As we enter the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be pleasant to report that Jean Day’s latest collection, Late Human (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021), provides a gleam of encouragement and inspiration. Not so. Many-voiced, witty, and mercurially shifting, these poems offer a consistently wry, linguistically lively, but ultimately gloomy picture of our own moment of lateness. These nine medium-length poems were likely written before the lockdown imposed a sense of isolation throughout the world, but their vistas of uncertainty ring even truer in the present moment.
The book’s cover image (artist Cate White’s “The Traverse of Man,” 2012) recalls evolutionary charts that might hang in a high school biology classroom, where the knuckle-walking primate at the far left gives way to a crouching Australopithecus and an upright Neanderthal, leading up to the confidently striding Homo Sapiens. But in this account the latest human — poised, on the cover, to step tentatively forward — is anything but confident.
There’s an air of lateness about these poems, a sense of having arrived at a moment when nothing feels quite right, a time characterized by a sense of disorientation or disquiet. One name for that feeling might be simply “middle age.” David Byrne asks in the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime,” “How did I get here?” Day captures something of that mood in her observations of the quotidian, but alienating, particulars of contemporary bourgeoise life — for instance, “How little we know / about the soup that is served / at the daycare center” and “We alight from our wagons / warm kids in tow.”
Day’s poetry, however, is anything but quotidian. Her sentences shift every couple of lines, her observations, ruminations, jokes, quips, and exclamations splintering off one another in directions that are sometimes frenetic, often quietly ironic, but never predictable: “Hasters gotta haste. / You wouldn’t say you wouldn’t stay // but swallowing the hay- / seed became too difficult.” It’s hard to pin down — if anyone wants to do so — who’s talking at any given time. Does the poem speak for its author? Her class? Her race, her gender, her generation, or some other social group or demographic? For humanity in general? (Each of these, I’d guess, at one point or another.)
In its obliquity, its resistance to paraphrasing, and its general orneriness, these poems display Day’s affiliation with the Language Poets, whose critique of the personal poems that dominated MFA programs back in the 1980s seemed at the time to herald a radical break in American poetry conventions. At one point in Late Human, she quotes Robert Grenier’s proclamation “I HATE SPEECH” in his 1971 essay “On Speech,” a touchstone moment for Language Poetry. Day writes:
but I don’t hate speech just its bloody show of fits when the going gets ecstatic or rough
I take that as a rejection of the sublime or over-emotive in poetry, but it’s phrased as an offhand remark rather than the kind of aesthetic manifesto the Language Poets seemed to turn out on a bimonthly basis back in the day. The time for manifestos, aesthetic or political, has passed; it’s late, and we’ve realized that,
we weren’t Revolutionaries After all But shit For brains following the line Of any symptom As parents of birds Who do as they please Eager as beans Over hill and dale Following the bell As I said the line Of any symptom Connects the dots Of which you alone are author
“Shit for brains” seems a somewhat harsh take on the speaker’s earlier self, but the notion of “Connect[ing] the dots / of which you alone are author” is much in line with Language Poets’ equal emphasis on the reader’s interpretation and the poet’s intentions. Readers were free to make connections that brought meaning to the poem, and that freedom was somehow liberatory. But when hasn’t that been the case with poetry? And where has that freedom gotten us?
Where the Language Poets differed from earlier poetic avant-gardes was in their insistence that their formal and syntactical dislocations had political implications — that the poets were, in short, revolutionaries. Alas, they turned out merely to be artists, perhaps even poetry “classics”:
And sooner or later we return to the working dream the alpha talk of beta waving because we had to flee political arithmetic and did so becoming “classic” in the end our beautiful poverty its square feet and features all original art left as instruction for our successors to cash instanter
Late Human begins with a line from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1939 comedy Ninotchka. The grim Soviet agent Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) is being chatted up by the flirty aristocrat Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas). When she calls him out as the “arrogant male in capitalist society,” he exclaims, “I love Russians! Comrade, I’ve been fascinated by your five-year plan for the last 15 years.” She replies icily, “Your type will soon be extinct.” That last sentence is Day’s epigraph. Is it a prophecy for the “human” in general, or merely its latest version, Leon’s triumphant capitalist? (Ninotchka, we may recall, ends the film in Leon’s arms, an émigré to the capitalist west.)
And then there’s the ambiguity of the word “late.” Is Day referring to the final stretch of humanity? Or merely the most recent (as in “of late”)? Her title clearly evokes Ernest Mandel’s classic 1972 study of Marxist economics, Late Capitalism (Der Spätkapitalismus), which she quotes: “We are at present in a long wave / of stagnation” — adding her own metaphor — “struggling at a dress / For which we are too small.” Mandel’s late capitalism is the stage of multinational corporations and globalism (and, in recent decades, the information economy), a period in which the commodity has colonized every last corner of culture and consciousness. But is late capitalism the final stage before the system’s internal contradictions lead to its collapse, or is it merely capital’s most recent metamorphosis — “latest capitalism”?
Either way, late capitalism or late humanity is where we — and Day’s pronouns are always ambiguous — find ourselves, whatever utopian hopes we might have cherished in our youth: “The Love Train / had no idea it would end here.” “Here,” for some of us, is a kind of hipster Brooklyn or Silicon Valley, where retro technology, like fixed-gear bikes, and artisanal baking paradoxically evoke commodity shortages behind the Iron Curtain: “Fixie-Town / where pastry queues / are perfectly soviet.” “We” are a varied lot:
These are we. Competitive, hungry, smug, unyielding. Sore, branded, motor-mouthed, abandoned People who do dishes for poor Occupiers.
On occasion Day becomes philosophical:
we toast ourselves as a species unable to fathom its limits and the fact that whatever we do is useless
At other points she evokes a kind of helpless fear at the human predicament:
The long waves are retrospective; short curves, Discoverable. Come. The terror and the terrorist Will be punctual. We said eight and it’s now quarter-to. Who Let the dogs out must return them to their mothers, For Buster has licked the chickens. Bare.
The final long poem, “Early Bird,” begins with a morning birdsong to the tune of Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites”: “I can’t go on / slaving for bread, sir / though sunup boasts / an egg in its fat / a worm in its skin.” It ends where the collection as a whole has begun, with the question of what, with all our rationality, we “late humans” have learned:
There I sit ready to go from my copybook having learned the egg costs more than the sperm or fatuous light it was laid in which about sums up (sphincter-like) the sovereignty of reason its vulgar expression by which I become (sunsuit in transit) completely incomplete or modern.