Quinn Dalton’s recent collection Bulletproof Girl contains eleven stories about women in peril. Not physical peril in the tied to the railroad tracks “save me Indiana Jones” way, but social and emotional peril. Each story is a snapshot, a day or two in the life of a woman who has come up against something in her life that is big and hard to move. My favorite story was “Lennie Remembers the Angels” about an elderly woman who is paranoid about her neighbors but turns a blind eye to her son’s transgressions. There is a physicality to her language in this story: damp heat, dark apartments and overpowering food smells. Like “Lennie,” several of the stories in the collection could be mistaken for chapters in a novel; they aren’t self-contained. Dalton is very good at fleshing out her characters, and we know their individual histories. As she leads her protagonists through their hard times, we are given stories that are as character-driven as they are plot-driven. The long title story broadens the themes the Dalton explores in the rest of the collection. Instead of one woman, we have three: Emery, May and Celeste, three generations from the same family, all at difficult crossroads and alternately comforting and pitying one another. Emery is smarting from the loss of her boyfriend, her mother May has been driven to odd obsessive behavior ever since her husband moved out, and old Celeste the grandmother is vibrant, but will not sympathize with her daughter, and instead takes them all on a macabre errand.
The censorship of artists is not a new practice, but it feels lately like events and structures are realigning the boundaries of personal expression. As regimes around the world attempt to control or discredit the way they are portrayed in the media, artists still struggle to slowly peel back the dark spaces when words fail to rise to the surface. John Gosslee’s Out of Context is a collection of 70 poems chosen from his earlier redaction project, in which 333 poems by well-known poets were beautifully printed on parchment paper before — without pausing to think or go back to correct his markings — Gosslee set out to rework them. This project explored the manipulation of the written word; ultimately, the 70 poems selected for Out of Context speak to the toll erasure takes on any given artist. Likewise, the collection highlights how an artist can feel empowered to seek a world of new meaning and relevance, while creating a space between personal expression and quiet reflection for a reader to reside in.
Out of Context arrives at a particularly complicated moment. Many of the challenges we are facing today are related to the influence and reach of the internet, and revolve around the interpretation and repurposing of language, “alternate facts” and all. Gosslee seems to have been emboldened by this moment — his redactions are a brisk yet carefully constructed reawakening of meaning, using work from poetic icons such as Marie Howe, Terrance Hayes, Sharon Olds, and Sandra Cisneros. In fortifying his message along the framework of those that came before him, Gosslee doesn’t so much as obstruct their words from being viewed, but forges new, deeply personal narratives to challenge his audience.
Like some of the pioneers of the practice, Gosslee shows a deft hand at selecting the path his own poem will tread, with some redactions seemingly walking that fine line between chaos and conscious creation. And while the charm of redactive poetry at times relies on the audience being somewhat familiar with what was originally on the page, it is best to approach Gosslee’s intimate interactions with the source material as newly harvested truth. While “Out of Context” provides the names and titles of the original poems, his voice erupts out of every page; the thick black markings not coming to represent censorship, but a celebration of poetic freedom expressed through the redactor’s eye. For instance, in “What I Mean When I Say Forever,” reclaimed lines like:
messy mathematics overlooking remainders–
the interplay of seasons
spread the petals at their feet. I may even add
a bit of wind to the ordinaries of day, if she’ll remain
express the beautiful interplay of quantified emotions and language.
Gosslee also proves that there is some humor to be found in his redactions. For example, in “Fun Mentals,”(built out of the skeleton of Rae Armantrout’s “Fundamentals”) the poem is reshaped into an exploration of size and emotional relatability.
Why is it
but to be
Redaction poetry is as much a visual experience as it is an emotional appeal through words. Most of the arrangements — such as “An Venture” — are particularly stunning when viewed from a physical remove. The deliberate change from partial scratches to thick blackening and then back to a combination of the two reveals that Gosslee is mirroring the conflicted range of emotions carried throughout the piece. In other poems, the markings are heavier, more subdued, speaking to a kind of resignation.
Gosslee’s poems seem to ask “How can we be seen when there is so much set in place to obstruct truth?” In communion with this question, there are moments in Out of Context wherein Gosslee reveals a passive relationship to the original text. Choosing instead to work within the adage “less is more,” Gosslee reshapes two lipogram poems by Cathy Park Hong, “Ballad in O” and “Ballad in I” by stripping the stanzas down and leaving them bare. These redactions bind the reader’s focus to Hong’s use of assonance and not on the surrounding adornments of narrative and setting.
The book is a meditation on building from the past; Gosslee allows us to question whether context matters when words are passed between bodies. The project can be seen as a practice in poetic indulgence; a celebration of both the tactile and visual senses; or a selfless orientation among poetic voices. When Gosslee converses with the past, as he does in the beautifully crafted “Turn Your Work of Art,” the reader is witness to a unity between the voices in the collection. The lines:
in danger of wanting
Before you die
seem to turn the collection inward. Gosslee’s conversation — though one-sided — also measures art, not as a single point to reach, but as sustained note in time.
The idea of using published poems by other poets as a framework is challenging, and some may call into question Gosslee’s intentions when creating Out of Context. The act of blacking out the words of another artist’s work and, as a result, changing the meaning of the piece, is a dangerous balancing act, one of which Gosslee seems well aware. In a conversation with the L.A. Review of Books, Gosslee acknowledges the “violent” nature of his redactions, as well as his own privilege and power to execute them. “It was very important to me to cite each of the original authors and the original work as the title of each piece to invite readers to explore the original,” Gosslee tells LARB. Not only is it problematic, some would say, for an artist to strike out another artist’s’ words just to supplant them with their own, but a more complicated (and weighted) issue arises when his practice viewed as a white man retooling the work of poets from marginalized groups, re-working without being invited so to do.
Gosslee seems cognizant, if unapologetic, of his work in relation to what was on the page before; beyond the opening pages of Out of Context are a small collection of Gosslee’s thoughts on the matter. In one, he writes:
The history of redactions is ancient and often inspects ideas of censorship, thought-control, and, in literature, the appropriation of non-poetic text into poetry. I wondered, what if the hand didn’t move over the newspaper like Austin Kleon’s Newspaper Blackouts…What if living poet’s works were the subjects?
What Gosslee asks of his reader throughout Out of Context is not to absolve him of these questions of authenticity but instead use them as a lens to parse each page. In this way, it becomes obvious that the change occurring is not merely that of the words on the page, but of Gosslee himself. What tethers the works together, through space and time, is his authentic reaction to the process of reading and rebuilding. Of a poem Gosslee drew from Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel, he writes
When I redacted a portion of Gabriel by Edward Hirsch, I cried. The love of a father for his son was so moving that I couldn’t help it. I thought about how I might feel in Hirsch’s place if I knew about the redaction of such a personally meaningful text. I thought about how I’d feel as a reader if I only knew about the redaction 50 years after Hirsch, and that helped me hold to the goal of the project…
It’s worth questioning the implication of authorship and erasure in his work; the “goal” Gosslee alludes to in the interview is as layered as some of the various poems he has chosen in this collection. Is it an invocation or reintroduction of past voices? Is it a more political stance, that which declares the impossibility of truly silencing the artist? Or is this more of an act to draw attention — a declaration that Gosslee sees himself as able to stand toe-to-toe with the poets which have moved him over his lifetime?
These are questions to carry through the collection. Out of Context should be experienced on its artistic merit. Yet it’s the project’s emphasis on gaining through loss, as well as its brazenness in committing what might be perceived as poetic transgression — that reminds us how artists lead the way in pushing the boundaries of expression, in times when the written and spoken word seems particularly challenged.
This is what happens when I don’t take notes. Two months ago, I sat down to read Yesterday’s People, a collection of eight short stories by Goran Simic. Born in Bosnia, Simic was already a noted author and poet when he immigrated to Canada ten years ago. I decided to write about these spare, haunting and haunted stories, many of them about life in Sarajevo in the mid 90s. But for reasons that now completely mystify me, I wasn’t making notes, which would have been fine had I begun writing this immediately. Two months and three or four novels later, I began to write and I hit a brick wall.While I remembered the images and the tone of the stories, damned if I could remember any names, or specific details. And the images that I did remember were beginning to blend into each other. I was in a haze. I had been immersed in that world. And then I was out. I had shifted through time and space into other worlds. I was in Jonathan Lethem’s Brooklyn, then in Stephen Clarke’s contemporary Paris, and most memorably I was amongst Balzac’s characters in 1800s Loire Valley, as drunk on his words as I would be if I’d been one of his wine growers in the French countryside. The images of the Bosnian war had been overshadowed. I could never do them justice.So I began to re-read. I cracked open Simic’s collection and dove back in, revisiting the characters, and the horrors of war, and the resourcefulness and resilience of spirit that had moved me the first time.I revisited Nina. We were back in Sarajevo, during the war. A gothic wild west of thievery and morgues, where “we were all slowly going mad.” Nina and our narrator shared a past, and our narrator now spots her amongst the people lining up for water, “a shadow of what she used to be.”In “Minefield,” volunteer soldiers protect a ravine. Their initial Rambo bravado is shattered when one of them blows himself up with a grenade. They grow up fast. They begin doing deals with the other side: “as time passed and our ammunition dwindled, we shot less and swore more.” It’s trench warfare except the two sides volley benign insults and supplies. And then grim reality throws them a curve.In “The Story Of Sinan” we see the early days of the war when “we thought it all a brief private nightmare that the world had nothing to do with.” We meet Sinan whose daily routine has been inconvenienced by the war. To him, it’s an annoyance. He’s a gambler and carouser who lives by his wits. (He tells women, when he’s through with them, that his wife has been released unexpectedly from prison though she was supposed to have served five more years for murdering his ex-mistress). Then another curve, this time a sudden and unexpected act of kindness and selflessness.And as I re-read Yesterday’s People I noticed something that I hadn’t really picked up on the first time. I noticed that the stories are not just about Bosnians – then. They’re also about Canadians – now. In every story, a character either escapes to Canada or someone linked to him does. Sometimes the stories are actually written from the point of view of someone here, now, flashing back to his life there, then. There are photos throughout the stories, snapshots of the narrator’s past. The stories are about memory, about trying to remember and trying to forget. They’re about one’s tenuous link to one’s history. They’re war stories that don’t end in the trenches or in the long line-ups for water. They don’t end when the shooting stops. They’re brought up to date through the memory of the narrator. They’re immigrant stories.