:: Article

Poem-Coerced Novel, Novel-Brandishing Poem

By Steve Barbaro.

Only when we become aware of a sudden consistency between incompatibles can we say we have crossed the threshold of myth.
—Roberto Calasso

The smugly rarified apparition of a limousine proceeding only stutteringly through daylong mid-town Manhattan traffic—what to make of such a self-enclosed sort of anti-parade? The vehicle, un-weathered, is filled with screens fluttering internationally, but still possesses an air of anonymity. The vehicle is so commodious as to enclose a doctor’s visit, sustained philosophizing, even sexual activity. The vehicle takes functionality to all sorts of ornamental extremes; the vehicle is forwardly flush with opulent capacities. Yet the limousine in question remains, alas, not quite sufficiently motion-full to validate its high-powered portability. And in Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis, this sluggish specter of mechanized movement serves as a kind of exaggerated yet characteristic monument of a world—our world, so it seems, increasingly—where plain physical motion often appears almost comically subservient to technology’s space-exceeding faculties. The limousine, with a politico-logistical touch that now appears, more than a decade after the novel’s publication, fully ripened with oracularity, simply can’t get across Manhattan at anything beyond a snail’s pace, what with the street-clogging local presence of The President of the United States. Yet from the comfort of said stuttered posterior, DeLillo’s asset manager anti-hero, Eric Packer, is nonetheless able to navigate foreign exchange markets and manage sundry professional relationships and even wax metaphysical about the state of the world, while his lengthy motion machine strains to reach, of all possible would-be-Homeric destinations at the end of an odyssey, the barbershop where Mr. Packer has had his hair cut since his childhood days.

Of course, from the perspective of one who is, like Eric Packer, chauffeured in such a haughtily lush way, physical space and the concomitant needs of the body can afford to seem secondary. And the absurd wealth that the perennially market-outperforming protagonist wields doesn’t much hurt his circumference of knowing and acting. Indeed, Packer’s privilege grants him a heightened leisure bordering upon the ethereal, wherein Packer cultivates esoteric information casually, such that he “mastered the steepest matters in half an afternoon,” while also believing it conceivable that he might, say, buy out the Mark Rothko Chapel in its sacrosanct, hardly market-oriented entirety. Yet for all of its intellectual agility, and for all of its prodding of its protagonist’s boundless greed, Cosmopolis builds itself through a single, distinct, but almost stray detail from a poem that its protagonist has been recently reading—the idea that the bodies of rats might come to serve as units of human currency, namely.

For the duration of Cosmopolis, in fact, this particular unit of specificity, borrowed from Zbigniew Herbert’s poem from the early 1980s, “Report from the Besieged City,” and overtly acknowledged as such in the novel’s epigraph, is fluttering around Eric Packer’s brain. It is a fragment, this notion of a rodent-governed currency; it is a kind of jewel of jaded fancy, striking for its morbidly pithy postulation of the perverse trajectories of modern greed. But in Herbert’s poem, the detail, though of a kind of atmospheric necessity, is not dramatically essential. The poem itself is not even about the exchange of goods, per se, but rather about a more general economy of chaos that has been cultivated in a place under attack for what seems like decades. The “City” at hand, not further particularized in name but clearly based upon Herbert’s experience of the Soviet Union’s military occupation of his homeland Poland, is both modern and ancient-seeming, eternally feasible and conceivably contemporary. Said City would appear to possess a longer historical time-scale than the Manhattan of Cosmopolis; and where Eric Packer comes to assume an air of cerebral violence toward the land he inhabits, Herbert’s speaker is an on-the-ground sort of presence, who’s been “given the supporting role of a chronicler,” because his age precludes him from fighting off the enemy. And what the speaker comes to chronicle, specifically, is a cityscape so prolongedly teetering on the brink of either destruction or morality-compromising capitulation as to cripple the speaker’s very capacity to evaluate:

I listen to the noise of drums and the barbarians shrieking
it is truly beyond me why the City is still defending itself
the siege is taking a long time our enemies have to take turns
nothing unites them apart from the desire for our destruction
Goths Tartars Swedes Caesar’s men ranks of the Transfiguration
who can count them

Yet amidst the spectrum of societal collapse that the poem depicts, Packer remembers only the detail related to the local economy. Packer never names the poem or its author outrightly, he merely recalls the line about the rat. Naturally enough, what pertains to the practical exchange of goods is what would stick in the mind of one who has seemingly mastered the supra-national procedures of monetary exchange. But this narrative facet of Cosmopolis is especially telling because, for Eric Packer, what does not fit into the schema of the “economy” is not really granted the fullness of its own being.

The tenets of global capitalism, indeed, at least in the ethos of Packer, are as if all-consuming. This would-be-totality in fact constitutes the fundamental fiction upon which Packer’s livelihood is hinged; and this fiction serves, by extension, as the essential set of beliefs that Cosmopolis sets out to enact, or at least foreground, and thence interrogate. Nowhere is this ideological state-of-affairs more evident than in Packer’s exchange with Vija Kinski—herself a sort of theory-delving colleague of conspiratorial capitalism—which is conducted amidst a fit of protests outside of the stretch white limousine. The broader atmosphere is smoke- and rubber bullet-swathed. People are even urinating upon the very surface of the automobile in which the two are conversing. “This is the free market itself,” Kinski nonetheless theorizes to Packer, not-un-casually, and as if to explain the proximate protesters away:

These people are a fantasy generated by the market. They don’t exist outside the market. There is nowhere they can go to be on the outside. There is no outside. […] The market culture is total. It breeds these men and women. They give it energy and definition. They are market-driven. They are traded on the markets of the world. This is why they exist, to invigorate and perpetuate the system.

The coldly, almost morbidly visionary tone here is characteristic of Cosmopolis. Via the limousine-carted vehicle of Eric Packer, the narrative indulges enough of this sort of privileged discourse, evincing as it does the protagonist’s belief system’s greed-fuelled will to be as if societally all-encompassing, to show that Packer and his ilk are conscious of the free-will-precluding aspects of their ideology.

But the narrative’s actual trajectory does not, in the long run, legitimize Kinski’s professed principles. Rather, Cosmopolis ends up increasingly inhabiting the mind of one Benno Levin, an alienated former worker of Packer’s. Levin is a shifty early-forty-something, estranged from his wife and family, living precariously (and not without an air of violence) at the fringe of society. Two long sections of Cosmopolis consist exclusively of Levin’s diaries. Alternately rambling and perceptive, incoherent and visionary, these structural gestures show Levin to be a covert figure toward which the entire narrative is driving, as if ritualistically:

I am working on this journal while a man lies dead ten feet away. I wonder about this. Twelve feet away. They said I had problems of normalcy and they demoted me to lesser currencies. I became a minor technical element in the firm, a technical fact. I was generic labor to them. And I accepted this. Then they let me go without notice or severance package. And I accepted this.

A kind of neo-Kurtz to Packer’s Captain Willard, Levin is seemingly fated to be Packer’s killer. The body dead ten (or twelve) feet away from Levin in the above passage is seemingly that of Eric Packer. The latter doesn’t seem evident until one finishes the novel, strangely. Yet though Cosmopolis does shirk depiction of the actual murder, there is a sense of inevitability to Levin’s challenge of the omnipotent remoteness that defines Eric Packer’s own being.

In Zbigniew Herbert’s poem, conversely, the hour of societal fracture has long since passed. History-hinge-ing characters such as Levin and Packer have seemingly been rendered miniscule within a disorder-dominated ruin-scape; and the exact point at which The City delved into total chaos can no longer even be ascertained:

I have to be precise but I don’t know when the siege began
two centuries ago in December September dawn yesterday
we here are all suffering from the loss of a sense of time

So it is that in the fog of his present day, the narrator of the poem records events on an almost makeshift informational level, and according to the not-quite-rigid organizing principle of the names of days:

Monday: stores are empty a rat is now the unit of currency
Tuesday: the mayor has been killed by an unknown assassin
Wednesday: cease-fire talks the enemy interned our envoys
we don’t know where they are that is where they were shot

Yet in Cosmopolis, we are only ever on the verge of societal collapse. The hinge upon which matters might crumble, causing some sort of societal upheaval—the dislodging of the likes of Packer, say, from their absurdly rarified position of privilege—is left, at best, latently alacritous by the suspension of the narrative. Packer and his ilk would deny the very lack of stability that Levin is trying to amend, of course. But what provides the possibility of societal pushback in the first place is, of all things, the poem haunting Packer’s mind.

This sort of narrative infestation of Cosmopolis by Zbigniew Herbert’s poem makes for a strange form of intertextual compatibility. It is not quite cunningly achieved, this way that Herbert’s one line sows the very seeds of destruction of Eric Packer’s reality. After all, the reader is tipped off, from the get-go, via the epigraph, to the importance of the line before the commencement of DeLillo’s story. Yet there is still something weirdly un-pronounced about the way that Cosmopolis allows this image such an undercurrent of agency. Herbert’s single rat-invested unit of language just proves itself to be so unusually influential for being sourced totally outside of the narrative’s time and space. And I highlight the infestation here, after long backgrounding, precisely because it undermines Packer’s reality in such a structurally essential, rather than merely interestingly ornamental, way.

Eric Packer’s reality is, just to be clear, a monetary-incentivized, governmentally-legitimized, would-be self-enclosed and self-assured reality. Yet the idea of a rat functioning as a unit of currency infests Packer’s brain, despite the fact that that very idea subverts the corporeal-abstracting tendencies of the entire economical system by which Packer prospers. Or one might even venture to say that the idea is so devastatingly infectious precisely because it so efficiently co-opts the logical absurdities that underlie Packer’s material being. And this narrative dependence is evident, for instance, in the early stages of the novel, when Packer is sitting in the back of the limousine, accompanied only by his currency analyst Michael Chin, and Packer mentions that he has read a poem in which the body of a rat has become the unit of currency.

“Yes. That would be interesting,” Chin said.
“Yes. That would impact the world economy.”
“The name alone. Better than the dong or the kwacha.”
“The name says everything.”
“Yes. The rat,” Chin said.
“Yes. The rat closed lower today against the euro.”
“Yes. There is growing concern that the Russian rat will be devalued.”
“White rats. Think about that.”
“Yes. Pregnant rats.”
“Yes. Major sell-off of pregnant Russian rats.”
“Britain converts to the rat,” Chin said.

So it is that Zbigniew Herbert’s fancy has moved out of Packer’s mind, into a more worldly space. And from there on out, this notion comes to increasingly infest the narrative. Later on, for instance, when Packer is again characteristically inhabiting his limo, the protestors outside are wielding a twenty-foot-tall Styrofoam rat. The rodent has thus bloomed to human-willed levels of proportional absurdity, not unlike the proportional absurdity embodied by the world-channeling limousine in which Packer moves across Manhattan only inch-ingly. One might assume that Eric Packer is the initial source within the text for these rat-intensive fantasies; but mightn’t the protagonist, rather, be simply rehashing what has already been made palpable in the broader culture? Mightn’t the verities of Herbert’s rat-fuelled ideology, that is to say, have only taken longer to pierce the smug remoteness in which the life of Eric Packer is cultivated? The populace in Cosmopolis being, after all, overwhelmingly granted specific voice only via the strange perspectival vehicle that is the character of Benno Levin…

But what does become irrefutably clear, alas, is that Eric Packer, tickled as he is by an idea pointing out the perversity of the thought-system by which he has prospered, becomes, within the structural logic of Cosmopolis, the medium of his own destruction. And by allowing this minimally qualified fragment from an external source to operate so prominently, DeLillo’s novel exposes its own edges in an idiosyncratically prominent way. Cosmopolis’s narrative armature, deferring as it indeed does to an outer text in such a crucial manner, proves itself to be strangely bare, or out-jutting, something like a building whose very structure is dependent upon a whole other, not explicitly-related building. This edificial metaphor only takes us so far, of course, because Cosmopolis uses abstraction-tending, history-honed words instead of, say, steel and glass. But the world that Cosmopolis evokes is all the same irrefutably dependent upon Herbert’s poem to provide a kind of specter of demise vis-à-vis its protagonist’s very livelihood. Not that Cosmopolis does much work to qualify its own compatibility with Herbert’s poem, other than, again, explaining how Eric Packer has recently been reading a lot of poetry. Yet the torque-full randomness of Herbert’s detail is sufficiently forceful to subvert the very market-oriented forms of thought that would purport to outdo interpersonal randomness itself, and by which Eric Packer has prospered. And understanding Cosmopolis’s structural deference is crucial for understanding the way that the novel actually functions, not merely because this deference embodies a strange inter-textuality, but because that very inter-textuality evinces Cosmopolis’s awareness of its own narrative limitations at the same time Cosmopolis is in fact exceeding those very limitations. In a very tangible sense, the narrative framework of Cosmopolis is tied inextricably to “Report from the Besieged City.” It is as if both of these imaginative enterprises, in demonstrating their compatibility via DeLillo’s narrative, came to exude, in the very face of their necessarily despair-dominated portraits of humanity, some self-spiteful modicum of mental autonomy.

Another useful way to think about Cosmopolis’s method of reappropriation is as a form of embedded, almost preemptive criticism. “Today,” Octavio Paz wrote, while musing upon the work of Marcel Duchamp, “we have criticism instead of ideas, methods instead of systems.”  And Don DeLillo, in writing a novel that so indulges the very world-beating financial theorizing of its protagonist’s milieu, seems demonstrably wary of granting that discourse objective feasibility, or at least any sufficient sense of ambivalence that might make the very theorizing seem legitimized, as it exists upon its own terms within the narrative.

The myth of self-enclosure that Eric Packer’s pristine limousine embodies must be, according to the narrative logic of Cosmopolis, undermined not only by the protestors past whom the vehicle moves, but also by another kind of technology—the ever-novel technology of plain, primitive words strung together to perpetuate ideas. Ultimately, Herbert’s poem serves as a one-line critique that pierces Eric Packer’s otherwise remote-seeming capacity for thinking and feeling. The abstraction-tending logic of economics-related discourse, DeLillo’s re-appropriative gesture declares, is inherently perverse, because it can fail to grant subjectivity to even the most urgently felt forms of human need. And mightn’t it be that the brute atmospheric strangeness of Cosmopolis, what with the novel’s stuttery dialogue and its abruptly jutting fits of violence, and its unwillingness to cultivate anything resembling an overtly likeable, or at least not-militantly-remote character, is just a function of its wont to show the enduring power of words and ideas, even amidst the smugly advanced proliferation of technology? What, after all, is inherently more byzantine than a medium, like Cosmopolis, that is using words to show the counter-institutional torque of words themselves? Even when that counter-institutional tendency rubs against the very milieu, that of market-beating currency traders, that the medium is indulging dramatically…

To be sure, Cosmopolis also doesn’t seem terribly reassuring on a thematic level. Benno Levin’s confrontation of Eric Packer appears no great harbinger for societal order. Maybe this is the case because Levin himself is so erratic, or because the dressing-down of any one human—even one as perversely privileged as Eric Packer—likely will not in turn make for the tempering of the power structures that are causing people to protest so vehemently in Cosmopolis, and so rat-wieldingly. Yet Cosmopolis’s ultimate urge, to corroborate Paz’s sentiments, is an urge to critique reality, even if it is critiquing the very reality that it is, again, dramatically indulging. The novel must cultivate Herbert’s poem simply to dissociate itself from the selfsame atmosphere that it is perpetuating. And in an interestingly inverse manner, Derek Walcott’s 1976 poem “Volcano” wields a novel for dramatic-critical effect, but does so overtly, rather than in Cosmopolis’s rather undercurrented way.

How much justice can a lyric really poem do, via its relatively teeny word quantity, to the workings of a novel—a novel being, typically, thousands of times the size of a poem? In Walcott’s “Volcano,” a 40-line, 216-word free verse ode with manifold objects of esteem, Joseph Conrad’s novel Victory acts as a kind of shorthand for that which is capable of being awe-inspiring. The latter capacity, in the matrix of this poem, is granted to novels, but seems extendable to literature in general. Yet such a capacity has been, according to the speaker at least, lost to a world that is characterized overwhelmingly by banality:

One could abandon writing
for the slow-burning signals
of the great to be, instead,
their ideal reader, ruminative,
voracious, making the love of masterpieces
superior to attempting
to repeat or outdo them,
and be the greatest reader in the world.
At least it requires awe,
which has been lost to our time;
so many people have seen everything,
so many can predict,
so many refuse to enter the silence
of victory, the indolence
that burns at the core,
so many are no more than
erect ash

But needing Conrad’s novel, as Walcott’s poem does, in order to embody the very possibility of wonder, Walcott’s poem must reduce Conrad’s novel to a kind of handle-able modicum of itself, something prone to portability. Yet instead of deferring, Cosmopolis-like, to another source to better critique its own reality, the appropriative wont of “Volcano” is of an overwhelmingly spatial nature. Deference to Victory in fact allows Derek Walcott’s poem to expand the very frontiers of its own reality; and this formal self-expansion is accomplished through the functionally reductive technique of metonymy.

Walcott’s re-appropriation of Joseph Conrad’s novel is, to be precise, a rather incisive reduction of a very long composition to two of its more prominent concrete entities—a volcano and a cigar, namely. Herbert’s notion of a rat acting as a unit of currency is also object-oriented, to be sure, and is in and of itself a kind of image. But this notion only becomes fully activated within the world of Cosmopolis, rather than in the besieged city described by Zbigniew Herbert. It is in the latter’s poem wherein the detail originates, yes, but it is only mentioned therein almost weirdly passingly. Only with DeLillo’s gesture of re-appropriation does Herbert’s unit of language get put to dynamic dramatic work, as it were, furthering its imaginative functionality. Walcott’s use of Conrad’s novel, conversely, is more static, more wedded to the reality of its original source, and more purely imagistic. Conrad’s novel, that is to say, is not dramatically adapted to any new ends within the space of Walcott’s poem. Rather, the-novel-as-shown-within-the-poem is so tethered to its original functionality as to remain appropriable, via simile, in a figurative way that is rather conventional in its formality:

On the edge of the night-horizon
from this beach house on the cliffs
there are now, till dawn,
two glares from the miles-out-
at-sea derricks; they are like
the glow of the cigar
and the glow of the volcano
at Victory’s end.

Walcott, in other words, re-appropriates Victory, but does not re-imagine the novel in any substantive way. “Volcano” in fact only wants to envisage Victory faithfully, adequately. Walcott’s poem wishes to show that Conrad’s novel persists to exist in the world not only dynamically, and with great vivacity, but necessarily self-sufficiently. The volcano and the cigar, in a strange manner, thus continue to hold the endless fire of their presence in a purely representational space, removed from even the speaker himself, though alluringly.

In Victory itself, the volcano that so dominates Walcott’s poem as to assume the latter’s title, stands as a kind of atmospheric analogue for the would-be remoteness of Axel Heyst, one of the novel’s main characters. “Every one in that part of the world knew of him,” Conrad’s narrative explains of Heyst in its early stages,

dwelling on his little island. An island is but the top of a mountain. Axel Heyst, perched on it immovably, was surrounded […] His most frequent visitors were shadows, the shadows of clouds, reliving the monotony of the inanimate, brooding sunshine of the tropics. His nearest neighbor—I am speaking now of things showing some sort of animation—was an indolent volcano which smoked faintly all day with its head just above the northern horizon, and at night leveled at him, from amongst the clear stars, a dull red glow, expanding and collapsing spasmodically like the end of a gigantic cigar puffed at intermittently in the dark.

So it is that along with the volcano, Walcott concomitantly re-appropriates the image of the cigar, because in Conrad’s narrative, the two images are inextricably linked:

Axel Heyst was also a smoker; and when he lounged out on his veranda with his cheroot, the last thing before going to bed, he made in the night the same sort of glow and of the same size as that other one so many miles away.

In a manner strikingly similar to Eric Packer’s limo-abetted sense of would-be remoteness, then, Axel Heyst’s character is in no small way defined by his would-be inaccessibility, fostered by a peculiarly prominent way of inhabiting space. Yet it is essential to register just how unusual is this manner by which “Volcano” reduces the entirety of Conrad’s novel to a volcano and a cigar. Obviously, for practical reasons, any one lyric poem can integrate only so much data from any one novel. But to celebrate a bulk of language as big as Victory via a volcano and a cigar—two images entailing what else but remoteness, the fleeting-ness of sensation, and sheer phenomenological intensity—is to insist upon pure unfettered inapproachability. So it is that there is simply no room for the indulgence of other intricacies of Conrad’s social world in Walcott’s poem—not even the intricacies of the social world that define the very novel that “Volcano” is purportedly celebrating. The cultivation of mythos, then, within the overtly didactic-imaginative mode of “Volcano,” must be understood as itself an ethos—an ethos by which the poem breathes. And it is as if the reduction of Victory to anything but its most enigmatic phenomenological units would seem, at least according to the logic of “Volcano,” a necessarily wrong-headed reduction of mythology.

In fact, the only social-historical intricacies that are deemed worthy of celebration within the space of “Volcano” are those very social intricacies that are sufficiently voluminous to underpin the claims of mythology:

Joyce was afraid of thunder,
but lions roared at his funeral
from the Zurich zoo.
Was it Zurich or Trieste?
No matter. These are legends, as much
as the death of Joyce is a legend,
or the strong rumour that Conrad
is dead, and that Victory is ironic.

The lack of seriousness that is pervading the world, the poem seems to suggest, is so corrosive as to preclude the ability to take serious things seriously. In this way, Walcott is arguing for a kind of organic remoteness, necessarily grantable to phenomena, like Victory or like James Joyce, that earn their rarified air. In a sense, then, we can think of the didactic project of “Volcano” as trying to cultivate the very air that Eric Packer so weirdly assumes in Cosmopolis. Packer, after all, does quite a lot of sitting in the back of a stretch limousine, brooding. And in the interludes not defined by Packer’s brooding, the world, in all of its technologically accessible, Post-modern omnipotence comes to Packer, with a disturbing alacrity.

The system of value perpetuated by “Volcano” however is not a system of value that corroborates (or is corroborated by) the kinds of financial arrangements that Eric Packer, say, navigates with a cold wizardry. Rather, the poem assigns value to the cultivation of grandness itself, even in the face of the current epoch’s seemingly inherent mythological deficiencies. Said grandness, if it is to be attained, must also be attained in spite of the general ravages of time and of history, not to mention the inherent limitations of the attention spans of humanity:

How common is the lightning,
how lost the leviathans
we no longer look for!
There were giants in those days.
In those days they made good cigars.
I must read more carefully.

The latter line, which is the poem’s ending, is uncharacteristically intimate. Indeed, up until that point, Walcott not only refrains from ever using the first-person singular, but otherwise speaks, as we have seen, of the necessarily impersonal “one,” or else of the vaguely inclusive “so many people,” or else of, say, Joyce and Conrad, those canonical literary names. Yet a more active form of impersonality is exactly what “Volcano” is attempting to cultivate. Walcott’s speaker argues for a self that is so un-burdened as to transcend her own existential boundaries. This hypothetical individual would live imaginatively rather than rationally, necessarily, if through a method that resembles, perhaps paradoxically, something like close reading. And Conrad’s novel acts as a most convenient locus of magnitude, or corroborating testament for these possibilities. Not that the atmospheric inventory of “Volcano,” of course—what with its cigar, its lions, its thunder, and the looming sweep of its leviathan-packed sea—isn’t seemingly sufficient, in itself, for defying a smugly standard sense of reality.

But what Walcott’s poem needs most from Victory is so particular as to be almost esoterically technical. Walcott’s poem, for its didactic purposes, needs Conrad’s method of imagistic blurring, The natural and social worlds, embodied as they metonymically are by the volcano and the cigar, which flicker into one another in spite of their mutual foreignness, do ultimately mix in a manner conducive to the cultivation of mythology. And it is via this inherently anti-rationalistic imagistic mechanism, in fact, that Walcott’s poem is able to best challenge the reign of rampant rationality. Plus, there are many other books at hand to further fuel the fight against the excesses of rationality, the poem contends—books written long ago, and filled with stories and thoughts that might help us best understand the world’s true proportions and the almost unfathomable scale of its reality. These books haunt us, with their sentences, their images, and they haunt each other to the extent that their interaction sustains its own kind of inter-textual economy, and all of this haunting goes on even when we ignore or downplay these entities. Indeed, when we attempt to ignore the most potent of these time-transferred units of meaning—well, perhaps it is precisely then that these books haunt us most palpably.

Steve Barbaro‘s writing appears (or is forthcoming) in such venues as New American Writing, The Yale Review, Web Conjunctions, The Common, DIAGRAM, Western Humanities Review, and Denver Quarterly. He can be found on twitter @iLLepitaph, or else check out his web-home. He also sometimes takes photos, one of which looms above the above article.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, January 28th, 2017.