Rob Halpern's 'Common Place' is uncommonly affecting

Tuesday, September 22, 2015 - 1:48pm

“‘Somatics’ might be no more than a placeholder for this desire to return the body to social/aesthetic practice where it seems to have disappeared despite its apparent self-evidence,” said Rob Halpern, poet and professor of English at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, in an interview with the Poetry Foundation.

On Saturday, Halpern read selections from his most recent book,Common Place,” at Literati Bookstore. As Halpern’s performance reminded the audience, a reading is not an audiobook. His legs jerked and rubbed up against one another, and he rubbed his palms over his neck and closely-cut hair. Never interrupting the measured calm of his voice, this juxtaposition presented an image of the tensions between bodies and texts that define Halpern’s work. If the body is at the center of Halpern’s poetic and political practice, then his readings are no exception.

“I’m interested in the way an intractable body – a body resistant to social apparatuses that would harness it to ends not its own – nevertheless gets caught up in processes of militarization that often escape perception, despite those processes having shaped our environments,” Halpern said in the above interview.

“Common Place” begins with Halpern’s decision to transcribe the autopsy reports of a Yemeni civilian detainee at Guantanamo Bay who allegedly committed suicide in 2009. Transcription was, for Halpern, a means for bodily contact with this detainee – ”my detainee,” he calls him. The contradiction is that an autopsy report is clinical, abstract, depersonalizing. The only material trace of this detainee’s body, whose redacted name haunts the report and “Common Place” alike, the only thing that records his personhood, is a report that by nature depersonalizes him, renders him a coroner’s infographic after he has died.

“How is it that we can feel the relation that we all have with, in this case, a detainee, when that relation, even at the level of representation, has been entirely occulted and withdrawn from public circulation?” Halpern said in an interview with the Michigan Daily.

Halpern’s “reaching” for this relation produces an ethical impossibility. In “Common Place,” Halpern describes having wet dreams, fantasies and masturbating to the post-mortem report. By “inducing hypnotic states” while transcribing in order to let the report pervade his unconscious, its language begins to manifest in his fantasies.

“Can I even call it pleasure when every phrase dissociates flesh and world, and sensation hands on its total separation from the thing arousing this image of it?,” Halpern says in the “Hoc Est Corpus” section of “Common Place.”

“For me, it was meant to open up a space for a utopian imaginary,” Halpern said. “We can’t metabolize any utopian vision without reckoning with that vision, the geopolitical stakes of the camp.”

In her review of “Common Place,” poet Dodie Bellamy asks, “Is this text merely another white colonization of the suffering of a subaltern other?” We’re right to wonder with Bellamy and Halpern, as the book grapples with precisely this ethical impasse, how can this be the basis for a “utopian vision?”

At the reading, Halpern opened the event by invoking all the imperialist, gendered, racialized and militarized violence all over the world that we in the room stand complicit with. Halpern called it in our interview a “wall,” an “obstacle,” this problem of bodily relation to detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

One of Halpern’s themes is the phrase “hocus-pocus,” which a citation, “Rambles Among Words” (1859) by William Swinton, hypothesizes to be a corruption of “Hoc est corpus.” This derives from the Eucharist in Catholic liturgy, which announces the Body of Christ. It is Halpern’s incredibly intelligent, visceral and ethically impossible project to perform this kind of perverted Eucharist, to forge a bodily relation with the victims of US imperialism through an “erotic register.”

“Common Place” is essential reading, difficult, but exceptional. It leaves you trembling with guilt and fear and self-consciousness and an imperative to think through the relation your body has with persecuted and incarcerated bodies and, ultimately, whether that relation can be mobilized toward the collective attempt to make life livable.