Biopoetics, or Romanticism

Romanticism, Forgery and the Credit Crisis

Biopoetics, or Romanticism

Sara Guyer
University of Wisconsin, Madison

1.        In his last lecture of 1975-76, Michel Foucault focused on “power’s hold over life” (239), and in particular the emergence in the nineteenth century of sovereignty as a power over life, rather than death, sovereignty as “the right to make live and let die” (241). As Foucault explains in the History of Sexuality, “The old power of death that symbolized sovereign power was now carefully supplanted by the administration of bodies and the calculated management of life” (262), two “techniques” that Foucault identifies not in philosophy but “in the form of concrete arrangements” (262). Foucault’s insight has opened up the epoch of biopower, providing the terms and frames though which everything from sexuality to human rights can be understood as occurring in the aftermath of this shift in the very significance of life itself.

2.        British (and French) poets writing at more or less the same time as the planners and statisticians who Foucault considers, that is, from the late-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, might also be understood to register a new significance of life itself. As Denise Gigante most recently has argued in Life: Organic Form and Romanticism, a preoccupation with life—in her case, understood as organicism, vitality, or nature—binds the poets we typically call romantic. For Gigante, the romantics were writers (like the scientists who are their contemporaries) “committed to defining and representing the incalculable, uncontrollable—often capricious, always ebullient—power of vitality” (3). This is a power that the poets also sought to categorize, calculate, and manage, if not through new forms of record keeping and sanitation, then through new uses of older tropes and figures. In this sense, poetry can be understood as another of the “concrete arrangements” or “techniques” of power for the management of life, another site of the power over life, like vaccination or the variety of emergent forms of public health to which he alludes. This is true both in a thematic and a strategic sense: literature of the period takes the power over life as a theme, but it also takes life as its object. We would have to look no further than a novel like Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein to find a clear example in which all of these senses of life and power emerge. There we find that race, the question of the human species, education, the threat to populations, and the emergence of new projects in biomedical engineering are construed as analogous to literature itself; and literature (formed as a novel, but figured as poetry) emerges as a kind of life. Indeed, Shelley famously refers to her literary fiction as a newly formed life, more or less substitutable with and even allegorized by the life-form whose existence the novel traces. Thus Frankenstein could be read as a vivid example of the analogy between what Foucault calls biopower and literary power—or literature as a form of biopower. Yet, that what is at stake in this convergence is a monstrous formation whose full frontal force never can be grasped suggests, at least allegorically speaking, the sublime impact—on poetry and politics both—of this new power over life. [1] 

3.        One way of understanding this convergence—the more or less simultaneous emergence of life as the medium of political and poetic power, the emergence of biopower and romantic poetry—is as an historical or terminological accident, rather than a series of effects with a shared cause. Indeed, the romantic preoccupation with sovereignty (as lyric subjectivity) and poetic power as a vital force sits uneasily with Foucault’s account of biopower, even as it shares its constitutive terms. The lyric subject, at least as it is conventionally characterized, is a resoundingly individual formation, whereas biopower, in Foucault’s account, is administrative and neither oriented towards nor executed by the individual. Moreover, recent critics of biopower, including Lauren Berlant and Eric Santner, also have noted the flawed tendency to correlate the variety of conceptions of sovereignty (personal, political, and theological), a tendency that the correlation between romanticism and biopolitics could even be said to repeat. [2] 

4.        Yet, following Foucault, we might go further and ask about the conditions that allow life at this moment to emerge as an object (both aim and concern) of poetry and politics, of lyric subjectivity and political sovereignty? Put another way, we might ask whether this is strictly a nineteenth-century formation or rather, a late-twentieth-century one articulated in and through a return to the nineteenth century texts and contexts that have been called our contemporaries? [3]  Does this new preoccupation with the power over life simply occur in the nineteenth century as an arbiter of modern poetry and politics or is it a retroactive formation framed by two competing theoretical gestures belonging to the 1970s and figured through a past that it recasts even as it is conditioned by it? Is this the modernity of the nineteenth-century or of the late-twentieth century?

5.        It is the very shape of this temporal knot that has led me, elsewhere, to conceive of romanticism as a poetics of survival, that is, as preoccupied with and producing a condition of living on, while at the same time figuring and instantiating life as beyond or in excess of the opposition between life and death. In this essay, I wish to develop my earlier account in a somewhat different direction by focusing on the concurrent socio-political and rhetorico-lyrical preoccupations with making live. Taking seriously the shifting conception of life as the object of politics and poetics in the nineteenth century—and the initial articulation of this shift in the 1970s, the years of Foucault’s “Society must be defended” lectures, the publication of the first volume of his The History of Sexuality [1976], and of Paul de Man’s essays “Autobiography as De-Facement” and “Shelley Disfigured” [1979]—I will argue that there is a correspondence between biopolitics and romanticism that is captured in this shared preoccupation with life, and that it is a conception of poetry and politics that is uncontained by the nineteenth century. [4]  I will also suggest that this conjunction becomes an occasion to recognize life as survival, and thus to consider something about life that the various demographers and managers who appear in Foucault’s texts (and in his only cursorily formulated and digressive account of biopower) may not be in a position to perceive or comprehend, but nevertheless continue to expose. [5]  In other words, far from exhausted by Foucault’s account of biopower and the theoretical accounts to which it has given rise, a lyric consideration of life, one formulated in and through romanticism trains us to see beyond the management of species and populations and to recognize the excesses that biopower and its institutions inherently fail to contain. In other words, while it might appear from my opening observation that modern poets are managers, belonging to the same category as statisticians and public health officials, and that lyric sovereignty, insofar as it is focused upon making live, is a mode of administration, several examples suggest instead the undoing of individual formations by the very gesture that appears to contain it. These lyric examples show that life is always on the side of nonpower, and that its containment fails to sustain the newly formulated opposition between life and death that is at the heart of the shift that Foucault so compellingly describes. [6] 

6.        In what follows, I will turn from Paul de Man’s formative rhetorical account of the lyric to Barbara Johnson’s feminist revision of de Man in order to develop my own analysis of biopoetics. Johnson’s consideration of a subgenre of abortion lyric fosters a rethinking of the modern lyric and its rhetorical effects, identifying a shift in its organization from aiming to overcome the opposition between the living and the nonliving (in other words, “making live”) to imagining a relation between mother and child, whether dead or alive, as two potentialities. This example is a clear instance of the intersection of poetics and politics around the question of life, and one that, like Frankenstein, dramatizes the encounter between biopolitics and romanticism. Moreover, Johnson explicitly shows how lyric apostrophe can be understood not only as the trope of politics, but a trope that turns politics into biopolitics. From Johnson’s discussion of lyric animation and its political—or as I suggest—biopolitical—implications, I turn to a poem by John Clare that offers another way of imagining the lyric and its relation to biopolitics. Clare, a poet known as much for his lurid biography, his use of local idiom and eccentric grammar, and his opposition to the Enclosure Acts that divided his parish, spent a third of his life in a mental asylum. By focusing on questions of animation in the context of a lived fiction experienced as a pathology, a debilitating delusion that kept Clare from living among others, I propose to develop Johnson’s reading of lyric apostrophe into a theory that further emphasizes the lyric rhetoric at work in the politics of life and making live.

I. A Fetal Address

7.        Despite having written extensively on romantic lifewriting and on Percy Shelley’s The Triumph of Life, Paul de Man seemed to have very little interest in the question of life itself. Indeed, life, like death, for de Man is a linguistic predicament, and those texts that seem most preoccupied with life (I am thinking here of “Autobiography as De-facement” and “Shelley Disfigured”), are not simply “about” death or even the undecidability between life and death (recall: “one moves, without compromise, from death or life to life and death [Rhetoric of Romanticism, 74]), but about figures and figural language. When in his essays of the late-1970s, later collected in The Rhetoric of Romanticism, de Man apparently turns away from organicist accounts of language (that is, language as a vehicle of life), he does so in order to turn our attention to the ideology of rhetoric (or literature) as a restorative, indeed indissociably restorative and privative, operation. Autobiography (or lifewriting) operates through a figurative movement that “deprives and disfigures to the precise extent that it restores.” (And returning to the example I introduced above, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein recognizes this in all of the scenes where the encounter between Victor Frankenstein and his creature, involves a series of faintings and restorations.) Although de Man focuses on Wordsworth’s Essays upon Epitaphs and Percy Shelley’s “Triumph of Life,” privation, disfiguration, and restoration in his account are not matters of life and death, an assumption that would remain within an organicist paradigm, albeit a negative one, but rather matters of cognition, apparition, and image. It is sensation, and the relation between the visible and the knowable worlds, rather than life and death, that are at the core of de Man’s observations.

8.        For all of these reasons, it might seem antithetical to turn to de Man in an effort to track the relation of literature to life and develop a theory of biopoetics, unless biopoetics is only another name for figure, just as it might be another name for romanticism itself. However, despite his own apparent allergy to questions of life and his indifference to biological processes or political analysis on a grand scale, de Man’s understanding of figuration has laid the groundwork for other accounts of lyric figures (apostrophe, prosopopoeia) that take place in a more explicit relation to the politics of life, namely those of Barbara Johnson.

9.        In her 1986 essay “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion,” Johnson draws upon de Man’s account of figure to ask whether “the very essence of a political issue—an issue like, say, abortion—hinges on the structure of figure,” and she goes on to wonder if there is “any inherent connection between figurative language and questions of life and death, of who will wield and who will receive violence in a given human society?” (World of Difference 184). The key word here is “inherent.” For figurative language, insofar as it relies upon a seemingly infinite capacity for substitution, is driven by the establishment of connections where there are none. Figuration is in this sense a matter of the non-inherent, or the inherent as mere substitutability. So, to ask about ‘inherence,’ to consider the possibility of an essential and permanent relation between “figurative language” and “questions of life and death,” or to ask whether figure is the “hinge” that bears the essence of politics, including the politics of life and death, as Johnson does, is to suggest that there can be no politics of life without this poetics. Johnson’s task is to understand and track the meaning and shape of this poetics. Turning to abortion, Johnson conjoins questions of figure or poetic address with what Penelope Deutscher has called “one of the major nodes of biopolitics” (55): abortion. Johnson seems to ask, although not in quite so many words, whether biopolitics is essentially biopoetics. And while she will go on to develop her initial consideration of the inherent relation of lyric figures and politics into a speculative consideration of motherhood (“there may be a deeper link between motherhood and apostrophe” [198]), the theoretical landscape is such that she is not yet in a position to reflect directly upon the relation of biopolitics and biopoetics. In the mid-80s, when Johnson’s essay is published, Foucault’s various discussions of “making live” in the nineteenth century remained overshadowed by his much more substantial considerations of governmentality, the body, and its discipline. Thus, while Johnson presciently evokes the question of the relation between biopolitics and poetics in her discussion of abortion and lyric, it remains a question that still bears asking directly—one insinuated but not exhausted by the example of abortion and poetry addressed to unborn fetuses. It is also the question, I want to suggest, of the lyric itself. In other words, the question for us, as it is to a certain extent for Johnson, is how important—how essential or inherent—is life for the discussion of literary rhetoric (or poetry), and is this matter of life, rather than a programmatic attachment, not only a matter of politics, but in fact the political nexus of literature itself? Put another way, the question for us is whether life is the poetic nexus of the political? For Johnson, insofar as politics is a matter of power and power a matter of violence, the essence of any political issue is the question of life and death, of the power over life and death. And to suggest that politics “hinges on the structure of figure,” as she does here, is also to suggest that it hangs on a rhetorical device that makes “present, animate, and anthropomorphic,” a device that, recalling Foucault’s account of political power, makes live. This figure, apostrophe, has a particularly compelling presence in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries and an afterlife in some unlikely places. For example, as Johnson shows, it is at work in the case of abortion, where the question of viability may not be altogether new, but it does become newly visible and, thanks to new technologies for managing the ends of life—from pills to respirators—newly ubiquitous. Now, as anyone even minimally familiar with the rhetoric around abortion in the US knows, a central claim on one side of the debate is the assumption of fetal life as having an unproblematic relation to human, speaking life, indeed of fetal life as rights-bearing life or as personhood. Hence, as Catherine Mills recently has shown, the use of 4D sonograms in antiabortion materials has as its aim the production of the fetus as a face-bearing entity—and person or personage. Here, political and poetic rhetoric, the rhetoric of persuasion and the rhetoric of tropes and figures, enter in to a heightened relationship.

10.        Johnson begins by showing how lyric apostrophes, as acts of animation that assume the difference between the living and the dead, turn out to undo the very distinctions upon which they seem to rely. Her initial examples, drawn from Baudelaire and Percy Bysshe Shelley, relay scenes in which a lyric subject addresses an inanimate object in order to endow it with the power that will retroactively animate the very subject responsible for the address in the first place. Johnson reads these poems in the romantic (and post-romantic) lyric tradition in which a (male) poet undertakes to obtain a voice from the outside together with poems (by women) in which “the question of animation and anthropomorphism is…given a new and disturbing twist,” poems that “textually place aborted children in the spot formerly occupied by all the dead, inanimate, or absent entities previously addressed by the lyric” (189). Like Foucault, Johnson seems to register a shift in modernity’s relation to sovereignty, showing that an emergent structure of animation in the nineteenth century remains at the core of political thinking in the late-twentieth-century; and, like Foucault, again, she is interested in re-reading and re-casting an earlier emergence (which we could in both cases call biopower) from the perspective of its violent future. [7]  It is in these poems that a new, specifically biomedical uncertainty about the nature and meaning of the living and the dead emerges. It is also here that Johnson explicitly registers a continuity—or analogy—between poetry (the rhetoric of animation) and biopolitics (abortion).

11.        Johnson begins her exploration of another lyric scene with Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Mother,” a poem that, in her account, traces the disappearance and appearance of the first person subject, rendering the lyric subject an object of the abortion itself (“Abortions never let you forget”); the addressee of aborted fetuses (“I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children”); and finally the subject addressing them, albeit through a citation (“I have said, Sweets, if I sinned….”). Even as a subject, she remains uncertain about their status (“oh what should I say, how is the truth to be said?”) and thus her own. Indeed, Brooks’ poem reflects a particularly complex case where in actuality she did not want to bring the objects of her address to life even as this animation is what occurs when she continues to hear the voices that sound only through her. Thus, as Johnson notes, “the poem can no more distinguish between ‘I’ and ‘you’ than it can come up with a proper definition of life” (190). This ambivalence about life and death is fundamental to the structure of apostrophe, and in this sense it also reveals what is at stake in abortion itself. Whatever our politics or rhetoric, from the perspective of politics or rhetoric, it is not clear whether a life that is not viable (an embryonic life) can be considered a life at all, just as it is not always clear whether a life, even if not viable, is anything other than a life. From a biopolitical perspective, like the one that Agamben offers at the end of Homo Sacer, the fetus also would emerge as one of those lives in which the political and the biological have entered into a domain of indistinction. For Agamben, this would be only a particularly vivid example of a quotidian situation. The same could be said for Johnson, insofar as this is the structure of lyric, a structure upon which “the essence of politics hinges.” Yet, for Johnson, who approaches the political scene through poetry and rhetoric, what is at stake is not only the indistinction between political life and biological life, but political life and poetic (or rhetorical) life. Poetry and rhetoric supplement the place of biology so that the question of species, populations, and measure, that is, the objects of social science become a question for literary theory and history.

12.        My point here is not to suggest that Johnson only registers life or death as a fundamentally linguistic (and hence nonhuman) predicament, as de Man does, but to show that her essay raises some highly specific questions about the relation of poetry to life and death, indeed the power of poetry (or language) over life and death, when it registers the poetic and biological questions of life as thoroughly indissociable. It is in this sense that what Agamben refers to as a “zone of indistinction” comes to involve poetry and lyric subjectivity; for lyric (or poetic or rhetorical), biological, and political notions of life emerge as indistinguishable. While Johnson considers the ways that the lyric, as an exemplary form of language, can repeat and re-enact the violence it aims to overcome, she also challenges conventional accounts of lyric subjectivity as they relate to life itself. Johnson not only argues that debates about abortion can be seen as debates about apostrophe and the rhetoric of animation and address, but equally that lyric poetry can be seen as part of the abortion debates—or construed more generally—debates within the politics of life. She goes so far as to suggest (while attributing this suggestion to Brooks’ poem) that “arguments for and against abortion are structured through and through by the rhetorical limits and possibilities of something akin to apostrophe.” And further that: “The fact that apostrophe allows one to animate the inanimate, the dead, or the absent, implies that whenever a being is apostrophized, it is thereby automatically animated, anthropomorphized, ‘person-ified’. (By the same token, the rhetoric of calling makes it difficult to tell the difference between the animate and the inanimate, as anyone with a telephone answering machine can attest)” (191).

13.        For Johnson, this “automatic animation” that occurs within a rhetoric of address raises questions about the relation between what Agamben has called life and form-of-life. Agamben describes his task as completing and correcting Foucault’s work on biopolitics. He insists upon the ancient origins and specifically modern tendencies of biopolitics by reminding us that initially two words, bios and zoe, were used to designate life, and focuses on what he calls “form-of-life,” a life in which it is never possible to isolate something such as naked life, by which he means “a life for which what is at stake is living itself, in which the single ways, acts, and processes of living are never simply facts but always and above all possibilities of life, always and above all power” (Means 4). Here, Agamben understands a form of life as separate from automation, repetition, habit, or prescription, seeing it rather as possibility or potential, a relation to the indeterminate and unprogrammed. Agamben distinguishes between this “form-of-life,” a life of reflection, and what is translated alternatively as bare or naked life, although even bare or naked life is not simply a given, but an assumed category. Yet, when Johnson suggests that arguments about abortion (about biological or sacred life) are structured “through and through by something akin to apostrophe,” and when she suggests that apostrophe automatically animates, which is to say that it is a power over life without intentionality, deliberation, or control, she seems to recognize the separability or division within life not as something that could be gotten beyond or resolved, but as the very structure of life, just as it is so central to language fraught between performative and constative powers. The distinction essential to Agamben’s insight is not at all essential here. This is the parallel of de Man’s understanding of death as a linguistic predicament, for now life emerges as a linguistic predicament; and Johnson suggests that “it becomes impossible to tell whether language is what gives life or what kills” (192). Johnson accounts for language or the lyric subject as displacing sovereignty, operating as a power to give or take life itself, rather than a power to kill, as under the older, premodern model. Yet, it is not because of this impossibility of determining the nature of linguistic power that there is a debate about abortion. Rather, what occurs in the sphere of politics shares a structure with—indeed is—a linguistic predicament. Johnson reveals that biopolitics, understood as this power over life, is indissociable from lyrical language as a power over life. Thus, returning to my initial questions concerning the concurrent emergence of biopower and romanticism as two nineteenth-century scenes of power as making live, Johnson’s simultaneous reading of the romantic lyric and its legacies with biopower and its legacies offers a clear response. Johnson’s reading of lyric apostrophe suggests that the poetic and political preoccupation with life is not merely an historical accident nor an occasion where poetry reflects the politics or culture of the age, but rather that this convergence, through Johnson’s reading, reveals the lyrical structure of biopolitics: biopolitics as a politics of apostrophe. In this sense, the politics that Johnson identifies throughout her essay is an unmarked biopolitics, which is structured like the lyric.

14.        But Johnson’s essay does not stop here, for it challenges us to consider what happens when this is the case, that is, when politics and poetry hinge upon apostrophe and when making live becomes the operative mode of poetry and politics both. Johnson not only perceives the conjunction of poetics and politics, but also exposes the implications of this conjunction on conventional accounts of subjectivity. It is not just that abortion poetry offers a particular case, and not only that debates about abortion “hinge on a structure akin to apostrophe,” but she goes further to show that lyric subjectivity as a variety of subjectivity more generally has hinged upon the assumption or production of a life akin to the one ended in an abortion or survived in birth. It is this survival that Johnson reminds us Baudelaire flaunts when he opens Les Fleurs du Mal by representing himself as a failed abortion, as an originary survivor. Johnson’s insight, drawn from her reading of Baudelaire, is that something like fetal or embryonic life remains the life of the lyric subject—even in its most quintessentially sovereign form. [8]  Lyric apostrophe assumes and produces the subject as fetal life. This is true not only in poetry like Brooks’ that takes abortion as its theme, but as the reference to Baudelaire and more generally to romantic and postromantic lyric poets reveals, “fetality,” rather than sovereignty, is the position of the romantic lyric subject. [9]  Thus, just as Agamben considers the paradox of political sovereignty as positioning the sovereign and the exile in the same position of exceptionality vis-à-vis the law, Johnson, reading Baudelaire and Shelley after Brooks and Adrienne Rich, articulates a paradox of lyric sovereignty (which is also political sovereignty) as positioning the fetus and the (male) subject in the same position of fetality vis-à-vis apostrophe.

15.        Penelope Deutscher distinguishes this fetal life from the so-called bare life that Agamben associates with biopolitics. For Deutscher, the distinction is a temporal and categorical one: the fetus is a scene of contested life prior to loss or privation. As she writes: “A consideration of fetal life does not fit the series [Muselmanner, overcoma, etc.], as it usually is not situated at the threshold of depoliticization or dehumanization of previously politicized or humanized life. The fetus represents the zone of contested and intensified political stakes around the threshold between what some would consider ‘prelife’ and what is to be identified as nascent human life, meaningful human life, and/or rights-bearing life” (58). When Johnson reads Baudelaire and Brooks, she identifies poetic life as a zone of fundamentally contested viability. Yet the difference between Baudelaire and Brooks, on Johnson’s reading, is that whereas lyric life and subjectivity in Baudelaire are issued from the position of a failed abortion or fetal life, that of the child, for Brooks and Clifton and others it is the position of a mother, albeit one who is not a mother, a mother of aborted or miscarried children live only within the space of literature, and a mother whose position within that space is at once always assumed and almost always denied.

16.        In concluding the essay, Johnson builds upon this understanding to conceive of lyric expression beyond that of the fetus/subject. Spawned by Brooks’ poem as well as other poems of the same subgenre by Rich, Anne Sexton, and Lucille Clifton, poems in which the subject is figured as a mother who is both addressed by and addresses herself to her dead offspring, Johnson suggests that the entire history of the lyric—of poetry or politics, insofar as it is bound up with calling, is the repetition of a primal apostrophe, the entrance into language and subjection through a demand placed upon the mother who is called upon to make the child live. These poems that remember the stakes of apostrophe—poems issued in the voices of mothers addressed by children who may never have lived—also reveal the structure of apostrophic animation. They suggest that the hidden structure of the lyric and its mode of animation resembles and depends upon a mother who is almost always unremarked. Johnson seems to suggest that were we to recast our prevailing accounts of subjectivity, were we to recognize the place of the lyric subject as one not of infinite substitution (“men have in a sense always had no choice but to substitute something for the literal process of birth” [198]), but rather of unsubstitutability, we might find a path outside that of childhood (or masculine subjectivity). This suggests that we might come to recognize that the relation of apostrophe to animation is a relation to motherhood itself. [10]  The risk of unsubstitutability of the sort that Johnson describes is not simply the loss of lyric power and the shift from a dyadic conception of apostrophic animation (making live) to one that recognizes that the lyric subject figured is a fetus is indissociable from a maternal subject. It is also one that opens up a space for another subject position: that of the mother who does not “make live” or who makes live that which she also has let die, even if she may nor have killed. [11] 

17.        On Johnson’s reading apostrophe emerges as a maternal structure: if the lyric subject is conventionally figured as a sovereign, and if rhetorical reading exposes instead that it is variously a fetus, embryo, infant, or child, Johnson aims to break the fetus-sovereign dyad by recognizing that what has not or cannot be said is that lyric animation is akin to motherhood, that we ought to begin to see the lyric subject not as a man or a child (which is to say a fetus), but as (or wanting to be) a mother. [12]  It is as if our failure to recognize the lyric subject as mother has left us with a structure of animation that cannot but leave the subject a child whose viability and power is in question.

18.        Johnson exposes fetal life as the life of lyric subjectivity as we know it. Put otherwise, it is this life that she reminds us Baudelaire already recognizes as the life of lyric subjectivity when he refers to himself as an abortion manqué. Yet, the lyric subject is a fetus only because we do not see it (or him) as a mother. Rather than an originary split in life, we have an originary question of viability itself (and with it the particularly complex question of rights) at the heart of the subject. Rather than operating like other techniques of power over life, and rather than a symptom of romantic ideology, for Johnson the lyric is the structure of this scene of indissociable power and contestation. While Johnson sets out to revise this scene by focusing on the relation of apostrophe to motherhood, in what follows, I wish to expand our thinking of apostrophe and viability by considering a poem that couples the poetics of life with the history of madness, a poem written by a subject who, like Baudelaire, often was figured as a child, and yet whose own lyric productions recover not a mother, but an asylum.

II. Apostrophe’s Inmate

19.        I opened with the observation that the romantic lyric emerges alongside biopower as two forms of a power over life. Reading Johnson, I also considered how politics might be seen to “hinge” on the structure of a poetic figure, and further that to recognize this structure is to see poetry as assuming a life at the threshold of viability, a situation that further conjoins poetry with biopolitics, at least in the version articulated by Giorgio Agamben. In this last section I want to consider how this conjunction of poetry and biopolitics also leads to a further development in our conception of poetry, and how the lyric has a particularly direct relation to the shift from sovereignty to biopower. For Johnson the presence of the lyric subject indicates the absence of the mother, an absence that Johnson’s account of the lyric undertakes to remedy. This recovery of the (theoretical) mother—the establishment a position where she can speak and be addressed and the “achieve[ment] of a full elaboration of any discursive position other than that of a child”—might go far in alleviating certain forms of personal and cultural pathology. But if we were to accomplish this would it be the end of the story? While, abortion—its poetry and politics - opens up one especially crucial case for thinking about the poetics of animation and politics of life, the various forms of social abandonment and questionable viability fostered by animating acts, whether in politics or poetry, reveal another.

20.        On December 28, 1841, Clare became an inhabitant of the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, one of the genre of institutions that Foucault identifies with the management and restoration of the population. [13]  Clare wrote extensively while in the asylum, where he went largely unmonitored. While much of his poetry of this period (he was there until his death in 1864) has not been preserved, an undated apostrophic lyric addressed “To Mary” is one of the hundreds of poems that survive. “To Mary” conjoins apostrophe and “lunacy,” exposing an inherent failure to arbitrate between the living and the dead or the self and another, as both rhetorical effect and medical symptom. It is this disorder that the asylum is called upon to manage, but like the lyric, instead sustains. [14]  Thus, if the institutions of biopower are structured like apostrophe insofar as they are oriented towards animation or survival, it is precisely survival or “making live” that leads to haunting, confusion, and enduring symptoms of madness.

21.        Clare, famous first for being a poor poet and later, a mad one, archives this radical privation in a poem that strangely, even perversely, registers the effects of making live. Like the abortion poems that Johnson reads, what we have here is not simply an example of a personal intervention or an encounter with the personal as political, but rather a poem that bears witness to the lyric and the asylum as two scenes of managing life that both house and sustain a form a madness or haunting. In fact, the relation in this case is even closer than first meets the eye, for this poem, like all of those that survive Clare’s twenty-three year internment, comes to us thanks to its transcription and preservation by the asylum’s steward, William Knight. There is no remaining manuscript, only a transcript composed in Knight’s hand. “To Mary” is therefore a poem whose survival is the effect of the very institution called upon to keep Clare alive and separate him from the living; it is a poem that registers not the work of “madness and civilization,” but of “madness and biopower,” and the apostrophic or biopoetic structure of both.

22.        Whereas Johnson’s reading focuses on the relation between political, biological, and poetic life, revealing the limits of the romantic figuration of the lyric subject as man-child, in “To Mary,” we encounter romantic animation not from the perspective of the mother, but of the lover who (inextricably from his persistent love) is also an inmate. “To Mary” is addressed to a girl that Clare loved in childhood, but whose father prevented their marriage because of Clare’s low social standing and fate for poverty. [15]  While Clare went on to marry and build a family with another woman, Patty Joyce, he remained irremediably attached to Mary, as is evident in the journal that he wrote during his escape from his first asylum, which concludes with a letter to Mary Clare whom he addresses as “My dear wife.” [16]  In the journal, Clare explains that he is told of Mary’s death, but that he simply does not believe it, complaining that “neither could I get any information about her further then the old story of her being dead six years ago which might be taken from a bran new old newspaper” (264). Clare remains convinced that Mary is alive and often acknowledges that he has two wives. [17] 

23.        As an apparently conventional love poem, one that assumes and reflects upon the communion of a living lover and his dead beloved, “To Mary” evokes tropes of remembrance and loss, presence and absence. As a stubborn account of survival—of life beyond life and death—it also indicates the poetry and the politics that produces and sustains a life perceived to be unfit for society. What we have here is neither a scene of the mourning—fulfilled or not—of a maternal poetics (in which we would have to include Victor Frankenstein), nor a strictly political exclusion that reveals the new politics of public health. Rather, we encounter an apostrophic poetics in which making live coincides with a denial of loss, but in which this denial, this insistent animation, becomes unmanageable and emerges as a form of lunacy. Here poetry and mental illness converge not only through the instruments of lyric, but also the instruments of biopower that resemble them. In other words, the symptom and the remedy (if not the cure) are both forms of apostrophe.

To Mary
I sleep with thee, and wake with thee,
And yet thou art not there;
I fill my arms with thoughts of thee,
And press the common air.
Thy eyes are gazing upon mine,
When thou art out of sight;
My lips are always touching thine,
At morning, noon, and night.
I think and speak of other things
To keep my mind at rest:
But still to thee my memory clings
Like love in woman's breast.
I hide it from the world's wide eye,
And think and speak contrary;
But soft the wind comes from the sky,
And whispers tales of Mary.
The night wind whispers in my ear,
The moon shines in my face;
A burden still of chilling fear
I find in every place.
The breeze is whispering in the bush,
And the dews fall from the tree,
All sighing on, and will not hush,
Some pleasant tales of thee.

24.        The poem opens with the chilling announcement—directed at its addressee—that while the subject sleeps and wakes with Mary, she is not there. The poem candidly acknowledges the failure of poetic address to solve the problem of absence or death (“and yet thou art not there”), and likewise, the failure of absence or death to exhaust direct address and the presence that it remarks and effects (“I sleep with thee and wake with thee”). Thus, Mary is at once too resilient and utterly absent. We could say that Mary’s presence is the effect of psychosis or delusion, this is why Clare is in the asylum, and not just the outcome of lyric surmise; and yet we would be hard pressed to rigorously distinguish on the basis of this poem, between madness and poetry. In fact this confusion comports with Roy Porter’s hesitations about diagnostic readings of Clare, and Porter’s suggestion that what we call madness in Clare might not be madness at all, just as it might suggest that there is a deeper link between madness and apostrophe than we have hitherto suspected. [18]  This becomes a poem of madness (rather than passion and allegory) because of its history, because of indicators outside of the poem rather than internal to it. Or, put another way, it is a poem that reveals the conventions of the lyric to be indistinguishable from those markers of mental disorder that are meaningful only outside of poetry, rather than within it. However, in a case like Clare’s when the lyric becomes a vehicle for autobiography, and indeed in any autobiographical or testimonial text that relies upon lyric figures for its narration, what is at stake is not only the non-opposition between the living and the dead, but the emergence of that non-opposition as a pathology.

25.        In a second episode, Clare describes an embrace that only can remain imaginary, for he fills his arms not with a body, but with “common air,” suggesting that it is both quotidian and shared, the stuff of life that signals in this case the absence of the living. And in a line that resonates with Wordsworth’s “A Slumber did my spirit seal,” admits: “I think and speak of other things/To keep my mind at rest,” suggesting that Mary, like Wordsworth’s Lucy, is “a thing,” that is, that she is not animate, even as the entire poem is organized around managing the opposite statement. Thus, in a third episode Clare is the object of Mary’s gaze, but a gaze that, far from direct or reciprocal, occurs only when she is out of sight, which is to say, always. The first stanza also concludes with an infinite kiss, a gesture whose possibility relies upon its impossibility and the absence of its recipient (or otherwise a death that it would deliver). As an exercise in the temporal logic of presence and absence, the infinite relation here is presented as an impossible one, one that we might also call literary or poetic. In other words, the power over life described here occurs only in and through poetry (or delusion): this is a life indifferent to certificates of birth and death, statistics, or populations. And yet, it is the very condition archived here, the very condition of a virulent apostrophe, that leads to the convergence of poetry and politics as two scenes of animation, for it is this condition that shapes Clare’s supposed inability to live among others and his removal in the name not only of his own survival but theirs as well. He is unable or refuses to distinguish between the living and the dead or, put another way, he is unable to choose to reside among the living, and by failing to choose life, by staying with Mary (or by attaching himself to the dead poets, like Shakespeare or Byron, whose poems he will “continue”), Clare registers a poetry in which the lyric subject is absorbed by a loss in the dramas of animation. And yet, this is precisely what all lyric poems do when they marshal the powers of apostrophe. What Clare’s poem then reveals is another scene in the emergence of the poetics of animation and the politics of life: a conjunction not only between romanticism and madness, but romanticism and the asylum.

26.        Returning to Clare’s poem, we can further specify its experience of apostrophe. If this poem assumes the presence of its addressee, it also breaks the analogy between life and presence, absence and death. Moreover, unlike Shelley or Brooks, Clare asks nothing of his addressee, he merely describes his relation to her. (The nature of this description nevertheless makes it seem a creepy demand.) In a move that seems almost to concede, finally, the absence that the act of address rejects, a move that also evokes some of the moments of strange concession that occur in Clare’s journals, the poem leaves its addressee in a position of utter non-responsiveness, or to recall the line I noted above, she becomes a thing, the matter of this address, rather than its addressee. [19] 

27.        In the poem, the solution is not to turn to the addressee. Recalling that other sense of apostrophe or trope as turning away, Clare turns away from her (“I think and speak of other things/To keep my mind at rest”), whether for his own sanity or out of fear of humiliation. [20]  Still, the permanent presence of the absent lover archived in the first stanza is repeated in the second stanza where it is the poet’s memory that remains fixated, even despite the effort to turn away. Here, the subject becomes the object of address, but it is not Mary who speaks or whose voice he hears. Rather he hears of her through the whispering wind. This is the convention of Clare’s contemporaries, Wordsworth and Shelley, but also a convention that, as Johnson shows, Brooks reworks by “textually placing aborted children in the spot formerly occupied by all the dead, inanimate, or absent entities previously addressed by the lyric” (189). Still, what occurs here also differs from the address in the other poems, for it is not the addressee who speaks—directly or indirectly—through or to the wind; it is not Mary’s voice that Clare hears. Rather, the wind speaks to him in its “own” voice of Mary (“The night wind whispers in my ear…”). This apostrophe does not raise significant questions about the power to marshal life or death (Shelley) or about the sovereignty of the lyric subject as poet or as mother (Brooks), but exposes the subject’s impotence and haunting, rather than its ultimate power. It may be that a weak or triangulated apostrophe, like this one, an apostrophe that breaks the dyadic subjectivism of the conventional lyric reveals another poetics of life.

28.        Clare reports to Mary that he hears tales told of her. She at once inhabits the position of the second and third person, just as he inhabits the first and second persons (“All sighing on, and will not hush, / Some pleasant tales of thee”). The tales are also the return of what the subject attempts to repress or conceal, figuring yet another scene of ineffectivity. Much as he tries to say something else, the tale of Mary can be displaced, but not extinguished; he can voice it or hear it, but cannot abandon—or be abandoned by—it. Put another way, the third stanza seems to describe a scene that might be one of revelation—that might expose the ghostliness and disturbance of this relation, as if he finally were to learn the truth of her absence and the mistake of his assumption of her presence. However, what is revealed here is instead another form of haunting. Still related to Mary, it is not she, only stories of her; her life and voice are now displaced onto the nightscape. In a turn that already begins at the end of the second stanza (“But soft, the wind comes from the sky,/And whispers tales of Mary”), by the third stanza, the world has become animated once more in a speaking scene that occludes the beloved. Mary’s absence is replaced by the “whispering” and “sighing” of tales, what Sigi Jöttkandt calls Clare’s “mary-ing” of the world. [21]  While the poem initiates with a lyric address, by the end, the subject becomes the addressee, and the addressee, far from disappearing, has become an object. While this is the case in “Ode to the West Wind” and “The Mother,” here we are left to ask who is addressing the subject? In this case we have not a mirroring, a reciprocal animation, or even a crossing of lyric and maternal animation. Rather, when Clare thinks and speaks “of other things,” when he turns from his beloved to the landscape, he finds not that he has turned away, but the very resilience of this passionate attachment. Yet who is attached to whom and how do we decipher a scene in which hyperanimation has riven subject and object, person and place both?

29.        It is this excessive animation that leaves Clare writing from the asylum, and it is this mode of apostrophe that, like Johnson’s account of apostrophe in abortion poetry, and for that matter, de Man’s account of death (and life) as a linguistic predicament leads us to rethink the relation of lyric to life, apostrophe to sovereignty, for it is anything but sovereignty that apostrophe in this instance seems to wield. Yet, the risk of this non-sovereignty is that it remains tied to new institutions in which the nourishment of life and violence against the living are conjoined. The lunatic asylum is just one of these examples. It is the asylum that protects Clare from society, preserves his poetry, transcribes and archives it, and yet that also keeps him from seeing his family for over twenty years (from his commitment until his death). If this poem bears witness to a poetics of life that breaks with the dyadic model, it also can be seen to proliferate it, for when Clare describes the lyric subject as the object of address he may already, proleptically be describing a structure of reception in which his own voice becomes a “whisper” and in which is own poem comes to us in a double form, borne by a writer who is ultimately not the poet, and another listener who may or may not be its addressee: William Knight.

30.        Johnson’s reading of Brooks after Shelley and Baudelaire allows us to witness anew the lyric structure of sovereignty—and to see in the place of the lyric subject, perceived as sovereign (Mill) or as mute (de Man) before her, a subject whose very viability is in question. My reading of Clare proposes another iteration of lyric subjectivity as it relates to life. The poem seems to rely upon another dyad; no longer mother (living)/child (dead) nor poet (living)/breeze (nonliving); but rather a more familiar encounter between the lover and beloved. Yet here, the dyad, while utterly intense dissipates into a scene in which nothing and no one can be fully recovered. Here, uncertain viability is shared between the poet and addressee; just as the power of over life is shared between the poet, his steward, and the whispering breeze. This whispering also returns us to the question of life. It leads not only to poetic fame or posthumous life (as in the case of Shelley or Wordsworth), but also to what Joao Biehl has called “social abandonment” or actual incarceration, to a life lived in the asylum. Indeed, behind the relation of lover and beloved, here, there is the relation of inmate and asylum. The inmate who suffers from a confusion of voices, a loss of his actual loved ones, not only his fictional lover, and the disappearance of his manuscript. Yet, a typescript and a place in the archive replace the absent manuscript, a freedom of mobility and protection from worry and poverty substitute for the loss of family and obligation. If these substitutions are forms of “making live” they also bear the structure of an apostrophe, like the one in “To Mary,” that sustains, rather than remedies a malady.

31.        What kind of power of or over life is the lyric? Thanks to de Man and Johnson, we have seen how this power can be alternatively, even simultaneously restorative and privative, how it can refigure or transfigure the subject exposing the question of her very viability. Yet with Clare we see how lyric sovereignty dissipates into voices everywhere, and how the question of poetic power intersects with that of biopower, with the rise of the Victorian asylum that became this poet’s place. In other words, developing Agamben’s account of the structure of homo sacer into a poetic claim, we also see how sovereignty and abandonment share a rhetoric; how the lyric is one manifestation of this rhetoric; and how, at least in this case, independent of an originary fissure in the meaning of life we have instead the birth of biopoetics, not a literary biopolitics or a biopolitics of literature, but a lyric thinking life itself.


32.        In 1999, Brett Cooke and Frederick Turner published a collection of essays entitled Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts. In an introductory essay, “Biopoetics: The New Synthesis,” Cooke outlines the theory of sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology) upon which the essays collected in the volume rely, and suggests that the aim of biopoetics is to “seek artistic universals and features that reflect our common humanity” (5). In establishing the term biopoetics, he explains: “I propose that we add the prefix ‘bio’ to the Aristotelian root ‘poetics,’ a word which describes the science of at least one art—there is no English term for the study of all the arts. Derived from the Greek word for making, ‘poetic’ also refers to our impulse to create beauty. We then nominate the term ‘biopoetics’” (6). Here, biopoetics is a name for the evolutionary account of aesthetics. This biopoetics, while in no way evoking biopolitics, as elaborated by Foucault, Agamben, and others, nevertheless shares with these approaches a focus on new scenes of scientific method. For biopoetics, in this sense, it is a matter of using scientific method to understand the emergence of art as a living thing; for biopolitics, in the sense offered by Foucault, it is matter of recognizing how the sciences of demography and public health, among others, obtain a new power over life and the living. Yet, the example of another, critical biopoetics, which this essay has sought to isolate, begins to tell another story, one attuned to a rhetoric of figure and to the question of literature’s power over life. By taking seriously the relation of lyric animation to the politics of life, we discover the example, not only of a haunting that poetry fails to manage (Johnson, Brooks), but also a mode of subjectivity at the threshold of viability and survival. For Clare, this is manifest as delusion and madness, as the failure to distinguish between what is living and dead and the emergence of the poetic subject not merely as madman, but as psychiatric object. If biopoetics in this sense returns us to Foucault’s biopolitics, then, it does so by exposing a new humanistic method. This is the inverse of the biopoetics formulated by Turner and Cooke. For rather than dismissing literary criticism and theory—whether in the name of natural or social scientific method—it reaffirms literary criticism’s uncanny ability to say something about life.

33.        When E.O. Wilson, on the jacket of Cooke and Turner’s Biopoetics, writes that he can see the methods proposed there “taking over from deconstruction by 2010, and permanently,” he advocates a methodological turn away from the linguistic and other turns that have marked humanistic method since the 1970s. As 2010 draws toward a close, the prediction seems not to have borne out. It is time therefore that we begin to recognize another biopoetics. Not the biopoetics of evolutionary arts, but of the conjunction of rhetorical and biopolitical reading. This biopoetics sets out, as this essay set out, by admitting two scenes of making live, and it concludes by exposing the impossibility of a politics of life or a science of literature that would be free from poetics.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Means Without Ends: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000. Print.

Ball, Joanna. "'The Tear Drops on the Book I Read': John Clare's Reading in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, 1841-1864." Wordsworth Circle 34.3 (Summer 2003): 155-58. Print.

Bate, Jonathan. John Clare: A Biography. New York: FSG, 2003. Print.

Caruth, Cathy. Empirical Truths and Critical Fictions: Locke, Wordsworth, Kant, Freud. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991. Print.

Chase, Cynthia. Romanticism. Essex: Longman, 1992. Print.

Clare, John. John Clare by Himself.. Ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell. Manchester: Carcanet, 1996. Print.

Clare, John. The Later Poems of John Clare 1837-1864. Ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984. Print.

Cooke, Brett, and Frederick Turner. Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts. St Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1999. Print.

Culler, Jonathan. "Apostrophe." The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2002. Print.

De Man, Paul. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia UP, 1984. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. The Beast and the Sovereign. . Ed. Marie-Louise Mallet and Ginette Michaud. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009. Print.

Deutscher, Penelope. "The Inversion of Exceptionality: Foucault, Agamben, and 'Reproductive Rights'." South Atlantic Quarterly 107.1 (2008): 55-70. Print.

Foucault, Michel. History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1980. Print.

Foucault, Michel. 'Society Must be Defended': Lectures at the Collège de France: 1975-1976. Ed. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana. Trans. David Macey. New York: Picador, 1997. Print.

Gigante, Denise. Life: Organic Form and Romanticism. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. Print.

Haughton, Hugh, Adam Phillips, and and Geoffrey Summerfield. John Clare in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.

Jacobs, Carol. Uncontainable Romanticism: Shelley, Brontë, Kleist. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. Print.

Johnson, Barbara. "Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion." World of Difference. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. Print.

Jöttkandt, Sigi. First Love: A Phenomenology of the One. Melbourne: Re-Press, 2010. Print.

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[1] For further discussion of Frankenstein and biopolitics, see the chapter “Testimony and Trope in Frankenstein” in my Romanticism After Auschwitz. While most examples of lyric life are not concerned with the species, Frankenstein is a notable exception, as it is precisely man as species and its future that is at issue throughout the novel. Furthermore, other iterations of biopolitics, notably that of Giorgio Agamben, are not focused on the question of species (or human as species), but rather of the human and its political possibility and impossibility. For a discussion of the difference between a power of life and a power over life, see Roberto Esposito. BACK

[2] See Berlant, “Slow Death” and Santner, The People’s Two Bodies. For an account of romanticism attuned to the rhetoric of species and at odds with conventional characterizations, see Alastair Hunt, The Rhetoric of Romantic Species. BACK

[3] See Cynthia Chase, Marc Redfield. BACK

[4] “Uncontained” is Carol Jacobs’ term, see her Uncontainable Romanticism. This point can be read to resonate with one of Agamben’s criticisms of Foucault, that what he identifies as a modern emergence, in fact has an ancient origin. BACK

[5] See the lecture of 17 March 1976, where Foucault apologizes for “this long digression on biopower” (254). BACK

[6] Foucault is of course aware of this uncontainment, and his example of Franco’s death “and the symbolic values it brings into play” in the lectures on 1975-76 offers one example. Society Must be Defended, 248. BACK

[7] Agamben suggests that Foucault doesn’t do this sufficiently. Also, Penelope Deutscher persuasively considers the reasons why Agamben never takes up the matter of abortion—in part the complexity of analogizing abortion and the Holocaust, an analogy which is the bread-and-butter of the anti-abortion movement and something one would not want to touch. BACK

[8] This is a prescient precursor to Agamben’s account of the indistinction between the two figures of exception: the sovereign and so-called bare life. See Homo Sacer. Also, it is worth noting that Johnson does not distinguish between embryo and fetus, a distinction that is typically linked to gestational age. In this analysis the distinction is not especially meaningful as what remains at stake is viability or the indistinction between living and nonliving which is at issue whether the being is more or less than eight weeks in utero. BACK

[9] See Agamben on infans and infancy. BACK

[10] For another account of the centrality of the mother to romantic subjectivity, see Cathy Caruth, “Past Recognition: Narrative Origins in Wordsworth and Freud.” BACK

[11] These formulations evoke Agamben’s account of homo sacer as a life that can be killed but not sacrificed. See Deutscher for a speculative discussion of Agamben’s avoidance of abortion in the Homo Sacer volumes. BACK

[12] Of course, Wordsworth had a strong sense of the lyric subject as child. BACK

[13] See Joanna Ball’s discussion of the asylum and its commitment to a “gentle” system of care and Jonathan Bate’s description of the asylum’s “liberal regime” (469). BACK

[14] On the intake form at the lunatic asylum, Clare’s condition is understood as associated with and preceded by “years addicted to poetical prosing” (qtd in Bate, 466). BACK

[15] For a psychoanalytic and rare theoretical account of Clare’s love and poetry, see Sigi Jöttkandt, First Love: A Phenomenology of the One. Melbourne: Re-Press, 2010. Jöttkandt recalls that Clare believed he was confined in the asylum because of his polygamy. BACK

[16] See the “Journey out of Essex” included in John Clare by Himself, 265. BACK

[17] See the “Asylum Observations” from Northampton, where he writes: “God almighty bless Mary Joyce Clare and her family now and forever – Amen; God almighty bless Martha Turner Clare and her family now and forever – Amen.” In John Clare by Himself, 266. BACK

[18] See the essay collected in John Clare in Context. BACK

[19] For example, in the Journey out of Essex, Clare’s account of his escape from the asylum, he writes describes his entry into his village and a woman jumps out to great him. He decides she’s drunk or mad, and writes: “But when I was told it was my wife Patty I got in and was soon at Northborough, but Mary was not there, neither could I get any information about her further other than the old story of her being dead six years ago, which might be taken from a bran new old newspaper printed a dozen years ago, but I took no notice of the blarney having seen her myself about a twelvemonth ago alive and well and as young as ever.” BACK

[20] In this sense, the poem can be understood not only to use apostrophe, but also to theorize it. BACK

[21] First Love 119. BACK