Saturday, November 10, 2012


Every few weeks a new Compline publication rolls in from Oakland, each arriving like an encrypted communique from the front line of a  protracted cultural assault. Two arrived in one shot some time ago: Thom Donovan's The Hegemon Say and Sara Larsen's Merry Hell, both collaboratively designed and printed by Michael Cross and Stephen Novotny in advance of a 14 September 2012 reading with Suzanne Stein in San Francisco. The publications are outstanding specimens of an approach to book making where the material production of neither print object exceeds or overshadows the writing that occasioned it. At the same time, neither book can be adequately approached without reading them through the bibliographic codes that frame and inflect the writing. We see this most clearly in The Hegemon Say, a book built after Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Pomegranate Offering (1975). Like Pomegranate Offering, Donovan's Hegemon is a spray-stenciled sack, coarse burlap in this case, with a drawstring at the top and, as with Hak Kyung Cha's piece,  the mouth is everything: "Hand in mouth | Mothers in excess | Recessed like | This shore just moved." In the stanza that appears on the title page (pictured below) "Surfeits," excesses, "like surfaces" flare up, flashing, disclosing their exile, their location beyond the inside of a shifting limit, "This shore just moved." These lines, hand-set in monotype and immaculately printed, appear on smooth granite stock (the stock itself alluding to the granite in Cha's pomegranate), but they are encased in the crudest of materials, spray-stenciled burlap, and this crude exterior at once complements and undercuts the smooth blemish-free interior. A dialectic is at play here, active and irreconcilable, between interior and exterior, the abstract character of the text and the concrete materiality of the print object, and these actively antagonistic spaces of articulation shore up the strength of the poem itself where "History exceeds every | Vision I've ever had."
Inasmuch as the abstract itself engenders determinate force, this too has a material existence and so there can be no vulgar reduction of such a print object to any kind of tortured opposition between the concrete materiality of the object itself and what the object says with or against this materiality. The saying itself is an inextricable part of the object and its condition. It is the hegemon that says, and it is thus that we come round to a war of position, the struggle of saying. But, as I believe Donovan would agree, such a struggle is not reducible to saying but is a problem of saying enfolded in a much more complex configuration of conditions such that saying alone is not enough. And the contradictions thrown into relief through the print construction of this piece, The Hegemon Say, complements such an understanding.

Likewise for Sara Larsen's Merry Hell, which opens with an epigraph from Rimbaud: "morality is water on the brain." The book is dedicated to "Helen" and "for the women of the Paris Commune | for my friends." Here "author  ity    is spirit, semen, CASH." Dedicated as it is to the women of the Paris Commune, I have wondered at times if this writing is a statement of protest critiquing activist organizations in Oakland, where Larsen is located — I mean, Merry Hell seems much more than a mere indictment of capital and reads instead as a far more interior critique, an internal memo circulated to address a problem among activists within a particular community: "to only crash through     costume lavish sweetbread club officers     un union of femme | is my serious task." Further on the narrator relates: "i hear sirens beyond whatever barricades appear."

Writing from this treacherous distance it's difficult to say one way or another, though it does seem this text emerges out of a fixed location within a regionally specific intellectual and political ecology. Framed by the New York Times as "the Last Refuge of Radical America" back in August, Oakland might very well seem a "merry hell" to politically engaged women writers if activist organizations there now were encumbered by the same problems that generated such a splintered Left through the seventies and eighties. I'm thinking here about the 1981 Left Write Unity Conference in San Francisco organized by Steve Abbott and Bruce Boone. Kaplan Harris commented on the conference a couple years ago in "New Narrative and the Making of Language Writing" (American Literature 81:4), noting that, while the conference aspired to unify a dispersed constellation of radical writers, "the most contentious issue was the role of gays and lesbians in leftist critique." The landscape is unquestionably different now, given to a different set of circumstances and conditions, but Larsen's Merry Hell compels me to wonder if the old fault lines aren't somehow reasserting themselves or if Merry Hell is itself a prophylactic statement against the reemergence of these fault lines within an ebullient community of activist writers. Removed from its local environment, the legibility of such a document is limited at best, but the fact that Compline (the twilight of the workday) so brilliantly registers such moments in print is something to be grateful for. The books are available.