On Susan Landers's 'Franklinstein'
Franklinstein began as a mash-up of two classic US texts: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans. It was an inspired move, to juxtapose the plainspoken, aphoristic words of a founding father with the modernist novel written by a Jewish, lesbian expat who sought to dismantle and redefine concepts of “the new world” and literature itself.
But as Landers herself writes, Franklinstein was a project that lacked life — until she breathed her own into it. In 2012, Landers’s childhood church closed, and she went back to her old neighborhood to see it. “I thought: if I could write the story of this place and its beginnings, this writing would be the right thing, a kind of living.”
Thus Franklinstein came to life, a multigenre documentary work that both explores and deepens the connective tissue between Landers and this community, a neighborhood of Philadelphia called Germantown. I read this book in its various iterations as it developed and witnessed Landers live the writing — pour her soul into it — for four years. She embarked on an extensive research and documentary project that involved dozens of visits to Germantown to engage with people, conduct interviews, visit historic sites, and create the photographs that appear in the book. The acknowledgements page thanks some seventy people who shared insights with Landers about Germantown. She also did extensive research outside of Germantown, visiting the National Park Service, the Pennsylvania Historic Society, and the Temple Urban Archives, to name a few.
Landers also was deliberate about sharing the process of writing the book, both on Tumblr and by doing readings from the work in progress, to test the work, learn from people’s responses, and make new connections. Landers told me, “There wasn’t a single reading I did anywhere, including outside of Philadelphia, where someone wouldn’t come up to me afterwards either to tell me about their personal connection to Germantown, or to a community like it. So, talking about the work and performing it enabled the work to get bigger, and go deeper.”
The result is a beautifully layered book, steeped in complexity, relationship, and connection. The cover image is a collage of the house where Landers grew up, made by one of Landers’s seven older siblings, Ann Beatus, an artist. The book itself operates as a sort of assemblage, bringing personal and family history together with colonial and US history. Landers layers in photographs and archival documents, and employs a range of formal strategies, including dialogue, essay, lyric poetry, interview, appropriated language, and lists. She documents her process of composition as it evolves. The result is a work that feels alive, that resists static or pat conclusions, and instead presents a record of one individual’s struggle to grasp both the intimate and the vast historical forces that shape a life.
The challenge of this book for Landers was writing about a neighborhood that both belonged to her and didn’t. She was born and raised in Germantown, but she hasn’t lived there in decades — the neighborhood has changed, and so has she. And even as Germantown shaped Landers, it was in turn shaped over centuries by colonialism, racism, and capitalism. In the years before and during Landers’s childhood, Germantown experienced white flight — white people left the increasingly diverse urban neighborhood for more homogenous suburbs. Landers’s family stayed, so her experience growing up was as a white person inside a predominantly black neighborhood. Her experience as an adult is that few people who know Philadelphia seem able, or willing, to believe she comes from Germantown. As Landers puts it, “my impossible origins” (131).
In an essay in the Chicago Review called “Poetry in light of documentary,” the poet and critic Jill Magi writes of the difficulties inherent in this kind of documentary writing: “how ethically fraught it is to represent the realities of others and to engage in content that points to the world outside an individual poet’s life.” Landers confronts these challenges head on. The opening essay includes a warning, delivered by a historian, about the dangers of idealizing a past that never actually existed. Landers quickly turns that accusation on herself: “At the beginning of this writing, I was participating in behavior long practiced in Germantown — that of white people mourning what was” (18). She notes that her connection to the place had been patronizing, and her method had been to explore it from afar, through the Internet. She realizes she needs to come closer, to make contact with the actual place of her birth and upbringing. She has to be open to the place in all its complexities and let it penetrate and change her; she has to “meander” (25).
Meandering as a poetics is what makes this book so profound. It enables Landers to range widely, from the great road made by the Lenni-Lenape that became Germantown Avenue, to the fog of the Revolutionary War, to a cross burning on a lawn two hundred years later. It allows her to combine scholarly research with personal history and records of casual conversations. It creates space for the multiplicity of forms Landers employs, and also opens the book to surprises, to the spontaneous life of the place. The project is not to preserve a static history or memory, but to pay tribute to the life of a neighborhood, both past and present:
What to guard against: the rendering of artifacts apart from the living, the living who give a site meaning. Meaning the skin that holds us together. Making a place for us together as living. (50)
In the Chicago Review, Magi writes that the documentary mode requires “attention to representation as a nonneutral practice … [asking] ‘what kind’ of reality, and whose reality, is being represented” (248). She suggests that documentary poetry may be particularly well suited to these questions:
At its base, poetry enacts the beautiful resistances generated by language and foregrounds interpretation; it pivots on the desire to know as well as the methodological intricacies, challenges of knowing. (275)
In Franklinstein,Landers emphasizes the subjective practice of representation in part through the wide variety of formal strategies she employs — she approaches the same subject matter using different lenses. She also taps an impressive range of intellectual disciplines: the extensive bibliography at the end encompasses history, sociology, urban studies, diverse poetries, drama, and memoir. In other words, Landers did her homework. But the work itself always points back to the gaps, the difficulties — in some cases the ultimate impossibility — of knowing.
Benjamin Franklin’s “ghost house” becomes an emblem for these gaps. Few records exist documenting what Franklin’s house in Philadelphia actually looked like, so when people wanted to memorialize the site, they built instead just the outline of a house, a skeleton “intended to remind visitors / of the limits of historical knowledge” (40). These facts are explained in a lyric poem that uses line breaks and white space to physically enact the gaps, and it evokes an inaccurate memory of the museum there as a “first” memory, even though it likely wasn’t: “Let’s call this my earliest memory” (40).
In an earlier prose poem, “Moving through a country is never done quickly” (36), the gaps in knowledge are deeply personal. Landers describes her longing to know about her own past and her family, and the impossibility of ever understanding what was “not discussed or explained.” In part, this gap comes from the fact that her parents and many people involved in that history have died. In part it is because, even when they were alive, Landers’s family remained silent about issues of race and their own poverty. Grief over that silence, that irrecoverable loss, becomes a part of the work itself — profound in its humility, in its acceptance and admission of limits and inadequacy, its gentleness with people and with knowledge — a beautifully human book.
Landers’s work has always had a sonic lusciousness, and here it is the songlike quality that helps to bring the work alive with emotion — at times a song of mourning and trauma, at times a kind of love song for the past of her family and for the neighborhood today.
So many stories I have come to be hearing. About this place where I lived so much of my living. A kind of living unlike many others. Like Nzadi’s father who set pins in the bowling alley. A job my uncle had once, too. The bowling alley next to the dining hall where Nzadi’s father wasn’t allowed to sit down. Or the department store where her mother bought shoes. The store where my father bought me the mauve dress I’d wear to his funeral. How the clerk made Nzadi’s mother put a piece of paper inside the shoes she wanted to try on.
How I came to see
how much more I needed to always be listening
to you, the place of this writing,
and you, the people of this place
and all the history
we are a part of that is a part of us (133–34)
But the beauty of this book is not only inside it: there is beauty in what has happened and is happening around it. The writing of Franklinstein reconnected Landers to the community of her birth. She navigated both her own nostalgia and her own trauma to arrive face to face, to embrace, the Germantown of the present in all its irreducible human complexity. Landers formed friendships with people in the community; she collaborated with the Germantown photographer Tieshka Smith, whose photos appear in the book; she launched the book with a celebration in Germantown and appeared on the community’s G-Town Radio. As Landers explained to me: “It’s just that these connections go beyond research. People are connected through generosity and curiosity and art.”
The socially engaged mode that Landers pursues here offers a model for documentary poetry, one that seeks not only to record the world, but to work toward change, and healing.
The ordering myth of Sophie Cabot Black’s The Exchange is that of Abraham and Isaac, from Genesis 22. The Lord asks of Abraham a sacrifice, in return for the promise of chosenness, a future. God demands Abraham kill his son Isaac as an offering to be burnt; Abraham is prepared to obey. At the last moment, an angel stays Abraham’s hand. Having passed the Lord’s test, Abraham is permitted to offer a lamb, instead of Isaac, as blood sacrifice. The story is traditionally read as a model of righteous submission through substitution: exchanging the animal for the child, one body for another body, a richer abstract future for a painful particular sacrifice, the symbol for the instantiation, the word for the deed. An honorable stock of exchanges; and yet each substitution exacts its cost. The damage has been done by the time the father and son have climbed up the mountain: the father has chosen the sacrifice. One wonders what the unbound Isaac felt, as the two returned down the hill, knowing that his father had meant to offer him to the invisible, unnamable Lord.
It’s the human element, the Isaac element, which endures the grief of annihilation, in the knowledge that grace is accessible by means of an inscrutable justice of exchange, through suffering that is comprehensible only from a perspective beyond ours. That is the promise, the symbolic exchange, by which the human particular is offered to time, to the absolute, in return for a compensatory future — and for words, for the Word, to explain loss. Separation-and-substitution is the nature of the symbolic and therefore of poetry, the art of metaphorical transport, as words replace persons and things. The cost of love is also the reward of love, in time. Abraham’s story is one of promise, of (willed) sacrifice rewarded; Isaac’s is a story of harsh continuity, of betrayal and emptiness and promised words as the necessary condition of survival.
At issue in Sophie Cabot Black’s new poems is the nature of such substitutions, in mourning and in allegory. Loss, in Black’s poems, is the enabling condition of survival, just as the possibility of loss is always a premise of joy on earth. The Abraham-Isaac myth is a complex paradigm, which Black holds up to the light of associative consciousness and turns in her attention like a jewel or a manifold grief. Black’s poems are structured around these difficult narrative truths, meditating on the nature of displacement and — finally — on a searing, wounded joy, through survival and endurance and memory and verbalization. Through Black’s poems, the myth functions as the vehicle of an extended metaphor — as, for instance, the drama of the Garden of Eden informs Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, or the story of Helen of Troy informs several of HD’s long poems, or the fable of a shining city informs Ezra Pound’s early Cantos (“To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the color of stars”). That is, the poetic myth is a story that recurs and ramifies — not so much a point of departure as a field of potential. The narrative of persons in essentialized actions turns an experience into an embodied abstraction. So, by the dynamic of the dramatization, the myth opens the possibility of meditation enacted from several perspectives. In The Exchange, as in the Genesis story, God is silent, except as a promise; humans think and speak, and thinking-speech is the vehicle of the transformation.
By emphasizing the element of myth I don’t mean that the paradigm precedes its occasion in these poems, but rather that Black submerges the sequence of perceptions in the poem until she finds the experiential, primal truth of the story, without compromising the occasion or the truth of the particular. In this book, as in her eloquent long poem “The Arguments” from her 1994 collection The Misunderstanding of Nature (grounded in the story of the landing of the Mayflower, told from the perspective of Dorothy Bradford), Black explores the structural myth by discovering it as it is experienced — in the associative, mediating consciousness of its human agents. She is, it seems to me, the great contemporary poet of the psychology of myth.
The Exchange divides into two sections — call them “up the mountain” and “back down” (though climbing up toward the sacrifice also has a psychologically downward motion of dread — anticipating grief is also a form of grief): or call them “before” a great loss (there is an implied narrative of the illness and death of a loved one) and “after” (in the stunned experience of consequence). With elegant symmetry, the sequence details first the foreknowledge or anticipation of sacrifice, then the recuperation (through the paralyzing stillness after the event). Section 1 moves through a series of poems that use economic metaphors. Poems like “Real Estate” and “Private Equity” and “To Market” consider the give-and-take of relationship: what is given to us in trust, what we must return or repay as part of the contract of affection, how much one can “take” as a measure of hope, or character, or endurance. What is the “price” one pays for unconditional affection? Those opening poems are balanced in Section 2 by poems like “Preservation of Capital” and “Statue of Victory Halfway Up the Stair,” which represent the speaker empty-handed, continuing to offer to give when the debt of affection falls due, accepting the fact of loss.
Statue of Victory Halfway Up the Stair
Whatever is missing draws us in. To move
Toward the absent with an idea
Of Otherwise: if only we had been there
Before all the damage. How we cannot
Help looking, an argument of too much
Beauty, imagining the hands; did it begin
In the face, the unknown head. And then the body
After, the breaking down. We walk around
In order to see what is no longer there
Prepared to answer anything
But instead the child who is with us believes
It was meant to end just so: without arm, foot or brow
And already wants to know where we go next.
Each particular as intended. What could have been?
Black is speaking back, here, to Rilke’s famous “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” but where the Rilke sonnet had honored the residual power of the artifact — the sense of presence and reciprocity despite the Greek statue’s incompletions — Black’s poem feels the absences as absences. Statues lose their heads and limbs, and human loss makes us incomplete, emptying the present except as wish or compulsion. Such emptiness is the point at which faith, or hope in the promise of compensation, may fill the void. Without faith, there is no hope — but also, without emptiness there is no compensatory filling. Rilke knew this truth, too. In the famous last half-line of his sonnet, “Du mußt dein Leben ändern”/“You must change your life,” he puns on the German idiom to kill oneself, “dein Leben enden”/to “end your life.” The act of spiritual kenosis, of emptying-out, is the prerequisite for compensatory completion: the promise, the future-oriented childish word, the difficult “exchange.” If the Rilke poem had sensed a reciprocal power coming through the incomplete statue despite its missing parts, Black’s speaker problematizes that acceptance of loss, accepting that the power here derives not from the glowing residual power of the fragment, but exactly from the diminishments the statue endures and embodies. The question recurs often though the final sequence of The Exchange, concluding in the poem “Pay Attention,” in which — in these final lines — grief is the price of dailiness, of attentive consciousness:
I took care
Of myself, thinking much too often
I took care of someone else.
Everything feels like pavement. In fact
We come into this paying. And you who are
Nowhere to be found, who make
No noise, who cannot be smelled or tasted,
Wander through with all of us wanting you
At the same time. Oh to be wanted
Like that, for you to pull up a chair
And let your knees touch mine.
For one moment not to answer
The other call, not to look
Past my shoulder when something else moves.
A wiry syntax binds together these lines, justifying their leaps and twists of insight through an urgent vertical rhythm. The poems of The Exchange behave like sonnets (they’re often fourteen lines long), but they “turn” between clauses in a continuous, self-conscious way — not, that is, as a traditional sonnet “turns” at the end of the octet, but as a mode of revelation, as the speaking mind thinks through its problems in reversals, surprises, unexpected continuations. Sometimes the surprise is the way that the new sonnet resists its turn, as the speaker refuses to seek or to cultivate consolation — and yet encounters it all the same. Black uses these sonnet-like forms brilliantly, in-formatively. She knows that grief twists syntax (few poets these days use line-breaks better than Black does): the unexpected spiritual modulations of mourning and of healing generate the emergent form as they occur to the meditating mind. These quasisonnets are a contemporary mode of association, but they do not feel willed or clever. Black makes that contemporary “ladder-of-surprises” effect serve a cunning, wise purpose. The poems work like the sections of Tennyson’s In Memoriam: grief evolves, changing also the survivor. Black’s speaker seems, herself, surprised by the emergent truth — including the truth of her own emptiness after the loss, then her own healing. These are essential poems, and essentially wise as they enact their meditative discoveries.
This being beyond the expected, this
Still here. First the almost, then the animal
Which was to save or at least provide
Another chance, but now will not allow
Any near, even an unfettered. My father, finished
With sacrifice, left. Many have come to this field
To wait. The more they wait the more
They also leave, only to return again with others
Until the field is filled with waiting. And here I am
Who withheld nothing. And there the white
Always in the tree. You go
Where you need to go until it does not
Matter. You do not matter. There is
The window. Open. Now go through.
The “you” here is the loved one, leaving, about to go through; it is also the speaker. The window is “open”; so is the speaker, going through. “Open” is an adjective, a quality of emptiness describing the window; it is also a command directed to the speaker and by the speaker, both to the departing soul and to herself. “Open. Now go through”: the last half-line is a request; a release; an order; a new law; an emergent mode of exchange; a form of promise.
'Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way' and 'Participant'
Think in stitches. Think in settlements. Think in willows. — Gertrude Stein
How do poets make sense of landscape? Sense as in meaning, but also as in sensation, the lived experience of engaging with a particular tract of land at a particular time (day, season/weather, human dateline)? The two books here, based on living around and walking through 46.7325ºN, 117.1717º: The Confluence, South Fork Palouse River and Paradise Creek, Pullman, WA, USA, are exemplary, in freshness, thoughtfulness, and depth of engagement.
Russo’s method, partly a recuperation of “the local,” is to foreground place, combined with a hyperawareness of the many ways in which spatiality is constructed. Familiar debates about all-too-familiar binaries — words versus things, humans versus nonhuman beings, Euclidean zoning (favoring car-users over pedestrians) versus high-density inhabitation, abstracted mapping versus perceptual space — are here rehearsed within a specific landscape, part of its complex dynamics, neither dominating it nor dictating terms. The preposition is significant here, included in the title of a key essay by Russo on ecopoetics, proposing that:
An ecopoetical writing within … by grappling with material and linguistic conditions, creates cultures not only of the mind or heart, but of places; it strives to resituate possession, the “our,” within a matrix of human and nonhuman needs and lifeways. Nature can not have a voice in poems — but a poet can write environed, within, in a place of multiple listenings and differing inscriptions.
Such “environed” writing, stirred by breezes and seeded by birdsong, is a practice where, to quote Russo on Joanne Kyger in the same essay, “the poem is on-the-page and in-the-world at once through a comingling of experience, thought, perception, and fact.”
Whereas Participant (discussed below) is primarily a collage of “experience, thought, [and] perception,” Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way is also highly factual — is in part a work of documentary poetry. Sequences of poems are punctuated with maps and illustrations, with an email about weeding from the board of the community garden where Russo is “self-appointed poet-in-residence,” along with “silhouettes of typical vegetation” (29) and instructions for those wanting to attempt to replant native prairie.
Particularly powerful is the sequence, “Always Underfoot” (the phrase is taken from Mary Austin on the importance of regional environment in terms of daily lived experience), where various cartographic acts find themselves mapped onto each other. Here “feet … / write collaborative geographies” (52), are “set down in the ruminant patterns of cows” (62), while in “[s]ettlement we revise the already-being-written, a rolling hillside, a spot of prairie, a patch of woods” (53). “[A]lready-being-written” not only through inscriptive and reinscriptive processes by all kinds of beings, but because physical geography itself is dynamic:
We write ourselves in an imagined Euclidean blank, a stable canvas / until houses slide down hillsides, houses that always inch closer to some sea. Inland sinkholes open and swallow people, houses, cows. The little fictions geologic instability transects. (53)
Russo is good at showing how the “little fictions” engage both with the sensed landscape and with much larger-scale geographical imaginings. “Always Underfoot” — here as elsewhere the titling is partly ironic — includes a screenshot of a satellite photo-map (I’m resisting using the omnipresent brand name here) of 46.7325ºN, 117.1717º, followed by a numbered list of observations, keyed in with white numerals on the grey half-tone of the map. On-the-ground and just-above-the-ground (human and plant scale) talk back to the sky, making the satellite observations porous — to “unattributed informational (folk) signage,” as Russo describes it in an essay on the production of this piece — as well as to touch and sound, the experience of being in the landscape: birdsong, sun-glints, breezes, etc., all dispersed across the space defined by the map and providing alternative “experiential … ‘coordinates.’” Another way of describing this process might be “[w]alking the mapped omissions” (52), the first line of the first poem in this sequence. The river whose name doesn’t appear on the map, for instance, and how “someone puts out the plank footbridge removed / late fall (its omission from street maps marks it as natural)” are indicative of a “map dialectic of depicting / and effacing” (55).
A similar dialectic operates formally in this collection — put basically, of gathering as against scattering. Given Russo’s interest in field poetics (not to mention the subject matter!) the reader might expect Olsonian composition by field: words and phrases isolated across the page/the double-page spread, strategic use of white space. But scattering and gathering, omission and marking are thematic here rather than formal. Many of the poems are left-justified, and many are in couplets. “[T]he pattern is a kind of necessity,” Russo writes, “clustered instructions” (55). The mappings, lists, instructions, exhortations (the community gardens email, for example) are in clusters, yes, but they’re also held together by sequential devices. One such is seasonal (seasonally titled poems that provide markers for winter through autumn), others more unexpected. A set of poems scattered through the book, all opening with “she said” or “then she said,” alert the reader that this is a learned landscape, and that included in the writing here is a narrative of that learning. As in all good stories, there are helpers: the author’s mother (who is the “she” mentioned above) and — a more ambivalent figure, a focus for sorrow and anger — the Columbia River Basin pygmy rabbit, on the verge of extinction, and, significantly, saved through hybridization in a captive breeding program.
We’re not talking about pushing for the authentic here — and it’s worth noting that the title of the book, Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way, isn’t a celebration of autochthony but rather an alert to the ongoing presence, within larger spaces, of notions of origins and rootedness, now shrunk down, conflated with the smallness of seeds:
simply an essential radish (from “radical” / having roots,
meaning to go to the origin in some way —
on the Pacific Flyway
the seed you planted, the Least Tern took wing
meaning to go to the origin in some way
acting animal-like toward boundaries, breathing (14)
The “origin in some way” when “go[ne] to”/pushed at isn’t a single point, but a dispersal across a wide field, a field of investigation.
Another set of poems placed throughout the book, all with the same capitalized title, “GOING TO SURVEY WALMART CONSTRUCTION FROM THE CREST OF PIONEER HILL,” would also appear to promise a sequence — but the development, such as it is, has nothing to do with the progressive stages of erection of big-box projects, but instead opens up into showing how “we in our many vectors crisscross this space” (26) by, for example, recording “the sentient world in the only human way it knows, through animals” (9). Moreover, whereas the first two poems under the self-consciously self-aggrandizing rubric build serious arguments — for an ecopoetics of “interspecies inhabitance” (9), for example, and “the analytic capacity of sentient poetry” (17) — the last two in the set trail off into bathos: “disappointment when ‘thunder’ is the rolling /of a garbage bin” (35) while the final word on the matter, the last line in the last poem of this set, settles for pointing out that “some of us animals out here do live in the / (prairie, ocean, desert) besides” (45). Witnessing is sometimes just trudging up the same hill over and over again.
Strategic understatement and studied quietness also feature in Participant, an airy collage of observations, sensations, and comments with quotes and near-quotes from Emily Dickinson. Unlike the poems in Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way, the writing here mostly uses composition by field, and the words and phrases read across and up and down two-page spreads as well as page by page, a delicate, almost musical crossweave of repeated words and phrases.
An “Environment & acknowledgements” section at the end of the book lists the relevant Dickinson poems, and to explore the resonance of the deeper notes underlying the bright, high-toned sounds in the foreground, it’s helpful to spend time with these. For example, to go from the top of pages 10–11, where “the birds sketching a geography” reads across to “hover in an erratic remoter green” then back down to “three bees swoop across my face” and across again to “it’s like a private wood / in which I comprehend” not only creates a skimming horizontal movement across the plane of the page — with a jump beyond, into greater depths of field (in this case, grove/orchard/woodland) — but gives access to Dickinson at her most visionary:
There is a morn by men unseen —
Whose maids upon remoter green
Keep their Seraphic May — 
It’s like the Light —
A fashionless Delight —
— It’s like the Woods —
Private — Like the Breeze —
Phraseless — yet it stirs
The proudest Trees — 
Along the way, Zen attention to the natural world (“dumb plants / with their little deaths / dumbly testify” ) faces on the opposite page “(Little Wealths) / [where] I summarize my greatest treasures / counting very real distances / on fingers like a school girl,” echoing Dickinson’s extravagant spiritual reckoning:
Your Riches — taught me — Poverty.
Myself — a Millionaire
In little Wealths, as Girls could boast
— and its ending:
At least it solaces to know
That there exists — a Gold —
Altho’ I prove it, just in time
Its distance — to behold —
Its far — far Treasure to surmise —
And estimate the Pearl —
That slipped my simple fingers through —
While just a Girl at School.
The highly developed sense of distance, proximity, and depth of field apparent both in Russo’s text and in many of the Dickinson poems to which she alludes is brought into focus by another key reference for both Participant and Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way, the anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s 1966 classic, The Hidden Dimension. A poem with a Dickinsonian title, “Participant as birds,” in Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way encapsulates Russo’s interest in Hall’s theories on the interplay of scales of distance in human and nonhuman worlds:
her small body (there)
practiced on bird-scales
returns public space
to public use
till syllables unlink
till traffics return
brought back to the familiar, the creaturely
(existence plus alphabets) (19)
Here too are echoes of Hall’s concerns that the built environments of mid-twentieth-century North America take too little account of humans’ needs for kinesthetic perceptions to mesh with visual ones (as happens when walking through a landscape, for example) and his call for visual perception to be understood as a collaborative construction (rather than, as evoked in Russo’s “Always Underfoot,” the literally top-down projection produced by satellite mapping).
While issues of proximity and scale play into Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way’s weave of documentary and observation — showing how “now distance binds us” (11) — Hall’s ideas of space as communication, the “hidden dimension” of his title, play out directly on the pages of Participant, with the hover between foreground, midground, and background on the white spaces of the page enacting the dynamics and proxemics (Hall’s word) of perception, while chiming with leaps between dimensions in the Dickinson works they reference. “Leaflets,” the poems in the final section of Participant, however, use a different spatial strategy. Here, observations, perceptions, and quotations are run together in one stream down a very narrow center column. The constraints of the typographical measure force numerous word-breaks, marked by hyphens — a quiet echo of Dickinson’s dashes, perhaps — while individual letters of the alphabet and meaningless clusters are exposed down the left-hand edge. In contrast to the visual mappings of most of the rest of the book, these demand to be read aloud, for sound to make sense across the broken phonemes. The effect is like opening up to the narrow spaces between trees, a flow of sounds and sights interrupted by twigs, cross-branches, leaves, and shaken by the wind:
because she c-
alls she ma-
ps terrain “hi-
dden away” &
be a bir-
s of short fligh-
ts into sun “li-
ke between” (60–61)
2. Linda Russo, “Writing Within: Notes on Ecopoetics as Spatial Practice,” HOW2 3, no. 2 (2008).
4. Linda Russo, “Scottish Poetry Library podcast: Linda Russo,” Scottish Poetry Library.
6. Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1955), 24. See also the Emily Dickinson Archive.
Messy and fraught with flashes of beauty
In Aaron Cometbus’s first poetry collection, Last Supper, flashes of the city and one of its writers carouse side-by-side in all their messiness and fragmented beauty like blurry snapshots that tell the truth in the fuzziness. Which is fitting, given the film stills by experimental film documentarian Jem Cohen that grace the book’s covers. Improbable seeming scenes present themselves in freeform stanzas, sometimes with gallows rhyme that often showcases pained or hard-won honesty. Cometbus, the author of the eponymous zine (since 1981), chronicles both a changing and fading city, and is also a writer ruminating on aging. There are moments that stand out in plaintive speech spiked with poetic wisdom; that make you fold the book, set it down, look out the window, and then pick it up again. For those who have followed his zine, it’s intriguing to see what Cometbus has chosen to render in poetic form.
When Cometbus proclaims he “gave directions to every single person on the train / and gave them correctly for a change,” New Yorkers will understand; he nails the only-in-New-York experiences without being cliché. How many times have we given directions only to realize we gave biking directions for driving or driving directions for the train? In the opening poem “Three Bridges,” those who have seen this scene will immediately recognize it — but had you ever really stopped to remember it? That’s what Cometbus does, bringing the unlikely memories to light that we haven’t bothered to remember:
At the foot of the bridge number one
is a tiny shop crammed with socks
The sun doesn’t shine there
It’s so subterranean that the store serves as a foundation
for the ramp that carries bikes and cars
away from the island (9)
Cometbus is observant of all the things we might miss on the streets — the kinds of things astute nonfiction filmmakers like Jem Cohen notice; shortly after the above poem we encounter:
An only in New York
taped to a trash bag
on the street
all in Chinese!” (12)
Given that Cometbus is an avid cyclist in the city, what he sees are things we miss because walking is too slow and driving is too fast. In between these snapshots of a city not always seen, we see the analogy of the life of a writer, behind the scenes, also not always seen. New York is the famed stereotype of the glamorous “writer”; Cometbus cuts an imposing figure if you’ve seen him in his bands or at his haunts like the Poetry Project marathon (which is also the partial subject of a poem). Alongside all of this, Cometbus tells of what goes on in a real writer’s apartment in the height of summer in New York. I’m sure any regular NYC writer can agree:
In a quiet apartment in Brooklyn, peace reigns
boneless cats lie snoring in the heat
one an inkblot, the other a scoop of melted ice cream
Now I sit with a cold can of pabst
and a hot double espresso
Perched and poised to strike
and return to work on my novel for another night (15)
These two narratives, the lesser-known story of the city and the not always seen story of the writer — of the real writers of this city, not the NYT bestseller list ones — show how cities and writers actually live, and this is what makes this book come alive. As Cometbus says:
I found his book
on that […] dollar rack
where all the best things in life
Cometbus tells one hilarious convoluted story (of many), not so funny when it happened, of when he needed a dollar to catch his train to the airport:
I found an unmarked
building on 41st St
where Travelers Aid was supposed to be
I filled out the forms and
The social worker was half way
through the interview when she glanced at the bottom of the page
“A dollar — that’s all you need? Why didn’t you say so before?” (35)
For all the stereotypes about this city and “punks,” the poem speaks volumes about the simultaneous qualities that make New York, New York, and the pluckiness of its residents. Cometbus has a gift for rendering these moments that say poetically all that needs to be said in a seemingly — but deceptively — simple and pithy moment.
The city, like Cometbus acknowledges about himself throughout the book, isn’t what it once was:
Even a relatively recent arrival
like me has their old NY that’s gone:
The coffeeshop at the UN
with chipped china and paint peeling off the walls
Does anyone know a good bike mechanic
now that Peter Pizza has sold his shop?
The new owner wants to put my address into his computer
but I don’t even like to give my name (41)
What is an equally humorous and sobering story to read is his devotion to his typewriter and typewriter repairman Li Quan:
“Ah Panasonic KX,” he says fondly
when I barge into his store in a cloud of dust
“You still haven’t given it up”
“Never!” I vow, “Not as long as you’re here”
To which he replies: “Six months” (41)
Like typewriters that always seem to fade from use, but never do, Cometbus devotes an entire section to “Living in Bookstores”; bookstores always seem on the verge of extinction, even in NYC, but have never really died like we thought they would. Cometbus has had his share of time in them:
I’ve spent a lot of long, dragging days
manning the counter in struggling little bookstores
where failure hangs in the air (54)
What Cometbus has a gift for showing is those bits of loneliness in the clutter of community; that’s NY and its trademark, so much of what E. B. White famously said in “Here is New York” about the city giving the “gift” of loneliness and privacy. Many of Cometbus’s poems can be said to be actual examples of White’s observational theories on the city. Cometbus (like White) shares stories of places in NYC that popular culture usually doesn’t acknowledge when hyping up stereotypical New York events, as Cometbus writes in “Holidays”:
Instead of watching the ball drop in Times Square
I go to the Chassidic district
where you can hear a pin drop
It’s not their New Year (67)
As he continues to try to live with authenticity and community in this city, Cometbus gets a sharp awakening about how much he has not changed in “Modern World” when dealing with workers in a punk bike shop:
“Cool sticker, dude” they said
then returned grim
“For insurance reasons
we’re unable to work on this
It’s unsafe to ride
Those are the rules” (74)
Cometbus continues to watch the city change around him, and it’s a kind of change those of us who are not the uber-wealthy millionaires, stock brokers, out-of-state students will recognize; the real city is not lasting any longer — it is indeed disappearing. As he writes in “The City Disappears”:
Until the day comes when you ride the train
and look around to realize
that everyone and everything is new
besides the train
and you (92)
The writer that Cometbus is, a writer that sits behind the book counter, is behind all the changes and challenges of living in the city:
The greatest writers on earth keep me company
though the real work begins at closing time
sitting behind the counter
writing more books
that no one will buy (55)
I hope that this ending of “Living in Bookstores” does not become true, because I look forward to Cometbus’s next book of poetry. How Cometbus parses life, not into one of his zine narratives, but into poetic yarns of wisdom, is fascinating in and of itself. Cometbus captures the city like those faded 1970s photos with the white border around them, or the ’80s Polaroids just blurry enough to let both mystique and true colors shine through — a missing vision of your world suddenly appears and disappears just as quietly. Last Supper is a must read if you care about how the city’s authenticity seems to be under constant siege, if you were part of a punk and squat scene, if you value true human interaction, if you’ve forgotten what it means to be a true, alive member (not virtual) of the community that is NYC — or perhaps any city.
A review of Cheena Marie Lo's 'A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters'
As a rule, the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest possible concrete development, where one thing appears as common to many, to all. Then it ceases to be thinkable in a particular form alone. — Karl Marx, Grundrisse
Earlier I rode in David’s parents’ sports utility twice past the Church’s Chicken in Funktown that just shut — Chelsea tells me it was about a month ago — to and from moving a bookcase out of Uhuru Furniture & Collectibles into David’s new room in The Honey Hive, the cooperative house David until recently had a far less sunny room in. Chels speculates the Church’s shut in part because of how many folks, apparently residentially or vocationally displaced, hung out front; many still do, like folks still do on the sidewalks surrounding the recently chainlink-enclosed St. Andrews Plaza in West Oakland, a block from the tenants’ rights clinic. Chels added that the folks assembling in front of Church’s, whether just to assemble or else to hit up neighbors for chicken or change with which to buy chicken or whatever, represent the population of the restaurant’s neighborhood customer base, who were presently getting displaced. Following the logic of a recent piece in The Guardian describing how “in many poor and middle-income neighborhoods … McDonald’s have become de-facto community centers,” these folk of Funktown do less and more than represent demographic shifts. They’re doing what they’ve been doing for some time — getting together where they have been regardless of whether the doors behind them are open any more.
“[T]owards each other,” “towards our neighbors,” “towards the amalgamation of larger divisions of the species for purposes of mutual protection,” to quote from a poem in Cheena Marie Lo’s new book of poems, their first. Lo, like me, is an Oakland-based poet, writing in (yet another) period of our neighbors’ violent deterritorialization and reterritorializing mutual-aid; this period is the subject of their book.
A series of un/natural/disasters and their mass mediations — statistics included — have already done the work of reiterating the racialization of many of those to whom I refer, the people Lo’s book allegorically cares most for. According to Development Without Displacement, a report put out by Causa Justa::Just Cause, the same organization that houses the aforementioned tenants’ clinic, “Between 1990 and 2011, Oakland’s African American population decreased [by 40 percent] from 43 percent to 26 percent of the population, the largest drop by far of any population group.” Census data visualized by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project shows that in the census tract including Funktown’s Church’s, the black population fell by thirty-three percent, from thirty percent to twenty percent, between 1990 and 2010.
The shuttered restaurant’s facade has already been covered in painted writing. My favorite throw-up there is “IDEA,” writ in big comparatively flat-styled block letters as if to name the social force that has displaced the restaurant’s operation. It’s that big idea that makes matters its own and then moves out many of said matters’ makers, as in the moving contradiction, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” — considered a natural phenomena by political economists before (and since) Marx’s critique. Recall that, for Kant, beautiful things — nature exemplary among them — are beautiful because to the viewer they appear as designed purposively despite lacking practical purpose; with this in mind, I quote the closing lines of Lo’s poem “How There Was So Much Water”:
how nature is layered on the manmade.
or how man interferes with nature and fails. something about lines and
boundaries and naming. something about the ugly being beautiful.
how what’s dirty is actually crystal clear. (20)
Building exteriors are among the most insistent images in Lo’s A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters; these exteriors are subprime and beautiful, to paraphrase an essay title of Fred Moten’s. When I first heard Lo read from the book’s manuscript over a year ago at the release event for their Commune Editions comrade Jasper Bernes’s We Are Nothing and So Can You, I thought maybe some of the poems concerned foreclosed homes (no longer signature to Oakland’s housing crisis, but part of its basis; more so a residential injury signature to the crisis in Providence, RI from where I moved not long ago). Perhaps that night Lo read “Direct Sunlight Looking Over 4725 Dauphine Street,” which includes the following:
lines of parallel panels painted gray and peeling.
eight lines of parallel panels in the frame pained gray and peeling.
orange X spraypainted on eight lines of parallel panels in the frame, so
bright against paint gray and peeling. (17)
After another listen and several reads these images become more obvious marks of one of the many New Orleans homes wrecked when the levees failed amid Hurricane Katrina — because of so many “because”s listed in “Because Another Tropical Storm is Looming,” but most immediately “because the levees that protect New Orleans from floods are weak” (9). The “orange X spraypainted” appears again in three other poems, “X-Codes Mark the Spot on Every Home,” “Xs May Shine With Startling Clarity,” and “Yellow House Leaning Forward.” A little research following the book’s acknowledgement of K + 5: An X-Code Exhibition elaborates that the X-Codes were used to indicate whom or what FEMA responders found in the home as it was searched for survivors; the codes since “seem to say/xo rip miss you,” as Lo’s “X-Codes Mark the Spot” describes (60). (At the level of euphemism, my association with foreclosure wasn’t entirely wrong: finance jargon refers to a home as “underwater” when the price of the property is less than the amount owed to the lender.)
The main un/natural/disaster serialized in the book, as I’ve already indicated, is the one faced by those to whom the language of news reports — from which Lo appropriates significant parts of the book’s text — refers as “poor black people,” or “poor and African-American,” or “poor black communities,” and these are just three of more than a dozen variations on that phrase Lo borrows: “folks [who] were told to evacuate, and they had no means to do it” (28–30), or else did and now have no means to get back. The repetition of these variations, among many other phrases, fragments, and sentences beginning with the word “poor” in the poem “Poor Marks for His Handling of Federal Response,” seems to simultaneously mark the inadequacy of such language and to perform part of an answer to two questions that appear early in A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters and that resonate throughout:
can a disaster be qualified by the number of lives lost?
/how to quantify absence?” (16).
A few years ago in the comment feed to Calvin Bedient’s “Against Conceptualism: Defending the Poetry of Affect” Bhanu Kapil wrote that “there ARE dead zones — real ones — and that to study their neutrality is a politics of sensation.” Kapil was contesting Bedient’s dismissal of M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! along with a whole slew of other works that sometimes get tagged Conceptual Writing. Kapil wrote that observation after seeing a performance of Zong!, and wrote this too: “Being there — at all — with [next to] [at the perimeter of] the worlds or beings who — don’t get to tell or say or be in certain vital or expressive ways” (brackets Kapil’s). This could easily be a description of what Lo’s book is and does, why it’s perfect that its acronym is ASoUND, indefinitely audible — ambient as the whole thing is (I’m thinking now of Lyn Hejinian’s description of Renee Gladman’s Ana Patova Crosses A Bridge as “zones of sheer ambience”). But of Kapil’s declarations, which don’t once relate Zong! to Conceptual Writing, and how apt they feel to me for A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters, I can’t help but think how the book again and again apposes the concept of disaster and disaster’s general un/naturalism with its real sensitivity for disasters’ fields of ambient socioecological loss, losses that qualitatively count the disaster of late imperial capital and its cultural forms, conceptualism most definitely included. Near, against, amid “the state … in danger of collapse” and “there is no way home” (52), Lo poses: “so what about support and what about struggle”; “so what about the field upon which tender feelings develop even amidst otherwise most cruel animals” (38).
When Cathy Park Hong wrote last year, “The era of Conceptual Poetry’s ahistorical nihilism is over and we have entered a new era, the poetry of social engagement,” this book was still on its way to us to help realize this new era. While reappropriating many of the tools that Conceptual Writing sought to claim for itself from older avant-gardes and amid much literal and figurative abstraction — whether lists of categories that “connect policy to built environment” and “probation to reinvestment” (13–14) or a three-page table of digits with no obvious reference except one of several acknowledgements in the back of the book (43–45) — A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters “speaks through its sheer numbers” (42). It says that disaster is inseparable from the socioecology that you can hear, no matter how distant, in the materials of its very conception when that materiality comes together; it’s always been together.
This is why when reading Jameson Fitzpatrick’s review of A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters for Lambda Literary, I am both with and not with Fitzpatrick in hoping that “[i]n future work, perhaps we will have the opportunity to hear more of what Lo themself has to say in … asides,” such as:
(unspeakable this anxiety i am
unable to find the language
until long after waking
until then, there is this) (53)
For, as Maurice Blanchot reminds readers over and over in The Writing of the Disaster, the “unspeakable … anxiety” of Lo’s speaker is an affective literary mark of the disaster that has and is always already come and yet to come. And that disaster is everywhere found, un-and-con-founding us. The speaker’s aside itself substitutes for found language “until” the “i” is “able to find the language … long after waking.” This language is something that we find, sometimes strangely, in common with Lo in figuring out how we can move toward each other amid these times A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters writes through. We are ourselves together in it.