I remember visiting John on the Bowery when our son Jesse was about one year old. Jesse was crying and Christie had him in her arms and was comforting him saying, “it’s alright … it’s alright.” John turned to us and said “It’s not alright. And it’s never going to be alright.” There is a point where the politics of making things alright (I’m thinking of Kendrick Lamar’s song here, amongst other things) has to face up to a fundamental emptiness, call it finitude, call it mortality, and what is there to be done about that other than to be honest about it? What sounds cruel turns out to be truly compassionate, because you are forced to drop your struggle in support of an illusion and face your situation as it is. But that’s hard to do. If we could do that, we would be enlightened, we would be cured, we would have our revolution (three interrelated utopias, as my friend Eric Cazdyn points out). In the meantime, even resigning ourselves to being here (to use the title of another of John’s poems) is quite an achievement.
John’s poems, although “just poems,” have been concerned with a three-fold liberation, all the way back to his first appropriation poems written in the mid-1960s. First, they articulate an aesthetic liberation that frees words and other semantic units so that they can be apprehended anew, as if being come to for the first time, in the tradition of the 20th century avant-gardes. Second, they announce a political liberation that aims at freeing particular meanings, events, identities and understandings from prejudice and injustices, in the tradition of the radical political movements that arose in the 1960s around the world. And finally, they point towardss a spiritual liberation that removes all attachment and fear from inherently empty phenomena, including the words that manifest in a poem, in the tradition that the Buddha taught. These liberations are interdependent, simultaneous, and, from an absolute point of view, neither existent nor non-existent, never having been attained or not attained.
One can compare John’s stance to that taken by queer theorist Lee Edelman in his recent book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004). Both formally and thematically, John’s poetry embodies many of the qualities that Edelman is interested in: the value of repetition over normative fantasies of a future (thus the “no future” most dramatically worked through in “Suicide Sutra”); the iterability of desire as a bare expression of the death drive affirmed as such; the rejection of a future-oriented politics in favor of “living with negativity.” But the differences between Edelman’s Lacan-derived, psychoanalytical model and John’s poetry are also instructive—especially for those seeking to articulate a queer politics that continues to refuse homo- and heternormative political fantasies, but who struggle with the apparent impasses of Edelman’s borderline-nihilistic commitments. (Self-) exposure to emptiness is not simply neutral, and need not result in solipsism: since emptiness is synonymous with interdependence, it implies compassion for oneself and for others, which may be said to be immanent to emptiness or negativity “itself.” There is really nothing to hold onto—even “nothing”: and that is true for ourselves and others. Yet the drives are “unceasing/in flow.” What to do? “The world makes me laugh” (“Welcoming the Flowers”).
MARCUS BOON's most recent book is In Praise of Copying (Harvard). He edited Subduing Demons in America: The Selected Poems of John Giorno (Soft Skull) and writes about music and sound for The Wire. He teaches at York University.