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WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING BY
by MARJORIE PERLOFF
General Motors, Leigh Davis
(Jackbooks, 2001) unpaginated. $? ;
Leigh Daviss new artists book General Motors will come as a surprise even to his admirers. Unlike the free-wheeling, slangy, and subtly allusive sonnet cycle Willys Gazette (1981), whose "hero" recalls John Berrymans Henry in The Dream Songs, or the more recent Te Tangi a Te Matuhi, (1999), the intriguing flag project Davis produced in collaboration with Wystan Curnowan installation mounted in the Concourse of the Auckland Central Railway Station, whose banners bear enigmatic messages recalling both Maori dialects and the Zaum poetry of the Russian avant-garde General Motors looks for all the world like the most expensive and sumptuous of coffee-table books. Encased in a heavy black box, tied with red ribbon, its heavy unbound parchment-like pages, alternating poetic texts with a sequence of seven seemingly identical reproductions (six black-and-white and one in colour) of a single Cinquecento painting, the predella of a Carofalos altarpiece, titled Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Reviving the Birds, are curiously subordinated to the books apparatusits orange wooden "bookends," gauzy rose and orange transparent silk veils between poems and pictures, and its tissue and rice papers between these veils and the printed texts themselves. Digitalized blow-ups of the core painting are used as front and back covers of the book as well as its frontispiece and endpaper. The production credits include the "Physical Book Concept" (Leigh Davis, with Stephen Bambury), the "Book Design and Realization" (Christine Hansen), the "Virtual Book Design: (Stephens Canning & Rood @dv8 dot net), and the "Wall Object" (Stephen Banbury).
Given these parameters, General Motors is almost impossible to "read." You cant hold the box on your lap because it is too heavy, and if you place it on a large table or desk, you will still have trouble lifting the thin gauzy veils and turning the oversize pages. If you take all the materials out of the box, it is almost impossible to put them back in and close the cover, especially since the veils curl up. At the same timeand this is the paradox--you dont need to possess this expensive object at all, for the work is also available as an e-book, available at the website cited above. Viewed digitally, General Motors is as delicate and light as the "book" version is heavy and clumsy. The reader moves easily from page to page, item to item, forward or backward, through the sequence. The "cheap"indeed "free" version is thus more readable than the expensive artists book.
Is it all then a joke? A clue is provided by a lecture Davis delivered in Boston and New York in June 2001 called "Time, Text and Echoes (Where Poetry Is)," available on the jackbooks web site. The lecture begins by citing the minimal artist Donald Judds statement that "Space, materials, and colour are the main aspects of visual art." "I wanted," writes Davis, "a tuning fork for the idea of verbal art comparable to Judds for visual." For space, materials, and colour, Davis substitutes the "time, text, and echoes" of his books title. Most practical readers today, he posits, "are slaves to some defunct idea of reading": they look for a transparent, linear text model with a beginning, middle, and end, that they can read straight through. In New Zealand, such analog poetry, as Davis calls the traditional mode, evidently on the model of the weak analog TV signal, is no more than "post-colonial occupation ritual poetry," with its "tired re-runs of existential emotion with Big Thoughts, and a few girly things." Analog poetry "sees itself as imitating a variety of supposed natural phenomenon [sic] like breathing, visual perception, or that supposed seductive thing, actual experience." In contrast, "digital poetry, or poetry in its digital phase, is poetry that conceives of itself and art as occurring within the boundaries and behaviours of a medium"; digital poetry foregrounds the "relation between materials"; it is "art in language." "Everything else," posits Davis, is meaningless, "everything else" including "character portrayal, description, plot, everyday speech, presentation, or instructions in how to get to the superette." Berryman, Stevens, and the U.S. language poets (especially Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman) are cited as forerunners of the new "digital" poetry with its "capacity too sustain abstract thought." Such poetry transforms the reader, shocking him out of the complacency produced by analog poetry with its predictable coupling of signifier and signified.
So how does a long "digital" poetic text like General Motors work?
And what distinguishes it from the standard or analog model? Here a little research is in order. Saint Nicholas of Tolentino (1245-1310, canonized in 1446), the books central figure, was known especially for his power to restore life. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "this great Saint resurrected over one hundred children, on one occasion bringing to life several who had been under water for several days." And further:
During an illness, he was ordered to eat meat by a physician, which he had made a vow never to do. A plate containing well-prepared fowl was brought to him. In the presence of several witnesses, he made the sign of the cross over it, and the bird flew away out the window.
Here is the subject of Carofalos painting. In the predella, Saint Nicholas, sitting right in bed, a halo round his head, is pointing his finger toward the dish, proffered by a priest to his left (the viewers right). A black bird flies up from the dish, followed by another still inside it. A second priest, on the far right, holding a tray with jug and dishes, looks on skeptically. Beside this figure, a heavy whitish vertical bar connects wall to floor in what looks like a picture framea frame in which the priests on the other side of the bed are not included, destroying the illusionistic contract between painting and viewer. The four men, painted on the left of the canvas, are represented as talking among themselves. Like the two on the right, they are elderly and balding, three of them frowning or looking skeptical. The back of the fourth one is turned to the viewer so that we cannot know his expression. To the right of the elegant carved bed itself is a small carved footstool, whose tracery resembles that of the bedside table behind it.
But Daviss "reproductions" are themselves more surreal than mimetic, no two being exactly the same. The lighting changes so that the footstool looks smaller in #2 than in #1 even as the shadow behind it expands. Or again, the "picture frame" on the right is sometimes more distinct than at other times. And the close-ups add further mystery. The book front cover, for starters, contains the torsos only of the two right-hand figures: without the presence of St. Nicholas and the image of the blessing of the fowl, the bird seems to be emerging out of nowhere, confounding the two dour priests. The title general motors, moreover, suggests that the birds movement is somehow motorized, the energy mechanized. The frontispiece (this time black and white) does the same thing for the attendants on the left, again distorting the painting in subtle ways. This time, the photograph reproduces the first two figures but skips the third, whose back is turned. Thus the hand that actually belongs to that unknowable man, seems to belong to the body of the figure in profile on the far left. The fourth figure is depicted in the center, as if in a separate panel and the two men on the right, already known from the books cover, also become panel figures, like the individual saints or apostles in Flemish painting. All in all, the frontispiece recalls the disciples in various versionssay, Caravaggiosof The Last Supperthe doubting friends watching the miracle with solemn, cold eyes.
The front matter of General Motors contains a quote from Nietzsche: "I asked myself: what does the people really understand by knowledge. What does it want when it wants knowledge? Nothing more than this: something strange shall be traced back to something familiar." How does the adage illuminate the text? Herewe begin with the familiar-- is the first poem called "the footstool":
" 6 a.m. and Monday came
Tidal change to flood a footstool and make of it
A sundial, quadrangular book of hours and fretted terrier
By the angle and the time what has come over you?
Point and I will follow Little One
Down the implications of your shadows I can see
Sunday gated as it waits
Foretelling each creation day and after that
Where moonlight depth of field lagoons you
And only you, alert and barking
My faithful footstool, forecast and depiction
This is followed by the first instance of the refrain, printed directly on rigid transparent paper:
The payment of the bird price occasions confusion
Through it the river has a hold over the beneficiaries
Every generation has appeared in its mouth
A state of excitement takes over the chamber
A state of excitement takes over the rectangles
A state of excitement takes over the bolsters and the counterpane
A state of excitement takes over the receptacles
A state of excitement takes over the axes and the volume
The way of the world is more angelic than the world
Euclid is borne and Saint Nicholas is falling and rising
Enigmatic as these verses seem at first, they actually make good sense of the painting. In "the footstool," the reference is to the seven days of the week, of creation, and we recall that the painting has seven men and may refer to the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Virtues. The "footstool," depending on its lighting, does look like a sundial and it recalls the footstool in Faust that becomes a "fretted terrier" and then Mephistopheles. The empty footstool is also the poets boat, taking him down the "river" of memory so as to understand the "message" of what is seen. The 10-line refrain is more literal, its opening line, "The payment of the bird price occasions confusion," capturing the scene itself. The "state of excitement" pervades everything herechamber, rectangles, the bolsters and counterpane on the bed, the receptacles, their axes and volume. "The way of the world is more angelic than the world": we cannot penetrate the mystery of the cooked fowl, turning into what are perhaps those four-and-twenty blackbirds emerging from the nursery-rhyme pie. As for Euclid, "borne" along by the poems tides, his is the mathematical truth that Saint Nicholass miracle calls into question: hence the "falling and rising" the saint undergoes.
The footstool poem is followed by one for each of the six so-called priests: the titles are, respectivelyand surprisingly-- "Attendant 1," "Pico," "Erasmus," "Galileo," "Ettore," and "Constantine." Not priests at all then, but famous thinkers or princes or rulers from the Platonic philosopher Pico della Mirandola to Hector of Troy ("Ettore") to the first Christian Roman emperor. Each poem begins with the same words and then introduces a variation:
The Knowledge Tree is Air to me (Attendant 1)
The Knowledge Tree is Noise to me (Pico)
The Knowledge Tree is Agony to me (Erasmus)
The Knowledge Tree is a Fountain to me (Galileo)
The Knowledge Tree is Marys Sound Hole to me (Ettore)
The Knowledge Tree is tense to me (Constantine)
And each poem undermines the readers ability to know by introducing elements that dont fit the schema. The "First Attendant," for example, speaks of "my wifes anatomy of semi moons at night to touch," and refers to his own "Mounted bodys bangle wet and riding"images that hardly go with that of the old bald figure on the far left. Or again, Galileo, seemingly abjuring his scientific discoveries, presents himself as "subject to fountains," and declares that "Breathing is different from rising, diving, ordinarily." And Ettores is the most erotic, fixated as it is on "the Hole thats in her [Marys] grisaille gauzy dresses," but then, in an aboutface, shifting to "Blue of Larkspur" in an echo of T. S. Eliots Ash Wednesday.
The six monologues, in any case, lead up to Saint Nicholass own, which is the most realistic, referring to the "colleagues, furniture, lifted, bowed, perceptibly / As rooks in moted volume through a window," and to the "lay barbers wardens gardeners / Lay celebrants in an architecture" who attend him. "In the industry of small birds," says Nicholas, "I am a small bird beyond what I can see," and, at the end of the poem, contemplating The something startled rise of birds," he remarks, "If I could touch them they would revive me / Small points of departure for people with no feet." If this is perhaps too straightforward, the final poem "history" is even more "explanatory." It begins:
They were disappointing as sirens
Attendants in the Society of Jesus with heavy drapery
Six Strangers gathering close to Nicholas the Wild
Five disbelieving and one scarce
and concludes with an account of the "open pages-but-not-pages" or "open page-not-but-pages fluttering":
The unpaintable transportation of the reaching reader welding with the read
Seven robes commensurate with all they read go daily round
And are the textile of their time and bound
The awkward manifold of a Saint
The textile of their time, presumably, is matched by the "General Motors" of ours, a General Motors whose "transportation" is finally "unpaintable," unreadable. The "awkward manifold of a Saint" is whatever we take it to be.
The stuff of Daviss composition is certainly the "Time, text, and echoes" he wants art to convey. "Frottage in language," as he puts it in his lecture, "is an over-rhythm or agitation in the fabric of ordinary speech." It is a brilliant tour de force but Im not sure Davis entirely succeeds in his resistance to the old "analog" model in favor of a new digital poetry. True, the monologues dont fit the images of the individual
"priests" in the painting; true, the refrain often contradicts the individual monologue, and certainly the contaminated blow ups and endpapers come as surprises. Still, despite all the complexities introduced into the workthe seven veils and seven refrains, the different papers, typefaces, subtly digitalized images, and so on it is also the case that General Motors proceeds in linear fashion from "footstool" to "history," Saint Nicholass own monologue acting as capstone to the six others even as the bright color reproduction is the culmination of the black-and-whites that precede it. Then, too, the free verse lines themselves are not exactly "digital" or open to paragrammatic readings. Their oblique allegorical allusions and historical subtext are more pre-Raphaelite than the stuff of Language poetry. And the verbal texture of individual passages is often thin as in "Six Strangers gathering close to Nicholas the Wild." Then, tooand this is ironic-- the e-book version simply replicates the linearity of the black box. First A, then B, then C. In fact the arrows that guide the reader of the cyberversion suggest that this is, however plotless, a sequence to be followed. Neither Daviss e-book nor his box have the freedom of, say, Duchamps famous boîtes en valise, whose contents can be shuffled and rearranged at random. Nor is the electronic version essentially an independent text as is Kenneth Goldsmiths cybertext of his experimental poem Fidget.
But these are minor caveats. Davis has produced an important verbal-visual texta text in which word defies image and image, word, in which what we know questions what we see and the familiar is made genuinely strange. The next time you enter the Renaissance picture galleries in a given museum, the narrative paintings of saints lives will appear in quite a new light. Look again, General Motors tells us at every turn, and your presuppositions will be undercut. Is that man in the corner holding the tray a priest? Is the footstool a sun dial? Is Ettores speech about the Virgin blasphemous? And how can cooked fowl rise into the air like a blackbird or raven? "Poetry" says Davis, "excites by endangering intimacy." No intimacy here, only an enigmatic layering of word and image.
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