The new electric environment is a collective poem. –Marshall McLuhan
– By J.S. Porter
Two implicit questions skulk around in B.W. Powe’s new book: Who are we? Or, is the more accurate question, What are we? And: Where are we?
The short answer to the first question is: No one. No one or nothing yet. We are still under construction. We are still making our character, our identity, our destiny. And the answer to the second question is: Nowhere. Increasingly we reside in cyberspace – on cell phones, online, in the mediascape. We’re plugged in beings who move like ghosts through electronic membranes. In Powe’s words, “We’re wired up, inside borderless, transnational, immediate, entangling, speeding, here-there-everywhere-now states, in an always intensifying, mutable milieu.”
We have made our tools, as Marshall McLuhan said years ago, and our tools have remade us. By extending our brain into networks, no tool has so thoroughly remade us as the computer.
In Powe’s update on tools and their remaking of the human, we move from the Earth to the Global Village to the Cosmopolis to the Global Theatre or, in other words, from the first brightened cities to the Village (made possible by telephone, radio, TV and cinema) to the Theatre to Satellite Wi-fi Networks to the Membrane Cell. This new “hyper-evolution is both biological…and sensory-psychic—we’re webbed into complexity, sensation, information, imagination, emotion, and soul-making.”
Powe’s words and Soules’ images take us into the post-McLuhan world with joy, fun (don’t miss Powe’s take on Trump’s Covfefe, Trudeau’s ums and Obama’s pauses) daring, alarm, wisdom, playfulness, and zest. Powe and Soules are master guides of the Here and Now.
Powe tells us where we are, and maybe who we are, by sound: “All is hum, hack, flicker, tweet, leak, feed, livestream, buzz, and more buzz.” Soules shows us who we are by image. The Human Face is shocked, stunned, peeling, morphing, the new not-yet-born:
The Charge in the Global Membrane is an original, mind-stimulating, heart-expanding book and a work of great hybridity. It’s a book of epigraphs (Emily Dickinson contributes two), poems, prayers, mini-biographies (on David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen), a handwritten diary, a long letter to the Net generation (Net-gens), mini-essays, memos, proclamations, manifestoes, quotations, questions. A presence ever-powerful and lucid throughout Powe’s pages is the philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, an indispensable Elder of the Tribe.
My favourite question is Powe’s borrowing from Lama Anagarika Govinda: “Do we really know what electricity is?” The book is also an art gallery of contemporary wall art from cities in Europe and the Americas, Barcelona, and Havana most prominent among them. It’s a child’s paint box with splashes of colour, variegated fonts, and typefaces. It’s a snapshot of the future and the now. It’s a call for soul-making – quiet and reflection within the frenzy.
In Powe’s words, the book is “a seizing of moments/a venturing into the vibrations/ a poetry collage essay/ a journal diary/ a gathering of aphorisms/a thought experiment…” The multi-genre book flows without pagination as if it were one long breath.
You can read this book visually as well as verbally. Marshall Soules’ photographs have the freshness, punch, and poignancy of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s street art. Soules often shows the emotional states of those living in the global membrane. Not since Marshall McLuhan’s and Harley Parker’s Counterblast have I seen such a close and enriching collaboration as that of Powe and Soules. Word and image mix, and sometimes meld, beautifully together.
Throughout the tumbleweed roll of language, Powe speaks in a personal voice in which he’s not afraid to confess self- ironies. The seer into the flux and flow of the cybersphere isn’t on Facebook, doesn’t tweet or use Instagram, doesn’t own an iPhone or wear a watch and stays away from e-mail for two days a week. In fact, like McLuhan, he’s a reader (as well as a teacher and a writer) who, like David Bowie, sends out a phenomenally good reading list to his readers. Don’t miss the three pages of Sources at the end of the book.
I use the phrase “don’t miss” throughout my response to The Charge quite deliberately. The book is like a river. You can step into it anywhere and you can miss things in the flow. The flow begins and doesn’t stop until you close the book or write on the last page where you’re invited to write your own future and that of the planet’s on blank paper.
The section of the book I personally found most enriching is Powe’s long address to the young, those who are often chastised for being non-readers, non-thinkers, non-participants in society. Powe encourages: “I take heart realizing that you sense how to live with unpredictability and shape-shifting” just as “cusp-artists” like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen do, like B.W. Powe and Marshall Soules do.
In lines resembling a personal manifesto, B.W. Powe writes:
Cusp-artists find ways to live long creative lives by conjuring and configuring the ripple and rush, the wild shifts and darkening divisions. We honour them by following up with our homages, our preservations of complexity and inwardness, our pursuit of wonder, our Eros of creating, our enigmatic cultivations of beauty and spirit, our call and response to those (all of us) who are also empathic pilgrims and know wishing-wells and heartbreak.
The Charge in the Global Membrane wouldn’t be a B.W. Powe book without its also being an open and vulnerable heart (“a pasture for gazelles, and a convent for Christian monks… and the pilgrim’s Ka’ba, and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Quran…” from Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi) and an exhortation to soul-making even in, especially in, Electronica. After all, “It isn’t our eyes that need to be wide awake all the time: it’s our souls” which “long for insight and vision.”
B.W. Powe is a writer from Toronto. He is the author of The Solitary Outlaw (essay), Outage (novel), Where Seas and Fables Meet (multi-genre) and Decoding Dust (poetry), among other works. He teaches at York University, and he has taught at the University of Catalunya, in Barcelona. He lives in Stouffville, Ontario, and in Córdoba, Spain.
You can order The Charge in the Global Membrane (Seattle, WA: NeoPoiesis Press, 2019) on Amazon.ca and Amazon.com.
This review first appeared in Hamilton Arts and Letters, Issue 11.2.
MORE STREET ART PHOTOGRAPHS by Marshall Soules below.