Video of a creative-critical paper delivered over the weekend at Birkbeck, as part of an ongoing collaboration between the87press and the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre. Below is an extract from the first half of the paper. A lot of this thinking is developed more fully in a forthcoming academic article.
As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history.
– Walter Benjamin, Illuminations.
Today, I’m going to move fluidly between poetry and essay to present some nascent thoughts on lyric solarity. I want to suggest lyric solarity is a poetics in which solar imaginaries are linguistically mediated and refracted through the close rhythms, affects, sensoria and arts of noticing associated with the focalised energies of lyric poetry. Lyric solarity enacts an embodied poetics of dissolve, exposure, surplus, saturation and excess/residue: it offers a way of turning towards the sun, while helping us make, in the words of Imre Szeman, ‘commitments to reshaping’ the ‘existing infrastructures’ which underpin access to and distribution of energy. While the anthropocene, a contested epoch defined by humankind’s ascendance as geological agent, is often understood as an issue of scale, attending to the solar helps us think about planetary crisis in terms of distribution and density of harm, resources and changes to climate or energy. I take energy to mean both the power derived from physical or chemical resources, the property of matter and radiation manifest as a capacity to perform work, but also in the sense of an organism’s energy – their metabolism, vitality, ongoingness within the world, and its working demands or desires. What follows is less of an argument than a set of propositions and possibilities, a selection of field notes in search of lyric solarity.
- Sans Soleil
In Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil, often translated into English as sunless, we begin with a quote from T. S. Eliot’s ‘Ash-Wednesday’: ‘Because I know that time is always time / And place is always and only place’. It begins again with an image of three children in Iceland, ‘an image of happiness’ accompanied by black film leader. The voiceover suggests that if viewers can’t find happiness in the image of the children ‘at least they’ll see the black’. The film is itself a kind of lyric documentary on human memory, how memory is fragile and so our recall of personal and political histories – especially on a global or even planetary scale – is inflected or reworked in the present. In the spring of 2020, I approached the film as a kind of memory place. I had never seen such spring sun in Glasgow, but due to Covid I was locked down inside my own sunless temple, or tenement. What follows violates, perhaps, Eliot’s insistence on the essential containment of space and time. Eliot, I guess, never used the internet.
I was messaging the poet fred spoliar, and suddenly it was the solstice and we wanted to mark it. We began this remote collaboration, not in response to Marker’s film so much as through it, or some residue within it, a blemish or shine. A bright spot, a blind spot, a kind of fleck on its vision. We wrote remotely, wrote ‘live’ and in those hours of shared writing, we existed in a solar time: where solarity was a quality of memory, its absence our absence, and yet also speculation towards something better – waiting for rays of arrival. In that sense, the poem is about the uses and abuses of pastoral; about an ‘elsewhere’ to be written around, glimpsed, squinted at, but never quite accessed. It’s also about the temporal alignment of two people writing together. Lyric as a thought device for telecommunicating something of a paraworld hidden in language. I’d fall asleep with our phrases like film credits flashing behind my eyes. We wrote between the summer and winter solstices of 2020, we split lines with sun-cloud emoji. Here’s some of the opening sequence of the poem:
Ultraviolet rose us
spilled into formless
unration of atoms
and we spend ourselves back, the day
in luxe ellipsis
hills and hills
of recessional cloud, cast debt
between us, rolling one-sided
to release it, all of I’m rain
cast thru fierce aureate
disquietude, to not say
hope this finds you, or
nearest the soft motif of yr hair
bright spots around the antisolar point
balayage of except champagne
never sets. In a forest image / I cannot touch you
or notify through light that drowsy reminder
we are many. Something
decorative / in the cold soak of sylvanshine
gives up its entrance, the long day
composed of such stills is lying
back from its voyage. To say
all of the land escapes / an exorbitant teardrop
a teardrop. I have these ambient hands.
I wring the leaves…
2. Solar Apocalypse
In Etel Adnan’s poetry sequence, The Arab Apocalypse (1989), the sun is variously a shapeshifting trickster, a totalising energy, an authority, a marker of time, a blinding force, a monster, a pool of blood. Here are some of Adnan’s lines taken from across the book:
I took the sun by the tail and threw it in the river. Explosion. BOOM…
the sun is contaminated by the city
the sun has eaten its children
a sun rotten and eaten by worms floats over Beirut silence is sold by the pound
eat and vomit the sun eat and vomit the war hear an angel explode
The brain is a sun STOP the sun is an eye
the sun’s atoms are incarnating in my flesh STOP STOP
The sun is a kind of virus, pulsing and multiplying, changing form and colour, nourishing and deadly, making things grow or die; a kind of white noise in the context of war, a vulnerable body, a weapon, a machine of surveillance, a carnal threat. In the American Book Review, Barbara Harlow says of Adnan’s poem that it ‘invokes a mythic past […] to presage a present that resists narration’. To presage is to be a warning sign, a prediction, typically of something unpleasant; in archaic meaning, presage is an omen, a feeling of foreboding. In The Arab Apocalypse, Adnan writes back and forward to historical crises: as Aditi Machado points out in an essay for Jacket2, the poem was begun in January 1975 in Beirut, two months before the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War. But there is also a generalised economy of violence, exposure and replenishment which speaks to the twentieth century at large and indeed to the explosions, contaminations and environmental atrophying of the twenty-first century. As Harlow identifies, the simultaneous, coagulating, geopolitical crises of the times, what we might call the ~Anthropocene, are often resistant to narrative. The recurrent, modulating figure of the sun has more of a lyric quality, beaming and seeping, punctuated by telegraphic lines and signals of stop, break, transition. Language garners a lyric intensity which is elemental, saturating, overspilling the traditional bounds of a human ‘I’. Impressive and god-sized dramas of the stars and planets play out in a mythopoetics of Beirut, of Gilgamesh, of ‘grass snakes hiding in the texture of TIME’ (Adnan, The Arab Apocalypse).
3. More sun to consider in lyric
Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun
The music of Sun Ra
Sean Bonney’s ‘solar cop’
The shine sprites in the video game, Super Mario Sunshine
Georges Bataille’s ‘solar love’
David Schwartzmann’s ‘solar communism’
Alli Warren’s Sun Dial
The photographic process of the ‘anthotype’
Björk’s song ‘Sun in My Mouth’
Catherine Wagner’s line ‘If everything is from the Sun why praise it’
In Paul Klee’s painting, Castle and Sun (1929) the castle is line-drawn in myriad geometry: its surface is of different coloured shapes, set underneath a bright orange sun. In proximity, the colours shimmer and vibrate. If there was a patchwork made of Adnan’s poem, it might be this; or indeed one of Adnan’s own geometric, brightly-coloured abstractions. Shimmer is to shine with a soft, wavering light. It offers a coming-to-knowledge distinct from the Enlightenment regime of ‘shining a light’ on your subject; it is a way of making contact, of existing in non-linear, non-narrative – that is to say, lyric – timespace. In her 2018 book Surge, Adnan writes ‘We came to transmit the shimmering / from which we came’. In this shimmering tautology we yet cross a line, continue transmission. Shimmer is instrumental in what I call ‘hypercritique’: a poethical form of writing which orients not to the capture of time, meaning or ecological reality, but to a beyond.