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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In 1919, American and Ethiopian diplomats reworked an expired treaty guaranteeing, among other rights, free travel for Ethiopians throughout the United States. I mention this, in the context of this collection of poetic and aesthetic monographs from Les Figues—monographs originally available only to subscribers of the TrenchArt book series, each featuring work from the authors of the books in those eight series—because of how this fact was reacted to, as incitement, and reimagined, as insurgency. The following year, a group of black Americans in Chicago, proclaiming themselves Ethiopian, publically burned an American flag and shot those who dared to interrupt them. Calling themselves the Star Order of Ethiopia or, less formally, the Abyssinians, this group had some ideas about the Bible and about reparation, but more than that they had a plan: to acquire and armor-plate a train, mount it with weapons, load it with volunteers, and steam it straight into the south, cutting a swath of death while running a rescue mission on the black-skinned along the way.
There’s something unwieldly about such a train, some flaws in what the TrenchArt folk term logistics. But the rage is real enough, the enemies likewise, and the sense of improbable yet spectacular salvation is palpable and unshakeable, even just from the outline of an idea.
This brick of a book is likewise unwieldly; reading it straight through, as a reviewer, I felt starved for breathing room, like I was stuck at a railroad crossing for a long train when I really needed to stretch my legs. But form here hints at use: this is a book for browsing, a tactical handbook to be dipped into when one needs to be disoriented and inspired, equipped with new approaches or old favorites made fresh: redaction as a creative technique, free association and list as memoir, dreams with teeth, parody as sabotage, poetics as forced metamorphosis, the nudge to return to lineage (Benjamin in the arcades, Berrigan at the matinee, John Cage doing anything or nothing at all). We have here fantastically random quotes about the “small agencies” (of “Worms, or electricity . . . or fats, or metals...”!), tips on how to warm up your vocal cords for the performance of Death Metal music, musings on the translation of everything from a moth to a national anthem, and instructions from Jodie Bellamy on how to “cunt” our own found texts. Indeed, this book likely functions best as a found text. To encounter it on a public library shelf and open it up is to come away with an assignment or a new perspective. This is a book that belongs in libraries, to be sure, and it is a good thing that these texts have been rendering public in this way.
But why “TrenchArt”? Running from 2005 to 2013 with themes such as “Tracer,” “Recon,” and “Casements,” echoing the implications of conflict in the title for the series, these monographs offer “a collaborative kind of ammunition,” according to Carmody. Maybe that’s fair, but I started with an instance so resolutely unmetaphoric in order to suggest a divide between this clique of Les Figues folk—cleverly conceptual, sometimes bordering on smugness—and slightly broader struggles in this historical-material world. There is engagement with the world in these pages, but there is also heavy contemplation of the gallery walls, more worry about inscription than, say, conscription in the resistance. Maybe some would identify this as resistance itself. Such a response would dodge my point. The acts of relation preserved on these pages are often far more like in-crowd conversations than sorties on the front; the defaults that get questioned here are more often specific to craft, to desk-work—or, hell, to that variety of writing that precedes writing, that is all idea and reflection and plan. I have nothing against “a self-reflective conceptualism” or an excessively detailed probing of an individual life: both sound great. But an armored train they do not make.
I find much of the work collected here interesting, find some of it intriguing, and find several of the writers to be remarkable. I find the volume to be useful, as a sourcebook, a tool for thinking about and performing the act of writing. But I disagree with the subtitle: there is no rush here. And I am troubled by the implication that this volume somehow contributes to a radicalism, to an overthrow, that I simply do not believe it does. Having pushed through this book, I find myself in a doubly uncomfortable spot: worrying over the placations, the fiddling, of presumably politicized poetics while likewise still waiting on some much-needed train that is awfully slow in coming.
Official Les Figues Press Web Site