For Love And Autonomy by Anahita Jamali Rad - Review by Alan Reed
Talon Books 2016, $16.77
Who is the lyric poem? Or, to put the question in linguistic terms, how does it constitute its subject? How does it locate this subject, and what speech is made possible from this subject position?
For certain modalities of the contemporary lyric, there is a self-evident quality to the speaking subject. In a certain sense, this is a methodological necessity: the lyric presumes an expressive poetics, one which places the voice beyond the textual field. This relation between the two that the lyric poem establishes -- the distance or difference between voice and text and the passage from the one to the other in the act of expression -- is arguably the generative structural relation of the lyric form.
To speak of other debut collections that leverage this quality of the lyric form, recent work by Adèle Barclay and Vivek Shraya powerfully deploy the voice's alterity to the textual field to speak truths that would otherwise be inadmissible and unuttered. They use the lyric form to extend access to speech, to give voice to the marginalized. The structural relation implicit in expression -- the possibility of a voice autonomous from the textual field and as such largely self-determining in relation to it -- is a powerful and effective tool to this end. It makes the poem a space in which a certain freedom can be articulated.
This is not, however, the course Anahita Jamali Rad takes. In For Love And Autonomy, she performs a sustained critique of the self-evident and self-determining quality of the lyric subject. She probes the confluence of social and historical determinations that constitute both the speaking subject of the lyric and also the lyric form itself. In the course of this analysis, reimagines them both. With the poems in this collection she asks after what subject and what speech is possible from within a lyric grounded firmly in the material conditions and "clumsy ideologies" framing its lived reality, a reality firmly circumscribed by the systemic oppressions of capitalism -- what love, what autonomy, what poetry is possible under the conditions of late capitalism?
"The human body is *quite furiously*
an ideological manipulation of biology"
Jamali Rad is acutely aware of the paradox of contemporary literature, that when it claims an imaginative freedom -- and with this a kind of autonomy, a distance from power relations, and a moral high ground from which to speak -- it is at the same time thoroughly complicit in a capitalist mode of production.
"Every word, spoken or written, is uncertain, flexible, precarious, fluid, weightless. Every word is a part of abstract, equal, comparable, labour: measurable with increasing precision. The work that these words do functions both as a presupposition and the product of capitalist production."
In support of this claim it is perhaps enough to note that the sale price of the book is printed on the back cover of this collection, just above the barcode -- a banal enough observation, but one whose banality is telling of how thoroughly contemporary literature has committed itself to a capitalist mode of production and dissemination. Describing the trappings of the contemporary lyric, the objects that populate the scenes of everyday life that are so often its setting, she writes:
"The shower. The toilet. The stove. Cold Coffee. Look. The street light that still glimmers quietly. The pine cone that's covered in dirty rain. The rained dish rag. Are subsumed by capital. And have perhaps further depreciated since the last time you checked."
The poems in For Love And Autonomy function, often simultaneously, in two distinct registers: an analytic register, to lay bare their own implication in the field of capitalist production and the extent to which they are implicated in it; and a poetic or ethical register, to feel out what it is possible to say or do, or what should be said or done in response to a world overrun by capitalism.
This twofold critique excruciatingly charts the powerlessness of life in this historical moment. "There is no absence of low pay, no benefits, no job security, and no long-term stakes," Jamali Rad writes:
"You and I are always ready for accommodating entirely new labour, and acquiring the requisite knowledge of machinery. And our relationships are always inevitably transactional, tenuous, while crushing development marches forward with a pain in its heart and an anti-nostalgia that stiffen the pain right in its place."
The precarity of this economic position, the toll it exacts for bare subsistence, is a constant subtext in the collection. Whatever subject position these poems try to articulate is always constrained by this, by how very little time and energy is left for anything that does not have to do with work.
Jamali Rad is unflinching in mapping the extent to which life is subordinated to work. In one of the collection's sharper insights, she describes how even activist work operates under these conditions -- more insidiously so, even, given its ostensibly moral aims:
"Your arduous, low-wage, no-wage, unwaged, unwageable work is crucial to the movement, and will not go unnoticed. You can't put a price on love and dedication. Though you are expected of this, you are also expected not only to care about work, but to care for your work, about your work. Your economic relationship to your paycheque is your new family. And you have to really want it. You gotta show how much you really want it."
The broader implications of this are a collapse of subjectivity into terms defined by capitalism. Jamali Rad writes that "capital makes its way into all our relations;" she is especially astute in probing how this extends to desire. Speaking of the roles afforded to women under capital, she writes:
"Against the industrialization of our bodies. In exposing the physical mechanism that dominates and exploits us. Historical bodies, or bodies of a history limited by a desire that is not ours, a desire that is unable to mobilize us. A desire that discredits our desires to not be enamoured by the constant generator."
Here capitalism represents the alienation of the subject from her desire, from herself, and her displacement into a life that reduces her to an object suspended in a web of relations animated by the demands of capital. In "The intimacy of a breathing machine," one of the most striking poems in the collection, Jamali Rad plays out this reduction of desire and intimacy to an ethic that extends no further than transactional exchange:
"If I enjoy institutionalized oppression, and you participate in institutionalized oppression, then we may enjoy each other.
If you enjoy being absorbed and sold by capital, and I enjoy commodifying you, we may enjoy each other.
If you enjoy being subject to systemic violence, and I enjoy enforcing systemic violence, then we may enjoy each other."
So much for love.
With For Love And Autonomy, Jamali Rad shows a keen awareness of how the contemporary lyric is compromised by capitalism -- how the voice it affords is itself always already implicated in it and its imagination always constrained to it, and how this means that any use of the lyric form as a critique of it is as implicated in it as any other. There is no easy move beyond it, and one of the strengths of this collection is how relentless Jamali Rad is in her commitment to staying close to this truth.
It makes for a harrowing but nevertheless compelling collection, not least because of how effectively Jamali Rad has incorporated a sophisticated theoretical analysis into her writing. It allows her to work from a rigorous understanding of this historical moment, and to speak powerfully to what it is like to be living through it.