The Volta: Friday Feature

WE ARE HERE by Kristen Gallagher. Truck Books, 2011.

cover of WE ARE HERE

Reviewed January 11, 2013 by Hannah Ensor.


insists the first set of open pages, and the next, “WE ARE HERE,” all in caps like that and alone, but big, with the “ARE” flipped upside-down on the verso while “WE” and “HERE” remain upright on the recto, all in white on black paper. Kristen Gallagher’s gorgeous book opens with these textual acrobatics, including an epigraph (from a Facebook update) that word-wraps over the right margin to the left, with little regard for where the words end, in large-print font. The epigraph mentions that “inattention to surroundings” has recently been added to park services’ list of contributing factors to park accidents. This inattention joins “more old-fashioned causes like ‘darkness’ and ‘animals.’”

Gallagher’s WE ARE HERE consists of transcribed conversations—largely navigations, the language of giving and receiving directions, of moving directionally and less-than-directionally through this world—from Gallagher’s outings, with friends, to what she calls (in the note after the text) “‘beautiful’ places.” While the transcribed text is selected, it isn’t particularly fashioned. Like an email from a friend, like a text message sent in a rush, like (well, yes) a transcription of uncrafted but purposeful communication, the words are presented seemingly “as is.” Nothing fancy is done with line breaks, instead we have small-text sans-serif prose blocks with no capitalization or quotation marks; commas and question marks show up only when absolutely essential, instead there are little en-dashes to indicate pause or a shift in speaker, though even who’s speaking doesn’t matter. No titles, no page numbers, no sections. No characters, no declared settings. Most of each page is white space. It’s humble in this way, if humility has anything to do with it.

we just came down from here so we are here and this is that and this is that and that whole thing over there? – is this – i’m pretty sure – wait, but i thought we were coming from here – we are – but then that would be there then – oh – o shit, we did just come over something – it could’ve been that though – do we need to go ummm...

In each block of text, we feel pointing happening: movement, physical worrying of a map—it’s happening and it’s physical, it corresponds to a world that exists and that our speakers are most certainly in. But it’s also not happening: not on the page, at least. Since the transcription is flattened, unannotated (no “this conversation takes place in a small field west of the village on September eighth” inserted in brackets), untitled, unframed, the result is that the commonplace this-s and that-s and there-s and here-s have no antecedents. There’s no one and nowhere: we readers are not in any particular place adjacent to or populated by any other particular places to point to, from, within, toward. It’s not pointing at a place: not for us, at least. If this was once language of function, of achieving an aim, it’s now, in the context of WE ARE HERE, only language.

it would be … there? – mm-hmmm, so i guess we came this way – you wanna try this way? – no, i think we should try your way – i don’t care, i told you i’m always wrong so let’s go this way – yeah sure this way – that looks like there’s a house in the sky

As we might ask of a urinal in the middle of the room (no hoses) or of a stool with a bicycle wheel affixed to its sitting surface (each negating the other’s purpose), of WE ARE HERE’s previously-functional language we can ask: what do we do with language of purpose—especially language like this that had no original aspirations toward aesthetic value—when it is stripped of its function? What does it become if it is no longer the one thing it was uttered to be?

Gallagher, in a note after the text, describes the process of creating this book as going on outings with close friends, recording their conversations, and, when transcribing them, realizing “[w]ithin minutes … that on these trips a great deal of time was spent consulting maps and otherwise orienting oneself—and the language of that was not only interesting but often funny. It had that quality of Perec’s work that I love, his capacity for capturing those things that are so obvious, so ubiquitous, that we don’t notice them. I thought surely this language must be happening all the time.”

so i’m thinking this if – see where we are? – if we go just a little bit further you know that way – yeah so that would be that path – and we go up – and this looks – but those things are never – well you’d be surprised – if this is true which i found it’s been really accurate over the years – it will take us over that water – yep – and then that’s it – yep – so that’s up there – i think it’s right up there maybe

Gallagher’s aligning with Perec is on-point: WE ARE HERE is a gathering of what goes ungathered, and its effect, as Perec’s often is, is a startling familiarity. This text is a lens on society without a slant: there is no moral or social imperative here except to see and experience what we haven’t. This is certainly a project in line with Gallagher’s conceptual forbears: among others, Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloquy.

But even though WE ARE HERE has, in its transcriptive impulse and its interest in executing an idea more so than in creation or expression, its basis in the conceptual, these blocks of text are themselves as much the product as the note behind them is; they are meant to be read—and what’s more, they reward their reader. This is not the stuff of high poetry—indeed, I’m not even sure we are meant to call them “poems”—but in Gallagher’s own words, this is “interesting” language: unexpectedly, even counter-intuitively so:

which way should we walk in – for where – for just general exploration – just get a map and follow the trails, follow the trails – oh yeah? – the trails that go down – ok – that way and then that way – they’ll just take you down – go along, you can walk into the woods – and they’ll just take you there? – over that way or that way or that way to the garden – ok – although watch out there’s a bear – ok, i promise not to sue you if a bear attacks me – so this map is gonna make sense to me when i’m out there? – yep – i just go down? – yep – ok

If indeed it’s “interesting,” where does the interest come from? Sure, the congeniality of the friends’ voices rings in our ears at least once (that joke about the bear attack, I recognize it, I chuckle), which is nice, marked with the gentle ease of a day out with a good friend. But there’s more: Is it the very purposelessness of these previously-purposed words that allows us to see, anew, what we previously haven’t? Is it akin to an invitation to a world that is available to us that we simply never attend to? To listen to the words without the urgency of the imperative? to experience this language? to hear it as it is for once?

you see that yellow thing, that tall yellow like wire like thing going off to the right? you go up there towards that – just follow that – you’ll see when you get there – the street veers off to the right – veers off actually is it a new street there – or i think it just veers off i don’t know but you’ll see when you get there just turn that way

The result of Gallagher’s transcriptions, the result of this aesthetically pleasing small book (it is square, green and orange, filled with clean typography) is a provocative and unexpected aesthetic pleasure. There is something trance-like, quick, magic and normal, about being inside of this voice; this multiplicity of voices; this simple voice like our own is a simple voice; this singular voice that we all have access to. It moves quickly and asks little of us. It is casual and exasperated (when lost) and joyful (when not) and embodied and nowhere and low-stakes (after all, we don’t have to go anywhere). We are in the beautiful place with these people and these directions, minus, of course, the beautiful place and the people.

You can access WE ARE HERE as a free PDF on Truck Books’s website, though you can also order a copy from SPD to hold and move through. You know, like it’s a place.

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Hannah Ensor lives in Tucson, Arizona. Some recent writing of hers can be found in Evening Will Come and at Spork Press.