by Caitlin Mackenzie
Why are we drawn to poetry, as writers and readers—generally, lovers of language? It cannot be for such fleeting reasons as the experience of beauty or empathy, and definitely not for mere entertainment. Though these may comprise some of the impulse for verse, they are not the initial ignition. As humans we seem to have an innate urge to participate, to be, not just to know. This desire inescapably leads us to the unknown, to that place of mystery where we consistently, paradoxically find something familiar. This is not only distinctly human, but it is the poetic impulse. Poetry asks everything and answers very little. It probes our memory and stirs the resting and the hiding. “Come into this night with me, for I am not a good sufferer.”
Jill Magi’s SLOT is an intentional and intellectual mediation on memory, especially manifestations of public memory as experienced in museums and memorials. SLOT asks how we participate in memory, questioning whether memorials and museums are spaces allowing (and encouraging) participation, or whether they are easy methods of compartmentalization, ways to reason with absurd experience: the National Holocaust Museum or the National Civil Rights Museum, for example. How are we to respond to human history and humanity’s exhibited brutality?
Furthermore, what do we do with the problem of language, as our engagement with memory seems to necessitate human response, both communally and privately? First, we tread lightly. Magi writes “How much violence is an echo?” We want to honor our past and its troubled suffering, so we go to our primary and most instinctual tool: language. And yet, almost immediately we find ourselves faced with the temptation to place things, to set them apart yet together in a sterile environment. We’re tempted to slot them. I clear my voice and make a compartment from the space between my hands, Magi writes in response to the question, Why use poetry? Is this? But then later Magi admits Am I turning to poetry? As an escape or to make sense? I’m not sure we can fault anyone for this. It is such a human question.
By climbing aboard the actual bus on which Rosa Parks’ protest began, we can sit down and become the subject to a recording of the driver’s voice demanding that we, positioned as Rosa Parks, move or leave. Magi’s language here is distant but not disaffected, “subject” ironically evocative of our complicit involvement. SLOT is introspective and smart. Magi investigates not only the human desire to know our past, that is, to know from where we come and what we are capable of, but she avoids the temptation of proverb or judgment. All that falls under her observation is balanced between criticism and enormous amounts of grace. What does it mean for us to sit on the same bus whilst a recording antagonizes us? First, try as we might, there exists no risk. But, and perhaps more importantly, why is it necessary to mimic or to feel entertained in order to understand, even if our desire to understand is born solely of good intention? We are the mapmakers who know the vocabulary or knowledge, of fashion, how to live. What happens when we pacify an incredibly complex moment in history, make it marketable, absent of transcending possibilities? The motive is good perhaps, but what about that damn gift shop? What happens inside all those people moving through the exhibit?
Dear Guest Book:
“After all, we could feel, hear the heartbeat.”
“Entrancing, a little sad.”
“Wonderful exhibit. Clear. Left with a sense of peacefulness.”
“Thank you for sharing.”
“Bought the book.”
We want the guestbook. We want to speak to the unspeakable, and speak of the unspeakable. This is the poetic impulse; this is the passion to create. This is Magi finding a museum of paradox (that is, a museum) to explore Keats’ ageless paradigm: the Grecian urn is static in nature, dynamic in its meaning. And so, what should define it? Its physical property or its spiritual property? Dear Documentary: / Catalogue this wood-rot, this moss / encroaching. Preserve the footprint. / Bar-code a furrowed brow. // Please slot / your next erosion event with us. Cement the finite moment so we can respond to it, so we can have longer than the moment to understand the moment.
The pages of SLOT are sparse, clean, and uncluttered; reminiscent of a quiet museum. I know what to look at, what is emphatically important. SLOT is a long poem, crossing disciplines to include photography and essay. Explicitly, we’re following a poet, that is, a lover of language, through a world of image and exhibit. Sometimes a guide, but sometimes rebellious as a guide (she is a poet after all), we’re drawn deeper and deeper into the tension of marketing memory. Often lyrical, often favoring simplicity over obscurity, Magi invites participation. She invites her readers to rebuke structured experience and revel instead in complexity: Because within the borders of the body I feel unable to discuss this good freedom, these exhibits. And to follow, She answers: / I wonder if we have become too weak to stand up to scrutiny at the edge of the abyss. But even the deconstructed is deconstructed. Magi follows with four questions: But who is this we? / When was this become? / And which freedom? Which abyss? These are the monosyllabic questions both driving and constituting the particles of human be-ing.
SLOT is an example of where I hope American poetry continues to move—toward thoughtful extrapolations of interior contradictions. Let us do away with language interesting for the sake of interest—is that not exhibition?—and instead join with poets like Magi, who will guide us into the exhibit and ask the unanswerable questions.
Jill Magi is the author of Cadastral Map (Shearsman), Torchwood (Shearsman), Threads (Futurepoem), as well as the chapbooks Die for love, furlough (In Edit Mode Press), Confidence and Autonomy (Ink Press), Poetry Barn Barn! (2nd Avenue), Cadastral Map (Portable Press), and numerous small, handmade books. Her essays have been anthologized in The Eco-Language Reader (Portable Press/Nightboat Books) and Letters to Poets (Saturnalia Books), and visual works have been exhibited at the Textile Arts Center, the Brooklyn Arts Council, apexart, and Pace University. In 2011, she was an artist-in-residence at the Textile Arts Center in Brooklyn, and she was a writer-in-residence with Lower Manhattan Cultural Council in 2006-07. Jill runs Sona Books, a chapbook press, and for her small press work she was recognized by Poets & Writers magazine as among the 50 most inspiring authors in 2010.
Caitlin Mackenzie's poetry and prose has appeared in Fugue, The Colorado Review, and Books & Culture, among others. After graduating from the Bennington Writing Seminars she moved to Eugene, Oregon, where she currently works in book publishing.
Cover image source: blogs.colum.edu Author image source: theconversant.org