Reviewed April 27, 2012 by Michael Leong.
Described as a “travelogue in 11 cantos” by Flim Forum’s press release materials and, alternately, as a “text-sound epic” (in the book’s concluding notes), Jennifer Karmin’s wonderfully eccentric debut volume provocatively yokes together a pair of unlikely genres. Epic, at least since Aristotle, has been traditionally considered the pinnacle of literary expression while the travelogue has often been marginalized as a quasi-literary, unambitious, and even ideologically suspect sub-genre. Paul Fussell, for example, in his study Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars, bluntly suggests that travel writing has attracted “second-rate talents,” and Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan, in their more recent Tourists with Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing, remark that the genre is “seen by some as essentially frivolous or even morally dangerous.”1 By linking one of the most esteemed literary genres with one of the most maligned (and—I would add—misunderstood), Karmin is asking us to radically rethink conventional and enduring notions of generic prestige. Moreover, she is drawing on the specific capacities of both genres to forge what Charles Bernstein aptly calls (in his blurb of the book) a poetry of “public address and private insistence.” Travel writing, which enables a special purchase on the relational dynamic between subject and object, the familiar and the foreign, the “I” and the “other,” seems to be the other of the epic, which so often embodies a “tale of the tribe,” a nation’s understanding of its own past history. If, schematically speaking, travel writing is a private and personal account of new cultural surroundings, and if the epic collectively expresses and defines one’s shared culture, Karmin’s work, then, explores how we can negotiate and absorb micro-experiences of strangeness and newness in an iterable and public form without domesticating such experiences in favor of a conservative cultural legibility. In short, aaaaaaaaaaalice is an inventive and formally daring book for our global age; it redefines (and re-genders) areté (heroic capability)—a defining hallmark of classical epic—to include how one ethically engages with foreignness.
Inspired by an extended stay in Japan and “a three month solo journey through Taiwan, China, Tibet, Mongolia, Siberia, and Russia,” aaaaaaaaaaalice describes, among other things, a fragmentary, anti-expository sojourn that begins somewhere in the Western United States (early on, there are references to “cowboy boots,” “reno,” and “greenriver [UT],” which is apparently “the watermelon / capital of the world”). There is a rapid, metonymic sketch of the airport through the found language of signage (“beware / bags look / alike // all seats / bookable / in advance”) and, by the third canto, we are off in Asia.
Each canto of aaaaaaaaaaalice—except for the last one, “Stutter”—consists of three doublespreads that employ a regular and highly effective visuo-formal structure. The text on the left-hand side of the page presents short, sculptural lines in roman font that make up the “travelogue” proper. These stanzas, whether descriptive or reflective, are framed by an excerpted phrase from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which acts, paratextually, as an aphoristic caption or epigraph. Often such boldface captions/epigraphs function meta-poetically (in this case, reflecting on their own collaged nature): “some of the words have got altered” (this one comes from the canto called “Handful”). To give a sense of Karmin’s creative use of the page as a compositional unit, here is a typographic approximation of a typical verso:
The present participles above (“riding,” “eating,” “whistling,” etc.) indicate a simultaneity of actions along with a multiplicity of active subjects—a sharp contrast to the present tense verbs which are deliberately unmoored from their grammatical subject (“[I] try to answer,” “ [I] sit still”). Because Karmin so insistently elides the “I” of the first-person (indeed, throughout her long poem, she often substitutes the second for the first person, placing the reader in her stead), she shifts attention away from the solidity or stable location of the observer toward the plenitude and dynamism of the witnessed scene. In the passage above, the observed field seems so captivating and so teeming with motion that the “I,” pleasantly saturated with stimuli, almost elects not to record it. The collaged bits in bold—the phrase “the best way to explain it is to do it” comes from Chapter III of Alice in which Dodo attempts to explain to Alice the idea of a “Caucus-race”—seem, like these stanzas, to privilege action rather than language, doing rather discourse. Why try to explain riding a bicycle with an umbrella and ice cream when one can do it? Yet ultimately, these pairs are false binaries and Karmin cannily understands that writing is a kind of action and action is a kind of writing (as shaking fortune sticks can “write” good luck). Indeed, the juxtaposition of collaged texts allows an alternative and suggestive reading: “to write / it / is to do it.”
On the right-hand side of the page, Karmin scatters phrases from a substitution exercise from a textbook called Beginning Japanese Part 2 in an open field composition. Here is the recto, which faces the “red umbrella” passage above:
Linguistic intelligibility, of course, is crucial to any global citizen or international traveler and this key textual element gets at the pathos of language acquisition and basic intercultural communication (elsewhere, Karmin describes “a young chinese / couple” on a train studying a phrase book, acquiring the “secret of / communication”). In these sections, Karmin quite deftly orchestrates and defamiliarizes a rudimentary lexicon for clever conceptual/poetic ends. The passage above traces the process/progress of particles of language combining and substituting until they crystallize at the bottom of the page in a small, haiku-like stanza. To consider the passage in such a teleological manner, while deemphasizing language’s chaotic and unruly energies, highlights the significance of the last phrase: “it’s / our / room.” This should be made even clearer if we consider the source text, Beginning Japanese Part 2, which Karmin cites in the book’s endnotes:
We can see that Karmin omitted a few items from the original text (“a ¥ 2000 room,” “a room with bath”) and added one (“it’s a clean / room”), but what is most striking in this comparison is the fact that, in adapting an elementary substitution exercise, Karmin performed a key substitution of her own: the replacement of “my” with “our.” This pronominal shift is a viable synecdoche for Karmin’s overall poetics and illustrates what Bernstein (again in his blurb) calls her “openness and generosity.” Karmin is resolutely concerned with poetry’s social and collective functions and her appropriations of this language acquisition textbook show that language, itself, is a significant social armature of community. aaaaaaaaaaalice, which forms an interesting bridge between literary and oral epics, is a performance score as well as a book of poetry—extending the rich tradition of Jackson MacLow. According to the book’s notes, “These poems are a word score for polyvocal improvisation. Performers are encouraged to equate the style of each text with imagined tones, rhythms, voices, etc. Any number of performers may participate and any number of pages may be used.” The text, in other words, is a collective one, a participatory one that operates under the sign of the first-person plural: it is, says Karmin, our text to use. 3
On November 8, 2010, Karmin gave a reading of aaaaaaaaaaalice at the Poetry Project in New York’s East Village and had invited me along with Cara Benson, Claire Donato, Thom Donovan, Curtis Jensen, Pierre Joris, and Ronaldo V. Wilson to help her perform the polyvocal score. She read the text in roman font from the verso side of the book while Benson read and repeated the boldface text; simultaneously, the rest of the readers, in a rotating fashion, read the italicized text on the recto.
It was an electric experience to be part of this shifting, multi-textured, and unpredictable sonic performance which included the overlap of both convex and concave acoustic spaces. 4 It was, as David Antin might call it, a “negotiation in a common space.” I had read the italicized text from the canto called “Oranges,” including the passage above (beginning with the phrase “it’s / a large / room.”) When I got to that last line—“it’s / our / room”—speaking among a diverse group of other speaking and listening bodies, it felt like I was aptly, if momentarily, describing the collectivity taking place in the Parish Hall of St. Mark’s Church: St. Mark’s Church as sonic wonderland.
“What a curious feeling!” said Alice; “I must be shutting up like a telescope.”
Crucial to the travelogue—as well as to some epics like The Odyssey—is the journey home, the nostos, whether it is back to Ithaca, New York or Ithaka, Greece. How does aaaaaaaaaaalice manage this topos? This is a passage from the final canto, “Stutter” (the title of any given canto repeats a word found in the previous canto, making aaaaaaaaaaalice, much like a set of matryoshka dolls, an interlocking structure):
Home, here, is imagined as not a particular place but as a nested structure that can potentially expand ever outward (or inward). aaaaaaaaaaalice, in this sense, is a post-national epic, a travelogue without closure. I had mentioned above that “Stutter” breaks away from the pattern of three doublespreads with a regularized verso and recto format, and, throughout “Stutter’s” five doublespreads, a typical verso expands and constitutes a doublespread in itself (as does a recto) and the font surprisingly begins increasing in size. Reading the last doublespread (the large text jumps the book’s gutter from left to right), one gets the feeling that one is entering, like Alice, a domain of different proportions—as if another, wondrous journey lay ahead.
1Paul Fussell, Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars (New York: Oxford Univeresity Press, 1982), p. 212. Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan, Tourists with Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), p. vii. Scholars have tended to ignore the role poetry plays in the formation of travel writing—a fact that needs to be redressed, particularly in light of the continuing popularity and relevance of documentary poetry and other mixed genres which place poetry and non-fiction in close proximity.
2Eleanor Harz Jorden and Hamako Ito Chaplin, Beginning Japanese Part 2 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), p. 15.
3It is worth mentioning that aaaaaaaaaaalice, defined in this way, challenges Mikhail Bakhtin’s famous characterization of the epic as “monologic.” See his essay “Epic and Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).
4On the “convex” and “concave,” see Charles Bernstein, ed., Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 11.
Michael Leong is the author of two books of poetry: e.s.p. (Silenced Press, 2009) and Cutting Time with a Knife (Black Square Editions, forthcoming), which won a 2012 FACE OUT grant from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses.