The Poetry Project

Statement on Confinement Motet

Jennifer Scappettone

Pietro Cavallini, fragment of fresco picturing the Last Judgment, Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome, circa 1300

In confinement, with the lakefront of this city closed to the public, I began to visit Calvary Cemetery for the first time: during a period of terrifying medical emergencies for family far across the continent, to reconnect with the emo architecture of the nineteenth century—its guardian angels and mourning girls keeping vigil over a landscape of lament this culture has specialized in eclipsing, banishing it Napoleonically to the city’s edge—an edge where the El line, a neglected corner of Rogers Park historically known as “the Jungle,” and the Catholic immigrant dead meet. With open space scarce, reading Rilke’s elegies early mornings with old friends and strangers over Zoom, I began drifting, afternoons, in the limbo behind the billboards of a culture that brands itself as having mastered deathlessness: a flashback zone of IV lines and precious ventilators, a frail father terrified and forcibly alone on a bed in an overtaxed hospital with one nurse assigned per unswept floor, where the pay for nursing assistants who are responsible for patients’ comfort—their bathing and all their movements—averages only $12 an hour. The cemetery became a lifeline, non-ironically, to connect psychically with places I’ve lived, now verboten due to pandemic, where people clap to catch the attention of ancestors, where doors of the dead actually exist in city centers, where church walls bear the scars of their time as plague hospitals.

In my desperation for signals from the wild in the Midwest, where I’ve been confined despite primal associations of home with the coasts and with another notoriously beplagued country, Italy, I’ve become enthralled by birds that I associate with vaster ocean contexts—particularly the rare birds that have rebounded from decline with habitat protection and the banning of DDT, thanks to the testimony of Rachel Carson and others: like the black-crowned night herons who forage by the fishermen in foamy River Park, the piping plover trying to nest their way back along the shore of Lake Michigan, and the white pelicans that flocked as if magically past on a fourth of July while I was sullenly boycotting Wisconsin firework shows. I remain an amateur; but paying attention to, and carving out space for, creatures that discompose earthly borders (and protecting the right to pay attention for everyone) seems more important than ever as the Trump regime continues to capitalize on our catastrophic distraction: the administration is in the process of scaling back a century-old law protecting migratory birds from the “incidental take” of industry (collateral damage amounting to .5–1 billion bird deaths annually in North America alone, out of an overall population of 7.2 billion).

When people have sought intercessors over the centuries they have imagined human-bird hybrids terrible and gorgeous, and necessarily abstracted, like the seraphim wings by Pietro Cavallini on a counterfacade of the Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere glimpsable above the nun’s choir: patches of a vision of Judgment straddling the byzantine and the modern which linger in the back of my brain like remnants of otherworldly opacity covered over by the carnivorous baroque of contemporary powermongers. Giambattista Tiepolo’s more voluptuous, androgynous winged revolutionary catches a prominently dark-skinned construction worker in his fall from scaffolding on the canvas of a Venetian ceiling painted around 1740. How to reforge such intercessors in the absence of a shared hagiography, in the context of murder parading as religious conviction, keeping of the peace and social order, from the fallen materials of days in American confinement? Shut in, the hollowed petrol products hawking moralism and home that pave the byways of prepackaged US survival tout louder than ever, forming a buzz chamber verging on the absurd. To make an angel of these materials: the effect is vaguely slapstick, puppety, the tenor trashed, though the need to break the confines of human apprehension and the precincts of this polis is real. How to jerk those overtones into new constellations, suspending them synchronously in the same rickety performative act?

I’ve been harvesting and hoarding the salient words of garbage that passes through my hands for approximately eight years. This practice of holding on to parings of undead commodities, junk mail, and expired journalism reveals daily how remarkable the poundage of our supposed progress is, given how late-capitalist mirages present the fruits of our industry: the fantasy hauls us in by way of devices to imagine ourselves as ever lighter, ever more portable, more mobile, more efficient individuals who, if copresence becomes too deadly, can come together seamlessly in the cloud. I wanted to make a poem that would force its wearer to bear the leaden weight of an atomistic, vampiric settler life taken for normal, while trying to mime the lightness of being hyped by the digital realm. Punched through, mylar freezer delivery envelopes—first left in the entryway until their viral load might have degenerated—became the shells of wings as temporary bandage for a desire to make a technicolor dreamcoat poem. The speechifying of the garbage passing through the apartment became the plumage and the canto fermo—“fixed song” or preexisting poetic condition—for a motet that scuffles in improvised kinesis to yank forth transformative scripts. Covid-propelled shipping trash borne by essential workers at risk became the basis of a score for voicing the demotic material foundation of selective isolation: “white multi-purpose caution” devising flawed prescriptions for deathlessness—“Let your walls flow”—in the form of “RFID-protected lesser evil,” for instance. By some strike of fortune, one of the initial pieces of garbage that emerged from my summer’s cache was a placemat for a trattoria called Il Pipistrello [The Bat]. Harbinger of zoonosis, of all we share with the wild we’ve torched for lumber, suburban lawns, Amazon superhighways, arctic server farms, the mining of minerals that undergird the cloud: the wing as transit to another world, conveying remedy, poison, and scapegoat.

Responsibility for information processing through the screen, both live and asynchronously, has surged with no foreseeable end for those lucky enough to hold onto their jobs as part of the newly virtualized workforce. A decade back Byung-Chul Han foresaw some of the complications of this situation when he identified the signature affliction of twenty-first century society as burnout, a neurological consequence of the violence of networks and the inoculation of negativity in the form of consensus. A culture of ceaseless can-do positivity has generated an “achievement-subject” whose labor is deterred by nothing, for whom multitasking and videogames have cultivated “a broad but flat mode of attention, which is similar to the vigilance of a wild animal.” Han paints a picture of humans under neoliberalism as hyperattentive, hyperactive, hyperneurotic, competitive, overproductive, self-exploiting animals incapable of immersive reflection on one thing at a time, lest we ourselves be eaten. It has been instructive to read this book under the menace of Covid-19, since Han began The Burnout Society with a declaration that “we are not living in a viral age”: he claimed in 2010 that under globalization, armed with antibiotics, vaccines, and other immunicological technologies, we had left behind the so-called “immunological age” of the twentieth century—an epoch characterized by attempts to distinguish between friend and foe, native and alien, so as to exterminate or wall off perceived foreign invaders. So much for that hallucination.

As we are directed in pandemic-appropriate social distancing and the scenarios for collective action become increasingly riddled, the time is ripe to step up and think more critically and intersectionally than ever about planetary cohabitation and struggle shared across abilities, ages, races, ethnicities, languages, immigration status, gender expressions, sexes, classes, species. As we fill the streets, we need concurrently to foster conditions for an ampler, non-ableist, crossgenerational crowd. A 2006 essay by Rosi Braidotti thinks beyond the neutered post-immunological model about how awareness of our vulnerability to death might reaffirm human life as something radically other than the isolated existence of a paranoid self: “For the subject to understand itself as part of Nature means to perceive itself as eternal, that is to say both vulnerable and transient.” Braidotti casts immortality in a regeneratively critical light, as the simple material continuum of all that exists: “what we are is bound up with things that existed before and some of which go on after us.” Braidotti’s dual acknowledgment that pain is an inherent part of social change, and that death is part and parcel of eternity, resounds as deeply counterintuitive and liberatory at once: pain is seen as a major incentive for, and not only an obstacle to, an ethics of transformation. Or as my nephew, a neonatal ICU nurse, reports more bluntly in the face of the US failure to respond to the pandemic adequately: “People don’t respond to facts; they respond to pain.” In the evanescence of the isolated human being, the line between individual, habitat and cosmos can be annihilated, and the subject replaced by what Braidotti calls “a living nexus of multiple interconnections that empower not the self, but the collective.”

My computer constantly crashed as I attempted to save files to anything but the cloud during the making of this piece, reminding me of the tenuousness of our whole edifice of electronic production, with its delicate because diabolical supply chains, and resulting in an unanticipated but possibly generative constraint: the use of Zoom (a conferencing platform confirmed as monstrously lacking boundaries, as “malware,” and one complicit with homeland insecurity) instead of professional editing software to make a film. The dream is choral; this conference of the wings of embattled corporate jingles on a platform encrypted only for paying customers outputs a stifling echo chamber, a hall of mirrors, at the same time that it exploits a prefab cubist dismantling of the self’s appearance and the trash’s can-do messaging.

The viral violence of the twenty-first century is no longer metaphorical, and our seemingly infinite “resilience” has reached its most terrorized limits. Under these excruciating conditions, the transworldly possibilities of sounding our bondage with one another—a bondage carnal, yet apparently also under constant threat—just might come to occupy the airspace again.

xxxxxAngel, gaze, for it’s we—
xxxxxO mightiness, tell them that we were capable of it—my breath’s
xxxxxtoo short for this boast [Rühmung]. So, after all, we have not
xxxxxfailed to make use of the spaces, these generous spaces, these,
xxxxxour spaces. (How terribly big they must be,
xxxxxwhen, with thousands of years of our feeling, they’re not over-crowded.)

— Rainer Marie Rilke, The Seventh Elegy (1922), translated from the German by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender, altered by JS

— Jennifer Scappettone, April-May 2020

*I am grateful to Ariana Reines and members of the RILKING experiment for the mornings immersed in the Duino Elegies, and to Lin Hixson for leading me to Rosi Braidotti’s essay, “The Ethics of Becoming-Imperceptible,” upon first having seen Confinement Motet in April 2020. I’m thankful too to Opera Povera for the participatory experiment called Full Pink Moon that first enabled me to play with performance over Zoom.

The night that I finished adding titles and resent this film to the Poetry Project, my dear friend the great irreplaceable poet, translator, critic, and editor Milli Graffi passed away in Milan. Milli and I read from her work at the Poetry Project in May 2009. This piece is dedicated, mournfully and in fiery affection, to her.