Since all society is organized in the interest of exploiting classes and since if men knew this they would cease to work and society would fall apart, it has always been necessary, at least since the urban revolutions, for societies to be governed ideologically by a system of fraud.
- Kenneth Rexroth, from an interview with Lawrence Lipton in The Holy Barbarians
Before I begin on the third leg of our journey into the ways a poetics can be formed and transformed by riding freight trains and hitch-hiking, it is worth mentioning again that hopping trains and hitching carry significant risk to life and limb, and should only be undertaken by experienced individuals or with an experienced individual as a sort of ‘mentor.’
The last of these posts ended with an invocation of Will Alexander’s “Compound Hibernation,” expanding upon the idea that the transient being’s occupation of liminal spaces becomes a way of letting poetry fruit outside monolithic structures of “dominance and capital.” In other words, we concluded in the cuts, in a space of desertion. But how does the transient being get there?
Part of how one can move toward this sort of liminality is through the germination of a resistance to the prevailing social order. Without this sort of resistance, the transient being wouldn’t try to hop a train in the first place, as order demands a permanence within and obeisance to laws of boundary and property that are antithetical to the act of hopping freight. What the transient being recognizes is that a life outside of the civilized and arbitrary brutality of society exists, and that “one may honorably keep/ His distance/ If he can,” as George Oppen writes in the second section of “A Language of New York.”
The issue, of course, is that keeping one’s distance presents a plethora of other problems, stemming from the fact that the brutalities of the social order always emerge anew. Thus, deprivation remains, difficulty remains, but the methods by which one lives with and confronts such adversity are altered. They are more experimental, driven by a sense of improvisation mixed with a deep knowledge of the opportunities that often arise from chance, from the aleatoric foundation that is inimical to the social order because it thrashes the order’s strictures of possibility.
Perhaps it is illustrative to recount a 16-hour period around this time last year, which began in a burned-out shack between the Union Pacific worker area and the Sacramento River in Dunsmuir, California. (The space could most certainly be considered one of the liminal spaces discussed in my last post). Convinced that we weren’t going to catch a train out, we’d moved camp to the spot a few hours previous, and settled in with books, a half-pint of cheap blended whiskey, and some tall cans of malt liquor. Just as the quiet revelry of moments away from society had begun to take hold, a slow-moving junk train pulled up, and after slamming the already-open beers down our gullets, we picked up our heavy packs and water jugs and began running. About three quarters of a mile down the main line, with only a few minutes before the train began moving again, we found a good open boxcar, threw our packs on, and clambered up into the structure. Despite some fears that the train would side out (that is, stop) for a long time in the dreaded Klamath Falls yard, the engineer hauled ass and we fell asleep for much of the long ride through the Umpqua National Forest, a cold and remote region that makes for a night of one’s body shivering against frigid wind and steel.
The next morning, I awoke early with deep stomach pains, so I took my toothbrush out of its plastic bag after finding a new place for it, pulled down my almost leathery dirt-encrusted jeans, and let loose a stream of burning, blackberry-tinted shit into what had been my toothbrush’s home minutes prior. We eventually stopped moving, our boxcar in the midst of playing fields for the University of Oregon. Hopping off, we wandered through the verdant campus towards a cafe we knew about two miles away, where we sat for a while, drank coffee, and charged our cellphones. We then wandered towards a 7-11 across from the local Salvation Army drop-in center, opening a can of black bean soup and sharing it on the street. A man yelled out to us, “Hey, I think one of you dropped this,” pointing towards a ten-dollar bill on the ground. I said, “Oh…sure,” and picked it up tenderly, aware that he might accuse me of trying to steal, but he just waddled towards the Redbox outside the convenience mart and started picking out pablum to watch at home that evening. And so ended a trip from Dunsmuir, California, to Eugene, Oregon.
The telling of the story, in all its mundanity, gives some insight into the improvisational course the transient being takes in keeping distance from the social order. There is a repurposing of the detritus of capital (shitting in a plastic bag), and a meandering within liminal spaces (bedding down in a burnt-out shack and a boxcar, eating beans from a can outside of an emblem of late capital). The transient being is able to utilize an ugly proximity to the social order and its objects to an end that suits the transient being’s needs while simultaneously refusing the social order’s demands and standards of propriety.
There is also the chance aspect: the train arriving and slicing quickly through the mountains despite its slow-moving identifying marks, the open boxcar on said train, the man happening upon two dirty travelers and feeling generous in a city not known for its generous streak.
But how do these slips of luck and extemporaneous gestures against social order inform a poetics?
Arriving back again at Oppen, we can find a possible answer in Jeff Derksen’s post-Fordist reimagining of the former’s “Of Being Numerous.” In the twelfth section of “The Vestiges,” the title poem from his latest book, Derksen writes:
Another day of
Another day of
and management language
Another day of you and me
not of [our own] making”
Another day of
Another day of street
in the city, promising
another day of the idea
Another day behind
and of rubber hitting
another private day, another
making a day
Another day of
Another day of making
Another day of
“Can the government actually do anything about inequality?”
Another day of
the movement of goods
Another day, another
attempt to prorogue
Another day upon arrival.
The poem is an indictment of monotony, of the gears and fiberoptics cables and shipping routes that keep social order and capitalist hegemony in place, and of how the individual is caught, seemingly shackled in “Another day of you and me/ ‘under conditions/ not of [our own] making.’” What the transient being’s movements do is break this monotony by proposing an improvisational repurposing of the gears and fiberoptic cables and shipping routes, so that these structures of industrial society are taken advantage of and made liberatory. The shipping route becomes a route towards experiencing the ineffable, and the fiberoptic cable is utilized as a potential carrier of communications outside the bounds of expected and respected discourse. And just as these palpable and omnipresent tools of social order are upended, so can the language of social order be upended. I often think of Lisa Robertson saying to a workshop that “we must continue to write in order to resist the language of genocide,” and I believe that the traveler, existing in the marginal and liminal spaces, can be an inspiration to not simply write, but live in resistance to tools of genocide.
In a final return to Oppen, I also often think of the last lines of “Route”: “These things at the limits of reason, nothing at the limits of dream, the dream merely ends, by this we know it is the real// That we confront.” The nightmare in which we live, “the real // That we confront”— the transient being and the poet both know that there is a way outside of the nightmare, but that keeping one’s distance is not enough, as the nightmare follows and recurs. It must be confronted, in the spirit of improvisation and tumult, if we are to ever really awaken.
- TED REES
Ted Rees is a poet and essayist who spends most of his time in West Oakland, California, but travels around the western US on a regular basis. His current work focuses on environmental degradation and the struggles of wage labor. Previous writings can be found in the Double Burst featurette with Jared Stanley (Supersuperette 2014), Michael Cross’ Disinhibitor blog, Small Press Traffic’s website, Eleven Eleven, Ragtag, and a number of other publications both online and off. His two chapbooks include Outlaws Drift in Every Vehicle of Thought (Trafficker Press 2013) and Like Air (BentBoyBooks 2012). Forthcoming are chapbooks from Mondo Bummer and BentBoyBooks.
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