Calvin Bedient’s fourth collection, The Multiple, meets an unspeakably excessive reality with an unremitting intensity of its own. The “multiple” in question is the imbroglio of entwinements and failed copulas within us and all around us, the reality underlying and giving the lie to our stereotypes. Dazzlingly resourceful—witty, multi-tonal, musical, propositional, painterly—the poems thump the increasingly empty box of cultural goods, an inheritance that isn’t really ours. We are left with a naked need for creativity in a cosmos whose gift of time is a gift of chaos. If in a universe that is “not-one . . . the rhapsodic is the avenue to the truth,” as Alain Badiou says, the quality of the rhapsodic in The Multiple is as cacophonous and unforgiving as it is lyrical and hooked. The truth is extreme, this aggressively uncensored book says, as it battles to give equal power to a savage voice and a soaring voice. Strong in their invisible architecture, these are poems of wild openness and sheer aliveness.
As if he were writing a universe all at once, Bedient stages the radical play of event and mind, catapulting us from child-terrors and transcripts of murder into these Capitalism will eat you days, as he fiercely imagines our moment, a now with more everywhere than here, a cloud of instants in cataphonic collision. This is lyric art that perforates the fog of unwitting connivance. The poet recognizes the indiscernible, and shakes us awake to ask: Is there enough chaos in you / to make a world?
Carolyn Forché, author of Blue Hour: Poems
Poem after poem, line by line Cal Bedient has grown more exuberant, uncompromising and unruly. The more control he can access, the more gleefully though choosily he can dispose of interference, any intermediary between himself and the moment. His forms are as multiple as they are true to their concerns; each is sonically on the mark and packed optically tight. “Socrates had his demon,” he writes “honk if you have a demon.” He honks every time he passes. It is the promiscuous disunity, the arrant variety of being, seeing, declaiming and discerning at which Cal Bedient so excels. Clouds are abundant and absorb some of the blows, blue is his color; the birds get better parts than the humans (credit where credit due). The nouns whip from lectisterium to upchuck; the inner drives swerve from being feathered with bliss to a collision with unfinished life. All gets “lusciously worlded up” and multiplied 16x16x16 times…. He leaves us “horripilating when things/ come over [us]/all peculiar suddenly.” What a lunge; what a rush.
C.D. Wright, author of One With Others
Sad scion of New York School’s social estates goes on Jamesian Grand Tour; results utterly contemporary without a hint of hipstery nowism; conjuring profound loneliness amidst the lives of that great dead thing, culture. This is death’s imminent irruption into life. Against this, a counterpoised coterie comprising friends and strangers and vitality itself, “electric with you, with you, pronoun so sweet and burning.”
Joshua Clover, author of The Totality for Kids
Calvin Bedient was raised in Washington state and got his Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Washington, after studying piano at the Whitman College Conservatory of Music. His first teaching position was at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He then taught at the University of California until his recent retirement. He has been a visiting instructor at Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A founding editor of the New California Poetry Series, he now co-edits Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry & Opinion. His reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, The Nation, Partisan Review, Salmagundi, The Boston Review, and still other magazines. His critical books include Eight Contemporary Poets (Oxford University Press), He Do the Police in Different Voices: The Waste Land and its Protagonist (University of Chicago Press), and The Yeats Brothers and Modernism’s Love of Motion (University of Notre Dame Press). He has published three previous collections of poetry: Candy Necklace (Wesleyan University Press), The Violence of the Morning (University of Georgia Press), and Days of Unwilling (Saturnalia Books). He lives in Santa Monica, California.
A brief interview with Calvin Bedient
(conducted by Rusty Morrison)
When I first read this work in manuscript, I heard echoing in it Gilles Deleuze’s assertion “… a principle of the production of the diverse makes sense only if it does not assemble its own elements into a whole.” I felt stunned by the myriad ways that this collection of poems is, to use Deleuze again, “an addition of the indivisibles.” One could say that you marry contrasting dictions and categories, using their intimacy as interrogation, and that you juxtapose the literary, the sacred, the lascivious. But that would not reflect the disarming coherences, the unexpected accord in which these poems accordion forth, unfurling such a lively, uncanny, daunting music. Yet music, it is. I’ve not read poems like these before. Can you speak to your intentions for the book?
That is an extraordinary description; what hopes I have for the book’s aspirations can be found somewhere along the generous way of it. Certainly I promote diversity, but I think of it as less calculated than instinctive. My writing is alive to me only if it is strange and surprising at every point. I try to avoid having to think “I’ve heard that before” or “I know that connection.” I listen for the work’s difference even from itself. The consequence is what you cite as “indivisibles.” All on its own, as it were, the poetry wants to show that, loosened from its common discursive forms, experience tumbles forth in a mixture of dismay and delight.
The unexpected meetings of unresolvable elements encourage a pokiness of word and image amidst what may be, even so, a liquid motion. This last results from a need to keep the work dynamic, to reject the notion that history has squashed life. Despite their skepticism, the poems sometimes behave as if they want to reach an uber stage of music and feeling that will bind the elements, bind them in flight. For it really does seem to me that the elements are being assembled and united, not just serially paraded.
How/why did you begin The Multiple? Which poem or poems were the first you wrote? Did your initiating impulses change as the manuscript evolved? How do you see this book in relation to your last book?
The new book refers to multiplicity more explicitly and frequently than the previous books do, but the others, especially the third, Days of Unwilling, also crackle with the pain of it. This time around, I wanted to italicize, beginning with the title, that the work doesn’t simply flout stability but, on the contrary, seeks a deeper-than-usual coherence of a more-than-usual number of parts, including a range of vocal tones, of “personalities,” hence of varying vantage points. “Is there enough chaos in you to make a world?” is the challenge I face when I write.
Some of the poems in the last part of the collection were written before the others and were intended for the third book; but as that book tilted more and more toward “unwilling” experience, the more “willing” poems seemed out of place. Of course, it’s truer to experience to combine the yea and the nay, as the new book does, whether through juxtaposition or immediate admixture. The Multiple gradually moves from cries against life to affirmations, but not without backslidings and resistance. This emotional variance of course contributes to the over-all effect of multiplicity.
Would you tell me a bit about yourself?
I was raised in Washington state and got my Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Washington, after studying piano at the Whitman College Conservatory of Music. My first teaching position was at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. I then taught at the University of California until my recent retirement. I’ve been a visiting instructor at Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A founding editor of the New California Poetry Series, I now co-edit Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry & Opinion. My reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, The Nation, Partisan Review, Salmagundi, The Boston Review, and still other magazines. I live in Santa Monica, California.
Who are the authors with whom you feel a kinship? Who are you reading currently?
“Modernity,” as Joshua Clover writes, “is the failure of the epic.” We no longer have “an aesthetic mode whose very thought is the whole.” When I write, I feel buffeted, at times exhilaratingly, by the criss-crossing winds of a world without totality. In a sense (and in saying this I am not aiming for pathos) I suffer it; I object to it; I take it personally. On the other hand, better a missing totality than little prisons of system. The poetry is thus encouraged on two accounts to test the limits of language and logic: to evade stale repetitions and to evoke an impossible totality. The tension between “this is too little to put up with” and “this is too much to master” produces a badgering dialectic. Something more nearly whole, please. No, wait, such a solution would probably be false.
My poems share in the modern emotional protest against the death of the epic. Perhaps the father of such poetry was a boy, Rimbaud. Valléjo is an early twentieth century example. Césaire, Jorie Graham, and Dominique Fourcade are other great ones. If I added more names I would still have to underscore at list’s end that the writers do not sound much alike. It isn’t a style I refer to, but the high-strung registration of a major predicament.
You chose the image that is used in the cover design for this book—a David Goldes photograph of liquid drops caught in a crystalline stillness as they pour in free-fall, with all the force of gravity, from such height. This image seems resonant with many issues of temporality that your poems examine. Can you talk about your reasons for your choice?
David Goldes’s striking photograph, which I saw hanging in The Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis, is a classically cool image of an almost comically makeshift attempt to “catch” multitude, to contain it—an effort that isn’t “classical” at all. The disparity is delicious, chilling, ironic. The various would-be containers are too small for the task, and so shallow that some of the water jetting into them bounces out and forms droplets on the table. Mysteriously, the ready-to-serve table of the traditional still life has been swept clean of nature’s organic abundance and subjected to darkness and a variety of pestering, discreet, vertical downpours that come out of nowhere. The photograph savages the still life and opens it up not to the heavens but to what may be the void.
All this perhaps bears a rough similarity to my poetry’s efforts both to admit and to control an apparently inexhaustible chaos (a dynamis) that, given the latter’s frequently beautiful articulations, may well indicate an order, but if so it isn’t our order. We can’t explain it. We can only try to deal with it. Art may tend to be like a jar, as Wallace Stevens suggested, but reality ceaselessly pours, pours now. The temporality in question is one of an unrelieved duration marked by impersonal speed. Art can’t keep up with it without trying to grow legs, to run; to be, like the containers, all over the place, if not ever successfully everywhere.
Classical art focuses on the jar; Goldes’s photograph gives the circumstance of the jar, its ambiguous position between effectiveness and defeat.
Chthonic energy, almost as in Dylan Thomas, is everywhere, and often it comes with sexual excitement: “A particle puts its groin to your mouth: go on,/ make it well in the garish heat of the marriage bed.” Yet these messy energies easily turn violent. One five-page poem follows a genuine, grisly case of child sexual abuse, mistaken identity and murder from 1920s California. Other pages, while eschewing narrative, undercut bourgeois norms of personality, consistency, desires satisfied, in favor of an explosive challenge to everything. Bedient also runs a provocative literary journal called Lana Turner, whose radical interests in politics, culture, and type design spill over into this book; fonts, page layout, and book design vary immensely, in ways that only add to the unsettling, almost uncontrollable, information density the volume boasts. “Is there enough chaos in you to make a world?” one short poems asks; the answer is yes.
These stunning poems succeed not merely at the level of the poem or stanza or line but indeed the word — Bedient leaps and pivots and lunges so kinetically the reader can only marvel at his dexterity. Rarely do nouns so completely surprise, organic energy so induce a continual shiver, tautness of phrase so gleefully marry eccentricity of sentiment. Bedient’s world is comprised of a constellation of wonders inaccessible by any other means.
Again and again, The Multiple takes hope and despair on equal footing, enveloping both in its ever-expanding collection of particulars. Bedient rejects the primacy — and authenticity — of individual perspective. These poems embrace community in its totality, violence and all. They argue that acknowledging this totality is the only way to initiate a shift in our relationship to that violence. By acknowledging our communal culpability, we inevitably acknowledge the possibility of our own humanity.
The man is a gangsta of now. He climbs the ladder from roses to sex murder (“The Gordon Stewart Northcott Murders of Boys in Wineville, California, 1928”), synapse to philosophy, from scuzz to high lyricism. In a mode no more than semi-discursive—this varies; the Gordon Stewart Northcott poem cited above makes perfectly grammatical if psychotic sense—he’s riveting. Even when he gut-bucketly refuses to mean (not true, each poem is rife with meaning), his combination of verbal and intellectual power and fine, subtle ear makes him one of the most exciting innovative poets on the set.
Who is this person does not take pleasure
in the things this thing does? Who does not
wish to have himself slapped like an egg
in a mantle in a wind in a hell of a tough
night? This thing come into my heart
many centuries old and cuss and sweat
and shake kiss migraine hurt and run,
a leaping ankle that thumb and trigger
finger adorn. Secretary of the six
female groans, this thing isn’t smoke
of dogma this thing hasn’t spoken for days,
this thing this thing this thing this thing.