While Standing in Line for Death by CAConrad (Wave Books, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem
each time I drink water dropped from clouds
water they burned out of your body I cup my
hands to catch you
(from “Sharking the Birdcage”)
“(Soma)tic poetry rituals provide a window into the creative viability of everything around us, initiating an extreme present” says CAConrad in “Hall of the Decommissioned Pantheon,” one of eighteen rituals included in his latest book from Wave, While Standing in Line for Death. Conrad later states in the final ritual of the book, “Cremation Cocktail,” that “Poetry is a window into the magic of this world that never once asked me to apologize.” The unapologetic and the extreme present are married fulfillments discoverable again and again in this marvelous next chapter of the Philadelphian. The works are as extensible from all previous works, as they are wholly original, blossoming beings unto themselves.
When I first uncovered Conrad’s work, circa 2008, I was blown away, soul torn open and inspected, by (Soma)tic Midge, where the poet’s rituals were seeing their early iterations, their exposure to the public sunlight of publication. Much younger then, though open, though fetishizing everything I read quite distinctly, I found the poems and their origins hypnotizing and emphatically available. A certain lustful poetics bloomed then, and that urge, that viscera, continues to wind and unwind through Conrad’s canon. And yet here, a decade later, the poems and their greater accessibility, along with greater consequences, move beyond the romanticized present. These are, as they always have been, serious poems, and yet in this book they are clearly so. The political and equitable focus over themes is spelled out in Conrad’s current work, arguably a close movement forward from the relatively-recent ECODEVIANCE (also published by Wave Books, in 2014).
WE MUST INSIST that a redistribution of wealth always include The Love. How can we be there for one another? How can we be assured that everyone gets The Love?
(from “Power Sissy Intervention #1: Queer Bubbles”)
Part of what makes social change so dominant and so well-portrayed in While Standing, I think, is the greater sense of distance and space covered by Conrad here. Following numerous opportunities, rightfully earned, to be positioned throughout and beyond the American continent, we have a greater range of geographical (and, more importantly, geological) understanding of how the (soma)tic poetry can and should operate. It is not longer restricted to a specific chapter of a specific life (Conrad in the 90s and early 2000s) but has continued to operate and, delightfully, moved around the world. This is a universal poetics that by being so is even more captivating, filled with bravado, and powerfully acontextual—meaning, while context is incredibly important for the poems, can and should be adapted by the book’s readers throughout time and space. Conrad’s own testament to his Book of Frank being translated into multiple languages, and the many spot-lit moments in his ongoing, amazing life as a poet, reveal that adaptation has always been desirable. Now we have even more rituals giving birth to more poems spreading across landscapes and into communities, locales, and states of being. As such, While Standing is almost a magical realism of itself. It is a close continuation and depicts what has come, but in an elevated, almost unreal manner. It is the adornment representative of the ongoing beauty, with all of its capacities, all of its senses of the incredible and unbelievable.
in the breakable city / I want me hunger with / me after life / we are all / creatures of appetite
(from “Power Sissy Intervention #2: Apostle Paul Suppositories”)
Poems find homes in suspected and surprising locations. From a street corner in Asheville to a field in Kansas to a park in Seattle to a dive in Philadelphia, the imagery is exposing. Los Angeles. Singapore. Marfa. The Chihuahuan Desert. MoMA in New York. The (soma)tic translates across space, and time. Indeed, despite the ecstasy of a presence and intimacy found from place to place, people to people, there is a subtle and beautiful understanding of time here as well. The book opens with Conrad’s ritual “Mount Monadnock Transmissions,” the third he has created for his boyfriend, Earth, who was murdered by bigots in Tennessee.
The power runs like a vein dripping blood of this beautiful and harrowing history through each ritual to follow, landing on the book’s closing ritual, for Jonathan Williams, a beloved friend and mentor to Conrad. Life and death, revisited through the present, become beacons of time, markers that allow the poems to live with their own beating hearts. Rounded out by rituals conducted with friends in mind, from Fred Moten to Ariana Reines to TC Tolbert, the book exhibits a liveliness serving as tribute to the self and to all those powerfully present in Conrad’s life. There is, of course, due sets of anger, remorse, and disease, but the book is greatly harnessing love and awe. Much like his other collections of rituals, Conrad’s work in While Standing is one that pushes toward the most positive qualities of being and being fully.
another kind of happiness / hold still brother squirrel tiny piece / of sunlight to lick off your face
(from “Dear TC Tolbert as Long as We Live We Win”)
For those unfamiliar with Conrad’s (soma)tic rituals, there is no way to give them justice in a written response like this one. You must read them yourself and get the fullest out of them that you can. They are transformative and intentionally so: they are gifts that extend beyond Conrad’s own, uniquely personal transformations and are ready to be intercepted by most who are open to them. They involve the sensory, the temporal, and the intimate. They involve a great sense of wakefulness and a powerful demand for verisimilitude. They are as rooted in the earth as they are floating across the sky. They involve swallowing crystals, conducting reiki, smoking the physical representations of your nemesis, creating “queer bubbles” to give to children, and communing with the non-human beings of this world. These are to name a few, and I do feel guilty rattling concepts off like this, and so I say: go read the book. Go discover these moments.
As with Conrad’s opening poem on his boyfriend, Earth, there is much in this book that serves as tribute and retribution. As an extension of Conrad’s own background, this book directly explores equity through the minds of many within the LGBTQ community. It is a book that is both about and for those who have suffered. Like much of Conrad’s writing, through loss and harm this book exists. Through love and kindness and education towards those who have caused the loss and the harm, this book exists. This book erupts into a space needed by those who have been oppressed and identifies and responds to those who oppress. My own cisgender white background found its moments of quaking and the rupturing and exposure to my own privileges as I explored Conrad’s world, and the worlds of those within and beyond the literary realms he has chosen to include in his book, write about, understand. Again, the book is a gift: but it is a gift for many different reasons, for many different types of people, and so it is a fantastic and powerful book.
unfastened / in the backseat a / portion of our music is / mucus flying into stillness / at what point do we submit / to the authority of flowers
(from “Leave Something Quiet in Shell of My Ear”)
Much of the fantastical and the power that holds this book together is visibly present through Conrad’s poetry written through his rituals. The rituals, which are fully described, lead into their resulting poems, which Conrad provides in view directly after the ritual. These poems are often staggered in line and thought, resembling many of the poets Conrad has expressed admiration toward over the years: Jack Spicer and Jonathan Williams, to name a few. The poems contain elements of the concrete, sprawled like amorphous objects across the page. They flutter like reeds in a wetland, splay open like gemstones on a rough floor. The poems contain language that is eaten up, digested, and propped within their stanza like gleaning results of process. There is often a harmony within them, and a dependable personal distance to them as well. They are from within the moment-to-moment of Conrad’s exercises and conductions. They are thorough investigations mesmerizing, mystical, and of the potential of the performed and the sustained, and the humbly cherished. They are, again, gifts.
What happens with the future work of CAConrad is what is happening in the present work. As his blog indicates, there is a significant continuation of content seismically integrated into his life. The demonstrated commitment will arouse new ideas, new connections, and new commitments for his craft and his personal journey. It is an exciting privilege to be able to watch from afar, and be substantially informed by, as Conrad continues to move forward, weaving in and out, the many lines of life and the many lines of death within the spectrum of the beautiful and the ugly of our collective world.
lost in a pile of
needles and spools
the only trees in this
desert are books
(from “Home.3” in Width of a Witch)