Readings — From the October 2014 issue

Poem Begun on a Train

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By Raphael Rubinstein, from Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics, published in August by Black Ocean. Rubinstein is the author of several books, most recently The Miraculous (Paper Monument).

Excuse me while I adjust the privacy settings of this poem
so that if it’s ever published it will exist as a legible text
and not as a string of stubborn phrases I silently repeat to myself.
Three lines written, now three and a half, yet for the moment no one
but me has access to them, as they stretch haltingly
across the perfect grid of my Rhodia notebook,
unless, that is, Amtrak has installed
hidden video cameras above the seats in the coach class
of this Northeast Regional and one of them is focused on this very page.

Whoa, that idea came a little too easily.
The belief that your every move is being watched
used to be a sign of clinical paranoia,
except for those living under totalitarian regimes
in which case it was a perfectly reasonable assumption.
Now it’s becoming a perfectly reasonable assumption
no matter where you breathe, no matter where you write.

Let’s assume that Amtrak hasn’t installed
individual video surveillance, at least not yet.
Let’s further assume that this poem, which is slowly crawling from pure potentiality
to an intermediate state of being more concrete
than if I wrote it by fingertip on a steamy window
but less so than the station signs howling past,
has no other reader but me.
Still, once I transcribe my handwritten draft into my MacBook Pro,
a nearly inevitable step I am already contemplating
and will have long since accomplished by the time you read these lines
it will have become so easily available to endless numbers
of bureaucrats and hackers that I might as well post
the whole thing online immediately.

Every poet thinks about every line being read by someone else
even if, as the line is written, its author suspects that he or she may die
before those words will win the attention of any other human being.
Positing a reader, sympathetic or dismissive,
is apparently necessary for every poem,
from the most compressed, tongue-entangled lyric
to stanzas as aerated and matter-of-fact as these.
There are times, however, when a reader is not merely posited
but becomes as factually undeniable as the poem itself.
What’s more, instead of turning a cold shoulder
or bestowing ceremonial kisses on a prize-winner’s cheeks,
this invisible reader rattles a set of prison keys
and is ready to dispatch an inconvenient text and author
to a cold library with zero opening hours
from which nothing circulates except ashes.
To earn shelf space in this grim depository
a poem doesn’t even need to be written down.
Think of Mandelstam’s “Stalin Epigram,”
16 lines recited to a few friends that signed their author’s death warrant.
Obviously, I don’t have the slightest intention of comparing myself to Mandelstam
or to any other poet writing within rifle shot of deadly auditors
nor, for that matter, to Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami,
recently sentenced to life in prison (subsequently reduced to a mere 15 years)
for reciting a poem on YouTube that displeased the Emir of Qatar.

I can’t imagine any poem I might write coming with such a price,
yet I live at a time when writing and its surveillance
have become practically synonymous.
In Discipline and Punish (original French title, Surveiller et punir)
Foucault cites Bentham’s panopticon prison
where an inmate can’t know whether or not he or she
is being watched by a guard at any given moment
so must assume that observation is continual.
In the present state of “carceral society” surveillance really is continual
and increasingly it is undertaken by the subjects themselves.
Fitbit, I read, is a small device to track your physical activity or sleep.
You can wear the device all day because it easily clips in your pocket,
pants, shirt, bra, or to your wrist when you are sleeping.
The data collected is automatically synced online when the device
is near the base station. After uploading, you can explore visualizations
of your physical activity and sleep quality on the website.
You can also view your data using their new mobile website.
You can also track what you eat, other exercises that you do, and your weight.

This is the world prophesied by Kenneth Goldsmith circa 1997
when he submitted himself to week-long audio surveillance
or attempted to describe his every physical action for a 13-hour period.
It’s also the world embraced by a new generation of digital literary scholars
who employ data-mining techniques pioneered by the NSA.
True, poets have been engaged in “self tracking” for a long time.
“Let no thought pass incognito and keep your notebook
as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens,” Walter Benjamin advised.
They’ve also sometimes operated on the other side of the fence:
Wordsworth spying for England on his and Coleridge’s 1798 trip to Hamburg,
Basil Bunting working undercover for British Military Intelligence
in Tehran until he was expelled in 1952.
But more often they have been the ones spied upon,
like Hugh MacDiarmid hounded in wartime Scotland
as a Communist agitator while he looked for “a poetry of facts.”
At least he had the opportunity to lash back in a letter
to one of his tormentors, a certain Captain Jock Hay:
“It is intolerable that I should be subjected to inconvenience
and misrepresentation by a fatuous blowhard like you
and I have no intention of submitting to it,
even though the seriousness of it is mitigated by the fact
you are known as a windy ass and egregious buffoon
and not taken seriously by anyone who knows you”
(Andrew McNeillie, “A Scottish Siberia,” TLS, Sept. 13, 2013).

In The Prelude, Wordsworth was baffled at “how men lived
Even next-door neighbors, as we say, yet still
Strangers, not knowing each the other’s name.”
Now I know the names of a thousand “friends” I’ve never met, and they mine,
so what do I have to hide from any device capturing these lines
to a distant database? My mind is filled with eavesdroppers and spies.
I think a thousand times, or not a second, before I commit to a phrase
and leave trails of metadata I’m asked to believe no one will ever pursue.
Rather than wallow in outmoded subjectivities
raw and naked to those unseen allseeing eyes
maybe it’s better to simply claim existing chunks of language
as MacDiarmid did in the Shetland Islands in the early 1940s
transcribing lengthy passages from the TLS
for his eventually abandoned megapoem
“Cornish Heroic Song for Valda Trevlyn.”
In June 1940 the authorities judged him “a case for continued observation”
and in the following March put him on the “invasion list.”
“It is probably unnecessary,” Brooman-White wrote to Major Peter Perfect
(Box 5, Edinburgh) on March 16, 1941, “as no doubt the local Police and Military
are all standing round waiting to pounce on him,
but to make assurance doubly sure, it might be as well to have his name added.
I think we have plenty of evidence to justify this
but if you like I will send you up a summary of our file against the man.”

The character Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) in Hitchock’s The Lady Vanishes,
released in 1938, the year Mandelstam died,
having tea in the dining car with the charming
but penniless musicologist Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave)
when she glimpses the name that Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty)
had left on the window, a second before it evaporates.
She bolts from the table and desperately addresses the travelers around her:
“I appeal to you, all of you — stop the train. Please help me.
Please make them stop the train. Do you hear?
Why don’t you do something before it’s too late?”
Redgrave and duplicitous psychiatrist Dr. Harz (Paul Lukas)
attempt to restrain her but she breaks away.
Before pulling the train’s emergency cord and collapsing in a dead faint,
she cries out: “I know! You think I’m crazy, but I’m not.
For heaven’s sake, stop this train. Leave me alone. Leave me alone.”
Amid the fascist shadows she is driven to hysteria
because a text has disappeared before it could acquire other readers.

At the Whitney’s “Rituals of Rented Island”
I walk into the Squat Theatre installation, suddenly remembering
evenings of radical performance circa 1979
as a long-forgotten line from one of Kafka’s parables
hisses at me in low-fi analog:
“Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man.”

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