classic example of this difference is the debate over the relevance of affirmative action and the insistence that the post-racial future has arrived and renders such programs obsolete if not anachronistic.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010