Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Notable American Women

by Ben Marcus

Why do we call one book a collection of poems, while another gets tagged as a novel? There are certainly issues of methodology, of aesthetic and formal tactics, to consider. That is, a specific scaffolding suggests a particular form. But if a poem or novel was solely defined by a mediating infrastructure, wouldn’t any human element be negligible to said definition? You can’t really define poetry ,the novel, or any other medium along such criteria. So how does one begin to approach the “essence” of a piece? Which brings me to ask, what exactly is the importance of any such labeling or questions of “essence?” Is such an interrogation viable? Well, what I’m actually talking about, and to a much greater extent than any nebulous concept of essence, is that of context.

Remember last fall’s infamous Issue 1? It was a 3,785-page monster of conceptual, internet-based poetry assembled by Jim Carpenter and Stephen McLaughlin. Each of the individual poems by the journal’s countless “contributors” was simply the result of an algorithmic word generator. As a collection, then, with no authentic authors other than a pair of possible mediators in Carpenter and McLaughlin, why should we even consider Issue 1 a book of poetry, if you were to define poetry as “…the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts?” On top of that, why is Issue 1 actually a very successful example of poetry? It’s on account of discourse. The concept, that is, the promise, of discourse, is also the primary reason the above questions of categorization hold any interest whatsoever. Not because of the conclusions a categorization may lead to, but on account of any ensuing discourse.

So what is this discourse? Not just what is said, but what is being said outward. A work exists in dialogue with its referents. That is, by identifying a work as a poem or a novel, a communication opens up between the singularity of a particular work and a larger multiplicity. A perfectly turned villanelle never shown to a single person, never read, is less a poem than an unvocalized, physical action that is then discussed at large as a poem. If you were, then, to finally read said villanelle in public, introducing it to a relative field of comparison, it would in effect be transformed into a poem. The moment of the dispersal is the moment of becoming.

Ben Marcus’ second book, “Notable American Women,” is a wonderfully mysterious object. The tension of the book, and one that has helped Marcus reach a slightly larger audience than similarly “difficult” writers, is one of opacity and clarity. While his sentences are mysterious, they also possess a fine vividness. Marcus pays attention to how sentences interact within themselves that is commeasurable to his attention to how these sentences interact with each other. But there is a real difficulty. The vacancy, or more accurately, the disorientation of language is never far from the text, as “all languages are clearly alien and untrue, and, absent of so-called meaning, it is repeatedly clear that language is a social form of barely controlled weeping, a more sophisticated way to cry.” The irony of such a statement is clear, but it is notable that it also privileges language as a social tool above any other. The infectious humor is also an important factor in terms of the book’s permeability. Through the obvious humor of this passage, we also see that language is by its very nature an expression, but it also something other than an expressive agent. Language is itself an object outside of functionality. At one point in the text, the young Ben Marcus is described as “…a collector: flowers, buttons, stones, and any scrap of equipment that littered the compound. Everything small that he could remove from the world and bring to his parent’s attention…the important job of shuttling junk from here to there.” The organizational character of writing gains preeminence over the expressive faculties. Language is a collection of objects, and the writer is the curator, an individual engaged in an organizational process.

A good deal of the charm of “Notable American Women” is, without a doubt, its protean nature. Ben Marcus’ writing playful encircles sense. and accessibility His prose disorients with its clarity, flirting with, but never subscribing to a complete cogency. Jane Marcus, the mother of the possibly fictive author of the novel, who is also named Ben Marcus, admits that oftentimes “…the things Ben comes to say do not subscribe to our traditions of sense…,” Yet this “nonsense” leads to an unforeseen logic, since “…it is on Ben’s language apparatus that we are pinning most of our hope, looking for unprecedented utterances. New words, old words said newly, nonwords, sounds. Maybe something else. It’s a big hole there. Anything could come out of it.” There is a social role for the writer here defined. There is a utility beyond the opium of entertainment – it is a function of exploration.

In the above quote, Marcus also refers to the mouth as a hole. Remember poet Robert Creeley famous statement that words have holes. In fact, we may even posit words as sinkholes. This specific hole also refers to the pit that Michael Marcus, the author’s father has either spent the entire novel within, or has spent the novel’s entirety waiting to be put in by the Silentist cult.

The book itself reflects its own nature, stating that “the Reading Wizard, a machine that scans and summarizes books to determine their themes and content, determined that this book was a ‘documentary account of the role of the mouth in the art of deception and failure, with a specific focus on children who have been buried alive.’” This machine, this Reading Wizard, is for all intents and purposes a reader, one who parses out a summary and thematic cohesion within a read text.

Elsewhere in the novel, the Silentist cult has used silence as an agent of empowerment. As women have traditionally been voiceless, Janet Dark and the other Silentists utilize this voicelessness to be “heard,” or rather, felt. Movement and physicality is used by the Silentists to annul sound. A young Jane Dark illustrates this “…by standing next to a passing train and engaging in an odd form of gymnastic pantomime that appears part karate, part dance, the girl can mute the forceful racket of the train so that it passes by in virtual silence.” Since presence has been dominated by the male hegemony, these women co-opt absence in order to exercise power.

Let’s look at narrative. The actual narrative shifts between larger units of an enigmatic linearity. In interviews supporting “Notable American Women,” Marcus has commented on the possible interchangeability of the book’s five greater segments. Yet there is a certain inalienable order to the novel, despite the lack of any narrative progress – we begin the book with the author’s father, Michael Marcus, “…rendered to an underground compartment…” He’s been buried in the backyard of an cultist compound in Ohio. This has not really changed by the novel’s close; Michael Marcus is still buried in the backyard – if anything, he has not yet been buried. Jane Marcus, the mother of the novel’s fictive Ben Marcus, asks at the book’s close, “Will I be there when they lower you into the hole? I will not. Will I toss dirt over the entrance? No…Do I believe in saturating my skin in the soil that covers the main in the chamber? I might. Do I subscribe to blanketing myself in sediment, performing the postures of silence while caked in dirt, exploiting my body as a full-scale listening device modified by the earth that covers a husband? A resonant earth? Do I plan to cultivate and disperse this soil, to distribute it in this and other areas as a muffling tarp, hush crumbs, a layer of silence to finally quiet down the world. Do I?” These first and last segments, “Bury Your Head,” and “The Launch,” acquire a certain rightness to their positioning, especially in lieu of the downward movement of the introduction countered by the upward thrust of the conclusion. But even the three middle segments clearly position them selves. The book does not travel along a line, but inhabits an extremely dense point of consolidated interaction and potential meaning. It is not so much important that the novel progresses in a conventional fashion, but that Marcus occasions moments of possible movement – the conscious intimations of a more traditional structure folded inward for the sake of an interrogative language, or what I would call a speculative linguistics.

The novel opens with a desperate denouement, ‘written’ by Michael Marcus while “…under duress, hungry, winded, and dizzy, braving a sound storm of words meant to prevent me, I’m sure, from being a Father of Distinction.” Michael Marcus is “…aware that Ben Marcus, the improbable author of this book, but better known as my former son, can pass off or structure my introduction in any way that he chooses: annotate, abridge, or excise my every comment…He can obviously revise my identity to his own designs, change my words altogether, or simply discard them in place of statements he wishes I would make.” Of course, as we read such a statement, we are aware of the mediating agent of Ben Marcus – these are statements written by Ben Marcus, that is, the Ben Marcus who is a professor at Columbia and has published his second book. They are also statements screened by that other Ben Marcus, the one who tells us that “I am probably Ben Marcus. I might be a person. There’s a chance I lived on a farm meant to muffle the loud bodies of this world, a sweet Ohio locale called Home, where our nation’s women angled towards a new behavior, a so-called Final Jane.” By making an utterance of being, Marcus introduces an additional mediating agent. That is, such an utterance of being exists as its own entity outside of the entity it is supposedly qualifying. There is, then, Ben Marcus, the statement of identity, as well as another cipher “Ben Marcus” which is codified as an identity is proclaimed. Since language itself is a thing, it cannot simply describe or signal without itself effecting an intrinsic, semiological change.

A fantastic apparatus of communication, or more accurately, of word elimination as pursued by the Silentists, is defined and cataloged over the course of “Notable American Women.” These devices range from the mysterious behavior water to instruments that are defined with greater detail. For instance, “…when women in the American territory speak careful sentences into a handkerchief, they are creating, whether they know so or not, an important item called ‘a thought rag.’ Once confided to, the cloth becomes a listening towel, or ‘priest,’ regularly privileged to whatever a woman chooses to say.” Soon after, the reader is introduced to behavior putty, “…the residue a person leaves behind after performing certain tasks, like chopping wood, speaking to a crowd, buying a sack of nuts, or lunging through a Silence Hoop in an Ohio wheat field…” The strangeness of Marcus’ syntax, the very personal reconfiguration of language is, if not a creative agent, than an illuminating one. These bizarre devices are revealed through the idiosyncrasies of Marcus’ language. As stated above, this ignites a speculative linguistics. Like Kathy Acker, or even Gertrude Stein, Ben Marcus utilizes a searching linguistic pliability to an effect that bears, to my eyes, a similarity to that of the speculative fiction also discussed on this blog.

The neologisms of Ben Marcus share a pioneer speculativism with the futurist cultural analysis of William Gibson. Both, it must be noted, find their revelations in what is familiar to the point of banality. Ben Marcus pursues such a point not simply with his self-reflexive language, but with a self-reflexive narrative not concerned with a post-modernist’s deconstruction, but instead a rather beguiling reconstruction.

A reconfiguration of what figures itself in silence.

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