We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Shut Up Shut Down
Coffee House Press, $15 (paper)
The Book of Jon
City Lights, $11.95 (paper)
In the past century, poetic collage has gone from revolutionary composition method to commonplace creative-writing exercise, but it has lost none of its force. The first and second flushes of high modernism were marked by T.S. Eliot’s shoring of fragments against his ruin in The Waste Land (1922) and William Carlos Williams’s documentary history of a New Jersey city in Paterson (1946–58). Many decades later, in her excellent textbook of experimental writing pedagogy, The Writing Experiment (2005), Hazel Smith offers a six-stage recipe for the collage poem, whose ingredients include “a large piece of paper and a pair of scissors” and “texts you have recently been reading.” Based on juxtaposition, Smith argues, such work emphasizes discontinuity even as it suggests relation: the collage creator sews or pastes a text together, but rather than conceal the seams, she leaves them for the reader to encounter and engage with. This engagement is as likely to resemble the detective’s task of piecing clues together as the attentive moviegoer’s appreciation of montage, and perhaps this explains the staying power of this form of forms: not only does it allow the author to bring disparate elements into dynamic relation but it appeals to any number of reading styles and critical approaches.
The contemporary collage poem in particular has proved itself to be a remarkably flexible form, capable of containing many matters and arguments and of availing itself readily of reflexivity and meta-collage. Eleni Sikelianos declares her collage poetics a third of the way into her patchwork memoir The Book of Jon: “None of these stories will stitch up into a seamless blanket to cover this family’s tracks. In this story, all the fissures show, they bulge scarlike, they come apart at the seams or they were never sewn up in the first place.” Toward the end of the next expansive sentence, she describes “the snaking lines of those beautifully colored cartographer’s maps coming unhinged from their borders and uncoiling away off the page, disappearing into the aethers.” Even her (mixed) metaphors appear pasted together from various texts, incorporating verbs of stitching, bulging, coming apart, snaking, unhinging, uncoiling and disappearing, while the nouns they move include a blanket, fissures, scars, seams, maps and pages. But what is oddest about this passage is Sikelianos’s definition of her family story as a narrative that might “cover this family’s tracks”—a history that conceals rather than reveals. This odd and troubling idea is the engine that drives her poetic memoir from ignorance to an untotalizing knowledge of kin and kind.
Sikelianos’s primary subject is her father, Jon, whom she hardly knew as a child or as an adult, but in her preface she acknowledges that The Book of Jon is part of a longer family history, one that “embraces morphine and heroin addicts, refugees, Ionian counts, one of the richest families in the U.S. who exhausted their fortune attempting to revive Greek theatre, Lithuanian Jews, a half dozen musicians,” and a host of other characters ranging from a Nobel-nominated poet to a burlesque dancer named Melena the Leopard Girl. What strikes Sikelianos as important about this family history is not merely what has been given, but what is missing: “It matters that there are holes in a family history that can never be filled, that there are secrets and mysteries, migrations and invasions and murky blood-lines. These stories speak of human history.”
Jon the man was as various and fragmented as any collage. He was a young father, serial husband, lifelong drug addict, comedian, adventurer, rogue, and—ultimately—tragic figure. Sikelianos’s memoir incorporates meditative prose and poetry, photographs of father and daughter together and apart, “shreds of stories,” letters sent and unsent, plans for a film, a list of Jon’s belongings at the time of his death, an obituary unlike any I’ve ever seen in a newspaper, and much more. It’s as if the poverty of the poet’s actual experience with her father pushes her into creative overdrive.
Sikelianos’s search for the coherent “truth” of her father’s life comes up short over and over again: “The truth of the matter is I hardly know my father, as it always has been, as it always will be. He would cry if he read that sentence. As I am crying as I write it.” Hers is a double grief, for both her father and his stories—not because she has known them but because she never can. Her unfulfillable wish is for a narrative without gaps, a conventional story about a conventional man: “My father stops being a bum, straightens up and flies right, gets a blue-and-white-striped shirt and gives up heroin. He gets a job at a zoo, and he loves it.” At the end of this fantasy (which is not fragmented but of a piece) Sikelianos writes, “In this story . . . he told me the stories of when he was a child, so that I knew the names of his dogs, his peeves, his adventures and his loves.” For Sikelianos, the collage provides the formal correlative to a story that is determined everywhere by its absences: the absence of a father who has died, the absence of a father when he was alive, and the absence of that father’s stories. The Book of Jon is beautifully and scrupulously written, and like many of the grand collages of the past century, it acknowledges that human experience is by definition partial, fragmentary, and riddled with obfuscations, as is the art that most faithfully reflects it.
Mark Nowak’s Shut Up Shut Down, while less lyrical than Sikelianos’s book, suggests new uses for the collage. Nowak uses the form here not to expose gaps but to fill them in, not to mourn absences but to show that they are often illusory. Like a skilled conspiracy theorist, Nowak joins together voices that are usually torn apart and offers a searing indictment of contemporary corporate and governmental structures and deeds. Nowak’s project is more overtly ethical than Sikelianos’s, and its ethics are more public than private, so there is very little Nowak in these collage-pieces, except as arranger or DJ and perhaps as the occasional, anonymous “I.”
Nowak comes from a working-class family in Buffalo, New York, a once-thriving lake city that now features such conspicuous ruins as the long-abandoned art-deco Buffalo Central Terminal, across from which Nowak grew up. (Nowak’s first book of poems, Revenants, features on its cover a photograph of a concrete and metal sculpture once outside the terminal. Titled Progress, the sculpture has since fallen apart.) Nowak’s formal passions are experimental, and the passions that drive his poems’ content are not the leaves of grass so much as their roots. He wears the hat of a labor organizer—among his many—and Shut Up Shut Down testifies to his working-class anger at those who hold power, whether that power is economic or linguistic.
The poem that most explicitly joins Nowak’s poetic and social concerns, “Capitalization,” comprises 17 parts and, like other poems in the book, an extensive list of works cited. The word “capital” is a flag; one thinks of capitalism and its primary critic, Karl Marx, and one thinks equally of letters, the capitalization of which proceeds according to a set of regulations. And so, ultimately, one thinks about authority, its uses and abuses. The first section of “Capitalization” thus begins with language taken from Margaret Shertzer’s The Elements of Grammar, published in 1986, toward the end of the Reagan administration and its ironic project of “de-regulation”:
Capitalize the first word
of every sentence, whether or not
it is a complete sentence.
Capitalize the first word of every line
Nowak is obviously not endorsing these rules (his own lines violate them), nor will he bend to the reader’s expectations: rather than presenting a gap or visual pause in the text for the reader to fill, Nowak cuts immediately to a boldfaced quote from a worker:
I started work
on an assembly line
at the huge Westinghouse plant
in East Pittsburgh when I was sixteen.
The work was dull and repetitive.
The movement of this first section enacts the poetics of the book as a whole: the grammar text is followed by the worker’s words, written to follow “good grammar.” Those words are followed in turn by a statement that Ronald Reagan served as host for General Electric Theater, then more on capitalization in English poetry, a brief comment that Reagan once played an FBI agent who infiltrated communist organizations, another sentence from the worker, a grammar aid to addressing one’s parents, a description of Reagan’s tours of GE factories and his attacks on “The swiftly rising tide / of collectivism that threatens to inundate / what remains of our free economy,” and then the worker again, now describing his efforts to fantasize himself somewhere other than at his dull job. (That Reagan could so easily equate “collectivism” with “communism” testifies to a categorical discrediting of unions, and one that he would ultimately put into action.)
“Capitalization” is concerned primarily with how Reagan, shortly after taking office, fired 12,000 striking air-traffic controllers, destroying their union:
Any doubt remaining as to
the Reagan Administration’s attitude
toward those who dared to defy it
was erased in March 1982.
Several lines after this passage, the poem cuts to a worker’s voice, again in bold—a typographical feature that by now has become an emblem of anger, pity, and helplessness in the face of governmental action:
One time I was organizing the union.
Next I was selling eggs.
How did that happen?
With Shut Up Shut Down, Nowak democratizes the collage, a form perhaps better known for its elite practitioners, such as Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and even Williams, than for its proletarian ones, such as Louis Zukofsky. But as he does so, Nowak shuts the door on the reader (goes on strike against the corporate consumer?), who has come to expect that with the collage come gaps, holes, and places in which to roam. Nowak might suggest that these holes, like every feature of contemporary art and culture, have themselves become commodified, that they no longer offer the reader the kind of freedom advocated by radically democratic poets from Walt Whitman to Ron Silliman. Nowak has shut the collage down in order to show ways in which workers have been shut up by the voices of authority that ordinarily speak over them. Here they speak right next to each other, abolishing the distance between the regulatory systems—both governmental and grammatical—and the lives that they would rule.
Throughout its century of use as a poetic form the collage has proven itself to be capacious enough to accommodate almost any material the author sees fit to include, and these two recent examples of the genre remind us how open the form is to diverse objectives. From the complex, elegiac portraiture of The Book of Jon to the many-voiced political work of Shut Up Shut Down, the possibilities for the collage show no signs of exhaustion. The collage might be said to have its origin in the classical cento (Latin for “patchwork”), a poem composed entirely of borrowed lines and passages, and its future may lie, in part, in the use of information technologies: recent books by such poets as Juliana Spahr and K. Silem Mohammad manipulate Google’s information glut in different ways to construct bitter, tender collages. In the hands of poets, search engines, like histories public and private, can be springboards to beauty, truth, and whatever else is out there.
Susan M. Schultz is a professor of English at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her most recent books are And Then Something Happened and A Poetics of Impassse in Modern and Contemporary Poetry.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
In her new book, Danish poet Olga Ravn writes with open love, pity, and compassion for her strange yet familiar creations.
Draconian individual punishment distracts from systemic change and reinforces the cruelest and most racist system of incarceration on the planet.
Our well-being depends on a better understanding of how the logic of labor has twisted our relationship with pleasure.