In Ruins as in Aesthetics,
It’s Not What You Take Away But What You Leave Behind
Key West Poet Laureate
In Jonathan Schipper’s sculpture, “To Dust,” two statues are suspended from a mechanism that causes the pieces to gently grind against, and thus, transform one another: “The sculptures will slide against one another for many years creating new unimagined forms.” But I’m trying to imagine these unimagined forms; I’m trying to visualize how the faces will nick each other and wear smooth, carving out space and refilling it with their altered shapes—but only after their touching bent knees are chiseled down by their soughing. I’m imagining a time-lapse recording of this ongoing event, condensed into a gesture—like those black and white mini films of vegetation rising from the depths of the soil and unfurling into a bloom in the air. And I’m thinking of the siftings, as statue pumices statue, of powder collecting below their rubbing weights, like a shadow. I’m consumed with how stone will dwindle stone, how one form will gracefully destroy the other.
When I set out to write this column, I wasn’t thinking of destruction as much as I was thinking of deconstruction and the process of revision, specifically, in relation to the erasure poem. “An erasure poem is a form [of poetry] in which an artist redacts a pre-existing text…leaving a few words visible, that together form a new message,” (Rachel Kraus). When we encounter an erasure poem, we immediately imagine the process because it is blatantly inseparable from the end result. It is the catharsis of extracting text from text, or a taking out of context. It is a way of seeing not only the trees through the forest, but also of glimpsing a cardinal tucked among the boughs. Mary Ruefle has a book called “A Little White Shadow,” in which she uses White-Out to eliminate chunks of text. The effect is heartbreaking—like entering a recently vacated house in which a few items still remain, left behind. The poet Jenni B. Baker’s project “Erasing Infinite,” on the other hand, creates airy erasures from David Foster Wallace’s famous novel “Infinite Jest.”
Using White-Out or correction fluid to, in effect, create more white space (on the page) visually and cognitively affects the observer in a different way than if the text were blacked out. When we see blacked out text, we are more apt to think censorship and not erasure. We think of classified information purposefully struck from documents. In this way, the erasure poem readily embodies the political. Perhaps the most significant use of erasure poetry lately is the work of poet Isobel O’Hare. O’Hare has utilized erasure in the very political manner of exploiting the embedded language used by celebrity sexual predators (including Louis C.K., Harvey Weinstein, and Kevin Spacey) in their misconduct apologies. The texts take on unimagined new forms, and in doing so, reclaim voice on behalf of the victims by exposing the menace, threat, and entitlement lurking in the language.
The erasure poem’s magic arises out of what has been left behind, but also in the leaving. The visual reminder of what has been excised, the vanishment, is as intricate to the text as the remaining words themselves. Is the slow erosion process of classic Greek hunter and huntress more pleasing than the end result—two forms unrecognizable and faceless as bars of soap left too long in the shower? When do we cross into the uncanny valley—when the statues are half-surface, half-face? Or is the stones’ true nature revealed to us in this stripping down of artifice—have we arrived at the essence of the thing? As I’m writing this, a stick of incense burns. The smoke swirls and ballets from the day-glow orange ember. A cylinder of ash accumulates atop the ember until it collapses under its own weight, then again begins its gravity defying piling until ash cascades down, the softest of avalanches, and dirties the blue dish the incense burner rests upon. The pleasure of the incense is in its burning, its destruction; in a similar fashion, in order to make perfume, one must first annihilate the petal.