SPORADICALLY-PUBLISHED "MAGAZINE" OF POETRY AND POETICS
Christopher W. Alexander and Linda Russo, eds.
Gordon Hadfield and
Sasha Steensen, CORRESPONDENCE
The major theme of Gordon Hadfield and Sasha Steensen's CORRESPONDENCE is dislocation, the experience of the tourist or traveler, the stranger in a foreign land. For that reason maybe the best place to begin talking about this book is outside the book itself, in Wallace Stevens' "A Postcard from the Volcano." Stevens seems to be tackling two issues in this poem. First, in the loss of actual history, the loss of the thickness of lived experience:
The kids are like archeologists digging through remains for clues to existence, but Stevens suggests they will fail to imagine the liveliness of what existed. Closely bound up with his wariness is a second issue, the failure of a language spoken "without history" to recognize the terms of experience -
Here, "what we said of it" has subsequently taken on a quality of obviousness, too much in front of the kids for too long to be seen. Reaching on the one hand for a romantic image of ghostly intrigue - the gothic idiom of the ghost story brilliantly enfolded in Stevens' line - then for its opposite in the complaint of a cynical "realism," the kids fail to apprehend the actual experience of history, the real hauntedness of language, because they grasp it only, on each side, through the "neutral" lens of an inherited discourse. Repetition and familiarity deadens the event; idiom takes on an explanatory force that becomes almost irresistible in time.
Stevens' image for this is the postcard - a cheap reproduction of experience that, absent since the title, is surprisingly reasserted in the concluding lines. And yet the style in which he delivers that image is vivid to the point of abstraction, trumping the inherited rhetoric of the preceding lines with a renewed imaginative effort:
Here the poet's elevated language breaths life back into the photograph of the volcano, a print in gratuitous colors that Stevens both regrets and, through his language, reclaims. The postcard - a cheap souvenir, a mere remembrancer - is made to transcend its role in the simple act of consumption for which it was designed; dynamized in the poem so as to convey the unlikely force of the encounter that it was supposed to mark. Life eludes marketing. Characteristically, Stevens' lines resist the suggestion that they might contain the "true story" of the volcano, offering instead an argument for the centrality of the imagination in recasting and thus recapturing the force of lived experience. In place of a dead certainty, a tension exists between lived history and the matter of its representation; where the kids have reached for pat rhetoric to define what is, Stevens gives us the question afresh: "what is?"
This movement is very much at the center of Hadfield and Steensen's CORRESPONDENCE - "part record, part recognition of the impossibility of recording," the press flyer says - a chapbook-length poem that encompasses two modes of writing brought into dialogue. Each page contains about as much text as would fill one or two postcards, and the lyrics - which together recount a series of arrivals and departures, passages through South America - speak to each other in the back and forth language of a literal correspondence. One half of the dialogue tends toward the prose poem and self-conscious explanations of the poetic project in which the authors are engaged:
arrive in Machu Picchu in July. There is no more talk of delegates or
The other mode is more lyrical and tends toward imagistic descriptions of the landscapes & events the poets witness:
And then, sidewise to the right in way not reproducible in HTML:
It's hard to say exactly what's being described here; that specificity, at its limit, takes on an elliptical quality is very much a part of this mode, in some sense -the opposite of the more discursive style cited above. As in Stevens, we are presented with "a thought revolved."
Yet in another sense this passage sings fully and clearly one of the key notes of CORRESPONDENCE: our poets' awareness of the various ways in which they are implicated in the cultural landscapes they're passing through. This is, after all, a work of poetic tourism; and though it's sometimes a bit too apologetic in this regard, in its many profound moments the book arrives at a language that involves close observation and yet, as poetry, manages to refuse the remote gaze of the tourist and the "neutral" authority of the anthropological observer posited by enlightenment social sciences. In some instances, it is the particular, idiosyncratic details of cultural appropriation and overlap that the project conveys:
depart from Chiclayo. The entire coast of Peru is a desert. Busses leave
- here, with what must be the strange sense of traveling far to discover not only the most familiar, but among the most banal of American cultural products: a mock-Scottish film epic, starring an Australian expatriate, shot in Hollywood and dubbed into Peruvian Spanish. Elsewhere, such imbrications extend to the legacy of colonialism that marks the land itself:
And even to the colonial structures that support the tourist industry in South America:
- a moment, literally an aside, that quietly brings to light the infrastructure that is the necessary condition of the poets' presence on the South American scene, none other than that of American neocolonialism; that the base standing below in the distance lay at the heart of their project.
What more to say, having established that CORRESPONDENCES is a book that rewards a reader's attention as few enough do. Mebbe only that this is one of the most beautiful chapbooks ever to pass through our hands, printed on fine paper and hand-sewn, filled with complex images and a number of colorful silk-screens; yet without being in any way ostentatious or book-artsy. Of course those images bring a complexity to the work that we've neglected entirely: the book is also very much about the photograph and the language by which to describe it; the status of experiential memory in a global economy of images; the bleaching of the eye in trade. But that, we'll leave for you to figure on your own, closing instead with another quotation:
depart from Copacabana. In order to reach the other side of the lake,
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