Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 31, July 2013—Mixed Form Issue)

Joyelle McSweeney
Warp Spasm Gristle Day

1)I write in contaminated, rampant, ill, struggling, fetid and fatal forms because that is where I exist and what life is. I exist as a spasm, a plasmodial wiggle, and I live in an impossible state—the and/or. The and/or is not quite two things, it is not quite one, it is more than two and less than one, at once. It’s devastating, debilitating, and a little bit great. The and/or is a paradoxical and volatile and impossible material. You can make it in a pressure cooker, set it to cook while you’re on shift, a hot dinner for the kids, a home-cooked meal. Or cook it up in an industrial plant in West, Texas. You can collapse a stacked-up garment factory in Dhaka, or just work there, or just buy clothes, munch labor like a weevil or spirochete. It will grow within you, without you. It will wrap its tough fungal strands around your spinal chord where it cannot be removed. Column, columbia, dove of peace, fatal phalanx. The and/or pours irrationality down into the would-be technically assessable, economically appraisable pre-fab units of literary form and blows them apart. To high heaven. To kingdom come. Or to the rehab ward, where your life will be saved thanks to battlefield medicine. Thanks to a decade of war, now in syndication. Thanks to Bellona’s many corporate syndicates. The and/or is really an ‘or.’ The and/or is an ‘or’ which means ‘and.’ It is an or which will not let you alone. An occult ampersand. A bitch to watch out for. Trouble every day.

And I guess I don’t believe in a closed form.

Or a place of safety.

Or a body.

Or a nation.

Or a border.

Or a choice.

And I guess I don’t believe that there is an or that does not also mean and.



Det kommer svart blod. Ur det där hålet. Det kommer tjockt blod. Det ser ut som olja. Och ekorren skriker I trädet.

—Aase Berg


Black blood is coming. Out of that hole. Thick blood is coming. It looks like oil. And the squirrel screams in the tree.

—Aase Berg and Johannes Göransson, translator

Here we are in translation’s impossible and/or, its ampersand, its non-equilibrium, its deranged economy, its ‘zerosumplayout-of-order,’ to quote another Berg phrase. The translation is always inadequate to the original; or else it overcompensates, goes too far, becomes too florid, too inflorated with the flourish of the translator’s wrist or hand. The original and the translation are bad citizens; they cannot meet as equals or establish equilibrium. Instead they interpenetrate, undermine each other. They struggle and fuck. The black ‘gristle’ of poetry is caught between the teeth of two forms, two languages; yet there it is: we will live in it daily like a stain, and like a crushed-down fossil, and like a sentient goo, and like an energy source, and like the source of rapacity and conflict. Black blood comes out of the hole; via the order of the first two sentences, it retroactively makes the hole exist. It takes on properties. It has the property of ‘coming.’ It has the property of ‘likeness.’ Its likeness links it to an extremely volatile global commodity, olja. Contact with this commodity through the link word ‘like’ makes it supernova. With the magic word ‘And,’ it launches itself from the hole into the air; it launches itself from a visually and tactily grounded material into an immaterial presence, a sound, a scream; it makes another hole appear through which it can pour as ‘scream.’ But this time the hole is a body; this species of hole is called ‘squirrel.’ This new species of scream is called ‘English,’ and this new ekorren is called Johannes Göransson. Maybe the new hole is the reader’s eye, and/or the reader’s ear, enacting a dizzy non-identical array of head-holes, a radical, radial ampersand, which, rotated 360 degrees, images in its center a blur which is the brain,

that spongy fosse,

thick with plaits and plaques.

3)As my analysis of the Berg/Göransson and/or above suggests, I associate the and/or of mixed form with with lawless, complex energy, with the non-linear, and also with a denaturing of agency.

In a linear system, the ultimate effect of the combined action of two different causes is merely the [addition]… of the effects of each cause taken individually. But in a non-linear system adding a small cause to one that is already present can induce dramatic effects that have no common measure of the amplitude of the cause.i

Critic Jane Bennett quotes this passage and concludes, “In nonlinear assemblages, ‘effects’ resonate with and against their ‘causes.’”ii The mixed-form is an unstable economy, an unstable zone where the feedback starts running the asylum: Be Just is a threat and a torture memo, a lacerating garment that fits the broad back of the commandant as well and/or ill as it does the prisoner or the grunt. As an irrational, non-linear non-whole, the mixed form is an explosive, dramatic, political tool because it works according to ‘no common measure.’ The neat hierarchy of cause and effect, including the implicit temporal hierarchy of before and after, is denatured by the spectacular dramatics of mixed form. And mixed form’s explosiveness can also derive from a ‘small cause.’ The minor, in mixed form, can have outsized effect. Can have immeasurable, irremediable, cascading damage effects.

4)For this reason the and/or of mixed form can be used for political purposes while working along magic, that is, non-utilitarian principles. It is and can be violence. It is and can be hermaphroditic and/or perform gender in a fake, inefficient, turned-out way. Drag is an ultimate mixed form because it works in so many radial directions, mobilizing so many would-be opposites, enacting and undermining glamour, panic, glory, farce, weakness, strength, agency and automatonhood so quickly that the effect is vertiginous and thrilling, a realness made of artifice which transcends both and becomes virtual. The virtual, like the dead, can go anywhere. The virtual is a mixed form, a volatile and/or because it is simultaneously nothing and something else. It moves around the planet as bodilessly as light and it moves around the planet fatally poisoning bodies with violence, heat and toxic metals. Farce is a mixed form, vicious and comic, it opens as many doors as it needs to and converts event from a privileged component of plot to a mere sound; the sharp crack of the slamming door is the sound of farce’s violence, the stinging blow of contact. I associate drag, violence, and farce with the ancient Ulster epic hero Cúchulainn. In battle, Cúchulainn was known to go into a ríastrad, variously translated as a battle frenzy, warp spasm, paroxysm, or torque. He becomes an &. And an and/or, a zone of violence, his body completely deranged:

The first warp-spasm seized Cúchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front... On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child... he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn’t probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his lungs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram’s fleece reached his mouth from his throat... The hair of his head twisted like the tangle of a red thornbush stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage.iii

In this reason-destroying passage, rendered into English by Thomas Kinsella, the killer becomes a killer when his body forms an assemblage with violence. Violence kisses every part of Cúchulainn’s body, just as it does any body in culture, but here more spectacularly, more ultimately, because Cúchulainn is flayed both by violence and by language’s desire to make a picture of him. Under this double attack, Cúchulainn’s body is denatured, denaturalized, becomes a flexing, de-hierarchized, occupied, irrational field, no longer identical with his personhood or even with itself. Eyes are subject to opposite insults, two organs compete in their leap from the throat, one jaw belts another, etc. He’s also vulnerable to a whole host of likenesses (thornbush, apple, reed, baby’s head, wild crane) which suggest a landscape in crisis, convulsing both inside and outside of his body at once. The body of the hero is thus not intact but overrun; the violence is visible as sparks, blows, flakes, spikes, all protruding from and turned back upon the formerly single thing of the body itself till there is no more body ‘itself.’ This is how rage and fury are both somatized and/or apotheosed, given their own body paradoxically identical with and exploding from the body of Cúchulainn; rage and fury also make the body expand beyond the rational (or survivable), so it can deal spasms of irremediable, inhuman energy out into the field of battle. It’s as if Cúchulainn must stage the entire battle on and/or inside and/or as his own body; the body must become a virtual site, the battle’s drag show; the actual battle will be a kind of aftermath, nothing compared to the kind of violent virtual spectacle Cúchulainn himself hosts here. And/or the kind of spectacle Violence hosts in the hott venue of Cúchulainn’s body.

5)As I mentioned above, this is what life on earth during the Anthropocene does to bodies, human or otherwise, and this is the spectacular, energy-hurling violence which mixed form makes visible, palpable, audible. Damage is a way of being in the world. Death is something to be endured along with life. The lovely lyric skin cuts away to reveal the rage of prose syntax staging its reversals just beneath. Or the blandness of prose becomes lit up with the meth-rage of the lyric. Likeness is combustible, pharmaceutical, and just as dangerous and violent an element as Plato always feared, doubling things, making knockoffs and artifices and rip-offs and zombies which function, unpredictably, both better and worse than the ‘original’; likeness is the virtual; “like” performs an and/or; the body is transformed to a likeness, a spasming mirrorsite from which impossible waves of damage can be relayed through the traumascape and to which such waves return. At once a glancing and a stunning blow.

6)And it is this indeterminate and volatile blow which I hope to strike with my writing, with the violence which has kissed me, made a show of me, made me the hole through which it ‘is coming,’ that violence which hosts its spectacles in, on, through me, a carbon-based lifeform in the Anthropocene. My latest ‘poetry’ book, Percussion Grenade, is riven with such spectacles, metastases, plays and damage plans, and my latest ‘prose’ book, Salamandrine, 8 Gothics, is analogously spasmed with genre, with plays and tales and sung dialogue and huffy shuffling and stupifying forces. For me the neologism is the radioactive granule of mixed form, the rehydrated grain of toxin which causes cascades of spectacular mutations and reactions, effects eventually reaching back to smother with glamorous gyrations this nominal beat of cause. This is also why and how my work is political, a wave of mutilation aimed back at the big structural injustices of environmental and economic depredation, as well as at the pinpoint acute injustices such as Bradley Manning’s persecution, the torture at Abu Ghraib, Halliburton’s calumnies, the victories of banksters, the unrelieved grief of drone attacks. Yet it is a wave of mutilation which also is always tumbling back on itself. This world we live in is unsurvivable. It cannot be survived but only endured. My work tries to radiate the fact of damage inwards and outwards at once, switching micro and macro scales with each new word, line break, swerve into prose or spasm of dramatic form. The writing has to swallow/makes me swallow all this violence. Just like it has to/I have to swallow the fist, the camera, the toxin, and the pill. But like Cúchulainn, I can’t keep it down. I can’t keep it together. I can’t keep it to scale. I can’t stay in one place. I am damaged, deranged, thrilled, crooning, in motion, in drag, weaponized, digitized, warp-spasmed, spectacular, sinking, sleep-walking, dirty, hissing, sped-up, preening, ludicrous & mobilized. I am become a zone of violence.


i Gregoire Nicolis and Ilya Prigogine, Exploring Complexity: An Introduction (1989), qtd in De Landa, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, 144. Quoted in Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter, a political ecology of things, 42.
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ii Bennett, 42.
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iii Thomas Kinsella’s translation of The Tain, which I read as an undergraduate, here quoted from Wikipedia.
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