Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

John Wilkinson reviews The Work-Shy

Blunt Research GroupThe Work-Shy. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2016. 160 pp.

Review by John Wilkinson


This book of “poetic assemblages”—published, the cover flap advises, “under the collective, anonymous signature of the BLUNT RESEARCH GROUP”—draws upon major archives aggregating institutional case notes, with its two poetic sequences divided by a set of terse meditations on the “permission to listen” (p. 65). The first sequence, "Lost Privilege Company," derives from the early twentieth-century case files of California youth prison inmates, archived by the Eugenics Records Office. The second set, "Creedmoorblanca," ranges through twentieth century European and American sites of psychiatric confinement, starting out from the celebrated Prinzhorn Collection of psychotic art and writing, and continuing to the still-operational Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens—where in their time Bud Powell and Lou Reed were detained. One aim of "Lost Privilege Company" is to make emphatic the historical connection between the Nazi concentration camp category of  The Work-Shy (Arbeitssheu), and its origin in the diagnostic, carceral, and sterilization policies of early twentieth-century Californian eugenics: “Venice Beach, it turns out, was once the other shore of National Socialism” (p. 4).


The Work-Shy joins the chorus of lost voices and forgotten lives arising from a signally American poetic enterprise, from Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915) and Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony (1965) to such books by Susan Howe as Souls of the Labadie Track (2007); and it contributes also to a poetic research practice including Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead (1938), William Carlos Williams’s Patterson (1946-1958) and Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems (1953-1974)—and most recently Jennifer Scappettone’s toxic superfund work The Republic of Exit 43. The Work-Shy belongs also to the burgeoning and elastic category of outsider art, so termed originally by Roger Cardinal whose work provides some source texts for "Creedmoorblanca." 


No one could handle this book without being struck by its beauty. Full-color endpapers and wrappers, durable boards and a binding that allows pages to stay open flat, photographs and artworks presented full page and typographic design that is itself a work of art, contrast oddly with the bulging, chaotic and frequently illegible case files of a long-stay psychiatric facility. Beside each poetic text a name is mounted in large gray sans-serif capitals sensitive to the poem’s form, and such assertive nomination prompts questions: Where does the name stand in relation to the original case-note language and the poem’s authorship? What is being recovered and for whom?


The poems of "Lost Privilege Company" draw on the words of "ungovernable" teens, the offspring of "degenerate" families, and these are set in italics; records by professionals are set in Roman. Their idioms are often juxtaposed for effect, for instance “shows nomadic trait” and “slept in old barn on pile of straw nights,” or brought into direct contradiction—so from the same poem, “wants to do everything but | what looks like work” and “acting as look out for older boys” (p. 26). This particular poem is presented en face with a full-page photograph of “Mexican-American male, Evanisto R,” thus liable to reduce the specificity of "Pedro" to the racial type of “Mexican-American male.” Is this a deliberate and savage irony or unfortunate? The mug shot of Evanisto R. is full of individual character in the way that the poem is not; all of the book’s portrait photographs are poignantly individual. Readers are assured at the start that “the names are real,” but it is hard to know what this assurance amounts to when little distinguishes an individual besides a few phrases and a forename. 


The recovery performed here further presses the question, What are these words being recovered into? This section of The Work-Shy is introduced with the resounding claim that “the case files can now function—contrary to their original purpose—as a mutable archive of infidel expression, practice, and knowledge” (p. 5). The word “infidel” is potent in poetics owing to Daniel Tiffany’s provocative book, Infidel Poetics (2009)—these poems aim to disrupt the authority of the case files’ pseudo-scientific language in keeping with a tradition of poetic disruption and assertive obscurity. Certainly the words of inmates are here reorientated from diagnostic evidence to "expression," as in the example of "Pedro." But whose expression do they become in the process? The authorial anonymity of the Blunt Research Project may have been adopted to evade the charge of appropriation serving a literary career; but even so, "Pedro" does little more than designate a particular poem in the sequence. (Sequencing might rather troublingly invoke Henrietta Lacks.) Pedro’s traces are too scant to do more than name the poem and are hemmed in by the generic language of eugenics, “indolent in the extreme” and others. Infidel "practice" must refer to the assembly of these poems, and infidel "knowledge" to disturbance of the epistemology governing the case notes—but this knowledge is hardly news. Between the publication in 2007 of Alexandra Minna Stern’s Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America and its second edition in 2015, the story of American eugenics was filled in by the discovery of large caches of documentary material, leading to high-profile newspaper and television reporting and shocked commentary. While the victims remain in obscurity, much knowledge has come to light. What does the present poetic research add? 


An answer might indeed center on expression—do these poems bring home to a reader the feelings of children subjected to such a regime and to the inhumane language describing them? They do from time to time but almost despite the poetic style adopted. Phrases set paratactically across the page irrespective of left margin and separated by ample white space do look as though they shatter the iron-clad discourse of pseudopsychiatry, challenged also by the italicized words of inmates; but their visual appearance corresponds to a recognizable strain of American poetry from the mid-century onwards, signifying the author’s withdrawal to allow a reader her own semantic errancy (for instance Frank O’Hara’s "Biotherm" and "FYI" poems). Here no such permission is available, for the intentions of this work are proclaimed everywhere from the introductory material to the parallelisms contrasts and contradictions structuring the poems. Clear demarcation of the two discourses operative in each poem ensures one gets the point. 


The term permission is the crux of the brief paragraphs (three to seven lines) comprising "The Book of Listening," a metatextual meditation that divides the two poetic sequences, each paragraph artfully positioned on an entire page. “The poem hovers between the obligation to seek permission to listen and the impossibility of obtaining it from a voice that cannot be reached.” Here “the poem” appears to introduce a general statement about poetics; but the voice heard when reading a poem is a linguistic construct and surely by virtue of publication permission can be assumed in reading and listening to these poems as to any others. Presumably then this is not a general statement but specific to poems re-purposing the language of identified others. Maybe so, but the previous page announces “to listen without fault, one must have permission to listen.” Why should one want to listen without fault? Here the Blunt Research Group distinguishes such faultless listening from eavesdropping, in historical fact the most influential model for lyric reading ("overhearing"). Presentation of these texts as lyric poems positively invites faulty listening—indeed, it invites infidel listening—and the specific form of these poems further encourages a reader’s infidel reading along faultlines. How can reading lyric poems and seeking faithfully to attend to silenced voices be reconciled? Meanwhile the surpassing authority invested in "The Book of Listening" by its visual presentation makes its own questioning vatic. 


The second sequence of poems is less problematic. These poems do not divide between marked discourses, and they hold to the left margin; the different lyric convention evoked is more that of the dialectical lyric. Again the poems are identified by forenames but sometimes with the initial of a surname that identifies asylum inmates now well known as outsider artists—for instance Agnes Richter whose famous embroidered jacket adorns the cover of The Work-Shy. The poems are richer linguistically, semantically, disorderly, but often rhetorically and rhythmically organized—an “unknown and viperous language” (p. 96) coils and strikes. There is some wonderfully compelling writing:


then slip from your great steel key-ring

a bright little key to the door of the glittering

bad things and give it to me.

                                                 [P. 109]


Or read a line such as “the foliage oven of the rope’s decay” (p. 93). Some lines stab to the heart. The matter is astonishingly consistent with the preoccupations of contemporary American poetry—sexual identity, surveillance, the unreliability of language. Hardly surprising that asylum inmates should be beset in this way, and that so much present-day poetry treats of these subjects; but once again, whose is this language? A focus on such preoccupations may be an effect of selection or distillation into poems whose concentrated force differs sharply from the psychotic verbosity of an Adolf Wölfli or Henry Darger. Has the infidelity of the American Blunt Research Project mined the original writings for contemporary American poems? Or does such "outsider writing" have real affinities with canonical poetry tending towards world making, whether through elaborated mythologies such as William Blake’s, or through reconstitutive syntax such as Paul Celan’s? This is not to promote a vulgar association of madness with creativity; what it may point to is the urge of lyric language to depart from commentary and indexicality and to commit to radical poeisis


This review is driven by enthusiasm but sounds more critical than anticipated. The place of The Work-Shy at the intersection of poetic unsilencing, documentary, and outsider projects outlined at the start, now makes criticism seem inevitable; the history of each of these projects has been attended by poetic, political, and ethical argument. In its every aspect The Work-Shy is generative of thinking, and that should be counted a true achievement. Books of poetry often have a take-it-or-leave-it air. The Work-Shy though is worrying and when shut continues to worry at its reader, not least because there are poems in the second sequence that make much admired poetry of the present look posturing and paltry.