Fillip 6 — Summer 2007

From "Notes from the Center on Public Policy"
Mark Wallace

The unseen battering, driving, shaking, anything to throw it off, to not be suffocated by stamped company paper symbolizing even further abstractions and extractions, to not have the face squeezed into the proper expression of eager banality waiting its turn to list services at the podium—in response, it was no wonder a focus field understood itself best sometimes as pieces strung together along the wire of a formal utterance, the lurching monstrosity dumping out access to the feeder. Casual remarks could forsake a throbbing at the back of the eyes, plead it down to a misdemeanor or even an apology, or leave only a membrane in a darkened hallway reciting clichés in a search for belief. Barter was no longer common. Markdowns could be total, not discussed, while real estate prices grew wings, calculated themselves into rarified air that left inhabitants outdoors and gasping. Who to pull against, or shove, or toss oneself in front of while dignitaries watched from guarded receptacles, uttered grumpy and transparent non sequiturs careening through a murk it would destroy them to mention.

Could one have said that the sky flashed out at those moments when presentations contradicted themselves or stumbled in their quick departures and stayed too long behind Could one believe in the difference between intention and result How to know what part of any mistake could be most trusted The offers were always less than promised and there was no easy way to make that lovable, or scratch out the scraping against the screen, sometimes too quiet for the ear and seeming more, perhaps, like a sudden tug against the chest or intestines. It was always someone’s turn to go down. The laughter then added a new pitch, a straining against the throat, while each instigation called for another showcase, another round, or some quiet grandiosity went home silently, hatching plans for genius with high speed ineptitude, believing that even the smallest pleasure could be critiqued from the perspective of a dull, intractable brooding.

Yet, how many knew much about what caused any of it, pressured as most were into frenzied motion that, from a distance, appeared to be dancing but up close resembled an abrupt, brutal jerking powered by hands unseen behind a curtain, except there were no hands and no curtain, so that in every case the dancer seemed to be causing, and enjoying, the seizures of tendons, muscles, and flesh. These seizures, it was thought (and stated, repeatedly, from sources both official and so private they were never mentioned), put one on a path to a terrace, high above the traffic and blazing with light, where the dancer could stop, look down on the jerking below and fold its arms. The dances illustrated parables about steps, doors, tracks, visible and fragrant paths one only had to follow in order to arrive. There were three such paths, or seven, or twelve, any number observable between zero and infinity as long as, for each number, a proper set of actions could be defined. No real death lurked at the back of the final chamber, it was said, for the dancer transformed transcendently into a vision of things in their places and dancers relaxing among things. It was easy to live forever, it was said, and those who didn’t had only themselves to blame.

Still in training, finding themselves spinning smack into nothing to believe, increasing rungs of middle layers looked around frightened, desperate to clutch an external authority that didn’t dissolve into static at the slightest touch. When being out there proved worthless, the conclusion had to be further out, since looking inward revealed only the urge to obey what exposed itself as no more than formless gluttony. Then came increasingly frantic grasping, dreams of foreign lands, surges of melodrama beating themselves against a megawatt silence. Sooner or later some slickness would pull up in a car, beckoning, offering a new prototype oblivious to future upheaval. And love, some said bitterly while choking down dreams of castles or supermarkets and grabbing a piece of toast, was over the moment it appeared to begin.

Buildings could disappear or, in a few cases, explode without warning. The eruptions of language that crossed in all directions could almost cover the bodies undeniably left in the rubble and brought out eventually in the guise of a story that claimed to appease the wailing going on outside of microphone range except in carefully orchestrated puckers and sputters. Cars, houses, streets, kinships, or social groups closely or casually related could find themselves suddenly absent or rearranged, posed precariously against an emptiness that was not going to change with time, although one might later lean against it differently. Combustion and rhetoric lost their distinctions against backgrounds of black soot lying on shoulders, severed arms lying in culverts, or sometimes, fantastically, brief embraces in doorways between fully intact bodies who didn’t know each other and, if they had come to do so, might have recognized that they believed competing versions of events.

It was impossible not to react. Revenge, retaliation, blame, sadness, seeking, analysis, cautious tentative balances, organizing, protesting, trading information, looking below or on surfaces, moaning, lyricism, personal confessions, doubt, confusion, varying senses of commitment, feelings of failure, an eager urge to take sides or the inability to do so, making distinctions, splitting differences, questions about sources and intentions, endless waves of speculation then distrust of speculation, offers, descriptions, family tales, comparisons to earlier circumstances, the dropping of obscure illuminating anecdotes, searching for clues and evidence, dismissing clues or evidence, exposing biases, appeals to the group that defined the group, following procedures, transferring or resisting claims to authority or knowledge, stating one’s faith, grasping connection or alienation, asserting distance or an obstinate silence amid the deep conviction that no one was listening.

Conversations took place as if the parties involved had no barriers between them, yet purposes shifted venues, seats, tones of voice, facial expressions in order to control who would be allowed to speak. Many thought it best to shout louder, especially if the opponent was physically small. Theories were often directly related to the status of the speaker, even though actual status was not as simple as the labels stamped like proofs of an authorized chain of events. Sometimes a word, dropped in the wrong place by no one of significance, could suddenly scramble whole rooms, as if many feared they stood on the edge of cliffs or over cesspools, uncertain whether they were protecting themselves or intending to fall.

What do I do? How do I do it? Are there directions and will you give them to us? What if there’s not enough time? What if it’s not clear? Is that a fact or your point of view? Can I change this around or do I speak to it directly? Can you tell me what to say? Where can I look up the information? So if I do the first, the second will follow? Is that logical? Is that a big point or minor? How do I decide what details are pertinent Is this the right order? Who do I consult? Is there a centre? Is there a website? How do I distinguish? Does that seem a contradiction? Would it be possible to approach it this way? What about the other side? What if I think it’s all a mistake? What if I have to start over? Will there be other changes? How about other chances? Will the judges be harsh? What can I do to make them like me? Why do I have to care and what if I don’t?

Advertisements clogged the air. But not only the overt advertisements of television, radio, billboard, Internet. Advertising had filtered down into the most mundane exchanges or gestures. A smile could advertise; flailing and turmoil could advertise; ideologies for understanding conceptions of culture could advertise; barroom slander could advertise; casual discussions in hallways could advertise their casualness even while they advertised the implications of what was not being said; thinking could advertise itself as thinking while other thinking could advertise that thinking as not thinking. It was possible to advertise that one was not advertising certain things and that certain things could never be advertised, and do it in such a way as to advertise those things. It was possible to advertise the belief that advertising was a failed way of seeing the world. And yet, non-advertisements clogged the air. Facts about international warfare remained unadvertised; despair or love could be advertised or not advertised, depending on the despair or love. The sound of cars outside windows went unadvertised and a moment later was advertised. With so much advertised, it was startling—for some even paralyzing—that so much remained unadvertised. When one remembered that advertisement itself was only a way of looking at things, that there were many other ways although it didn’t often seem so, then one might have been tempted to advertise that, or to keep it unadvertised and switch out of the channel.

If there was a meaningful moment, some other moment loomed immediately in front of it, blockaded, did loops, shouted, pretended to take its clothes off, demanded first rights of refusal. Units walked glancing to this side or that, deflected away from drives and intentions which, when one placed a hand on them, pulled away as if some chain-wrapped box was opened to find, inside it, a magician too drunk to remember magic, too caught up in catch phrases and lowest common denominator mantras to admit that no such fraudulent entertainment should have been there in the first place even as it pulled quarters from behind ears or out of assholes as if here, at last, the missing—and what had it been exactly—at least, the sense of missing, was itself no more than loose change to be dropped into the nearest parking meter or spent, maybe, on chewing gum, chapstick, or a chiropractor. Need and want were just misplaced, tripped on, passed out to the wrong people at the wrong party who were here to defecate into the mouth of any too distracted guest. This never happened, of course, since the results would have reeked too much of transcendence or disaster.

Rumours were passed around about contaminated areas, yet the people most likely to be contaminated had already received official pass cards. Did contamination itself seem to float, first to this distribution centre then to that unnamed bastion, then to random spots whose location was mysteriously never mentioned? Was there a pathway, or simply a story about a pathway? Were measures taken, or simply approximations of measures? Were people less free to roam than their infectious diseases? Was it safe to go into malls on Halloween, even if a trusted someone had been told by someone she didn’t know personally but knew officially (who had seemed trustworthy and even had an official website) not to go into malls on that date, even though there seemed no way that such a person could have known such a thing? Would someone go into a mall on that date having heard such a thing but not believing it? Would someone express a belief not because they believed it but only in order to seem to believe it? Hearing the news, would somebody else wonder if they felt symptoms, as if disease and belief had become confused? What would anybody tell anybody to do? Who would accept the authorized version?

Bombings, civilian death, destruction of landmarks and ancient icons, fear, paranoia, organized poverty, and starvation; looking at these disasters, always at least partly intentional, postures that were supposedly enemies found themselves struggling for the same protective language, the same statements of who had ordered this or that, done this or that, statements deflected into expressions of fateful inevitability, as if the stars themselves warred, physical bodies no more than their projectiles and targets, as if two centuries after electricity, even the most sophisticated administrative terrains still publicly imagined and dispersed an image of old hoary bearded Titans as the motivation for high-powered weaponry to slash on cue across a landscape denuded of all but rhetoric. Counter-explanations leaped forward to unleash their own Titans, usually to claim that these Titans too had unleashed themselves. Across chunks of ripped ground, all these Titans, explained and counter-explained, strode oblivious to individual intervention; they carried names like oil, Hegelian dialectic, the repressed other, American power, terrorism, fundamentalism, the crisis of the left, these names blazing from lips locked against each other, thrown from the fingers of these inevitable Titans who explained all, took away any possibility of choice, claimed to be the sole solution despite the endless clashing that might seem, to someone removed from the scene, had anyone been so removed, functions of some even larger level of Titans, striding through atmospheres so vast that, to mere onlookers, their striding would seem no more than motionless quiet.

According to a source who had spoken to a source who was in touch at an earlier time with a source who had access to sources who no one else had access to, according to sources shrouded in sealed-off containers being sent to sources who had a first hand account of sources in touch with sources who had at one point in time been ready to contact incontrovertible sources on the front line or who were actually there and had told others they had been there some time soon after or before the event that had taken place had actually taken place, the situation was clear and could be understood in that way.

About the Author

Mark Wallace is the author of a number of books of poetry, including Temporary Worker Rides A Subway, which won the 2002 Gertrude Stein Poetry Award and was published by Green Integer Books. He is the author of a multi-genre work, Haze, and a novel, Dead Carnival. He is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at California State University, San Marcos.

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