This month I’ll be talking about Anis Shivani’s “Controlled Demolition,” which is from his second book of poems Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish (2015). I first encountered Shivani and his work in the summer of 2017 when he gave a talk at Brazos Bookstore in Houston about his book of essays that had just come out—Literary Writing in the 21st Century: Conversations. I had just finished grad school and I was interested to hear perspectives about literary writing from outside the MFA system. I found the talk to be very enlightening and refreshing; his brutal honesty about the state of writing and publishing in the contemporary landscape was something I’d been needing to hear; he confirmed a lot of what I was already feeling when it came to being a creative writer: the frustration and alienation I encountered as I tried to coexist within an elitist literary environment. I bought the book of essays along with another book of his: Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011) which was equally as insightful to me; I also began a correspondence with him because I wanted him to know that his ideas about what was happening in the literary world resonated with me; that his criticisms were very much reflected in what I had personally experienced as an MFA student. Since then we have become good friends and in a lot of ways he became my mentor; I have deep admiration and respect for his skills as a writer and a thinker and his ability to speak from a place of unfiltered truthfulness that effectively challenges the status quo in the realms of literature and politics.
I have reviewed Shivani’s two recent poetry collections: The Moon Blooms in Occupied Hours (2017) and Logography: A Poetry Omnibus (2019) and I recommend both—Shivani is a challenging poet in all the best ways; his work is language-oriented and abstract and voice-driven and contains a lyrical sensibility. It is important to note that “Controlled Demolition” utilizes fragments from works by David Harvey, Don DeLillo, and Slavoj Žižek, adding a layer of philosophical abstractness to the poem. Here are the first two stanzas:
My life was not mine anymore:
temperature, blood pressure, height, weight, heart rate, pulse, pending medication,
fetishism of organizational form,
the smashing of the state.
You can do this in America,
dress yourself in a drugstore from head to toe,
which I admire quietly.
Nothing surprises me.
If history were cyclical, we would now be in a decadence, would we not,
Heidegger against Heidegger,
why do I stay in the provinces,
an entity may even insist upon its figures solely to remain more present,
the way data dissolves at one end of the series just as it takes shape at the other,
reading an avant-garde western called Existential Sheriff.
I think the most impressive feature of Shivani’s poetry is the way he combines a lyrical voice with abstract thought. Lines like: “You can do this in America, / dress yourself in a drugstore from head to toe, / which I admire quietly” work in really interesting ways with lines like: “…data dissolves at one end of the series just as it takes shape at the other, / reading an avant-garde western called Existential Sheriff.” There is both humor and critique here as the speaker articulates the political and economic concerns of the moment—which are difficult to grasp, and the fact that it is difficult to grasp is precisely the point. Here are the second two stanzas:
Which street will we occupy?
Strange Christianity, the virtual is the invisible X,
the void whose contours can only be reconstructed from its effects,
now I’m on death row (the top lists of the surrealists):
three tiers of data running concurrently a hundred feet above the street,
first I stole the money, then I lost it.
No debts outstanding, either way.
If this makes me sexier, then where are you going?
A person rises on a word and falls on a syllable.
I’m changing the subject, I look at books and drink brandy.
So who are these workers who produce the city?
The word feral pulled me up short,
the feral media, nihilistic and feral teenagers, feral capitalism hits the streets,
our rapid-response team,
God is unconscious.
The only solid thread in this poem is the speaker’s voice and this is characteristic of Shivani’s poems. There is no solid narrative to cling to and the music of the lines embodies a free-form style. However, lines like “Which street will we occupy?” and “If this makes me sexier, then where are you going?” address the reader in interesting ways: even as the poem resists being understood, it is inclusive. There is also a distinct contrast between “I’m changing the subject, I look at books and drink brandy. / So who are these workers who produce the city?” and “The word feral pulled me up short, / the feral media, nihilistic and feral teenagers, feral capitalism hits the streets…” because of how language is utilized. “Changing the subject,” “books” and “brandy” and the question “who are these workers who produce the city?” point to a speaker who is higher class and therefore has less of a need to understand how society functions in a literal sense. The word “feral” as it applies to “media,” “teenagers,” and “capitalism” feels like an oxymoron because they are social and political constructs, but the speaker, who is above structure in general, sees these entities as being savage and unevolved. “God is unconscious” is where the poem shifts because here the speaker is quite clear-cut: the world as the speaker sees it is at the mercy of abstract chaos because God has no conscious awareness.
The last two stanzas of the poem carry the same kind of abstract wit, but there is an understanding from the speaker’s perspective that the world has become too postmodern to be able to function as the last lines proclaim: “Considerate of them, grasp this moment, / fictional amounts of money, fictions built upon fictions. / In reality it is a summary court in perpetual session.” It echoes an earlier line in the last stanza: “Capital is automatically valorized by its own powers.” All of Shivani’s poetry is playful in the way it examines society as being a melting pot of concepts, thoughts, ideas, and beliefs all tangled together in a system that is driven by a capitalist empire. “Controlled Demolition,” like all of Shivani’s poems, use language and abstraction to resist concise meaning and linear thinking as a way to expose the world as it really is: chaotic and unpredictable and complex.
As I’m writing this, it’s raining, which is appropriate because the song I want to discuss this month is Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” from the group’s third album Reign in Blood (1986). Jeff Hanneman is the primary composer of the song and he described it as being about a person who is seeking revenge for being cast out of Heaven. I’ve only become a fan of Slayer’s music over the last year and a half in a more concrete way, although I’ve always been aware of the group, including this song, which I’ve heard many times, and was always astounded by—and I have a deep love for “New Faith” which is my favorite song of theirs. Slayer is one of the forerunners of contemporary metal music, not just because of how it reinvented metal from a musical standpoint, but how the band achieved a kind of lyrical complexity that matches its song structures, which I wrote about extensively in a recent essay about the group.
“Raining Blood” is Slayer’s most popular song, and for good reason. It is the epitome of thrash metal; it is the song that defined that subgenre of music and still defines it to this day. What is even more interesting about this song is its lyrical structure, which is not traditional in nature at all. There is a verse, two bridges and a final verse that feels more like a chorus; the lyrics themselves feel more like a poem than a song. The song starts out with thunder, rain, and low guitar sounds that fade into high pitched wails punctuated by pounding drums. The main riff is introduced after about thirty seconds and then shifts into a rhythmic thrash sound that becomes faster and more chaotic as the song builds. As soon as the music reaches the height of chaos, Tom Araya sings the first verse:
Trapped in purgatory
A lifeless object alive
Death will be their acquittance
The sky is turning red
Return to power draws near
Fall into me, the sky’s crimson tears
Abolish the rules made of stone
The lyrics are straightforward in the sense that they describe very clearly that something ominous is about to happen. However, what makes them significant is that they are expressed against a backdrop of thrash metal chaos. Because there’s so much going on musically, Araya speaks the lyrics rather than sings them, which provides the song with an added layer of complexity. His voice is rough and aggressive, but precise and clear, cutting through the rhythmic thrash guitars and drums.
After he sings this first verse, the song shifts into a repeating riff that plays in harmony with the thrash rhythm and then shifts again into the first bridge. Araya sings these three lines in a more rhythmic fashion: Pierced from below, souls of my treacherous past / Betrayed by many / Now ornaments dripping above.” This is where the violence of the song occurs in a lyrical sense as the speaker wreaks havoc on the banishers. The second bridge of the song occurs when the guitars return to the main riff and the tempo slows down slightly as Araya sings the next two lines: “Awaiting the hour of reprisal / Your time slips away” emphasizing the word “away.” However, what is even more compelling is the fact that the speaker is addressing a “you,” which includes the listener, who before was just an observer, but is now part of the massacre.
After a slowed-down rhythmic thrash interlude, Araya sings the final lines of the song that feel more like a chorus than a verse in the way that it encapsulates the energy of the song which is about spiritual revenge:
From a lacerated sky
Bleeding its horror
Creating my structure
Now I shall reign in blood
He shouts “Raining blood” as the song shifts back into a faster rhythmic thrash pace. The last two lines of the song “Creating my structure / Now I shall reign in blood” is a significant ending lyrically because it signals to the listener that the person who was removed from Heaven now controls it. The song responds to this shift in power by devolving into pure chaotic thrash music. The outro is full of unstable, wild guitar sounds against a backdrop of low rhythmic thrash guitar and drums. Here, the song becomes unapologetically anarchic and it’s incredibly visceral and intense. The music ends with a crash of thunder and the last minute of the song is nothing but the sound of steady rain. It is understood that the rain is actual blood, but what is less understood is the fact that rain in general is refreshing and cleansing, so here, rain becomes a metaphor for purity. The speaker’s revenge is justified and the rain that follows acts as a palate cleanser to the horrific—but utterly necessary—violence that took place.
I think Shivani’s “Controlled Demolition” and Slayer’s “Raining Blood” are a wonderful pairing. The poet and the band both embody the concept of chaos in different ways. Shivani’s understanding of chaos comes from an abstract way of seeing and experiencing the world; Slayer’s understanding of chaos is literal and is often portrayed through spiritual violence. What also interests me is how the poem and the song both create their own structure for artistic expression. Shivani’s poem follows its own logic structurally even though it employs the stanza form. The music of the lines is wildly uncontrolled, but somehow held together by a steady voice. Slayer is very good at creating song structures that match the lyrical and thematic content of their music and this is no different in “Raining Blood.” Here, the song structure itself is highly unstable as it represents the overthrow of Heaven. I also think that Shivani and Slayer are more technical than they’re given credit for in their respective fields. The poet and the music group use their technical knowledge to create art that is of a higher vibration than the average formalist poem or the traditional metal song. Shivani makes poetry new by combining modernist and avant-garde elements; Slayer reinvented metal by taking the established style of metal guitar solos and rhythms and opening them up with chaotic thrash sounds. I think both are challenging to read and listen to because they set their own standards for meaning, but once it’s understood what they’re doing and why, they become endlessly interesting and enjoyable—and indispensable poetically and musically.
October 4, 2021