Thursday, May 03, 2007

What I didn’t mention about Tony Trehy the other day is that he works as a visual arts curator – the hidden hand behind the Irwell Sculpture Trail – and that it is possible to read his work in ways that don’t invoke contemporary poetry at all. (This also has always been the unknowable element in a good deal of New York School writing, where beyond name dropping, the one palpably visible carry-over from the Pop Art of the 1960s seems to have been the use of cartoon iconography.) This positioning of poetry on the edge of writing only appears to be a fairly recent phenomenon – Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard, the first prose poetry of the 1820s – seems to be exactly the same sort of thing, something that became poetry only because the category existed & was able to move sufficiently far to incorporate this writing that, frankly, didn’t seem all that much like anything else at the time.

One aspect of the Permanent Avant is this sense of writing as simply a choice, and that it is the larger vision that is the central element of the work of art, which might as easily be expressed through sculpture, music, intermedia, theater, film, whatever. A writer who seems to me to fit this description is Jill Magi, whose new book Threads is just out from Futurepoem Books. One wonders if Magi knows – or cares – that Threads already is the name of a well known book of poems, David Bromige’s 1970 volume from Black Sparrow¹. Normally I might be appalled at something like that, but it’s not apparent to me that poetry is even the right framework through which to read this booklength, uh, poem. Even as the volume has blurbs from Juliana Spahr, Cecilia Vicuña, Ammiel Alcalay & Brenda Iijima (and, if you flip the front flap, Futurepoem as a project has a blurb from Charles Bernstein). Magi herself calls it a book of “prose, poetry and collage” & I find myself thinking of it as a project, a category from conceptual art.

The core of the project is a trip Magi made in 1997 to Estonia, one of three Baltic nations swallowed whole by the Soviet Socialist Republics during its sweep east into Germany at the end of the Second World War. As best I can pick out the key narrative elements from the palimpsest of materials Magi gathers, Eduard Magi was born September 6, 1897 in Tartu, his wife Liisa one year earlier. They had three children, one of whom is the author’s father. Eduard had a rudimentary public school education until he was ordained as a Seventh Day Adventist, a decision that would eventually lead him and his family to seminaries in Newbold, England and Takoma Park, Maryland, escaping through some harrowing experiences during the height of World War 2. On her trip back to post-Soviet Tallinn, the poet takes with her a notebook – literally sewn together in places – recounting Eduard’s life. There are sections typed in a rough English, handwritten portions in Estonian, hand-drawn maps, not all of which the author thinks are accurate. Individual pages are reproduced, functioning halfway between illustration & text. Some pages are torn, so that we the text flowing into that of the surviving page beneath. Thus we find ourselves with two narratives, both told through multiple fragments, moving in exactly the opposite directions. The grandfather and his family moving out of Estonia, escaping both the Nazis & Stalin’s army, coming toward the present. The grand-daughter moving back in time, trying to fathom the lives of her immediate ancestors. What kind of life did her grandparents have & give up (or, more accurately, have wrested from them)? What kind of world did her father experience as a boy? Not easy questions. She knows no Estonian and is not herself baptized in the Adventist Church (nor, I gather, any other). Reading parts of this book reminded me of my own emotions on seeing for the first time a photocopy of my great-great grandfather’s wedding certificate, realizing that by signing his name with an X he could not read or write, and is listed on the form as a fishmonger. I was born only a little over a century later, but on a different continent & into a completely different world.

Jill Magi has published a fair number of poems over the past decade or so, but none of the ones I’d read before prepared me for the power of this text. It’s spare without being minimal, moving without being in the slightest bit mawkish. I don’t know if it was the force of her project or whether Magi’s work took a transformative leap as she wrote (and it’s conceivable, of course, that one led to the other – which could have occurred in either direction) but there is no question that if you’ve read Jill Magi before and haven’t read Threads, you really haven’t read Jill Magi.

But Threads also makes me wonder what else lies ahead of her as a poet. Projects like this don’t come often, nor easily. The space she is writing in lies halfway between poetry as we’ve known it – I found myself thinking of David Antin’s Definitions for Wendy several times while reading the text, both for the philosophical dimension each book engages & the question of the text’s relationship to life – and the sort of documentary political poetry I associate with writers like Juliana Spahr & Jena Osman. One might trace such poetry back further, to Fluxus & eventually to Dada, but there is a seriousness of purpose, a quietness in the act of description that is quite unlike those genres. And the book has so many sides, so many faces. I made a decision early on in writing this note that I couldn’t really quote one or two passages here – there are so many different kinds that any selection would essentially distort the whole. You can find an excerpt here in the Brooklyn Rail and see pages from the notebook by continually following the links here. But there is quite a bit more to this project than those two excerpts suggest.


¹ Threads was also the name of a chapbook of the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett done by Unicorn Press of Santa Barbara in 1968, something both Bromige and Black Sparrow publisher John Martin were sure to have known, as well as Jane Cooper’s 1978 volume of poems based on the letters of Rosa Luxemburg as well as Maria Landowska’s 1985 volume, subtitled Poetry from a Survivor of Auschwitz.