The Listeners

by Jared Woodland

The Listeners
by Leni Zumas
Tin House, May 2012
352 pages / $12.95  Buy from Tin HouseAmazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When loss is central to a novel, its author faces the unique peril of either fixing the loss—after which there is not much of a story—or dilating it, foregrounding it, and even praising it so that it becomes habitable for a reader. The absence has to be wildly present if it is to be effectual, and the character experiencing it has to be enjoyable enough for a reader to stay with her as she grieves, reassembles herself, or falls abyssward. Leni Zumas’s The Listeners is a novel whose narrator, a thirtysomething bookstore manager and former singer named Quinn, orbits around the loss of her younger sister. Zumas’s effort to preserve that loss is stunningly successful. She reveals Quinn to us in circling episodes, deftly holding the character in the form of a smear of selfhood who doesn’t want to be entire.

The condition of completeness is impossible in Quinn’s world.  Since her sister’s death decades ago, she’s been only part-person, and ghost-heavy as the story she gives us. A damaging spectacle of protracted grief, Quinn’s narrative is open enough to let us see her vulnerability and temporally broken enough to get us to believe that her words belong to time itself, which doesn’t care about chronology. There are moments when Quinn acknowledges in interior monologue that she isn’t whole or capable of experiencing herself wholly. For example, in an early scene in which she and her brother Riley are walking to their parents’ house for dinner, she says, “As usual I imagined the destinations of strangers to be firmer than my own. They all had real places to be, where real things happened.” But it’s mostly the angularity of Quinn’s narrative that establishes her fragmented nature. Restless, it drags us back and forth between three periods in Quinn’s life. The first of these is Quinn’s childhood, the era when she loses her sister to a freak bullet. In the second era, as a young woman, Quinn is mostly on the road with her band. The third era, the present, is incomplete, tumescent as it is with pasts.

Eras collide without much notice, though sometimes there are typographic cues that let us know a voice (either Quinn’s own or somebody else’s) from the past has infected the present. In the following scene from the novel’s first page, the italicized type represents an exchange between Quinn and her sister:

The sidewalks were hard little white seas. Built on a swamp, our city was not good at handling winter. Twice as long to walk to the subway, and the train platform slick with melt. The man beside me was wet-coughing. When he spat into his sleeve, I shut my eyes. And hold your breath when the doors open or the tunnel germs will get into your lungs and grow like lichen. We are all the way under the earth.  We are how many leagues down? 

In childhood passages, Quinn suggests that she, her sister, and her father have Nabokov’s affliction, synesthesia. For instance, when Quinn describes herself learning to play guitar, she says she “tried to play with songs [she] liked but couldn’t and it sounded like a field of circles with tiny black dots.” About her sister, she says “She worried about pimples, but not about the shapes and scents flying around in our heads.  We got born lucky, she believed, able to see things in a way other people couldn’t. But I did not want to see them that way. I wanted to be regular, like Riley, who hated when we talked about what color a number was, or a sound.”  Because of Quinn’s synesthesia, often what’s most important in her experience of the world is the color and sound of things, the semiotic haloes that are apparent to her but to us are just the spaces between aspects, effects, and hints.

Given the experiential shifting, dissolving, and linking that it allows, synesthesia is effective in helping us understand Quinn’s fixation on less explainable connections. Throughout the novel, there’s a conceptual relationship between menstruation, loss of virginity, and death. All blood in Quinn’s memory comes from both what she calls the “downstairs” and the hole in her sister’s head. In one instance, as a teenager she finds blood on her underwear and sheets, then hides the discovery and linens from her parents. She says, “I kept the bag of stained cotton in my closet for three days until it was trash night, and waited until [Dad] had dragged the laden can to the curb before running out with my secret bag and stowing it at the very bottom, under the grinds and shells.” Without guidance for us, Quinn finishes the passage by saying, “A bullet, depending on its angle of entry, can cleave the striations of a muscle in such a way as to trigger profuse hemorrhaging that is difficult, if not impossible, to stanch.” Conjoined incidents, the period and death are sites of intense reverberation; the color from one merges with the other, and then neither is recognizable on its own.

There are superstitions too. In an early scene at the bar where Quinn’s former bassist, Mink, works, Quinn talks with a young patron who recognizes her from the old days. “So this is totally weird,” he says, “because I just saw another guy from your outfit. And now I see you.” As the boy goes on to describe this other member, Quinn realizes and denies to herself that it’s Cam, her band’s drummer. Fearing his return, she nervously snaps the therapeutic rubber band that she wears on her wrist. Several pages later, in the same setting, she says she wants to tell Mink and Geck, the band’s guitarist, about her conversation with the boy who spotted Cam. She wants them to assure her that “it could not have been Cam he saw—that Cam lived in California, in Brazil, in the Alps for god’s sake and was certainly not riding any subways around here. But I kept thinking about that old sorcery rule about saying people’s names out loud. How it brought them back.” Indeed, for most of the novel, Quinn doesn’t say her sister’s name, which suggests she fears her return even more than Cam’s.

Like the sorcery rule, the bloodworm that Quinn frequently alludes to is a fantastical thing. It is a “worm who eats blood and is made of blood,” a childhood phantasm that moved “in and out of [her] sister’s holes.” It’s come back to induce pathologies like obsessive-compulsive counting and starvation. In anticipation of a family dinner, Quinn explains that the worm’s return is concomitant with Cam’s reappearance:

I would eat for my mother’s sake three bites of bread, nine bites of potato, and no bites of baby sheep. Couldn’t let her know I was counting again, that the worm was here again, or that all the wisdom I’d gotten from the good doctor felt iced over like a museum sword.  The worm, which had been gone for years and years, was sniffing again. Looking for blood. And why?  The sudden hot fear of Cam being back?

Quinn believes that the worm disappears if she stops eating, a tactic meant to halt her menstruation. “I goaded a small bite onto my fork,” she says during the dinner scene. “Two more made three. Six more made nine. If I only ate nine, the worm couldn’t come. Worm you are banished. Stop and breathe, the good doctor had said. When you start counting or listing, fill your lungs with air. But if I breathed, I would eat, and if I ate, the blood-logged worm would come sniffing.” The number three is one of Quinn’s prominent fixations; it represents to her a kind of resolution. When she counts, she counts by threes; the story she tells is made up roughly of three eras; there were three siblings before the sister died; there were three months between the sister’s first period and her death. These heaped threes make the number necessary and final to her. It seems that through severe self-avoidance, she even wants to bring her family down from four members to three members. She is the would-be completing casualty. Her choices are either that or bring her sister back to raise the family’s number to five, safely removed from three.

But until the last page, The Listeners is a book of ghosts, not resurrections. There is the ghost of Quinn’s sister, and also Cam’s ghost, which might be newly reified if we believe the boy at the bar. But there’s another important ghost; his name is William Faulkner, and he haunts each page of The Listeners. Quinn shares with Faulkner’s narrators an aspectual way of telling and revealing. Narrating with both sound and fury, she introduces us to the effects of trauma (more ghosts) and then explains the trauma itself later.

When we first encounter the sister, she’s only a “her” whose stuff is still in boxes in the family basement. And 100 pages into the book, Quinn introduces the death:

I wanted to move. Nobody did. The air was going black and sweet—blacker and sweeter the longer we stood there—as the raisin pancakes burned away in the kitchen. It seemed impossible that a thing that had started before our mother knew her daughter was dead could still be happening after. The pancakes went on. They blackened blacker. I saw Riley’s face twitch at the stink.

And even later in the narrative, a fuller explanation:

A bullet shot on the night of June 2, 1984 went through my sister’s head and they found it later on the floor….  We had been sleeping with our heads to the window. The glass was up. The bullet made a hole in the screen. They threw away the screen. They patched the skull for burial so the brains couldn’t climb.

In a section about Quinn in high school, she impassively examines The Sound and the Fury’s Quentin Compson’s tormented relationship with his sister Caddy’s sexuality: “The main character in the book we had to write a paper on was obsessed with his sister, kept thinking of her while he got ready to drown himself. The sister wasn’t dead as far as I could tell, but the book was confusing; she might be dead. Or was she just a slut?” She goes on to talk about her essay questions for the book, and these might as well be a way into The Listeners. The first is  “How does the novel’s narrative structure engage questions of time and memory?” and the second is “How does the sister’s absence act as a presence?” Quinn is several of the Compson siblings: She has Benjy’s associative ricochets, Quentin’s obsessed torment, and Caddy’s waywardness and sisterly care. In each incarnation, her grief answers the essay questions. But Quinn’s understanding of time provides a more important connection to The Sound and the Fury. For her and the Compsons, time is a sensation or a texture. Time isn’t just imbued with memory; time ismemory, and all new experience is reconstituted trauma. And with horror Quinn recognizes that she’s pitched toward a future that can only be made less ghastly by allowing the past to complete itself, to come back when she says its name.

With the Animals

by Idris Kenain

With the Animals
by Noëlle Revaz
Translated by W. Donald Wilson
Dalkey Archive, May 2012
232 pages / $22.95 Hardback; $14.95 Paperback.  Buy fromDalkey Archive or Amazon
Originally published in French as Rapport aux bêtes by Gallimard, Paris, 2002

 

 

 

 

Sometimes a book comes along that is written in a voice so bizarre and so steadfast, so almost chant-like, that it worms inside my head and plays over and over until I find myself unconsciously putting its somewhat archaic words and phrases to everyday use. Whilst readingWith The Animals, I am all of a sudden “canoodling”, “yammering”, “palavering” and “gallivanting” through a world furnished with “snot-rags” and “flyspecks”, “gizmos” and “critters.”

With The Animals is the second novel by Franco-Swiss author, Noëlle Revaz, and the voice from which I am stealing is that of Paul: a middle-aged dairy farmer, husband to Vulva and father of “six brats at least.” Paul is a hardworking, hard-drinking, hardhearted man, and his is a life of self-inflicted hardship.  Paul is all passion before sense, all anger and hunger and lust. If there are any crumbs of true affection in his shrivelled turd of a heart, then every last one is reserved for his cattle. “Yet I know what it feels like, the way it is when you love”, he says, “you keep squying at her and sighing, you have the everlasting fear something bad might occur to damage her about the horns or make you call the vet.” Paul treats his herd with a tenderness never extended toward his human family. The children have presence only in passing: they idle around the farmyard, they whisper to one another in their beds at night, they skitter instinctively from their father’s path whenever he approaches. At one point, Paul boasts how “all them cows, I know them and I have their names by heart.  I can tell when they was born, what diseases they’ve had, and their mother’s name.” Whereas on the subject of his offspring, he is quick to confess how he’s “never able to take to them nor put their names on each.”

Not only does Paul love his cows best, he respects their compliant silence so much that he has browbeaten his wife into a similar state of speechlessness. Paul calls her ‘Vulva’ and seems to have forgotten her original name. According to her husband, Vulva is a “waster of good potatoes”, “a useless boob”, “a lazy sluggard” and “a lump of pudding dough”. Her mouth is a “craw” and a “gob” and a “gullet” and her voice comes out of her “like scraps of meat”, “all screechy” and “slobbery” in “dribs” and “funny spikes”. Paul has devoted all his married life to perfecting the art of spousal tyranny: he mimics, torments and belittles Vulva in every way imaginable. He administers “clouts” with reckless abandon, in the belief that pain is the only effective means of communication.  He forces himself between her thighs at night; he even devises evil little “exercises” to rid her of her deepest fears, such as the enforced stroking of spiders in the dark.

It is Vulva who Paul holds responsible for the hardship of his life. He believes that “she stops you living the way you’d like, normal, the way you hear others say, for she’s a millstone”. Yet he never expands upon his idea of normality, nor how it is that his meek and damaged wife prevents him from it. Although With The Animals has no clearly defined setting in place or time, in certain instances it seems to have a message which is connected to everybody: of the way in which none of us truly know how to live and end up wasting our respective life-spans by looking at others and reckoning they do, by aspiring to the ultimately unattainable.

Life on the farm begins to change drastically when Paul hires ‘Georges’, a mysterious farmhand from Portugal. Even though there’s a perfectly good room left vacant indoors as a shrine to Paul’s dead father, the farmhand is sent to bunk in the glasshouse amongst the tomato plants and with no toilet facilities save for the alfalfa field. Georges is built like a cart-horse up top and a sparrow down below; he was a student before he came to work on the farm, a thinking man.  He turns out to be sweet-natured and songful, always with “his big shoulders shaking and a big smile wide across his mug.” Gradually, the farmhand emerges as something of a hero: a friend for the farmer and a father-figure for his children, even a comrade for the much maligned Vulva. For the duration of the harvest season for which Georges has been hired, many small revolutions take place on Paul’s farm. The children learn how to paint pictures, the farmer tastes salt cod for the first time, and Vulva finally finds her tongue.

In the case of a translated book, I never quite know whether to attribute the grace of the prose to the author or to the translator, in this case, W. Donald Wilson. Because Paul is such a force unto himself, most of the time it’s hard to imagine anybody at all ventriloquising. His magnificent descriptions of things such as “the flies crazy against the window in their electric bouncing,” or “a laugh in my throat like some half-wit old dodder” are every bit as odd and inconsistent as the farmer who speaks them.

There is a point at which he admits “I can hardly write or draft out long sentences, just read a bit and sign my name at the end: PAUL”, and this makes me appreciate how the most incoherent of people in reality oftentimes become the best narrators in fiction: young children, dead people, animals or the mentally disturbed; those who would never realistically be able to write their life down. Still Revaz has taken something of a chance on Paul by positioning him as the novel’s sole mouthpiece. He is the villain, after all, and it is as though she is daring me to sit down with a man I loathe and listen as he chants his one-sided version of events into my ear.

But the funny thing is, I don’t always loathe him. There are times at which I admire Paul’s espousal of the virtues inherent in harrowing labour, times at which I smirk at his funny little reflections upon the ethics of splicing earthworms. There are even times at which I find myself thanking him for his perpetual restlessness with the ways of other people, with the innumerable pointless niceties which blight most forms of human interaction. In the process of quipping a typical conversation with one of his neighbours, Paul points out how “whatever you start to say you always call on the same stock,” “and on like that to the end with everybody using the same beginnings to get the words out”. Despite his lack of formal education and the fact he’s never set foot beyond the bounds of the ancestral farm, still Paul is capable of his small and shoddy wisdoms.

At the end of With The Animals, there comes something of a retribution. Yet when it came, I realised I had long since stopped rooting for it.

With the Animals

With the Animals
by Noëlle Revaz
Translated by W. Donald Wilson
Dalkey Archive, May 2012
232 pages / $22.95 Hardback; $14.95 Paperback.  Buy fromDalkey Archive or Amazon
Originally published in French as Rapport aux bêtes by Gallimard, Paris, 2002

Sometimes a book comes along that is written in a voice so bizarre and so steadfast, so almost chant-like, that it worms inside my head and plays over and over until I find myself unconsciously putting its somewhat archaic words and phrases to everyday use. Whilst readingWith The Animals, I am all of a sudden “canoodling”, “yammering”, “palavering” and “gallivanting” through a world furnished with “snot-rags” and “flyspecks”, “gizmos” and “critters.”

With The Animals is the second novel by Franco-Swiss author, Noëlle Revaz, and the voice from which I am stealing is that of Paul: a middle-aged dairy farmer, husband to Vulva and father of “six brats at least.” Paul is a hardworking, hard-drinking, hardhearted man, and his is a life of self-inflicted hardship.  Paul is all passion before sense, all anger and hunger and lust. If there are any crumbs of true affection in his shrivelled turd of a heart, then every last one is reserved for his cattle. “Yet I know what it feels like, the way it is when you love”, he says, “you keep squying at her and sighing, you have the everlasting fear something bad might occur to damage her about the horns or make you call the vet.” Paul treats his herd with a tenderness never extended toward his human family. The children have presence only in passing: they idle around the farmyard, they whisper to one another in their beds at night, they skitter instinctively from their father’s path whenever he approaches. At one point, Paul boasts how “all them cows, I know them and I have their names by heart.  I can tell when they was born, what diseases they’ve had, and their mother’s name.” Whereas on the subject of his offspring, he is quick to confess how he’s “never able to take to them nor put their names on each.”

Not only does Paul love his cows best, he respects their compliant silence so much that he has browbeaten his wife into a similar state of speechlessness. Paul calls her ‘Vulva’ and seems to have forgotten her original name. According to her husband, Vulva is a “waster of good potatoes”, “a useless boob”, “a lazy sluggard” and “a lump of pudding dough”. Her mouth is a “craw” and a “gob” and a “gullet” and her voice comes out of her “like scraps of meat”, “all screechy” and “slobbery” in “dribs” and “funny spikes”. Paul has devoted all his married life to perfecting the art of spousal tyranny: he mimics, torments and belittles Vulva in every way imaginable. He administers “clouts” with reckless abandon, in the belief that pain is the only effective means of communication.  He forces himself between her thighs at night; he even devises evil little “exercises” to rid her of her deepest fears, such as the enforced stroking of spiders in the dark.

It is Vulva who Paul holds responsible for the hardship of his life. He believes that “she stops you living the way you’d like, normal, the way you hear others say, for she’s a millstone”. Yet he never expands upon his idea of normality, nor how it is that his meek and damaged wife prevents him from it. Although With The Animals has no clearly defined setting in place or time, in certain instances it seems to have a message which is connected to everybody: of the way in which none of us truly know how to live and end up wasting our respective life-spans by looking at others and reckoning they do, by aspiring to the ultimately unattainable.

Life on the farm begins to change drastically when Paul hires ‘Georges’, a mysterious farmhand from Portugal. Even though there’s a perfectly good room left vacant indoors as a shrine to Paul’s dead father, the farmhand is sent to bunk in the glasshouse amongst the tomato plants and with no toilet facilities save for the alfalfa field. Georges is built like a cart-horse up top and a sparrow down below; he was a student before he came to work on the farm, a thinking man.  He turns out to be sweet-natured and songful, always with “his big shoulders shaking and a big smile wide across his mug.” Gradually, the farmhand emerges as something of a hero: a friend for the farmer and a father-figure for his children, even a comrade for the much maligned Vulva. For the duration of the harvest season for which Georges has been hired, many small revolutions take place on Paul’s farm. The children learn how to paint pictures, the farmer tastes salt cod for the first time, and Vulva finally finds her tongue.

In the case of a translated book, I never quite know whether to attribute the grace of the prose to the author or to the translator, in this case, W. Donald Wilson. Because Paul is such a force unto himself, most of the time it’s hard to imagine anybody at all ventriloquising. His magnificent descriptions of things such as “the flies crazy against the window in their electric bouncing,” or “a laugh in my throat like some half-wit old dodder” are every bit as odd and inconsistent as the farmer who speaks them.

There is a point at which he admits “I can hardly write or draft out long sentences, just read a bit and sign my name at the end: PAUL”, and this makes me appreciate how the most incoherent of people in reality oftentimes become the best narrators in fiction: young children, dead people, animals or the mentally disturbed; those who would never realistically be able to write their life down. Still Revaz has taken something of a chance on Paul by positioning him as the novel’s sole mouthpiece. He is the villain, after all, and it is as though she is daring me to sit down with a man I loathe and listen as he chants his one-sided version of events into my ear.

But the funny thing is, I don’t always loathe him. There are times at which I admire Paul’s espousal of the virtues inherent in harrowing labour, times at which I smirk at his funny little reflections upon the ethics of splicing earthworms. There are even times at which I find myself thanking him for his perpetual restlessness with the ways of other people, with the innumerable pointless niceties which blight most forms of human interaction. In the process of quipping a typical conversation with one of his neighbours, Paul points out how “whatever you start to say you always call on the same stock,” “and on like that to the end with everybody using the same beginnings to get the words out”. Despite his lack of formal education and the fact he’s never set foot beyond the bounds of the ancestral farm, still Paul is capable of his small and shoddy wisdoms.

At the end of With The Animals, there comes something of a retribution. Yet when it came, I realised I had long since stopped rooting for it.

How to Get Into the Twin Palms & Radio Iris

by Sara Finnerty

How to Get Into the Twin Palms
by Karolina Waclawiak
Two Dollar Radio, July 17, 2012
192 pages / $16  Preorder from Two Dollar Radio

&

Radio Iris
by Anne-Marie Kinney
Two Dollar Radio, May 2012
208 pages /  $16  Buy from Two Dollar Radio or Amazon

 

 

When I was a teenager, I didn’t understand feminism and thought feminists were whiny and annoying. I know from teaching freshman undergrads that this is a common way of thinking. We are told we are a progressive society—sexism and racism are things of the past. I grew up in a household with an Italian matriarch grandmother who regularly attacked my grandfather with household kitchenware. My father was a truck driver and my mother had a graduate degree and made all the money, so it seemed to me that the women were the ones with the power. I didn’t notice the rest of what was going on around me. I thought it was normal to stay with abusive men, men who didn’t come home, who had women on the side, who broke plates over your head. I thought that braving through abuse is just what we, as women, must do. If anything goes wrong, it is the woman’s fault, because men will do what they will. The woman’s job is to stay.

When boys bashed my head into the walls at school, they would hold my neck against the cold tile and ask me, “Does it hurt?”

“No.” I’d say. Steely like I didn’t care. “It doesn’t hurt.”

Every so often I will feel a little pool of hunger open up in me, and the only thing that can quell this need are books by women, about women. There is something that is wanting and it has nothing to do with men. I need a safe space where the line between the story and me is permeable. When I am in these moods, I will trust the author more if she is a woman, in the same way I don’t want someone who doesn’t also have curly hair to cut my hair. I want the person who conceives the book to know me, to know what being a woman is. This is not to say that I don’t think men should write books about women or women should write books about men. I think they should and of course I will read them—we all do. The beautiful thing about writing or reading is the discovery of a life other than your own. Sometimes, though, there are pieces of me that need speaking to, and the timbre of the voice comes from the magical synthesis of me, a woman, reading a book by a woman about a woman.

For the last few months I have been insatiably gobbling up these female-centered books, two of which are by debut novelists whom I know personally, Anne-Marie Kinney and Karolina Waclawiak.

I am hungry for books like these, books like me, sex-crazed, surreal, dreamy, violent, escapist, and always searching for some kind of truth.

We meet the narrator of How to Get Into the Twin Palms as she reinvents herself. She gives herself a name: Anya. She is a Polish girl who has spent much of her life trying to pass as American. She has lost her job. It is fire season, and the forests of Los Angeles are burning. Anya is captivated by The Twin Palms, an exclusive Russian club that Anya imagines holds some sort of glamorous secret and she wants to fool the patrons of the Twin Palms into thinking, if only for a fleeting moment, that she is Russian too. At its core this book is about identity and the impossibility of escaping who we are.

How to Get into the Twin Palms is told in short, staccato chapters, the facts laid bare, traumas alluded to, desires fleeting, violence breathing just underneath the page.

We see glimpses of Anya’s childhood and visits to Poland, whose women are “Soviet built and dooming.”  In Poland, women don’t leave their men. “They had our family members in pictures lining the walls and watching them. They had chickens in their backyards and mushrooms drying in their cellar.” It is just the way things are.

I think of my grandmother. Women who could live through anything, through wars, through rapes. Her steely I don’t care face is not a façade, it is in the fiber of her being.

As a teenager, I didn’t understand what the feminists were going on about. I didn’t understand that feminism was not the radical stereotype our culture propagates. I didn’t understand that feminism had nothing to do with men, that the word could mean anything, could mean a million different things. Feminism can mean a woman doing the very best she can in the time and place in which she exists. Feminism can mean the options this woman, a woman like my grandmother, didn’t know she had. Feminism can even mean understanding where the women before you came from, it can mean forgiveness, it can mean forging new options.

Anya doesn’t quite know what a woman is supposed to be or how to be a Polish woman or an American woman or whatever kind of woman she is. She does not know what to keep and what to toss, what to accept, what to reject.

The book makes me think of questions I ask myself all the time. How can you separate yourself from the generations of women that have come before you? Is it even possible? Do you like these ancient parts of yourself? Are you proud of them or ashamed?

Anything I say about women can be said of men as well. Men also have expectations heaped onto them, hundreds of years of ‘what makes a man’ that they must live up to.

Why do women read books by men about men? For the reason we read at all. To escape. To see things from another perspective. To insert our brains into plains of existence otherwise inaccessible to us. Why are most men averse to reading books by women about women? I don’t know, but I assume that there is a voice in their head that says this book has nothing to do with me, because I am not a sissy-girl.

As of late, there are real voices in the air attacking women and lawmakers annointing themselves as the purveyors of the insides of women’s bodies. Maybe this is why I have been insatiable in my need to read literary women. In the last few months I’ve read one after the other. Elissa Shappel, Cheryl Strayed, Jeanette Winterson, Mary Gaitskill. Each voice speaks to a different part of me, and something in me is eased with the knowledge that we are forging our way, we are speaking whether we are being listened to or not. And most importantly, these books by women about women are about the interior lives of women and, at the same time, the world in which we all live.

Iris, of Radio Iris lives in a vivid, fascinating and sensual internal world. She is at her most Zen when she is curled up inside herself, with little need for anything from the outside world aside from the simple structure of a job. This structure mysteriously deteriorates almost immediately as Iris begins to spy on an elusive man who moves into the office next door. Somehow, though,Radio Iris is about a young woman who keeps to herself while also being an allegory of the global economic collapse. At the core of the story of our most recent recession is a story of betrayal. The structure of what we once knew is breaking at the seams. There are glints of truth but we don’t want to see it. This novel made me remember other kinds of betrayal, made me remember when I found out a boyfriend had had another girlfriend the entire time we dated. It reminded me of how I unravelled. Radio Iris is about that feeling of dread, that knowledge that nothing will ever be the same, when you begin to notice that things are not what they seem.

But Radio Iris is not about being in love or men and neither is How to Get Into The Twin Palms. By far the most interesting and provocative character in both novels is the narrator, the women from whom we see the world, inner and outer. The men have secrets and allure but we want to know the secrets of these women, their deep, hidden pasts, the contortions of their character, and we want to know what, exactly, are these women capable of?

Iris’s story weaves with her brother Neil’s, so we see glimpses of their childhood, and how events from their past influence the events of the present. We see Iris and Neil’s dreams, haunting and seamless from the larger story. Their dreams are little leaps into everyday inaccessible truths and put you in a surreal space where anything is possible. And really, we do live in a world where anything is possible. Where things of which we are so sure could disappear in front of our eyes, as they do for Iris. Things can leave us and heave us so suddenly we don’t know what to do. We don’t know of what we can be sure, what we can hold onto, what we should grasp so we don’t fly away.

Iris sees the everyday, mundane world through an enviable lens of detail, wonder and even magic. The larger themes of the novel—death, reality, family—are mirrored in the mystery with which she translates the world around her. “She leans against the concrete enclosure and rings her hair out over the edge, hoping to see the water hit the sidewalk, but it gets lost somewhere along the way, caught in the air. She parts her lips slightly and takes a deep breath, but she doesn’t feel like she’s taking anything in.”

The precise and evocative language of both novels is what lets us enter into these women’s minds, their neuroses, and their history. The details of the world in which Iris finds such solace and her story-like dreams are the most telling things about her. For Anya, it is her bodily reaction to the smells around her that holds the answer to what she truly wants and needs; how she feels about the smell of yeast, a man’s sweat on her sheets, homemade chicken soup.

These women, like many of us right now, are at a moment in their lives when their sense of reality is lost, and though they deal with this in vastly different ways, Iris and Anya look for renewal in the wind, in fire, in escape, in fleeting illusions. Where they look, ultimately, isn’t what matters, and is not the source of urgency that keeps us reading. What matters is the relentlessness with which they search for renewal at all. And their search, for now, will be my new definition of feminism.

***

Sara Finnerty is a writer from Queens, living in Los Angeles. Writings, musings, readings and publications can be found at madwet.com.

I’LL DROWN MY BOOK: Part 2

by Molly Brodak

I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women
Edited by Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, & Vanessa Place
Les Figues Press, 2012
455 pages / $40  Buy from Les Figues Press

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One half of a knucklebone or other object was a common object to carry in ancient Greece as an identifier to whoever carried the other half: a symbolon, the root of the word symbol. A symbol is a half-thing but of course most things are half-things; otherwise, what is language for? It fossilizes the potential of objects into meaning. Art has that to deal with. Language that knows it is art, on the other hand, seems to seek objecthood.

A walk through a regular art museum might have you thinking art is paintings. A distant second to that is sculpture, then drawings and prints, etc., and the farther the object deviates from these materials (or if the object was made for any other purpose than aesthetic contemplation, say, a quilt), not only is it less likely the object will be canonized (without any modifying category) as art, but the more the object will require mediation, textual padding between audience and object.

Perhaps what makes a work Conceptual, then, in visual art and in writing, is that as an object itattends to its physical deviation from canonical works but also shifts its weight to its contextrather than its object. “A construction [is] a beginning of a thing,” wrote Yoko Ono in her Conceptual art book Grapefruit, and in this view, an object or a text is an idea’s anchor that begins, rather than completes, the idea.

The writings in I’ll Drown My Book are surrounded by frames: two introductions and one afterword by the editors. Each selection is then also followed by a writer’s statement, often a description of the work’s procedure or a response to the term Conceptual as it applies to her work. This textual-framing reminds me very much of how the visual arts are presented, propped by text panels in galleries and museums, battened by artist’s statements in magazines and catalogs. And ultimately, Conceptual writing itself is consciously framed by the Conceptual art movement of the 60s and its earlier predecessors in Dada and related movements; solidified by Duchamp in 1917 in his defense of his readymades which refused to supplement art objects with context but instead supplanted them with context. But Conceptual art, just as it is in writing now, never came to define a precise artistic practice, and because of this it became a convenient bag to throw anything that didn’t seem like art. In other words, art that was hard to sell: performances, happenings, instructions, installations, ephemera, sounds, silence. In dematerializing of the art object, artists were certainly responding to the hyper-commodificationof contemporary art and its increasingly opaque economics.

Language, though, is already immaterial. Reading is nothing but pointedly conceptual—a reader sees symbols on a page, decodes symbols into letters and words, contemplates how those words work together—while looking at an object seems to reverse this process of signification: objects are not codes, and so we tend to encode them. And the more unfamiliar/removed the art object, the more this space requires language, which is the basis for Herbert Marcuse’s claim that art (unlike writing) functions only through estrangement. But if writing is an object, then Conceptual writers can reframe writing as “a figural object to be narrated” as described by Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman in Notes on Conceptualism. One benefit of writing attending to its objecthood is how it can force the reader out of the regular reading method described above, in following, for example, Judith Goldman’s found political texts semi-obscured with lines, inserted x’s, slashes, sub- and superscript comments, irregular capitalization. In her statement she encourages careful attention to the texts (unlike some Conceptual writers who declare that one need not even read their work to understand it), how their “particularly strained relation to the contents they re-vision and present can make it exceptionally worthwhile to over-read them in detail, to attempt to follow the exaggerated, vitiated, or simply demented protocols of reading.”

In his introduction to Against Expression, Kenneth Goldsmith mentions the “re– gestures” of internet culture, retweeting, reblogging, reposting, etc, and how simply filtering the endless mass of data has itself become an end—not in making anything but choices; the often embarrassingly misappropriated term “curating” really a shorthand now for pointing, maybe a kind of pop asceticism in this flooding glut of content, a Pinterestism that winnows out selves. In rejecting primary craftsmanship of important handmade objects in art or renouncing all regular features of canonized Literature, most see Conceptualism as having made individual artistic virtuosity irrelevant (again), but perhaps it has just mutated. In his introduction to the same book, Craig Dworkin asserts that Conceptual writing “does not seek to express unique, coherent, or consistent individual psychologies,” which sounds to me more like a tame/failed project of Modernism than a new movement, so it was refreshing to see Laynie Browne write in her introduction that “the assumption of a dualistic paradigm which claims that conceptual writing creates only ego-less works is actually another false construction,” and the range of techniques inI’ll Drown my Book confirms that.

Similarly, Conceptual writing’s parallel trajectory with the internet and online writing is an easy thread for critics to pull in attempting to explain its existence, usually concluding that the internet is responsible for radically transforming the very ethos of all writing because technology alters the way people think, and such rule-based writing and text-appropriating is the perfect example. I’m not sure writers are now or ever have been as helplessly overtaken by their tools as the claim goes, and even if they sometimes are, it does seem critics like to forget that this too, as all art, is critique. Political and cultural criticism is a kind of Romanticism at a distance, and at the farthest distance of all is art that critiques art. And the flattened, impersonal text games of Conceptualism are not counter to this but at the very end of its arc. Recently, Johanna Drucker declared Conceptualism over, as its growth has accelerated “from banal to more banal” across generations, and what remains is only a lesson for us on the “unintended consequences of changes wrought by communications systems and their cultural effects.” Possibly, but I enjoyed this book. The range presented here from pleasant-but-mindless pattern-filling to some dazzlingly unfolding logic is not easy for me to dismiss. I went back to Joseph Kosuth’s seminal essay “Art After Philosophy” to see how he extracts Conceptualism out of art through its contextualization, well before the internet slouched up, claiming art’s functions have always “used art to cover up art” (depiction of religious themes, portraiture of aristocrats, detailing of architecture or landscape, etc.) and therefore “art’s viability is not connected to the presentation of visual experience,” but rather the conditions it creates. These conditions are its access point, as the book proves.

I’ll Drown My Book begins with an excerpt from Kathy Acker’s “I Recall My Childhood” from her retelling of Great Expectations, which, although it is only first because of alphabetization, serves as the perfect first piece in how it foregrounds one of the most prevalent methods of Conceptualism—the appropriation. Of the 62 writers represented here, I counted about half as making use of, or specifically referencing, other texts in differing degrees. The technique is not new, nor is it exclusive to Conceptual or even the broader “experimental” writing category, but it is especially concentrated here. Mere collage or “remix” I suppose belongs to now-dead Postmodernism, with its affirmative action, managed diversity, scrambling to add minorities to canon instead of tearing it up. When Postmodernism was quickly absorbed by the institutions it sought to critique, perhaps writers felt no longer content just to sidle up to “master” texts; instead, writers have come to occupy the texts themselves, through erasures, détournements, reproduction, repetition, re-telling, re-typing, plain plagiarism and theft—here presented as a feminist strategy. “Thieving denaturizes what it steals,” writes Caroline Bergvall in her introduction, a practice that “is close to Irigaray’s tactical notion of female mimicry. One is not one self.” It is dangerous work. In her afterword, Vanessa Place quotes Patrick Greaney in his “Insinuation: Détournement as Gendered Repetition” that appropriation is akin to entering “enemy territory,” and warns that “poets burrow into language, but they, too, are dug into, penetrated by the very language that they want to overcome.” Even those closest to visual art’s Conceptualism came to see how appropriation and context-centric art can seal itself into emptiness: Henry Flynt, who originally coined the term “Conceptual” in art, follows this process in his essay “Against Participation” to its logical conclusion: “The only possible opponent of the Establishment is the Establishment. Such discourse, such engulfing of opposition, produces a “no exit” universe. The circle closes; insurrection becomes a fixed point.”

In its Conceptual frames, this anthology is aware of that danger, and perhaps it is in doubled stance as Conceptual and feminist that stretches its awareness. While its true that the term Conceptual writing doesn’t “dictate or predict the writing” in the anthology as Browne notes in her introduction, there is some unifying features to feminist writing (and I’m using “feminist” as a placeholder, recognizing just as the book’s subtitle does (“Writing by Women”) that not all of these texts are necessarily feminist), which, in politics and language, does tend to collect content focused on the body as a site, as so often this single feature of female experience has defined women’s function and status in societies so long as they have existed. Most works in the collection point somewhere to female corporeality, or some in their statements, as Dodie Bellamy notes, “I do not believe the conceptual—especially in the work of women—can be separated from the body.” Certainly attention collects there, and at all points of pain and features of difference. Bellamy’s excerpt here from Cunt-Ups works to embody a text in corporeality’s own weird desire and revulsion, being both inside of a body and a body itself: “my fight wants to fuck your swollen pink and white spaces, to jostle you around gently until you turn blue.” A body, after all, grows but dies, and can both create and extinguish other bodies. The title of this anthology comes from Bernadette Mayer’s use of Prospero’s cry in The Tempest, as if the anthology itself is a body pieced together, sustained in the biosystemic exchanges between the art and its own thinking, its digestion, validating the fragility of this life process—and so, as Browne says, “if a book breathes it can also drown.”

Some of the pieces I liked best were Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s excerpt from Drafts, which she describes as “torqued” versions of “certain key male-authored texts of long modernism”; the selections from Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene; Ryoko Seikiguchi’s sensory poems which are presented without an accompanying statement; a section from Renee Angle’s WoO comprised of “spliced” voices of Mormonism, from religious founder Joseph Smith to mailbomber Mark Hoffmann; Katie Degentesh’s poems complied from children’s writings about sex culled from internet searches; and Jen Bervin’s gorgeous pattern samples created with letters and symbols on a typewriter, inspired by Anni Albers’ typed designs and mixed with quotes from others associated with the Black Mountain College. For better or worse, this anthology has enfolded most movements in experimental writing (flarf, concrete poetry, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, post lyric, post language, a tonalist, etc.) in building its case for Conceptual writing, which mirrors the state of contemporary feminism, diffused as it is now with Freud’s key influence on the wane in literature, its kaleidoscopic multiplicity and channeled interests a portent of change.

I found it disappointing that the reproductions of images (erasures, concrete poetry, drawings, photographs, embroidery, etc) were often of poor quality, or too small, as with Kristin Prevallet’s photographs of her “Blue Marble Project,” which are presented in a tragically tiny cluster, too small to for their proportionate detail. And the organization of the texts into four chapters provided thoughtful resting points in what is a pretty long book, but the names of these chapters (Process, Structure, Matter, and Event) seemed puzzlingly arbitrary or vague, as most of these works, it seemed to me, could appear under any one of these headings.

When Vanessa Place collapses the subject and the object of art/viewing into a “sobject” it is like Richard Wollheim’s paradox of “two-foldness” in a painting: it is both surface and content, impossibly plainly there, to look at and to look in. It can be a decorated concept. Or it can spoil itself, thank goodness. It can look at its own illusion; it can worm into old important ones. In writing, language is already a found thing, a massive appropriation set whole upon a mind, and when interest in its loveliness or intricate networks painfully exceeds the critical force of an art-gesture the concept is a hostage: how beauty can stunt us. For all the self-certifying supports surrounding the writings in I’ll Drown My Book, what caught me was the protrusion of the texts, their halfness, extending, as Chus Pato’s Hordes of Writing starts, “From the other side, where we’re alone with time”.

***

This is Part 2 of a week long feature on I’ll Drown My Book, the new anthology of women’s conceptual writing out recently from Les Figues Press. Read Part 1 here.

***

Molly Brodak is the author of A Little Middle of the Night (U of Iowa Press, 2010) and the chapbook The Flood (Coconut Books, 2012) and is the 2011–13 Poetry Fellow at Emory University.

I’LL DROWN MY BOOK: Part 5 (Talking With the Eds.)

by Janice Lee

While working on my initial review of I’ll Drown My Book last spring (2011), I posed a few questions to the editors. Here are some of their responses…

***

To Laynie Browne:

Many of the characteristics you give for Conceptual Writing, seem to me, be able to also describe what “good experimental writing” ought to be, in some ways. Though I’m sure we would agree on the problematics of the term “experimental,” and maybe more so with “good” and “experimental” juxtaposed, I’m thinking about some of the features you mention: “a recasting of the familiar and the found,” as defined by “thinkership,” often filled with “an assemblage of voices,” “process is often primary and integrative,” “the unknown and investigative are common impulses,” “the desire to reveal something previously obscured,” etc. It seems to me many experimental writing projects would share these characteristics. Might you agree? What makes Conceptual Writing stand out from other experimental writing projects?

LB: This is an important question and I’d like to take this opportunity to proclaim that “good experimental writing” is not at all synonymous with Conceptual Writing.

Of course “experimental writing” is simply a much broader category that contains Conceptual Writing and yes, there is overlap.  However “good” experimental writing (obviously defined variously depending upon the reader) follows many lineages and aesthetics with entirely different intents.  For instance, New Lyric,  New Narrative,  Performance Poetry, Beat, some Ecopoetics work, (this movement is not aesthetically based) and other writers who consider themselves in what Anne Waldman has dubbed the “outriders” school of poetry all fit within “Experimental Writing.” I’d like to stress here that I have no interest in proclaiming Conceptual Writing as more important than any other mode of writing. The anthology illustrates a range of possibilities of what Conceptual Writing could look like.  I’m not at all interested in a prescriptive approach as a writer or an editor, but instead in an investigative approach wherein everyone can read and decide for themselves.  One way to define conceptual writing is by pointing to some of the most dynamic and well regarded  “experimental writers” whose work I would not consider Conceptual, for instance: Fanny Howe, Eileen Myles, Lisa Jarnot, and Rae Armentrout.

You mention that the term “Conceptual” has become more democratic and wide-reaching, more opening and less closing. What is the significance that Conceptual Writing has for you in the context of the literary world in America today?

LB: My observation was not that I see Conceptual Writing has become more democratic, but that I hope that this anthology will encourage such an opening. Conceptual Writing seems to be gaining momentum as a movement, and at the same time becoming increasingly various, especially where women’s writing is concerned. I especially appreciate that Conceptual Writing very often moves outside the realms or the confines of the personal sense of the “I” and is very engaged in questioning assumptions underlying how we use language to perceive and define. My intent as an editor is to be certain that Conceptual works by women are well represented.

The process you describe for soliciting work was really interesting for me. How important is it that “Conceptual Writing” is a self-selected term? (That writers chose whether or not to classify themselves as such.) In other words, how important is intention in Conceptual Writing? 

LB: Intentionality is always important in terms of how writers decide to cast themselves. Though the question is complicated in that writers are also often influenced by others’ readings of their work.  Some have very strong opinions about how they are categorized  Others do not.  Ultimately it is a personal question for many writers.   I can say that very few declined to submit on grounds that their work was not conceptual.  Many writers addressed this question in their process statements.  For instance, Norma Cole writes “I first knew I was a conceptual poet when I read Michael Cross’s review of my new book.”  Ultimately, writer’s notions of belonging, or not belonging to any particular movement is as various as are writers themselves.

***

To Vanessa Place:

How do you see this anthology as an offshoot or continuation of your book Notes On Conceptualisms?

VP: Neither offshoot nor continuation, but rather another work within the field. Like Dworkin and Goldsmith’s Against Expression.

I love the use of the elephant parable as an analogy in your essay. And I think it’s more interesting in light of your idea that all conceptualism is allegorical. I know you’ve written about this in Notes On Conceptualisms, but can you say a bit more about this?

VP: I can, but not quickly.1

How do you see the term “conceptualism” related to “Conceptual Writing?” Why do you choose the former over the latter?

VP: To me, “conceptualism” includes conceptual writing, which I distinguish from conceptual poetry. “Conceptualism” referring to a kind of practice that does not necessarily implicate institutional critique or site-specificity in the way that “conceptual writing” or “conceptual poetry” does.

You admit that you don’t necessarily see all the writing in this anthology to be conceptual writing. How might you see these difficulties surrounding classification and intention be productive? How, also, are these difficulties problematic?

VP: Just as the masculinist tendency towards singularity is admirably clarifying, the feminist preference for multiplicity is commendably cant. On the other hand, singularity is sometimes promiscuous, and multiplicity may lead to monogamy—problems are productive, productivity problematic. Too, I enjoy arguing.

How do you see Conceptual Writing in the context of, for lack of a better term, the “experimental writing” world at large? How would you distinguish conceptual writing from such a term as experimental writingInnovative writing? How might you respond to a term such as cognitive writing?

VP: I don’t know if I would respond to “cognitive writing” as such, absent some sort of stab at its own cognition. In terms of experimentation, innovation, etc, these seem more generalist terms, primarily useful for carving one hunk of crafted language from another, which is generally known as literature. Or other writing. But just as “art” refers to nothing in particular except the act of pointing, conceptualism is another indicative gesture.

 

Through the allegory a concept is always to be signified, and consequently the mind of the beholder is to be drawn away from the expressed perceptible idea to one which is entirely different, abstract and not perceptible, and which lies quite outside the work of art. (Schopenhauer)

***

To Teresa Carmody:

Les Figues Press has a long-standing history of publishing critical texts related to the innovative and avant-garde and of creating aesthetic conversations through the work. How do you see this anthology as fitting in with the press’s mission statement and as standing next to the other books in the catalog? How is this book also different from other books you’ve published, for example from Feminaissance and The noulipian Analects?

TC: Both Feminiassance and The /n/oulipian Analects came out of conferences hosted by Christine Wertheim and Matias Veigener; the contents of those books are limited to the conference participants, the people who performed at the conference are also in the book.  That said, both anthologies initiated and/or encapsulated vital conversations—like “Numbers Trouble,” which Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young initially wrote for the Feminaissance conference.  As editors, Wertheim and Viegener wanted to make an engaging aesthetic object out of the conference materials, so those anthologies also challenge notions of the “book” in their design and structure.  

I’ll Drown My Book is different in that even though it too comes out of a conference (Marjorie Perloff’s 2008 conceptual poetry conference at the University of Arizona), the editorial gesture is more expansive– it’s about opening up the definition of conceptual writing, about posing the question what is conceptualism to writers who are also women who are writing works which, at least in part, may  be seen as conceptual, at least by their own definition.  I’ll Drown My Book is a feminist text in the way it creates a space for multiple and sometimes contradictory perspectives of conceptualism.  How does one create a definitive work while also embracing the feminist value of inclusivity? Or should one even attempt a definitive work?

***

This is Part 5 of a week long feature on I’ll Drown My Book, the new anthology of women’s conceptual writing out recently from Les Figues Press. Read Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4.

Jennifer Egan’s Black Box

by Joe Winkler

The New Yorker recently tweeted, for an hour each night, for ten nights, Jennifer Egan’s new short story/prose poem Black Box. Here, I attempt to review the story and the effort in the same medium in which it was disseminated: through sentences that contain 140 characters or less.

 

1

Virginia Woolf freed the literary critic from the fetters of the artist.

She simply pointed out that literary criticism uses the same tools as the writer.

We do not paint a criticism of a Matisse.

We do write a review of Tolstoy.

This accidental overlap allows the reviewer to vie for power with the author;

To somehow win a war of words where mimicry transforms into mastery.

 

2

New technology inevitably changes the way we write.

Artists, we hope, explore the borders of a medium for its treasures, land mines, and unexpected bounty.

Our ambitious writers do not fear new technology. They post stories as Facebook albums or use Powerpoint in their novels.

Ben Lerner’s use of Gchat conversations in his Leaving the Atocha Station represents one of these best efforts to date.

Jennifer Egan’s new short story, Black Box, disseminated through the New Yorker’s Fiction Twitter feed, signifies an attempt to stretch the artistic potential of social media.

That the New Yorker and Egan embrace the possibilities of new mediums signifies a refreshing change from the slew of artists speaking out against the evils of technology.

We tend to think of Jonathan Franzen as the Luddite Crank, but many other authors, specifically of the literary type, fight against the march of technology, carving out a space for an unfettered identity.

Think of Zadie Smith’s anti-Facebook tirade as a prime example.

 

3

Egan tells the story of an unnamed beautiful female US citizen who attempts to infiltrate the life of an unnamed shady, violent, perhaps important person. All in the name of national security, of course.

Genre: Part Sci-Fi, part spy thriller in the style of a prose poem.

Heavily relies on the tropes of the spy genre: directives, self sacrifice, code names, and danger followed by a daring escape. All to moderate success.

Heavily meditative on the nature of persona and identity, on the precarious balance between individualism and collectivism.

Even in the future we will continue to speak in isms, apparently.

The story, internally, doubles as a general protocol for navigating the life of a spy, which in the larger scheme doubles as a sort of 1950s themed guide as to how navigate the terrain of a patriarchal world in which men still wear women as jewelry.

We generally judge stories with numerous layers as more artistic, intelligent, and dense.

Like all biases, this can’t always be true.

 

4

Egan’s decision to use the 2nd person narrative both strengthens and weakens her story.

It allows the story to transcend its genre, but it creates a distance that erodes our sympathy for the unnamed Beauty.

In her reach for the universal, Egan falls into the amorphous.

A danger inherent within 2nd person narratives.

She forgets that transcendence flows through immanence, through concrete details not through easy ambiguity.

See David Foster Wallace’s ForeverOverhead and Junot Diaz’s HowToDateABrownGirl (blackgirl,whitegirlorhalfie)as examples of masterful 2nd person narratives.

 

5

Told mostly in one minute intervals between tweets, the sentences emerge like messages from a telegraph, or a c.b. radio.

This feels eerily atavistic and futuristic at the same time.

This style fosters suspense where none is inherent, like the first notes of ominous soundtrack music.

Writing with declarative sentences can create a reality in which you sound more wise, authoritative and confident than in real life:

“Knowing that you are one of hundreds shouldn’t feel belittling.

In the new heroism, the goal is to merge with something larger than yourself.

In the new heroism, the goal is to throw off generations of self-involvement.

In the new heroism, the goal is to renounce the American fixation with been seen and recognized.

In the new heroism, the goal is to dig beneath your shiny persona.

You’ll be surprised by what lies under it: a rich, deep crawl space of possibilities.”

Notice the use of anaphora, an oft used tool in sermons, most easily recognized in Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech, “I have a Dream.”

 

6

The need to fit a sentence into 140 characters makes each sentence read like a Zen koan;

Or like a pastiche of self help guidelines:

“Fear and excitement are sometimes indistinguishable,”

“Locate your personal calming source and use it.”

“The sea is audible against the rocks well before you see it.”

“Avoid excessive self-reflection; your job is to look out, not in.”

Conversely, this style provides much too much prominence to sentences like, “everyone should brush their teeth before dinner.”

Which, taken out of context sounds downright silly.

Ultimately, the story itself embraces the idea of attention, of what to think about, what to view, what to choose, and how to perceive life.

In many ways, Egan’s story is less about a nebulous women spying on a nebulous man that it is about general musings on perception, projection, persona and controlling the images we make, create and intake.

Show, don’t tell.

 

7

Twitter offers a promise for the creation of a different type of reading experience, hearkening back to stories told through grainy radio reception.

This style of dissemination places a new emphasis on the reception of the story.

Instead of sitting around fireplaces, in that classic archetype of a family, we now all separately stare at our smartphones, Ipads, or computers waiting to receive the next sentence.

We solve the problems of loneliness that technology engenders with more technology.

This sounds like the definition of addiction. Or not.

 

8

The manner of dissemination shortens the time lag between the individual reception of, and the collective reaction, to the story.

Think of how Radiohead released In Rainbows.

Downsides, though, do emerge.

A retweet surgically removes a sentence from its context and immediately ossifies it into a quote: clean, neat, and framed behind glass, kept for preservation.

We generally do this while reading, but we rarely do it with such immediacy, with such violence.

Yet, we also actively participate: retweet, favorite, and even comment, which, for many intents and purposes, allows us to become partners in creation.

I use creation in the most liberal sense.

 

9

So much of the initial, and still pervasive easy criticism of social media lies in its ostensible fostering of narcissism.

“Technology,” provides, as Egan notes, “ordinary people a chance to glow in the cosmos of human achievement.”

In a way, this describes the appeal of Twitter and Facebook.

It’s hard to take this seriously when received as a tweet.

Egan, though, in using the supposed narcissistic medium to highlight a desire to grow past it, redeems the potential of this medium.

Installment five serves as Egan’s as the purest meditative aphoristic components of her story.

One of the better sentences in this part, “now our notorious narcissism is our camouflage,” perfectly captures our ambivalence towards these new mediums.

We realize their power and strength, but given their relative infancy, we usually focus on the obvious kinks of the system.

Egan begins this process of redeeming Twitter by morphing it into a tool for meditative thought.

The extent to which she succeeds in this endeavor need not undermine the importance of the effort.

 

10

Egan and the New Yorker’s effort, perhaps not the apotheosis of the literary potentials of this medium still signifies a redemptive and ambitious first step away from the literati as the conservatives, obsessed with returning us to a world in which we used to read books, where attention spans could hold past 140 characters. Instead of lamenting the situation Egan and Co. attempt to work within the new system to create new possibilities. Salud.

***

Joe Winkler is a freelance writer living in the Upper West Side. When not ingesting all things cultural, he attends classes for a Masters in English Literature at City College. To support this extravagant lifestyle, Joe teaches, tutors and babysits, unabashedly. He started writing with a personal blog – noconversationleftbehind.blogspot.com, which allows him to indulge the ramblings of his mind. He began his writing career after he quit a Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology because he realized that he likes people more in the abstract than in reality.

I’LL DROWN MY BOOK: Part 3

by Nicholas Grider

I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women
Edited by Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, & Vanessa Place
Les Figues Press, 2012
455 pages / $40  Buy from Les Figues Press

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Disclosure: I honestly had no idea when I requested the book but note that it contains the work of some of my friends, acquaintances, teachers, mentors, and personal heroes, though the widescreen approach in curating the book’s 64 writers works against me simply cheering on a select group or writer to whom I’m personally attached.)

Prior to reading I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, my general, sloppy idea about conceptual writing was that it was only the kind of writing where the experience of appropriated text as object/concept was more important than the experience of reading what’s been sculpted into book form for “literary” value.  Instead, I’ll Drown My Book offers approaches to encountering and writing text as various as the writers included and as familiar as “appropriation,” “intertextuality,” “hybrid” and “constraint,” named in the book alongside “dissensual,” “baroque,” and thirteen other broad categories as forms conceptual writing might take.

What’s important and unique about the writing in I’ll Drown My Book isn’t what strategy is being employed but the fact that there is a strategy, and often a structure. (The two being different in that strategy involves an approach guided by a given or created set of rules while structure involves use of a given or created form other than a continuous or broken line.) You could claim that all writing is strategic in some way with respect to what decisions you make when you set out to write anything but the writing in the anthology is strategic specifically because the strategies are local, formal, and often overt vs. obscured from the reader. Conceptual writing, here, is not a movement but a methodology, a way of viewing writing as always following and rewriting a myriad of different kinds of other texts, or by replacing “writer” with text. Just for the sake of contrast I’m claiming the nominal state of what let’s call “normative” writing is that you can and do claim sole authorship,over additive and usually linear text, starting off in your headspace with an idea or image or voice that seems worth pursuing and building on it alone, meaning, in the words of Frank O’Hara, you just go on your nerve.

The writing in I’ll Drown My Book sometimes does go on its nerve after setting up relevant guidelines, and “generative” is even one of the categories included though it’s not explained how that’s meant, but as a whole, strategy either prefigures or dominates the writers’ production. Sometimes that strategy is explicit, as with Nada Gordon’s work from The Abuse of Mercury, which reads like phrases taken from a prior manual on what happens when mercury is abused, the text rendered suggestive by elision:

Hot face with cold hands and feet.

Great tension, anxiety, fear.

Fear of a crowd, of the future, of the seriousness of his illness; feels sure he will die.

Or again when Laura Mullen borrows from Wordsworth to address the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in “I Wandered Networks Like a Cloud”:

That floated o’er my couch, remote
In one hand, drink in the other, a crowd
On the screen (wounded, enraged)
Fleeing the tanks beneath the leaves
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

And then Mullen progressively distorts the form of the source material as in this, from “No Voice”:

Wandered lonely as a variety of complaints in a voice of another who had no voice

This is what I remember

Two figures by the water’s edge, stopped by such beauty, one numbers

What Mullen does in the two preceding poems isn’t simply using the form of the original as a  container for contemporary material, but by rereading the choices Wordsworth makes using his sister’s journal to build a narrative, so that wandering and lonely (for example) each become an axis around which Mullen can wind both her retelling of the poem and her retelling of being witness to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy. Mullen wanders the Hurricane the same way she wanders the original poem, giving a voice “in a voice of another who had no voice” to different kinds of memory and history connected as conceptual exploration.

And sometimes strategy is less readily apparent, as with work from Angela Carr’s Rose Concordance, a complexly structured translation and redistribution/realignment of text from Guillaume de Lorris’ Roman de la Rose:

let’s say that in this presocial fountain we splash freely
i’d like to naively delete the deiform source
in this critically naive and
complicitous gamble with humanism
of the prefeminist fountain, gushing is essential
existence is an aromatic crease

Carr’s approach and result is different from Mullen’s in that Carr’s is organized around “key words” in the source text and so it’s not the form of the original being appropriated, it’s certain throughlines of content. The text is a structured starting point for generating content that echoes, responds to, and even obscures the original by being organized by terms instead of whatever overall meaning de Lorris might have been attempting to get across.

Another feature of conceptual writing as framed by the book is that it actively disrupts the linear nature of self-generative writing (experimental or not) most often by arranging the words-as-material on the page in a way that requires viewing as much as reading. One example in the book would be Jen Hofer’s quilting:

Hofer has physically stitched together fragments of found printed text into a quilt from which text can be read through Hofer’s decisions about both what material she’s chosen and how (and why) she’s chosen to stitch it together. Each writer in the anthology is given room for a critical statement about their work or conceptual writing and for Hofer, the “why” is a proclamation that “I have nothing to say,” that “There is nothing new to say,” and that the slow process of quilting gives her a great deal of time to consider ideas being dealt with, time you might not usually want or be able to spend when encountering any given text.

Another example of the visual nature of much writing here is Giovanni Singleton’s “Untitled (bird cage),” which is a drawing of a birdcage formed out of the repeated printed word bird.

As far as the work goes that may at first seem pretty straightforward but there’s more going on than that, as with all of these interventions and reckonings.  In this case the work is “soundtracked” by Charlie Parker, which loads the text/image with plenty of meaning as it is if you know any Parker biography, but is also “a response to and dialogue with” Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy,” the first line of which is “I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,” loading the work with an entirely different cultural/textual context, Dunbar via Angelou.

That the dialogue or strategy isn’t necessarily transparent in the finished work doesn’t mean either the strategy or the result is a failure, though, simply that whatever methodology or source material is involved need not always be presented as convenient explanatory footnote.  Instead it’s textual recreation and reaction that matter most. The strategies used here, the text encountered, the context of the text and the final results all have lives separate from each other even though they’re interwoven via structure, labor and critical thought.  It’s as meaningful that Singleton’s cage is empty as it is that it employs a strategy derived from or in response to other text or context you may or may not intuit or already know, for example.  Or you could be given the references and told about the piece and that wouldn’t be the same as reading it but you could still get something from it. Strategy is important, but how the text was produced is only as interesting or important as what gets produced, what’s on the page in I’ll Drown My Book when writers begin writing with text(s) already in hand or by attempting to erase “the writer” (and sometimes the writing) from the page.

That still leaves the question of whether I’ll Drown My Book does part of an anthology’s work in effectively summarizing what it contains, and the answer is not quite. And per the editors that’s only to be expected. Conceptual writing is maybe willfully too broad and amorphous of a kind of writing to be covered comprehensively by any one collection of work. But it’s a glorious not quite because it leaves room for fucking around, as in Kathy Acker’s “appropriation” of Great Expectations excerpted here, for rule-breaking, and for denials and refusals. What the anthology does do is present conceptual writing as something multivalent and full of possibility for both writers and readers, a rendering of strategy and of reading-as-writing not as a dry exercise but as play, conceptual writing being something overstuffed with connections to the world that produced the texts and contexts the writers here reckon with so compellingly.

***

This is Part 3 of a week long feature on I’ll Drown My Book, the new anthology of women’s conceptual writing out recently from Les Figues Press. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

***

Nicholas Grider is an artist and author whose artwork was most recently featured in a solo show at the Armory Center for the Arts in Los Angeles and whose writing has recently been published in ConjunctionsDrunken Boat and other magazines.

I’LL DROWN MY BOOK: Part 1 (The Ghosts of I’ll Drown My Book)

by Janice Lee

This is Part 1 of a week long feature on I’ll Drown My Book, the new anthology of women’s conceptual writing out recently from Les Figues Press.

Stay tuned all week for more…

6/4 Monday – Part 1: Review by Janice Lee

6/5 Tuesday – Part 2: Review by Molly Brodak

6/6 Wednesday – Part 3: Review by Nicholas Grider

6/7 Thursday – Part 4: Review by Janey Smith

6/8 Friday – Part 5: Brief interview questions with the anthology’s editors

***

I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women
Edited by Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, & Vanessa Place
Les Figues Press, 2012
455 pages / $40  Buy from Les Figues Press

 

The Ghosts of I’ll Drown My Book

To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
—Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I

 

Enter the ghost of conceptual writing, a ghost that cues the gestural fusion of idea with language, the ghost that speaks as a denotative and connotative apparition hiding in a text that is buried alive. There are so many ghosts. They stretch themselves out like a river. I wrap my arms around them. This is how I will drown my book.

I’ll Drown My Book is a new anthology of conceptual writing forthcoming from Les Figues Press, and edited by Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, and Vanessa Place. By collecting recent conceptual writings by women, the anthology opens up an ever-widening discourse: what is conceptual writing really and why conceptual writing now?

As the designer for the book, I have a strange relationship with the text. Kenneth Goldsmith declared that “Conceptual writing treats words as material objects, not simply carriers of meaning.”1 Anthology coeditor Vanessa Place later touches upon this materiality in her Afterword to the anthology:

I have come to consider conceptualism, qua conceptualism, that is, as writing that does not self-interpret, is not self-reflexive, at least not on the page. In other words, writing in which the content does not dictate the content: what appears on the surface of the page is pure textual materiality, no more (and often much less) that what you see on the surface of the page. Conversely, in the way of positive and negative space, conceptualism is also writing in which the context is the primary locus of meaning-making. I have written elsewhere that all conceptualism is allegorical, that is to say, its textual surface (or content) may or may not contain a kind of significance, but this surface significance (or content) is deployed against or within an extra-textual narrative (or contextual content) that is the work’s larger (and infinitely mutable) meaning.3

I hone in on the words on the page, the brickwork, the patterns the bricks make, the aesthetic and physical qualities of the text, the floating words, line breaks, and poems as blocks of text to be remolded and reshaped. Too, I notice where the wall seems to be eroding away, the cracks in the wall where light from another dimension can shine through, and then, I hear the voices emanating through those tears in the wall. The manner in which I arrange the material follows a spectral logic, connecting dots only predicated on the imaginary relations I envision between words, between the words and myself. Because the recent loss of my mother colors the way I perceive the world—the way I interact with time and space and language—what conceptual writing becomes for me is the manifestation of ghosts. I see ghosts everywhere, especially in the margins of altered texts. The ghosts scurry across the tracks of my mind, leaving footprints on the margins of well-traveled memories, but never creeping out into the open. There is a neurological transcendence at work when we interact with poetry, when we interact with concepts and ideas on this level—the ideas that voice themselves when the letters shed off their physical traits. This is not a new-age description of consciousness, but rather a Badiou-ian eventfulness.

The “event” here refers to that which can not be discerned, the conceptual framework that exists outside of language, the point at which one’s mind is most open-minded, “a rupture in ontology, a being-in-itself—through which the subject finds her realization and reconciliation with ‘truth.’”4Or, the “blind spot” of Derrida’s grammatology5, the shadow of narrative history, a textualized séance, and a “phantasmogenetic center”—that “point in space so modified by the presence of a spirit that it becomes perceptible to persons materially present near it.”6 The ghost lives in and is alive in writing, and the text is the site of its conjuration and activation.

In her introduction, Laynie Browne explains the anthology’s title as a reference to Bernadette Mayer referencing Shakespeare. Browne writes:

The process of opening Mayer to find Shakespeare reframed seems particularly fitting in the sense that conceptual writing often involves a recasting of the familiar and the found. In Mayer’s hands the phrase “I’ll Drown My Book” becomes an unthinkable yet necessary act. This combination of unthinkable, or illogical and necessary or obligatory also speaks to ways that the writers in this collection seek to unhinge and re-examine previous assumptions about writing. Thinking and performance are not separate from process and presentation of works. If a book breathes it can also drown, and in the act of drowning is a willful attempt to create a book which can awake the unexpected—not for the sake of surprise, but because the undertaking was necessary for the writer in order to uproot, dismantle, reforge, remap or find new vantages and entrances to well trodden or well guarded territory.3

I’ll Drown My Book throws itself the face of this intensity, to face the ghosts and “create a book which can awake the unexpected.” The book communicates telepathically, I feel the resonance of the stack of signifiers, see the portals that lead out of language. The horror writer Stephen King considers writing as a form of telepathy, where through the medium of a text, one’s mental state comes to transcend space and time. The text, like a Ghostbusters‘ trap that only temporarily destabilizes a ghost for containment, waits to be reactivated at a different point in the space-time continuum.7 These ghosts have no intention of escaping. The being-drowned is all part of the process of eventual activation.

The way I understand conceptual writing is similar perhaps to Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity—there are moments in space and time where and when the physical world becomes a text to be read out and interpreted, where and when the event is structured not by casual networks of matter but by symbolic references producing meaning. Jeffrey J. Kripal relates these processes of writing and reading to paranormal processes, coining the phrase “authors of the impossible.”8And it is this reaching for impossibility that for me unites the “beyond” haunting metaphysics and a conceptual writing practice.

The table of contents forces the question of how impossibility unleashes itself on the rest of the anthology. How do modes like constraint-driven process, formulaic structure, appropriation, and intertextual weavings cease or encourage the admission of the ghost? Is every text haunted?

In his introduction to Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Kenneth Goldsmith points to the present technological era, stating that, “Faced with an unprecedented amount of available digital text, writing needs to redefine itself to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance.” He continues later, “[N]ever before has language had so much materiality—fluidity, plasticity, malleability—begging to be actively managed by the writer. Before digital language, words were almost always found imprisoned on a page. How different it is today, when digitized language can be poured into any conceivable container.”9 Indeed in this digital age where fish and birds seem to readily fall from the sky and apocalyptic cognition a reflex, conceptual writing attempts to create further distance from self, while at the same time, it “tries to get away from itself by catching up with itself.”10 The transmission of ideas and signals through the internet spotlights the materiality of language—the constant copy and pasting, downloading and uploading of texts and images—but the transmission also encroaches upon a telepathic reality, as the constant “what if” of technology marks “a phantom appearance in thought, the very capability of imagining nonexistence, ghosts, apparitions, and virtuality.”10 In conceptual writing, the ghost is always in the process of returning to the scene of the crime.

The anthology is organized into four categories:

1. Process: Constraint, Mimicry, Mediation, Translative, Versioning
2. Structure: Appropriation, Erasure, Constraint, Formula, Pattern, Palimpsest
3. Matter: Baroque, Hybrid, Generative, Corporeal, Dissensual
4. Event: Documenta, Investigative, Intertextual, Historicism, Speculative

These categories are not hard-line inclusive or exclusive, but rather draw further attention to the elusive definition of conceptual writing. Teresa Carmody, codirector of Les Figues Press, notes, “I’ll Drown My Book is a feminist text in the way it creates a space for multiple and sometimes contradictory perspectives of conceptualism.” Though the bulk of my interaction with this book is through feeling and articulating the contours of letters and spaces on the page, the pieces themselves start to circle around an abiding unity, where more and more the singular-plurality of an individual subject starts to color the consequential writings. M. H. Abrams, on Hegel’s The Phenomenology of the Spirit, describes a world in which Spirit or Mind (Geist) constitutes both subject, and object, as well as the plot of the story. Here, the reader is as much a part of the text as the text is a part of the reader.8 This to me sounds much like the “sobject” of Place and Fitterman’s Notes on Conceptualisms. Poetry is not just a reader acting upon a text, rather both text and reader stand as witness to an act of witnessing, “a caloric substance, immanence with bleached teeth.”2

The anthology’s works beg immanence, breathe specter-ship, and promise allegorical gesture.

Each piece in the anthology is accompanied by a brief author’s defining conceptual writing in relation to her own writing process. In reading these, I think about whether ghosts have reflections in the mirror. When I stand in front of the mirror and recite “Bloody Mary” the appropriate number of times, what I see is my own reflection again staring back at me. So then, when “I am haunted by myself who is haunted by myself who is haunted,”10 how can I step behind the mirror? In each moment that I exist as an “I,” the state is continually haunted by the possibility of possibility.

In their statement, Oana Avasilichioaei and Erín Moure describe the process behind Expeditions of a Chimaera: “Here ‘constraint’ is not simply working with and through some work of Nichita Stânescu or Paul Celan, it is also confrontation with the subjectivity and corporeality of the other: admitting that language takes place outside ‘me’ as an individual and that this is writing too, and is, curiously, “my” writing.”3 Christine Wertheim, too, relates the iteration of the phantom “I”:

If I think of my poetic work as conceptual it is in this sense: it plays with concepts in order to point to the existence of a gap in self-consciousness, a fracture in the self-reflecting I that is its subject. However, what makes the works “conceptual” is not merely that it points to this gap, but that in doing so it points to another gap, that between the conceptof a subjective disjunction, its actual existence, and the (im)- possibility of the mind’s capacity to imag(in)e or perceptually grasp this phenomenon.3

The “I” that is neither author, narrator, or reader, but instead a ghost, and also the future anterior self, becomes masked by its mere summoning. Or, “[a]n ‘I’ that functioning as a pure passageway for operations of substitution is not some singular and irreplaceable existence, some subject or life.”10 So, who is it that is addressing you? And when you answer, who is it that voices a reply?

We view these as glimpses of the paradoxical world behind the mirror. As we have come to be aware of how visible light exists as a small increment along a rather large spectrum otherwise invisible to normal perception, so too might we understand how subjectivity manifests itself in a conceptual text. Kim Rosenfield renders the following in her statement:

Walter Benjamin: Meaning resides not simply in the text itself or in the subject matter, but in the human transmission of experience. D. W. Winnicott: The place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment. Sherrie Levine: I like to think of my paintings as membranes permeable from both sides so there is an easy flow between the past and the future, between my history and yours. Kim Rosenfield (the I): I like to think of my experience of language as chronically subjective, both in my creative life as a conceptual poet, and in my other creative life as an analytic psychotherapist. My language encounters are encounters between a subjective “I” and a lesser known “me” or actual multiple “me’s” in addition to encounters between another’s subjective me-ness and their own multiple self-states. Kim Rosenfield (the image): The world of persons is as plastic and varied as people themselves. What has been described here is the world of persons. the one we live in. In it, what I see in you is an image of myself. And what you see in me is an image of you. IT IS A WORLD OF MIRRORS. IT IS A USELESS AND OBSCURING FICTION THAT THERE IS A WORLD.3

And Rachel Blau DuPlessis simultaneously relates, “I am them as female author, simulacrum of authorship throughout history. I am a fake become ghost become real. For now that history is marked by the shadow of me and others like me.”3

The “me” and “others like me” correspond silently and loudly in the ever-arriving space of the book. In her Foreword, Caroline Bergvall writes:

[Kathy] Acker famously proposed a literary mode which only exists through other texts. It twists itself through other texts. The writer conceives of writing as a collated and plagiarized multiplicity. Cultural pillaging provides a poetic trajectory that negates the original authorial voice. The uniqueness of the work is its lack of uniqueness, its negativity. It exists as a mode of textual appropriation, a process of shadowing and transference. This poetic strategy falls in line with broad notions of conceptual practice. Something like Walter Benjamin meets Sherrie Levine. Simultaneously, it is conceived as a salutary way to escape an abject subjectivity, “I was unspeakable.”3

There is so much that is unspeakable, but also the words of so many voices echo in the “just beyond.” In the search for a concrete “I,” we slip, waver, stare at the moon, and make assumptions. A limited view locates ghosts in the past. But it is more precise to say that their roots lie in the future, in a reading not yet realized but being realized presently.

The remnants of “I”/”me” carry over to the selection of works in the anthology. Vanessa Place admits that she does not necessarily see all the writing in this anthology as conceptual writing. When asked about this she responds, “Just as the masculinist tendency towards singularity is admirably clarifying, the feminist preference for multiplicity is commendably cant. On the other hand, singularity is sometimes promiscuous, and multiplicity may lead to monogamy—problems are productive, productivity problematic. Too, I enjoy arguing.”11 Furthermore, Browne describes the solicitation process and shares that many writers declined to submit work because they not consider their work to fall inside the category of conceptual writing.3 The Anthology provides a sort of shelter for assumptions, the literary compulsions of ghosts that change your perspective so that you change your perspective of them. Uncertainty can be anxiety-inducing, but also essential, productive. Browne writes, “I especially appreciate that conceptual writing very often moves outside the realms or the confines of the personal sense of the ‘I’ and is very engaged in questioning assumptions underlying how we use language to perceive and define.”3

The elephant is the elephant: Place aptly uses the parable of five blind men and the elephant (five men “perceive and define” uniquely) to illustrate the proverb that truth is beholden to the eye of the beholder.3 This is true for our interactions with the world at large, but much less so the act of designating conceptual writing and reading a text. Place quotes Schopenhauer, “Through the allegory a concept is always to be signified, and consequently the mind of the beholder is to be drawn away from the expressed perceptible idea to one which is entirely different, abstract and not perceptible, and which lies quite outside the work of art,” and with the guidance of the specters of our imagination, we are returned to the precept:

“Conceptual writing is allegorical writing.”2

Are the ghosts an allegorical device? Or is my seeing ghosts a veridical hallucination8, both hidden and present simultaneously? If my ordinary conceptual system, in terms of how I both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature12, does the paranormal become a metaphorical, allegorical, conceptual, and/or literal way of interacting with the world?

To shift from a paranormal view to a more political one, I close with some hopes for what this anthology may accomplish. With Teresa Carmody, I hold on to the hope for a “shift from numbers to content,” especially in light of the commotion post-VIDA count13 (the blogger Lemon Hound brilliantly delves into the “What now?” and “What if?” on her own blog14).

The ghosts do not deal in numbers themselves, rather they impress upon us projections of our own embedded ideologies and the potential of impossibility. Conceptual writing cannot run from the spectrality of metaphysics. Rather, the materiality of conceptual writing becomes the foundation for the remnants that haunt our writing. There are ghosts in writing everywhere, offering hope or glimpses of apocalyptic cognition. It is the cognitive estrangement that arises out of encounters with ghosts that brings about cognitive change, the paranormal as instigating. A book is drowning, and indeed, there are ghosts. They are everywhere. Already. Always. Will be. Some are mine. Some are yours. Sometimes they meet on pages. What do these encounters look like? They look like this.

***

References.

1 Sanders, Katherine Elaine. “SO WHAT EXACTLY IS CONCEPTUAL WRITING?: an interview with Kenneth Goldsmith.” BOMBLOG. Oct 2, 2009.

2 Place, Vanessa and Rob Fitterman. Notes on Conceptualisms. Ugly Ducking Presse, 2009.

3 Eds. Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Vanessa Place. “A Conceptual Assemblage: Introduction.”I’ll Drown My Book: Women’s Conceptual Writing. Les Figues Press, forthcoming 2011.

4 Badiou, Alain. Being and Event. Trans. Oliver Feltham. Continuum, 2006.

5 Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. John Hopkins University Press, 1998.

6 Myers, Frederic W. H. Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903.

7 King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York, Scribner, 2000.

8 Kripal, Jeffrey J. Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

9 Eds. Dworkin, Craig and Kenneth Goldsmith. Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing. Northwestern University Press, 2011.

10 Appelbaum, David. Jacques Derrida’s Ghost. State University of New York Press, 2009.

11 Responses to interview questions, conducted by Janice Lee via email. February 2011.

12 Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press, 1980.

13 This refers to “The Count,” VIDA’s annual accounting of women writers published and reviewed at major literary publications.
VIDA. “The Count 2010.” VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. February 2011. http://vidaweb.org/the-count-2010

14 Lemon Hound. “The Gatekeepers and the Glass Ceiling, Notes Toward an Essay on The Count.”Lemon Hound. February 24, 2011.

 

***

This review was originally published in Issue 3 of Dear Navigator, an online magazine and publication project for contemporary art and writing at the boundaries. Look for a new project from Dear Navigator‘s founding editors soon and, in the mean time, reach out atdn.writing@gmail.com.

Julie Doxsee’s Objects for a Fog Death

by Gregg Murray

Objects for a Fog Death
by Julie Doxsee
Black Ocean, 2010.
104 pages / $12.95  Buy from Black Ocean or SPD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I do not think I will respond
with a bevy of clasp holds
to this bezel. A poem, then,
by way of re/view. How groan
she made it look like an accident
the way “Februarying” brought
us lyfe and the eternal year
but then a fog death behind it.1
I always like to die like that like
2                                      .

It was awaiting me, somewhere
in the vs. but I got lulled into it,
one spur of the surreal detail3 .
Sometimes death is the creep-
ing moment where it silently
“overwhelmed over/ night.”
Doxsee’s spaceTime bends to
accommodate the ghosts in the
grins.4 It’s about getting sucked
in by language as breath, dim
light of some skull torch. Even
partial-heards, like “of your breath/
we sleep” summon the soft
hurt. Pert language makes you
wince and fill. If the objects
have echoes5 , I still know they
are in the things: “origami
swan” “sphinxes/in your hands”
“sea-green floor.” These are the
objects that killed me when I read
this book of kills. They stuffed
me smiling into a deerskin box
with just enough room for my
toes.

 

↩ 1.“sullen hikes in the/ ice cream snow” and “snow/ waiting for a large person’s/ angel smash.”

↩ 2. “when the horses went/ hoarse in slow motion.”

↩ 3. “They’re so/ tiny because I/ erase my house/ with a broom.”

↩ 4. “So why do you/ think I’m quiet when/ the water bulges like a howl/ & your fingers undo/ the bouquet?”

↩ 5. “holdable echoes”

 

***

Gregg Murray is an assistant professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and a contributing poetry editor for The Chattahoochee Review. He has recent poems in Caketrain, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere, and a few others forthcoming from decomP magazinE, LEVELER, and Spittoon. If you are interested in his weird book reviews, see his recent essay on Giorgio Agamben in Continent. as well. Gregg holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Minnesota. For more deets—or to contact Gregg—please visit gregorykirkmurray.com