Revisioning history

A review of Jill Magi's 'Slot'



Jill Magi

Ugly Duckling Presse 2011, 136 pages, $17 ISBN 978-1-933254-87-6

In Slot, Jill Magi asks that we travel with her to those sites where we have instantiated our historical consciousness and regularized its narratives. Part lyric, part excavation, Magi’s work mirrors, in a way, the processes she critiques in offering us this: a new form of articulation, political, collective, lyric. It seems that post-9/11 America has become a place where nuance and deliberation have been systematically effaced in public discourse; instead, knowledge, fact, volume, and the language of officialdom stand between us and our lived experience of history. Dedicated to the city of New York, a reader can certainly understand this work as one assembled in response to post-9/11 discourse, but it is not exclusively so. Instead, Magi makes possible (again? for the first time?) those elements of language, thought, and history that have been banished from our (public) consciousness by the demands of national identity, its retaliatory bravado and compulsion for redemption, however illusory. She states:

Wrenched from the tendency to ignore, I want memory wrenched from the
tendency to protest,

from the ruin of argument, saying,

“Come crowd yourself with me in rooms of the ruin.” (122)

Slot takes us to many “rooms of the ruin,” and Magi’s lyric impulse intertwines with languages designed to inform and to prepare, to frame, and to explain. What the lyric impulse offers this collection is a subtle mishearing, a slip of the language, really. These branchings of official discourse, from an examination of the Rosewood massacre to the disturbingly sensationalized Colonial Williamsburg Escaped Slave Program serve to question our memorializing and to implicate it in our language of the present. In Magi’s work, specters of the past haunt these memorials — both living within their narratives and yet somehow always existing outside of them.

An earlier work, Threads, suggested that the search for authentication inevitably leads to the fraying of narrative (historical, personal, or social), and that the “facts” of history are little more than threads of tissues of knowledge, tiny nodes existing in relation to each other — pieces, photos, letters, scraps. Magi’s process of assemblage, then — in Threads a more personal archaeology, in Slot, a broader cultural (and bibliographical) excavation, perhaps — offers us a new way to approach history and to approach the problematic of the lyric speaker without eschewing the potential of consolation. Her work is, in fact, a form of active remembrance, an opening up of implicit finitude of the process of memorialization. While one can take a walking tour of slave quarters or enter through the gate of a concentration camp, these simulations of authentication mistakenly suggest to the visitor — always nameless, always idealized — that the museum, and its extensions into everyday language, is the repository of true experience rather than its approximation.

The danger Magi sees in the rage to historicize and memorialize rests, in part, in its damaging obedience to the language and logic of capital. The “visitor” of Magi’s long book-length hybrid poem is implicated in this sensationalization to which she objects. “The visitor” is the promissory note and justification of this brand of cultural encounter, a passive accomplice to the rendering palatable of historical tragedy. “Please, no more memorials” one voice says; a phrase echoed in other sections of the book, and it is clear that this mindless consumption of historical narrative (and avoidance of its relation to present conditions) is at the heart of the plea.

Slot incorporates its own bibliography into the body of the text, thus turning the book inside out, and troubling our encounter with it. This form of transparency challenges both the reception of the lyric and its Romantic inheritance and the institutions of collection. While Magi unlinks the airtight logic of the architectural construction of museum space and its inherent social relations, so does she reconfigure knowledge with respect to the poem. Here, the long poem appropriates and incorporates the language of the official tour, in part, by challenging its authority though direct address. Where the tour itself is a kind of singular narrative processed and generated for a group of people, it also advertises its expertise — informational, and, in a way, unquestionable.

Dear Floor Plan:
These three photographs that depict the torture and hanging of Frank Embree
were laced together with a twisted purple thread, so as to unfold like a map.

Dear Palette:
And those of us who came to look at the fascinating distortions of steel have now
been silenced by that tiny figure —

Dear Fascinator:
The museum will be an exemplar of accessibility; it will speak different
it will provide access to our stories through a diverse palette of multimedia

Dear Seeker:
Far more affecting are the unaltered fences and blown-up gas chambers.
Tip: You may camp nearby from April to October. (43)

If, as Foucault notes, the examination is the most obvious expression of the functioning of power, one may read the consistent interruptions of “the survey,” and its related questions accordingly. Not only has historical experience been packaged, or slotted, but also the survey, the questionnaire, the guest book, and the viewing instructions have preconditioned our subjective response and, of course, our exit through the gift shop and the relationship this implies. Magi counters:

Dear Survey:
More than a structure, what do you feel? More than a sentence. (45)

Magi’s Slot works against these architectures of power and reification — both in the sense of the museum space and the space of the book itself. Where the museum consolidates and narrativizes, Slot offers a polyphony of voices and registers, marginalia, and a subtle mishearing. Bits of song inhabit this unlinked territory, as does personal (private) speech. Black and white documentary photos offer counterpoint to these more synthetic narratives, suggesting, in part, that Slot itself is an artifact that organizes through multiplicity; an altogether different sort of museological encounter.

Slot, likewise, considers the “designed” aspect of experience — architectural, situational, or artistic — and offers a sustained meditation on political exigencies inscribed in public space. Indeed, one can trace the threads of her bibliographic procedure and enter public discourse about the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, or the representational value of the Twin Towers and the inevitable forgetfulness that is preserved in any attempt to memorialize. Indeed, one may watch an unidentified Berliner jumping from stone to stone at the Holocaust Memorial or consider new configurations of trauma with respect to large-scale processes of suffering and mourning.

Slot, then, is an assemblage of site-specific language, and Magi culls this information stream for bits and pieces of escaped / reshaped knowledge, offering us a sensibility that is comprised of both.

“Various cultures conceive of aberrant behavior as hostile and anti-social and
thus miss what is common and everyday about violence.”

Possible title:

Everyday Violence (93)

Here, the effect is one of slowing down; the distilled “Everyday Violence” is repositioned within her text from the citation presumably included in the book After the World Trade Center: Rethinking New York City, included in her continuing bibliography. The commentary here, as occurs many times throughout the book, offers a subjective response to mitigate structures of information. Insofar as “Everyday Violence” operates categorically, it mirrors the structural logic so prevalent in the museological encounters she includes in her work. Indeed, a reader might imagine this possible title as one of the forms of address listed above: Dear Everyday Violence. That Slot begins to feel like a self-portrait is a surprise, a result of this long poem in conversation with itself, and a testament to the versatility of the work. Just as we are not meant to draw distinctions between “textual elements,” so are we discouraged from separating out the “lyric speaker”; instead, we must view both subject and her environment as one.

In Slot, both subject and environment are conditioned by history and by its growing repositories of official meaning. Despite this seemingly inescapable progression, Magi’s work is redemptive, in its way. It isn’t the redemption of bravado or vengeance, nor is it the redemption of purification or ascension; instead, Magi’s work testifies to the complexities of the here and now, the multivalent utterance of the present. And despite our growing reliance on a louder and/or more streamlined utterance — soundbyte culture and its talking heads or the too pat facticity of a repackaged history — Magi stitches reality out of tissues and silences, slippages and repositionings, thereby restoring the world to its irreparably damaged yet multifarious grammar.