Iowa Occult: a Mütter Pedagogy; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Vomit Art

What is Knowledge? What shape does Knowledge take? It’s not a question we expect to find raised in an Iowa-style workshop, where we turn our attention to concrete things: form, craft, the page, the neat crosses and channels of a line break or an ellipsis or/and especially the poem’s earned/unearned ending. No ideas but in things—Wms.

A gutfull of media

Confiscated taxidermy. From internationalanimalrescue.org.

This post is part of The 75th Project, a series of essays by graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

1.

What is Knowledge? What shape does Knowledge take? It’s not a question we expect to find raised in an Iowa-style workshop, where we turn our attention to concrete things: form, craft, the page, the neat crosses and channels of a line break or an ellipsis or/and especially the poem’s earned/unearned ending. No ideas but in thingsWms. But the inverse of this craftiness, this roll-up-your-sleeves-and-work-with-your-hands shop-class affect of the Iowa-style workshop, is the unspeakable pressure of a counterpresence: an amorphic, powerful, hole-tearing, ravening, careless and gratuitous and excessive and unearned presence: that of Art itself.

2.

Workshop is full of proscriptions. Walling in/walling out—etc.—Frst. But Art’s prescriptions make the skullbone holey, turn all walls to membranes. Art mutates, conjoins. Two bodies of Art share a liver, a chestwall, a quarter-lobe of brain. One or both bodies can’t survive. Art is flighty, drunk, inconstant, a vituperative bi-gendered Mother. Art reveals that Knowledge is made of violence and has a violent shape.

3.

The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia is a phantasmagoria of 19th-century knowledge both at its most organized and its most bizarre, most gory. A historical teaching collection of the College of Physicians, it features a Borgesian catalog of anatomical normalities and abnormalities, thousands of numbered displays: the jarred cross-sections of criminals’ faces and brains; a lifesized plaster cast of Chang and Eng, as well as their conjoined livers; hundreds of deformed and miscarried fetuses, suspended in postures of laughter, pain, confidentiality, and bewilderment; a horned widow; a lady turned to soap in her grave. It’s a pedagogical apparatus, full of lines and cases and labels, but the cumulative tide of blood and bone and gut and tissue and misery and, strangely, ecstasy (the liveliness of the suspended skeletons, their faces tipped-up as if singing) as well as various toxic preservatives and fixitives presses out from this pedagogical outline and goes flexing, fluxing, looping, seeping, spasming, chasming, congealing, crusting, splitting, stuttering, repeating.  One begins to feel one is being digested by the ravening, rotted surround. By the toxic potency of preserved tissue, by rotting, gravey Knowledge.

Art reveals that Knowledge is made of violence and has a violent shape.

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4.

Amid this red cavity is lodged a firm bolus: Dr. Chevallier Jackson’s Foreign Body Collection. This special horizontal filing case exhibits drawer upon drawer of items removed from the throats of men, women and children: toy battleships, straightpins, cigarette butts, bullets, flags, buttons. Why were they swallowed? What category of knowledge-seeking does this represent? This hard deposit of Knowledge is a doubly foreign body, an irritant within the excessive and florid tissue of the Mütter Museum itself.

5.

Knowledge consumes, rots, desiccates yet remains, is remains, proposes an unnatural, dug-up, undead body. But some Knowledge sticks in its own throat and will not be incorporated. A foreign body. An irritant. A body which is foreign to the foreign body. Disrupts digestion. Makes it hard to swallow and speak. Every ingestion may become and eructation. Generates suppuration, bad copies, counterfeit versions, false histories, etymologies. Emesis—Greek, to vomit. Poemesis—to eructate, to erupt, to vomit Art.

6.

What stuck in my throat from Iowa: Write like you’re dead—JG. Oh stop worrying about the line break; when this class ends today, no one’s every going to read this poem again.—JG. Irony is when you don’t call things by their right names.  And when you don’t call things by their right names, that’s what the Nazis did.—JG. If you write with too many contemporary references, your poems will be dated.—JG. Little knuckles of knowledge like the rolled goatbones by which the Ancients told the future, carve me up like the ripped out entrails by which the Ancients told the future, scatter me like entrail-birds into the dawn sky, by which the Ancients judged which way the future lies. An inverted, occult version of Iowa pedagogy. A workshop occult. Arcana.

7.

What they didn’t mean to teach me: that I am (un-)dead. Dead-on-arrival. Already out of date. I write in a dead language. A language of desiccating signs and referents.  I write in a grave-cave and tap my messages into the wall. I scratch them out with the ground dust of my fingernails. Nobody’s every going to read this poem, so I dwell in possibility—Ed.—the possibility of the grave. Scratch, scratch. Sic, sic. My poems are well dressed for death, they wear black belts and black boots. The brute brute heart of a brute like you.—Plth. From what stuck in my throat at Iowa, from what I couldn’t quite swallow, an eructation of Art.

I write in a dead language. A language of desiccating signs and referents. I write in a grave-cave.

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8.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch can be seen from space. Maybe. Not yet. Still, so much plastic. Mankind’s collective eructation, indigestible vomit, diabolical poetry. Albatrosses will fly miles to fill their guts with the stuff and regurgitate it and feed it to their chicks. The chicks die, trying to digest the plastic; desiccating, self-dissecting, their guts are full of unspooled plastic like smashed tape cassettes you used to see at the edge of any highway or in the median strip, tangled in the weeds.

9.

That’s occult pedagogy: dead media, desiccation, dead forms, the stomach stuffed with its undoing, unspooled stitches, no Fate here, no neat cuts or breaks, only tearing, only involuted with unnatural, synthetic weed. (Involution: to fly inside. To fly inside one’s own gut.) In the weeds, the matted feathers. The inside-out bird. [Art]makes the inside the outside and the outside the inside—AW. It weeds, it photodegrades, it inverts like a Moebius strip, it flutters like a broken Moebius strip, or a scrambled credit card strip, or an unspooled cassette tape, it only spends, is spent, distends, it stretches its message out beyond reading.

10.

They changed their throats and had the throats of birds–Yts., reporting from Dis, the land of the Dead. From the deadlevel, the kill-off-zone. The dead fed not on pomegranate seeds but on plastic, offgassing in the guts, into the Universe, draining, fluid on the brain, the souped-up milk of Paradise. And you don’t stop!–Grndmstrflsh. Makes the eye roll back and study the devastated brain, its burst levees. And you don’t stop! Goes split-beaked at the sight. Splay-walked. Spit-choked. Spine-rolled. Slit-throat. And you don’t stop! With a gutfull of media, just try to fly like a prophecy. For fifteen minutes. In fifteen minutes’ time. And you don’t stop! In eight minutes, light stops traveling from the sun to the brain. The eye of the sky rolls up. You break up in the sea, but you don’t stop shedding virus from your black box, out-of-synch, in prophecy, in realtime, your dead technology, stuttering, to be read, maybe, by lightbearing bacteria in the mouths of bottom feeders.  Bacteria: the next Olympus, the next Sublime. Of which you are the prophet, or the carbonfeed, the live feed, the dead feed, you beat-box. You smashedup deadmediaplaybackdevice.

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