Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Paul Vogel, Ecology Center (2021) & Art Museum (2022)

Paul Vogel is a Milwaukee-based poet who was once a student of James Liddy at UWM and has published with the illustrious presses Adjunct Press and Tepichfresser Press.  (Disclosure, not that I think it matters either way: I’ve also published with Adjunct Press and possibly Tepichfresser [via Burdock].)  Milwaukee seems to have a much more flourishing poetry scene than most other American cities, and it was through Liddy that I met (and still keep in touch with) the Milwaukee poets.

These latest offerings from Vogel are two self-contained long-ish poems (5-6 pp. each) in chapbook form (from an adjunct of Adjunct Press, Associate Adjunct Press), both in a way of a piece with each other in regard to style and intent.  The first, Ecology Center, opens with lush imagery and the imperatives to “hear” and “smell,” suggesting for a brief moment that this will be a rather standard celebration of oneness with nature, “Let it permeate the skin.”  Vogel’s poetry, most saliently in the earlier stanzas, makes deft use of internal rhyme (“surface inversion,” “observe”), assonance (“quackgrass / inaccessible”), and alliteration.

Very quickly, however, after being lured in by the seemingly straight if gorgeous description of the natural world, we are given to know that not everything is what it seems.  It is an Ecology Center, after all; there are “viewin’ windows,” and the turtles have silly names.  By p. 3, we learn that the point is “to inspire STEM curiosity,” and from there the nightmarish situation of late capitalism becomes inescapable.  Even the “ecoacoustics” are “harmonized,” while the Visitor Center museum features bizarre things like “fossilized labia” and an axe-throwing bar.

Vogel renders the exaggerated artificiality of the place effectively, with curated activities and an ironic reference to UWM faculty poet John Koethe.  The reader is caught in a horrific celebration of “Armed Forces Day” (which is actually a real, official holiday, which makes it all the more conspicuous, i.e. didn’t we already have Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day to commemorate the military?) near an “RV Dump Station.”  Finally, the nature images iterated at the beginning of the poem return to engulf all: “A solitary wave over the spine of the peninsula / brings an annulus of spray.”  What peninsula?  Does Lake Michigan have such giant waves?  Yes it does, and, in any case, it is a commentary; the poet wishes all of this could be washed away.  What is “this”?  A situation where even nature is cynically invoked in the project of cognitive, psychological, and political regulation.  It is a cuttingly satirical form of ecopoetics, which Vogel handles strikingly.

He does something similar in Art Museum, where once again the setting is a self-contained institution that purports to give us something beyond capitalist use-value but, as it turns out, is nothing but further exploitation.  In this poem, things are noticeably strange from the start, surreal in the sense that it seems to be rendering a dream world and imagery, with a dream-like narrative unfolding of events.  The museum is the real Milwaukee Art Museum (it has wings!), but exaggerated with a foreboding sci-fi vibe: a crowd enters “in an orderly fashion / watched over by muscular docents / armed with thermal handguns.”

There are variously described strange exhibits and a museum café limned in an almost pedestrian manner.  Here the real is just as awful in its blunt pedestrianism as any heightened surrealism could make it: “an ever-changing menu / of contemporary cuisine / inspired by the feature exhibition / ‘Nature and the American Vision’”—which connects us back to Ecology Center. The “American Vision” indeed.

As with the former piece, Art Museum is a critique of neoliberal capitalism, where everything is acceleratingly coopted and exploited, even that which at one time may have to some degree resisted such (art and nature, though of course art has always often in some way been embroiled with the market — but here it’s worse).  Not only that, but the museum has “Visiting artists [who] promote / updated cultural hierarchies”; that is, even the artists themselves have now bought in/sold out and embrace the hierarchy the art museum represents as a means of advancing in their careers.  Poets do it too, of course.  But I think what Vogel and his association with Adjunct Press are registering is that there is also an underclass of poets (perhaps an “undercommons,” to use Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s term, though I deploy it tentatively), who often sell our labor to academia on a contingent and low-wage basis (adjunct) and who publish in the small press (Adjunct) on the extreme margins of the culture industry.

As Art Museum moves to its conclusion, the earlier surrealist style is no longer necessary, as once again, we are in a consumerist, accelerationist, neoliberal nightmare that would be surreal unto itself if it were not all too real.  The gift shop (a motif in both poems) here sells artist-themed wallets and money-clips, as Vogel urges the reader, wryly, to “Make sure to ask about / the membership discount.”  Sadly, we are all already members whether we wish to be or not, and these poems offer no easy answers to that situation.  Instead, Vogel attempts a response in art that stands, if not completely separately from the capitalism it critiques (how could it really), as at least the desire to escape from it, registering the concomitant revulsion and alienation through images of almost humorous disgust, with a poetic voice that functions like the aforementioned annulus of spray.

Here’s the capitalist part.  Order from: https://www.paypal.com/instantcommerce/checkout/X5WTLVXNGGVJ8

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