On-the-Run Expansion Pack: Paging Jared Joseph
I said to my reflection let’s get out of this place.
Jared Harvey has no trouble implicating his good name. “Jared Joseph” is the semi-pseudonym of an author whose mission includes writing as others not himself. The quotes enclosing Jared Joseph are meant to indicate its position within the texts I am about to discuss and to position the name in opposition to authors’ names that float, independently, before or next to their texts.
In his chapbooks Commuting: Have gone to Ithaca –Frank Quitely (Varmint Armature, 2012) and Hosni Mubarak (Persistent Editions, 2013), Joseph assumes the identities of Frank Quitely, a presumably fictional art catalogue writer, and Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt ousted during the country’s 2011 revolution. The man who goes by Jared Harvey, middle name: Joseph, assumes the identity of poet Jared Joseph assuming the identities of Quitely and Mubarak in writing the poems within Commuting and Mubarak. While the statement of these facts is convoluted, I only insist because I find Harvey’s voluntary name change and subsequent dismissal of the resulting secondary identity fascinating, even beautiful.
The purpose of separating oneself from oneself––in this case, subtracting one’s surname (Harvey) and as a result replacing it with one’s middle name (Joseph)––is perhaps an attempt to lend an elliptical thus infinite quality, a kind of jokish, self-prescribed and limited immortality, to oneself. Some are born to be someone else. The author becomes transnamed. This operation could also be an attempt at anonymity much in the same way cautious users of social networking websites will either post under a username or disguise their real name, but Harvey seemingly has nothing to hide in these texts, and his isn’t the situation of a Timothy Garton Ash or a Marie Calloway. Perhaps he just really likes the double-j sound of Jared Joseph better. Regardless, neither name sounds like that of a porn actor’s more than the other.
Harvey’s willing dissociation from his art is not a literary tactic. He seems indifferent to his own absence, having also published poems under a female pseudonym. And it would be stupid to say dropping the surname is Oedipal or that it is a nod to Whitman’s multitudinous thing. The author is not dead he’s just everyone else.
… by the people, for the people.
“The mirror hurts”
Jared Joseph’s “first book” is a mysterious chapbook of poems that is entitled Commuting: / Have gone to Ithaca / –Frank Quitely. Yes, the title is enjambed as such and is as much a poem as the poems within the book, although it seems a shame it is not an English-language haiku (5-7-5), which would be the kind of coded game I think Joseph would love. The book itself is a handheld sized object with a cover colored a deep teal like Easter eggs or Radisson hotel bed comforters. The bookstore cashier who rung up the book for me said it has a “dangerous binding.” It may prove difficult for the uninformed reader to at first discern what the title of the book actually is because it is printed on the back cover. This anomaly can I believe be attributed to the publisher getting cheeky with its design and is no doubt in some way related to the danger of the book’s binding.
Commuting is both an extremely erudite and academic book and the whimsy of an ADHD speed freak. If it has a concept, it is that of a mock art catalogue, the literary equivalent of blog The Jogging. The majority of the entries in the book, purportedly written by “Frank Quitely,” are ekphrastics of nonexistent artworks with titles such as Bird Man, Paper Lamp, Rumpled Stilts’ Skin, etc. If there is a politix to inventing apparently monetarily valueless works of art I am not privy to it, but I will say there is a tinge of socioeconomic frustration when a poet writes about art that doesn’t exist. Anyway, the catalogue entry is only half of the book’s mode. The descriptions usually end up devolving into more poetic ruminations, lyrical and at turns disembodied reminiscences. Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” as double-helixed pastiche might be an accurate conceptual synopsis of Commuting.
There is a kind of prologue on the front cover of the book in the form of a letter––written by the character Quitely and addressed to the art auctioneer Christies––about a particular artwork in a catalogue printed by Christies’ competitor1 Sotheby’s. The artwork mentioned in the letter is also the title of an entry in Joseph’s book (“#11”) that is explicitly self-referential and begins:
Sotheby’s, monotype, 2009, signed Jared Joseph
Hardly in soft pencil, on Arches with a Mourlot blindstamp,
Forged. Completely unjustified
Margins, the image printed off-center & the left margin
Doesn’t exist, major wrinkling & crinkling & [etc.]
rumpling & rumplestiltskinning and ampersanding & creasing & thin-
ning in the margins
The above excerpt is indicative of the dangerous art games Joseph plays in Commuting, simultaneously cracking complex and self-deprecating jokes while self-mythologizing in spite of his realization that contemporary art is evanescent. Think Destroyer. And Joseph would appreciate an art that like his is self-referential, self-mythologizing and self-deprecating, as subconsciously obsessed with its self as its creators are but woe to confess as much, more likely to express modesty, claim ineptitude and/or brush off praise.
After a Borges (uh-huh) epigraph, the first page proper of the book is gray, thick paper with the texture of toner that reminds me of Wade Guyton art. The font is white and this page is the first look we get at the book’s mock catalog entry style. This untitled entry’s topic is authorship: “authoring, at least, / should be made evident, I want to try. I mean, I / will have wroughted this. I will. It was me.” Note the jagged enjambment that either indicates the strange indecision on the part of the speaker Quitely regarding his own identity and purpose as author, much in the same way Joseph (-cum-Harvey) may be anxious about his2; or perhaps the form merely hints at Quitely’s ineptitude as an author, and guilty by association, Joseph’s, as well. I think it’s safe to say that Joseph knows what he’s doing, though, even as he echoes the Declaration of Independence’s claim that all men are created equal, Quitely = Joseph = Harvey. And it is funny to cite the US’s raison d’etre in a text riddled with the intellectual’s in-jokes of literary and high-cultural allusions. However, I do think these aspects of the writing are a testament to the author’s skill and aren’t a fuck you to the less-educated. The author has more humility than that and, as with all dense and difficult works of art, most of the enjoyment in encountering the work comes from the actual experience of it at its most superficial, that is, on its surface and in its turns of phrase. The detective work required to go deeper only adds supplemental value and aids the critical process.
Having said that, Commuting is not innocent in its entirety. A fair amount of the linguistic somersaults prevent any apparent, overarching meaning from shining through. Many of the poems go from point A to point C, skipping point B, and there is a proliferation of voiciness throughout the book, the author improvising more to say:
A light you can see by
And by, provided, and yet don’t
(Forgive me while I psychologize; the following will seem like too much analysis of two lines, but the criticism is relevant to much of the book.) At the end of the first line above, it seems to me the author might have paused to wait for his next thought and the continuation of the phrase to come to him. Perhaps disliking the gist of the phrase initially but too attached to it to edit it, he continues “And by,” adding a duplicitous meaning (1. light that helps you see; 2. light that you will eventually see) while also, maybe unintentionally, alluding to the hymn reworked and popularized by the Carter Family (by and by, Lord, by and by). Then, his thought process buffering, he adds “provided” as if believing he must provide us with something. At that point the “light” from the first line here is lost or forgotten. As it becomes clear the author is aware of this loss, he ends the line “and yet don’t,” further negating the light the reader may have been able to see by while also referencing in a meta- manner when his own light bulb went out seconds prior. Much of Joseph’s work works this way, ants in the pants. His recklessness is a virtue, but not as Dean Young would have it. Joseph’s recklessness is dichotomically focused, more on the level of the word than the phrase, and there is a joy and intense truthfulness apparent in the glitches, as if Joseph felt language was being reinvented on the spot. In the Surrealist or Dadaist tradition, Joseph does not care much for continuity. And his style is more than a manipulation via stream-of-consciousness; it does not purposefully exclude bits of information for a special effect that offers not much more than an arc of novelty and heavy juxtaposition; and yet it is a style of generous inclusion and fearlessness. It’s impressive. The Berryman Dream Songs reference in poem “#3” is apt.
It is sort of difficult to determine when Frank Quitely exits Commuting, but I think Harvey (not Jared Joseph) wrote poem “#13,” a terribly touching recount of how a son copes or doesn’t with his mother’s cancer. The son sees her as a god’s name; is seeing through mother’s materiality towards what she means to him, “mother,” a signifier whose signified’s transformed in Harvey’s eyes into the signifier of “god,” if I could be allowed to mash-up some Jameson. For Joseph, the poem is sentimental yet retains the book’s overall gaminess (see: the unlucky number of the title) and adds welcome if not mystic religious overtones. I have reservations about inserting the poem in its entirety here, as its subject matter starkly contrasts the majority of the book’s, but because it illustrates an exemplary prowess of tapping into while surpassing the poetry mainstream’s familial and tragic revelation complex, here it is:
Tetragrammaton, it isn’t easy to whip chocolate
Frosting with this kind of information, we talked about
It and when we talked about it, my mother
And I couldn’t refrain from the repeated voicing of the word
It, calling it It, she’ll die from
It, a malignant word, she who taught me
The alphabet, but first the Aleph
Bet song. For a year she had been
Scanned, probed, injected, incised, biopsied, X-
Rayed, M-CATted, subtractively and additively
Processed, and from these impressions diagnostic
Prints, 2nd edition diagnoses, new impressions & new printouts, unsigned
But accredited, she couldn’t walk upstairs or hold
A chamber pot. And when finally a long year
And a half later repeated printing produced cancer
Readouts, she looked like an old mutilated plate. It was emulsional. It was hard
Joke. Write things. Sentences
Choppy. I signed every letter
It was interesting to see
How sentences change
As you do, grammary glands, another umbilical chord
Cut. Like I kept thinking of my mother in post-
Mortem terms, as she had already died somewhere else close
By. Closer than Afghanistan, Cousin Carl’s open mouth like dumbshow
Prophet’s. Personal prayers. We’ve never spoken of it
In our religion, the name of our Lord
®, we say Lord, and I don’t know if it’s like Kleenex®
Instead of ‘tissue paper’ or more like
______ instead of Voldemort
Or fiddlesticks instead of fuck, the Word™
The tetragrammaton, the holy
Pronoun. So where do the prayers go? Will He
Hear them? Hear this: Mom
Has been in remission 9 years and I still see her sometimes
As the name of God, hush, keep it to
Joseph locates Harvey here after 30+ pages inhabiting Quitely. Poem “#13” reiterates much of Commuting’s themes of authorship and identity, uncertainty and ever-wavering faith in writing as art. Even joking is touched upon amidst such a touchy subject, God is corporatized, and names continually change until who knows who one is, “Yosef” or “Yourself*”, the asterisk denoting how one is never just themselves but always them with an add-on, a caveat. “It” certainly refers to a god, an unnamed god; the word god only referring to what God is, some species. It’s clever. It is the caviar.
But what of Joseph’s adherence to subject death by deleting Harvey only to have Harvey eventually appear unnamed as the true wizard? With the truth, you need to get rid of it as soon as possible and pass it on to someone else. As with illness, this is the only way to be cured of it. The person who keeps truth in his hands has lost. (Baudrillard, from Cool Memories).
I don’t want to be a type-
Cast. Fit a mold. Wet not. At least let me be good
[Joseph, from Commuting]
Out of S.’s & E.’s
[Harvey, from Commuting]
It’s a long story, but the truth is the author has nothing with which to wrap his correspondence. What is unknown and the joke is whether he has no stamps or no selves.
“The mirror hurts”
As I write this, the name Hosni Mubarak is indirectly remembered during Egypt’s second revolution of the decade. Fashionably late or on time, upstart press Persistent Editions has released Jared Joseph’s second chapbook entitled Hosni Mubarak around the same time as a postmortem. Despite it all, it may be impossible to avoid the political and/or ideological ramifications of Joseph’s project like I would like to as I attempt to deal with it and contrast it in a slipshod manner with the formerly discussed Commuting.
The cover, and overall design, of Mubarak is pretty straightforward: the poppified rainbow half-bust of Mubarak gazes with the disgust of Klee’s Angelus Novus into bright white space that is the cover’s background. The text itself begins with the quite prescient Benjamin epigraph “The nature of this sadness stands out more clearly if one asks with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathize. The answer is inevitable: with the victor.” In a book of such a continually complicated nature, what Benjamin wrote alone is eerie enough in light of the recent events in Egypt. Perhaps to the victors belong the spoils but perhaps the way postmodernism turned out has shown that contemporary society has lost the capacity to retain its own history and “has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions…” (Jameson again) in such short spans as two years, two months, two weeks, etc. The 21st-century victors have yet to be historicized how Benjamin may have imagined histories are written, and as long as the Internet survives, history of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution will as well. But when we Google the ‘Egyptian Revolution’ in the future, what are the results?
In a poetic utopia, a link to buy Joseph’s Mubarak would be on the first search results page or in an ad on the side. In a Photo Booth image, the author’s half-self-portrait merges with the half-Mubarak bust as if the two are one, partners in crime. As he does in Commuting with the fictional Frank Quitely, in Mubarak Joseph ventriloquizes Mubarak yet doesn’t seem to get his hand too deep up in there. Most of what Joseph has Mubarak say is what Joseph wants to say, himself. I am reminded of Jarett Kobek’s Atta: “The first memory may be real, is possibly false.” Neither Joseph’s nor Joseph’s Mubarek’s memories are realer than the other because both are possibly false.
I know no author who’s not to some extent an overthrown dictator wishing to overthrow dictators. The first poem (“I”) in Mubarak is an absurd moment-to-moment exclamatory recollection of a silly string episode concluding in a lucid platitude re: what it takes to be a “ruler” (as per Joseph’s Mubarak’s words, the ability to ignore the incomprehensible). A ruler is also a measuring tool offering no further analysis. The poem’s form, like the majority of those in the book, is a long-lined verse with the exhaustive––albeit in Joseph’s case, punctuated––quality of Frank Stanford’s Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. Because it doesn’t matter if one is reading prose, in Mubarak Joseph’s is very free verse, as much choose your own adventure as choose your own form, “… an empty game emptied of / purpose that you can play alone without rules or prescribed / guidelines or proscription of any sort,” rejecting soft nuance in favor of a long hard wind, each line a hurricane gust, and the font is tiny. See also “III,” its breathless workout (“73 […] 74 […] 75 [… etc.]”) and exhausting stretches of unmitigated language. The first three poems of the book are not without their humor, though; in one instance, Joseph’s Mubarak references Sam Cooke’s love song “You Send Me” which is hilarious.
Ever self-aware, Joseph’s Mubarak breaks stride in “IV,” in a Beckett-registered reverie of recurring elements, in this case the heavens, sobs and corners, that are riffed on for a time, and in “V” an offering of felicitous concrete poetry asks if it does in fact resemble a “Playboy® bunnyhead” (it does). Calling out society’s willingly hyphenated and denouncing in the same breath the hybridization of culture, the people and their art practices, Joseph’s Mubarak is also aware of the contemporaneous conditions that may have led to the downfall of the real Mubarak’s presidency as Joseph’s Mubarak shouts “sons of Egypt!” (“VI”), directly referencing the coup (“they could never eliminate me with / their hands.” (“VIII”)) and, offhand (“the crowd on TV & their crazy / helmets” (“IX”)), McLuhan’s coinage the medium is the message, the media that Jameson notes “relegates such recent historical experiences as rapidly as possible into the past.” Joseph’s Mubarak’s exposure to history is rendered into “helmets” as his gaze’s short attention spans quickly over the crowd until their protective headdresses stand out the most and as synecdoche. In the same poem, Joseph’s Mubarak imagines himself reaching out to a boy on his screen only to find his imagined hand running away from the boy, further retreating from the historical present within the poem before engaging with it: “It was strong enough to be a flashback from a hypothetical past.”
While I have pointed out a few somewhat sociopolitical bylines in the first half or so of Mubarak to arrive at my own grandiose and sort of useful critical observations, I wonder if the author, just grazing the surface of these bylines in his text, is able to avoid the sociopolitical even while pointing it out, and if he is able to avoid it, I wonder further if that avoidance is intentionally hardwired into his poetics or if it is an inexorable consequence of them. How long does it take for the brush to ignite from the spark of the flint edge struck against the steel? I guess it depends if you’re hitting it right.
Joseph’s Mubarak begins to fade in poem “XII.” He has a dream that he is Jared Harvey. I won’t go into the details of the dream but take my word for it. Moving on, there is no poem “XIII” in Mubarak. Possibly the numeral was omitted to dramatize the character of Mubarak’s deletion from the book. Without the dictator, Mubarak becomes free-form travelogue, almost New York School, with its subjective minutiae and inclusiveness. The setting is movement, public modes of transport, buses and planes. This dismissal of the character the author had inhabited occurs at almost the same interval in Mubarak as it did in Commuting. The dismissal of Mubarak in Mubarak is almost as moving as the desperation inherent in holding onto the persona as long as it was. Joseph may have lost his grip on who he wasn’t, compelled to express his projects’ terminations himself without the aide of his dummies. Josephisms still pepper the writing (“my heart / in a jar in my heart. Deer heart so tender, I guess it’s the shot / to the head that sets the table.” (from “XIV”)), but it’s true that Joseph Harvey was always there even if the stakes seem to have been raised once he’s stepped forward and conceptual fantasies, however groovy they are to think about, are discarded.
With the literary Mubarak trashed, Joseph still grapples with the subject. “On vacation,” en route to Wisconsin, he feels “like the only guy on the bus,” still feeling as a ruler might feel amongst his subjects, still remembering an “involuntary memory,” “the youth with their weird helmets.” I’ll never forget the mantra of Kesey’s Merry Pranksters you’re either on the bus or off the bus. I don’t know what bus the author is on, but his nicotine addiction and the afterimage of his Mubarak project still inspires him to cleverly associate the cyclical movements implied by the words “rollies” and “revolution.” “Progress” “not quite fit for speed nor size of all the sons of Epypt” but where everything else in Joseph’s head can fit. It is here, in the poems “XIV” and “XV,” where Joseph really lets go, free-associating yet somehow successfully stringing along, intertwining, and overlapping into some freaky, linguistic lanyard.
The author needed to leave his Mubarak’s head to become his own true revolutionary, to roll himself and devolve into the quatrains of poem “XVII”:3
Old splendors & tigers glide
gold gothic script on black
flecked marble. Bury me in Paris
mandarin orange peel bagged
in tobacco. Smell of hot
cinnamon in Marais.
Some billboards read like marriage
proposals. Just turn off the road
& the soul peel-off
& good-smelling oils
& natron wrapped in fine linen
make a man a fine jam preserve.
The brevity of “XVII” (the above is its last three stanzas) and its heavy enjambment make the syntactic turns prevalent throughout Joseph’s verse, which had been hiding in much of Mubarak’s prosiness, really stand out. In the following poem, the book comes about full circle like all poems or poetry projects classified as good at face value should, repurposing elements from the previous poem (Marais, Paris, mandarin orange peels in tobacco bags, etc.) and, completing the frame begun in the Benjamin epigraph, returning to “history:”
[…] My advisors advise me that I follow me.
I’ll move to Paris & watch from the Marais cafes
& aspirate my h & lay low in the catacombs. Where
I feel at home, shift my means at the end of the line.
Fine. I’ll slouch through life & the works & days
& the minute hands grow so small as a mandarin
orange peel in a bag of tobacco. If I can out-gland
the tick-tock of the welt rolling out my forearm
& the world boiling eely gargoyles in my blood.
It’s a German joke. Someone is wearing…Ha!
La Coste. History is an oven always going out
but you can turn the dials.
The poem’s final simile is as clever as poets often make them. Mubarak ends in memory of the “papasan” where the silly string canister (grenade) landed in poem “I.” A child appropriates toys as stand-ins for imaginary weapons. In “I,” “papasan” is “papazan,” but in the final poem, “B,” the Z is replaced with an S. A game of Tetris cannot be played indefinitely because eventually the algorithm will begin a sequence of S’s and Z’s. If a player receives a large sequence of alternating S and Z Tetriminos, the naïve gravity used by the standard game eventually forces the player to leave a hole in a corner.
PLEA: If anyone might be tempted to expose the real person behind the aforementioned names––which in each case should not be difficult––I would ask for restraint from doing so, for reasons that may not be clear.
I began concluding this review claiming I didn’t know Joseph’s motive, but now I think I do. Jared Harvey hates poetry. Yet his acumen suggests something more than an anti-stance, almost the opposite, because I assume his poetics could only have been picked up from reading, and loving, other poetry. That assumption may be true, but Harvey is a poet because what else is he going to do. What I really do not know is whether he is aware of the effect his work/art (workout) has on his audience. He might, but I don’t think he cares what its effect is, whether the purest art waives its motive or if it is reliant upon it to transcend itself, even if the intentionality is a latent one. A clock may be its cogs, et al., but one tells the time by looking at its face.
1 “(forgive me)”
2 see also: (from poem “#5”) “Good god just let this one be / Enjambed. Like a poem”
3 Why not, the second stanza in poem “XVII” is an inexplicable tercet.