Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008) and the forthcoming critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2010). An instructor at Loyola University, Chicago, Dew also reviews books for Rain Taxi Review of Books and art for Newcity Chicago. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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In his masterful book, The Sonnets, Ted Berrigan rimmed around the most terrifying implications of time and its human perception as narrative. I am here now, his poems repeatedly declare, though already in the act of writing this statement becomes a fiction, this “I” a third person. Thousands of poetical and philosophical forays have teased out the implications of this slippage of the present always into the past, including Maurice Blanchot’s obsession over how this renders writing an exemplification of death. “I is another,” says a bit of writing by Rimbaud, and “I am an endangered species,” writes J. A. Tyler, in a slim, sometimes-hypnotic novella contributing to this larger conversation.
At the center of this text is a photograph of a man and a word written on the back, his name, Wilson, yet this center is set on a spinning lathe and that lathe is time and time, the voice of the one-time-Wilson declares, is changing, taking him with it. “Things change. I change. I am changing.” Such conjugations of the problem of temporality echo as refrains throughout the book. “Go. I go. I went. I have gone.” “A woman standing somewhere in the past, over my shoulder, my shoulder gone.”
This woman, of course, is the book’s other subject. She’s the woman left in the past, the woman waiting, the woman holding the photograph. And, to Wilson’s thinking, at least, this woman “holds an image that is not me. She imagines me. She envisions me. I am pretend. I no longer exist. I recede, have receded.”
How can this be kept up for 118 pages? A lot of white space helps, and some of the very “remembrance” that Wilson disavows as having any relation to his identity. They kissed, for instance, and this kiss is similarly described, disassociated from the present, a mere fragment in a book awash in fragments. So the woman holds a photograph and memories of a relationship in the past to a man who is no longer identical to the man who is thinking back on such things. “Me. That picture she holds when I was a man, whole. Parts and pieces now. I am parts and pieces now.” “Me, holding nothing but my body in pieces, a piece-meal fragmentation of me, my open hands. And I do not exist. That is the now and the however.”
In this now and however, Wilson—or the man who no longer identifies with that name, that cipher—muses a bit too much about the nature of time and the damage it does to consciousness. “I don’t know what I am, how my mind moves on,” he says, even in the midst of memories. This gets a bit schizo. And, at times, it bleeds out to extremes. Why, for instance, would the very existence of a photograph “lessen” or “minimize” Wilson, “until I am no more”? He’s not even looking at it, just remembering it, and he’s taken some lengths to render memories less than immediately real anyway. “I wrote on the back of an image a word that was once and will never again be me.... Here, where I will only and forever exist. I am not Wilson. I have never written on the back on this photograph. My apologies.”
Regret is the final element here, and in the depth of this regret there seems to be an answer for the extreme disassociation of the narrator: “My sincerest apologies, I would never have smiled in the picture, for that photograph taken of me, if I had known.” “All these gone words,” ultimately, aren’t just musings on the hurtling trajectory of time or human consciousness in relation to perception and memory. No, there’s something even more basic, psychologically. “Bone basics and human tenderizing,” as Wilson says. Indeed, the narrator here has more than enough sense and memory to hold together a coherent identity, to weave meaning from the ceaseless flow of time. But that meaning hurts, especially in relation to the girl, because the relationship with the girl, in the past, is irretrievable, and for this time alone is not to blame. “The things I said to her, the ways I approached, there were words in phrases, sentences of my thinking. I thought. And out came the things I told her.” Wilson, attempting to avoid the full agony of conceiving his situation, offers this soliloquy instead, looking back into the glaring absence where the girl, who is gone, is still, in his memory.
Official J. A. Tyler Web Site
Official Scrambler Books Web Site