Review by Kristina Marie Darling
Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in archival material among creative practitioners. Indeed, these excavations of our literary and cultural past range from rigorous scholarly engagement – as is the case with Janet Holmes’ unearthing of Dickinson’s activist poetics in THE MS OF MY KIN – to the deeply personal exploration of family history – and the political structures that define such narratives – in Jill Magi’s THREADS. Yet the archive often remains purely in the realm of the textual, appearing as a storehouse of language, rich with the weight of meanings accrued over time.
Two recent hybrid works, Karen Green’s BOUGH DOWN and Jennifer Moxley’s THERE ARE THINGS WE LIVE AMONG: ESSAYS ON THE OBJECT WORLD, ultimately challenge the limitations inherent in our operative definitions of textual history. Both Moxley and Green present us with an archival practice that is based in the object world, suggesting that material artifacts, too, bear the weight of centuries. In these provocative works, the artifact becomes a locus for the ongoing generation of narrative, as each luminous hairpin, and each bright postage stamp, is revealed as a small glittering part in a larger cultural machinery.
Though vastly different in form and approach, Karen Green’s BOUGH DOWN and Jennifer Moxley’s THERE ARE THINGS WE LIVE AMONG share an investment in showing – through the lives of objects, and th
e wildly divergent significances that we attach to them – how culture’s shared consciousness unfolds over time. Each sequence of prose texts functions as a kind of ledger, accounting for the movements of seemingly small artifacts in an ever-widening imaginative topography. In these finely crafted collections, meaning accrues around an “antique nightgown,” a “kerosene lamp” as the world changes shape, ultimately failing to bear these once necessary items into the luminous present. Moxley and Green remind us that we turn to narrative as a way to close this gap, to bind past and present, to reconcile incipient with obsolete.
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Moxley’s THERE ARE THINGS WE LIVE AMONG, functions as a dazzling accumulation, as histories are layered upon alternate and often conflicting histories. In this sense, the work also serves as an enactment of the very nature of the artifact itself, as each provocative prose piece appears as merely a moment in a shared psychic terrain that extends indefinitely.
For Moxley, the history of an object is also a history of its life in language. Indeed, her meditation on the object world inevitably turns to other narratives, among them Marcel Proust’s body of work, George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous,” and Robinson Crusoe. Through her wondrous survey of past literature, Moxley shows us that consciousness is but the generation of narrative, and the “things we live among” are its very machinery, the train bears us gracefully into story and memory. For example, she notes that “[a]fter Robinson Crusoe washes up on his ‘Island of Despair,’ the meagerness of his possessions drive him into temporary madness.” Here Moxley subtly calls our attention to the inextricable relationship between the material and the textual. To lose one’s possessions, however unremarkable they may be, is to lose a link to language, and to the unfolding of conscious experience.
In many ways, this relationship between the material and the ongoing text of the mind is enacted beautifully in her brief essays on shoes. The unadorned and humble “clog” becomes a nexus for systemic inequalities and the violence that they often beget. Moxley writes, citing Robert Bresson’s filmography, that the heroine’s “huge ill-fitting clogs…seem both defiant, as she drags her feet, and restraining, as if an emblem of her oppressive situation, her poverty, and her obvious, indelicate sexuality.” Here each loosed thread, each drably colored swatch of fabric contains within it the world – along with its elaborate power structures and inequities. A made thing is revealed as a projection of the human body, as well as the accompanying constructions of gender, race, and class that determine its place in a larger economy of language, texts, and goods.
Indeed, Moxley shows us that the humble clog becomes palimpsest, inscribed with history’s seismic shifts, a narrative which is then erased and written over again. The shoe later appears emblem of femininity and again as fetish item, as a darkening horizon that “lets fall a torrent.” In many ways, this onslaught could be read as a description of the text itself, the accumulation of discrete, self-contained narratives around an alluringly absent center. Each seemingly unremarkable object serves as a point of entry to an imaginative topography that is borne away as soon as we enter it.
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Much like Moxley’s collection of linked essayistic hybrids, Green’s prose texts examine the world of things as a language in itself. Yet Green takes this assertion a step farther, exploring the ways material artifacts – a brightly colored postcard, a stamped envelope – can convey what is unspeakable in language proper.
As one might expect, the images contained within Green’s BOUGH DOWN are governed by a kind of grammar, always surrounded by white space, always implying a very particular variety of silence. Narrative falls away, allowing the object world to speak in its stead. Each image is housed by its own luminous and ghostly white page. Narrative and image are coeval, but never co-conspirators, existing somewhat separately, though illuminating one another from that small and necessary distance.
What’s more, image becomes narrative, evoking memory and its elaborate, luminous corridors. The collection begins with a fragmentary list of details – time (“June”) and color (“black”), “pills,” the ”latch” on the door, and “prayers.” When an image does appear – blurred text on a background of more text, handwritten and typeset, precise and imprecise – its palimpsestic quality becomes a commentary on the narrative proper. Green suggests, through her skillful juxtaposition, that mourning is more than anything a loss of language. The signs we have come to rely on lose their meaning; we try but cannot make sense out of them.
When Green prompts us to reenter language proper, we are equipped with a new awareness of the text and its terms of engagement. The prose entries that follow are populated by a “jazz lady,” the narrator’s beloved (deceased) husband, and a luminous, distant past. The loss of speech, represented just before, is revealed as a refusal of time and its movements. The recursive structure of the text speaks to and with the image that we’ve just seen, suggesting that the ability to communicate depends on our acceptance of temporality, its inherent limitations.
Here image is text, a grammar and a lexicon in and of itself. Like Moxley, Green works to expand the boundaries of the archive, and the poet’s place within it. Both BOUGH DOWN and THERE ARE THINGS WE LIVE AMONG are carefully considered, provocative works, which inhabit the rich tradition of archival poetry while at the same time challenging, revising, and interrogating it.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty books of poetry, most recently DARK HORSE (C&R Press, 2017). Her awards include three Yaddo residencies, a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, and multiple residencies at the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. She has published creative work in New American Writing, Nimrod, The Mid-American Review, Poetry International, Passages North, and many other magazines. Her critical essays appear in The Gettysburg Review, Agni, The Iowa Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Quarterly and Grants Specialist at Black Ocean.