W. H. Auden’s claim that “poetry makes nothing happen” sounds like a confession of impotence. But what if we take “makes nothing happen” to be a description of a poem’s power—its capacity, we might say, to conjure the various “nothings” we face: vacuums in power, expression, agency, representation, responsibility, etc.? What if a poem could make these voids visible in ways we otherwise might not see, while also showing us how to fill those gaps with rare new grammars of resistance and belonging?
These questions first emerged for me while distributing pamphlets that spliced poetry with political theory during the Oakland Commune (a.k.a. “Occupy Oakland”). I’d been reading Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s 1916 pamphlet on “sabotage,” written in the aftermath of the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike. In contrast to the typical understanding that reduces sabotage to property destruction, Flynn prefers to define it more broadly as “the conscious withdrawal of the worker’s industrial efficiency.” Sabotage, in other words, as an active effort to make nothing happen.
Once you hear sabotage defined in these terms, I’d like to think that you start imagining how you might try it yourself—a thought experiment worth engaging, if only for the sake of analyzing the structure we find ourselves in a century later. How does one “withdraw efficiency” in an economy anchored in debt? And what should we compose in its place? But caveat saboteur: as Flynn is quick to point out, sabotage is frequently indulged in by capitalists; Detroit and Flint stand as tragic urban emblems of capitalism’s readiness to “withdraw efficiency.”
The “general strike” theorized by Rosa Luxemburg is a maximal expression of sabotage as Flynn defines it: a deliberate and comprehensive negation of the status quo schedule of production and consumption. “What scares them most is / That NOTHING HAPPENS,” Anna Louise Strong writes in a poem about the Seattle General Strike of 1919. Paradoxically, workers encounter their power by removing it, indulging in a hyperbolic impotence that reveals previously obscured forces that frighten whoever it is that thinks they’re in charge. The central problem the general strike poses is how to compose the reproduction of everyday life. Once the regular routine is paused, how will the daily metabolical needs of the polis be maintained? To put this in architectural terms favored by the Industrial Workers of the World: how to build the new world in the shell of the old? Is it possible, in the course of that recomposition, to transform forms that exploit and dominate into forms that liberate and amplify equality?
A sonnet composed in what is now called Mexico in the late 1600s by a brilliant writer and renegade nun named Sor Juana Inõs de la Cruz affords some leverage here on the question of poetry’s sabotage power. “Sonnet 145” takes notable advantage of the volta or conceptual jump the sonnet has baked into its form, most typically between lines 8 and 9. This feature allows her to turn a genre readymade (by Petrarch and co.) to objectify women against itself, to withdraw the form’s standard “efficiencies,” and to thereby transform it—to compose a new space of possibility out of that resistance and rejection. Moreover, Sor Juana literally “makes nothing happen,” insofar as her sonnet ends on the word nada (“nothing”). I translated this poem right after the election in a pathetic attempt to do something with words, and to remind myself of the limits of representation. The poem’s conceit is that it refutes a flattering portrait of the poet; as the posthumous editorial note puts it: She tries to deny the compliments made by a portrait of the poet, which claims to be inscribed by truth, but which she calls out as passion.
This, you see [ pointing ], chromographic counterfeit
that ostentates art’s privilege
with fake syllogisms of color,
is calculated to mislead your senses;
this [ still pointing ], in which flattery has pretended
(a) to excise perennial horror
& (b) by vanquishing early-onset rigor mortis
to triumph over aging and obliviation,
is a vacant artifice of caution
is a flower blown delicate
is a bivouac flimsy against fate;
is a foolish diligence done wrong
is a deciduous affair, & — properly seen —
is a cadaver, is dust, is shadow, is nothing.