Reviews - March 2014

On QED II, part one: The presence of absence

QED II: The Presence of Absence

West Hollywood, California

For the past two years, Les Figues Press has hosted the series Q.E.D., a three-part event named for Gertrude Stein’s Quod Erat Demonstrandum. Stein’s coming-out text, written in 1903, was suppressed at her request until its posthumous publication in 1950. Hence the appropriate title for the first Q.E.D. II 2013: The Presence of Absence. Each Q.E.D. panel this year featured a Les Figues Press author, two artists or writers their work is in conversation with, and a moderator. For the first event, Matias Viegener selected Tisa Bryant and Catherine Lord. Anna Joy Springer moderated.

Matias Viegener began the discussion with a quote (borrowed from panelist Catherine Lord) from Dodie Bellamy’s blog: “Queer celebrates poverty of theory. Make own stories out of gaps and silences.”[1] In his curatorial statement, Viegener asks: “How indeed is the queer subject, the subject of the other, to be made present? What are the axiomatics of delivery? Are there other kinds of presence that are structured by forms of absence?”

Viegener thus structured the conversation around two salient questions: firstly, is there a lack within theoretical discourse that leaves out the kinds of gaps or silences that characterize erasure, or absence? Secondly, what kind of alternate axiomatics of delivery might be able to contain this absence in order to give it a kind of presence? I wonder if the “poverty” here is connected to Lord’s assertion, also recorded in Bellamy’s essay, that Lord “squirm[s] at the accusation of scholarship.”[2] If the notion here is that theory somehow leaves behind the daily details of experience, Matias may have provided a provisional answer in the selection of writings he read from.

The collection 2,500 Random Things About Me Too, 100 “twenty-five things about me” lists, was written entirely on Facebook.[3] In this work, queer subjectivity is assembled in mosaic form, from precise fragments. While the “things” often seem random, the passages Viegener selected brought to the forefront questions of how a self can be constructed against and with collective and individual histories of grief. Is this possibility contained in the (present) detail that might somehow call up the (past) trace?

Theory might say something similar. Benjamin, collecting fragments for his Arcades Project, quotes Horkheimer on the “incompleteness of history”: “The determination of incompleteness is idealistic if completeness is not comprised within it. Past injustice has occurred and it is completed.”[4] There is an index of grief, untouchable from the present, that must be reckoned with. Of course, this “completeness” of irreversible wrongs done does not foreclose the possibility of creating new narratives. It might be this latter absence that the detail, in the present, might help us find our way back to, but it is equally possible that the opposite should happen — that confronting the gaps and silence of the past might allow us to build a new “presence” in the present. This would mean, perhaps, that theory might also be a useful tool in constructing queer stories.

This sense of simultaneous recoverability and the irrevocable, of being both too late and right on time, permeated Tisa Bryant’s reading. Cataloging time spent in the Lorraine Hansberry archive, Bryant speculates about the movies Hansberry wanted to make and never could. Bryant also spoke of the archival materials she wasn’t allowed access to, those that contained the materials pertaining to Hansberry’s love life. “To whom,” asked Bryant, “does the depth of her absence belong?” Bryant constructs a narrative about the kind of movies Hansberry would have made, but we won’t ever see them. Bryant may have found evidence, she said, of what she had been told never existed — a black female filmmaker from the ’50s and ’60s — but when she found one, this filmmaker had never made a film (A Raisin in the Sun, she pointed out, is by no means the film Hansberry wanted to make). What has been lost in some tangible form is the work of art itself. Bryant recovers all that she can, but her work also insists on the way in which mourning must necessarily accompany any attempt at constructing a presence built from the so-called “refuse of history.”[5]

In a similar vein, Catherine Lord projected images from To Whom It May Concern on the wall of the Schindler house, where the series was held. The project consists of photographs of dedication pages Lord and her assistants culled from the ONE archive. The images cycled through at an irregular rate, making some more ephemeral than others. Some names were recognizable, others not. Initials, homages, and messages to “friends” prevail. Again, we were confronted both with the experience of beauty — what was there — as it pressed against what was lost in its unspeakability. Under these circumstances, research, as Bryant noted, turns into a “question rather than an answer.” Or, as Lord put it, by refusing to name names, she is able to generate a “bad history” of unmoored affect. This rejection of naming, however, is not a rejection of individual bodies — as Lord put it, the sense of the “DNA” on the books she photographed “enables a ghost.”

This idea of enabled ghostliness, a surging up of the past through a detail, might serve to answer Viegener’s opening question regarding the “axiomatic of delivery” of the presence of absence. However, this is not merely a question of letting a hidden past emerge, but also of allowing a “bad history” to emerge both in what is constructed from the past and in a simultaneous reconsideration of the present. To become unmoored is to allow the random, the nameless, and the speculative to take their place.

 


 

1. For Dodie Bellamy’s remarks, see Open Space.

2. Ibid.

3. Matias Viegener, 2,500 Random Things About Me Too (Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2012).

4. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999), 471.

5. Ibid., 461.

QED II, part two: Inchoate affinities

The second Q.E.D. II emphasized R. M. Schindler’s definition of “space architecture” as a way of thinking through questions of gender. Curator Kim Rosenfield associated the “radical flow” of the Schindler House with the way her work, and that of the panelists’, engages with these questions. Rosenfield chose Yedda Morrison and Vanessa Place as her fellow panelists, and Andrea Quaid moderated.

Schindler’s way of building differed from most architects’, and this is clear from the moment one steps into the Schindler House, where the Q.E.D. II events were held this year. As Esther McCoy, Schindler’s assistant for a time and LA-based architecture writer, said, “Who else had let the land dictate the house, rather than imposing the house on the land?”[1] For McCoy, this mode of thinking about space is distinctly Californian, an interesting insight to consider when we think of Les Figues as a press. Cofounder Vanessa Place’s work, Boycott, of which we heard a section at this event, certainly refuses these kinds of predetermined impositions, or, more accurately, flips the place from which the pattern is imposed. Insert component X in place of Y, see what new formula emerges. Let the land determine the house rather than sculpting the land to fit the house. Might we think of Place’s conceptualism as working to perpetuate the kind of reversals Schindler’s space architecture insists on?

The question of gender as a construction, as biological, as part of what makes a “self,” was at the center of tonight’s conversation and readings. Rosenfeld answered questions from a series of cards “on the fly” as a way of engaging with Schindler’s idea that architecture can be seen as the structure of objects of the mind. The kind of paired openness and contingency that operates as a remedy to preconceived narratives was represented formally by her prewritten questions and improvised responses. In three rounds, volunteers from the audience asked questions to which Rosenfeld responded with a kind of rambling precision of intent reminiscent of the space she stood in. She referred to the house itself as a “house of thinking” that might allow one to stand outside “known structures of society”; a container akin to conceptualism, I’d argue. However, equally important is the fact that this space is one of incessant movement, or becoming, of openness. But openness does not necessarily imply lack of containment, but rather an interrogation of the container itself and the functions it serves. As Rosenfeld asked in answer to one of her questions, “How many selves are built up in me … how do we make a self?”

The notion of these divisions, and the difficulty of constructing a self, also emerged in Place’s reading from Boycott, which takes different feminist texts and replaces all female-gendered pronouns with male pronouns. For the panel, she read from her version of Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto. Place’s project works especially well with this text — recall the famous moment in which Solanas declares the male, with his xy chromosome, to be an incomplete female, now rendered as “the male as incomplete male.”[2]

One might argue that Place’s change-up reconstructs one of the primary aspects of Solanas’s critique: that in turning the “male condition” into a “philosophical dilemma,” men “give stature to their animalism, grandiloquently label their nothingness their ‘Identity Problem.’”[3] Indeed, during the Q & A session, Place stated she began the project thinking about Lacan’s statement “the woman does not exist.” By making the conversation a conversation about men only, by inviting us to see the split subject, the divided self, in each statement, does Place reinsert us into the always male-centered philosophical discussion of the subject? I wondered this as I listened, stopping short at the line “eliminate men and men will shape up.” It’s one of the places, as Place discussed, in which you find yourself trying to figure out where the “woman” was (Solanas, as we know, was not too kind to non-groovy females, although she thought they might be capable of reform if men were eliminated). We’re still not sure to what extent the SCUM Manifesto operates as satire, but it reaches a pinnacle in this respect with the aforementioned line. What, we are forced to ask ourselves, does sex mean to me?

A confrontation with one’s own desire to reinscribe the binary of gender on this text is characteristically at the center of Boycott. And what better way to bring the question of this binary, the way it operates in a feminist context, than to remove that context altogether by redacting all the women? In the case of Solanas’s text, it also deprives us of any refuge from the author’s violence; in the original text, we might take comfort in the idea that at least the women might be saved. In Place’s text, violence overspills its boundaries and exposes the way in which it can’t be contained by language. The same, of course, is proved true for gender. Yedda Morrison read from an email correspondence with Rosenfeld from 2008, when Morrison was a “new mom and feeling quite isolated.” The topic of the emails, she noted, came to be what she calls the “feminized self.” In this case, gender is framed as “architecture with a purpose.” Morrison sifted through the year-long correspondence to discover themes, or “constellations,” as she called them. Being middle-aged, being mothers, and being artists/economic workers emerged as central topics. Questions of selfhood ran throughout. The experience of middle age is framed as the emergence of a “shadow self,” and in the mirror, Morrison sees both the “blank potential of the face” and the “specter of the aged/aging woman.” The harsh features of the “father” begin to take over the “prettiness” of the mother, which brings on the sensation of the face “never having solidified.” The mother, too, appears as “two-faced” when considering “the face between her legs.” The meditation concluded with a series of questions about famous women writers such as Joan Didion, Doris Lessing, and Anne Carson. “Do they have children / are they otherwise coupled?” Morrison asks. “Were they ever considered ‘hotties,’ and where do they get their money?”

I would argue that Morrison’s reading presents us with an architecture of anxiety about the “feminized self.” The shadow self seems to be self without “prettiness,” something she connects with the mother’s genetic contributions. Potentiality is contained in the face’s blankness, or its failure to solidify along the lines of this feminized self. But what’s the difference between a two-faced and a blank-faced self?

In a two-faced self, like the familiar face of one’s child, there are two known selves of a sort. But the face with a spectral character, which seems more connected to “blankness,” aging, progression toward death, might seem to open up some “speculative futurity” about gender or selfhood in general.

The notion of this “speculative futurity” was emphasized by moderator Andrea Quaid, who saw the linkages between the three readings as related to kinds of “inchoate affinities, a kind of hope or futurity imperfectly formed.” She linked this notion to that of conceptual writing with the notion of “it is what it is.” To which Place added, “now, and the now keeps changing.” If gender, she added, has been seen as the question, what if we are to view it as a “historically convenient answer” to the kind of “semiotic weight” a body seems to have?


 

1. McCoy’s essay on Schindler, collected in Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader, ed. Susan Morgan (Los Angeles: East of Borneo Books, 2012) can be found at Artbook.

2. Valerie Solanas, SCUM Manifesto. Vanessa Place’s Boycott is available through Ugly Duckling Presse.

3. Solanas, SCUM Manifesto.

QED II, part three: Not (quite) easily done

QED II: Not (Quite) Easily Done

West Hollywood, California

The third Q.E.D. II event of 2013 featured one of Les Figues’s earliest authors, Jennifer Calkins, in conversation with Amanda Ackerman and Anne DeMarkin. Teresa Carmody, the press’s cofounder, moderated. This final panel focused on the challenge of demonstrating things “as they are.” Calkins’s curatorial statement emphasized the distance between perception and the world, and the way in which “our intersections with the past, with the plants, with the nonhuman animals, are not about anything but our own speech,” a concept which was troubled throughout the evening’s readings and conversations.

Calkins read from a short piece of seemingly dystopian fiction that acknowledged its own existence as problematic, commenting on people’s love of an apocalypse. Suggestions of “warmer seas” and animal losses coupled with a zombie narrative of contagion as manifestation of anxiety about infectious disease. Perhaps, the speaker muses, the “point of dystopias is to render everything obsolete.” In the end, though, it “wasn’t dystopia … now we are among the sad crowd of positive feedback.” Humanity has “surpassed its want.” The sickness of the planet and of people is paralleled by the speaker’s own love-sickness for a man of unknown relationship who has died in a sanitarium. No one is named. Photos of a burned-out landscape flashed behind Calkins’s head.

The decidedly end-stopped tenor of Calkins was contested by Amanda Ackerman’s meditation on collaborative writing, “I Did Not Write This By Myself.” Reflecting on Kafka’s statement that he needed to write alone, Ackerman contemplates the impossibility of such a thing, turning to sources as divergent as Deleuze and Robert Louis Stevenson (the latter, it turns out, believed that little people he called “Brownies” wrote his stories). While she agrees with Deleuze that “the body is a nonlinear assemblage of heterogeneous parts,” she thinks “some organs and liquids are more creative and talkative.” Rejecting the term “hybridity” — which suggests “one pure element intermingling with another” — Ackerman highlights “Biopoesis” as an alternative, the “recognition that we’re not alone … writing as and with nature.”

Collaborations with the nonhuman are much simpler, according to this formula, than we make them. In order to begin, we simply “introduce ourselves.” This is not to say that every agent will speak back, or will speak the same language. Nonhuman speaking subjects will have modes of relating that defy the symbolic order — trees and mushrooms, for example, arboreal and rhizomatic systems, live in coevolution with each other despite their seemingly different ways of being. Ackerman imagines a planetary future not limited by our previous understandings of the human and nonhuman, one that doesn’t end with a scorched-earth scenario.

We returned to themes of loss with Anne DeMarkin’s reading from “After Life,” a story generated by the redaction of pieces of text from a story the author was previously dissatisfied with. Dialogue was often absented, and DeMarkin projected the artifact of the partly blacked-out pages on the wall behind her. The story enacts a stubborn refusal to demonstrate. A woman driving on a bridge late at night wakes up from a seizure, half-remembering a moment in which she might have caused another’s death. The “After Life” of the story is not life after death, though, but “life after that moment.” She looks for ways to redeem herself. Dragging a raccoon’s body from the bridge into the forest, she marks its grave; she attends the woman’s funeral, but the grave marker is destroyed, and it is clear that any attempt at repair will always fall short. “First the world,” she says, “is this way, then it’s not.”

DeMarkin’s story echoed Calkins’s in its hinging on a point from which there is no return — what we often call the “tipping point” in relation to climate change. Each writer spoke of her work as being about some sense of disintegration or loss, and the paradoxical notion that despite having passed the tipping point there might be repair of some kind. In the case of Anne’s story, taking apart and re-pairing the words in a story she thought was hopeless formally enacts such an impasse. In this sense, her project connects with Ackerman’s in that they both attempt to liberate the voice from predetermined sign-systems. For Amanda, this might mean going outside of “human” language entirely, and Anne’s effacement of the text “liberates words from their semantic relations and grounds them in an independent agency.” Here, human language is given distance from the human.

The question of whether the human can experience something other became central to the conversation as we discussed the possibility of other-than-human languages. Ackerman’s frustration with phenomenology as the primary lens for thinking through the ecological is coupled with a sense that epistemological frameworks have “drilled” the notion into us that communication with the nonhuman must be anywhere from difficult to impossible. Vanessa Place (from the audience) argued that object-oriented ontology and affect constitute a contradiction in terms, because we’re always importing our affect, and are thus stuck imagining a language we don’t have a language for. Ackerman countered that languages can be learned, while Calkins talked about her work as an animal behaviorist, in which she “hits a wall” in relation to perception in trying to understand birds.

The series terminated, then, with the question of how we relate perception and evidence. The gap between the two might be said to approximate the “gaps and silences” that made up queer time for Matias Viegener in the first Q.E.D. this year. What speculative future, as discussed in regard to the idea of gender in the second event, might open up here? Alas, we seem to have returned to the question of what Quentin Meillassoux posits as the problem of “correlationism,” or the problem of contemporary philosophy after Kant, the insistence that “we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.”[1] This year’s series of events, each in its own way, troubled this apparent division. 


[1] Quentin Meillasoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier (New York: Continuum, 2008), 13.

Between time and the topology of flesh

A review of '7 Days and Nights in the Desert'

7 Days and Nights in the Desert [Tracing the Origin]

7 Days and Nights in the Desert [Tracing the Origin]

Sabrina Dalla Valle

Kelsey Street Press 2013, 66 pages, $13, ISBN 978-0-932716-80-4

Sabrina Dalla Valle’s 7 Days and Nights in the Desert [Tracing the Origin] is a spell. It wraps itself around your body, clinging to your cells in the terrible pauses between readings. As though it, in fact, is reading you. I found myself entranced. I found myself noticing. I found myself encountering synchronicities at an accelerated rate. I could not have expected this.

Sabrina Dalla Valle is the winner of Kelsey Street Press’s Firsts! contest with 7 Days and Nights in the Desert. In this poetic meditation, Dalla Valle traverses the microscopic and the cosmic, tracing the evolution of language as easily as the ecology of the desert. This work is intimately concerned with relation, making visible the hidden connections between ancient Babylonian mythology and mirror photons, mirror photons and dark matter, dark matter and heartache, heartache and snail behavior, snail behavior and etymology, etymology and waiting in line at the bank, waiting in line and alchemy, alchemy and the divine, the divine and the everyday. Everything is alive. Everything is brimming. In Dalla Valle’s words, “It is not the order, / nor in the things for which we long. / It is in the still sense of how things / are related.”[1]

Though written in the form of a diurnal, 7 Days and Nights in the Desert doesn’t follow a linear timeline; the past does not remain in the past, the future bleeds into the present. Dalla Valle’s language vacillates between time measured and time felt, between marks made by the body and how the body has been marked. While reading, I found myself longing to experience this process, to extract the synchronous moment that occurs in the dialectic between object and imprint. I decided to document the body-experience of reading against the grain of measured time.

Over the course of a week I sat in many cafes. I held the book open in my hands. I took notes; I was taken. Enmeshed in the text, I wrote down every sensation, every thought and tangent. I marked each with a time-stamp. I gathered the notes from these seven days and rearranged them a.m. to p.m., as if the span of a week could be experienced in a single day. As if the span of a life, all its everyday wonders and losses, could be condensed into 7 Days and Nights in the Desert.

If there is such a thing as narrative in these notes, as in this book, it could never be anything but emergent, found at the moments of contact between a series of fragments.

Documentation of a body’s experience while reading 7 Days and Nights in the Desert

10:06 a.m.  What / in italicization / is indicative / of voice?

10:10 a.m.  each entranced by private silence. [2] I stutter over this phrase, reading and rereading it. I do not read the word as I imagine it is meant to be pronounced; I read the entranced as door, as entrance (n.)-d: as entered, made hinged, able to be opened, shut.

10:18 a.m.  In palmistry, planets are symbols linked to the seven mounts of the hand. How the seven days of the week were named after these same planets. What then is this relation between time and the topology of flesh. This organ, my skin, deteriorates. [3]

10: 24 a.m.  And again, how the weather station provides two temperatures: the measured and the felt. [4] In the movement between marking and being marked, something shifts.

11:12 a.m.  The order no longer horizontal. It is happening before it its happening.

11:15 a.m.  How to access the vastness between moments? The fringe of sleep. Nodding off into woof, becoming weave.

11:18 a.m.  our thinking precedes the event [5]

11:25 a.m.  Tracing the skin. Rivers layered beneath it, etymologically speaking, there is no skin. Scientifically speaking, there may be no origin. The door has a narrow aperture. There are plants trembling in the corner.

I cannot concentrate. I get up, full bellied. I walk through the center of the city seeking a mailbox: another word for connection.

I get up and walk out of the restaurant. Across the street: a mailbox. Blue and open-mouthed and waiting. As though brought into existence by desire. Standing before the blue box, I speak the phrase, There is no bookmark. The only way of marking order now, is memory. People are laughing in the bar behind me. There is no stamp on this postcard.

12:42 p.m.  Fragments always return to each other. [6]

12:59 p.m.  The sense of a spell cast. Alchemical. Synchronous.

1:00 p.m.  Imprinted on the body.

1:02 p.m.  Time, passing in twinned channels: the perceived, how it orbits the measured, always moving away, always returning.

3:11 p.m.  While attempting to decipher meaning from the intersecting lines of my right hand in relation to a palmistry chart in relation to these chapters in relation to the light that shifts indicating wind. Someone approaches. He places a paper crane in the palm of my right hand. I place a one-dollar bill in the palm of his left. His face is crossed by territories of white chalk; he is deeply creased. He carries a desert within him. The deep makes its way to the surface of the skin.

3:13 p.m.  From this garden, I send a text to arrange an encounter. Two bodies having parted, returning in the late afternoon.

3:14 p.m.  MESSAGE NOT SENT. I try again. MESSAGE NOT SENT

3:18 p.m.  This pattern continues. Connection falters. Words sculpt a surface for us to live upon when the world becomes too strange. [7]

3:24 p.m.  Patterns that repeat … at the boundary of awareness [8]

3:26 p.m.  I keep expecting to look up from this book in a town I am not from and do not frequent and to see there someone I have known.

3:28 p.m.  A small burn on my middle finger begins to whiten and balloon with fluid. Small crimson petals have fallen into the gutter of the book. I look up. They will have fallen from the tree above, marking the page. The crease between page forty-two and forty-three. To return.

3:38 p.m.  My phone doesn’t work in this part of this town. How will we find each other? The chapter I am reading follows the path of the planet Mercury.

3:45 p.m.  Caught in Dalla Valle’s language, I am made blindingly aware of the intricacies of sound and small movements surrounding this body. Beside me a woman’s throat opens in song. I fold up the book and the palmistry chart and place the folded paper crane into an envelope with the chart.

4:18 p.m.  Sit in a tea room in the absence of the internet. Sit in the desert in the absence of your knowing.

4:32 p.m.  Sit on a chair beneath the wooden feet of a carved goddess. You do not know her name. You did not notice her when you first arrived. The subtle hows of choosing place. Diamond pattern against the grain of the table, or crosshatched; how earlier you passed her by, and then returning, later, drawn. These details that pull you.

4:41 p.m.  A moment: the fabric of the universe drawn together into a moment. This moment. Every choice. The smallest nothings. Aside: The skin around the wound drawn together. Two points that could never have touched, touching.

4:44 p.m.  Straight line leaves through the cleft of the skull. The no longer soft seam.

4:48 p.m.  An unknown goddess or maybe Elvis. Both hold the space above our heads.

4:53 p.m.  I hold the milk tea in my mouth for seven seconds before swallowing.

4:54 p.m.  There is a chill. It is not winter. A man in a blue polo shirt leans in toward his companion. “She can’t sing anymore,” he says. I touch my fingers to my lips. Dry.

5:11 p.m.  Earlier, in the store, I buy a fern. Beside it on the counter, a blue book with the image of a white hand. The title, Palmistry, noticed only later. I call you and ask if you will buy it and meet me after work.

5:18 p.m.  You could be anyone. [9] Tracing a history. Here, there are two: there is you, there is we. As yet no I.

5:52 p.m.  Crosshatched.

5:31 p.m.   The broken or chained lines of the hand. This: a way of moving through.

5:37 p.m.  Again, this shiver has nothing to do with the weather. the precise order of words transforms things. Such are spells … [10]

5:58 p.m.  A postcard between page twenty and twenty-one becomes a bookmark. A mark made as anticipation of leaving. The first line of the postcard reads: how I imagine you in this moment is crossing a vast dry space; it is still early,

and it ends with There is nowhere to retreat, so you learn to retreat behind the safety of your eyes. A practice of recovery. The Artist erases herself.

I am reminded of a line in Susan Howe’s That This: Can a trace become the things it traces, secure as ever, real as ever — a chosen set of echo fragments? [11]

6:02 p.m.  Or I am reminded of something I will have read in the future, and from this perspective, can glimpse only in cross-section. The echo of the future in the present. Retracing the past, its absence.

6:06 p.m.  Or night as shadow cast by day. [12] Or time as shadow cast by eternity.


1. Sabrina Dalla Valle, 7 Days and Nights in the Desert [Tracing the Origin] (Berkeley: Kelsey Street Press, 2013), 4.

2. Ibid., 51.

3. Ibid., 52.

4. Ibid., 52.

5. Ibid., 24.

6. Ibid., 57.

7. Ibid., 37.

8. Ibid., 41.

9. Ibid., 6.

10. Ibid., 16.

11. Susan Howe, “The Disappearance Approach,” in That This (New York: New Directions, 2010), 29.

12. Dalla Valle, 7 Days and Nights, 49.

Ways to be

A review of 'Kindergarde'

Kindergarde: Avant-Garde Poems, Plays, Stories, and Songs for Children

Kindergarde: Avant-Garde Poems, Plays, Stories, and Songs for Children

Ed. Dana Teen Lomax

Black Radish Books 2013, 178 pages, $20, ISBN 978-0985083762

“They don’t always do as they are told or follow the instructions about how to act on paper or in society. They remind us that there are lots of ways to be,” editor Dana Teen Lomax says of the contributors to Kindergarde: Avant-garde Poems, Plays, Stories, and Songs for Children (viii).

At first glance, the 9x12 anthology — I’m thinking of its sheer bulk, mustard-colored cover, and blocky title font — might be taken for a phonics workbook from the 1970s. Yet Kindergarde illuminates literacy of another kind. It presents myriad genres, arrangements, conventions, and experiments: tales, nursery rhymes, catalogues, abecedaria, anaphora, collaborations, songs, fables, performance pieces, plays, lullabies, writing exercises, epistles, lyric essays, visual poems, drawings, photographs, a palimpsest, and an onomatopoeic dedication to Nietzsche. The reader is also a contributor to Kindergarde: the book invites and provides room for original writing and artwork.

Kindergarde successfully reaches the anthology’s intended audience of children as well as a wider audience: readers of avant-garde literature. Once adult readers see the contributors list, which includes Charles Bernstein, Christian Bök, Wanda Coleman, Juan Felipe, Kenneth Goldsmith, Lyn Hejinian, Cathy Park Hong, Harryette Mullen, Eileen Myles, Leslie Scalapino, Evie Shockley, Juliana Spahr, Anne Waldman, and Rosmarie Waldrop, they will likely proceed to the checkout line. I did.

The German title evokes the European avant-garde children’s literature tradition. For more on Kindergarde’s predecessors, I enjoyed critic Philip Nell’s blog post on the 2012 Children’s Literature and the European Avant-Garde conference. He provides illustrations and cover art from contemporary and modernist texts as well as insightful commentary.[1]

In the vein of European avant-garde children’s literature, Kindergarde offers social and cultural critiques: education, gender, race, class, and ethnicity are among the topics examined. Yet, the makers of Kindergarde seem to collectively believe that kids get schooled enough. Thus, the experimental surfaces are so textured, the language (and imaginations) so plastic, the collection as a whole so restless that the critiques present as “ways to be” or choices rather than didactic lessons. For example, Robert Glück and Jocelyn Sandburg’s satirical play (with photographic illustrations), “Precious Princess, or, PIG Speak,” features a finger puppet Sleeping Beauty laying an egg. And why not? As Balso the Knight tells the new mother, “You may not have a head, but you have a big pink egg to hatch” (72). Of course, Precious Pig and Sock Monkey then host a poetry salon in an unexpected send-up of the creative writing workshop. 

My favorite of the collection is Bhanu Kapil’s “The Night I Walked into the Jungle, I Was Nine Years Old [With: Accompanying Footnotes],” with mad footnotes, that is: more extensive than the text they annotate. The footnotes add dimension and texture to her lyric sentences, as Kapil moves from reverie to direct address to reverie: “But you are probably still thinking about the whales and the ocean and the Maoris and all the amazing and difficult and dark blue and glittery things of the Southern Hemisphere, which are hard to face with any precision. Precision is when you are not thinking about the future. My grandfather used to tell me that” (94). The central narrative — we are told that readers who want to hear another tale, one about “Hanuman, the famous Monkey King,” may email Kapil — recounts a very long walk the writer took with her grandfather. After they leave the family home in Nangal, India for the surrounding forest, the two become runaways (by whim) for a single night. The grandfather relays gentle wisdom. They encounter various scenes and characters — a giant puddle, nomads, a chess match, and a white horse. The account itself is an exquisite wandering — Kapil wending her way through a variety of associations.

“Ways to be” inform the grammar and rhetoric — the repeated modal verb may and the self-definition trope — of Rosmarie Waldrop’s “Apricot Madness, A Song for Christopher Montgomery.” Waldrop’s poem opens:

My head may be a cabbage
my heart an artichoke
my face a mouldy kumquat
my left eye a bulging yoke (109)

The prosody suggests yet defies convention. “Apricot Madness” consists of ten quatrains and a final monostich. Three-beat ballad stanzas are unbalanced by one and two-beat refrain stanzas. While ballad rhymes are whole (wire/fire, ham/jam, stale/hale), the insistent anaphora diminishes in the second half of the song. In the final stanza, Waldrop adopts the present progressive and, for the first time, joins the first and third lines with end rhyme, albeit slant:

I’m turning into a gargoyle
getting drunk on rain
but the moon is no cold pineapple
as long as I got my brain

Eileen Myles’s unpunctuated, fourteen-word, eight-line “Jacaranda” conflates our man-made prosody jargon, “the feminine / of feet,” with the natural world that she can “have” — the jacaranda, “a lavender / tree” (111). Joan Larkin’s brief play, “If You Were Going to Get a Pet,” takes place in winter on a moving train during Child and Parent’s story time. The static setting, terse dialogue, and postapocalyptic details make of the bedtime story a Beckettian cautionary fable. Here is a world where children are cared for and stalked by Black Dog, where children wait “for [their] mothers to come,” mothers who “sent letters on thin blue paper” (129).

What else in Kindergarde reminds me “that there are lots of ways to be”? Susan Gevirtz’s hybrid excerpt from Streetnamer on the Moon; Reid Gomez’s domestic narrative, “Slices of Bacon”; Brian Strang’s Gothic visual poem; Sawako Nakayasu’s prose poems; R. Zamora Linmark’s fantastical “The Archaeology of Youth”; Jaime Cortez’s irreverent short story, “The Jesus Donut”; an open field excerpt from M. NourbeSe Philip’s ZONG!, and “Wipe That Simile Off Your Aphasia,” Harryette Mullen’s catalogue of incomplete similes.

Most importantly, what does my three-year-old think? “A Dog is a Wolf is a Dog,” from Andrew Choate’s Worm Work, is her favorite selection:

Sometimes my sneezes
smell like my dog
after he’s rolled around
on a rotting bird carcass —
I think it’s a good thing.
(30)

In just twenty-three lines, Choate covers much of the organic material that most delights my daughter — dead things, parasites, blood, kiwi, frog pies, fish, and antennae. As an added bonus, the poem alternates between the voice of the poet-speaker and the Seuss-y child sass of the penultimate stanza:

Put a fish in a glass
Wear it for a watch

A wrist wash fish watch
Water bubble time notch

In the white space to the right of Choate’s poem float three overlaid figures of a dog in midstride, hind legs and partial forelegs visible. When asked for some critical insight on the piece, my daughter proffered, “Dog butt.”

“See you later,” reads the final page of Kindergarde. Under the phrase is the figure of a magnifying glass. Yes, this anthology invites young readers, all readers, to not merely see the depicted worlds of the authors but to inspect, question, and remake those worlds. Who needs “follow the instructions” anyhow? Why not write them? Why not erase them? Better yet,


1. Philip Nell, “Avant-Garde Children’s Books; or, What I Learned in Sweden Last Week,” Nine Kinds of Pie, October 5, 2012.