Adjustment Disorder: On Reading Rob Halpern’s Common Place
by Rob Halpern
Ugly Duckling Presse
$17 / 168 pp.
Common Place is a hefty book, for poetry—166 pages of obsession, desire, and guilt, all struggling under the looming presence of militarized capitalism. Halpern uses the word “common” 60 times, while the title phase “common place/commonplace” (used 28 times) hammers into the reader’s brain that this is not just about him, but instead about all of us. After I typed up my notes for this article, I made a quick pass through, and cut out all material that was about me. I didn’t belabor things, I just slashed myself away. The commonplace of Halpern’s book is a site I’m resistant to inhabit. So many commonplaces of the present I’m resistant to inhabit—the violent boom boom boom of the news, the warring factions that have seized social media. And I’m not alone in this—far from it—perhaps despair is the commonest of commonplaces these days. What commonplace generates more despair than the one that Halpern tackles here, the infamous United States prison camp located at Guantanamo Bay? Through masturbation fantasies, linked to the autopsy report of an unnamed Yemeni detainee—what Halpern calls “devotional kink”—he attempts to transform state-sponsored brutality into something akin to love.
“As his body becomes a casualty of the labor that penetrates it military hardware, medical needles, enteral tubing my poems struggle against reason to turn the site of penetration into a scene of shameless pleasure utopia if only to make the obstruction to that end perceptible. Still, I wonder whether it’s possible “to transmute death, torture, hatred into love, communion, life,” as Robbie suggests the poems do, or whether the writing can only materialize the ethical bind that traps this erotic transfer of energy, arousing the affective blocks & psychic clots that keep the body emotionally remote. Imagining his loneliness nothing like that stupid cloud I can’t advance beyond my own.”
Halpern keeps bumping against the big question of whether he has a right to enact such an “erotic transfer.” Is this text merely another white colonization of the suffering of a subaltern other? Like Wordsworth (“I wandered lonely as a cloud”), is Halpern mediating the real through the inviolate distance of simile? Will others judge him? Could he possibly get away with this? Of course he doesn’t get away with it. The project from the beginning is foreclosed. Much of the energy of the text arises from Halpern’s feverish grappling with his moral stance—and what ultimately redeems the book are its shifting layers of resistance and failure.
In its postscript, we learn that the book’s title is a nod to Aristotle’s distinction between “special places” and “common places.” “Special places” are linguistic expressions that are only appropriate in certain spheres. Examples Halpern gives are “looking sadly at my cock, his balls snipped off with a pair of scissors.” “Common places” refer to linguistic constructions appropriate in any situation. Like all categories, these prove to be slippery, and it’s not clear whether the authoritative pornography of the detainee’s autopsy—his “unremarkable genitalia”—is special or common. In our apocalyptic age, I wonder if the preponderance of violence that is impossible to avoid shifts unthinkables that should be special into commonplace.
In Common Place the Yemeni detainee resists the regimented commonplace of the prison camp. According to his autopsy report, the civilian prisoner attempted suicide multiple times, and in 2009 apparently succeeded. He was found in his cell strangled with “the elastic band of a white brief, medium size 34-36, issued to the detainees at the detention facility.” He’d been on a hunger strike since the beginning of the year, and was fed enterally—a brutality which Halpern keeps returning to. Among the reasons given in the report for the detainee’s suicide is, ludicrously, “adjustment disorder.” As if adjusting to prison camp lifestyle were a sign of psychological health.
The day before I received my copy of Common Place, I was researching what Lynndie England—the female GI who posed in the torture/humiliation photos at Abu Ghraib—was up to. Life sucks for England. No one will hire her; people leer at her; she’s gained 30 pounds; she’s pretty much a recluse with her child, the son of Specialist Charles Graner, the soldier who posed her with the prisoners and took the pictures. Photographing her in scandalous positions was a sex kink of his. Though DNA tests prove he’s the father, Graner, who’s 15 years older than England, has abandoned her and the boy. England went into the army a naive, timid 19-year-old and came out a 21-year-old monster. She grins while recounting an episode where prisoners were forced to masturbate in front of her. “Sorry? For what I did? All I did was stand in the pictures. Saying sorry is admitting I was guilty and I’m not. I was just doing my duty.” The infamous photo of the human pyramid was used as a screen saver on a prison computer. In the commonplace of Abu Ghraib, she did nothing out of the ordinary. Unlike Halpern’s Yemeni detainee, England has no problem with adjustment disorder. His suicide can almost be read as a triumph of sanity, a refusal of a deranged situation.
He also refuses to remain the abstract subject of Halpern’s sexualizations:
“Unlike my soldier, the detainee repulses eros, failing to sustain the referential illusion. Who needs virility enhancements when you can write sentences like these to overcome the intransitivity of certain verbs, the negation of relation itself. That’s when his organs emit a ball of fire whose light is diminished by the nimbus round his floating corpse. His body, being the thing that holds us all together, must be the truth of the transcendental subject upon which every notion of justice rests.”
Halpern transcribes the detainee’s autopsy report in order to insert his own body into the process, sitting for hours, fingers clicking at the keyboard, certain passages hardening his cock. There is no hierarchy in the report; an unflinching bureaucratic eye records minutiae. It is an eye so invasive, so devoid of feeling it harkens back to the panopticon, Foucault’s emblem of the disciplinary surveillance of modern society. “I’m struck by all these passive constructions,” Halpern comments. “Total refusal of agency, as if patiency were the environmental mood, a grammatical ambient effect. This is where the difference between a solider and a detainee breaks down, leaving me harnessed to liquefied features and redacted names, none of which can support my sentence.” The autopsy report feels like vengeance; the detainee may be dead, but the state keeps observing him, stripping him of humanity until nothing remains but tissue pulp.
The insectlike attention to detail of the report enacts a particular sort of gaze. In The Ethics of Marginality: A New Approach to Gay Studies, John Champagne examines how in its eagerness to see everything, the pornographic gaze fragments the body:
“In pursuit of its desire to render the body ever more visible, pornography fragments and magnifies the body, offering it up to an intense and studious gaze. Given the limits of the filmic medium, however, such a gaze is necessarily circumscribed to a limited area of the body. In other words, film cannot simultaneously present part and whole. During a close-up, for example, the fragmentation of the body necessitates that most of the body remain outside the field of vision. This fragmentation, an attempt to view the body more closely, thus necessarily produces a certain resistance to the gaze.”
In Common Place the detainee wavers between a vaguely whole figure of fantasy and a nightmare of fragments. The state’s demand for visibility is so violating, it is impossible to hold onto him. The autopsy enacts a hyper-specificity that wipes out specificity. Halpern asks, “Can I even call it pleasure when every phrase dissociates flesh and world, and sensation hangs on its total separation from the thing arousing this image of it.” The pornography of the report keeps reaching through the no-place of language and seizing Rob’s body—his racing heart, his hard cock. Like a returning combat soldier, Halpern is both repulsed and aroused by horror. How does this translate into maintaining oneself as an upright citizen? “Still, I can run my tongue along their edge, forcing arousal while reading this report where the wrongness of my object-choice feels unavoidable, like the limit of our knowledge as radical particularity becomes the hoax upon which the falseness of the universal hangs.” Halpern repeatedly queries friends about his right to write out his sexual fantasies. They tell him that what he’s doing is necessary, moral, but their assurances don’t seem to stick. Halpern filters autopsy language through various lyrical and analytic modes, melding it with Whitman, Genet, Foucault, 19th century autopsy manual, Wikileaks document, de Sade, de Beauvoir, Alice Notley, Marx, Hegel, Baudelaire, etc. He dements canons with a determination that ranges from awkward to glorious. Halpern constructs a mountain of contextualizing, higher than the pyramid of human bodies in Abu Ghraib that Lynndie England found so hilarious.
The romance of Common Place is not a simple relationship of Halpern using a pornographic gaze to dominate and use this other, but the other’s refusal to be a compliant subject:
“Larger than the imaginary whole from which it’s been excluded, his body shifts our common measure, a mystery with no code to crack. What word isn’t obscene under such conditions? This is how a detainee makes himself felt inside a sentence that will never contain him, an absence whose enormity is otherwise inconceivable beyond this rhetorical extravagance, acme of sentiment and kitsch.”
The absent detainee destabilizes all he comes in contact with. Halpern embodies this destabilization brilliantly through a number of formal strategies. In a series of poems, each entitled “False Communiqué,” radically enjambed line breaks create puns that twist meaning off-kilter. An example:
Of clear visibility submitted
To my agents attending auto
– psy’s happy gaze each organ
A refuge expelled desire his
Punishment makes a me
– mory of me these holes a
The “auto” of autopsy and the “me” of memory blur self and other, fore and ground. Because the hyphen is placed, unusually, on the following line, you never know when you’re going to stumble. The lines tumble you along like an amusement park ride, throwing you in and out of the horror of the content. Occasionally you catch yourself having fun—an adjustment that is all wrong. In “Hoc Est Corpus,” Halpern likewise enjambs the autopsy transcription with his own musings, without announcing when the autopsy leaves off and his insertions begin. In other pieces he uses long prose blocks that read like expository writing, but which seem to erase syntax as they move forward—a sort of disappearing magic ink effect. What looks like an essay reads like poetry. Over and over, I’d get to the end of a sentence and feel lost, like the “logic” was laughing at me, my pathetic attempts to cling to linearity. Knowing I would be writing about the book, I kept seeking an easily summarizable nugget of position or conclusion—but the tighter I grasped onto the text, the more it dissolved.
And then there’s “Late Nite Emissions,” the sleight-of-hand wet dream sequences. For me, the dreams were the most accessible section of the book, partially because I didn’t expect them to be rational, and thus allowed myself to sink into the experience. Each dream has pretty much the same plot. Halpern is in a store/a mall/a display window—totally exposed before the judging eyes of shoppers. Something sexual is about to happen between him and the detainee, or an avatar of the detainee. Halpern feels embarrassed and exposed.
“Everyone is watching total surveillance as the bruises begin to appear on our skins. Proprioceptive disorientation looking at his limbs and feeling my own makes it difficult for me to determine whose bruise is whose, as if his organs were inside me, the way his gestures, too, inhabit my flesh, making the phrase “my own” a stupidity, and this is an ecstasy as every body in history might as well be touching mine.”
Wanting the wrong thing generates narrative energy. Stories of cheating, of transgressing taboos, fill the social imaginary. Thwarted, desire will raise its gnarled head in an unanticipated elsewhere. In the dreams, a growing need to urinate or shit—in public—displaces Halpern’s arousal. Appalled—and without ever touching himself—he comes in whatever outpost of global capitalism he finds himself. Often his orgasm is dry—as if his passion were too abstract, too displaced for the goo of semen. Halpern offers the same humiliation porn dream over and over—details shift, but always forefronted is guilt, fully embodied, no rationalizing attempt at distancing. In taking on the miserable position of a subject under cruel surveillance, Halpern loses the colonizing gaze of observer and becomes the observed.
There is a sweetness to Halpern’s sexual fantasies. He’s not some poorly-potty-trained guy poetically ripping up bodies with a vengeance. I imagine him a gay Isis reaching back through time and breathing life into the detainee’s scattered parts, transforming to joy the carnage left in the wake of militarized heartlessness. Or at least longing to. We cannot legislate the unconscious. We are not correct beings. All of us feel rage and lust, all of us want people and things we think are improper, all of us have desires that appall us. We all have murderous little pockets yet love with a stupidity and simplicity that embarrasses us. We each at times feel so vulnerable we could faint. Halpern’s duty here is to witness one man’s dehumanization, his dehumanity. The pressure. The violation. To read Common Place is exhausting. The book is frustrating, difficult, and demanding. This is not a criticism. Given the simplistic fragmentation of our digital lives, we need difficulty as an antidote to the constant idiocy. We need complexity. We need things too fucked up for us to form a coherent opinion on. Repeatedly Halpern bemoans his various failures in writing the book. I felt like a failure reading it. My mind kept wanting to shut down, not take in any more. But Halpern kept pushing forward. Ultimately his flood of words evaporates like the unnamed detainee’s dissected corpse—into the intangible heat of desire—and loss—the loneliness in loving—the ache for that which you can never really touch.