The Evacuated Forest Papers
Buck Downs Books, P.O. Box 50376, Washington, DC 20091, 1999, $10.95. [Order from SPD]
"A Fable of the Evacuated City," "A Dream of the Evacuated Body," "A History of the Evacuated Forest." Is there a better index to this decade? These subheads to the three sections in Jeff Conant's new book seem to embody all that is alluring and terrifying in our world of epic mythologies and forced absences or disappearances. This is fertile turf for magical realism, romance, and metaphor, yet The Evacuated Forest Papers introduces a language that is beyond such devices, a language that closes the gap between the fantastic and the literal. Conant's book is an artifact of language that has percolated from the unconscionable and peculiar but that also has built up its own defenses. Here you won't find a shell of a language buffeted by strident cynicism and booby-trapped wit. Instead, you find the traces of brutality coinciding with guileless lucidity and possibility of the sort prevalent in Conant's earlier work: "birds/ rush in/ where armies fear to tread" (Broken Monkeys, WOOF/ Pyramid Atlantic, 1994).
Papers is dedicated in memory to Trinidad Cruz Pérez, a Zapatista campesino, and the poet Daniel Davidson, and is foregrounded in the ongoing Zapatista human rights movement in Chiapas: "the national guard surrounds the city." It is in the context of this movement and the suppression of the Mayan-Mexican people that Papers cycles through the conflation of metaphor and the literal:
I step in the river once, see skeletons,
and cry people. She said the slaughter
Of my people is no small price to pay for
Centuries of goods at Bergdorf's.
Early in Conant's book, we learn to recognize a poetry-based reportage scoured clean of the propaganda and PR that has made us wary of all we see and hear; we learn not to doubt the given language. We understand that the speaker steps in a river and sees skeletons. Later, Conant again evokes the updated Heraclitus: "I step in the river once, point to it,/ and say 'this'. I'm living proof." The speaker is, literally, living proofevidence of survival but also of the power of the resuscitated, revamped cliché and of the overturned, burned-out vehicles of metaphor.
The middle section of Papers, "Blood Canal," exemplifies the stamina of the literal in Conant's work. Conant has placed in this section a series of meditations on various parts, organs, fluids, and functions of the body. Though ostensibly informed by a study of anatomy and medicine, these meditations are not mere textbook renderings; rather, they are indices to external forces that invade or violate the (evacuated) body or to the body hanging in the balance of its own fragility. These lyrics do not directly reference specific atrocity or disease, but Conant builds into each lyric a certain degree of silence and expectation that betray an unknown mitigating force. Take for instance the three well-broken lines of "Trapezius," which resonates with uncanny possibility: "The trapezius is a muscle/ holding the neck/ up."
Intersecting Conant's engagement with the singular potency of the literal is a persistent concern with memory and memories. This concern in Papers points back to Conant's previous book A Valuable Trunk of Leaves, a handmade book from Buck Downs Books that can be folded, and therefore read, in various ways. In Leaves, Conant writes, "Is a memory a mist in a carriage./ Is a winter? ... A memory is a feast of thinking." The book is a self-conscious combination and recombination of metaphors, a slippage of referents, an earnest experiment to produce "a memory." This impulse is further articulated in Papers:
Before something there was nothing;
Now there still is nothing
a lot of meetings, brief but spritely with
Cocktail chatter, animal mating, moonlight
on mirrors. Nothing really happens:
History burns like thoughtless food.
Prolonged contact with skin may cause cancer.
No wonder 99% of everyone is extinct.
This is a production of memory and a naming of facts that evade a simple narrative thread. Here, a synthesis of memories, nothings, and observations spins out the force of "something" without a need to get personal or graphic or use a heavy hand. There is a deadpan poignancy that emerges from this collage of language, despite its aphoristic tone, and Conant sustains that poignancy, which is ultimately an intensive caretaking of the language, throughout the book. Conant's spinning out of the gravity of the circumstances in which human beings live, work, and resist captures many registers of images and aphorisms, including the hardest of images, without abandoning humanity:
It's possible that the tenderest garbage
builds a wall strong as the morning sky
and the village wakes
to find itself strangled by night,
The "inconceivable" could easily fuel a sort of psychically numb poetry, a poetry of closure and administered language. Conant, however, takes pains to maintain a dynamicism in the work by striking a balance between the dead and living, the intellectual and precognitive or intuitive, the hopeless and boundless. Papers is a poetry of intellectual curiosities and quirks ("When the brick wall between 'oppressor' and / 'petunia' is worth noticing, it is/ set in opal as a fly in amber"), yet it also is invested in straightforward, personal regenerative gestures:
And the alive,
ahunted, unite against the eternal present,
mourning to make themselves hard as jewels,
and I love them.
Such is the honest, arresting candor of Papers, in which articulation out of extremity is experiment but also a reconstitution of language shell-shocked by, among other things, the overwriting of "witness" and new deterministic veins of confessionalism we have seen flourish in this decade. The simplest gestures of Conant's work become new and bold in their context. This is part of the ingenuity of Conant's writing in Papers and in other works, including Breathing Problems (WHUT/ e.g., 1991):
... for the free fireworks
there is a load of labor; lyme disease
may spread by rote, by rail, or
by revealing itself as a cleansing plague,
sweeping demagogues in domicile.
the leaf is best buried, the laugh is best borne.
Conant is acutely aware of the necessity of documentation but also of maintaining an inventive rigor and technical awe; the cumulative effect of his lines is instructive as well as, again, magic as much as they are real. Papers is a careful and generous guidebook to this conjunction. It even includes Greg Fuchs' excellent photos to help orient you in the evacuated forest. The cover photo is particularly hauntingare the three branches lashed together with duct tape a sign of a friendly encampment, a makeshift camera tripod, a hobo's sign, or something we already are numb to? And, of course, like every good guidebook, Papers comes with a warning: "Don't let the landscape fool you./ It's not as docile as it seems."
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