by Cosmo Spinosa
I have always been fascinated by ruins. Not just ruins, not just what has fallen out of use and has been abandoned, but what happens to those places called ruins after they have been abandoned that makes them ruins–the reclamation of nature, the manicured structures, lawns, and roadways disintegrating, the rust, the crumbling asphalt, and the trespass. That land is developed, planned out, built on, and then vacated, sometimes for no reason at all, and then is left to the elements. The chain link rusts away creating its own barbs, weeds and plants grow uninhibited over old buildings, people break into what used to be a barracks or a basement or a walk-in refrigerator and use those spaces however they want. The abandoned structures often become the raw material for my poetry, a study of decay.
I am thinking specifically of a space that I would like to say that I have come to know well but that I no longer visit. Most of my writing comes from recalling a place and meditating on it after the edges have become dull and I only have brief and flashing memories of it. I let the unfocused details enter my poetry because they are probably misremembered for the better. That meditation on a space after it loses the details that position it within a historical, social, and political reality, that erases specificity and allows for generic and abstract meditation is what I will term non-specific site poetry. Under this umbrella, there exist other types of poetries–ecopoetics, “nature” poetry, the poetry of the everyday, and many others. What concerns me in this essay, however, is site-specific poetry–that poetry that is written with visible signifiers of a specific site, which takes into account its history, social factors, and other realities. One main differentiation between the writing of a specific site versus a non-specific one is the naming of it. As soon as I name the space that I write about, it is immediately put in dialogue with all other writings of that space. It has a different weight and significance than the writing of a non-specific site. The sort of writing that comes out of site-specific poetry has to take into consideration much more than its counterpart. Likewise, the writing around these spaces must be dealt with in an ethical way, as I will talk about later on.
The place that I’m naming now is the Alameda Naval Air Station. If you look at a map of the island of Alameda (a human-made island), you’ll see that the Naval Air Station covers about half of the land in Alameda. This land is and has been largely unused for many years now. Today its uses are primarily industrial, but it also contains low income housing and some other civic structures. However, to a person visiting this place for the first time, the Naval Air Station appears to be a ruins.
Let me briefly recount the history of this place as I have researched it. The Alameda Naval Air Station was originally a marshland. The land was bought and developed into an airport. Around WWII, the government seized the land and turned it into a base. In the 90s, the base was shut down and the government made promises to give the land back to the county. The land is currently undergoing remediation because of jet fuel and other contaminants found in the soil. This is a rough outline of the base’s history, focusing not on the political or social connotations, nor on the people who have lived there, but on the land itself. Though it now houses people and businesses, the base is, for the most part, still unkept and largely abandoned. The housing I mentioned above is usually placed right alongside decrepit, caved in apartment complexes with fences all around them. The businesses are hedged along with huge and unused airplane hangars.
As you have probably already put together, there are many social, economic, and political implications to this place I have called a ruins, and I admit that I am ignorant of many of these implications, other than knowing that they do exist. Calling this place a ruins, as I did initially, is a generalization. To someone studied in other fields, there is a whole slew of issues attached to this place. On my first few visits there, I remained naive to those problems.
My original intention in visiting the Naval Air Station was to write a collaborative project concerning place, coupled with photos of the base taken by an ex-girlfriend, who is also a poet, photographer, and friend. We walked around parts of the base together, and she took photos of whatever interested her while I tried to remember the details and the affect of the place we were wandering around. We walked, mostly silently, for about two hours, taking pictures, noting landmarks and their decay, and trying to understand what this place was and what it had been. Most of the details that I gathered then no longer register as memory, but what I do remember from that day is a deep sense of loss and sadness. I don’t know why, but for hours after visiting the base, it seemed that Sarah and I hardly spoke a word to each other. It hangs in the air, this sadness for a place, a long time after, as if it had entered into you. It is almost like visiting a cemetery or a church, that though you are abstracted from its significance, not believing in that religion anymore or having any dead there, you are still drawn into the trope of its meaning and can’t help but feel its lingering effects.
What, specifically, is the trope of this place? And why do we feel its lingering presence during our visits there and after leaving it? When the photos were developed in black and white, streaks of light and what looked like fog crowded around the pictures’ subjects, as though the haunting presence that we felt had pressed down on the film itself. And it is hard not to make a connection that people have died here, that bodies may have been dumped here after it was abandoned, and that the land itself and its history is somehow damaged. I revisited the base alone many times afterwards, and with each trip it became more clear why it felt so haunting to me the first time around.
Even without death, without violence, or any other thing that may be lurking psychically in the base, there is the fact of the land and people. The land has been damage to the point that it is ruined for use. It is ruined for its original function as a marshland, which with its indigenous flora and fauna, functions as a cleaning system for the waterways. It has been ruined for use by the city that houses it because of the pollution and waste that has been dumped into it by the federal government. Moreover, and more important than any of this, it is a depressed area, and the people who do live in it are constantly accosted by the fact of its ruin, having to live in the midst of decaying and abandoned apartment complexes that could so simply be rectified and turned into a community, if not for all the red tape. It is a depressed area that very few people even know of, overshadowed by the wealth, success, and privilege of the rest of the city of Alameda. All of these factors, and many more, haunt this place. Entering into this place, I had no idea of what it signified socially, economically, politically, or otherwise, and had to educate myself about it. I am writing this as a privileged outsider and can only grasp peripherally the complications of the space that I am attempting to address. This is, perhaps, the whole point of writing this essay at all.
We often enter into a space not knowing what it signifies, like when driving into the Oakland hills, we find ourselves in a redwood forest where we can no longer hear the sound of cars and people and the busy life of the city at its foot. Sometimes it is unsettling and sometimes it is beautiful. Sometimes what we had been so quick to pass off as ruins are filled with people living and working and trying to make a better life for themselves. Space is full of these variables that make it both: both a ruins and a home and the site of a marshland as well as the site that housed a nuclear submarine at one time. There are always histories to be uncovered in space, and always something more to find there. It is nearly impossible to consider all of these variables and complexities at once. The base is simply one illustration of how these varied histories simultaneously exist.
Writing into a specific place, one is taking part in the history of it. And at times, this means taking part in the violence of rewriting its history. Space becomes an open signifier and our writing of it is a way to engage with its multiplicities. And though when we make the poetic choice of privileging one aspect of this signifier over another, of writing into space as it relates with language, ecology, the everyday, or any other coinciding theme that can be read alongside space, those alternative themes and poetries linger within our writing as a trace. Not only are we writing into the history of space when we choose to write about a specific landmark or site, but we are also writing into the writing of that landmark or site.
The naming of a space, and the subsequent writing around it, is an action that has to be weighed ethically. When I write about a tree by a lake, this tree and lake has the privilege of anonymity. There are no markers that signal to the reader that this tree or lake are infused with a social reality or are attached to a specific space. When I write about the overgrown hedges and weeds crawling up the side of a former barracks at the Naval Air Station, this image is additionally charged with the significance of the space that I address. I am not saying that one is better and one is worse, only that with the specificity and naming of a space comes all of the complexities that may be attached to it. Perhaps the reason that my project about the base was ultimately a failure was precisely because of the complexities that it embodies. I went looking for a ruins and found something that was partially that and partially a history and a site where people lived and worked and still do, and so much more. Perhaps it was my failure or lack of skill at being able to rectify all of the various functions that this space serves. Perhaps I realized after my ten or fifteen visits to this place that I did not fully understand the stakes of writing about a space that was so complex. It is easy to turn a blind eye to the intricacies of a place, to make it mean what you want it to mean, to commit the violence of rewriting space as something you see, and not the reality of what it is. It is easy to tell partial truths. But addressing a specific site asks us to be judicious towards it, to attempt to represent it as best we can for its complexities, and not to generalize or belittle it, to consider the lives, the meanings, and the struggles that come along with it, and to be truthful to them.
Cosmo Spinosa lives in Oakland. His poetry is forthcoming in Barrelhouse and has appeared in Peacock, Aries, and Vertebrae, among others. His critical work has appeared on The Volta. He holds an MFA in Poetry from Mills College.
Ben Mirov’s second book of poetry, Hider Roser, is an eclectic, irreverently funny, and unexpectedly sincere collection published by Octopus Books. Even after the first poem, “Containment Unit for Mysterious Green Vapor,” which begins: “I shouldn’t talk about myself that way./ I also have feelings./ Anger at the cucumber./ Disappointed neon blue./ Running through the pine forest/ from robotic wolves of happiness,” I was instantly hooked on the wit of this collection. Mirov’s sudden twists of language and his voyage into the imaginary often create an absurd and comical collage that is both captivating and seemingly lighthearted. After a more studied read, however, this lightheartedness yields to concerns about poetry, identity, and personal relationships.
Like the windows and masks that manifest as images within Hider Roser, and like the title itself, an anagram that can be rearranged with some effort, there is a guarded sincerity behind each humorous evasion in Mirvo’s collection. This vulnerability comes to the fore in unlikely ways. As Mirov explains in “For Ben Mirror”: “Dreaming is a different matter./ It takes a lot of cocoons/ to make a dream and even then// you’re the only one around/ to appreciate the architecture./ You have no idea who you are.// You think you’re someone/ named Ben Mirov./ Thursday, June 11, 2009” (26). Even in the reflective moments of this book, there is always a surreal underpinning. In this poem and many others, the speaker investigates his own identity. It seems to me that one of the themes that Mirov’s poetry rehashes in this collection is that identity is a sort of lie that we tell ourselves for the illusion of a seamless existence. And of course, in some ways this is true, no matter how much we try to divest ourselves from it. Mirov’s collection constantly points to the absurdity of being a poet, of being a person, of existing at all.
As much as Ben Mirov’s Hider Roser is an exploration into comical and nihilistic absurdity, it is also a deep meditation of what it means to write poetry. For Mirov, one of the tasks of the poet is to render things as they are–either in his imagination or in reality–as acutely and skillfully as she or he can. In this book, there is a never ending play between the real and the imaginary, the possible and the impossible.“I am trying to figure out the secret/ of artificial intelligence,/ how to make something get up and live// all by itself. I believe/ this is possible and my beliefs/ though flimsy and hollow like yellow reeds// bent low against the wind/ down by the black river where dreams/ kneel down to die in peace/ are the only things that confuse me” (20-21). Poetry is an attempt to bring something to life, not just for the poet, but for the reader. In Hider Roser, Mirov has found some ways to make this possible, through humor, through absurdity, and most importantly, through a belief that this can be done.
Buy it from Octopus: $12
Cosmo Spinosa is a poet and critic living in the Bay Area. He holds an MFA from Mills College.
Tim Leonido’s Call Home is a zip ﬁle downloadable from Gauss’s website. The project contains a collage of recordings of people talking over the phone, usually in short segments between two seconds and a minute and a half long. Encountering these recordings, the listener pieces together that the project consisted of the artist paying people to record a thirty minute phone conversation. Later, the artist collected this raw material and fragmented it into a sequence of edited recordings. The result is a chimera of found language, sound poetry, and conceptual art that delves into everyday communication in a way that can’t be replicated using poetic artiﬁce. Whereas most poetry that uses the everyday attempts to replicate speech in a contrived way, Leonido’s project is able to engage with it directly and in its own environment. By extension, this work is a study of speech itself–how it is used and who uses it, what people talk about and with whom.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this project is the way that it effortlessly models everyday, often boring, language and subject matter. Nevertheless, it registers that subject matter as a work of art. Call Home appeals to the voyeuristic auditor in the way that reality TV appeals to a voyeuristic viewer. It affords them a detachment from the interlocutors that it records, and this detached disinterest refocuses the listener’s attention on the generalities of everyday conversation.
The technique of the artist to cut and collage these conversations draws the
listener’s attention to the thematic congruences and clashes that makes Call Home a surprising and entertaining listen. On my ﬁrst listen through this project, I found myself writing down people’s topics of conversation. These ranged from colonoscopies to emu farming, Steve Martin, and Jerusalem. Though those were some of the more grabby conversations, people seemed to be talking most often about their health, their families, the places that they lived, and their livelihood.
As much as this project is a work of sound art, it also became a sort of
sociological study–an investigation of what people talk about with their friends or family members. What fascinated me about overhearing other people’s conversations in this project was their lack of self-censorship, even as they were aware that their calls were being monitored. Though the surveillance techniques used in this project are seemingly innocuous and intended for art, a more precarious form of surveillance hovers over this
work and can’t be ignored. The fact that our words and actions are constantly being monitored, and the relative ease with which this is achieved, is demonstrated in Leonido’s Call Home. Of course, it is absurd to assume that even if we are being monitored all of the time, that there is anything “worth” listening to. Leonido’s project is subversive for this exact reason–it exposes systems of surveillance and uses them for its own artistic ends. It upsets the listener’s expectations of what is valuable or worthwhile information. At the same time, Call Home demonstrating that this information is nevertheless being collected and used not only locally within the parameters of the project, but also globally as a state apparatus.
Get it from Gauss PDF: Free
Cosmo Spinosa is a poet and critic living in Oakland. He holds an MFA from Mills College.
Graham Foust’s To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems is replete with the signature mishearings and misgivings characteristic of Foust’s aesthetic. What has always struck me in Foust’s work is his ability to defamiliarize common turns of phrase as a means to evoke the absurdity of language. “I keep my mouth to myself.// I put my brains where I can see them.// I’ve got my hands where I can make the poem worse.” Through his sentences, Foust creates a sort of anti-poetry that forces his readers to critically engage with everyday communication. His lines twists words and phrases into likenesses of themselves and leaves behind traces of their original meanings. In reading these poems, we become detectives of our own language, putting back together words we have heard so many times before from new configurations of the same. Doubt and failure hang in the balance of these poems, which are always conscious of what they are doing, and more importantly, what they fail to do. As Foust says in “Ten Notes to the Muse”: “A poem’s an empty lemon in the mouth of a crow on a phone line.” So much of Foust’s work in this volume obsesses over answering the impossible question of what the poem is and what it does. It is clear that there is no answer to this question, but one thing that Foust’s poems always seem to do is try.
There are no epiphanic moments to be found here. Instead, we find carefully crafted disjunction. In this paratactic mesh, often leaning towards pessimism and discontent, words reveal themselves to be both a frustrating and liberating vehicle for thought. “It’s not entirely correct to say that August is like having blood dumped on you, but let’s, until we conjure something else.” Words approximate meanings. Words approximate themselves. There is no exact relation here, between a thing and its metaphor, between a thing and its name, but language is liberating nevertheless in its attempt to convey a feeling. Often, this volume reduces things to their most basic elements–to language and to a body, to a faint and approximate meaning, as “[a] sheet of plywood is a picture of a tree,” or “[the] ocean’s over there; the eye’s a drain.” And though these are only approximations, they are complex and stunning. If the function of poetry is to turn language on its head, in the best moments of To Anacreon in Heaven, Foust does just that, as when in his single-line “Sonnet” Foust explains “I sing as if I’m eating what I’m singing from a knife.” The circularity and complexity of this sentence is something that we see throughout Foust’s book, and something he has cultivated throughout his corpus. Foust’s poetry is comprised of a resistance to the language that forms it. It is resistant to the lyric tradition it engages with. It is not a field guide or an anthem, as some would suggest. It is more like a picture that we are watching being erased.
Cosmo Spinosa is a poet and critic living in the Bay Area. He holds an MFA from Mills College.