Poetry Review: The Service Porch by Fred Moten

Author’s note: the original post has been preserved here. It has since been chiseled/redacted/edited for concision.

Image via SPD Books

The Service Porch by Fred Moten (Letter Machine Editions, 2016)

[. . .] my derelicts wait. they cut absolute with
garden sheen. they stripe that shit, get up! get down! dive! sound! that wall
and edge. my finger slip and sink inside like stickwriting, pulled up inside
me, on the inside of my skin dive! sound! and curve and wait come on get
off dive! sound! get down let’s get down let’s get down.

(from “uc santa barbara and crenshaw follies” on page 11)

Context. New apartment. Rumbling from above. Not from the sides. Distant glimmer from the model room, lights perpetually on. The clouds are clouds, are clouds. The sky is sky, or is it? New poems. All over the place, mess of poems. Scattered. Like breath, like rapid. Focus. This is the movement on the carpet. This is the anxious moment. Covers. Pages. Paper. Screens glowing nearby. Or on top of. Pages illuminated. Moten. Thinking of Moten, Moten. The word, Moten. The name. The person. Personal. Identity. Rumbling, crashing, vague sense of others and their existences in their own boxes, somewhere beyond. Beyond the breath. I’ve got this book, JMW sent it. The Service Porch. And I want it, even though it’s right here, sense of longing for something right in front of you. Book in palms. It is night now. Reflection and refraction. Newest sensory of orange, the color of the cover. Newly sensed.

LA-based Fred Moten’s latest book, The Service Porch, is “the third and final volume of [his] poetic trilogy,” which comes after The Feel Trio and The Little Edges, which I know I need to read. In my time working through and enjoying Moten’s work in the 123 pages bound, contained, I have been exposed to an incredible, unique, and challenging voice. A voice that inspires and moves, charms and mystifies, bulldozes and reconstructs. The Service Porch might be one of the most altogether-complex and yet altogether-evocative books of American poetry to arrive in 2016.

I speak as though I know 2016 like the back of my hand pressed against a doorknob in an apartment building’s conflagration. I know shit. But I try, I speak, I try. And I do know that this book was damn good. A damn fine read, one might say, doing more damage than blessing.

Repetition without a pulse, when the pulse is new in every instance, still be
pulse. They be drinking and whatnot to the music. I had to wait until the
picking was good. The smoke and everything—it’s not a concertized thing.
Can there be anything like a concertized thing? I be drinking and whatnot
to the music. I be drinking and whatnot to the music. Whatnot to the
music. What’s not to the music?

(from “whatnot to the music” on page 96)

Remember first reading through The Service Porch and rocking back and forth, jittery, mind a bunch of gibberish, mind a bunch of ecstasy. This is the way it’s supposed to be read, I remember thinking, this is the way it’s supposed to be engaged! Engagement. And act of engagement. The definition and then the feeling, the emotion, the arousal. Quintessentially unquestionable. There is this idea that through all ridicule and through all support a review will have structure built upon a knowledge of other reviews and other writings and the forms of response as forms of engagement. But how the fuck do we engage in a sprawled mind through something less than sprawling? How do we compartmentalize and consolidate and cordon to, in effect, illuminate that epic space of page? Pages? Still, let’s give credit to the book where it’s due. Let’s start with the tangible and work our way forward, stepping out of penumbra and away from relativity of the physical form.

Upon opening The Service Porch its contents form its poetic spine. The listing of the poems can be read as a single poem, the epic sprawl that awaits the reader moving forward, moving through, continuing what is clearly a journey through geography and culture and the personal effects of the written memory. This book is broken up into three sections: Anarkansas, All School Crit, and Cœnoboogie, each containing individual poems and sets—splices—of poems and poetic thought, each containing distinct voice and distinct attitude toward form, content, and the entire poetic process. Roughly 60 poems total sprawl out between neatly-cropped stanzas to sprawling streets and fields of prose. There is the urban and the pastoral here. There are the unique relationships with friends and acquaintances and students. Contained within is a world, daunting and intrepid, but also fun, musical, and momentous because of the work, and the casual every day, and the difficult every day.

Looking back on this writing, whichever part might be being referenced, I realize I do little to zero work on the etymology of the words. I do little to know referencing of Arkansas and the importance of a deconstruction. Immediately get filled with ideas of the colonial book reviewer, or the post-colonial book reviewer, or whatever that liminal, quite insane middle ground is. Ultimately the idea is to spotlight a book that is dear, dear in the light and good or dear in the wretched. In this case the former. And then let the readers find their own, reach their own, common ground. Abandon the academia, embrace the fatigue of having read the poems, the actual poems, the actual beating heart and synapsing brain. Reveal what’s nearest and truest. “It’s just that everything I want to say eludes me.” Because we’re too busy with the poems! They have taken over, fresh leaves scattered across the trail, you’ll have to walk through ’em.

It’s not that I want to say that poetry is disconnected from having
something to say; it’s just that everything I want to say eludes me. But if I

caught it I wouldn’t want it and you wouldn’t want it either. Maybe poetry

is what happens on the bus between wanting and having. I used to think it

was what happened on the bus between oakland and berkeley.

(from “it’s not that I want to say” on page 98)

Let’s not joke around. Imagine you’re on those buses and Moten’s across the aisle and his head is doing a lightning storm within and who knows how bright or dim the eyes are, reflective of what’s reflected upon them, way of the world, war of the ways, the hustle of the bus line, the link between nodes, the spaces cherished, held dear, these moments an imagination of the foundation of the energy. Imagine, perhaps, circuit board with that electronic pulse crawling across. Well, dashing really. But slowly. So that you can see it.

For some, Moten’s sense of place might be dazzling and disorienting, a radical exploration of how we identify with images of scenes, symbols within the human experience, the cityscape and the vastest spaces of small or forgotten or invisible that get taken for granted, are perfect for confronting, for knowing through poetry where knowing has gone untouched. And yet, despite the challenges, Moten provides a fantastic description of both the urban and the pastoral by evoking the movement of language in the poem to the movement of geography. And equally stillness. There is transience and there is the stopping point, and both are encountered in The Service Porch, encountered but never dwelled upon. From the bus lines to the sidewalks to music floating in and out, time pushes Moten forward, pushes us all forward.

Microsoft says “dwelled” is a word. Not Chrome though. Thinking of language. Well, have to think of language. Have to consider it, at least. I’m thinking of all the writers I’ve read this year and how many of them really consider the language, spend time with it, hang out with it, play with it. Play it. Thinking about that which is music. That which is pleasing to the ear. If this is jazz it’s a healthy blend, something like Cage meets Sun Ra but with musicians being the focal point, not the idols, never the idols. This is everyday poems, poems of the sounds of the guts and the hearts and the brains of the people. Orange covers. Language I don’t want to over-quote. Moten following the scale. Notes aflutter. Is it the language in the poems or the language the poems evoke?

Image via Letter Machine Editions

recess is flat out jump suite. bliss
is no pressure. a rhythm

fissure a hiss, fresh on the porch,

gravity and air past portraiture,

falling apart as little new orleans.
how long can we say how long
we been here?

(from “every saturday night” on page 88)

In The Service Porch, the movement and music of language is equal presence to the movement and beauty of geography. An irradiating presence of the way language crawls and flies, the sounds it makes through consonance, assonance, distinctions of the breath. I am reminded of scissors cutting paper, or propellers pushing air, or wind brushing against grass. Moten’s poetry is visceral and channels deeper sensations within the human experience, and what it is to experience the core being of humans. There are cultural implications and these are explored throughout the book, from the local to the global. Moten does dedicate the book to Nate Mackey, and there are clear connections in the spirit of language, the spirit of language as a collection of offerings, tracking exactly how the essence of words and phrases aggregate and then dance along in front of the reader. And despite moments of seriousness, there is an archetypal level of play here, a play matched with poise and pensiveness, a lightness and quickness and eagerness that consistently counteracts decades of rigidity in the robotic mind-numbing of countless American poets and micro-lineages in American poetry.

Some things that have been created are satisfying things. And those satisfactions leading us forward. I’ve been confused all my life. We have a stigma against confusion, we the people. What an aggravation. The confusing of the lunging words and that I might be okay with it. That we all might. “how long can we say how long / we been here?” as a siren. A Doppler effect. The image of the reader sitting next to the street, an ambulance, symbol of life and death, life saving other life, life encountering other’s death, or near death, and the chance we stumble upon the noise and then it passes us. I remember getting confused by ambulances. Being in one, age 3 perhaps, maybe otherwise. I remember reading Nate Mackey for the first time, 2007 perhaps, maybe otherwise. There are certain confusions that are pleasurable. Ponderable. They can get placed rather than repressed like trauma. They make more sense than muddle.

Just everyday and stir it up again. People don’t want to enjoy themselves

so much, with and by way of so much desperation, but the waterfall

made me feel like it was safe to jot down a few notes. The window is a

color field and my stride is storyboard blue in steeple, in lovely studio.

(from “Nina” on page 82)

Apologies like choruses but never full erasure. This is who we are. This is our mind before we come to terms. Integration is about an accompaniment. I am thinking about what Moten left in his book, left out of his book. I am thinking of the process of the people. I am thinking of the greater, personal (private?) satisfactions of the language. Subtext as it will always be, until one has that peaceful encounter, can claim assertions to deconstruct the mythologies. How offensive is the concept of personal mythology in an era of despots, oligarchies, plutocracies, technocracies, authoritarianism, nations founded on violence? How offensive is the concept of the personal mythology where the poet sees other poets giving birth to so much life and beauty in their damn words! A furious approach to the self and a furious approach to uncertainty and instability.

Though I would love the extra help in understanding, it will come with time, and in no way does Moten’s work ever feel unapproachable, or of the message that secrets are being kept from the reader. Where the meta could be helpful is at Moten’s most challenging, ecstatic moments. Those moments where the language carries a difficulty and complexity in music often feel tense and otherworldly, but so it is with the best music and language of other genres: the music and language of Proust. The music and language of Picasso. The music and language of Charlie Parker. The music and language of Olson. And beyond through history, but also beyond into the present, as with mentions to Moten’s contemporary Andrea Geyer, for example.

Those parts of me who looked Andrea Geyer up (you can, too, if you’re reading this) and looked at the beauty of her face and the beauty of the descriptions of her. And the editorial decision to include Moten’s face in this post and not Geyer’s, and why is that? And why even raise the questions in an era of book reviews? It’s just a book review, they say. It’s just a book review. Thinking about things like schizophrenia, white fragility, but more importantly, thinking about the possibility of everything, and how amazing that possibility is, and then, being a librarian, thinking about selection. Moving on, schizophrenic, to think about Moten’s selection process. He’s writing about these other creators. I have no idea who the creators are, but I see them. I see their presence, and it’s thanks to his selection that they got picked. Chosen. Explored and expressed, their works serving new levels of poetic spine, new foundations of porch, and dynamic goes the lyrical passion and possession and dispossession (alike) in speaking of, uplifting, praising. Homage, the purest poetry there can be, of the heart.

Jessica, a rich subtlety of arc between land as subject and the landowning
subject animates the sequence. And between technical language and its
hidden lyricisms brought out. It produces sadness in the relation between

poet and appraiser.

(from “Jessica” on page 76)

Mostly I look at original works and want to cross everything out. But I won’t. Because the impulse to write about The Service Porch’s works as though they are easy to write about is an important impulse to identify, even if it is incorrect, or failing, or, more politely, stalling.

According to the book’s description from the publisher, Moten’s inspirations are particular, and his responses in The Service Porch explore conversations with “brilliant African American visual artists,” and yet those letters to first names, to individuals whose fullest identities are kept hidden, form a moment of convergence between loss and desire, privacy and uncovering, juxtapositions where everything Moten has done is crafted elegantly and forcefully, yet there is the tension for a continuation and an explicitness.

Dear reader, the act of being concise is a gift. I have attempted throughout this review of my own review of Fred Moten’s The Service Porch to reduce the rumble of the rubble of the nonsense filler, that spontaneous bop pros daily life, knowing it doesn’t need to be taken, really, it can be pushed to the side. I have used the color red to signify a certain passionate relationship I have with that which I reject. I believe Moten’s poetics in The Service Porch creates a significant opportunity in isolation, as well. As seen throughout, and seen in closing this review of his beautiful and complex book with part of the closing of the book itself, what is one of the most beautiful poetic sequences I’ve read this year:

[. . .] About the maternal

ecology of ice floe, sociological floating about off scale about

the background. You got that curled austerity in the baroque about

thickened sheet music. About four little boys learning who to learn
about. All about the way a globe, flattened into plat and ground plan,

collapsed in lattice and expanded curve as the world in our hands on
the wall, world against world beneath the new world, world upside

the wall, delineation in caress, dyson sphere thrown around embrace


in frescoe

(from “andrea geyer” on page 119)

As with any recommendation or commendation, it’s really less about the fragment and quotation and abstract and more about the fullest of the full, the well-rounded and the encapsulating. That I have attempted to prove the levels of fantastic by pulling bits and pieces is farcical at best, and I hold the deepest trust that these quotes will indeed inspire a seeking out of that orange cover (or other forms where these poems may be found) so the intensity of the experience can be engaged properly. The music not just a sneak preview but the entire arrangement represented thoughtfully. Because that’s what Moten’s work really is: thought, fully. An incredible outpouring deserving of its own elevation, uplifting, ongoing praise from us all.

If you would like to explore this book further, visit Letter Machine Editions.

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