by Nihira Ram
Normative conceptions of time segment in seemingly the uncomplicated sections of ‘past,’ ‘present,’ and ‘future.’ Ted Rees’ In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame attempts to collapse these categories into the tangled non-whole that they are.
Central to this collapse is capital and the different formations of violence through which it maintains itself. Rees’ work evokes vivid sensations, particularly during the moments in which it deconstructs spatial time. He navigates through the futility of speaking about an intelligible colonial ‘past’ as if the present is not rooted firmly within it. It isn’t hyperbolic to state that for Yosemite to be a National Park today, the Ahwahneechee people continue to be forcibly displaced. The past and present continue to collapse into one specifically when reading about the reconstructed Ahwahnechee village inside Yosemite National Park.
The Park’s website claims that “the village is still actively used by members of the local American Indian community for ceremonies” but fails to mention the four-decade-long struggle undertaken by a few Ahwahnechee elders which culminated in them receiving a mere 30 year permit for a village reduced to ashes in the 1960s by the park service itself. In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame is a series of moments that explicates how alienation is reproduced through the logic of capital.
“… Go to trackside, go to the rez beyond blackjack,
go to Ghosttown west or Ghosttown east, go to north Yuma, figure
Sandtown, or most of the town surrounding Hamtramck, go anywhere.
Just don’t attempt to track a buffalo, or navigate by the heavens,
or cup your hands in any streambeds.”
This caustic precaution to not track buffalo is a recalling of actions committed by white settlers who hunted buffalo to near extinction in the Great Plains in order to establish dominance over indigenous populations in the region. Throughout the book, especially in the latter half, Rees brings into focus David Wojnarowicz, a radical New York artist who, having contracted HIV during the AIDS crisis, famously called for his body to be dropped in front of the White House. These histories are tangled up in the today that, for Rees, cannot be embroiled in the hope of reproducing some form of futurity — even if it is framed as a revolutionary departure from a somehow neatly separate ‘past.’ Of the piers in Manhattan, he asks in the present,
“What is to be made of these abandoned hulls, these defunct machines?”
He does not propose an answer. Instead, he mentions how these spaces played an integral role in the sexual lives of Wojnarowicz and other gay men who lived in the area around the 1970s and the early 1980s. In the same passage, he diminishes the harsh lines drawn through time by marking the once operational past of the machines with the bodily presence of gay men having sex around them. He explicitly calls in to question the notion of ‘progress’ by understanding these machines as waste and destruction. Here, progress is inextricably tied to the hierarchical reproduction of society. Time is seen as a singular stretch of space which encloses a certain set of inevitable happenings.
In 1850, Grahamstown Journal, a publication based in England quoted a British House of Commons speaker who stated that “civilization will be enough” to further British colonialism in South Africa. Zine Magubane, in her book Bringing the Empire Home: Race, Class, and Gender in Britain and Colonial South Africa, elaborates on this and notes that “[the] English portrayed war, conquest, and dispossession as being less about the scramble for territory and profit than about natural and inevitable biological processes” (141).
The linear movement of progress isn’t something to be aspired towards but rather something to be halted. Walter Benjamin disorients revolution as “an act by which the human race travelling in [a] train applies the emergency brake” (402). Benjamin still seeks utopia, Rees sees bodies floating in the Hudson. He corrugates textures typically named ‘nature’ by showing how “there is no isolated wilderness or isolated man-made ecosystem” (Rees, 6) but provides no utopic sense of what is to come. Irish anarchist poet Lola Ridge writes in her poem “TIME-STONE:”
“But I’d rather… like the cats in the alley…
By the silver whistle of a moonbeam
Falling between my stoop-shouldered walls,
Then all your tally of the sunsets,
Metropolitan, ticking among stars.”
Ridge also sees dead bodies — on Wall Street. Rees asserts that an anti-future is not antipathetic to love. In his following statement is a question that must be asked of any revolutionary project which posits itself as inevitably leading to a better future.
“Caring deeply for another person is not dependent on banalities such as society”
It is no coincidence that the modern clock was standardized for utmost ‘accuracy’ during the Industrial Revolution. What does it mean, then, to count time with sunsets and moonbeams? To disrupt being in the hold of progress and create impossibilities for a future to take hold? Ted Rees is as enrapturing as it is enraging and raises as many problems as he doesn’t solve. It unwraps the repetition of disaster. It stops. To read In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame once isn’t enough. To read it in sequence isn’t enough. Remembering the past isn’t enough. Being in the present isn’t enough. Hoping isn’t enough. Measurement simply isn’t enough. Reading it prods the messiness laden within and around us. It feels like directionless openings. It feels.
Originally from Bombay (India), Nihira is currently pursuing Media Studies at The New School. She enjoys reading poetry which remains tender even while honing in on the complex realities that surround us.