“We have to tear our happiness from future days.” –Mayakovsky
The United States is still in the grip of a pandemic. The state is still sponsoring the murder of Black people. Like millions of others, I am currently unemployed, having been jettisoned from the workforce as soon as cities went into hibernation. Crowds have been piling into the streets to reclaim public space in opposition to the police. After months of sheltering in quiet solidarity with so many potential victims of Covid-19, I’ve been marching through San Francisco in a much louder expression of our collectivity. These are historic times, and I say this believing we are always in historic times, it is just occasionally more obvious.
In this extended period of waiting and wanting, my thoughts seem caught in a turbulence best expressed by two statements. The first is the famous Fredric Jameson adage: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” And the second, from prison abolitionist Ruth Gilmore Wilson, is that quote’s utopian antidote: “the future we want is the future we need.” This is the logic present in the current calls to abolish the police, end racialized capitalism, and fundamentally remake the world.
As I attempt to bring these two poles into contact, reading poetry has felt like a ridiculous use of my time and a necessary one. Ridiculous because it feels so insufficient in relation to actually achieving a revolution. But necessary because, as I hope to explain, it reveals and clarifies the requirements and possibilities of that struggle.
Utopia, I have realized, is literary not literal. It’s a horizon that recedes as it is approached, and for me, exists primarily as a method. What I mean is that a poem can be read for utopia. Originating from Thomas More, the word “utopia” is a pun, meaning both “no place” and “good place.” A utopic reading is one that attempts to map this dialectic. If utopia were a literal place, then it would be “no place” we currently inhabit and a “good place” we want to travel to. In the more figurative sense, the “good place” is an ideal or desire and the “no place” is simply our present: those conditions of fascist reaction, alienation, and racialized capitalism that must be negated to pursue the utopian.
A utopic poem is burdened with representing our moment, yet it can also call up an entire arsenal of formal poetic devices to “tell it slant” in pursuit of this negation. This is at the heart of what Jameson sees as utopia’s political use. “Utopia,” he writes:
is most authentic when we cannot imagine it. Its function lies not in helping us imagine a better future but rather in demonstrating our utter incapacity to imagine such a future– our imprisonment in a non-utopian present without historicity or futurity– so as to reveal the ideological closure of the system in which we are somehow trapped and confined.
Though not every poem is utopic, poetry as a genre is well suited to dwelling in impossibility and unknowing, to prioritizing the feeling and contradiction that is necessary for utopian thinking. The poems I will discuss here—recent works from Chris Nealon, Peter Culley, and Tongo Eisen-Martin—have helped me, in these long and demanding months, to continue to believe another world is possible.
Chris Nealon – The Victorious Ones
“The historical materialist regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.” –Walter Benjamin
In the beginning of the pandemic, one could plausibly ask when things would return to “normal,” but in the last month we’ve seen protesters drag tremendous statues off their pedestals like they were pulling a bad tooth, scrawl “SLAVE OWNER” across plaques honoring so-called national heroes, and paint over in red the symbols of our nation’s bloody colonial history. This is all in an attempt to counter this country’s historical amnesia and unseat the myths which have been so necessary to the maintenance of the United States’ violent hegemon. I’ve felt an overwhelming sense of optimism in these acts. It’s made me consider the demands that history places on us and the demands we must place on history in return.
Chris Nealon’s long poem “The Victorious Ones” is a roaming epic in direct address that chronicles this struggle. The poem’s present is the revolutionary’s: it is Walter Benjamin’s “state of emergency which has never ceased to be the case.” It begins with the arrival of violence, a rupture in continuity (“Then came fire”) that expands to become a new and liminal moment we all suddenly inhabit: “and in the great transition no one could tell if we were doomed or we were free.” Is this an ending or a beginning? A period of revolution or apocalypse? This unresolved contradiction stretches across the length of the poem and is the affective backdrop against which the poem’s “pointillist” approach to time becomes significant. As the speaker’s account jumps in and out of history, temporality itself is revealed to be the poem’s subject.
With what Nealon’s speaker describes as the poem’s “mythic method,” the poem draws from classical antiquity, but also the pop “myths” of contemporary culture. In this Bardo, we encounter Peter Culley, Obi-Wan, Toni Cade Bambara, Rilke, Robin S, and Nealon’s fellow poets and comrades. Nealon marshals these specters of revolutionary struggle to the cause of Utopia, as evidence of a conflict that spans history and whose stakes are nothing less than “socialism or barbarism.” He says:
“There’s a river running backward through this poem to the sources of literature
You’d think that would be a good thing
But I take seriously that beauty is the beginning of terror, in a quarreling way
I do think beauty halfway staves off terror with forms, with dance, with symbols,
And I know we’re never far from terror–
Nealon’s “beauty” and “terror” produce and reproduce one another, in a mutually-sustaining “quarrel” that calls to mind the historical relationship between socialist progress and fascistic reaction. This dialectic is the content of history itself. Nealon expresses ambivalence around the relation of art to this conflict: even if he does see “forms” like dance, symbols, and potentially poetry as having the capacity to “stave off” terror, the effect is limited. It only takes us “halfway.”
In the same way that utopia can be understood as a horizon, poetry in Nealon’s formulation is a means and not an end. He codes this utopic beauty throughout “The Victorious Ones” with homosexuality, with desire, with ecstatic dance parties, with a future full of comrades. It is visible in glimpses: not a consolation in the world as it is, but in the world as it can be. A reminder that history is a product of our actions in defense and pursuit of this “beauty” and that this beauty is an essential demand of any revolution worth having.
The poem concludes with a reminder that nothing in this fight is certain or ever permanently arrived at. Therefore, its end suggests the beginning:
“Then came fire
It wasn’t yet a new world, or the end of the old one
But water, money, feeling overspilled their banks”
We are reminded that history is a catastrophe, a struggle that never ends. We do, however, come to moments where the contradictions “overspill their banks.” Perhaps this is where we stand right now. In the concluding lines, Nealon encourages us to take sober account of our conditions in these moments of struggle.
“Look around you now and ask yourself
Which of these–
The innovators, profit makers, the ones behind high walls,
The ones who are planning for the great catastrophes–
Or the ones with no ability to plan
Who live from hour to hour, year to year,
In whom terror waits to be uncurdled,
Who live in the great wide world–
Which of these will be the victorious ones?
In this conclusion, we descend from the clouds of myth and into the world as it is, with all the material conditions that confront us on the ground. Although Nealon is optimistic about the aesthetic as a thing that can “uncurdle” terror, he wants to remind us this battle is finally determined by living people and their actions. Behind the spectacular forms of culture are the banal villains (“the innovators, profit makers, the ones behind high walls”) and the quotidian heroes (“the ones with no ability to plan / who live from hour to hour, year to year”).
Taking Nealon’s advice and reading our moment in this way, we see the statues are merely placeholders and their destruction an expression of a conflict that is perpetual. It is the fight to destroy myths which have failed the people, myths which actively stifle Utopia. The ones “who live in the great wide world” are fighting to enter a conversation that has been carried on without them, but supposedly on their behalf, throughout history. They want to be able to decide which gods should be honored and which discarded. “Which of these will be the victorious ones? / Nobody knows.” These final words are not necessarily an assurance, but they leave us with as much possibility as uncertainty.
Peter Culley – Parkway Trailway
“I love the ordinary to the point of revolution.” –Bernadette Meyer
During this pandemic, I have started taking walks in the park. Springtime and the claustrophobia of my home made the vegetation seem suddenly more lush, vivid, and extraordinary. These spaces that had previously been sparsely populated during the work week were suddenly teeming with activity. A man paced a baseball diamond as if he were slowly walking-in home runs, while others sunbathed like they were on vacation only a few blocks from their home. Of course, their “leisure” depends on sudden and historic unemployment, and the park still abuts a highway median where other people, with no shelter to shelter-in-place within, are forced to live with even fewer resources than usual. Still, these afternoons gave the impression of strolling through the eye of a storm. I felt something hopeful in those idylls in direct proportion to my fear.
In his short lyric poem “Parkway Trailway,” Peter Culley uses irrational, ironic, and parodic registers to work through the circuits of capital which mediate the pleasure of a pastoral scene. In doing so, the poem confronts capitalist totality and its incumbent alienation:
No more than I would expect you
to abide by the utopian stars & stripes
of your Marimekko pullover.
Late April enough dandelion heads
between here and Parksville
to keep the Island reeling for a year.
In three months enough blackberry sugar
to sweeten the nation’s coffee three times over.
Sheep, llamas & alpacas dot the bare hillsides
through which pass articulated airships
laden with hemp, camphor and copper wiring.
Every third car on the monorail is a small library.
The old rail beds are still there, in some towns
gleaming tracks remain
under a peelable layer of asphalt.
Then a green carpet snaps
under your eyelids with a soft hook.
Culley writes in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and the poem begins as if we are walking into the middle of an argument with an unspecified interlocutor. This argument turns out to be with neoliberal ideology itself, the “common sense” of its hegemony that Culley’s poem works to pull apart. He immediately skewers this way of thinking by implying that its only real political convictions reside within a commodity, the “utopian” yet still laughably nationalistic “stars & stripes” of a fashionable Scandinavian brand of pullover his addressee is wearing. This exchange suggests the way in which capitalism is presented by its partisans as the end of history. They argue that there is no alternative system or future viable beyond it. This is the enforced limit of imagination that neoliberalism produces and Culley derides, where freedom is synonymous with the free market.
The sarcasm and critique continue in the second stanza as Culley describes the arrival of spring. He illustrates the plenitude of nature and contrasts it with the abundance of commodities that capitalism construes as similarly beatific. Blackberries are immediately imagined in their capacity to be processed into sugars and sold to the nation as coffee sweetener. He describes the pastoral hills of a land (perhaps part of the global south) where livestock graze while transports glide overhead loaded with raw goods exported into the economies of wealthier nations.
In this juxtaposition of the non-specific “articulated airships” with the sleek first-world “monorail” of the third stanza, we see the technological contrast between places of extraction and places of consumption. The many books possessed by the train passengers would constitute a “small library” in other contexts. Within the uneven distribution of globalized capital, great wealth is predicated upon great poverty, yet these small details remain connected through supply chains. This understanding that the economic and the social are not distinct spheres is essential to grasping capitalist totality—a fact which seems so obvious to us right now as we watch the virus spread across borders and the ethical dimensions of our global economic entanglements come into more direct consequence.
In the fourth stanza, Culley takes us beneath the monorail, into the stratums of previous modes of transit and supply that have been submerged and forgotten. Culley digs beneath this history for the poem’s epiphanic conclusion, which again addresses itself to neoliberal ideology through the ambiguous and striking image of the “green carpet.” This green carpet is both organic, a lost pastoral hidden by the modern world, and manufactured, a product of contemporary methods of production. It “snaps under your eyelids” like a fleeting vision or thought, with a “soft hook.” This pairing is itself disarming, suggesting the pain at the end of a fishline but “soft,” as if mitigated by some counter force. This play of opposites adds up to a conclusion that is unnerving, cryptic, exciting, and sudden.
After all the detail and latitude of perception that precedes this moment, the poem runs headfirst into this “green carpet” and abruptly ends. This moment isn’t conciliatory, but rather violent and startling. It’s as if we have hit the bedrock of the poem’s argument and there is nowhere further to go. The debate Culley is having cannot persist beyond its own terms, but also it cannot be won within them. There’s something frightening and also liberating in reckoning with such a boundary. This glimpse of the possible is not utopic per se, but it does hint at something “other” that is beyond anything we have seen.
As I walk in the park these days and attempt to square my pleasure with my terror, it has never been more obvious to me that the “good place” of utopia is predicated upon the “no place” we inhabit now. The two cannot be separated. There is no exterior to capitalist totality, and we are going to have to somehow perceive and produce our liberation from within the confines of our historical moment. Utopic poetry can only momentarily demystify our conditions of estrangement, upend our expectations, and clear a bare patch, a “green carpet” inside the larger trap of ideology. This is where we have to cultivate a revolutionary consciousness and a political commitment to Utopia.
Tongo Eisen-Martin – I Have To Talk To Myself Differently Now
“ANOTHER END OF THE WORLD IS POSSIBLE” – Graffiti on a KMart in Oakland
During shelter-in-place, I attended a “Communism and Poetry” reading group on Zoom where we tried to puzzle through what poetry might have to do with the end of capitalism. “Don’t you want to know what poetry will look like after the revolution?” one of the attendees asked. I absolutely do, and Tongo Eisen-Martin’s poetry is what comes to mind. This is not because I believe it is the poetry of the world after the revolution (how could it be?), but because it is poetry that is always future-facing. It assuredly but slyly provokes the revolutionary and utopian horizon with every line.
In “I have to talk to myself differently now,” Eisen-Martin presents a scene in which we cannot fail to recognize the surreal “no place” of our immiserated political present. It’s a world where the cops are permanently on their way to kettle a demonstration (“worried about the walls / I forgot the ceiling was closing in on me too”) and the grotesque logics of capital give commodities more value than humans (“maybe the capitalist / sets stadium seats / on fire / and calls it economic / progress”). This brutal state has only further unmasked itself as it attempts to manage its citizenry in these times of unrest.
The poem’s polyvocal form suggests not one speaker but rather this citizenry, the roiling soup of the body politic. This dialogue of the individual, the collective, and their fluctuating overlap, shows politics as something messy, embodied, and constantly happening. It is in this shifting, contradictory and contested space between “I” and “we” that mass movements are built. This is where the revolution and the utopic must be grounded.
The first two stanzas announce the enormous stakes and contradictions of such a struggle:
“When the drummer is present,
They are God.
“I am not I.
I am a black commons”’
The first couplet affirms the power of the individual, the “drummer” to hold the attention and create the rhythm and tempo of a situation. It endows the individual with an agency and potential to act upon the world in a way that is no less than divine. The second couplet complicates this association of power with the individual. Here, the speaker troubles their individuality when they declare that they are a “black commons.” This declaration contains both the “no place” and the “good place” of Utopia. As a “no place,” a “black commons” implies a material resource vulnerable to the enclosure and exploitation of capitalists. In this interpretation, the speaker’s statement is pessimistic as it acknowledges their lack of rights and agency within a white supremacist state and suggests the long history of slavery and anti-blackness in the United States. Private property is the essential category of capitalism, and so a commons is anathema to it, something that must be enclosed so it can be privatized and produce value. This mirrors the ways in which Black people’s lives have been stolen, enclosed, or policed both materially and ideologically.
However, as a “good place,” a “black commons” might be a utopian declaration of becoming this kind of collectivity in the struggle for revolution. For radicals, the commons exist not just as an image of the time preceding capitalism but also as an ideal and a figure of a time beyond it, where private property will cease to exist as such. In this reading, the evocation of a “black commons” is optimistic because, as Fred Moten puts it “insurgent black social life… constitutes a profound threat to the already existing order of things.” It does this by challenging the very category of private property and furthermore, positing this space as Black. This pushes against the limits of a white imaginary and challenges the ideology that upholds and naturalizes such hierarchies. A similar operation is what is at work in a slogan like “Black Lives Matter” and explains why violent repression is always leveled against such a statement. Later in the poem, Eisen-Martin dives into the material manifestations of this predicament:
“staring at an empty bus that I imagine,
in fact, carries paintings of people
and the man drunk behind the wheel
has to choose between
a black and white toddler
after school in america
on a california street
that doesn’t need a name
nor a california
no one on the street has a job
no one is there”
The world that Eisen-Martin outlines is oppressive and arbitrary. The racialized violence which the drunk bus driver is forced to dole out is in service to a bus that may not carry people at all but only “paintings of people.” The street “doesn’t need a name” or a state for it to exist, and we are reminded that these names mean nothing in themselves. It’s the people that fill them that give them their meaning. Similarly, the logic of capital does not acknowledge the humanity of people who do not have jobs and do not produce surplus value. The fact that, by this measure, “no one is there” suggests the cruelty and absurdity of this scene but also the possibility of its negation.
It does this only through the starkest, most dystopic and “slant” portrayal of neoliberal ideology’s final, failing, worldly outcomes.
The crisis depicted here compels us to ask: What if the characters on the street didn’t “need” a job at all to live and “be there”? What would happen if this dystopia’s conditions of possibility were revoked? The reader searches for the answers to these questions in the poem, but they are nowhere to be found. Like any good revolutionary, Eisen-Martin doesn’t want to be too prescriptive or dogmatic about what such a utopia would look like. This vision has to arise out of the struggle on the streets.
And it will be a struggle. This isn’t because solutions don’t exist, but because we lack a grammar with which to easily speak of them or even the consciousness with which to perceive them. For this, we can thank the mostly successful ideological project of neoliberalism, which has robbed us of the capacity to conceive of any future besides profit and extinction. Luckily, the ideological is also the terrain of poetry. This is what has brought me to Nealon, Culley, and Eisen-Martin, and to “Communism and Poetry” reading groups, and to speculation about what sorts of poetics might help us in this moment to understand and nurture insurrection and mass movement.
None of these poems offers or presents the “good place” of Utopia as a simple prescription. This is because, in the last instance, they understand the obvious: poetry does not change the world, people do. Poetry is a realm of small victories though, and I see political efficacy in these utopic poems because they consider absence as a form of imagining, and negation as a grammar with which we can begin to sort the “good place” of Utopia from the “no place” we inhabit. In asserting this “no place” of the present, the poems affirm to us that the world is already over. This has been the case in the most essential ways for a majority of people a long time now. Coming to consciousness of this fact clears the way for new speculative futures to become possible and manifest.
It turns out that Fredric Jameson adage presents a false predicament. To imagine the end of capitalism you must also imagine the end of the world. This is the seemingly impossible demand of Utopic poetry, which is also a vital injunction: to unmake the world so we can work to remake it.
Simon Crafts is a poet and former bookseller living in San Francisco. Their writing has been featured in Jewish Currents, Social Text, and The Poetry Project Newsletter.
Photo Credit: Elisabeth Nicula