Salt Publishing, 2007
Reviewed by Anne Heide
In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord, plagiarizing a phrase of Lautréamont, writes that “ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a role in that improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress depends upon it. It sticks close to an author’s phrasing, exploits his expressions, deletes a false idea, and replaces it with the right one.” In My Thieves, Ethan Paquin explores this sense of artistic progression by constructing a dialogic encounter with a lineage of thieves, questioning not just his own artistic authenticity, but the concept of authenticity itself, asking whether “plagiarism” is vital to artistry itself.
Thievery in this book is conjoined to influence, and Paquin argues that you cannot be an artist without being a thief, and consequently, that all from whom you are stealing are thieves as well. The texts proclaims, “ ‘thief’ is not a strong word. He does homage,/not theft. And at any rate, he would say/the shells would want him to do it, to bring/them to his mantel”(112). Written in a wide variety of forms and voices, My Thieves undoes the concept of originality by forthrightly allowing in and welcoming this difference. In often self-reflexive language, Paquin writes of the book he is writing into, often in dialogic form:
I decided against the epigraph. Too much language,
Whoest am I (4)
Here, the thief is not the plagiarizer, but the plagiarized who steals the artist’s thought from under him by predating the thought’s existence. The artist must reckon with the fact that he is perhaps not collaborator, but usurper, claiming authenticity to words that are not his own. This voice who speaks “Whoest am I” takes on its own persona, marked in the text with italics. This voice speaks in an often archaic diction, and calls on “Ethan Paquin” to recognize the difference between, or perhaps the similitude of, the two personae. The author responds, “Do you mean to speak to me?/As you wield words Do you not sully me?/Do you proffer an escape for me my dear/my…”(8). This poem is ended in the unutterable: the presence is known, but unable to be named.
In this italicized “other” voice that permeates the text, artistic self is both assured and questioned, often simultaneously: “Ethan Paquin is an aggregate/of sinew and worn things/that wrinkle easily.”(13). The “other” voice, the split of self, both affirms the existence of Ethan Paquin, and also boils the self down to a sort of used up flesh. This is the artist who states “I am nothing but a series of long processes”(42) as a simultaneous admittance of superfluousness and an acknowledgement of artistic succession as vital to the creative work:
Hard to be
authentic when the source of is is no longer. Yes
friends hard to convince anyone of any vision for
any length of time for the visions are all here!,
everything of Ulro all gone Vegas and Manhattan.
The writer’s apologia is to look at the waste of
the progressive present and kill it through renewal
of the art of the past when death was as major
as a fallen log high on an Adirondack dome (108)
Even the monologue is a dialogue, not only between speaker and audience, but speaker and the aggregate that is language. A single voice does not preclude response. In “Nothing But Setting Out,” Paquin quotes himself, pulling lines from previous poems in the collection, and so creating a thievery of self, a genealogy that swerves back to the center.
The textual interest in visual art throughout the book often extends to composition on the page. Paquin’s textual structures act to generate a line of sight and site, a prospective vanishing point with lines that fail to cease moving outwards. In fact, expansiveness arises as the untouched space, the uncluttered point in sight, where originality is perhaps given a space to thrive: “God, the canvases are so damned full,/the spaces are filled up and it makes/one stop and take pause of what he is about to write—will it/suffice, does it add to the world, or just/clutter things up beyond repair”(52). Later, the limited genre of the page is bemoaned: “I am now wanting the page to be wider than eighty-three absolutely putrid/gourmands”(36). If a space is unfilled, there is the potential to fill it. In “Adolph Gottlieb to the Little Animals,” Paquin repeats the same poem twice, although one includes titles of Gottlieb paintings at the end of the first five lines. The titles add acknowledgement, but how does a direct reference differ from allusion? In “Ekphratic Particulars,” we are given lines of text that do not mention their visual influence, but which state “every/thing/was/once/some/thing/else”(104). That is, all poems are essentially ekphrastic. In the version of “Adolph Gottleib” that contains the titles, the ekphrastic process is merely revealed more readily. But all the titles lay under the surface of the poem that fails to state the direct influence.
In formatting that looks pulled from a replied email, Paquin writes, “>>We artists—all borrowers, none of us ‘us’ so none of us/>>special?”(24). But this querying question mark at the end of this line suggests that the aggregate-poet can indeed be “special.” Or that this “special-ness” results from, and is in no way antipathetic to, the lineage of thieves from whom the artist is made.
Like its singular split voice, this text itself is inevitably divided, seemingly between Romanticism’s exaltation of the self and Postmodernism’s referential irony. The “author,” “Ethan Paquin,” seems to want to simultaneously believe that artists are both the undeniable unique and the inevitable aggregate. But these seemingly contradictory beliefs appear to be less so, and in fact, through the course of the book, become almost necessary partners, a split artistic voice whose divide holds it together.
Ethan Paquin is the author of three additional books of poetry: The Violence (Ahsahta Press, 2005); Accumulus (Salt, 2003); and The Makeshift (UK: Stride, 2002). A native of New Hampshire, he lives and teaches in Buffalo, New York.
Anne Heide's poetry has appeared in Shampoo, Coconut, Octopus and No Tell Motel, among others. Her reviews have appeared in Jacket, HOW2, First Intensity, Xantippe and Rain Taxi. She edits the journal CAB/NET out of Denver, where she is working towards a doctorate in English and Creative Writing at the University of Denver.