Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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I went and looked at, not so long ago in Chicago, a set of prints by Sherrie Levin, one of or part of one of her After Egon Schiele works, eighteen images—copies, altered. Much longer ago I used to visit—every few nights over the course of a summer, always more or less by chance, somewhat confused as to the exact location of the place, tucked back in some tangle of self-referential alleys and narrow old, cave-like, stone streets—a bar with an Egon Schiele theme. This was in Israel, which makes it sound more possible, perhaps, but still, I’ll admit, quite strange. Egon Schiele images decorated the edges of the laminated menus. Egon Schiele images hung on the walls, which were not so much walls as permeable barriers, much of the place patio, garlands of string lights and, above that, sky, stars. Citations of a sort, in both cases: the “original”—startlingly, shockingly so, in its initial iteration—plucked from that contingent context and slapped down on bar adverts or altered rephotographs hung in a tight and ordered constellation on the wall of a museum. The bar attempts such association: we are like this, it says, signifying wildly, scattershot, but with the assumption that certain themes (authenticity over anguish, I guess; a self-determined sexuality, that now-pleasantly jarring sense of having been ahead of the times, etc. One could muse further on the specific politics of place, of people, of what it means to say, in Jerusalem, City of David, we take Schiele for our totem). The Levine pieces are part of a logical pondering of the kind of seizure she and Richard Prince got famous for, back in the ‘80s. Tinkered with—particularly in terms of portraiture, face and sex—Levine’s Schieles are resolutely if subtly (winkingly?) Levine’s. More than mere technological seizure or homage, the hand of the artist presents itself here, thus raising as many questions about that fetishized “hand” as the earlier, unaltered appropriation pieces did. Are these, we are prompted to ask, somehow more Levine’s than her Walker Evans photographs?
Other visions become our own. In many ways—from branding campaigns and consumer identification to works that speak to a given time and state to experiences of seeing and reading that, in their resonance, redefine our sense of identity and our take on the world—other visions (the song that played from every radio that summer; the baffled determination in that sixteenth-century self portrait; the way the opening lines took language and tilted it, as Cezanne tilts the visual planes) become our own. This is a commonplace; the rest (including much of the careers of artists like Levine or, in a parallel register, Kathy Acker) is commentary.
Becca Jensen’s Among the Dead: Ah! and Afterward Yes! adds its own choruses to that commentary. This is a book composed of references to, engagements with, and citations from a library of sources, “collected” by one of the five voices within the text—“The Collector,” who offers his/her own thoughts on, say, Hillel’s concept of the ubiquity of commentary or Eliot’s notion of individual innovation in relation to tradition and the work of the past. Even the title is an assemblage, from Eliot and from Dickens, but the book unfolds in separate pieces giving voice (and character) to this Collector and a Chorus, a couple—Mrs. G and Mr. G—and a daughter, while also returning to (through appropriation and allusion, critical engagement and an accumulation of echoes—themes such as drowning and exile. With text arranged in various ways: lists, fragments, stuttered lines, parenthesis of silence, charts, stage directions, notes, statements, etc., there is much ambition to this book and, for the reader, much reward: like with Levine’s reworkings of Schiele, we are shown a dynamic of influence and originality, of identity in relation to tradition; like the bar named Egon’s, we see a completely new use of old myths, a reflection of the fullness with which we, as humans, work through and out of that which came before. From Frankenstein to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Proust (of course) and the sub-sub librarian compiling knowledge of whales, Jensen weaves these pieces together, into her own tapestry. Byron’s line, “what Exile from Himself Can Flee?” for instance, becomes a line of thought for Mr. G, the character, and a citation catalogued by the Collector, and a gloss on and entrance into this book qua book. And Byron—his life and work and death and ideals and afterlife as icon—plays a role here, then, too, for the citation is not a fragment out of context, stolen, but, as with the Schiele, acknowledged and deriving its power, its effect, precisely from that acknowledgement and the myriad significations that the reader brings to the idea of “Byron.” Likewise, with the sea from Melville’s novel, which is here the sea in which Shelley drowns, “the slow romp of salt water making its way against the boat’s frame,” which is also the sub-sub librarian’s pushing forward into “the frost-cold sea, to tread the tracks of exile,” and Swinburne’s “sift and sad being born of the sea,” which is only part of a quote, a fragmentary citation expanded upon, worked into a wave and frothed up by this new author, Jensen, who sees in the sunk ship of Odysseus some foreshadowing of what will happen later with Woolf of the stones in her pockets. As with Schiele’s work, we have here a thing that expresses more than it represents. Rather than a self portrait, we have in Schiele a visceral writhing, a contagious twitch and grimace. In Jensen’s book, the library has overgrown around us, and rather than culled lines or nods toward known stories, we have a comprehensive haunting, threateningly strong winds carrying occasional pieces of recognizable tunes, distorted to the point of a new clarity. This is a book worthy of serious formal attention, by writers, as well as aesthetic appreciation for the way it gathers these fragments into a new and startling ruin.
Official Les Figues Press Web Site