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Jordan Abel's 'Injun'
Note: above, a video of Jordan Abel giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Alex Porco’s response to Abel’s talk appears below.
Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel’s 2016 book of poetry, Injun, is a rhetorical analysis of “pulp propaganda” and a decolonizing application of the Tzara-Gysin “cut up.” Put another way, the book ostensibly asks: what if we sent Bernays rafting on the Nass River of Northern British Columbia to toss his Freudian guts out? “It will come to him as his own idea” — as in a dream.
Injun is a demonstration of what Ming-Qian Ma calls “counter-method” poetics, or the performance of “poetry as rereading.” Recent examples include Rachel Zolf’s Janey’s Arcadia (Coach House Books, 2014), Moez Surani’s Operations (BookThug, 2016), and Hugo García Manríquez’s Anti-Humboldt (Litmus Press, 2015). Abel rereads American westerns of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with hokey titles like The Lure of the Dim Trails, Gunman’s Reckoning, Riders of the Silences, Two Boys in Wyoming: A Tale of Adventure, Desert Gold, and Sunset Pass; or, Running the Gauntlet through Apache Land. Abel’s book is a demonstration against the Rollo Martins of the world, a.k.a. Buck Dexter, author of The Lone Rider of Santa Fe. “In normal circumstances [Martins] is a cheerful fool.” He means well, producing sentimental fictions that shape public opinion about Indigenous peoples, about the landscape and property, and about settler history and violence.
Using Project Gutenberg’s digital library, Abel identified 509 uses of the slur “injun” in “91 public domain western novels with a length of just over ten thousand pages.” Next, he subjected the uses of the slur to chance-based cut ups: “Sometimes I would cut up a page into three- to five-word clusters. Sometimes I would cut up a page without looking. Sometimes I would rearrange the pieces until something sounded right. Sometimes I would just write down how the pieces fell together.”
His long poem’s arrangement becomes increasingly scattered. Abel’s visual prosody scissors against syllabic stress patterns: “si lvertip // b” or “bl o ody gor ge.” Eventually, letters are loosed entirely from semantic units, i.e., the word and line. Finally, even the directionality of the page is turned upside down. The mirrored guts of (my/our) English. Abel’s rereading moves rhythmically from symmetry to asymmetry.
Similarly, his vocal performance moves from mono to multichannel audio, generating an insipative force that serves as a counterpoint to the page’s increasingly dissipative and multidirectional visual prosody. Abel reads, records, and layers vocal tracks that overlay, interrupt, and dislocate the “place” of meaning. His mouth, teeth, and tongue are concealed beneath an outlaw’s bandana. This costuming serves two purposes. First, the bandana makes it impossible to fix the source of Abel’s voice(s) to his body. Like Nsiga’a Halayt, he summons the supernatural. Ghosts in the (colonial) machine of Logos. Second, he mocks the iconicity of a stock character type, i.e., the outlaw, in western pulp novels.
Abel’s long poem is also supplemented by a series of poems — “notes,” he calls them — that list the results of similar keyword searches of those same novels: words like “whitest,” “frontier,” “truth,” “gold,” “territory,” “money,” “scalped,” and “redskin.” Furthermore, in an appendix, Abel includes an erasure poem: every sentence that includes “injun” in each novel is collected into a prose assemblage; however, the slur is erased from the text, creating empty spaces to be reinhabited with alternative modes of representation. (They’re also spaces through which I, as a Canadian, confront my own complicity. Caesurae.)
“These novels,” says Abel, “put up a wall around how we could think about this particular time period, the settlement period. It’s very necessary to return to these kinds of narratives. I find the genre of westerns to be so frustrating. It’s a genre that is still being written … still romanticized.” Injun is his second attempt at engaging with the western. His previous collection, Un/Inhabited, examines contexts of use for the word “uninhabited.” As he explains in remarks made at the Avant Canada conference, Un/Inhabited imagines “public domain [texts] as an inhabitable body of land.”
(Dream vision: last night, I imagined that Abel concluded his trilogy with a Cage-inspired mesostic reading through his database. In the dream, he slips into a room, with a bayside view, at the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel — now, in fact, closed — and switches out the dresser drawer’s copy of the Bible with his new book. The room’s guest: Daniel Snyder. The book’s title: Mr. Abel Goes to Washington.)
The injurious representational regime of the pulp western tacitly encouraged white North Americans to despise the Other — as much as they would eventually come to love bacon for breakfast and the “Howdy, partner” salute, with a canonical tip of the lip of a Stetson. “Injuns in a heap,” writes Abel, and, later, “injun s mu st hang.” In section l of his long poem, an italicized voice announces,
let’s play injun
and clean ourselves
off the land
same old gun handed business
Abel adduces a correspondence between the treatment of Indigenous people and other horrors of the twentieth century, that is, the holocaust and lynching (“same old”). He points to the myth of purity that’s disseminated via mass culture’s (so-called) benign entertainments and that authorizes violence as “play” in the settler’s imagination.
In other words, Jordan Abel ain’t (thankfully, finally) your Canadaddy’s “old stock” Duncan Campbell Scott.
1. Abel, qtd. in Chelsea Rooney, “Jordan Abel: Un/Inhabited,” Project Space, September 25, 2014.
8. At Avant Canada, Abel participated in the conference session titled “Unsettling Appropriations.” The title of his performance was “The Place of Scraps.” His fellow panelists included Rachel Zolf (“An Appropriative Poetics of Canadian Settler Discourse”), Christine Stewart (“Acting As If You Have No Relations: Žižek, Christianity, the Avant-garde, and Living on Turtle Island”), and Shane Rhodes (“X”). Susan Holbrook was the panel chair. The event took place on November 6, 2015, in the Studio Gallery of Brock University’s Rodman Hall Art Center.