The Operating System


I discovered the poetry of John Forbes during an especially precarious period of my life. Not that things have become more stabilized since, yet there’s something about injecting excessive amounts of cocaine and staying up lateLateLATE for nights on end—following the nowhere impetus of pharmaceutical amphetamines—that makes the poetry of John Forbes relatable and even liberating.
I don’t wish to be militant regarding how one should approach Forbes’s writing; but one has to be aware of the neo-liberal zeitgeist of the a-historical, and all the attendant confusions and internalized missteps that follow thereon, to access the poignantly sophisticated intelligence of the poetry itself—

“All you did was throw sticks & jibber. But I guess
you’ve worked that one out,
now that you’ve got a flag of your own.
So here’s some tips for the future
i.e. the past considered as farce: be absolute & suave
& know that what they gave you when they took your land
is just a foretaste of what you’ll get
now that your religious imagery looks subtle on a fabric.”

(from On the Beach: A Bicentennial Poem)

Did I mention that I was suffering from mystical seizures around this time? Perhaps as a result of force-feeding myself too much Sartre, I had reached a stage in life where words couldn’t signify anything. I would stare dumbly at ordinary objects for long minutes, trying to discover how the symbols I was brought up to believe referred to them could actually connected with anything around me. Gripped by sensations that I was immersed in a Divine Unity that the analytical tendencies of language could not compass, Forbes came to me a kind of corrective, a way of returning to the world of the fractured ego, hurled mercilessly against the walls of the historic:

“the Poles will appreciate hard currency

but only as a gift & the flesh-pots of
Split will leave you a physical wreck.”

(from Europe: A Guide for Ken Searle)

Critics tend to overlook that the “irony” of John Forbes’s poetry relates not to traditional irony (the irony of an implied third-person listening in on a conversation), or the linguistic irony of signs serving as substitutes for concrete objects. Rather, Forbes’s irony is that if thought knowingly humbled by its inadequacy to cognize the totality of the being, and which thereby opens outward to the intersubjective dimension of the ethical. “A thought that thinks more than it thinks is a desire,” writes Lévinas. The formal characteristics of Forbes’s poetry, which visually appear as much they discursively signify, encapsulate thought thinking more than itself: a mode of self-reflexivity less “cautionary” than poetic and true.

Speed, a Pastoral

it’s fun to take speed
& stay up all night
not writing those reams of poetry
just thinking about is bad for you
— instead your feelings
follow your career down the drain
& find they like it there
among an anthology of fine ideas, bound together
by a chemical in your blood
that lets you stare the TV in its vacant face
& cheer, consuming yourself like a mortgage
& when Keats comes to dine, or Flaubert,
you can answer their purities
with your own less negative ones — for example
you know Dransfield’s line, that once you become a junkie
you’ll never want to be anything else?
well, I think he died too soon,
as if he thought drugs were an old-fashioned teacher
& he was the teacher’s pet, who just put up his hand
& said quietly, ‘Sir, sir’
& heroin let him leave the room.

Homage4JohnForbes copy
Jeffrey Grunthaner is a poet and art-writer finishing up his MFA at Brooklyn College. Publication credits include The Death and Life of American Cities, BOMBlog, Creative Sugar, and REVOLUTIONesque, with work forthcoming abroad in Eine (out of Vienna) and Études Books (out of France). He enjoys labyrinthine confusion, purposeful disorder, and architectural instability. Turn offs: Pragmatism.

2nd Annual 30/30/30 Poetry Month Series:


Post a Comment

1942 Amsterdam Ave NY (212) 862-3680

    Free shipping
    for orders over 50%