The Victory of sex & Metal by Barbara Mor
(The Oliver Arts and Open Press, New York, 2015)
This poem’s beginnings date from 1981 (it was finished in 2013), and it chronicles, if that’s the word, Mor’s life as the 1980s began. It was a rough life, on the streets … So it helps to know something about her. At least it helped me, so … Since I didn’t know her, I’m going to quote/excerpt from an essay by Edgar Garcia, which, among other texts, is also found in the volume I’m reviewing.
Some know Mor as the co-author of The Great Cosmic Mother, a tome on Goddess worship published in 1987. But [much of (JBR)] her life’s work as a poet taking apart the visceral reality beneath our national mythology appeared in Clayton Eshleman’s Sulfur, the influential literary magazine of the 1980s and 1990s. This was a brutal time for Mor. She was living in poverty, often homeless, on the streets of Tucson and Albuquerque, in total eclipse with an abusive partner, “a pharmacopeia, he was; junkie, street thug, Mexican boxer, pimp prostitute hitman [...] a notorious crazy street person.” She saved what she could from the slow fire eating her skin, “sitting in 24/7 BurgerKing with free coffee refills into infinity, air conditioning, writing in notebooks.” […] In a way, Mor’s view of the US in the 20th century was paradigmatic. She was born in 1936 in California “before the freeway, before plastic & fastfood franchises,” and watched it transform with war industry and suburban sprawl. As a teenager eager to escape an oppressive home life, she was a beach bum and later a beatnik in the Hollywood area. At age 17, she married “a guy from Las Vegas” and by the end of the decade she was living “in Baja with a Beat artist.” When the 1960s reared its head with the assassination of JFK, she was a first-year student at SDSU (then known as SDSC), where she stayed for six years until she walked out nine units shy of a degree “cuz in WorkStudy I’d found obscure books on ‘ancient matriarchies’ in Mega/Neolithic Europe & the Mediterranean buried in the basement, & after all my education (including Anthro, Comparative Religion, World Lit & Mythology etc etc) I’d never been introduced to such texts.” She then began to write for a San Diego women’s newspaper, Goodbye To All That, a series of essays that would form the basis of her work in The Great Cosmic Mother. Amid the political explosions occurring on college campuses, Mor became more deeply involved in the women’s liberation movement, editing an international all-women’s poetry anthology, until the paranoia programmatically disseminated by CoIntelPro leaked into the movement, causing a crippling “politics of serious infighting.” She left just as Ronald Reagan’s governorship put the squeeze on welfare mothers, dispossessing California of one of its greatest minds. She moved to New Mexico. In 1987, she moved again to Tucson, believing the prestige of recently published The Great Cosmic Mother might secure her a lectureship at the University of Arizona (hoping to simultaneously write a comparative study of Celtic and Mesoamerican spiritual systems). Instead, she failed to get even cleaning work in their maintenance department. She was soon on the streets. Mor remembers a particularly telling episode during this period of homelessness when she was caught sponge bathing in a bathroom at the University. She was run out by a maintenance worker even as her book was being taught at the University. The University, she says, “was not home to my body even though its Library might house my book.” […] since the late 1990s Mor has lived in Portland, Oregon. Her recent writings have left behind the Tucson experiences, turning instead toward the “shavd polymorphd” world after September 11, 2001. Inhabited by terrorists, quantum ghosts, (dis-)honest politicians, and other things which may or may not exist, this world—in which she sees Joan of Arc argue with Dostoyevsky and Pussy Riot play in a clitoral-shaped cosmos—is “not doomed,” Mor stresses, “by Nature but by DumbIdeas.” Her life’s work has been an untangling on this basic premise, giving a corpus and destiny to Dean’s insight that it was important that she should write and in her writing reveal the bleeding flesh and conflagration beneath our American fanfare. Some of these writings—poetic and polemical—are available at her blog. Her next collection, a trilogy titled Metals, is currently unsmelting itself at her computer in paradise.
Garcia goes on to add that he “had been taken by the flagrant intensity of her writing, riveted by its polemical propulsion heading God-knows-where:
Life on Tucson streets with an Aztec-Mayan streetfighter will of course Intensify It. It is a matter of enormously condensed and suspended energy, can blow up Universe with any microflick of the tail. But: is wholly unliterary, unhistoric. These exist still packed in DNA; as Pancho says, "I am the Book." No-word dream-state of images, magnetic fields, and body action. It needs a good translator. The energy of verbal work, writing, is a high-speed or short-wave radiation. My brain works, but it is long waves, below the sound-threshold. I mean I don't hear much going on in there: the metallic drone of the Malabar caves, one-way traffic on Lead St...
As mentioned, I think it is important to know all this, because, while her poem is more than just the story of her “[l]ife on Tucson streets …”, just as all hallucinations are more than whatever “inspired” them, just as all poems are more than their narrative frames, it’s not as if the frame is unimportant. Just try to understand a painting of the Deposition without knowing anything about the story of Jesus.
While there are many characters in the poem, it centers around two, Knife Boy and Mechanical Girl. It is not hard to see Knife Boy as a version of her “abusive partner," a pharmacopeia, he was; junkie, street thug, Mexican boxer, pimp prostitute hitman [...] a notorious crazy street person.’” Which would make a version of her Mechanical Girl. While I recognize that a character in a poem is never the author, there is a passage in the poem that assures me that in this case there is not all that much distance between the two:
I think I’m wearing old levis brown baggy longsleevd
sweater no bra no cosmetics no jewelry after all it is hell
here im in hell but prefer not do not identify
black guy jonesing for a fuck behind me at busstop here
the goddess Hel queen of his darkness [white/black] we
share her bones bony necessity to serve ubiquity sensate
time she wallows in blood he wants it suckd id drain
it all the red stuff unsanguined shadow disappears thus
down her magic throat otherwise fuck off man fuck off
my skin crawls under masks and subterfuges refuges
in time we inhabit now in night essential to inhabit what
place findable alley garage cardboard box someones
dream sometimes beautiful or hit the CarlsJrBK allnite
booth 1 cup coffee eternal refills until dawn means it is
safe to close yr eyes somewhere park benches are 4 or
crosstown busrides for this I ride eternal refills when
drivers let it sometimes they want to talk flirt cute in
the moving emptiness […]
Given the parallels between this passage and her already quoted “sitting in 24/7 BurgerKing with free coffee refills into infinity, air conditioning, writing in notebooks” I think it is fair to claim that there’s quite substantial overlap between Mechanical Girl and Mor.
But I don’t want you to think that The Victory of sex & Metal is not at the same time an incredible wild phantasmagoria. It’s worth quoting a few bits from another text of hers, “theater of cruelty” (http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=714 ctheory.net)
Earth is Theater of Cruelty. She is conscious of this. She begins to
perform herself as cosmic actor a progenitor of all Art.
all matter originates in the explosion of a passion, that condensed
from night, then is driven to return.
the mind pulls back, to see as gods, the viscous thought span
pulling, unconsciousness. pain.
for the men need succoring. they say. women must stop our work
of change of poetry and succor them. hurt boys, needing this mother.
hurt by their mamas, no. it was the bad father. because a bad big
progenitors fucked them in the ass, women must become a sponge
mop up such pain. the fathers did it, we must clean it up. and then
our daughters, buggered by the poor sons in therapeutic retaliation
for crimes of the fathers. mop that up, the rapes and abuses of
daughters. what are mothers for. and then save the animals.
I last saw the moon. she held a gun.
Which should give you some idea. Here’s a bit more of the poem (there are no typos) so that you can see a bit of the phantasmagoria (the moon with a gun) in action:
the Vulva speaks
:is a different earth as describd in a mirror i am
corpseblue & hellish pink.that neon glow of fluorescing
worms as described document of alleys as they
pulsate .stink of useful eating & mantic morphism calld
decay still I work here teeth.bones rust or also
a blue radiation she comes to repeat autopsy labs& motel
rooms of their processes
a strange planet estrangd planet in a mirror I am
usual observe them as wormborn crawld of corpse eyes
or a brain of raw inside that juicd off.manganese feral
oxides poem effusions clay fungus as flesh sideways
then eruptd my thoughts is the smell as long thighs
into a cunt.mushroomd uterus of root brain as fungus of
is built inside.out exponential deathtaught lifetaut this
agaric/homokaryotic tongue it means to breathe.gilld
&of one origin some thick
smell of earth was always it means we live a tongue
thick w/it of fluorescing words
we livd or went mad.berserkers inside
the huge sex organs of all horizons
flies inside my head the shamanic transport a form of
mosquitos attacking.rodents bugs scatterd visions
in the alleys of decay.maggot messages of yr flesh as
experimental residues as poetry is from
:as describd descried in a mirror she utterd once
planet utterance, heard tongue
The poem is about 60 pages long. At times I think of Alice Notley, at times of Will Alexander, at others, oddly enough, of Robert Duncan (maybe it’s just uttered spelled as utterd, but maybe not) … and there are others … but she is beholden to none of them. Which just testifies a bit about the times in which we live.
Also included in the volume are a brief bio, Edgar Garcia’s foreword, from which I’ve quoted, an afterword, which is a conversation between Mor and Adam Engel, an appendix, which consists of an exchange of emails, and a second appendix, which is Mor’s “A Note on Writing Seriously Today”, which I will quote a bit of in close:
Our planet is a theatre of sublime cannibalism – our lives have always been sustained by the deaths of other living things, & vice versa; it’s an orgnic recycling process that, within the self-regulations & conservations of nature, works. As a run-amok global factory & marketing system based on a corporate cannibalism that is regulted solely by the sharky appetites of Capital, Earth becomes a Factory of Horror. Writers respond to this […] the Enormous Poem, in such a world, exists now & everywhere. It is inside us & there, performing sleeplessly 24/7; tragic epic, colossally cruelly funny drama, deadpan news items from hell […] & it’ll pour molten into yr eyes & brain forever. And then, with yr eyeballs burnt out & yr tongue charbroiled, you proceed to (try to) write. Play yr sacrificial part in this terrible feast. All the repressed gods &/or monsters from all the repressed mythologies ever on earth are now returning to join you.
John Bloomberg-Rissman is finishing editing In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life mashup called Zeitgeist Spam (Hangman will be published in 2016). The first two volumes of Zeitgeist Spam have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making (Leafe Press, 2007), and Flux, Clot & Froth (Meritage Press 2010). His working title(s) for the fourth section are In the House of the Hangman: The Baroque Feast and Adouéke, an untranslated plant name in a Kanaka war chant which was translated by Louise Michel while she was exiled on New Caledonia in the 1870s, after the Commune (adouéke makes warriors “fierce, and charms their wounds.”) In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, Black Widow Press has just published an anthology which he co-edited with Jerome Rothenberg, titled Barbaric Vast & Wild: An Anthology of Outside & Subterranean Poetry. He’s also learning Old English and how to play the viola and he blogs at www.johnbr.com (Zeitgeist Spam).