] EXCLOSURES [
There are militarized zones that ] Exclosures [ tracks, between our lived lives and the exclusionary logics that we are required to contain them within. Emily Abendroth tells us that society effectively criminalizes some of our most basic characteristics—our youth, our old age, our poverty, our needs for housing or a doctor’s appointment, our hunger—and feeds them back to us as dangerous behaviors and/or unsustainable demands. But ] Exclosures [ also seeks to map something else—something variously wobbly, tender, obdurate, and ecstatic—the ever-innovating struggle to resist, reject, and arrest such logics.
“Sometimes there is a book you love so much you become frightened for the world. ] Exclosures [ is that for me. In a language invaded by false choice, infrastructured by ‘behavioral soundtracks,’ and occupied by dementia-inducing ‘privileges,’ Emily Abendroth implicates us in a relentless, marbled argument for her own hyper-communicable liberation. Here, oysters and otters come out of their word-shells and are exposed, alongside us, in a politics unsheltered from the fluids of Life. In bodies’ inchoate clamors, in their tangled historical idioms, there is still, Exclosures claims, the unmistakable pulse of possible justice. Improbable, yes, like much joy. This is writing that comes from many years of poly-barrage at the worst walls of our statesvilles, a decades-long voluntary encumbrance in the ‘best smidgens of radical hope.’ In such a project, all the camp-tools can ally-up—concept, lyric, document, narrative, luminous rhetoric, bureaucratese—no one’s unwelcome, all animals can come in and go out when they choose.”—Chris Nagler
“This book is so complicated in its juxtapositions. So inclusive in its explorations. So modest in its grandness. Really, I could go on and on. Emily Abendroth might say it is about the prison industrial complex. About various sorts of closures. But as she knows, once one starts on something as multidimensional as the prison industrial complex, one has to go wide and deep. And this book is both and more too, more as in meaningful, as in made.” —Juliana Spahr
“‘You been to the peas?’ the old lady said, and Clara leaned over to pass them to me.
I had been to the peas. I had been to the chicken, several times, to the peas in a
sauce, the potatoes in a sauce, the onions in a sauce, to the coffee, and the butter-
yellow ice cream. It left a waxy coating of fat on the roof of my mouth.”
It left all that.
But lying in tatters on two orthogonal continua were the further nuances
the trance-inducing vacillations between knowledge formation
and its feasible maintenance. The chancy tensions and concessions
compounding what any single person was bound to be open to hearing
on a given evening and which, if any, variously creamy dishes
they could be convinced to willingly veer off “to visit” in what proportions.
In his orbiting photographic novel The Home Place, Nebraska author Wright Morris describes one of his notoriously resilient rural protagonists with the words: “He ain’t a farmer who thinks what he plants ain’t liable to die.”
We ain’t that either. We tainted and we pain-bent and we clear on it.
* * * * * * * * * *
Leaving aside the leanings that we nonetheless experienced
towards fear-induced triage, towards the collaging together of wildly
diverse materials into cursory-onto-bursting equivalencies.
The strange reasoning by which we forced ourselves to imagine:
a “fair match” for the color “nutria”
a “fair match” for “an absent care-giver”
a “fair match” for “lone air strikes, conducted via drone”
INTERVIEWER: What are the people fighting with?
RESPONDENT: They have fecal matter.
They’re burning sewage to try to keep the U.N.
out of their neighborhood—to stall the violence
being perpetrated against them?
“You been to the biscuits?” she reeled.
“You been to Soliel?”
“What possibilities can poetics make in a world structured by logics that contain or constrain the human spirit? Abendroth’s debut charts some ‘improbable’ options in a text that manages to sustain its beauty while directly facing this indifference. Hers is a world where a daughter’s ‘cagey lack of fidelity before all the boundaries/ that she’s been given is the best smidgen of radical hope/ we’ve got to our lot.’ These boundaries are the boundaries of such broad-reaching powers as the prison-industrial complex and state, yet it becomes possible to weaken them with language, as even in placing words together: ‘There’s no combination we can forge that isn’t mutually contagious.’ The poems, with their rich internal rhymes, read like sly escapes from Abendroth’s own structural play—brackets, multiple choice lists, and quoted text that make the book a hybrid affair. That she comes close to using her lyric powers to upset those boundaries makes our own personal projects of liberation seem livened again. She ends with an extended poetic statement in essay form, and though it is insightful, its real success is pointing readers back into the poems proper. Abendroth’s final poem concludes, ‘We went to the water as if it were an usher/ Let us make it one/ Let us gushing’—we should take heed and dive in.”—Publishers Weekly
“It is difficult to write about other people’s suffering without rendering that suffering as a spectacle. To write, as someone who is not directly targeted by the prison industrial complex, a book that is about that system—a book that seems to convey that system, even as it conveys the fissures within it and human resistance to it—is to risk this. How may a book address the control of human bodies without colluding in that control, without reducing people who are incarcerated to objects for the reader’s gaze? As Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others, what does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it? . . . ]Exclosures[ does not presume that there is any position outside the prison system, nor does it put the suffering that system causes on display. Rather, Abendroth refuses to allow the reader to remain passive or spectatorial.” —Margaree Little in Kenyon Review Online
A lot of the research, organizing, and thinking/writing work that I’ve been involved in over the past half-dozen years has revolved specifically around prisons and incarceration, as well as state regimes of punishment and control in the broadest sense of those terms. I have likewise been animated by the recent resurgence of interest in the concept of “the (public) commons” within various leftist intellectual, activist and artistic circles. My own pieces have tended to start from the dystopic, but altogether realistic, observation that an enormous component of our “common” contemporary condition in this country is the pervasive and unrelenting escalation of unparalleled prison construction, militarization and mass incarceration/criminalization (under models that we also export globally) to the point that it has a hand in shaping every element of our social, cultural, and physical landscape with or without our recognition of its doing so.
I think the overwhelming impact of that largely involuntary “commons” needs to be distinctly and creatively acknowledged both before and as we work to construct what might nonetheless be available around, behind, between or beyond it.
It is critical to me, in considering such spaces, that the forms of the poetic research I engage in be committed to pursuing both more traditional methods of research/knowledge acquisition and more tactile, somatic and idiosyncratic ones as well. To my mind, there are certain things that can be learned, discovered, felt, heard, or doubted only by directly moving through a terrain (be it psycho-social or juridical or pre-Cambrian) and by closely observing and foraging among the many forms (verbal, herbal, amphibial or otherwise) that inhabit it. In his remarkable book, Rumored Place, the poet Rob Halpern speaks of those “events we still can’t name and [yet] these have named us.” Halpern’s phrasing in this instance produces tremendous resonance for me in that I tend to understand my own work as consisting, to a large degree, precisely of those acts of reaching toward the naming and articulation of those countless “unnameable events” (both world historical and painfully mundane in scale), as neither foregone conclusions or torpid headlines, but as deeply embodied landscapes of experience.
I place my own artistic efforts within that field of interventionist and documentary poetics which uses experimental modes in order to encourage changing orientations (for myself and readers alike) and the discovery of new models for engagement via the "making strange" of all too familiar arrangements and relationships. I strongly identify with the choices of those artists who have elected to employ volatile and complex forms in order to try to deal with volatile and complex subject materials. The same might be said for those imaginative creators who have attempted to take on the difficult questions of objectification, identity, capital, appropriation, and power relations not only via thematic or narrative elements, but also via the intricate and materially interesting ways they choose to evoke them. Within these exercises of lingual multiplicity, I find an exciting aesthetic reflection of the diverse, overlapping, messy and contradictory worlds that we as social beings always inescapably occupy, but which we also always have the capacity to remediate and transform.
The writing of ] Exclosures [ across these past three years has been for me less a compositional process than a conversational one; its materials/participants were both elected and unceremoniously hoisted upon me, both wrestled with and warmly embraced.
The collection of serial poems that make up ] Exclosures [ is driven by a set of concerns and explorations that have dominated my poetic imagination (as well as my community/political activism) over the last several years. Through this writing, I was attempting to push myself to sound out the catastrophic and debilitating reverberations of living in a society that has effectively criminalized our most basic characteristics of livelihood and requirements for existence (our youth, our old age, our poverty, our needs for housing or a doctor’s appointment, our hunger) and fed them back to us as “dangerous” behavior and/or “unsustainable/unassuageable” demands. This is a set of conditions that has thus created what philosopher Judith Butler refers to as “those ‘unlivable’ or ‘uninhabitable’ zones of social life which are nevertheless densely populated.”
I think it’s crucial for us (both as artists and as human beings) to see and self-evaluate how deep indeed has been the appropriation of these sentiments and this vocabulary even from and amongst those of us struggling to resist, reject, and arrest such logics. Accordingly, I came to this particular poetic project with a dire need for some additional tools/vocabulary with which to begin articulating and dissecting the extent to which the very models that we (as diverse communities) collectively feel capable of or capacitated to try to create and share with one another have been stunted and constrained (both imaginatively and materially) by the relentless pressure for mere attenuated survival. I was profoundly interested in what a poetics that is invested in the labor of disinterment and exposure of these obstacles - these “exclosures” - might avail us of: including something as simple and as profound, as painful and as promising, as access to our own beings and bodies.
Through this writing, I was trying to find for myself (and hopefully, by extension and in conversation, for others) some means to investigate and invigorate the possibilities of poetic practice in response to questions such as: How do we insist on keeping our artistic practices “risky” in ways that actually nurture us as a community—cultivating and supporting an ample and “dangerous” dedication to reciprocity and its extension? What does it mean for so many of us to be at sea in these “liquid times” while next to entirely without “liquid assets?” In lieu of that access to material property or security, what other kinds of “assets” might we seek to build or restore among ourselves and how much richer by far might we be for that outcome? What happens if we, in a very serious and daily way, seek to hold our very preservation as a “commons” rather than as an individual stake? How does that change our lifestyles, our rituals, our relationships, and our writing practices? If, as the inimitable James Baldwin expresses, "We have to—in every generation, every five minutes—make human life possible,” what is that human-life-possible-making poetics?