Reviews

On gossamer wings

A review of 'A Field Guide to Lost Things'

A Field Guide to Lost Things

A Field Guide to Lost Things

Peter Jaeger

If p then q 2015, 173 pages, $9.00, ISBN 978-0957182776

Are they of the past, by the past, and for the past? This might be a way of evaluating the later-than-life productions of Marcel Proust. Thus there may be something to say for Peter Jaeger’s A Field Guide to Lost Things even though it is not one of Proust’s best.

How is it that A Field Guide is not one of Proust’s best? Proust started a whole new way of writing into memory and into the soul of lost desires. The set of writings produced subsequently by Proust’s way of writing is a large set including writings created after the death of Marcel Proust, but so overwhelmingly changed and retold because of Proust’s writing that they can be said to compose, depending for their makeup on the writer’s tastes, i.e. on her literary and phenomenological Gestalt, a body of writing that is truly the later-than-life productions of Marcel Proust.

Naturally, it is always in present time that we keep accounts; but even then the present is only a memory of an instant, and, thus, of the past, by the past, and for the past. That is one way to look at it (as Emmanuel Levinas puts it, dans le temps, déphasage de l’instant et déjà rétention de la phase séparée). Alternatively, the past of the later-than-life productions of Proust may seem not to be recovered but rather unencumbered, by virtue of their being written. Indeed, the secondarity corresponding to the non-remembrances of the unconventional textualization of Proust by Peter Jaeger, and to all the found sentences, re-involved as they are from the beautifully written Swann’s Way by CKS Moncrieff of 1922 vintage, comes out clearly; it comes out naturally for a way of reading, and so so, so, beautifully. Surely beautifully, as they are of Moncrieff’s terms (his taking and reducing and reproducing Du côté de chez Swann), and as they are the script and the direction and the cherished motivation for Jaeger’s coming upon the lost-feeling fields.

Above all, this way of coming offers readers what is natural, what is natural in them, and what thus chimes with their nature. It offers this naturalness by way of its pacing. A Field Guide contains the sentences, and thus the points of view of types, of Moncrieff’s writing, arranged for the reader’s ease in neat alphabetical order. The sentences, or the sometimes chosen cuts of participial and noun phrases, imply and effectively represent (in their progression) what appear to be dictionary entries, proceeding continuously; that continuity of presentation (though merely of a sort of continuity) is of the essence. The informing mark of the continuous two-column format is presentability, and what shows is a form of reading that is meant, and confirmed, as being of the essence. Getting from A to Z counts for more, it would seem, than the past’s or time’s being of the essence.

That is to say, in the mix of descriptions and elegant reveling in assertions is where penetration lies. How those assertions are measured superbly to perform the role of guide, how Moncrieff’s sentences are rolled out, is how we know, somehow. Moncrieff’s formations guide us through a breezy experience suggestive of eyeing beauties expressly formed for Proust’s latest. They do so in assured (and serenely limited) secondarity. This much is true, and to this extent decontextualized and echoing and resonating with limited force and effect. Yet the experience of regret in their being lost, as a condition of writing them down in this fashion, only adds to the beautiful capture of these lost things, by design. Such are the facts as we may account for them, or assemble them, knowing full well what nature’s beauty is coming to. Of so much exquisite fragrance and potential (read carefully, delightedly, any of Proust’s entries, such as “All Manner of Birds” in the A columns, or “Hawthorn” in the H columns, or “Waves,” or better “Weather,” in the XYZ columns) much is lost.

It is, moreover, the style that is of the essence and thus essential to Jaeger’s alphabetical text, which reads as a “novel” in novel form, repeated continuously. And that is all to the point of what it is to be reading it in its approachable secondarity, in repetition, as the joy of style all to the good, as I have heard, to the relief of many, as Moncrieff’s translation is all to the good.

And so it is not one of Proust’s best as being all there for the reader’s ease and swift capacities.

An account in sentences and participial and noun phrases would seem to bypass the past. Yet a moment obtains, and the practice of using the word in a sentence is an old familiar, as illustrated in the entry for “Hawthorn.” We similarly find in the Oxford English Dictionary terms being illustrated by historical uses, and similarly in continuous columns, though of three rather than two. This practice is mimicked in the Oxford Latin Dictionary, where it has the merit of providing still greater reach towards the past, etc., in three columns again, and with the further exception that the respective lexical item is ellipsed and not spelled out each time. That, then, in sum, is what you get, a course of repetitions of lovely phrases. You get these irrelevancies, lacking semantics, with no interrogations/irritations, just entwined words (beginning near the bottom of the second column of the verso):

Hawthorn If I had had the
courage I would have cut
you a branch of that pink
hawthorn you used to like so
much [une branche de ces épines roses
que tu aimais tant
]. In vain did I shape
my fingers into a frame, so

Then cut to first column of next page, the recto:

as to have nothing but the
hawthorns [sic; put under “Hawthorns”?] before my eyes;
the sentiment which they
aroused in me remained
obscure and vague,
struggling and failing to free
itself, to float across and
become one with the
flowers. It was indeed a
hawthorn, but one whose
flowers were pink, and
lovelier even than the white.
My aunt did not go to see
the pink hawthorn in the
hedge. The hawthorn [les aubépines] was
not merely in the church, for
there, holy ground as it was,
we had all of us a right of
entry; but, arranged upon
the altar itself, inseparable
from the mysteries in whose
celebration it was playing a
part, it thrust in among the
tapers and the sacred
vessels its rows of branches,
tied to one another
horizontally in a stiff, festal
scheme of decoration.
Unfolding through the arch
of the pink hawthorn [déployant sous l’épinier rose], which
opened with her, and with
all that unknown world of
her existence, into which I
should never penetrate.

Being continuous, the columns are not in the habit of being broken, as is sometimes the case in two-column structures. It is thus not anything like the brokenness (a sort of breaching or extendable and expressive guttering) employed, e.g., to intriguing, collusive effect in Anselm Berrigan’s Zero Star Hotel. Or maybe, true enough, there is not this feeling of a negotiable break, and yet, if not this, nevertheless a clipped (or choppy) quality of shortened lines (and phrases?) both supporting and denying swiftness of reading. So perhaps easy reading is not the point.

Easy reading or not, in terms of context the presentation of this entry rather gladly proceeds, is a happy point. The limited range of “Hawthorn” occurrences throughout A Field Guide means that the reader tracks the (mis)guidance to her spot better than for some entries. To be sure, for every dictionary occurrence, context is lost; to be sure, one may be hard pressed, in this day and age, to find a hawthorn in the landscape of an American city, one either bulging or wasted. There is a difference here, however. Context may in this instance be revisited quickly if we are aware, or if in our reviewing we become aware, that meeting Gilberte Swann, haughty daughter to prove so awesome a sighting to one, is a fine moment indeed, intermixed in the narrator’s fine appreciation of the delicately white or pink hawthorn blossoms, or maybe it was the flowers of the strawberry plant that were white, and in any event the fact that we see them, and now her, only because weather permitted the telling of le côté de Méséglise-la-Vineuse (and hence on the way to chez Swann).

Yet the sentences are there, to be read one after another (somehow); are there smushed together (somehow, and with some quite indistinct purpose), as a test of how to read. That is the question: how to read it.

All these problems, specialties of A Field Guide to Lost Things, are there to be placed and to be asked, for the curious. Or Jaeger’s rendition may strike and may otherwise spur the reader on, in similar ways and with even swifter restrictions. It may seem a curiosity, perhaps. The tent folds and unfolds; the fields disappear, fast.

Now take the entry for “Wing”:

Wing All his memories of
the days when Odette had
been in love with him,
which he had succeeded, up
till that evening, in keeping
invisible in the depths of his
being, deceived by this
sudden reflection of a
season of love, whose sun,
they supposed, had dawned
again, had awakened from
their slumber, had taken
wing, and risen to sing
maddeningly in his ears,
without pity for his present
desolation, the forgotten
strains of happiness.
Anyhow, I’ll take you all
under my wing; she can put
the blame on me.

On their face, these bits from Swann’s Way no doubt delight. Differing, and differently opting for their urging, they are rich. But the reader who knows, who can remember the passage from whence for Jaeger (and for Moncrieff) that first long and revealing sentence came, will know the most of it, how bringing back such a magical surge of elucidation can represent one of the narrative’s high moments (notes hautes and [as well] mimiques). But here, as they are, dolorously, they’ve gone.

Living fire and flattered lyre

On Erica Mena and Robert Fernandez

Featherbone

Featherbone

Erica Mena

Ricochet Editions 2015, 55 pages, $15, ISBN 978-1938900112

Pink Reef

Pink Reef

Robert Fernandez

Canarium 2013, 96 pages, $14, ISBN 978-0984947133

In Featherbone and Pink Reef, poets Erica Mena and Robert Fernandez make an argument for poetry’s somatic effects. These two books are very different, but they share a spell-casting potency and embrace the power of language not just to denote the world, but to act, vividly and terribly, within it.

Erica Mena’s book-length poem, Featherbone, makes bodies of its words and then dismembers those bodies. She crossbreeds them into neologisms (boneslide, shaleskin, huskweight) and stretches them until denotative meanings thin out and the resultant language feels physical — somatic rather than explanatory.

Out of fleshfallow slip,
out of sicklight swell,
out of silvering fear,

     (the featherbone reach)

out of undreamed grey,
out of waterskin scale,
out of bone soft loam,

     (the featherbone twist)[1]

Featherbone is a book-length spell — a performative utterance. Like any spell, it strives to make concrete the material realities it names. Mena is not the only poet to engage with notions of ritual in her work: CAConrad’s (soma)tic poetics also hearkens back to magic, with Conrad explicating processes of self-hypnosis, the use of charged objects, and conversations with dead poets to produce his poems. But Featherbone claims an authority different from Conrad’s work. Whereas the poems Conrad creates by his ritual process feel like the residue of that process — inviting a reader to attempt the same ritual herself and produce her own work — Mena’s work has an authoritative finality. Her book is the ritual. In Featherbone, physical things (flesh and wing and feather and skin and bone) proliferate willfully — distinct from any shaping consciousness — before being consumed, desiccated, burned, eaten. The book conjures an environment of frightening vitality, where bodily forces contend, words carve and rasp and hum, and death is never an ending.

Against the formless in the heave, the featherbone cannot
be rejected / cannot take shape. The fatty stratum sifts the sublayer
and probes the subduction and swarms behind your eyes. I want
to know the color of your bones.

The shaleskin flakes thin above laceveined wing,
an oil to grease the featherbone plunge.
Your skullhollow for echo your bonehollow for wind
your eyepit for hollow, scraped off. (26)

There’s a you and I in Featherbone, but no firm addressee, and certainly no “speaker” as, say, Conrad is in his (soma)tic poetics. Instead, Mena creates an environment where such distinctions blur, where categories of being overlap eerily. In Featherbone the body itself “leaks bones” (21), mindlessly generative.

This distressing and complicating of categories extends all the way to the nature of composition itself. Rather than suggesting a numinous authorial “soul” hovering behind its bodily substantiation in language, Featherbone evokes a world in which brief flesh and tangible words ground, and give rise to, a cold and sublimely scary spirit:

The featherbone develops language.
It teaches relations:
            axial, caudal, vesicle.
It teaches shape:
            spindle, flexuous, borne.
It vertexes, you intersect yourself. (44)

The featherbone, that is, came first. The poet did not create the featherbone to employ as a speaker; it is, instead, the featherbone who is the creator of the words.

The featherbone speaks. The tissue webs, it spreads across the voids. To scrape away. (44–45)

This featherbone, hybrid being, is the strange heart of the book that takes its name. Featherbone’s spell subverts conventional ideas of poetic inspiration much more deeply than many poems that present more obvious difficulty of reference or speaker. Plenty of poets enjoy the play of sound, but few can make it signify with the strange somatic unity found here.

Altricial or sereswallow tear in the afterthought glint and gleam,
whirlbone twist and glean that you may glaze the soundless throat.
Alveoli burst the pulse-turn gear and corrode. (17)

Mena’s gift for verbal music — how this passage, for instance, gargles on its repeated gl’s, r’s, and t’s — is always used in evocation of the physical.

Most lyric poetry presumes the Cartesian subject of modernity, holding inner and outer objects up for contemplation. Featherbone instead creates a psychic environment that makes me think of the ancient Greeks, who believed in an active soul, or anima, overflowing the body and entangling itself in the world. The anima doesn’t precede or stand apart from material existence; it is inextricably caught up in it: “the soul is in a way all existing things,” Aristotle said. This grants a frightening power to the free imagination, and in Featherbone there’s a similar sense of risky, contagious magic in the use of words:

You filter and separate,
            you striate and rise.
This is how it begins.

To become. It slakes
            its lift in your weight.
The monstrous sky.

Your bonefuse around it,
            your salt-tide through it:
            you were made to expand. (37)

Just as ancient myth jammed together distinct parts into new creatures (the manticore, a lion with a scorpion’s stinger; the naga, half-human, half-snake), so Featherbone jams death into life. For all the destructive power in the book, it ends not in annihilation, but in a suggestion of the dependency of the lofty and spiritual on the decayed and fleshly. “Made of things that flutter. Licham. Bonesalt. Pulse. The night within the distant skin. We thrall the weighted sky” (47).

It’s tempting to attribute to Mena’s distinguished work as a literary translator (from Spanish and Arabic) her poetry’s command of language’s tangible, changeable qualities. But Featherbone’s intensity is such that the “command” seems to have run the other way. Featherbone is a body acting on a body; it’s been a long time since I read a book which granted its materials such power over the composing poet — and over the reader.

*

Lying on his back in a darkened cell, a cloth across his eyes and a stone resting on his belly, a young bard of the western islands of Scotland would complete his study in perfect silence, “pumping his brain” until he emerged into daylight a master of rhapsody, curse, and magic, to be honored and feared by the island’s lords.

This was five centuries ago, when bards wielded deadly and binding instruments of language; not many poets remember this time, but Robert Fernandez seems to. His book Pink Reef is a sequence not of descriptions but of performative utterances, emerging from a speaker alone in the dark with visions of eggs and bone, meat and moths:

the mounds of roe are
so bright today it’s like
I see the sun for the first
time it’s like I see the sun clearly
in the idea of it it’s like I see the sun
clearly in the black mounds of
shine in the swollen
clear of it[2

This quote suggests the vividness and horrified fixation which dominate Pink Reef. Fernandez shares Mena’s knack for arresting, tangible imagery. But his book relates differently to its subjects. “There is an ink // into which seeing passes” (13), one poem warns us; whereas Featherbone grants a durable, gruesome immediacy to its material, the environment of Pink Reef is more mutable. Featherbone conjures a bodily reality; Pink Reef’s untitled poem-sections instead conjure visions in the poet’s mind. Even Fernandez’s oddest conjunctions of subjects have a hallucinatory intensity. When the speaker seizes on a noun and repeats it, as in the nautiluses and the corn below, the reader feels not the particularity of the subject (a certain specific sea creature, a certain cornfield), but rather the overpowering force of Fernandez’s obsession:  

there are nautiluses
in the corn,

but the nautiluses
spray debris

bull draped in a mirror
of sweat

sprays corn
& blubber

I am listening
to the whale song
in the alien corn (14)

Those last two words come from Keats, but so what? History is no comfort in Pink Reef: Cartier and Chanel, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Blake and Ida Applebroog all come up among the book’s gristle, blisters, and brain corals, but they hang inconclusively; they are not presiding spirits or ancestors for the speaker but unstable material among other unstable material. Likewise the incursions of familiar technological flotsam: “the table set, blood / ruptures cloth speakers,” or “the scream boils like / refrigerator bubbles / under ice-pack” (58). Featherbone’s vocabulary feels intentionally ancient and mythic: it would puncture the book’s effect if Mena had included cloth speakers or refrigerators. But Pink Reef is more capacious: the book’s vision seems able to absorb any material, ancient or modern, technological or bodily. Nothing survives whole — as in the “melting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon cubes // Les Demoiselles d’Avignon / blocks of melting shine” (52) — but neither is anything refused.

At its least effective, Pink Reef feels merely gross: “understand / the damned / with sails unfurling / from their / assholes” (9); “Jeff Koons / wants to fuck me / I offer him / a strip of / my back / a strip / of my bloodied / bleeding” (36–37). What, then, saves the book from being overkill, an eighty-four-page spurt of exploitative violence? For one thing, Fernandez’s ear for poetic music: there’s not one poem in here that doesn’t sound, at the level of vowel and consonant, beautiful. “One who flatters a lyre / clips the spine’s fused discs” (81); “it is the refulgent blush of your / diadems that makes me itch through the scrim- / shawed ant-hill of my bones” (42). For another, Fernandez’s sense of formal control: Pink Reef is broken into short sections (the longest is thirty-six lines) of short lines, a series of rigid containers within which the material can hurl itself.

This formal control points to another oddity of the book, and a way in which it differs profoundly from Featherbone. For all of the energy of Fernandez’s language, Pink Reef refuses any kind of ritual climax. Another poet might have worked such material into a cumulative long poem — some ecstatic Dionysian thing that would leave the reader feeling disturbed, but also transported, by the book’s end. Not Fernandez. “I / cannot / I refuse / I refrain” (84), ends the last poem.

But refrain from what? Refuse what? Fernandez asserts no argument, delineates no alternate way of knowing, spares no energy to attack contemporary notions of body and spirit. Rather the poems seem, as Barbara Guest once put it, to have “taken and shaken” the poet, leaving him, with “blood & // bubbles of blood / in the stomach” (43), to stumble forward, his soul and body in tatters.

Featherbone and Pink Reef are dark, often horrifying, books, but they are spiritually — that is, somatically — alive. In a poetic era whose idea of “resistance” is often limited to an ironic repurposing of dominant language, these books resist alienation by their very spell-weaving vitality, their commitment to an active, performative use of language. The poets’ force of belief — Mena’s in the proliferant bodily power of her featherbone, Fernandez’s in the intensity of his visions — sweeps the reader up. They demonstrate the continued vitality of a very ancient understanding of poetry’s power.



1. Erica Mena, Featherbone (Los Angeles: Ricochet Editions, 2015), 4–5.

2. Robert Fernandez, Pink Reef (Marfa, Texas: Canarium Books, 2013), 74.

Labor of we

Layers and alliance in Kenji Liu's 'Map of an Onion'

Photo of Kenji Liu (right) by Margarita Corporan.

Map of an Onion

Map of an Onion

Kenji Liu

Inlandia Institute 2016, 146 pages, $15.00, ISBN 978-0997093209

Kenji Liu’s debut poetry collection does not start quietly; rather, it breaks into the world, denouncing the United States’ attempted erasure of migrants through legalese that alienates non-English-speaking people. The collection begins with the birth of the speaker in Kyoto, Japan, and spends layer upon layer puzzling the violences that the colonial center wreaks against the periphery. Liu’s overarching metaphor for intersectionality and assemblage of identities is the onion without a full and “real” center. Three layers that Liu uses cluster as follows: poetic forms and ancestry, settler colonialism and the speaker, and wholeness from ruin.

Layer 1: Poetic forms and ancestry

In some respects, the formal poems in this collection act as proof of ancestry, or as official documents to be problematized: the reader engages discourses around descent, heritage, and inheritance. Specifically, Liu uses the qilu, an ancient Chinese formal poem that is composed of eight lines of seven characters each. Liu uses this formal mode — and deviates from it — to echo the social and cultural distance from his parents’ homes. In his poem “My Dear Koxinga,” Liu experiments with migrating this form into English:

Nations need a parable
To reinvent themselves with.[1]

In this use of form and its subversion in English, Liu is able to attain a new kind of “parable” in which the national belonging of the speaker is in flux, using an ancient form to undo the historicizing of a single narrative. Liu’s speaker shifts linguistically as well as formally; for instance, in the poem “A Son Writes Back,” Liu also employs the qilu form but adds to it a translation into Chinese by Der-Jin Woan and Suh-Ling Lin.

Liu considers Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee in order to practice his art of complication. Noted by Timothy Yu in the book’s introduction, Liu uses the dictation lesson to illustrate the way that language is complicit in the institutional racism against migrants. Often the migrant is slated to inhabit a particular place in the settler state of the US, desiring to assimilate into the patterns of racialization within the present construction of citizenship. What is ignored, typically, is the fact that this land was purloined from Native inhabitants. Liu adds Native American presence to the political landscape of “Deconstruction: Papers” through “interventions” that disrupt the English-only legalese of immigration papers and show the irony of a settler state using language that deliberately shuts out any imaginings of alternative citizenship. The interventions that Liu makes add Chinese, Taiwanese, and Lenape languages to the texture of official documents; the poem, divided into three parts, includes “Birth Certificate with Chinese Intervention,” “Taiwanese Passport with English Intervention,” and “Naturalization Certificate with Lenape Intervention.” Liu’s interventions and considerations of the languages of places are important to the claims that he poses for the anticolonial project of this book. From “Deconstruction: Papers”:

Personal description of holder as of date of naturalization
kènu Date of birth February twenty kènu nineteen seventy
seven kènu sex Male kènu complexion Medium kènu
color of eyes Black kènu color of hair Black kènu height
three feet zero inches kènu Marital status Single kènu (4)

In this poem the appearance of Lenape language serves as an unrelenting reminder that this land was originally Lenape; that the archive of the land still holds the memory of its original inhabitants. In doing so Liu asserts that immigrants do not have to serve the settler state and its continued genocidal actions against Natives. He shows how migrants and immigrants are able to destabilize official mechanisms, such as immigration papers, to illuminate this history and alliance with Native groups.

Layer 2: Settler colonialism and Liu’s speaker

Asian American literature is often discussed in relation to white and black cultures in the United States. Liu expands this discourse to include other migrant groups; by doing so, he is able to resist the mythology of the nation that many subscribe to in order to achieve cultural capital.

By naming specific indigenous North American groups whose land his family migrated to, Liu opens up his onion to the complexities of being a minority group struggling for national inclusion on the land of Native people who have been denied ownership, their land stolen from them by the American government.

In the poem “In Orbit Around New York City” Liu contends with the names of places around Edison, New Jersey. He writes: 

Over the decades, onion skins
laid with scalpels. Tributaries,
deveined (14).

In this poem Liu’s speaker attempts to excavate the palimpsest of the land. He applies his overarching metaphor of the onion to the histories of landscapes, accounting for the role that colonization, forced migration, and immigration have played in shaping the tenor of national space.

A phantom in this collection is Japan as a colonial master of Taiwan; it emerges through the language of official documents that Liu recreates. The leveling agent between the speaker’s parents is their immigration to the United States and the neocolonialism of the American capitalist market, where both must contend with the English language to survive. In his poem “Landing,” Liu maps the challenges his speaker’s parents face. Liu writes,

By now nobody has to explain the three-in-one god. Japan dwells
in Taiwan, the US dwells in Japan, eternally. Now they cohabitate
in the stock market. Baptism by firebombs, atomics, Gojira (89).

Liu’s speaker contends with settler-colonial complicity as well as American imperialism to portray a complicated scene where the speaker’s parents — one Taiwanese, one Japanese — learn English in a basement on Lenape land stolen by European settlers.

Layer 3: Wholeness from ruin

The last layer that Liu contends with is that of the psychic inheritance of a fractured history of national belonging. Liu’s speaker emerges whole, despite the complicated immigrant identities that he must wade through. As with the various places and inhabitants that make up the history of the speaker’s location, Liu offers a reworking of the Theravada Buddhist practice of metta, sewing together well-wishes for all beings in his poem “Memoriam for Places.” Liu offers a prayer to the devas of place, acknowledging the complications of “graveyards,” “chalk outlines,” “bullet holes,” and “prison cell corners.” He writes against ruin:

May all your stained places remember
how after rains, grass gets free (85).

In this poem Liu articulates the resilience of his immigrant speaker, how complexity of identity makes for a beautiful spring — how emerald wholeness emerges despite damage. And there is freedom in this survival; a freedom that the poet and migrant know despite the multiple spheres of oppression faced in this world of racial profiling, unjust incarceration, police brutality, anti-immigration violence, and Donald Trump.

Spanish, Japanese, and Chinesetranslations of Liu’s poemsappear in this collection to show the multilingual landscape from which Liu’s imagination draws, and the ways in which minority communities can share a common poetics and allyship. Ending his collection with the poem “Deconstruction: Body Unbound” Liu writes,

Now
                 unhinge
                 the predictable I

Forward
the trembling labor of

we (108)

This acts as a call to form alliances with others in the current political climate of the United States. This book is pivotal in the Asian American canon in its alliance-forming push to act against the dominant, white supremacist hegemony that immigrants, Natives, and minorities alike face in the United States. Liu imagines a world where “alliance” means the negotiation of various colonizations, histories, and oppressions, and a weaving together of stories into one so powerful and nuanced it must be reckoned with.


1. Kenji C. Liu, Map of an Onion (Riverside, CA: Inlandia Institute, 2016), 36.

Infrastructure writing

A review of David Buuck's 'Site Cite City'

Site Cite City

Site Cite City

David Buuck

Futurepoem Books 2015, 168 pages, $18.00, ISBN 978-0996002516

“[I]t is precisely a special way of writing that realism requires,” writes Lyn Hejinian in her essay, “Two Stein Talks.”[1] Site Cite City is a book of realism, in the sense Hejinian uses it: realism is the product of a method, of a “special way of writing.” The realism of Site Cite City is directed less at the “pure products of America” than at the infrastructure in which they interact: streets, streetcars, docks, containers, freeways, airport terminals, public buildings, and networks fill Site Cite City. In the book’s centerpiece, “Buried Treasure Island,” Buuck posits that the truth is found “between site and non-site”[2]; infrastructure — precisely what lies “between” the two Smithson concepts mentioned here — is the locus of the real. And not only does infrastructure furnish the subject matter for Site Cite City, it serves as the compositional model for much of Buuck’s work here as well.

Keller Easterling writes in his book Extrastatecraft that “infrastructure space is a form, but not like a building is a form; it is an updating platform unfolding in time to handle new circumstances, encoding the relationships between buildings, or dictating logistics.”[3] Infrastructure is not simply a matter of engineering; it is the new medium of the polity, the place where action and information meet, a “site of multiple, overlapping or nested forms of sovereignty” that behaves like “spatial software.”[4] Infrastructure space is the zone in which the various forces of extrastatecraft — a mix of corporate, NGO, and state actors who compete and cooperate for control — shape the global economic, social, environmental, and even aesthetic contours of everyday life. Site Cite City is a compilation of seven works, each of which reflects strategies to probe infrastructure space and contest the prevailing stories spun by these actors.

“Buried Treasure Island” seeks to remedy the lack of there there on Treasure Island, a manufactured island that sits in San Francisco Bay. Buuck declares his intention to “unearth the secret histories” of the location, mixing journalism, historical essay, song lyrics, photographic documentation, lists, manifestos, and performance notes. “Buried Treasure Island” is an exercise in “tactical magic,”[5] an attempt to rewrite the island itself and transform an existing site into a cite (and possibly a new site). Buuck, an avowed practitioner of tactical magic in the Bay Area, advocates for its use directly in Site Cite City: “Tactical magic will have become the method by which such futural gambits might be flung into the not-yet horizon, chance-chants against the ever-constricted lung capacity and fault lines of other possible tomorrows” (61). In the hands of Buuck, tactical magic is employed to recode the island, extending in a literary direction the projects of environmental artists like Smithson, de Maria, and Matta-Clark — all of whom feature in the book and are “cited” in various ways in “Buried Treasure Island” and even on Treasure Island itself (in the form of signs and marks left on the island). In a triangle-shaped homage to Smithson’s A Heap of Language, Buuck even piles on the page words and phrases found on Treasure Island’s signs. Smithson’s A Heap of Language is a high-concept pun; Buuck’s is a commentary on the use of language to control infrastructure space: the warnings and “no trespassing” verbiage found on Treasure Island emphasize the barriers that serve to prevent a present-day Smithson from effectively transforming it physically and aesthetically.

Tactical magic belongs to a greater “alternative activist repertoire,” a term Easterling uses to describe indirect methods of opposing the authoritarian forces that emerge in infrastructure space via extrastatecraft.[6] An alternative activist repertoire is a means for producing realism, employing a variety of strategies that don’t always enact a binary opposition to authority, but instead work obliquely, highlighting the discrepancies between the stories that the actors of extrastatecraft spin and the real actions they perform. Such strategies include overcompliance, humor, gift giving, doubling, mimicry, and distraction.

“The Alibi” proffers a lyric for the Surveillance Age and is an example of a couple of these alternative activist strategies. The work is (I’m making the assumption that the book’s endnotes are truthful) the transcription of a report by a detective whom Buuck had hired to follow him. The result is an inverse of the lyric poem — “outsourced confessionalism” as Buuck describes it — but not a simple flip from “I do this, I do that” to “he does this, he does that.” “Alibi” actually sits as the third leg in the tripod of which the first-person lyric and Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas form the first two legs. Whereas Stein plays the ventriloquist in her autobiography, Buuck narrates indirectly by performing daily activities that the detective transcribes, and then Buuck edits the final transcript (formatting, redacting, arranging, correcting). Buuck, referred to in “Alibi” simply as “Subject,” acts as a conductor, and his hired PI is the player.

The language in “The Alibi” is entirely superficial; most notable are a couple passages in which the detective clearly desires to provide insight into the inner workings of the surveillance subject, only to stop at bland conjecture: “Subject appears to stare off across café as if in thought” (30).  “The Alibi” can be roughly divided into three sections. The first and last sections are descriptions of Buuck as he moves around town. However, in the middle section Buuck doesn’t come out of his house, instead standing up the detective for their surveillance “date” so that the detective ends surveillance after a couple hours with nothing to report. The result is a kind of caesura between the other two episodes, emphasizing the emptiness of the lyrical subject and the fact that this detective story is a “nodunnit.”

As a piece of alternative activist strategy, “The Alibi” uses both overcompliance and doubling.  In doubling, a double is employed as an imposter, proxy, or alibi in order to ironize a particular situation or relationship. Here, in “The Alibi,” Buuck engages in autoimpersonation: Buuck the surveillance subject poses as a cardboard stand-in for the real subject, and the text acts as a verbal chiaroscuro. Likewise, Buuck’s surveillance subject is a compliant one (there is no equivalent to a “chase scene” or indications of an attempt by Buuck to lose his tail), and it is the act of complicity that adds to the satire. With its ultradocumentary format (the piece is even rendered in Courier font), “The Alibi” is ultimately a performance of caricature — in both the objective and subjective prepositional constructions. It provides a double comment on the presence of surveillance infrastructure and the shallowness of the data that surveillance is actually able to collect about individual subjectivity.

In extending the projects of the Situationists and environmental artists, Buuck makes overt use of autobiography and narrative. In “Market Street Detours,” “The Side Effect,” “The Treatment,” and the already mentioned “The Alibi,” Buuck mixes narrative and autobiography as a means to explore the interface between the individual subject and public space. Often, as in “The Side Effect,” autobiography emerges directly as subject matter. “The Side Effect” is a set of prose stanzas, one to a page, in which phrasal figures ostinato through the stanzas. In the thread of meditations on autobiography that runs through “The Side Effect,” autobiography is described as a negative and passive space, which somewhat tempers the agency of the negative space proposed in “The Alibi”: “Autobiography is that which only gives one the illusion of control” (21); “Autobiography is what happens between the sentences” (18); “Autobiography is what’s left out of the public record” (19); “Autobiography is the space between us” (20); “Autobiography is never about what actually happened, but the muscle memory in the mouth-work of the telling of it” (24).

Narrative as a means to explore the interaction of the individual with infrastructure space occurs most visibly in “The Treatment,” which serves as a sprawling finale to the book — a mix of genres, rife with callbacks to other pieces in Site Cite City, and multisectional. The piece begins, “The containers pile up” (103), and goes on to alternate between narrative episodes, content lists, and reports, divided up into three large sections, which are themselves subdivided. “The Treatment” is a loose first-person dystopian detective story that reads like a Philip K. Dick book mired in bureaucratic red tape. “So — narrative doesn’t arc; it aches” (104), Buuck writes, and the story here doesn’t so much progress as meander in and through various kinds of containers (shipping containers, stores, boxes), the means by which “landscapes process us” (149). Containers even echo in the piece’s format of rectangular paragraphs and stanzas. “No things but in Ikeas,” Buuck quips in “Market Street Detours” (85). The story doesn’t matter here, nor ultimately does the character, because the infrastructure is the story. And the infrastructure space is the narrator, himself a node of communications and containers, watching and watched. Buuck’s writing acts as infrastructure: modular, moving between fact, fiction, writing, and performance.

The interface between individual and infrastructure space is the subject of the writing even as it is explored through formalized strategies of the public practice of writing itself. Buuck composed “Converted Storefront” through accretive performances. The published text consists of Buuck’s transcription of his performance of yet an earlier transcription of an improvised recording of his walk outside of the Oakland gallery, where he then gave the performance. The improvisation that served as the basis of the recording drew both on bits from a review of a cris cheek book (including citations from cheek himself) and Buuck’s impressions of the cityscape as he strolled through the streets (a fairly neat literalization of site, cite, and city). The piece is reminiscent of many of Steve Benson’s iterative and performance-based writing projects, in which composition is enacted as a means to affect the composition itself, often employing types of feedback in order to fold in the environment, the medium, or both back into the text. Recalling the Easterling description of infrastructure space above, the parallels with Buuck’s writing practice come into focus: iterative and collaborative, writing is kept fluid and off-center in order to effectively respond to the occasion.

Site Cite City functions as one of many nodes in Buuck’s network of poetic practice, along with his website, videos, and sound recordings (many of which are “sited” in the book via their URLs) and performances themselves. Buuck’s approach argues for performance as an integral part of composition, and likewise that language art is (or should be) a part of an expanded activist repertoire. “Buried Treasure Island,” as noted earlier, is foremost an activist project, of which the text in Site Cite City is only a part, and describes itself as only one of several “overlapping platforms: installation, guidebook, tour and detour, audio podcast, staged actions, and here in the writing and mapping” (34). Site Cite City’s realism requires an engagement with infrastructure space, just as the “special writing” producing such realism requires that it be part of a larger sphere of activity that encompasses composition, performance, and activism. 


1. Lyn Hejinian, “Two Stein Talks,” in The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000),89.

2. David Buuck, Site Cite City (Futurepoem Books, 2015), 34.

3. Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (London: Verso Books, 2014),13.

4. Ibid., 14.

5. For more on tactical magic see the Center for Tactical Magic’s website.

6. Easterling, Extrastatecraft, 191.

The urban interior-exterior ideal

Photo by Vadim Erent, 2011.

Model City

Model City

Donna Stonecipher

Shearsman Books 2015, 94 pages, $18.50, ISBN 978-1848613881

There is something easygoing about reading Donna Stonecipher’s Model City, which leads the reader through the pages as if on a walk. Lured inside this landscape, we are invited to see, to reflect, to ponder, to muse, to sense the spaces in these seventy-two “model cities,” but also outside of the pages in the world which surrounds us. This book of prose poems is comprised of 288 long sentences with commas separating subclauses, all beginning “It was like.” We are in media res, where the “it” in the question posed by a disembodied voice on page 1 — “what was it like?”[1] — is open to interpretation: this voice and its question are part of some world preceding this urban space; a myriad of other potential “its” could be proposed. Is the speaker in the poems returning from traveling? Returning from seeing another, alternate, urban-planned world? Are they simply coming back in the door after stepping outside to look at a space they should have already known like the back of their hand but which suddenly has revealed a myriad of new facets, both architectural and human? What is certain is that Stonecipher deftly explores geographic-architectural-psychological space in a way that includes her reader, invites them to wander and wonder alongside the speaker, to peruse and ponder the shifting perspectives of each poem.

The poems themselves, written in stanza-paragraph-sentences with justified margins spaced four to a page with three centered asterisks to divide them, stand to attention like blocked buildings, eliciting a sense that the white margins and interstanza spaces are walkways. The asterisks take on a lamppost- or perhaps fountain-like quality, providing tiny visual decoration along a mental-linguistic-geographic stroll. What space am I, author, in; I, speaker, in; I, reader, in? Stonecipher asks: What space are you in, reader, speaker, author, in these poems? These lines are what connect us: it is how we belong.

This said, this book is about a disbelonging, about estrangement within the familiar. The collection opens with a sense that around the speaker the city has been rebuilding places not for its residents, its neighborhood inhabitants, or for the future of its citizens, but rather for transients. Only hotels are being constructed. The model city is constructing only “permanent temporariness” (31) for visitors alone. Realizing that every new building is a hotel in the opening poem leads the speaker to say: “It was like thinking about all those empty rooms at night, all those empty rooms being built to hold an absence” (15), and far later “feeling threatened by the rampantly multiplying hotel rooms, as if vacancy were a disease invading the city’s — and therefore your — interior” (49).

As the book develops, the potential parallels between a foreign and native city arise as residents become like model figures, only theoretical inhabitants (37). In these model cities, the author explains, “a home is by definition disappearance” (47). And suddenly it is true, we can see how we each disappear into our homes, hide and hibernate there, shadowforms beyond the walls, passing before windows, visitors, mortal, in these quasi-permanent constructions. “It was like admiring and resisting the machine for living” (33), Stonecipher states in an earlier poem.

As the collection opens, there is no mention of light or dark, yet something about being able to see the vacancy in all of the new hotels evokes a Hopperesque vision which pervades the entire collection. It is a vision of light streaming out of rectangular windows with no one inside. Hollowness pervades Stonecipher’s urban landscapes, eliciting an automated sense of connection and disconnection: one of the major themes in this collection. As Stonecipher writes, “It was like looking at the ‘zu vermieten’ signs and thinking about the organizing principle of the window: organizing light and air, inside and outside, volume and surplus, belonging and not belonging, opaque as glass” (19). Her model cities are filled with glass, stone, marble, socialist blocked buildings, high-rise hotels with their stacks of windows, industrial parks, mazes of courtyards, skylines of “skyscrapers’ staggering heights” (35), “grids, towers, monumental ministries, vast plazas — that came to nothing” (42), new glass buildings versus bullet-pocked old ones, underground parking garages/the underground city, high-rises, the cité industrielle with all buildings made of concrete.

These urban developments, these model cities, are of course also about how humankind makes choices — determining our days, planning them out. But then something unexpected — like seeing a sign advertising a sugar museum or the uncharacteristic wild animal like a fox or a door never open suddenly gaping — creates a shift. Predetermined fate is thwarted by unprecedented opportunity, via observation. Noting the change and allowing oneself to go towards it is offered to the speaker as an alternate route, a surprising, unprecedented opportunity for perspective change — though at first Stonecipher’s speaker turns away from that new enticing destination as she states: “For its nature is seduction. And yours, renunciation” (22).

In these ways throughout this brilliant, captivating, and at times melancholic volume, the speaker goes about her day thinking and observing the outer world. Her quasi-obsessive linking of outer and inner landscapes absorbs the reader, engulfs them in these model cities and the mind and voice carrying them along these urban landscapes. But there are also dispersed throughout the book moments where the speaker is in her own bed, inside her home, a place that is definitively not ours, but about the persona’s struggle. These are moments of disquiet, when she cannot sleep, so she thinks of something. The sleeplessness reveals an underlying anxiety, an inability to release herself to dream, from the world surrounding her to her own interior imagination, perhaps. There is something hard and sad about this character’s struggle that is at once familiar and strange, paralleling the landscapes the speaker describes, as well as the references to literature (including Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, or Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick), or to art (as seen in allusions to photographers Atget or Wegee, drawer/painter Audubon and Leonardo da Vinci), or to architects (such as to the Bauhaus school, Le Corbusier, or to Zaha Hadid).

What these layers of artistic allusion add is a dimension of questioning the real and the model/museum/imitation/simulacra wherein the character is “wondering about the authenticity of authenticity” (26). Actual versus factual, real versus synthetic, or “real” and “ideal” partake in a sort of mental mise en abyme, as Stonecipher puts it on page 58. Photography in particular interrogates issues of authenticity and originality, opening up reflections about façades versus interiors, leading the speaker to go as far as comparing buildings to human skeletons (30). Thus the issues of permanence and impermanence are not only about hotels versus long-term habitations, but about mortality versus immortality — what lies underneath surfaces? Stonecipher is asking. What is behind the austere, white paint façades? For humans, it is a constant skeletal smile laughing at the ridiculousness of all of the outer efforts. When applied to buildings damaged by bullets, suddenly the voice states that these bullet-pocked buildings provide an “unexpected apparition of evidence — that history is real” (54). 

In the end, perhaps the character seeks the ideal model city. Perhaps the città ideale is finding a way of “moving on past the gutted squat and its gutted ideal” (25) as the author states at one point. If so, then we are left with the question of: to what? What is beyond? The speaker digs and digs through exterior observation as if burrowing into some fundamental unnamed core of the self where time is at work, making history, antiques, in an ultracontemporary parallel to an “ersatz medieval town,” with reliquaries, falling into ruin. Wishing she could explain “how the history resides in your head” (34), Donna Stonecipher’s model city reminds us both of the discomfort and of the comfort of reproduction versus the “so real” (32) version of the world as we each model it in our own minds.


1. Donna Stonecipher, Model City (Bristol, UK: Shearsman Books, 2015), 1.