Brandon Brown


There’s a certain tone of political argumentation currently in vogue on the internet, rigorous and well-read, brutal when it thinks it needs to be.  I never involve myself in these debates, mostly because I’m not nearly sufficiently conversant with the texts that bolster their arguments to productively add much to any specific discussion.  One argument that I was really interested in pertained to “prefigurative politics,” the notion that the world we want is already here, only obscured to ensure the preservation of hegemonic power.

I was curious about the argument and concept because I had been researching and writing about states of being which come into existence prior to the recognition that they have arrived, like love and sleep.  Advocates of immediate insurrection of course found the argument for prefigurative politics to be ill-conceived at best.  They feared that the notion of prefiguration would have to oppose itself to direct action against the state, preferring rather to “pretend” as if the communism we know must come had already arrived.  Were its proponents slacker utopians, licking the lip of a glass half full?  Was I one of them?

You know a dream is incredibly hard to remember if you decide to pee instead of write it down.  Lingering, describable, but elusive and ethereal at the same time.  Love, sleep, revolution all act as faults by which one world is turned into another, but are also the faults by which a person in one world can glimpse another one.  But the glimpse begins to dissolve as soon as you really try to say what you see, like the dream dulls while the toilet fills up.

Still, you can say something about what you’ve glimpsed, can’t you?  It’s like how Lisa Robertson writes about poetry as a parody (a parody is like “an other road,” like that inevitable communist world just over yonder).  “What is being a poet if not a parody?” she writes.  “What good is it otherwise?  Every poet dreams of wild implicit economies on the opaque side of legibility.”  But even when I speak in poems like this, I want to tell you about what I saw over there.

It’s like when Joseph Smith found those gold plates and started translating reformed Egyptian into the Book of Mormon.  Apparently he had spectacles with two special magic stones that automatically translated the language on the plates into early 19th century American English.  But as Joseph Smith found out, when you and you alone see something through magic glasses, sometimes your community just calls you fucking crazy when you reveal your findings.  And maybe it is crazy to insist on a second world, concomitant with this one, one which is already communist.  But is it crazier than speculative banking, eating corn #2, and monoamory?

If communism is already here, the prefigurativists might argue, it’s hard to recognize because a force wars against perception of it.  So we need help to see it, and it’s not every day that you find a pair of magic glasses with weighted seer stones that make the reformed Egyptian of a digestible socius legible.  But I dunno.  It’s obvious that real splendor is hard to see because it’s too bright.  Even Rama sometimes forgot that he was a God.  And even when that famous self-confidence was present, there’s no way he successfully invades Lanka and dispatches Ravana’s ten heads without the help of Hanuman and all those other unbelievably bad-ass monkeys.

In most versions of Ramayana, when Hanuman and his army of monkeys arrive across from Lanka’s coast, in avant garde pursuit of kidnapped Sita, Hanuman builds a bridge to Lanka all by himself.  His friends wait on the shore, looking for Lanka’s coast across the fuzzy field of ocean, promising that they’ll all kill themselves if Hanuman doesn’t make it back.  Lanka is already an other world, a world particularly haunted by shadows and illusions.  So how much freakier is it that there are not only shadow figures running all over Lanka, as Wendy Doniger writes, “deluding someone into believing that someone who is actually absent is present,” but that Lanka itself has a double.  A shadow Lanka underground.  Shadow Lanka is where Ravana’s brother Peacock Ravana lives.  Do you know this story?

The Story of Peacock Ravana

Ravana was sad because Rama had killed all of his sons and friends. Then his minister reminded him that his brother, Peacock Ravana, was skilled in deceit and illusion. Peacock Ravana promised he would take Rama and Rama’s brother down to shadow Lanka and sacrifice them. Peacock Rama left through the stalk of a lotus. He took the form of Hanuman’s friend and used magic to put Rama and Rama’s brother in a box. Then he changed forms and took Rama and Rama’s brother to Shadow Lanka.

The real Hanuman went down the lotus stalk and found Rama and Rama’s brother. He tried to wake them up and tell them what had happened but they were extremely sleepy. Hanuman found Peacock Ravana and started to fight him. Peacock Ravana yelled for Ravana to come help him, but Hanuman had blocked the opening to the lotus stalk. Hanuman killed Peacock Ravana, took the box back up through the stalk of the flower, and at sunrise the box disappeared. Rama and Rama’s brother both woke up.

I missed the middle two planning meetings for the summer school so I definitely had to attend the last one.  The meeting was at the Marxist library and I showed up a few minutes early and found both doors locked.  I peered in the window because I thought I saw the shadows of bodies moving around inside.  I was wearing the shirt and tie and outstanding shoes I’d worn to work that day and I figured maybe the shadow person saw me standing there and figured I was at the wrong place.  I paced a bit and said hum.

Soon I was late, still knocking on the door occasionally and peering through the window.  A couple walked by and the guy said, “just go ahead and kick it in” before walking into the house next door.  I guess the Marxist library’s neighbors were not unanimous in their solidarity.  Finally Zack and Jen showed up and Jen said did you try around back.  I realized I had probably just failed to read my e-mail thoroughly.  Shadow palms slapped my shadow forehead.  My parents, considering the pervasive sloppiness of my behavior, paused having the sex by which I’d be conceived, and reconsidered.

The summer school was the third annual event organized by mostly poets in the East Bay.  This year there was a much larger group of organizers. There were poets who were activists and activists who were not poets but dancers or teachers.  We talked about the schedule for the school and the people who would be presenting, teaching, performing.  We talked about how since the summer school was tweeted by Occupy Oakland and re-tweeted by Occupy Wall Street we should expect undercover police presence at the dance party Saturday night and so we shouldn’t sell beer.  The Marxist square dance band started downstairs and we heard the thumping of shoes on wood.  We chopped the air with our hands and said I have a direct response to that and we went through our agenda and then said phew.

Afterwards I met the poets at the afterparty for Kate’s reading.  The poets were pretty far along and I said I’ll catch up and did.  I talked to Michael about a long essay he wants to write about D’Angelo.  I talked to Stephanie about her residency and her manuscript.  I talked to David about the dance party night at the art murmur.  He told me that Obama’s campaign headquarters had its window smashed in.  That there was dancing and wild distribution of beer.  I talked to Steve about his workday.  Stephanie suggested that we go sing karaoke at the Jaguar.

The Jaguar was just down the street.  You could have a room for up to seven with a mic and a private system.  We smuggled in little bottles.  Alli and Stephanie sang “Dancing in the Dark.”  Lindsey sang “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” beautifully.  I sang “Someone Like You.”  The Jaguar gave us everything we needed right then.  When the teenage attendant came in unannounced to bring us the slim book of new songs in English he surveyed the bottles and bodies strewn across the couches and gently reminded us that we were not allowed to drink in the room.  If you’ll force me to say something bad about the Jaguar, fine.  I’ll admit that the mic had way too much reverb and, most disconcertingly, the system played every song a little too fast.

This last fact may not seem like much, but for karaoke it presents a certain kind of surpassing disaster.  Besides being a momentary demonstration of encompassing solidarity, there is a performance involved.  A muscle memory prompted by courage.  Hanuman reaches out his arm without thinking and makes like sixteen demons bite the black dust, the memory is that so strong in us.  Each rendition of the song is a rousing of the many performances one has already given of it, a retrospective of weak intimacies.  A retrospective that shows how powerfully weak intimacy inflects political life.

The soundtrack and the clock were both moving a little bit too fast.  The clock was moving towards the fault of the hour after which we knew we’d have to pay for more time in this little room in a little building in Oakland that people gathered in to overthrow the government in a very minor way.  And even with the impatient machine, we knew how these songs went better than the computer.  Their tempos were written into our capillary system and our pancreatic processes.

We decided to do one more song. In many other cases, and surely had any of us been remotely sober, the choice of the last song might have been the cause for external and internal debate, passionate opinions, even vituperative argumentation.  Like the kind that happens on Facebook, negativity could launch a thousand ships it’s so beautiful.   But in this room at the Jaguar the forms of life under siege, daily life, felt as far away as the second world from the first.  Shadow Lanka Earthly Lanka.  Stephanie was our genius.  “You Have a Friend.”  James Taylor / Carole King.  We all stood together singing facing the blank black wall above the couch.  Fierce space between our bodies.  You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am / I'll come running to see you again.

But we were friends.  And while I can’t end my new book with the six of us singing karaoke at the Jaguar as a contribution to the argument about prefiguration, as if our tipsy white bodies singing a James Taylor song together in a hot dark room while a glorious miniature Korean soap opera played out behind the lyrics were the real instantiation of paradise on earth.  Well, I dunno.  I’m not so sure I “surely” can’t end the book that way.  In fact, you might be expecting it by now.  And of course, most of the world is prevented from entering the sweaty utopic cells of Jaguar by the very structure of rule and violence that we sang so passionately against.  But surely there is some way to be faithful to a temporary, a minor, a brittle experience of such reciprocal feeling.  I can’t end my book there either.  It’s too singular a world.

Instead, I’ll tell you about a walk home from the train the other day.  Right before you pass the park, where children scream, having the best time in their lives, and the water feature pelts you with dew, there are a couple of boxes with newspapers in them.  They’re for the two free weekly papers, the SF Weekly and the SF Bay Guardian.  I’m always in a hurry and never read either of the weeklies, and easily would have passed by them this day as if their materiality was but a shadow of a shadow, translucent quasi-objects of no account.  But on this day I did notice the box for the SF Weekly, since someone had put a big piece of white paper over the front of the box and written in large block letters PUKE INSIDE. 

It took a few steps as the phrase echoed and my mind tried to absorb the syntax.  Indeed, my first instinct was that it was a command.  As if the sign were associating the content of the weekly with puke and imploring the passerby herself to make the metaphor transcendent, to violently disrupt the circuits of distribution of the paper as a protest against the quotidian and malevolent distortions of the major media.

It didn’t take me too long to come up with a different interpretation of the sign, however.  That there was puke inside the box.  Whether it was spewed from a critic of the alternative weekly press as a political intervention or merely hurled from the mouth of a passing drunk, somebody had opened the corroded flap of the newspaper box and found, to their apparent consternation, puke inside.

And like Joseph Smith, having seen a surprising sight, this passerby refused to suffer this knowledge in silence.  Puke Inside, on my walk up the stairs and into the apartment,  seemed like a spontaneous act of selfless urban care.  Bearing witness to someone having seen something horrible, it represents an effort to spare anyone else from such a gruesome encounter.  Soft anonymous skin of the hand reaching up out of the weekly box and covering the eyes of the passersby.

Despite the meaning of the intervention settling in, I was tempted to go downstairs and look inside the box.  As if looking could verify my optimistic feeling for this anonymous neighbor, who cared so much about me not seeing puke they couldn’t live in a world in which I might.  Which was finally the reason I did not go open the box.  Boxes like this had appeared and disappeared so often in my life—like that little box Peacock Ravana tried to trap Rama and Rama’s brother in.  And I owed it to whoever wrote this note to refuse to be seduced by a nagging call to abject experience.  But still I couldn’t help thinking about the puke.  What it looked like.  What it smelled like.  What it would make me do and feel.

Brandon Brown is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Top 40. He writes about art and culture for Open Space, the magazine and blog of the SFMOMA, and Bay Area journal Art Practical. He is an editor at Krupskaya and occasionally publishes small press materials under the imprint OMG! In 2015, Big Lucks will publish a new book, Shadow Lanka.