Closed

What will we do after all the shops close and we’ve already ordered all the stuff we need or want from Amazon? And suppose, while we’re waiting for the packages to arrive, the Amazon warehouses go on strike?

We might find some ideas by looking back at what folks did before all the shops and shopping and online browsing and waiting impatiently for packages to arrive to satisfy our needs for instant gratification – what folks back then did.

We’ve already seen how the Sears Catalog was a precursor to today’s online shopping guides. But what of before the Catalog?

We get a glimpse of development and changing attitudes, from rural all the way through gentrification, in just a few pages in Frances Spalding’s “Stevie Smith: A Biography,” and we see that many of the attitudes are not much different from those since:

“Even the advent of the railway had brought little change, for the area was protected by owners of large estates who refused to carve up their land and therefore kept the speculative builder at bay….Then in 1902 Captain J. V. Taylor of Grovelands sold large tracts of his land for development. After this more and more land came on to the market and suburbia spread.”

Once the urban growth boundary falls, shops grow:

“Already by 1906, when Stevie and her relations arrived, Green Lanes was entirely lined with shops and houses. The surrounding fields, country lanes and toll gate that gave the area its charm were steadily diminishing with the spread of bricks and mortar, pavements and private hedges.”

Long time residents expressed concerns that with “all this building a poorer class of resident would be attracted to the area. Shopkeepers in Alderman’s Hill complained about the muddy state of the road and the need for more pavements.”

Feelings of entitlement boiled over. Citizens brought vegetables to town meetings and apparently showed little restraint in tossing them at speakers whose opinions differed from their own:

“Very quickly Palmers Green developed a reputation for being one of the most snobbish of London’s outer suburbs….The political flavour of this up-and-coming residential area was already noticeably right wing….The tone of the area is reflected in the correspondence columns of the local press, where a persistent demand for better services from Southgate Urban District Council is coupled with a violent antipathy to paying for these services in increased rates.”

Yet “the building of churches helped establish the community life of the area….and played an important social role…for its church hall hosted society meetings and, during the First World War, a great many concerts, plays and bazaars in aid of charity.”

Following the establishment of churches which fulfilled certain community gathering needs, came a “first cinema.” Still, “much entertainment was home-grown; societies and clubs flourished. The area had its own branch of the Fabian Society….The issue of women’s suffrage could not be ignored.” And a “Literary Society met once a month, on the Monday nearest to the full moon.”

Where should we live and what should we live for?

“Stevie never tired of extolling the virtues of Palmers Green, a true suburb, according to her, because it is an outer suburb and not one of the inner ones which have been captured by London. In her own lifetime it grew shabby and down-at-heel and has since her death deteriorated still further. But even before its decline few could share her view: Grovelands which for Stevie was ‘a happy place even when it is raining’ is a very average park, dull and dreary in bad weather; nor did the colours of Palmers Green, with its windy shopping corners and people attached to dogs or prams, seem to her friends quiet so fresh and exquisite.”

Spalding’s book on Stevie came out in 1988. Palmers Green is still a place, more urban than in Stevie’s time or even Spalding’s of the 80s. And there is today an Amazon locker located in the area.

A certain shabbiness and “down-at-heel” sentiment might be necessary for the proper inculcation of poetic or literary values. One wants to avoid being a snob, even while snobbishness remains one of the fuels that light up literature, and even literary critics might want to avoid being snobs of any sort.

Modern Man in Search of a Sofa

It is 1985, and a corporate colleague tells me his grandfather and father had built the house he would come to grow up in just before World War II, having ordered it out of a Sears Catalog. The house was delivered as a kit, with plans, in parts, via rail to a nearby town, where it was then trucked to the lot where they put it together. Yes, “some assembly required.”

We were reading “In Search of Excellence” in the mid 80s, at all levels of the organization. But what many workers were actually in search of was a job with benefits that paid at least enough to buy a house for the fam and stuff to put in it, including sofa in the living room, pram in the entry, and car in the garage. For my part, I had recently come to realize the community college adjunct job I’d been working full time since the close of the 70s wasn’t going to produce such excellent results.

In the first half of the 20th Century, the Sears Catalog served a bit like today’s Amazon. But I searched Amazon this morning to see if I could buy a house online and have it delivered, and all I found were backyard sheds. Sears discontinued its catalog division in the early 1990s. It’s hard to stay close to the customer when the customer is constantly on the move. In any case, most corporations (and stores and shops) only affect concern for the customer; what they’re really after is a share of the customer’s wallet, or, in Amazon’s case, the whole wallet. But what happens when customers no longer pack wallets?

Or no longer want stuff, or at least, not so much stuff. Or still want some stuff, but different stuff. In other words, does Amazon sell souls? Or, as Jung put in his “Modern Man in Search of a Soul”: “No psychic value can disappear without being replaced by another of equivalent intensity” (209).

There are, it is argued, certain efficiencies that promote the use of Amazon over the emotional expense of leaving one’s safe harbor for the voyage out to the mall or downtown or the shops of Hawthorne. Why should consumers feel shame about where or how or for what they shop? In any case, it appears most feel no shame. But is that because they are driven by unconscious desires, wants that may be manipulated by elevator music, trance inducing ads, or atavistic urges to covet one’s neighbor’s goods?

I don’t know, but it often seems shoppers are led to the market like the Eloi in “The Time Machine” are pulled to the Morlocks. In return for the seemingly safe setting the Morlocks have created, the Eloi serve themselves up as food to sustain the Morlockian system.

Shops

To Hawthorne, hopping nuts with holiday shoppers, the shops overheated, crowded with festive folks wearing wet weather gear, so it felt fresh again and good to leave a shop and back out onto the sidewalk. On the corner at the Hawthorne boutique Goodwill, the usual Cannery Row characters occupying the sidewalk, sharing beer bottles noted, something craft, where the money for that, wondered, and another sign, next a panhandling hat: “Too honest to steal. Too ugly to prostitute.” Got the to too correct. Literary bunch. Probably all with English major degrees.

Distribution the problem, Buckminster Fuller said, Earth enough resources, but inefficiently distributed. And saw a news report last week where down in Los Angeles a new project encouraging grocery shops from throwing away food deemed unsaleable, systems now being created to collect and redistribute the food in a number of ways – to the homeless and hungry, to compost feed for animals, to entrepreneurial startups creating energy from the food scraps.

At the same time, reports afield of Amazon mistreating employees, robots running over their own, for example, while on TV we’ve been seeing obviously propagandistic ads showing these same employees as happy as Tiny Tim when miserly Scrooge shows up with the surprise goose.

But deep waters, this anti-Amazon sentiment. Was retail clerk ever a great job? And suppose Nordstrom or Macy’s does goes under – would that be some sort of cultural catastrophe? Suppose Amazon actually capable of solving distribution inefficiencies Earthwide: Water, Food, Shelter, Medicine, Grain, Tools. Suppose Bezos awakes from uneasy dreams some Christmas morning and converts his current medieval style dungeon warehouses into chic campuses like the ones employees currently enjoy in Silicon Valley? We should focus on problems of distribution and job satisfaction and livable wage, not on some romantic notion of brick and mortar life in shops.

Where 23 Poets Float the Amazon

In spite of globalization, there are still places around the globe that hold backpedal Relentlessmystery: kelp forests and cold seeps; K2 and Dante’s View; shopping malls and Amazon. Often, poetry provides a key to these mysteries. We might not visit these places were it not for the pull of poetry. To relent is to unfold, to let the sheep go. A river dissolves stone with patience. Like the rest of nature, poetry must swim upstream against that relentlessness.

“Relentless by Jeff Bezos” is a 29 page, electronic chapbook of 22 poems written by an assortment of poets[1]. Its primary trope is the meme of the startup, a trickle of an idea that with flash flood funding grows to a river that overflows its banks. The ideal business venture is one that makes only money, as the raw material of a river is only snow. But a poem needs more than words if it’s going to rub rocks smooth.

The poems in “Relentless by Jeff Bezos” are satirical, some with a flair for flarf, but some following traditional and referential forms. An example of a lyrical poem that alludes to a different kind of river, and a different kind of poetry, is “Jeff Bezos names Amazon,” by Leontia Flynn. Here, Langston Hughes’s lyrically serious “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” provides a bed for the new, virtual river that will subsume all industrious souls.

An example of flarf technique is illustrated by the poem “My Peculiar Geography,” by Daniel Bosch, in which selected words from a Bezos bio via Wiki are juxtaposed with excerpts from Wiki’s entry for the Amazon River. But Bosch’s poem may not be a perfect example of flarf, because it contains too much meaning.

We find varying kinds and degrees of irony: the speaker is not the author; the reader hears something the speaker does not; a poem takes an unexpected course; the speaker takes the reader by surprise. The river is at flood stage. The language is colloquial, procedural, the poems witty, the forms eclectic, open or shaped with alternative design. The poems seem primarily playful, but purposeful, but if to the proposal the solution is poetry – well, the river is awfully wide.

Both the connotative and denotative meanings of Amazon have changed course: the river as depository; Poem on layaway; “Order by…”

Some flarf may seem gratuitous in a cynical attempt to avoid what Zizek calls “the temptation of meaning.”[2] Flarf is like a heckler at a poetry reading that begins with the warning no laughter aloud allowed. It gets harder and harder to shock anyone in a river full of piranhas. In any case, what effect, for example, from an f word following Lenny Bruce or the Nixon tapes? Water over the damned.

But maybe we don’t know what flarf means. Does flarf turn poetry into theory? Theory is where we learn there is no Santa Sentence Clause. In “There Is Authority In My Frozen Frosty by Jeff Bezos,” Sharon Mesmer repurposes Christopher Smart, avoiding any appearance of conservatism. The river becomes conceptual, flowing toward some future convention.

Tom Daley, in “Advice for My Critics,” rhymes red with bed but agenda with sender in three quatrains wrapping around the theme of business as usual. But the speaker does indeed respond to his critics, and Daley’s poem seems to speak to the other poems’ speakers. It’s a satirical rebuttal. Of course the opposition would use rhyme.

What is convention in a world with one river? Globalization. It’s a perfect day for flarf fish. Where are those flarf bags? But the river is both relentless and patient, and for every stream that flows into it, another branches off, as this June 21st, 2014 Economist article titled “Relentless.com” suggests.

Everybody’s stuff flows into one river. Eiríkur Örn Nordahl in “After Vito Acconi” uses the persuasive means of all caps where click here is the content: Click here to jump in the river and get some stuff.

Track your poem. Out for delivery. These are not the poems your parents purchased.

“Relentless by Jeff Bezos” is a kind of conceptual project around a protest poem idea prompt. Is Amazon a catastrophe, like the asteroid that turned the dinos to oil, or a miracle, where water is delivered by drones to thirsty cities? If poetry is to thrive, it might want to avoid, continuing Zizek’s logic, ideology. Ideology is a river with a monstrous rip that lulls and pulls listeners under.

In Andrea Cohen’s “No End,”

Peddlers are selling
silence in an empty
house

Come out of the river and read relentlessly for free and the freedom of poetry.

[1] “Relentless by Jeff Bezos.” Version 1.0 published December 2014 by Pendant Publishing, London, UK. Ebook, 29 pages. ISBN: 978-0-9928034-4-5. FREE. Download PDF. Poems by Russell Bennetts, Daniel Bosch, Andrea Cohen, Tom Daley, Katie Degentesh, Leontia Flynn, Benjamin Friedlander, Drew Gardner, Nada Gordon, Kirsten Kaschock, Rauan Klassnik, Daisy Lafarge, DW Lichtenberg, Sharon Mesmer, Teresa K. Miller, K. Silem Mohammad, Jess Mynes, Lance Newman, R.M. O’Brien, Eirikur Örn Norŏdahl, Joseph Spece, Ken Taylor and Laura A. Warman. Multiple choice cover design: Evan Johnston.

[2] Zizek explains how ideology mystifies causality in the “Ecology” segment of Astra Taylor’s “Examined Life.”

Where Richard Rodriguez meets Bartleby, the Scrivener; or, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

“I’d prefer not,” Bartleby tells his boss. Bartleby, a scrivener, has given up, no longer reads the newspaper, has no home and lives in the law offices of his employer, staring at the wall. A scrivener was a human copy machine, a viable trade before typewriters and carbon paper and then copy machines. What explains Bartleby’s behavior? Perhaps he saw the writing on the wall, as have Richard Rodriquez and other commenters on the disappearance of newspapers.

In the November, 2009 Harpers, we find Richard Rodriguez bemoaning the demise of newspapers, a haunt frequented by journalists these days: “We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper…I do not believe the decline of newspapers has been the result solely of computer technology or of the Internet.” But critics who can’t wait to get the newspapers off their front porch ask not the reasons for its disappearance, but “so what?,” to which Rodriguez responds, “So what is lost? Only bricks and mortar. (The contemptuous reply.) Cities are bricks and mortar. Cities are bricks and mortar and bodies.” For Rodriguez, the loss of the newspaper is the loss of our city, of our very flesh and blood. “We will not read about newlyweds,” Rodriguez says: “We will not read about the death of salesmen. We will not read about prize Holsteins or new novels. We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses (Moby Dick is ‘not a really good piece of fiction’— Feb. 14, 2009, by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, Ill.—two stars out of five). ”

Bingle responded in a letter Harpers printed in their January issue, just arrived, and it is of particular interest regarding the dialog lacking in newspapers which encourages some critics to prefer their on-line evolution. Unfortunately, while Bingle does establish some ethos as a published writer (and we suspect he must have mentioned his Chicago law degree, but Harpers may have edited his letter for space?), his letter reinforces Rodriguez’s point, if that point was to explain that the Amazon reviewers are generally writing opinion, not criticism, what they want in a book, not what they find, if anything, in a book. We do need professional critics, but if Rodriguez’s point is that the Amazon reviewers are in part the cause of the disappearance of newspapers, we fail to see how an army of Amazon reviewers, of amateur readers, is a bad thing. Nick Hornby has also famously attacked the Amazon reviewers. While we agree that Bingle’s review of Moby Dick is not helpful, we don’t see amateur reading and writing as a philistine front eating away at the borders of our print culture.

Meanwhile, Paul Starr, writing in The New Republic (March 4, 2009), also recognizes the demise of the newspaper as we’ve known it is inevitable, but Starr also points out that what we’ve known did have its flaws (monopolies, excessive operating profits not always reinvested in the public good, and declining readership beginning probably with the advent of television – the history of the Los Angeles Times is revealing on monopoly and biased reporting, and its story as a reincarnated, functional newspaper, is remarkable. Still, its history may reinforce Starr’s point that newspapers perform a public good, but not by definition; they perform a public good only if they are good newspapers. Hendrik Hertzberg, in an April 23, 2001 New Yorker review, remarks that “for eighty of its hundred and twenty years…the LA Times was venal, vicious, stupid, and dull”). Starr’s piece is less impressionistic than Rodriguez’s, and his hope has to do with the public good that newspapers provide, for “As imperfect as they have been, newspapers have been the leading institutions sustaining the values of professional journalism. A financially compromised press is more likely to be ethically compromised. And while the new digital environment is more open to ‘citizen journalism’ and the free expression of opinions, it is also more open to bias, and to journalism for hire. Online there are few clear markers to distinguish blogs and other sites that are being financed to promote a viewpoint from news sites operated independently on the basis of professional rules of reporting. So the danger is not just more corruption of government and business – it is also more corruption of journalism itself.”

At that point, of course, it’s no longer journalism, but propaganda, the reporter someone’s mouthpiece. Whatever might be said of the amateur reader and writer, presumably his ears and mouth are at least his own, and while he might listen to the weatherman, he prefers not to base his opinions solely on the predictions of professionals, for he knows the outdoors, and knows other things as well, knows that all the writing, good and bad, ends up in the recycle bin, most of it unread. But we’ll give Melville the last word here, from the end of “Bartleby”:

“Bartleby had been [prior to his scrivener job] a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office…Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”

Note: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” is from Bob Dylan’s song “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” from the Bringing It All Back Home album, 1965.