This review is 1,400 words
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and the Critical Lyric
In his new collection Fourier Series, Joshua Corey brings history, politics, and contemporary representational practices to bear in reworking the writings of early nineteenth-century utopian thinker Charles Fourier. “Scant creatures frolic” in meadows; “crested Sierras,” “umber hills,” and desert landscapes lie under “a sky polluted with stars.” A glut of consumption and sex is displayed through a refracted and jumpy lens. Friendship and social organization appear abstracted in classical ideals, yet the figure of the “hurt man” recurs to counter the immortality of these forms. The idyll and its status as fantasy are always under threat; unpleasant intrusions spell imminent disaster for this imaginary social world and the ecology in which it exists.
Fourier Series is marked throughout by ambivalence between utopian longing and profound pessimism in its treatment of Fourier’s pleasure-centered theories. Corey repeatedly demonstrates the crisis that troubles beautiful imagery, and approaching this problem through poetry adds a particular resonance. By refiguring the “theory of the passions” the book invites us to question the medium’s capacity for projecting a dreamworld despite its vexed association with the past.
Fourier’s thought seems readymade for translation into lyric poetry, full as it is with the promise of love, harmony, and nature’s bounty. In his view, the thirteen “passions” — a term that could be substituted for “human drives” — are in a state of incoherence in industrialized society. Over the course of an 80,000-year cycle they will align in the development of agrarian collectives (the midpoint of 40,000 years is the apex of this civilization) characterized by unrestrained fulfillment of pleasure, and will descend again into chaos before the world ends.
As for the passions themselves, first are the five senses, termed the “luxurious” passions by Fourier to designate the desire for sensual pleasure; second, four “affective” passions, which function as an argument for polymorphous sexuality against what Fourier considers the bourgeois pox of traditional marriage; third, three “distributive” passions that allow the collective to function through its gratifying organization of work; and finally, the thirteenth passion, “Unityism,” which characterizes the utopian totality described by Fourier as “universal well-being.”
In Fourier Series, each passion appears in a four- or five-page section, with the pages themselves divided into quadrants. Nine seven-line poems appear in most sections (many quadrants are blank) along with prose-like poems that extend and comment upon them. Unlike formal constraints that serve purposes that are primarily internal to the idea of the literary work (e.g., “potential literature”), the book’s organization does not exist mainly for its own sake. Beyond the mathematical reference of the title, the structure of Fourier Series grounds an exploration of utopian poetics by establishing a provisional “perfect” form. Within this form shifting subjects and a rapid succession of images would, on the surface, indicate an aim of delighting with the pleasure of linguistic play. However, the ways in which these techniques undermine and destabilize the scrupulous organization of this collection serves a more substantial purpose: the investigation of the lyric’s ability to apprehend both past and future.
only the real
is subject to allegory
so I say a girl
is a fork of flame
by the frostbit highway
+ yours the open eyes
that singe (59)
The frozen and flat scene exists outside the real, outside narrative and historical time. There is the outline of a landscape, a possible romantic object, and straightforward metaphor. Even so there is also an uncertainty that derives from the juggling of pronouns and perspective between “I,” “you,” and “she,” suggesting that the unity of the scene does not hold. As for the passions, they are not quite (or not yet?) fulfilled; the second section of the book (“The Five Senses”) bombards the reader with references to fruit and its enjoyment in an illustration of abundance that borders on parody. Under the picturesque surface is the sense of a dystopic and violent real:
as the senses
explain the maim
in my bedroom, shard
cabaling with each other
on the aluminum lawn (69)
The copulating senses operate in a kind of virtual reality severed from the space of the bedroom and the lawn. Drowsy satisfaction of desire is forestalled in these poems. Velocity and turbulence prevent anything like languid enjoyment, troubling the appreciation of the tasteful or beautiful in poetry. In this way Corey arrives at a critical use of the lyric by occupying the split between aesthetic pleasure and the trauma that is necessarily excluded.
Following André Breton’s “Ode to Charles Fourier,” Corey chooses the drive westward as a prevailing figure for Fourier’s legacy in an Anglo-American context, featuring a section titled “Manifest Destiny,” cowboy and explorer types, and desert flora and fauna. U.S. territorial expansion finds a parallel in the passions; both aim to naturalize the quest for wealth. Exchanging Fourier’s version of destiny with the more specific narrative that shaped the U.S. frontier adds major ideological freight to the book. The engagement with the history of the West raises the question of poetry’s relationship to catastrophe, as the western U.S. has been the site of the mass murder of indigenous populations and the scientific tests that ushered in the atomic age. Corey challenges contemporary verse practices to answer for both the dream of the West and its nightmarish effects. There is thus a demand to show that an aesthetic of plenitude, however fragmented or parodic, does not contain the blind spots of official accounts.
In spite of quick cuts, unpredictable address, and prosody that at times resists interpretation, concrete events do appear, and Fourier Series reaches toward historiography through its idiosyncratic retelling:
Cherrybombed a second sun, the third sun flats Japan, by the glow of the fifth the Marshall Plan. Find a new sun at core for heat without light. Trees unfurl in orbit to make everywhere like here. Under republican airs we are sectioned fair + square. (37)
Absorbed in a cosmological chronology that organizes the twentieth century, atomic annihilation falls along the timeline with the same banality that signals the construction of suburbs in the postwar boom. These sentences capture poetry’s ascribed complicity in a modern nightmare, although further steps appear to be needed to go beyond a rehearsal of this problem.
In Corey’s pastoral the forces of nature are conscripted in the project of modernity. His technique makes it plain that there is no turning back to smooth-edged lyricism as it opens up a field where something in the utopian vision might provide a metaphor for some kind of restorative force. Yet one problem with Fourier Series is that it does not seize the opportunity to articulate this “something else,” a move would make the book still more attractive, even if it did not offer anything amounting to a programme. The risk of a failed vision is described but not taken. Nonetheless, the book clears a space to speak for poetry at a time when it is forced to compete with newer media that are commonly accepted as the voice of the future.
Sexual site of difference between the phallic symbolic of discourse + the phallic imaginary of lyric. . . . Utopian “not yet”: not not-this-but-that but not-this-yet-this — that is, thisness, a minimal guarantee of subjectivity with noplace to stand but in proximity, felt distance, extimacy. (95)
The invocation of the Lacanian critique of ego psychology suggests that the “lost object” of paradise returns as a hallucinated utopia. An awareness of the deferral and distance effected by the grammatical index undermines the illusion of wholeness in this projection. While it could be argued that this displacement gives way only to nostalgia, “extimacy” creates a valuable bridge between social and poetic experiments that no longer serve as guarantors of beauty. The contradictory and self-conscious attitude of this poetics reinvigorates the literary utopia by politicizing the “perfect” form and its undoing. If Fourier Series describes a future, it may be that of a critical lyric betraying the tenuousness of its own vision and demanding skepticism of any claim to truth, while demonstrating the importance of confronting such claims with challenges and alternatives.
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