I believe that, though there is frequently a divide between poetry and cultural criticism, so much of our poetry does the work of cultural criticism (and in some cases, vise versa). This exploratory work parses a word/prefix but does so in a way that is continually in flux, throwing off associative sparks rather than trying to pin down and fix meaning in the manner of the etymologist. The “purity” of language is refused as an impossibility; the treatment of language as static and neutral is challenged. Intellect is embodied here, and as such, its processes are fragmented but persistent in a kind of porous perseveration. I like, too, that the second part of the poem becomes a gesturing-toward-love-poem, where the ambivalence of love, as the epigraph from Judith Butler suggests, is the inevitable “praxis” of all theory.
—Ellen McGrath Smith, contest judge
So, what implications does the thesis of emotional ambivalence in love have for thinking about alternatives to the death penalty and for legal violence more generally?
Capitals as in counting heads. Cattle and chattel. As in heads of state/severing heads from bodies. As in/cultural accounting/whose eyes roll off faces and whose faces
have no place in the polity/except for/their labor keeps everything running. Capital as in punishment/or unpaid labor/for capital offenses.
Accruing debts by design unpayable. Not hypocrisy but ambivalence makes us guilty. Festive pleasure in executing/eroticized aggressive drives
inflict categorical cruelty. Ineradicable violence between/the prison as a model of social debt and the penalty of death.
Capitals as in stuck cities that exit us in consonants/recanted. Capitals as in abiding language’s formalities. If I capitalize each letter of your name it signifies screaming or
I wish our torsos together/file folders forming wide as in laughter/so sweaty our sentences lean lowercase. If our speech acts trick us enough
we might decide why not bid double blind nil. To uncapitalize opacity. To splay books. To hand out hearts on cards/while pressing spades to chests
our open deck. Muscular organs open fists to lead sharp blue strings from paper thin skin to/an incalculable euphoria/this our vital air.