“Carnal”, “emetic”, “wilfully avant-garde”, “dizzying”, “onanistic”, “brave”…. These are but a few of the impressions that ended up scribbled in front of me as I read through [————]: Placeholder, a collection that cherry picks from the 2004-15 work of American poet Rob Halpern. In truth, this collection pummelled me: it pulled me all over the place, sometimes for the good, other times to a point of vexation where I was prepared to be very unfair in my critique of it. The least that can be said about [————]: Placeholder with some consistency, then, is that it is writing that pulls no punches; rather, it goes straight after the viscera.
“Cherry picking” is perhaps an unrepresentative way to characterise [————]: Placeholder. Rather, one gets the sense that it is meant to demonstrate the endurance of certain big conceptual themes in Halpern’s work. Crudely, these might be characterised as “sex”, “violence”, “the body”, and “utopia”; but, at its best, what makes Halpern’s approach intoxicating is the way he weaves these themes and presents them as emissions of something on an altogether bigger conceptual order.
This is where “[————]” comes into play. Of it, Halpern writes:
This sign [is] a placeholder for a common world, the world we radically long for but whose advent is blocked …, the world whose beauty we know in dreams and whose plenty we can taste already, the world whose realisation will makes these poems irrelevant.
What this collection is really about, on this reading, is desire tout court, specifically, what is unrepresentable in desire: that which is “blank”, “void”, or “[———–]”; that which we grope after but cannot attain; Lacan’s objet petit a.
This all makes for heady conceptual stuff, and this, I think, is both the fundamental strength and flaw of [————]: Placeholder. For me, the collection works best when its conceptual architecture is least apparent, in pieces such as “An Essay on the Siege”, “Reconciliation, Under Duress”, “Envoi”, and “Wither Porn”, the latter two of which, from 2012’s rightly celebrated Music for Porn, constitute real highlights. What makes these pieces work is their gnashing immediacy. “An Essay” is a riff on aging, shame, and homosexual longing; “Reconciliation” breaks up its building sense of rhythm with a use of spacing that is simple but almost Mallarméan in its effects; “Envoi” and “Wither Porn” really take the leash off, pushing two consistent tics of the collection (fantasying after soldiers and the fragility of the body) into depths of eloquent vulgarity.
There were other aspects of [————]: Placeholder I simply did not get. “Weak Links”, for example, the closing set of pieces, left me cold. If what I have suggested about the headiness of Halpern”s work is right, this could be an instance of it misfiring: “Weak Links” is the piece in which the sign “[———–]” is most integral, and once one has got this paradox, I’m not sure there’s much left to get, like a punchline delivered before the joke.
But perhaps the joke was on me. Upon reflection, it dawned on me that Halpern might have been playing a further conceptual trick: a “placeholder” is “an element of a sentence that is required by syntactic constraints but carries little or no semantic information”. Perhaps the reason I did not “get” “Weak Links” was simply because I wasn’t putting enough into it, not straining enough to put meaning into its syntactical blanks. On one reading, such game playing could emerge as intellectualism or obscurantism for its own sake, but reflection also made me see the presence of something ferocious and not unendearingly naïve in Halpern’s approach: a desire to play the poète maudit for our times (and, indeed, Rimbaud and Baudelaire feature allusively throughout [————]: Placeholder). If one can stand this tension between rarefied conceptual air and visceral depths, then [————]: Placeholder will be rewarding, if fiendish, reading.