In a co-authored essay, Priti Joshi and Susan Zieger observe that “Ephemerality might be described as the lived condition of an industrial modernity, founded on disposability, fluctuating value, and illusion.” It could also be said that the fleeting nature of so much material culture challenges our beliefs about history, as it undermines pretensions to enduring cultural relevance. The archive, however, offers an exception to this rule, a space removed from capitalist frameworks, where the remnants of disparate historical milieu may collide, challenge, and illuminate one another.
Three recent collections of poetry and hybrid work explore the unique potentialities of the archive, a liminal space that is inevitably charged with tension and possibility. Kathleen Peirce’s Vault: A Poem, Mary-Kim Arnold’s Litany for the Long Moment, and Amy Pence’s [It] Incandescent utilize collage, assemblage, and juxtaposition to explore the precarity of our beliefs about history, its narratives, and its structures. While vastly different in form and approach, these three texts share an investment creating dialogue across cultures and historical moments, but also, they expertly reveal the violence inherent in this collision. As Mary-Kim Arnold notes, “[t]he life is there, encased in its own death. Its own catastrophe.”
For these three gifted and prescient writers, the violence inherent in collage, assemblage, and artistic collision is as inevitable as it is generative. Scholar and poet Myung Mi Kim has long noted the violence of the experiment, in which boundaries, traditions, and readerly expectations are destroyed in order to make way for something new. In [It] Incandescent, Amy Pence attributes this generative violence to history itself and the artistic legacy she herself has inherited. She leaves us with the image of Emily Dickinson, “collecting her horrors – a box inside.”
In many ways, the destructive impulse inherent in Pence’s poetics is ideally suited to the book’s narrative arc. She explores, through fragmentation, ellipsis, and linguistic collage, the trauma housed within – and often buried inside – the archive, that “box of phantoms” that must, at some point, be opened. She writes, for example, midway through the collection:
It: that Memory you have to step around, opon. It, unnamed and unpersoned, made the It in Emily go to her knees –
At what cost our denial? How we go to our knees.
Pence creates a poetics of trauma and redemption, an aesthetic predicated on building narrative, and discovering meaning, “by degrees.” In doing so, Pence shows us that as T.S. Eliot later argues, quite famously, the past is contained within the present. Here, history and modernity are conflated in even the texture of the language itself. By pairing words like “opon” with more colloquial speech, Pence shows us that history, its trauma, its silences, and its elisions are embedded within the minutia of syntax and grammar.
It is perhaps for this reason that collage and assemblage become a powerful form of resistance. It is the space between things that speaks most audibly, that gestures at the multitudes of what cannot, will not, be spoken aloud. “Above them, the Good Death / hovers,” Pence writes, “that happen – / that gap / before the slaughter.” Here fragmentation offers a meditation of the precarity of voice, as the threat of not only silence, but also, self-censorship, looms large. Here the gaps, the ruptures, the elisions become performance, as Pence offers us language spectacularly aware of its own precarious labor.
As Arnold draws from the archival material surrounding her own childhood and family history, we are made to see – powerfully and indelibly – that the collision of languages, of cultures, of histories, often reveals their incommensurability. Arnold warns us, “Repeating a word loudly with more urgency will only get you so far.” What is perhaps most powerful about this book, though, is the way Arnold gestures at language as an embodied phenomenon. “I am struck by….the apparatus of language,” Arnold notes, “and the physical difficulty of making sounds that are unfamiliar.” Throughout Litany for the Long Moment, the body seems to reject language that does not arise from its history, from the memories and narratives housed within its own walls.
Collage and assemblage offer a way performing and dramatizing this alienation, as well as revealing the violence of imposing narrative in a strange language. We are made to see – through the fragments of a story that cannot, will not, be spoken – there are some connections that narrative convention is ill-equipped to fully articulate. Arnold elaborates,
Among the documents my mother kept are: several copies of a three-page “social study” of which I am the subject; a record of medical examinations, letters from the director of the orphanage where I lived for some time, and a few photographs of me: as a child in Korea, as I arrived in New York.
Here the aperture – that luminous space between “records” and “photographs” within the archive – becomes a performance, calling our attention to the artifice inherent in any narrative scaffolding we attempt to impose. Indeed, absence and elision seem more real, more true. Arnold shows us that some meaning can only be grasped in this precarious linguistic context, as there is always the thing for which there is no word, the word “you may not yet know you want to say.”
This gesture comes through most visibly in the moments between sections, where the reader is frequently asked to follow as we leap from one voice to another, one century to the next. Peirce reminds us that after this means because of this, yet at the same time, she approaches time as linear, recursive. As a result, our ideas about causation are destabilized through the work’s provocative juxtapositions and associative leaps. She writes,
….Everything is broke.
Reddish feathers growing at the joint, the prolonged hand
swee swee swee the art, swee
the art, sweetheart
Here Peirce reveals the archive as a place where the rules of logic and causation no longer hold. As we transition from the surreal dreamscape filled with “broken” objects and “Reddish feathers,” we find our predilection for narrative causation challenged and interrogated. Like Arnold and Pence, she shows us that this interstitial space of the archive offers a testing ground for new ways of imagining language, grammar, and the structures of meaning making. As in Arnold and Pence’s work, there is violence inherent in this destruction of old models, but it is a kind of violence that makes even the most ordinary things “more wild, and more violet.”
- The Violence of Collision: Notes on Collage, Precarity & the Archive - February 27, 2019