UNDERSTAND LESS almost a Dadaist
slogan, anarchist oppugnancy
voicing the truth of power. Some are left
as ghosts in their own lives, materialising
under assumed names, ventriloquised by grief.
Destruction is safer to contemplate than healing,
I find, although my appetites are strange
even to me: I cling to gallows-humour
as others cleave to the cross. Cast CRUCIATUS
and see vengeance realised, bowels frothing
with boiling lead. You understand / condemn
and either way are caught in an imposture,
scrying closed-circuit footage, hearsay’s undead
certainties; the imagined reek of blood.
The Spirit Zone was a sequence of 14-line poems that were not sonnets, which I wrote in the run up to the Millennium celebrations and the opening of what was then known as the Millennium Dome. (The Dome itself is now called the O2 Arena, and is within walking distance of where I currently live). The Dome’s original exhibition was divided into different “zones”, of which the “spirit zone” was one. I never visited it, but I was interested in running the different senses of the word “spirit” through a poem sequence and seeing how they did and didn’t link up.
This poem is constructed around something one of my cousins told me when we were both around 11 or 12, which was that there was a moment in the 1984 film The Woman In Red when Kelly LeBrock sprang naked out of bed, and if you paused it and whacked up the brightness and contrast you could – in spite of the director’s best efforts at tasteful concealment – see her bush. It’s funny what stays with you.
(He wasn’t the only one, apparently, who found this detail of the film particularly arresting:
I don’t think I’ve ever seen it – or them – myself, although Kelly LeBrock was good fun in Weird Science).
“Troubles march in long lines” is indeed the epigraph to Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography, where I think it’s credited as a Russian proverb. The last few lines of the poem wonder a little about Dworkin’s systematising overview of the ubiquitous phenomena of male sexual violence and predation. Things that look like accidents – like road accidents, of which there are staggeringly many every year – start to fall into line when you take the perspective of an emancipatory global-historical movement. We’re a long way, still, from the realisation of that projected emancipation, which I ended up imagining here as a kind of cataclysmic moment of historical self-awareness, “a trailing shriek of feedback”. Once again, turning up the brightness and contrast until things blur and saturate, and the hidden is abruptly brought to light.
(Why “farcically”, by the way? Because farce comes from forcemeat, stuffing meat – forcing, stuffing, overfilling having here an obviously sexual sense. I owe a lecture of Valentine Cunningham’s, circa 1994, for this bit of etymological insight.)
I’m not sure now that the implicit charge of messianism can be made to stick. Dworkin’s public oratory certainly had a fire-and-brimstone resonance to it (Susan Brownmiller nicknamed her “Rolling thunder”), but I don’t think she thought women’s liberation depended on an apocalyptic moment of all-out sex war. (Well, sometimes she sort of did: “harden your hearts, and learn how to kill” was her advice to young feminists at one point. But then someone like Elliot Rodger or Marc Lépine crawls out of the woodwork, and you’re reminded of what it’s like to feel that way). Dworkin wanted things to happen in the here-and-now; some of them seemingly-impossible things, like “a 24-hour truce in which there is no rape” (who would declare such a truce, on whose behalf? Who would enforce it?). The claim in this poem that “oppression is contingent” is nevertheless too easy an evasion, I think, of the moral force of that demand. Everything’s contingent, including veritable systems of oppression; that’s why it’s possible for them to end.