The Poetry Project

In Memoriam: Sean Bonney, 1969-2019

Ted Rees

  1. In 2012, a teargas grenade exploded at my feet as I was crouching behind a line of fellow protestors' homemade shields. The force of the explosion blew off my respirator, and I got a full cloud of CS gas in my face. Combined with the canister's percussive quality, I was incapacitated, and stumbled unseeing toward what felt like the distant edges of the street's skirmishes, where two medics doused me with Maalox and made me sit down in a strip of grass. Eventually, after a long, slow walk toward the revised protest location during which I regained my senses, I found my people and we continued with the day's actions.

  2. Since Sean Bonney's tragic passing last month, I have been thinking a lot about my experiences with teargas, how the event above in particular solidified something in the core of my being that is difficult to describe in any adequate manner. In a poem titled "What Teargas is For," from his most recent book, Our Death (Commune Editions, 2019), Bonney writes of the absolute horror of the pain that the gas arranges in the unlucky recipient's senses, but also notes that "in the center of that pain is a small and silent point of absolute Unknowing. It is that Unknowing that the cops. . . call knowledge. They want it." Was what was solidified in me in 2012 a sense of this Unknowing? I am not certain. Bonney writes that "any epileptic or voyant or drug addict could tell you what it is. It's there in Blake. . . It answers no questions." The Unknowing is no snitch, of course. But what is this kernel? Maybe a sense of the divine, of ecstasy? Doesn't seem right, exactly.

  3. Perhaps an answer can be found in Bonney's "Further Notes on Militant Poetics," where he writes of Amiri Baraka's suggestion that "the limitation to five senses was produced by capitalist alienation, and that there may be infinite senses, reaching backward and forward into time 'in modes, forms and directions that we do not even know exist.'" For Bonney, if teargas is the "absolute regulation and administration" of all the senses, then the "logical derangement" of these senses, of all the senses that Baraka's suggestion brings toward possibility, is part of what forms a militant poetics— against teargas, against administration and regulation, against inherited sensibilities built with stolen materials. But there is also the term that Bonney borrows from Joseph Jarman, the "non-cognitive," and I believe that it is this term that can give the living some insight into what Bonney might mean by his "small and silent point of absolute Unknowing."

  4. What was solidified in me the day that the CS grenade blew up in my face was a sense that the pigs and their government and corporate masters might be able to arrange us, lay us flat with weapons both "less-than" and very lethal, but that the "spots for treason," as Jarman would have it, remain. These inner areas where a sense of what Jarman terms "non-cognitive/ doom" abides seem to be possible loci for Bonney's "Unknowing." They want it, but they cannot fathom it, so it remains outside their bloody maw. This might be why Bonney was what his friend and comrade Jacob Bard-Rosenberg termed an "untimely symbolist," utilizing the potentiality of symbols such as mouths, ravens, wires, and bombs to take his readers back to what Bard-Rosenberg terms "some no place," the Unknowing that inheres in the "heritage of our own destruction."

  5. The question, then, is what do we do with this inexhaustible, unspeakable, unknowable, extrasensory? Well, there's poetry. There's also revolution. Bonney writes in his "Further Notes" that "the revolution doesn’t become poetic, poetry becomes revolutionary," but only by virtue of its willing collectivity with other disciplines.

  6. We lost a great poet, scholar, revolutionary, and friend when Sean passed. I just hope that we heed his lament that we have lost our lives "in the mouths of our enemies," and instead relish the power and furious energy that might come when we meditate and focus our lives further on these points of "Unknowing," these "spots for treason," all while continuing to sharpen our knives.

#260 — Feb/March/April 2020