March 2012

Lightsey Darst

poetry

Slot by Jill Magi

How then are we to remember? 9/11 was over ten years ago. When it happened, we stopped at work or in our homes to watch death come to others; we tried to understand it, we were jarred deeply, we thought things would be different after. But when the anniversary came last year, for most of us it was merely another day, a pale memory of something that happened to someone else.

This cannot be allowed. Good people and governments insist that we hold this and other traumas close; memorials must be carefully planned to cradle reaction.

We'll call them Experience Stages. Documentary Zones. Semi-enclosed spaces.
Parental guidance areas so that families, according to their children, can edit....
We'll call them contact zones, connective tissue. Quiet alcoves and simple
benches. Interior and exterior gardens from which to escape: refuges.

So one of the many official voices in Jill Magi's Slot proceeds, shaping a space that shapes what emotion can occur:

Windows as tiny slots reveal the outside pillars of this city, its marble columns
that are to be our angels. Everything is vertical.
We have all been to those solemn spaces -- the "Tower of Hope" or "Hall of Commitment" where visitors
sign a statement of personal commitment to the cause, their portrait
is taken, and their faces are added to a video-mosaic of faces that merge and rise
up the tower in an iconic representation of the community of Human Rights
constantly replenishing itself.

We know that this is absurd, that assisting a "runaway slave" during a family outing at Colonial Williamsburg is nothing like being in that history, that if we sign the guestbook "Wonderful exhibit. Clear. Left with a sense of peacefulness" we are honoring nothing but our own dim ability to empathize, as in the exercise in which students

write a class story dealing with a slave who becomes free, using
free-writing to express feelings, fast, without thinking, without crossing out,
and preferably timed.

We have learned that we cannot really feel, cannot know ("Dear Tower of Faces: I know nothing about you / except your collective status as victim"); we're aware of how our society's machines colonize and mobilize memory for war and other more obscure terrors. Despairing amid these dangers, we may be tempted to throw memory away rather than face another

Gallery: versus our body's fluid floor plan
versus a freedom feeling
and twenty-nine lynching photos
on three walls
framed in light Georgia oak.

And yet, as Magi seems to know, these are realities we look back on. It is important to say, "Did you know that the attack on Rosewood was planned and publicized?" because Rosewood was my people, your people, and buried and forgotten for years. Yet how strange it is that we should have to make efforts to remember, when people have remembered without assistance for decades, centuries, a millennium or more (Northern Ireland, Israel). It seems as if, in the era of memorials, our memories are shorter than ever. And perhaps, Magi suggests, that's not coincidence but cause and effect, that "the technology of the fence" forces memory to assemble along official lines or be forever dissipated, that memorials exist to "slot" or "niche" our potentially troublesome emotions, rendering them harmless. Against this Magi, who mostly observes and catalogues, throws up a last startling idea:

            is nothing not touched with generous support, is nothing bound
by the book, carefully a record engraved or in flames
while the world is made by debris, around a table, the cast-off grows,
the cinders --

which I take to mean that the entire action of memorializing occurs in a tiny cleared space surrounded by the actual memorial: the ever-accumulating ash of everything.

But Magi doesn't make a thesis of this; it remains an image, because she's working in poetry. Or working toward poetry: the questioning narrator moves among dream scenes mostly in prose; fragments of instruction or desire that employ white space and occasional line breaks; photographs of buildings, texts, and marks; lists of sources; and the rare italicized, unpunctuated, openly poetic text, which works almost as a sample of the poetry that might be written in relation to national or societal memory. She ponders her method: "Why use poetry?" one dream-figure asks her.

Why use poetry? Because through the breaches and slippages of contemporary poetry Magi and her readers can work free from our massively manipulative institutions, first through little dislocations that point at our usual obedience:

Moving in a group around carefully weeded pathways, flowers and cut shrubs at
our ankles, our focus is on her lacy umbrella, diligently following her pointing,
speech.

Poetry shows and critiques, through something so small as a repeated colon, our desire for purity, for strict emotional boundaries:

Map: my sites of conscience clean --
Poetry seeks a metaphor that can resist simplification:
Some rooms cannot be destroyed, such as quilt or a veil that tosses itself over
camera.

And poetry allows rebel acts of memory, personal, luminous:

            from the tile the paver the sacred the luminous
to gather from his hairbrush the news

The smallness of these acts of memory is their power. Unbound to orthodoxy, they can plead with us ("Come into this night with me, for I am not a good sufferer"), they can be wrong, desperate, impossible ("Unfold the storm keys") -- they can be what memory actually is.

Slot by Jill Magi
Ugly Duckling Presse
ISBN: 978-1933254876
136 pages