Declarative Nets: On Listen My Friend; This Is the Dream I Dreamed Last Night by Cody-Rose Clevidence
Listen My Friend; This Is the Dream I Dreamed Last Night. Cody-Rose Clevidence. New York: The Song Cave, 2021. 140 pages.
The title of Cody-Rose Clevidence’s third book, Listen My Friend, This Is the Dream I Dreamed Last Night, is taken from The Epic of Gilgamesh. Most memorably for me (and perhaps for Clevidence too) is Enkidu’s recounting of his visionary dreams to Gilgamesh: “There is the house whose people sit in darkness; dust is their food and clay their meat. They are clothed like birds with wings for covering, they see no light, they sit in darkness. I entered the house of dust and I saw the kings of the earth, their crowns put away forever . . .” Enkidu reveals the unseen, brings dreams into speech, recalls the dead. Enkidu, like Clevidence, bears witness.
The witness that Clevidence bears is ultimately expressed in the form of a catalog, a long single block of text. Listen attempts to answer a question that the poet poses late in the book. They ask, “how did we get here [?]” Observe the bracketed question mark. Nearly every expression in this book is declarative. Even when the sentence is interrogative, the question posed in that sentence is usually treated as a declaration. The book’s declarative web works like a net cast to catch the world itself; it’s definitional, like Plato’s net for the sophist. How did we get here? It’s categorical, a net, a map for knowing: “someone is handing something to someone, someone is holding a baby that is crying and someone else is sleeping with a sleeping baby . . . and many people are crying and many people are passing information to each other in networks of care and many people are trapped.” Each statement is another thread, like a line of latitude or of longitude. Each is a way of knowing where one is, who they are, where they are going and where they have been. It’s a mode of capture or entanglement or interconnectivity. For example, Clevidence writes, “I remember lying on the ballast of the train tracks at night in Canada with my partner at the time and listing all of our friends, and where they were, and wondering what they were doing, as if we could feel lines stretching out across the curved surface of the earth to them, as if we could place them there in their little spheres of places and hold them there, like that.” Each sentence in this book, then, each declaration, is a thread in a net that holds together the world. Each declaration is an attempt to capture something too slippery to be ever caught: the really, really there.
In a circular way, for the observing self, a principal feature of the world, it seems, is the self that observes. The book’s speaker, in other words, is looking to know the world and can only know by way of a self that is in the world. Here, they build a book of declarations, of facts, quotations, minutiae. The speaker discusses the self in parts—their history, family—and this mingling suggests a push for context. What are we in relation to what is? In nature? History? Culture? The political? Or, “how far are you from the people you love, or who love you. who do you miss. what does it mean to be a family, to have a family, if that is something that you have or are. I think of a video I saw of a man who worked in the sulfur mines . . . the poisonousness of that for a body. . . . what percentage of people in this country won’t make their bill payments this month . . . when I miss my dad I email his friend Carol . . . ” Clevidence jumps from point to point, laying lines that draw those points together. But, in the end, we aren’t really left with a sum. Instead, we are left with remnants as the only means of knowing: maps, signs, distributions. How did we get here? Moving through this field of information is rather like scrolling through an undifferentiated feed. It’s like Twitter or Instagram. It’s curated and random and pretending at everything, suggesting totality.
This effect is borne out in a somewhat uncanny way as the events of the past two years are described in moments throughout. The George Floyd protests, police murder after police murder, the pandemic. And, like social media or other Internet aggregations, these events stay together in their placement on a common horizontal that includes so much else. Think about your experiences in these online spaces, where the critical and the immaterial, where anecdote and memory, where quotations from this or that text, where political speech and video, where humorous or disgusting images, where all of it lives together crownless.
In Clevidence’s book, this wild intermingling of information has an odd effect of reorienting the reader toward the curator. The book resembles the poet’s shadow. The speaker is what is caught in the net. But that speaker remains unfixed and relational, a mirror facing another mirror. Much of the book is dedicated to a kind of investigation of the self as biology. Are we “just meat”? An old anxiety, to be sure. What are we? Just the material that composes us? What or where is the self that is external to the extensive world? No answer is forthcoming; the self appears to be what wriggles out of the net. Perhaps that self was illusory, or perhaps a transcendent immaterial self is just that, immaterial. It’s holographic, a play of light like Pepper’s ghost, or always just out of sight.
Slipperiness is not reserved for the self. Clevidence also suggests the difficulty of knowing anything at all. Significant portions of the book underline how time delocalizes things. Makes them slippery. Knowing a thing as a thing is convoluted by that thing’s place in time. The “things” in question here, for the most part, are biological (species, bodies) and architectural or geographic (cities, places) For example, they write, “every species living now is only a brief lens in time of where it has been, and the now is also a question of choosing direction or being directed towards where each species goes from here.” Or, “I zoom in on Google Maps and get chills to find ‘Jericho’ right there, in the place it has always been . . . and try to think of time as continuous . . .” Clevidence reorients us to recall that stories, like things or bodies or places, are taking “place in space, through time.” The net we cast around a thing can never actually catch it because that net is only catching the thing as it currently is, failing to capture the things that were and the things that will be. Categories break down, and “each thing implies a whole history of other things.” Our net gets tangled in another endless series of nets.
There’s a sadness and longing and a pessimism in this book. Burning libraries and infanticide are like choral rounds. They come up over and over again. Knowing works for state violence (“most social structures of any peoples determine who can move where, along what trajectory”), and everything dissolves. Dissolution is, perhaps, the book’s big worry. What can we hang on to? And what can we do but feel overwhelming sorrow in the face of all of this suffering: “I’m sorry. I don’t really know how anyone bears anything.”
What then is the point? Why continue? There’s an explicit, hard core of antinatalism in this book, to which I am sympathetic. I understand. I have a kid. It’s terrifying. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know how anyone bears anything either. What the fuck. What can we ever know or have? What comfort? With what are we left? For Clevidence, it is correspondence that remains. It’s togetherness, experience, touch. Love? Yes, love. And blessing, as they indicate late in the book: “I hope you have friends that love you, and who you love, and people you can call, maybe your children, who will bring you soup or plumbing parts, or gas, or little pretty things, or reach out across great distance . . .” This, the bridging of distance, is the worry and hope in this book. It’s what language and literature can do for us, what families do, what biology manages in its wordless way. It’s knowing that we are all striding across this time as selves. Brief dissolving animations. We share ourselves with others: “does it help to know that every feeling you feel or have felt is a shared feeling that other humans have felt and figured out how to express in different ways as long as there has ever been humans . . .” Yes, it does.