The Oracle and Reb Livingston by Jack Anders

“That’s Not Butter,” by Reb Livingston,  comes a richness from a mixture of the culture of old traditional fairytales, and postindustrial culture.  At the very beginning of her poem, with the phrase “once upon a time,” Livingston instantly conjures the whole trope of fairytales and Brothers Grimm fables; the poem then plays on the contrasts between the childhood-memory landscape of the fairytale, and its postmodern suburban equivalent, complete with Sears and Chuck E. Cheese:

Once upon a time there was a house full of divorced women who did not sew.

No beautiful little red coats or beautiful little blue trousers.

The children’s clothes, purchased at Sears,

mass produced, not very unique, but good enough.


Every month the fathers would visit and take the children to fun places,

like the amusement parks, Chuck E. Cheese and church bazaars.

No beautiful green umbrellas or lovely little purple shoes

with crimson soles and crimson linings.

Only flammable stuffed monkeys and glow sticks.



Behind the snappy, precise and mordant observational qualities, there is a certain embedded heartbroken quality, in a figure such as, children’s clothes from Sears.  This has a glowing, nostalgic aspect, like a memory of a now-gone mall.  The imagery has an accuracy, neither maudlin nor overly dry in its presentation; its precision passes Pound’s test of “poetry must be at least as well-written as prose.”  The poem displays such a good eye for the accurate detail, and the details are paced in the prosody, so that it holds interest, without becoming too cluttered.

Poets are functioning in new context.  As an example, consider Reb Livingston.  Notice how much good work she does over on the other side of writing, over on the side of reading, of receiving, reviewing, editing, framing poems, as opposed to simply just writing poems.  You may have wandered through her No Tell Motel project without even knowing she was behind it.  (See  Reb has done as much work as a reader, a receiver of poetry, as anyone.  In her interviews she notes how some people do not realize that she is also a writer of poems at all.  I believe that the two functions, reading and writing, are more connected and closer than they were in the past, due to our current environment.  There is more to read than ever before, more people can read than ever before, and more and more jobs involve processing text.  Thus as reading becomes a part of life, it becomes a part of a poet’s writing method.  Reb has experimented with poetry writing methods than are founded on reading.  In a December 2010 interview over at Bookslut, she explains the method behind her book, ‘God Damsel’:

Q. Can you explain how you started working on God Damsel and what the poems were inspired by?

A. As clichéd at it might sound, I was experiencing an ongoing depression and was attempting to write my way through it. I was reading a lot of spiritual texts and prayers, some on the recommendation of my friend and poet, Jill Alexander Essbaum, and honestly, none of them were doing it for me. So I started rewriting them, sort of. Many of these texts, Sumerian scriptures, Christian prophecies, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, etc., were already translations so I translated the translations. I use the term “translated” very loosely, I slowly worked through the texts replacing 99% of the words and keeping, for the most part, the rhythm and structure. This was an intuitive process, I didn’t consciously think much about how I was translating these texts, whatever came out, came out. To be perfectly blunt, I channeled these poems from someplace either completely outside or hidden very deep inside myself. I’m not sure which. Or maybe the answer is both, same thing. The next day or week when I’d go back to a poem to edit, I almost never remembered what I wrote. The editing process was where all the conscious decisions happened. I’m not claiming to have blacked out and I certainly didn’t use alcohol or drugs while writing. I always had a very clear memory of writing, just not of what.

This technique she describes is fascinating.  Instead of beginning in the traditional fashion from a blank page, she is beginning from an existing text.  She is beginning from a text that someone else wrote, not her own.  As she describes her work method, what she did was to take some existing text, in this case from the genre of old spiritual and religious texts, which had already been translated into English.  She then “wrote through” the pre-existing text, using it as a template, a frame for erasure and replacement, following the rhythm and the structure, replacing words.  So instead of beginning from a blank slate, a blank sheet of paper, she is beginning from a paper that already has a text on it.  This physical situation of composition is a metaphor for our actual situation today:  we wake up each day into a world already flooded with texts.

Writing from existing writing has different philosophical and spiritual connotations than writing from nothing, on a blank page, “ex nihilo.”  By inserting the already-written, pre-existent text that came from somebody else (the translated religious texts that she used as jump-off points for her poems), she is inherently rejecting the old idea of the poet who conjured up her poem from nothing, from the blank page.  This makes sense given that the “page” of our culture, today, is the opposite of blank:  it is stuffed with pre-existing texts.  So, in Reb’s method, the words of the poet do not come from a pure space before words; rather, other words are in the original space.  In this sense, her signs link back to other signs, not to some pure world that comes before signs.

Just as one is surrounded by the ocean of texts in the world of one’s regular daily life, just as one is flooded daily by media, by all the little texts of emails and tweets, by all the internet virtual library, all the already-written texts by other people, why not make that also be the situation of the poem, the situation in which a poem is made?

 I believe poetry is a gift economy.

(Livingston, from interview).

This is very telling and accurate.  There is a sense in which poetry is something counter to and outside of the normal uses of language.  When the language no longer has as its purpose, to get something, when it no longer dissolves in its use like a spoken order at a fast-food drive-thru window, then what is it?  There is a sense in which we want to free poetry from having to have its words mean, in the manner in which most words ordinarily mean.  We want to somehow use meaning as a tool of style, in the same way that we use the music of words in that way.

One of the whole points of John Ashbery’s work is that meaning, as a quality of the text, is something that can be stylistically mediated.  This also traces back to Wallace Stevens.  It is a sensible proposition because it flows from the nature of words as signs.  Music and cadence have to do with the effect of the sound of a word, of the word as a signifier, a musical unit.  Meaning and content have to do with the word’s signified value, the whole “what it means” side to a word.

When words are firmly tied into their normal, economically ordinary uses, both meaning and music become minimized to a default style.  In ordinary speech, the style is not too musical, because too much music would distract from the meaning, from what the message says.  And in addition, ordinary style will not be too meaningful either.  Words for normal use have a certain transience plus a certain stickiness, a practical short-term memorability but also an ability to dissolve.  Outside of poetry, the text above all is presented as something that is easily consumable, that quickly dissolves and disappears into its content.  The tiny residual aroma of style dissolves into the “what is said” of the words, the bottom line, the message.  The text disappears, disperses.

Poetry, however, per Reb, is a gift economy: it is free of the pressure of normal economies.  (It is also uniquely burdened: the normal economy is what actually supports the gift economy.)

Think of a good news reporter prose style.  It is to some extent anonymous, like water; it only has the subtlest thinnest aftertaste of an individual author’s style, of subjective personality markings, of words calling attention to themselves.  In most of the text of daily life, content is clear and denotative.  Any metaphors are underlined as such, strongly known only to be that, strongly controlled so they don’t distract from the message, from the news.  Journalistic prose style follows the precept of, to ‘make your soul, small.’

In this cultural context, one role of poetry might be to facilitate the release of qualities ordinarily suppressed by daily nonpoetic word-use.

Since normal word use so obviously transparently means, it is not surprising that poetry, by contrast, may play with meaning, might have a meaning which seems not quite understandable, always a little bit out of reach, like the castle in Kafka’s novel that you can drive toward but that you can never reach.  Or maybe the poem will begin from a position of not meaning, but then little flickers of possible meaning will make their way in.  This is a difficult area in style because overwhelmingly, the reader associates the pleasure of the text with understanding it, and it can be very hard to convince the reader that an opacity of the poem, a sense of “not getting” the poem, can be pleasurable.  (Wallace Stevens said the poem needs to give pleasure).

These are all things that poets like Livingston are experimenting with.  Her writings can be viewed as experiments in consciousness, as attempts to get from empirical realism over to the magical and back again, as attempts to achieve a deconstructive trance in which the meaning changes before you can get ahold of it; a trance in which the lines come to the poet from a mysterious source.  Going back to her description of her creative process in her interview, Livingston described how she was “experiencing an ongoing depression and was attempting to write my way through it.”  How many of us have been in this same zone?  Depression can be characterized by a paucity of neural crackles, a lack of words.  Thus it makes sense how a writing method in which words come to the poet, might be a corrective against depression.  In the interview she talks about how in her depression, she “was reading a lot of spiritual texts and prayers.”  Again, I think many of us have been in this situation.  Reading, here, is one way that words can come to the depressed self.  One characteristic of depression is how it can eat through its cure:  Reb reports that though she was reading books, “none of them were doing it for me.”  It is then that she begins experimenting with her method of letting words come to her, through the stimulus of the existent text.  Through her process by which she rewrote the writings and “translated the translations,” she was able to have words come to her by a means that was different than simply reading the existent text, and different from intentionally, consciously, by the dry will of the rational superego, choosing and writing new words.  It was important to her method that it “was an intuitive process,” she “didn’t consciously think much about how” the words were being chosen, and “whatever came out, came out.”  Reb describes how “I channeled these poems from someplace either completely outside or hidden very deep inside myself.”

In this scenario, notice how the reader remains a reader even in the writing.  That is, the writing arrives to her, comes to her, she is passive.  She is receiving, reading, the words that the mysterious source gives her.  She has described a work method which is consistent with the psychology of the reader.  She is not writing the poem:  some other source is writing them, and she is merely “channeling” this source.  This is a fascination reader-friendly version of the death of the author.  The reader becomes writer.  (See Oscar Wilde, ‘The Critic as Poet’).

There is also a definite “channeling” sensation, a “trance” sensation, in Livingston’s piece from her Psychic Memoir project, included herein.  These poems have a sound like they were written from somehow in front of or behind normal consciousness:

       ,this will be a funny joke, this goes over the line, I’m conscious of who’s arm in arm, feeling a little obligated, an inflatable woman gives a tour of the city, like a Ken doll talking science, this doll is believed to be very important, very emotional, I’m wearing a bathing suit and realize some things don’t have much value, dump them, there were valuable things in there, despite all this I’m keeping my distance, talking about names, keeping a boundary like a police officer, like a sad man carrying my bags, how strangely and terribly love has done her, the joke threatened by this presence, she makes a joke, I make a joke, he’s no John Donne, I’ll be back, pow in the kisser, to the baboon,

It sounds like someone describing the events in a dream, from within a dream.  Somehow the “I”-figure in the text feels separated from the speaker.  It is a sense of self as an other, “I is an other” (Rimbaud).  The floating, drifting feeling is enhanced by the use of commas at the start and end, the forming of the poem as one run-on sentence, and the use of what appears to be a default right line break thus giving all an enjambed feel.  The reader tries to identify the nature of the speaker, the message of the poem, but it keeps skipping, so that one is not sure.

Another way that Reb Livingston experiments with the roles of the writer and reader in the new media can be found in her ‘bibliomancy oracle,’ which eerily performs a writing function:  click on the button and it choose a fortune-cookie-fortune-sized excerpt from a poem out of an assembled database.  Try it here:  I click on the oracle, and get:

“The cost of flight is landing.”  (Jim Harrison).

Like any oracle, it talks to you.