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Andrea Brady’s WILDFIRE-Generation in Destruction, par John Sears

29 avril 2012


In a lecture to the 2010 Liverpool Biennial, Simon Critchley argued that ‘the question of politics […] becomes the question of survival of fireflies, which begin to disappear from Europe in the 1950s. For fireflies’, he continues, disappear along with collective ideologies. They disappear along with pollution and the collapse of the political imagination. Fireflies are tiny markers of resistance, the suicide bombers of the insect world. If Lyotard’s ‘Résistance’ were ever to be brought into being, it would have to involve fireflies. Lots of them. It would be a posthumous show about something that no longer exists or is disappearing. Or about something that does not yet exist.1

Among the many agendas sketched out in Andrea Brady’s Wildfire (2010) is the construction of what the poem calls ‘A history of deception and trade / secrets, the spirit of fireflies trapped in pine’.2 This ‘spirit’ is also what the poem calls ‘Pyrotechne‘s fire’, the ‘large and bright, free fire, / by which clerical resistance can flow perpetually’ (10). Wildfire offers versions of such a history and its ‘markers of resistance’. It expresses spirit in brittle, translucent words of amber and flame, signifiers of a destructive conflict of elements that concerns the poem – language as the liquid pine resin that both engulfs and preserves ‘the spirit of fireflies’, a ‘spirit’ both flammable and transcendent. The poem’s gestures towards a resistant politics of becoming demands a vertiginous experience : ‘become giddy, anxious, […] /confused’ (32), the ‘Meat’ section of the poem warns ; or, describing the decay of phosphorus,
white or yellow, red, black or violet, as it darkens it becomes less dangerous to its handlers. But must still be wrapped and tanked under water, water-boarded but treated with dignity … (39).

Such movements, as ‘water-boarded’ implies, are always compromised by violent ‘unbecoming’, present in the double implication of the ‘firefly’ as an image of spirit entrapped.

Generating, preserving and destroying dynamise Wildfire’s internal structure as the poem maps by firelight the tortured, convulsive, flickering movements of what Critchley calls ‘the political imagination’. Wildfire is not optimistic : the poem asserts in ‘Alchemistry’ that ‘all that’s left / of politics is an evacuation’ (40). Critchley notes Lyotard’s projected exhibition Résistances, and his conception of writing as ‘resistance’ to ‘the already done, the already written, the already thought’.3 Wildfire offers poetry as the enactment of such resistance ; the poem as a firewall, a necessary obstruction to fill, momentarily, the ‘evacuation’ left in the historical wake of the line of fire. Mallarmé’s ‘Crise de vers’ is cited by Wildfire’s online notes – ‘The pure work implies the disappearance of the poet as speaker, yielding his initiative to words, which are mobilized by the shock of their difference ; they light up with reciprocal reflections like a virtual stream of fireworks over jewels [...]’.4 Brady’s poem paraphrases Mallarmé thus : ‘The pure work disappears into words, / text mobilized by the shock of differences […]’ (65). ‘Disappearance’ links Mallarmé and Critchley to the agenda of Wildfire and its adumbration of a history of fiery illumination and scorching disappearance, of the work and of fireflies, the conversion of bodies and bone into ash – a world consumed by the ‘shock’ of fire, and the flame of spirit. Wildfire’s ‘spirit of fireflies’ is echoed in the ‘spirit of violets’ (29) and the inflaming ‘spirit ’ that later is ‘wrapped and pacified’ by the imagined constituents of wildfire itself – ‘bones, charcoal, lithium … sodium, incense, tow’ (41). As Jacques Derrida writes, at the beginning of Of Spirit : ‘I shall write of ghosts, of flame, and of ashes’.5

Influenced by Cambridge school poetics, and the experimentalism of the writers published in Quid, the journal she co-edits with Keston Sutherland, Andrea Brady’s poetry constantly distorts and redefines lyric traditions and conventions. John Wilkinson writes, in The Chicago Review (2007), of her collection Embrace, that here ‘lyric stands displayed as a particular late-consumerist articulate mode expressed through meat and mind, of a cognitive order determining a range of socially-prescribed behavior - at best another mode to set alongside work, lust, and leisure’.6 Wildfire, available in print and hypertext versions, extends this redefinition of lyric, seeking, its author notes in an interview with Andrew Duncan, ‘to stimulate resistance through a re-invigoration of complex historical phenomena ; or [to] synthesis[e] disparate narratives in an attempt to shade in some aspect of the totality of relations, to replace contemporary events in the systems of power, money and motion which breed them’.7 Wildfire develops a poetic language to link fire and ire in a techne of destructive creation, raging incandescently at the destructive complicities of history, technology, human agency and the institutional suppressions and omissions that regulate and permit them. Grounded in scholarly enquiry and revelation, Wildfire illuminates that which ideology obscures. It is, Brady argues, ‘intended to be seductive as well as demystifying’ ; it invites ‘contemplation of complexes of meaning and subversion, and reward[s] that contemplation with the novelty of the phrase’.8 The poem traces the historical movements of fire, its symbolic and literal potentials, within the dialectic of destructive creation. ‘Meat and mind’, flesh and spirit, forged and distorted by the effects of, desires for, and dedications to the human uses and abuses of the potentials of fire, establish the poem’s intellectual concern with fire’s consuming bodies, and its consuming of bodies at ‘work, lust and leisure’. ‘Consume’, we recall, means ‘to do away with completely’, ‘to spend wastefully’, and ‘to waste or burn away’, from the Latin con + emere, ‘to take’ : consuming is, Wildfire suggests, an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. This sense of ‘consume’ is connected in Wildfire to textual fragility, and thence to issues of textual and human survival and destruction. Derrida writes, in his meditation on burning history, Cinders : ‘But the urn of language is so fragile. It crumbles and immediately you blow into the dust of words which are the cinder itself. And if you entrust it to paper, it is all the better to inflame you with, my dear, you will eat yourself up immediately’.9

For Derrida ‘the dust of words’ figures ‘the cinder itself’, the surviving trace of fire’s effects, and consequently a form of testimony to the suffering that Cinders negotiates, the ‘all-burning’ of fire :

The all-burning is an essenceless by-play, pure accessory of the substance that rises without ever setting [...] without becoming a subject, and without consolidating through the self (Selbst) its differences [...]. The all-burning […] resembles the pure difference of an absolute accident [...]. As soon as it appears, as soon as the fire shows itself, it remains, it keeps hold of itself, it loses itself as fire [...]. That is the origin of history, the beginning of the going down, the setting of the sun, the passage to occidental subjectivity. Fire becomes for-(it)self and is lost.10

‘All-burning’ retranslates the Greek holos, ‘whole’ or ‘all’, and caustos, ‘burning’, the Holocaust that is Derrida’s theme, a theme shared by, but not named in, Brady’s poem. The ‘all-burning’ consuming of fire, its holocaust, is, Brady’s poem intimates, also and inevitably a drastic taking, a wastage that is fire’s constant labour, its paradoxical work, a holocaust that threatens absolutely the work of the text, or the existence of the text as work. This incendiary labour both produces and destroys, generates and consumes ; the tragedy of human history, Wildfire contends, its version of Derrida’s ‘absolute accident’, lies in the avoidable but relentless dominance of one process over the other, the distortion of the potentially beneficial into the utterly disastrous. ‘That which both catches (and takes) or gives’, Derrida writes in Of Spirit, ‘is fire. The fire of spirit’.11 The ‘fire of spirit’ is, Wildfire contends, the ‘fireworks’ that ‘stream […] over jewels’ (66) as Mallarmé’s ‘pure work’ disappears into words.

The burning anger of Brady’s poem, its ‘fire of spirit’, is its version of the ‘work of fire’ (‘part du feu’). Implicit throughout the poem is Maurice Blanchot’s complex insistence on literature’s destructive, negating efficacy in addressing, and attempting to redress, the historical Holocaust. Blanchot’s The Work of Fire (1949) collects essays on modern writing. Its translator, Charlotte Mandell, discusses the book’s title in terms that further illuminate Wildfire :

The original title of this collection of essays is La Part du feu. The most literal, simply verbal translation would be ‘the part of fire.’ But the word ‘part’ has, as in English, the two meanings of ‘division of some whole’ and ‘role,’ as in play. It has further senses of ‘advantage,’ ‘political party,’ and others. So we might begin by thinking of The Role of Fire, the Work of Fire, and so on. But then we reflect that feu also has a range of meanings broader than the English ‘fire.’ It can mean ‘light,’ ‘lights’ (as in traffic lights, tail lights), ‘signal flares,’ the ‘warmth’ of feelings or of someone’s prose style, the frenzy of someone’s piano playing. Now we start thinking of the Role of Light, Signals, Flares, the Side of Light ; we are caught up in a tangle of speculations about illumination, work, taking sides, destruction (for fire does destroy what it briefly illuminates), signs and signals, various self-consuming artefacts.12

‘Speculations about illumination’ within the frames of a language of allusion and implication, a language constantly and self-consciously on the edge of its own immolation : such a description summarises much of Wildfire’s concerns. Brady’s poem explores fire’s connections with violence and destruction, its military abuses, its incendiary functions. ‘The Destruction of Language is proportionate’ (68), the poem asserts near its conclusion. Behind Wildfire’s fury at this crassly reductive, ‘proportionate’ techne of destruction resides a deeper sorrow, a rage against the failure of intellectual will and enlightened agency, the ‘creative elements’, to ‘catch’ the way destructive fire does – a failure of intellectual spirit, perhaps. ‘We consist’, the poem laments, ‘in a fantasy of proportionality’ (59), a ‘consisting’ in fantasy that counters fire’s real ‘consuming’, its ‘taking’ of us. Fire, in contrast, is excess consumption, profligate and speculative waste ; its tragedy is a dramatic expenditure that unbalances all accounts of historical progress. Calling itself ‘A Verse Essay on Obscurity and Illumination’, Wildfire asserts itself and its essaying as ‘averse’, its motivating emotion as ‘aversion’ to the appallingly creative uses of fire to destroy. It deploys, in response to this, the poem itself as illumination, a temporary verbal flare of light across vast historical landscapes of moral darkness. Poetic technique thus corresponds in obscure and illuminating ways to blinding pyrotechnic flashes of light in the night ; the poem’s ‘Fire Sermon’, such as we can discern it, singes as it sings, conceals as it alerts, erases as it constructs, destroys as it creates. Or as one reviewer of the poem put it : ‘This is an Oppenheimer poetics, all-consuming, a bitter libretto for an eternally repeating Doctor Atomic, an absolute vision of human life as an ‘inglorious / spit-roast’ on our own worst impulses. It singes’.13

Wildfire’s form is all about spread, or what Brady (in the Andrew Duncan interview) calls ‘distraction and supply’ – the rhizomatic spread of hypertext links across and beyond textual boundaries, the spread of influence from one historical moment or insight to another, the spread of effect from one event to those connected to it. These spreads mimic and are repeated in fire’s own spread, the movement of fire as disease and disorder in the body politic. Originally the metaphor ‘spread like wildfire’ referred to violently contagious skin diseases ; wildfire names also dermatological eruption, bodily marking and scarring, text as inscription of suffering in human flesh. This ‘spread’ is, Brady notes, an element of difficulty that is also a symptom of how contemporary ideas and modes of thinking interfere with traditional conceptions of text and reading. ‘It can be difficult (people have told me)’, Brady comments, ‘to focus on the poem without being dragged outwards, through the reference pages, into the wider network. This is not necessarily the poem’s fault ; it’s an indication of how we all think now’.14

‘Pyrotechne’, the poem’s first section, provisionally names this ‘work of fire’, its destructive yet potentially revolutionary ‘cleansing’, its spread and the different kinds of labour it performs and demands. ‘Pyrotechne’, the poem later notes, ‘converts all that is solid into feed’ (19-20) : the echo of Marx distorted into fuel for consumption indicates the direction in which the poem would like to move, but the spreading and catching of fire is unpredictable, unbounded. Likewise, the poem’s inexorable linking of fire and bone is predicted by Marx’s preceding (but unquoted) sentence : ‘all new-formed [relations] become antiquated before they can ossify’.15 ‘Ossification’, turning to bone, is a process that Wildfire extends into the burning of flesh from bone ; fire excoriates the flesh, reducing human bodies, ‘sizzling through fat and liquid, pausing finally on the bone’, leaving ‘burnt lipids or boneash’ (31), the bone that ‘belongs to ash’ (38), blackened bone, material traces of subjectivity, bone becoming charcoal. In doing so, it inaugurates the possibility of a techne of writing, the inscription of fire’s atrocities.

Any reading of Wildfire will likewise spread and catch, following words as tracer bullets (destructive elements, agents of death illuminated by burning white phosphorus), imitating the poem’s emulation of fire’s own processes of movement and expansion, processes that mimic and shadow the movements and expansions of the various technologies of fire – a pyrotechnic tracing that follows the coincidences of ‘techne’ and ‘texte’, as each illuminates the other. Heidegger, for example, relies on the rhetoric of illumination in his discussion of technology – ‘We are questioning technology in order to bring to light our relationship to its essence […]’.16 In Right of Inspection Derrida argues that art’s work of making is also a making appear, a revealing of revelation itself into illuminated presence – ‘revelation is seen revealed, exposure exposed, presentation presented, and so on’,17 in a self-reflexive process of involution, a self-reflexivity that catches in Brady’s work – ‘These are images / in a poem’, it tells itself, ‘tooth, rust, paranoia you may / insert your translation here’ (65). Making is also a shedding of light on the making of the self, and on the poem’s self-forging in the pyrotechniques of fire.

These janus-faced speculative effects of fire are exemplified in coinage, products signifying the forging of wealth within the crucible of violent destruction. The poem notes ‘a coin war’, a conflict of currency connecting fire to the circulation of wealth and the geography of conflict. The symbolic creation of coins out of the flames of the forge is connected in the poem to print, and thence to writing itself :

The earliest publications were coin. Publication got the drift : ships loaded with potential, resinated drawn on currents towards the tortoise towers, helepolis, piers lapped in the dark. Propulsion by toxon and bronze spout collapsed distances formerly concrete, traducible only by wheels or machines powered by caloric energy, into nothing : two frames, couplets, inseparable by any moral force more actionable than geometry. Now in syndicated repeat the ‘brutal crackdown’ in Erbil exacted by its geocoordinates (3412N/04401E), Dohuk (3625N/04301E)these sites visible from space aflame their ground cover : nothing lives underneath, pyrotechne converts all that is solid into feed, and at Oak Ridge they make the bacteria which eats even that.

Now it’s easy to reach the target, unbearably precise the nozzle turns the snout sniffing puckers : I see you there. I consume you in a burst. (19-20)

Via transformative metaphors of conversion, eating, exchange, and traduction, the poem returns us to the underlying process of speculative consuming in which the reader’s consumption of information parodies fire’s consumption of flesh. Reading spreads, via hyperlinks, to other sources of information, through words whose significance depends upon the research indicated in the poem’s online resources. ‘Helepolis’, for example, was the ancient siege engine used to attack cities ; while the map co-ordinates in this sequence locate us in contemporary geopolitical contexts, referring to American military justifications for the Gulf War :

(…) DURING THE BRUTAL CRACKDOWN THAT FOLLOWED THE KURDISH UPRISING, IRAQI FORCES LOYAL TO PRESIDENT SADDAM ((HUSSEIN)) MAY HAVE POSSIBLY USED WHITE PHOSPHOROUS (WP) CHEMICAL WEAPONS AGAINST KURDISH REBELS AND THE POPULACE IN ERBIL (GEOCOORD:3412N/04401E) (VICINITY OF IRANIAN BORDER) AND DOHUK (GEOCOORD:3652N/04301E) (VICINITY OF IRAQI BORDER) PROVINCES, IRAQ.18

Such allusions to external but connected information indicate how the poem describes its own rhythm and intellectual movement : ‘you hop out / from stone to stone on stichomythic feet’ (13). Stichomythia (Gk, ‘stichos’, row or line, ‘muthos’, speech), the rhetorical device of dialogic counterpoint used in verse drama, represents the rapid alternation between different voices. Particularly useful for conveying a sense of violent dispute between characters, it marks in Wildfire divisions within the text, constant subversions of the monologic lyric voice by interpolated comments, interjections, voices from offstage, mimicking in turn the flickering of flames, the poem’s basic dialectic rhythm of illumination and obscurity. In hypertext, stichomythia is marked by colour variation and hyperlink. Its destructuring effects are rhizomically performed, constructing a readerly experience, a ‘hopping out’ of the textual frame that is constantly errant, displaced into other textual frames (windows) where new information is presented in different textual forms – references, allusions, citations, quotations. Stichomythic hopping, a kind of fire-dance, characterises the text’s validation of its intellectual and political force even as it pulls into question the integrity of the text itself. Wildfire’s hypertextuality spreads, stichomythically, like ‘wildfire’, catching the reader’s eye as that eye follows or is drawn into the spread of links.

This spreading is also flow, the movement of verse across the page and the eye along the line, like the flow of consuming flames. Fire creates its own nemesis : ‘I can feel the structure giving way / needing treatment, a liquid / to massify the gaps’ (32). Fire’s materiality counters the poem’s interest in the spirit ; it is itself uncannily liquid even as it transforms solids to liquids : ‘This subtle liquid fire that turns Jack / to meltwater, gathers in lipids, boils over …’ (61). Elemental rather than spiritual, resolutely material in its awareness of fire’s material effects, the poem shifts, sets, melts and flows in and out of its own momentary structures. Figures of this deliberate incoherence – fragmentation, disintegration, dissolution – permeate Wildfire’s texture, conveying this flow of fire, its liquid spread as another kind of techne, the Heideggerian techne of poesis, of working as making.

Gels and thick liquids proliferate through the poem – the amber of pine entrapping fireflies, the ‘paper wick / dunked in a subtle liquid looking like gum’ (62), the ‘carpooled naptha (sic)’ (45), ‘the napalm that pulverises leaves’ (22), providing Wildfire with its central moment of self-definition, napalm that works like ‘an ice-cream sandwich or an experimental / poem dashed onto political density’ (51). These are the formless forms of destructive information, of flowing conjunctions and momentary interminglings that fire produces, the destructured contaminants of ideological behaviour that constitute the burning issues of Brady’s poem. Napalm is a lethal amalgam of inflammable naphtha and gelatinous palm oil designed specifically to burn at high temperature and to stick irremovably to all that it touches, human skin in particular. This fire-weapon has a central place in modern military mythology. Like ‘oil displaced by kerosene’ (55) it figures the intersection of material destructive force with the imperial imperative characteristic of those historical moments to which Wildfire constantly alludes and on which its violent undercurrent concentrates. In the opening lines of the poem we move from ‘the peat level in U Minh Thuong’, a Vietnamese district napalmed and phosphorus-bombed by the US in 1968, to the ‘Bihac pocket’ (7), site of heavy fighting between Croation Serbs who, wrote John Pomfret of The Washington Post on December 6th 1994, ‘us[ed] artillery, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and tank cannons’, against Muslims who, ‘Lacking heavy weapons […] fought back with small arms’.19

These contemporary wars draw us back to the link between fire and human bodies. Phosphorus is the poem’s elect element, its chemical link between the composition of the human body and the technologies of fire. Present in human bones, phosphor is a product of decay and causes the spectral illumination produced in charnel houses. The poem’s notes offer copious descriptions –

One of the first products of decay is a combustible essence, similar to that wrought by fermentation. Phosphor, which because of its highly inflammable nature, has acquired the name of light-bearer, in combination with hydrogen, is generally the first thing to be released from the dissolving body, and it’s this which often lends putrefaction and the shady crypt the appearance of shining ; which should remind one that even the body’s final transformation recapitulates the old sequence of the first creation, whereby light was the first. For decay, too, seen in its own terms, is the work of a new creation.20

Implicit in this chemical phenomenon is, of course, the myth of spontaneous human combustion.

Wildfire locates its critique in an immanent awareness of the body’s susceptibility to flame, a comprehension of human corpses as fuel for the fires of history, just as burning texts fuel the poem’s anger. Burning books and bodies, human and textual combustibility, and the phosphorescence consequent on the decay of flesh and the decomposition of texts effected by technologies of fire, are the poems’ insistent themes. The notes cite 19th century treatises on corpse phosphorescence, and the complex interplay of generation and destruction that informs that macabre process : ‘The combustible essence, whose generation is the first accomplishment of decay, often ignites itself into an actual, destructive flame’, we’re informed.21 Composition and decomposition, generation, decay and destruction here mingle in a play of illumination and obscurity, the night-flight of fireflies as ‘markers of resistance’, that might figure Wildfire itself – poetry generated out of decay, art out of violence, meaning and formal coherence out of ceaseless destruction.

1 Simon Critchley, ‘The Infinite Demand of Art’. Art & Research Vol. 3 No. 2 Summer 2010, http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v3.... Not paginated.
2 Andrea Brady, Wildfire : A Verse Essay. San Francisco : Krupskaya Books, 2010, p. 24. Subsequent references by page number only in brackets following quotations.
3 Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Differend. Translated by Georges Van Den Abeele. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1989, p. 397.
4 Andrea Brady, Wildfire, online text and resources at http://www.krupskayabooks.com/wildf..., 2010. Not paginated.
5 Jacques Derrida, Of Spirit : Heidegger and the Question. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1989, p. 1.
6 John Wilkinson, ‘Off the Grid : Lyric and Politics in Andrea Brady’s Embrace’. The Chicago Review 53:1, Spring 2007. Available at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/.... Not paginated.
7 Andrea Brady, interview with Andrew Duncan. The Argotist Online, http://www.argotistonline.co.uk/Bra..., 2010. Not paginated.
8 Ibid.
9 Jacques Derrida, Cinders. Translated by Ned Lukacher. Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 1991, p. 53.

10 Ibid., pp. 42-6.
11 Derrida, Of Spirit, p. 84.
12 Maurice Blanchot, The Work of Fire. Translated by Charlotte Mandel. Stanford : Stanford UP, 1995, translator’s introduction, p. ix.
13 Sophie Mayer, review of Andrea Brady’s Wildfire and Simon Perrill’s Nitrate. Hand+Star http://www.handandstar.co.uk/?p=825, 2010. Not paginated.
14 Brady, interview with Andrew Duncan. Not paginated.
15 Karl Marx & Freidrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto. Teddington : The Echo Library, 2009, p. 8.
16 Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology & Other Essays. Translated by William Lovitt. London : HarperPerennial, 1977, p. 23.
17 Jacques Derrida, Right of Inspection. Translated by David Wills. New York : Monacelli Press, 1999, p. xxxvi.

18 Brady, Wildfire, online text and resources. Not paginated.
19 John Pomfret, ‘Croatian Serb Forces Bombard Muslim Positions in Bihac Pocket’. The Washington Post, December 6th 1994 ; available at http://unconqueredbosnia.tripod.com/12-6-94.html. Not paginated.
20 Brady, Wildfire, online text and resources. Not paginated.
21 Ibid.