Sunday, August 16, 2009

Janet Holmes: The Ms of My Kin

The Ms of My Kin, Janet Holmes (Shearsman, 2009)

I’d begun to get intimations that Ronald Johnson’s technique in erasing swatches of Paradise Lost to make his own Radi Os was, 30 years on, beginning to get picked up as a viable, repeatable compositional technique, rather than a one-off tour de force. But Holmes’s Ms of My Kin, an “erasure” of 2 years’-worth of The Poems of Emily Dickinson, is the 1st full-length volume of such work, post-Johnson, I’ve encountered.

Holmes gives the technique a twist: where Johnson’s erasure of Milton, much like Zukofsky’s earlier slice-up in “A”-14, ends up producing a series of highly disjunctive, vividly fragmentary poems that fit snugly within Johnson’s already established obsessions with light, the eye, natural processes, etc., Holme’s provides a final note linking her own Dickinson excavations (pointedly, from poems composed over the first two years of the Civil War) with the World Trade Center attacks, the invasion of Afghanistan, & the debacle in Iraq – IEDs, Abu Graib, Guantanamo, the whole blood-boltered business.

The project, then, becomes a series of dramatic monologues spoken by various figures of the last 8 years, from Al Qaeda terrorists to American torturers to Bush himself, & by a voice one might identify with the poet herself – alternatively angry, bewildered, & despairing at the Republic’s mad wrong turnings. There’s a tension here that sits uneasily with me: where Radi Os was composed (like Blake’s illuminated books or Tom Phillips’s Humument) on the level of the page, the page as icon, as it were, Holmes tends to run her discourse from page to page, at the same time preserving the line positions of the often solitary remaining words. It feels, at times, as though Dickinson has become a resource within which the words for preëxisting statements have been found, rather than a text within which new & unexpected poems have been discovered.

Perhaps that’s just a function of my saturation in Johnson; probably, I need to live with Holmes's book a bit longer to get used to her particular take on the poetics of erasure. But at any rate, I can say right now that the poems of The Ms of My Kin are powerful, sometimes funny, & often very moving.



Jere Hodges said...

If only one had the bankroll necessary to build a bookshelf with all of these tomes of literary significance...

I can tell you - even sitting far on the right side of the aisle, this "book report(?)" sets an intrigue for me as to the whole of Ms. Holmes' collection.

Vance Maverick said...

What do you make of Cage's "Writing Through..." pieces? On first blush, they would seem to go even further in treating the sources as mere raw material, and yet (the sort of "paradox" characteristic of Cage) their effect is sometimes more openly "about" the source works than are Johnson, Phillips, Zukofsky, Holmes.

Susan M. Schultz said...

Yes, you might want to disengage the process of erasure from Ronald Johnson, the particular poet. On the other hand, to what extent could he claim ownership of his and our erasers?

Mark Scroggins said...

That's the problem (for me at least) -- I identify the erasure thang so deeply with RJ that Cage's own in some ways rather more interesting procedures hadn't even crossed my mind.

I must say tho that Holmes's book is for me inescapably Johnsonian, & I think the locus of that is the decision to preserve page positions of the remaining words. A rough typology for me: erasing others' words while preserving spacing: Johnsonian; erasing others' words & doing anything else (mesostics, word-count lines [LZ]): not Johnsonian.

Vance Maverick said...

No doubt the analogy to the erasure of e.g. Sappho by time and abuse of papyrus has been drawn before.