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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We live in an age of posing, keeping our best sides toward the lens, calculating, almost intuitively at this point, the best way to crop and frame, the most flattering angle. We fiddle with filters and cart around selfie sticks, documenting ourselves and our squads, our peer groups and parties, while the Google Map truck rolls by and the red light cameras and the police cameras and the drones and the surveillance satellites all seem, honestly, insignificant compared to the work we do, each and all of us, compiling a comprehensive record, our most choreographed and candid moments, captured. Late night Internet searches turn us into voyeurs of our own lives, and in the midst of so much manipulation, the editing itself is rendered visible, like all the colored fonts and veiny lines and interjecting dialogue balloons of the Track Changes function. What I’m describing is a condition, technological and social, but also, simultaneously, an anxiety.
This contemporary anxiety is at the center of Amy Strauss Friedman’s chapbook, read against and as informing more traditional questions of theodicy and, indeed, theology. Why do bad things happen, with such regularity, on the nightly news? And if God is watching us, when, precisely, and is it in some way different from all those other, omnipresent eyes?
In these poems, there is a sense of responsibility for the tragedies reported by the media, as if the “car crashes and shootings” could have been avoided if the narrator had just made different choices in the course of her day. Among the many blocked callers calling in their poems, one that goes to voicemail is “God’s secretary,” with the reminder “that God watches me every Thursday between three and four p.m.,” and last week was particularly disappointing. The deity, likewise, makes multiple and last-minute—even late—edits to each human’s daily agenda; He’s in control, surely, but like a particularly disorganized bureaucrat, accounting for all human destinies, but smudging the math here and there along the way.
As I was reading this book, I encountered an article—likely from some feed, tailored to be my algorithm based on observation, the result of lengthy surveillance of my activities and assumed preferences—about a dead man whose social media profile sprung, last week, to virtual life. The dead man’s account posted ads and vitriol, spam and politics, disturbing those who knew him and who knew, despite his activity online, that he was dead.
Gathered Bones Are Known to Wander expresses a similar horror over the relationship of image to identity, representation and life. In a world of images, one not only feels like something of a blank billboard or automaton, oneself—“photos of my smiling face in triplicate,” says one poem, describing the self as a casino machine, all bells, small change, and simulated feelings—but one can also feel that everyone else is a stranger, even those lovers with whom one shares so much time and space.
How to bridge the difference? In one poem, liturgy is prescribed; in another, couples’ therapy involving hard labor and sweat, yoga and woodworking. Stretch and sand, plane and plank, transcend, through physical effort, the alienations of a world imagined as images only, pics all the way down. Escape is a theme here, too, albeit the routes are not mapped out. There’s the repeated hope that we can outrun this trap, but the only exits visible online are those roughly body-shaped mounds on Google Earth, the greener grass indicating a kind of edit, God’s hand making a revision. Hardly an optimistic note, but one that lingers, like the aftereffect of staring too long at a picture on a screen.
Official Amy Strauss Friedman Web Site
Official Red Bird Chapbooks Web Site