It is easy to scrap the effort it takes to speak about the intensely complicated ethics of museum culture. Every object in a museum “comes” from a source place; most often the objects have been taken, and their home cultural context has been subsequently imperilled. The artifact accession process, subsumed in hyperattentive procedures of classification and conservation, is equally and ongoingly evidence of the subjugating relations of cultural dispossession.
At the same time, museum collections become a sanctuary, of signs and stories that may replenish cultural identity for subjects trying to fill in information and identification that has gone generationally untransmitted, and that may teach history and continually redefine history to everyone who visits. As a second generation immigrant, I know the gaps in my own heritage that resulted from erased historical narrative. I wanted to be able to go to a graveyard in my grandmother’s Greek village, see the tombstones, decode the foreign alphabet for sparse but incontrovertible traces of my own meaning; I did that; it meant a lot. I also want to be able to take account of the history of inhabitation and dispossession that relates to my own life narrative, to become engaged in a reconciliation process as a settler.
Until I read Jordan Abel’s The Place of Scraps, I did not have a concept of the Indigenous totem pole as funerary marker, usually orchestrated by a son or nephew on the passing of a male elder. It seems obvious to me, now, that these brilliantly complex sculptural works were erected on a particular place, to stand memorially for a specific ancestor, and to project both testimony and protection. But I had never really understood that. Abel’s book placed in me a scrap torn across violent erasures. Here I’m owning something about a book—written by an Indigenous poet about his own reconciliation of historical inequities and dismemberments—that easily could be said to require of my settler privilege a personal silence.
But instead, I assert a listening: Take the pole out of its home environment, tear its roots from the site of memory. Even if there is no one there, even if you find it in ruins, you are raiding a graveyard; you are wrong to do it.
If every text is seen as a multidirectional collage or aggregate of words whose deep field can be read at various axes or scrims, then every text releases its material to infinite recombinatory “takes.” What each reader takes from a text is also a flighty heist. We cut up a text when it is too long or idea-girthy for immediate consumption, absorption, and interpretation; we partition a text for later; each of us steals away with meaning. We can return to a text and steal again, steal better. Now, reverse this. See every text flying from this unsettled and unsettling condition of continual movement into what gets seen as its “place.” Each poem can be regarded as a screen-grab of textual material time-snapped out of the continual de/compositional potentiality of writing.
The neutrality of the expository meaning-pillage practice above fails to mention subversion and recuperation as motives, however. M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! is an example of contemporary poetry that takes a colonizer’s text and puts its contents to use under the redistributive textual pressures of redaction and erasure toward ethical reconciliation. The historical denotations of a white British lawyer are parsed, scraped, and dispersed to spore new testimonial empathies for dismembered, now remembered, subjectivities.
Jordan Abel’s The Place of Scraps is an enormously successful embarkation into this enlivening terrain of post-colonial erasure-recuperative installation poem-text. For, if approaching personal ancestral documentary information about a primarily oral culture from a place of lack and silence, even imperial ethnographic texts that describe the ancestral Indigenous cultural history with text and images may become an indispensable entry platform. Though these problematic texts may be appropriations so broken they must be rejected, it is in this vista of waste that someone may glean indispensable identification and narrative. To see where such reclaimed scraps exist as an inhabitable nonplace is to revoke their status as scraps, and to configure a portal for and place of subjectivity.
Start there, then, with this engaging book. Nisga’a writer Jordan Abel blogs about how he read Quebecois cultural anthropologist Marius Barbeau for years, over and over, gleaning images and stories about his own Nation. Step into prosaic excerpts from Barbeau’s 1950 ethnographic descriptions and definitions of Nisga’a totem poles—hewn from decades of onsite fieldwork—and consider Abel’s many poetic snatches-back and/or moves-forward that erect critical plunderverse re-tellings, for example, how the poem—
without feeling a tremor
—is derived through a textual parsing from a prose paragraph where Barbeau describes having the gargantuan totem pole sliced in three segments and moved to Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum.
If you don’t know Barbeau, as I didn’t, you can research him in-depth online, and read his extraordinary autobiographical comments about his childhood, refusal of an uncritical Catholicism, his education at Oxford, and many vanguard years of fieldwork among many Indigenous communities. Yes, he appears to exemplify the self-entitlement and colonialism of nineteenth and twentieth-century anthropologists. He also lived closely among numerous Indigenous peoples, received countless stories and songs, translated and transcribed oral material, and took thousands of photographs, attempting to produce in his own generational context a radical cross-cultural path for present and future scholars and laypeople. Abel speaks about this duality in his comments about working with Barbeau’s texts as an inevitable fonds that he could then excavate, revisit, and inflect with rereadings. He could keep bugging the text; stinging and puncturing it; he could see a cloud of released transfers, a quite literal transubstantiation of trying to know differently.
Abel’s book is built of a rhythm of text alternated with photographic images taken from the Barbeau fonds and in some cases, as the book progresses, interfered with and printed over with alphabetic shavings hewn in the process of redacting paragraphs of Barbeau’s texts about encountering the totem poles and his essays at representing their cultural meanings. As Abel’s visual and poetic sequence deconstructing Barbeau continues, he inserts new dated prose segments that seem to stand as the poet’s (ostensibly own) narrative (though relayed in the third person, “the poet”) of ambivalent encounter with one of the totem poles at the Royal Ontario Museum, followed by segments that explore “the poet’s” subsequent process of inquiring into his own cultural identification. I’m not sure the remoteness and objectivity of the third-person stance works (for me) across the text, although critical disidentification is indeed a mode of keeping ownership at bay, and highlighting the theme of possession and dispossession. I’m imagining the possible alternative effect of a subject such as “Whoever I am” in place of “The Poet” – perhaps I just find the stable demarcation around “the poet” unconvincing, not scrappy enough, not fringed and contingent enough, for the tears and pulls of questioning Abel is exerting so well. At any rate there is a formal contour given to the explorer, in this case the poet figure, that matches a cutout version of the anthropologist – an equation of subjectivity with cultural work identity.
One of the design decisions implemented throughout the all-matte pulp-paper book is to print image and text matter on the right hand pages only, leaving all left hand pages blank. This is a spatial exuberance that continually reminds of the industry-wide fill-it-up fixation on the recto-verso book as an economy-class delivery protocol. I love that Talonbooks geared up to carry this text as a rhythmic series of discreet pieces that each earns its own “place” even as it can be “read” – in flip-book fashion – as a sped-up excursion through the protracting vista of a transformative thought process. It allows the entire work to be considered as an object, visually and conceptually, and brings a notion of luxuriant value to the process of post-colonial critical inquiry into history’s cargo: it is both a discouragingly slow and dizzyingly fast process, an excavation and a sea-change.
To take this further, when you thumb-riffle the whole book it evokes the flipping of winglift; a sonic tonic, a physical pleasure, and imaginatively an invocation of the featherspan energy of the totemic bird/dragonfly/mosquito image that so girds and guards the book. That “riffle” or “ruffle” is a kinetic resonance that also is produced through some of Abel’s plunderverses where lifted fragments are repeated and multiply off-/overprinted in a way that blurs the legibility of the textual units, creating a shivering presence that brings the defunct or excised time-stopped text-“scrap” into its motional continuum, in effect, making it fly off the page toward sensational affect. These involvements of the reader’s bodymind are invitations to experience the text as infusion rather than obligation. I really, really like these innovations which also ask incredibly interesting questions about how page poetry can be spurred to indicate and perform language’s physical and oral vivacity and ephemerality.
These aspects of movement arise from Abel’s very canny operation of vispoetic image-text relations to scoop the book’s object identity into three-dimensional reading effects. Throughout, the textual poetics being performed by Abel are strongly concrete, starting with restrictive centred extracts that reference non-Indigenous concepts of community land gridded into real estate, text blocks which Abel’s alphabetic redactive rewritings gradually lift to a cloud or swirl of sonic matter – restoring oral fluidity to textual fixity. The final text-only segment (2b) presents aphoristic extracts—or scraps—from texts on cultural imperialism and critical theory lineated with four very short lines and three longer lines, to stud each page of the sequence with a small text cipher whose form echoes the totem-pole wing-figure, made static like a photograph of a flag waving its own claim to truth and stability. An example:
Here, science isn’t just essential, but the trumpet
of legitimation. All of the effects of truth
converge on the crucial issues of idealism,
All the agents
Once we see the sequence in this compact form, however, we also recognize that these little poems are re-presentations of material presented first in an earlier section in the “framing margins” wrapping the corners of some of the Barbeau prose-block redactions. Abel is very cannily eliding Indigenous symbolic morphology and postmodern textual gaminess to raise questions of how symbolic knowledge systems, both sculptural and textual, “install” knowledge relations in bits. Every act of representation fragments and isolates, and creates a hierarchized economy of competing claims. Framing must be made explicit, instead of transparent, in order to uncouple and release interpretation procedures to their mystical multiplicities. Abel offers numerous ways to bring this colossal challenge into the symbolic order. In fact, this is a book that can assist in an organic decompositional journey of cognitive dissonance and resonance, to shred and shed language toward sound and song, which could be considered the primary questions poetry has to offer.
Space is another of poetry’s big wrestles, our capacity to be succinct and compressed, our self-impugning refusal to stay in the minimum-wage bargain. I have tried to re/view this book with the attention it deserves, and tried to resist the critical efficiency protocol that requires me to sum up a complex work with one or two authoritative sentences that claim to identify first what the book is and what it does. Jordan Abel has moved a poetics of erasure into an inventive and deeply unsettling, stir-it-up interdisciplinary modality. Its dozens of early- to mid-20th century black-and-white image plates and repeated line drawing versions of the totem pole figure remind us that we have to keep looking at the object’s towering alterity. Like a tombstone or the echo of thunder, it refers to relations clamorously beyond the present moment of interpretation and sensation. The book Abel has created rightly assumes rereading and rewriting as forms of engagement that, despite keeping us fixed in our gaze on certain source “realities,” also stimulates a widely involving circular attentive field, one that cycles and envelops and draws thought into e/motion, history into conscience, and poetry into spiritual and ethical questions that are very, very difficult to hold in words. This is a book about sound rising around.
A Canadian worker in the field of letters, Margaret Christakos‘s most recent poetry collection is Multitudes, from Coach House, 2013.
CUTTING EDGE CRITICISM: SEE AROUND THE CORNER/BEYOND THE ARC.