Review: Red Epic by Joshua Clover

By Patrick James Dunagan

Red Epic by Joshua CloverFew books, let alone books of poetry, arrive boasting a blurb from Entertainment Weekly while simultaneously, and aggressively, declaring the attempt to establish a Marxist lyric praxis. Joshua Clover’s Red Epic, however, does just this. Red Epic is the first of a projected series of books to be published by Commune Editions, a start-up press Clover along with fellow poets Juliana Spahr and Jasper Bernes established in partnership with leftist, anti-commercial AK Press. With a splashy plethora of bright red across its cover, there’s little misunderstanding as to the political leanings of both poet and press.

Through rigorous prose, Clover has long toiled within Marxist critical analysis but with Red Epic he brings this analysis to bear in compelling poetry. He is not turning his back on his Marxist criticism but rather attempting to broaden the reach of its argument across the span of his writing. This book is an ambitious project. With his poetic skill on display, the critic inside the poet inside the critic is frequently found arguing with himself and tearing down the very structures he would erect to advance the ideals he would have the poems stand upon and represent. As a call for revolutionary artistic practice, his book remains admirably restless in its confrontation with the seemingly antithetical nature of it all. Clover doesn’t back away from confronting the desire for a lyric that “turns to the language of value” and here he’s speaking to poets first rather than labor or the market.

In “The Transformation Problem” a poem of several sections spread over a number of pages, Clover presents a rather abridged rundown that might be fairly summed up in only partial jest as The Ups and Downs of Communism as Seen through the Lives of the Poets from the Greeks to the Reds. He freely draws upon a diverse range of international precursors, beginning with Vladimir Mayakofsky (he whom “the revolution betrayed” well “before he betrayed the revolution”) to Sappho (“the last love poet for a long time.)” He, also, ambiguously acknowledges his debt to Pound (“I like the Canto where Ezra tries to fuck a rock.”) Clover ends taking note of Stalin: “The party got older and it began to take odd jobs and grow a beard. // This beard was Stalin.” And the poet jokingly admits: “Stalin’s beard ruined it for everyone.” Clover’s handling of these poet-forerunners eschews the role of either leader or follower, offering instead a hesitant recommendation of Ovid as the poet who ultimately held to being a staunch, isolated individual observer of natural order over a political player in the scene of his time.

Two questions to be answered concerning any “political poetry” are whether or not the writing works as poetry and, if so, does it then rise above the level of mere propaganda. Clover’s work skillfully succeeds both these tests, ushering in poems sheathed primarily in beauty and/or comedy: “Some of our friends / were dating Leninists and / that was weird.” (“Questions of the Contemporary”). He frequently and playfully alludes to his favorite poets including Frank O’Hara. Such allusion can be seen in the poem “Stop it with your strategies”: “when I got to the movies to cure my boredom / I do not wish to see boredom represented, take that French film-makers.” Yet given the opportune time and place Clover would surely challenge O’Hara’s own latent Capitalist verve.

Clover is aiming for a poetry “where the endgame / of the lyric turns to the language / of value” (“Years of Analysis for a Day of Synthesis”) along the way he damns the superficiality of our contemporary culture while simultaneously expressing his fervent faith in poetry’s inherent value: “An age which no longer loves poetry has betrayed itself” (“Gilded Age”). There’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about the declaration Clover uses an epigraph, borrowed from Beat poet Diane Di Prima’s countercultural treasure Revolutionary Letters: “ask for / everything.” Clover believes only a revolution will turn “everything” over. Many a reader, however, will be left frustrated by the singularity of Clover’s individual achievement which fails to match up to the promised collective ideal. As mentioned, political poetry must succeed as poetry while presenting itself as well-grounded in arguments supporting its stance. Clover’s does and that’s a problem left unsolved. Here the political struggles to locate its place within poetry.

Red Epic
By Joshua Clover
Commune Editions (April 2015)