Home » criticism, Poetry

Like Life

By (January 1, 2009) No Comment

Picture Palace
Stephanie Young
in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, 2008

“I set out to write a memoir,” Stephanie Young writes on the first page of her second book of poetry, Picture Palace, but, we learn on page 2, “the memoir thing falls apart.” Is this sincere? Can poetry serve as memoir? It can come close, perhaps. But Young is not a confessional poet. Where there’s an I in this book, and a narrative, both are shifty, fragmentary, unstable, even semi-impossible, reminding us at every turn that poetry may arise from life but it isn’t exactly life. Poetry isn’t memoir, but then, memoir isn’t always memoir either.

Picture Palace is to memoir what Kate Greenstreet’s case sensitive is to the mystery novel, evoking the genre obliquely without ever parodying or even really imitating the form. You wouldn’t mistake this for a memoir:

Running through the alley I saw bits of my clothing reflected in window squares and the more unusual triangles of anonymously mirrored buildings. We knew how much it cost to do that to your car. If it didn’t come that way to begin with. Seams in the lawn running between the park’s buildings. From when it was just sod. It was dangerous. Climbing public art on the weekends. Anyone could be there. Somewhere in the park.

This is from a section titled “Chapters First through Third,” a long poem composed mostly in prose and my favorite part of the book. Like Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, these “chapters” use non sequitur and parataxis–the relationships between sentences suggested by juxtaposition rather than made explicit–to create meaning and “tell a story,” and as with My Life, the effect is a bit uncanny–familiar, like life, but unsettling, somehow unlike our experience of life–similar to a film with a lot of jump cuts.

In another section, Young uses elision and anaphora to capture the ever-changing but largely irrelevant details of daily life, pushing repetition to a level of absurdity in which the words “we” and “were” eventually feel queer and broken:

We were reading The Iliad. We were reading The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. We were reading The Lives of Wives. We were reading Over-Sensitivity. We were reading The Poetics of Space. We were reading Povel. We were reading The Romance of the Forest. We were reading Steps to an Ecology of Mind. We were reading Young Goethe. We were shopping in Santa Cruz. We were sitting in the first row. We were taking medicine. We were taking a shower. We were talking. We were talking about hysteria. We were talking about lions. We were talking about poetry. We were talking on the phone. We were talking to the cat. We were wearing a green bandana. We were wearing a black slip. We were wearing grey corduroy pants. We were wearing a hat. We were wearing pearls. We were wearing a white suit. We were wearing a windbreaker. We were wearing a striped dress. We were wearing a yellow dress. We were on the bulletin board. We were on the couch. We were in agony. We were in Ashland.

Two full pages of this constitute a kind of collective memoir. But the first-person-plural pronoun does not really function any differently than an “I” here (“I under a brocade,” as she writes in an earlier passage); a “we” cannot wear “a” hat. As much as this monotonous passage suggests that all days and all lives are effectively the same (at least for the educated bourgeois), it feels like an I, a singleton, looking for a loophole out of loneliness.

“A haughty voice discusses the film rights to my highly unusual childhood,” Young writes in the first subchapter of “Chapters First through Third.” Is that voice the voice of poetry, the persona/personae that the “lyric I” always becomes? Film is a conceit throughout the book, another analogue to life that represents it but not entirely accurately or faithfully: “We don’t know when it really happens because the film won’t say.” Film, like poetry, can mess with time, sequence, causation. Young plays with the ambiguity of the word “image” in this context–an image, in the primary sense, being something we actually see, and in the literary sense, something we imagine we see while reading text, the verbal representation of the visible thing. All the words add up to an “impossible flood of images”–impossible, maybe, because life doesn’t really happen this way. Impossible because we can’t really see them. Because words aren’t images.

Picture Palace includes two sections titled “The Image Record,” and the second iteration more directly explores the interplay between image and text, interweaving original and found/borrowed text (including a list of “Shameful Conditions and Occurrences” attributed to Yvonne Rainer) with images from Fay Grim, a film written and directed by Hal Hartley, intended as the sequel to Henry Fool, a movie about a garbage man who becomes a celebrated poet. According to the notes in the back of the book, this section was “constructed” (in collaboration with Konrad Steiner) for a performance that took place in July 2007.

There are a few of these performance pieces in the book, and as a reader not lucky enough to experience these as they were presumably intended to be experienced, live and in person, I found these sections disappointing. Film stills rendered tiny and in black & white really lose their effect, and in the same way that screenplays don’t always make great reading, the poetry here falls a little flat. Part of “The Image Record,” for example, describes the construction of One Rincon Hill, a residential tower in San Francisco:

When complete, the South Tower of One Rincon Hill will be the tallest all-residential tower west of the Mississippi: 62 stories, 641 feet, 400 above previous zoning limits. The condos start at $500,000 running to 2.5 million. Only eight units in the South Tower remain unsold (June 20, 2007).

As part of a re-zoning deal, developers agreed to exceed the usual percentage of units the city requires residential developers sell at below-market rates or provide offsite

The text on this page was apparently, in performance, “accompanied by live navigation of Google maps street view.” And I can imagine that, in a darkened room, hearing these words as a kind of voiceover to the visual, the effect would be creepy, even powerful–I’d feel something like what Young must have felt watching the building go up as she drove past the site every day, its presence overtaking the vista and becoming, as all towers after 2001 inescapably do, a specter of 9/11. But without all that atmosphere, I felt somewhat impatient, even bored.

It’s a shame that I can’t, then, wholeheartedly recommend the book in full, because I like parts of it so much. There’s a refreshingly spontaneous quality to Young’s writing, a way in which it rebels against the notion of craft and as a result never comes off as stiff, stilted, or overwrought. Especially when she’s working in prose, Picture Palace is loose and associative, at times even approaching sloppy–rather like free writing or the Dadaist’s “automatic writing.” This description will undoubtedly turn some readers off, but I assure you the results are frequently delightful:

That we could come of age inside another person’s coming of age story, or come to political consciousness inside another person’s coming to political consciousness story, haven’t people been doing that forever? For instance with Catcher in the Rye? That is a terrible example. I mean Little Women. Like wearing a bear coat or “wallowing in its gorgeous syntax, like a hermit crab would in a particularly elegant new shell” (Nada Gordon). It was summer and the couch looked like black leather with black leather buttons. I cried. To experience the summer rain. With the little women. But what about discomfort. What about irritation. The necessary coming of agents. The couch was just a couch. It had buttons. The house was too strong a container. Bad religion in all the rooms. I seemed to be alone on the couch. “Ah – alone with my thoughts!” If only. There were thoughts, inside it, the couch, and the little women who had lain there before me.

This is funny and clever (“coming of agents”!) and weird and embarrassing and touching. First word, best word? Not always, but the first word is often still interesting, and it’s fun to see Young’s whims and instincts at work. I love when poets aren’t ashamed to “show their work,” when the missteps are left in so we can learn from them too (that first “terrible example”). Young revises herself, and exposes the revision, to enact self-doubt–the couch in its very couch-ness makes her cry, and yet, a moment later, it’s “just a couch.” To my mind, poetry is a manifestation of thought, and Young’s poems often feel closer to real thinking (and feeling) than more carefully “crafted” verse.

Johannes Göransson wrote the following on his blog Exoskeleton on August 12, 2008:

I don’t see why re-reading something is such a die-hard merit. Some works may be read wonderfully once and meant only to be read once. Or even a half time. Not to be combed through. Perhaps not even read at all.

I have thought about this idea–the value of impermanence in literature–from time to time since reading it, and Picture Palace put me in mind of it again. To demand that all poetry stand up to multiple readings–or that any art form, for that matter, always be endlessly re-experienced or re-experiencable–limits its possibilities. To use Dada as an example again: Dadaist plays are not really meant to be reproduced; they exist as records of “happenings.” I don’t know if this is what Young had in mind, but it might be helpful to frame the performance pieces in this book in a similar way, as transcripts that are not intended to offer the same or approximate value as the events they correspond to.

Within a close-reading paradigm, “any text that seeks to provoke, ritualize or offend, rather than craft a poetic experience, will usually not make sense,” Göransson wrote on his blog several days later. If Picture Palace occasionally reads like rough notes–bits of brilliance among stabs at connection and impressionistic ramblings–this doesn’t feel accidental. Its purposeful lack of formal rigor is part of what makes it intriguing as a form of autobiography–calling attention, like an avant garde film, to its inherent discontinuity, rather than exploiting the tendency of the human eye and mind to turn a succession of frames into a continuous experience. The “notes are a mess” for a reason, Young tells us: “this mess / is economic, it represents / the time I had.”

Elisa Gabbert’s recent work can be found in Colorado Review, Diagram, Pleiades, Washington Square, and other journals. She is the author of two chapbooks from Kitchen Press, Thanks for Sending the Engine (2007) and My Fear of X (forthcoming). She is also co-author, with Kathleen Rooney, of Something Really Wonderful (dancing girl press, 2007) and That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness (Otoliths, 2008).