Late Aughts Philadelphia : Visionary Deadness

As much as I was, and am, a participant in the Philadelphia Renaissance, there is something to me very inscrutable about it— probably because, as an organic conglomeration of socio-aesthetic energies (rather than a calculated, bought out bid to occupy cultural and commercial space), its movements (backwards, forwards, and sideways) are unpredictable, even loopy. Thus it was that by 2009, my attitude towards Philadelphia and Neo-Romanticism had undergone many modifications. Because I was moving up in the ranks as a heavily published and publishing avant-garde poet (my first print full-length text had come out through Otoliths in 2007), and was doing so with no particular support from the university whose fellowship was largely funding me (Temple), I was in a very ambiguous social position. The cohesive, Highwire mid-Aughts form of PFS had collapsed; Mary and I united again for '07 and then separated by '08; I had largely lost touch with Abs; my confrontations with Jenny Kanzler were inconclusive. The Philly avant-profs seemed undecided as to whether I should be recognized by them or not; by this time, I was not only publishing alongside them, but when a lengthy review of my second print book appeared in Jacket Magazine 37 that summer, it seemed to me that I had brokered a high enough position for myself that I would be fine, thank you, with or without their sanctimonious blessings. The popular series I had going on my blog Stoning the Devil at the time, regarding "post-avant" as a possible movement in poetry, confirmed this— I figured prominently in dozens of high-level theoretical online arguments, and my name was being used in conjunction with many older poets, from established generations.

Then, by August, my final hook-up with Abs coincided with the beginning of my second fellowship year. I did not have to teach, and had already passed the dread comp exams, which did its sometimes wonted task of upping my IQ and (more importantly) steeling my nerves. As I prepared to move my writing into interstellar overdrive, it was difficult not to notice that the rich personal life I had enjoyed all through the Aughts had dissipated into a fragmentary state. Mary, against everyone's advice and wishes, had left Philadelphia to do an MFA in Manhattan; she had already earned a PAFA certificate; but we corresponded, and she left comments on my blog with some frequency. The absence of Mary, Abs, and the other PFS characters left a vacuum in my life, now filled by a rigorous dedication to forging ahead on all fronts as a writer and theorist. What I wanted to do was to expand the Apparition Poems section of my Blazevox e-book Beams into a full-length manuscript; and to do this by broadening the parameters of what could be called an Apparition Poem. I already had some material written which fit this bill. I noticed the new poems getting richer, more assured, both formally and thematically, towards an attempt at the timelessness I loved in Keats' Odes and sonnets:


I want to last—
to be the last
of the last of
the last to be

taken by time,
but the thing
about time is
that it wants,

what it wants
is us, all of us
wane quickly
for all time’s

ways, sans “I,”
what I wants—


She hovers above planet
Earth, making strategies
for safe landings, but not
able to see that she is also
on planet Earth, watched
like a crazed cat, a maze-
rat, or a tied-up mime, I
cannot save someone so
high up or far down, it’s
like a black thread about
to snap, as it strains past
breaking point she reaches
for champagne, to celebrate—
bubbles lunge up to break.

All through September and October, an eerie feeling hung in the air around me, and around Center City in general— a sense of something misplaced, and of energies moving in strange subterranean directions. For two weeks in November, Philly enjoyed unusually warm weather— I could not write, and suffered a minor nervous breakdown, distinguished by strange, shamanistic visions of grisly murders and violence in general, alternating with a sense that Center City was suffering a major internal meltdown, and that many of my new acquaintances were stooges of one form or another. The Aughts party was over. If blood had been spilled around me, I had not seen it— but, by late '09, I felt it intuitively. 

I also made an interesting decision in the middle of my shamanistic voyage— rather than assume that my visions qualified me as crazy, I would take what was visionary about my experience and embrace it. This played itself out in tactile terms— at one point on the voyage, I called, in a state of panic, to be taken into custody, so to speak. I went out of my apartment, and when I came back, they, the mental health goons, were waiting outside the building in an ambulance. Following a decisive instinct, I snubbed them, and resolved to take care of the rest of my voyage myself, rather than be tamed by others for my immersion in the visionary. As it turns out, all I needed to do was sleep for a few days. When I had regained my strength, I was ready to write on a level I never had before. The shamanistic voyage, macabre as it was, had been worth it.

By Thanksgiving, my feet touched earth again; and that's when Apparition Poems really started to take shape, especially when I hit twin towers like these:


terse as this is, it is
given to us in bits
carelessly shorn
from rocky slopes,
of this I can only
say nothing comes
with things built in,
it's always sharp edges,
crevices, crags, precipice,
abrupt plunges into "wants,
what subsists between us
happens in canyons lined
in blue waters where this
slides down to a dense
bottom, I can't retrieve
you twice in the same
way, it must be terse
because real is terse,
tense because it's so
frail, pine cones held
in a child's hand, snapped.


Two hedgerows with a little path

between — to walk in the path like

some do, as if no other viable route

exists, to make Gods of hedgerows

that make your life tiny, is a sin of

some significance in a world where

hedgerows can be approached from

any side — I said this to a man who

bore seeds to an open space, and he

nodded to someone else and whistled

an old waltz to himself in annoyance.

I discovered then that the ghastly view from my studio apartment at 23rd and Arch (I looked out at parking lots, billboards, and the big black PECO Utilities Building) could be improved by bringing down my slatted shades, which created a noir effect and made these winter months (and those in years to follow) more bearable. This is also the specific moment when I discovered online the cache of masterpieces which Abby Heller-Burnham had left through the Aughts— I republished many of them on Stoning the Devil instantly, and hailed Abs as the genius she was. Abs by that time was haggard, and ten sheets to the wind— I do not think she noticed, and if she did notice I doubt she would've cared. The marriage I had to Mary H. was still fresh in my mind. The cumulative weight of this congeries I called visionary deadness— built into it, the allure of states of decomposition and decay, the macabre, and the fight to survive in a blasted landscape. I inaugurated the pursuit of visionary deadness as a form or manner of literary, and intellectual, enterprise during Apparition Poems, and continue, today, to pursue it in the series known as the Cheltenham Elegies. The recession, by Apparition Poems, was entrenched, and bearing down on all of us. As of four years later, many of us still occupy this space, as we wait for some sun to peak out from behind the clouds; though we also know that states of decomposition and decay can make for compelling, if perverse and fragmented, art, as Abs foretold in a prescient way in the mid-Aughts.