Revolt and Divination: Notes on Sean Bonney’s "Letters Against the Firmament"
Updated: Apr 28
The invisible, whatever that is.
As if it didn’t hover above us.
Announce itself with blue fire.*
The invisible is not nothing. There must be something there which one cannot see. Attempts to see the invisible go by many names: mysticism, theology, metaphysics, spiritualisms of various kinds, arts of divination. For some, the desire is "to see through the veil" into the numinous realm and thereby discover, depending on the seer, the mind of God, the laws of the cosmos, the ultimate truth, etc— and then perhaps to apply the knowledge of the invisible here, in the material, visible world. For others, the desire is to see the visible world anew so that it begins to disclose the essence of an invisible, eternal nature: "To See a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.” The interpenetration of visible and invisible, the world of creation as a kind of divine garment.
Excrements of consumption are the natural discharges of human beings, remains
of clothing in the form of rags, etc.
-- Marx, Capital
Strange, among mystics, poets, and diviners, to invoke Karl Marx. And yet he also read the invisible. With this difference: the visible, material operations of industry were bluntly apparent, but the underlying logic of value and of capital itself were effectively invisible to all. Marx's materialism, then, sought to bring an invisible order that had emerged from the visible, material relations of capitalist society back into plainly material terms. And forever, this ghostly dialectic of the visible and invisible exert pressures which, in one way or another, we are here to read.
A hundred million people use electricity and sill believe in the magic power of signs
and exorcisms, in the nightmare of their lives as slaves to the rich.
It is impossible to fully grasp Rimbaud’s work, and especially Une Saison en Enfer,
if you have not studied through and understood the whole of Marx’s Capital.
To read the forces of the invisible is to divine. And Sean Bonney’s poetry is rife with divinatory language. Scrying, augury, numerology, astrology. Psychogeography. Communion with the dead. All these figure into his work. And this is not idiosyncrasy or affectation. It’s not his private interest, a perverse challenge to Marxist materialism and atheism. It is essential to what he is doing. The poet takes up divinatory logic precisely when the psychic violence of class consciousness forces the subject out of itself, into and against matter, such that the material world becomes interfused with psyche, and psyche with matter.
I’ve been working on an essay about Amiri Baraka, trying to explain the idea that if you
turn the surrealist image—defined by Aimé Ceasire as a “means of reaching the infinite”—if you turn that inside out what you will find is that phrase from Baraka: “the magic words are up against the wall motherfucker.”
Wall. Barricade. Law. Names for things that would keep one from exploding. To keep one proper, properly a person, an Eye, within a world legible as property, as commodity. “Say they have enclosed us in blank stone . . . the enemy is non-material, we are not.” The enemy exploits the logic of the invisible, the presence that goes unnoticed, and reduces us to matter and nothing more. Solitary confinement. “Freedom.” An eye foreclosed in signs-as-walls. Along with this is the magic trick by which the activity of the enemy is presumed to be not real, does not exist. “Ask who are these custodians of yesterday’s rebellions—insist that it really happened, we are not at all imaginary.” Just as the enemy escapes into the invisible and unreal, so too do those moments in which people identify it and revolt. The logic of the invisible elides these revolts into some glitch, some immaterial, abstract nothing. Not even invisible anymore. Just null.
there is a law it
patrols the invisible
is dark outside
Take some sulphate, some hydrogen, whatever, elements, elementals, mash it all up
and boil the invisible
make visible whatever is forced into invisibility by police realism
Police realism wants precisely to keep ones psyche in ones head. “The sound of the collective I being pushed back into its individuality.” Up against the wall. An I is to be an I, not another. Not a thing, an exploding thing. Not a star. Not a language of stars whose intelligence of distance, infinity, and futurity can awaken “the inheritors of the law” from the headlong stumble into the psychic abyss of mere personhood, mere property. Named and filed, expendable, already dead.
And since I can’t even leave the flat anymore, the ceiling might as well be the whole of the sky, and they’re tapping out new and brutal constellations. Here’s the sign of the surveillance camera. Here’s the medusa. Here’s the spear of Hades.
Hades, master of invisibility, was the god of both wealth and of death. We’ve known it for a long time. Plutocracy. The Invisible Hand. Likewise, Medusa refused the eye, turned the looker to stone. She is not invisible, but one whose image was both death and a reduction to pure material. To become a trophy of Medusa’s, a piece of property. Statue. Artwork. Subject eclipsed by object. One sees what can’t be seen: death.
Here’s the austerity mark. Here’s the budget. A whole new set of stars.
Astrology completely rewritten.
Astrology knows planets and stars cause precisely nothing. They are a lexicon of acausal connectors between psyche and matter. Matter exploded out into a self-organizing cosmos. “An organizing vortex.” Astrology makes legible a vast psycho-material dialectic. It is an index of the present instant and that same instant’s explosion, removing all possibility of remaining merely oneself. "I" am not a Sun sign. "I" am not a Pisces. "I" am an aperture. A keyhole. Something giving onto an impossibly complex, fugitive chord whose harmonies interweave planets, matter, images. Persons. Uranus in my ceiling. Pluto screaming the ink on the receipt. The discarded snack wrapper is a signature of Mercury. Of capital. Of the surveillance camera. The fugitive.
Mostly we cannot read this language. Schizophrenics flood with signals beyond any capacity to process them. Unable to forget or ignore. It all gets written down, and then we’re using nerve-ends as ink and paper, as language itself. You dismember yourself to speak.
Or this: in the liberation struggles, these people who were once relegated to the realm
of the imagination, victims of unspeakable terrors, but content to lose themselves in
hallucinatory dreams, are thrown into disarray, re-form, and amid blood and tears
give birth to very real and urgent issues. It’s simple, social being determines content,
content deranges form, etc.
The seer, the shaman, is one for whom we have no adequate place under capital. One who is nothing except social content. A content which they translate out to the stars and back. Who deranges and is deranged, and who thereby cures. Who poisons to cure. To learn sicknesses and name them: law, barricade, alienation, exploitation, etc. Plus:
(a) the fusion of transnational capital with reactionary political power
(b) arbitrary militarization
(c) a racist mobilization against selected scapegoats
(d) public opinion’s spectral ditch
(e) a fanatical ideology based on hypocrisy and sentiment
The divinatory consciousness common to shaman, schizophrenic, and psycho-materialist poet is precisely that collision of the material and psychic that police realism exists to destroy. It is a subject position that has no use for property whatsoever, no use even for itself. And, what is most dangerous: the police cannot even read it. “A while ago I started wondering about the possibility of a poetry that only the enemy could understand.” But what they understand, by its very illegibility to them, is that it wants them dead.
Grammar and syntax can no longer be controlled. Speech, which usually would be
your means of entry to actual lived time, is compressed and stretched into a network
of circles and coils, at its perimeter a system of scraped, negative music, and at its center a wall. And then you wake up after a night of terrible dreams to find you are that wall.
The divining eye of the psycho-materialist becomes an environment, a field of language, a new zodiac, and within it the subject ceases to be a person unto themselves. “I is another.” But not just alterity embedded in identity, but that which is beyond the self as proper person and made at once common and fugitive, free and stolen. In the most human iteration of this, we have a quasi-idealized vision of communication and knowledge transmission as a psychic commons: “a type of tapestry or collage in which the ‘lyric I’ loses its privatized being, and instead becomes a collective, an oppositional collective, spreading backwards and forward through known and unknown time.” Often, tho, the vision is more violent, figuring that which explodes outward, galactically, drawing with it pieces of barricades, police helmets, fragments of the wall. Escape not to a communist future, a possible utopia, but to the event of divinatory revolt. Cracking open the psyche, revealing the future not as time-yet-to-pass made legible, visible, in the now, but as an orientation, an occupation of the material present infused with contradictory, explosive significance.
Tiresias the birds. Tiresias who sees what only a child could see, who blunders up
from hell and hell is not underground. Says riots are a work of vast, incomprehensible
mourning . . . this really happened we have no fucking demands and Tiresias summoned voices of the vast dead charts of incomprehensible bird flight, everywhere we are those birds and it don’t mean shit the cops don’t know this.
This is not mysticism. Not romanticism. “I’m not talking about the poem as magical thinking, not at all, but as analysis and clarity.” A clear view of what had once been invisible. An analysis of enactment, of engagement with what is seen and of the distance crossed in order to make it visible. “But remember, most poetry is mimetic of what some square thinks is incomprehensible, rather than an engagement with it.” Never to let go of the now, even as one destroys it. To take as ones content the very violence of what one most wants to be rid of: the fascist degradations of capital as endured in a policed present. To see we are in fact policed into the present, barricaded from the passage out which the poem enacts in an accelerated “dialectical continuity in discontinuity.” The poet takes this barricaded and policed condition as both physical and psychic fact, and what future it divines is first and foremost marked by the interpenetration of shattered body and shattered barricade. A kind of cyborg, or a deranged and exploded centaur. A hybrid of nerve-ends, of garbage, weaponry, language. Of architecture, drugs, music, corrugated metal. Of birdsong, riot, bleach, pulsar, stained concrete, Saturn, donated clothes. Of shredded receipts, washed-up plastic, mercury, exposed bone. Charms for annihilation, charms against. Letters. Songs.
Everything forced to the surface. I don’t feel I’m myself anymore. I’ve fallen to pieces,
I can hardly breathe. My body has become something else, has fled into its smallest
dimensions, has scattered into zero. And yet, as soon as it got to it, it took a deep
breath, it could suddenly do it, it had passed across, it could see its indeterminable
function within the whole. Yeh?
*Note: All quotes are from Sean Bonney's LETTERS AGAINST THE FIRMAMENT (Enitharmon Press, 2015), unless otherwise noted.