Tagged: Walter Benjamin

REVIEW: Throng by Jose Perez Beduya



by Raymond de Borja

It is fairly commonplace to characterize our contemporary setting – of ubiquitous computing, the cloud, the Internet of things, big data, etc. – as one where our knowledge of the world is increasingly easier to accumulate and transmit, but where our experience of the world is becoming more and more inaccessible and uncommunicable. Not to say that the ubiquity of technology is an outright catastrophe, but at least to point out that the relationships among language, knowledge, experience, and the world (already traditionally fraught problematics) are made more intricate by developments in technology. That, as there are changes in the accumulation and transmission of knowledge, so too must there be changes in our means of accessing, communicating, and making experiences. Changes that all the more make the necessity for poetry more urgent, should we think of poetry as a space where language is both knowledge and experience, and also, very possibly, a limit of a world.

Giorgio Agamben traces a genealogy of the problematics of language, knowledge and experience in his essay Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience. A tracing motivated not by a nostalgic return, but by the possibilities opened up by a topology, a mapping of potential experience given the then, modern conditions. Among the first accounts of the poverty of experience, Agamben notes, is by Walter Benjamin, who, observed that soldiers returning from the First World War have “grown silent – not richer, but poorer in communicable experience.” Post World War I, a critical break in the genealogy of experience happens when the poverty of experience becomes quite ubiquitous as to become the day-to-day: A “destruction of experience,” Agamben writes, which “no longer necessitates a catastrophe” but one where “the humdrum daily life in any city will suffice.” Here is Victor Shklovsky cleaning and meandering about in Art as Technique:

I was cleaning and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn’t remember whether or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember – so that if I had dusted it and forgot – that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been. And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.

We enter Jose Beduya’s Throng after a catastrophe; here is the first poem The Search Party quoted in full:


In the fields
We were boys

And girls finding debris
Gathering notes

With nothing to report
A people very inside ourselves

We found each other
Through a system of ropes and smells

Our long, stumbling days
Began and ended

With ballad versions of the prayers
We were taught in different tongues

Flashes and rustling
From copying machines replaced

Our voices when they failed
The images we’ve tucked under rocks

Scattered with the wind
That moves all merchandise

Guarding against numbness
We started small fires

Everywhere we went
Only when we buried

Our hands in the hard soil
Of the valley

Did the throbbing surrounding
Hills become a part of us

Ironies around the poverty of experience are performed in The Search Party – the neat couplets, the calm prosody (a calmness that runs throughout Throng mostly through lines of under 10 syllables), the sparsely punctuated lines… what we find here and in the rest of Throng is a worlding, a lyric cycle with the tonal consistency of the day-to-day albeit punctuated with disasters. In The Search Party, even catastrophe has become routine – to the point that the heroic work post-catastrophe is left to inexperienced “boys/ and girls finding debris,” who show no indication of remorse even when there is “nothing to report.”

Apart from the tonal consistency, other specific tropes found in The Search Party recur throughout Throng, among them the divine characterized as un-redemptive, and often disfigured:

With ballad versions of the prayers
We were taught in different tongues

(from The Search Party)

With the helicoptering

(from Morrow [In the clearing)

Who lives alone
Will be surrounded by armless angels
And when she lies down
For a long time in the field
Attempting to decipher
The temperamental night sky
Sees the long swords
Of flashlights approaching

(from Morrow [In the clearing)

Such glimpses of the disfigured divine are legion in Throng, and throughout, what is certain only is that “God was,” that the “The sweet lord has many/ Moving parts said my sensors” – harrowingly beautiful lines which sum up in their brevity a divine, which unlike the divine of theological pedagogy, approachable only through experience and suffering (pathema), is in here instead disfigured, is merely knowledge, is information captured by sensors.

Another recurring trope is the copy:

Flashes and rustling
From copying machines replaced
Our voices when they failed

(from The Search Party)

              We check against copies
And eat the pages
As we read them

(from Ever)

We make ten copies of the morning

(from State of Emergency)

The copy has permeated Throng’s world so much that “We must mass-produce/Mirrors to stay what we are” which although is a desire for identity, is on the other hand a desire for a simulacral one, without real possibility. A thought, which offers no solace, in a world where already the divine is un-redemptive, and the copy is the quotidian.

But the potential for the miraculous appears in Throng through the plural “we.” In most of the poems, the “we” rather than the “I” is used. This offers a nuanced questioning of experience: In a world which is increasingly routine and disfigured, how is it possible to speak of a “we,” how is authentic shared, first person experience possible in a world shaped by accumulated knowledge? “Reality,” says Paul Celan “must be searched for and won,” and in Throng perhaps although “We found each other/ Through a system of ropes and smells,” (from The Search Party) at least we found each other, and although “We make ten copies of the morning” (from “State of Emergency”) we at least “watch and watch/for changes” (from “State of Emergency). Only in “we” is pathema again minimally possible:


Sundays we move sideways
Mondays we are blurred and folded
Into the eternal question
Stabbing pains
We cry out
And our crying out reveals us
To each other and ourselves
By the long hooks
Of our fears we are suspended
In an oxygenated sensitivity
That we later drag down
To our cubicles
Without fellow feeling we are
Motionless on a rooftop garden
By our sorrows we are lowered
Our household objects
And our loved ones glow
But we’ve reached
A threshold to our amazement

Minimally, as we reach a threshold to our amazement, and so Monday is a possibility for revealing us to each other and ourselves; a Monday, that in Walter Benjamin’s terms, is “shot through with chips of Messianic time,” the threshold both a limit and a door to our amazement.

Agamben locates the possibility of authentic experience in infancy, taking from literal infancy where one has not learned language (parole), but also conceptualizing a condition of infancy that comes before and continues as one is appropriating a language. Reading Claude Levi-Strauss, he locates this condition of infancy, this boundary condition between langue and parole, in myth. We can very well locate this boundary, this infancy, in the poem. Lisa Robertson articulates this through the beginner: “Poems are beginners. The urgent social abjection of the poem transforms that vernacular to a prosodic gift whose agency flourishes in the bodily time of an institutional and economic evasion. […] In poems and through vernaculars, citizens begin themselves, because only here speech still evades quantification, escapes the enumerating sign, and follows language towards its ear, towards natality[.]”

But even with the narrative arc that Throng seems to take through its fictive worlding, and despite the many similarities it has with our contemporary reality, it is obviously, and formally a poem, and hence a beginner, intimating ambiguity to make as Shklovsky would have, the stone stony, if only to make this stone the harrowing stone that it in its is-ness is; “Guarding against numbness” by starting “small fires” (from The Search Party). We read through these ambiguities: What redemption can we find from the shards of disfigured divine? What hope can we draw from such persistent “we” faced with the impossibility of personal and therefore also shared experience?

Then we come to the poem Morrow [In the clearing] and ask what is this “I” and why does s/he appear mostly in the Morrow poems?


 In the clearing
In the fragrant heat
I ran my fingers

Through my beloved’s
Hair checking
For lice and daymares

But our bed of leaves disguised
A complex network of gears
A whole abysmal

I lost all
Feeling in later systems

The epoch a muscle
Stopping twice

Was a year in June
Over the countryside
The great wheel

With the helicoptering

Our souls were scattered
Only half of us

The beloved appears only once in Throng, and s/he appears in the morrow. Throng begins after a catastrophe, and perhaps only after/through a worlding such as Throng is it possible to begin to experience.


Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience. Trans. Liz Heron. New York, N.Y.: Verso Books, 1993.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York, N.Y.: Schocken Books, 2007.

Robertson, Lisa. Nilling.Toronto, ON: Book Thug, 2012.

Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as Technique” Ed. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis. Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, Second Edition. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

Lake Forest College Press (2012): $13.00

Raymond de Borja’s first book, they day daze, was published by High Chair. He is working on his second book tentatively titled Given.