Slope Editions, 2009
Pbk., 83 pp.
Reviewed by Broc Rossell
Anamnesis and The Harmonograph
In an essay written to accompany his recent exhibit at the Reykjavik Art Museum, regarding the relationship between a viewer and a procedural object (such as the waterfalls he built beneath New York City’s bridges last year), Olafur Eliasson remarks that one alternative to the ageing Euclidian conception of space is waves. Waves, argues Eliasson, are a more helpful concept for understanding how an individual in all her complexity responds to and interacts with a work of art which itself is responding to and interacting with nature. “These can be waves of information, but also the communication of information through physical waves such as microwaves, long waves and frequency. Electricity is a kind of wave, as are my words, when they leave my mouth as condensed air, spreading radiantly, entering your ears. Also light.”1
Lucy Ives’ debut collection of poetry, Anamnesis, is a procedural object, a work of art that seeks to render visible the waves of thought, perception, and revision that, together, comprise the written poem. These waves are amplified by the book’s constraint; in her introduction to the Slope Prize winning collection, judge Maxine Chernoff notes that the poems “are in a constant state of revision, engendered by two refrains, the imperative ‘Write’ and its counter-gesture, ‘Cross this out.'” These gestures contrast the third imperative, that of the speaker, the voice that is neither written nor crossed out. The effect is that multiple intentions or voices appear on the same page:
Write, “What you fear is near you”
Cross this out
Write, “What you fear is faraway”
Yes, also, it is hidden
Write, “And never came near, this long decade”
Cross this out
These multiple imperatives insist that the reader participate in the process of “writing” “the poem,” so that the final version of the poem is not on the page of a book, but something implied or imagined: not only the dialogue you and the speaker have imagined for each other, but what you, the reader, have read, written, and erased. The act of “reading” Ives’ book leads the reader to perform an oscillation both through the text and above it, creating a relationship analogous to the three-dimensional images traced by the pendulums of a harmonograph.
While Oulipo was founded fifty years ago (I can’t help but think of Marcel Benabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any Of My Books when reading Anamnesis), and conceptual art has been an institution of the visual arts for more than forty years, it has only recently entered into the bloodstream of American poetry. Noah Eli Gordon’s Inbox comes to mind as a rare example of a collection wholly dedicated to its concept, and of course there are the fine adventurers at Coach House Press and beyond to the north. More typically, American experimental poets have used “concept” as a generative constraint: Gillian Conoley’s Plot Genie, for instance, employs a found “plot generating device” to both propel poems away from and return into each other into a kind of carnivalesque; and poetic variations, themed long poems, or poem sequences on a variation of one, are becoming ubiquitous. Perhaps the most likely comparison is of Anamnesis to Dan Beachy-Quick’s This Nest, Swift Passerine. Both collections attempt a kind of extreme presence, a urgent drive to expose the very impulse to write, and do so though similar tropes (though Beachy-Quick, not striving to engage the reader to the truly radical degree Ives is, strikes out lines for us). Anamnesis, however, resists comparison. Its fusion of the modes of the utterance and address is unique.
The simple concept Ives has chosen for her collection of poems is ingenious. Anamnesis belongs not among stacks of experimental poetry, but with the ambitions of conceptual visual artists who sought to replace the object with the assumptions and intentions behind it: Rauchenberg’s erasures of de Kooning or Ceci n’est pas une pipe are closer to the kind of infinite aesthetics of Anamnesis than those of contemporary poetry. Ives has replaced the book with the act of reading and response. The book does not become the book, does not become itself, until we engage with it. For the elegance of its iteration alone, it merits our attention.
And yet there are also beautiful and evocative lyrical turns, which we are not instructed to write or cross out, moments that exist independent of the reader, apart from our experience, and thus rendered powerfully vulnerable and delicate:
I had forgotten I was in love
It took a longer time to be remembered
In the world
All this is just writing about what has been lost
By a person who wanted no things
About whom nothing is known save
What remains published
It is as if while walking through one of Eliasson’s glowing, mirrored hallways, we were to find someone’s pocketbook: a trace of a person left behind, a license and some snapshots, an small inventory of abandoned memories.
“Anamnesis” is one of those richly evocative words whose multiple meanings make it greater than the sum of its parts. The term in ancient Greek, ἀνάμνησις, translates literally as the “loss of forgetfulness.” Socrates used it to describe his theory wherein all the knowledge of the universe is contained within our souls and lost in the shock of childbirth; accordingly, we spend our lives attempting to regain the perfect knowledge we have lost. And, somehow, in modern medicine the term is used to describe a strong immune response. Together these definitions suggest a hope of the author that reading this book, and engaging with it in the way it offers, one might find a new vitality, an awakening of the spirit in the rediscovery of the memories that make us who we are. That the speaker writes phrases and memories that cannot be revised, that do not invite revision, only heightens the contrast of the vast majority of memories that are constantly undermined by recollection itself.
It makes sense that formal innovation and experimentation became American poetry’s preoccupation in the twentieth century, after thousands of years of rhapsodizing on love, death, God, nature, and consciousness. From Pound’s fiery Cantos to Steven’s orbital meditations to Objectivist breaths into Ashbury’s constant digressions, our poetic tradition of the past hundred years has largely been concerned with language’s ability to represent what the mind cannot render without it – with how far language can take us into the outer reaches of understanding.
But in being more concerned with form and formal innovation than content (that fraught and perilous word) today’s golden age of “experimental” poetry also finds itself troubled by a pervasive lack of tone, and of voice. Ives has found one answer to this problem in conceptualism, which escapes many longstanding issues of form and formalism by acting within constraints. Remarkably, in writing within a constraint that speaks directly to the act of writing and (more essentially) of revision, she has also found a mode of enormous lyrical amplitude, a mode both highly mannered and profoundly intimate. In its ability to invest the intellectual beauty of conceptual art with the ethos of a shared, communal intimacy, Anamnesis is an act of alchemy.
1 Eliasson, Olafur. “Your Engagement has Consequences.”In Experiment Marathon: Serpentine Gallery. Edited by Emma Ridgway. Reykjavik: Reykjavik Art Museum, 2009: 18-21.
Broc Rossell is a writer from California. He earned his MFA from the University of Iowa and is a doctoral candidate at the University of Denver. His poems have appeared in Boston Review, Harvard Review, Volt, and elsewhere