On Mónica de la Torre’s PUBLIC DOMAIN and Kim Rosenfield’s re: evolution


Mónica with ? and Rosa Alcala

Snow is falling snow on snow here at Pratt Institute, where my classes have finished and I’m impatient to not be here but rather at home working on the plethora of projects that taunt me constantly with their charms. Will there ever be a life that consists solely of working on projects? I think of Peter-in-Mexico’s statement that he is not “a real writer.” What does it mean, indeed, to be “a real writer?” Shouldn’t it be that writing is pretty much all what one is obliged to do? It’s not that I mind my obligations… so much… but I can’t help but wonder what a life would be like devoted entirely to the realization of one’s poesis and techné. One manages to do an awful lot interstitially, but maybe not quite enough to completely form what one dreams of forming. “One.” Well, I mean me. It could be a kind of problem with my internal pacing. If I were only more deliberative and less generative, I could fully realize fewer visions better, but I suppose one can’t wish to be what one is just not. I mean me.

Even if I can’t be fulltime at the business of making stuff, I can still rejoice a little at the lovely pleasure of being surrounded by inventive and brilliant peers, whose very existence and productions serve to make being here on this planet and in this city exciting. There are so many good reasons to be a poet, but one of the best, for me, is the privilege of the company of other poets. How stimulating they are! How pensive! How intricate! And what is more fun than to attend a book party in the middle of the Fabric District, already a kind of heaven for me, celebrating three luminescent stars in the poetry firmament?

The party to which I’m referring was held last Monday upstairs from a Chinese restaurant called Chef Yu, and celebrated new books by Tan Lin, Kim Rosenfield, and Mónica de la Torre. I only had enough money to buy Kim’s and Monica’s books (although I later found out Gary already had the latter in his possession, so it turns out I could have bought at least one of the two Tan was selling, alas), so these are the two I will discuss on this snowy afternoon:

re: evolution Kim Rosenfield Les Figues
Public Domain Mónica de la Torre Roof Books

I should stress that I adore Tan’s writing, have read both Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe and Blipsoak engagedly (as to the latter, even though I personally have no desire to create poems that are remotely ambient, I think it’s an interesting notion), and FULLY INTEND to purchase his two new books in the near future.

Physically, Kim’s and Mónica’s books are quite different. Mónica’s has a big, light yellow sans-serif title, and also the signature size and glossiness of a Roof book, its cover showing “film strips” of a painting? a photo? moving from, to me, right to left, beginning with an image in color of a person walking down the street about to be engulfed in a cloud, and as the images move towards the left the more the color desaturates and the cloud engulfs. Kim’s book, from the front, anyway, has the Frenchified simplicity for which les figues design is known… it is narrow and rectangular, dark gray with delicate text in a bright turquoise double bordered by two frames, one thick, the other not. On the reverse side, no blurbs, thank goddesses, but a manipulated photo plus drawing of very disorienting and disordered architecture (just the way I like it).

The covers and design qualities of the books speak to their content. Mónica’s is in a way a friendlier book, a bit broader in its humor and perhaps more easily entered for the uninitiated. Kim’s is more blatantly intellectual, a little subtler and harder to characterize. Still, both books are notable for a kind of lightheartedness, especially in approach to materials. And this lightheartedness, interestingly, pervades despite the profundity of the themes each book addresses. In Kim’s case, those themes are evolution, gender, and science (particularly evolutionary science) as it interacts with art. In Mónica’s case, the overriding theme is identity, although there are several sub-themes such as linguistic identity, obsession, war, music, and names.

Kim’s book is bracketed by essays on the work: an introduction by Sianne Ngai, and (count ‘em) two afterwords, one an “analysis” and the other a “research paper,” all of which lend a fascinated validity to the slippery text. I have heard Kim read from this work a few times now, and I must say that I love what her performance brings to the work, as bits are sung (and the text is scored for that), and other bits are deliberately hesitated through, or read with great aplomb. Reading the book inside my head feels a little different, a little colder, but there is something I like about that coolness. It’s what Sianne refers to when she writes in the (gorgeous) introduction that, “nothing could be less like a Joseph Cornell box than a poem by Kim Rosenfield,” or when she describes this writing as (citing Laura Mulvery) being “anti-fetishistic.” (Again, this, like “ambient poetics,” is not necessarily a quality I strive for in my own work, but it interests me, particularly insofar as it refuses both preciousness and a too-heavy signifying.) I’m not sure I want to surround re:evolution with much more commentary, especially given that so much of it is so thoughtfully (much more so than I can accommodate in a blogspace, especially in a post composed on a snowy day after finals at work) part of the book’s actual “theoretical surround,” but I would like to quote a couple of my favorite passages, which are naturally some of the most hilarious. They are de (re) contextualized, but then so is everything else in this collaged book, so I hope that won’t matter too much. This one had me screaming “eww!” at her recent reading at the BPC:

I saw some spittle, the most disgusting that I had ever seen and I had to put my tongue and lips upon it. The act was so nauseating that I could not control myself and my heart beat so violently that I thought it would burst every vein in me and that I would vomit blood. I continued doing that as long as my heart revolted, and it was rather long.

I don’t mean to suggest that anything I quote from re:evolution typifies it in any way. I don’t actually think it’s typifiable, despite being concerned with science and taxonomies in its content. I mentioned as much to Kim after her BPC reading, that I was still trying to figure out what the limits of the text are, and she of course countered by asking whether it needed limits. Well, that’s a very good question, and one that I will leave rhetorical. Here’s another favorite passage, somewhat similar in mood to the one above but again not typical of the book per se:

The extraverts will dominate the sexual scene. The young extraverts will come running into the early dawn from their empty rooms out into the clean open, their naked bodies still sluggish and unkempt, unbeautiful in their bed-besprinkled sleepiness, all ready for a hectic plunge into the river of life, in their crude immersion revealing no special exquisiteness of body or grace of motion as swimmers in the river of life, a little polluting the fresh dawn of day by their noisy assassination of the day’s wonder and beauty. Strange fishes in the awkward contortions of the day’s wonder and beauty. Strange fishes in their glad way through the exhilarating waters of life.

[perfect place for a pee break here!]

Every page of re: evolution brings a surprise – nothing is predictable – and the same can be said for Public Domain. With both a variety of appropriated sources and a variety of formal approaches, these books keep changing the music the reader dances to, and I applaud both DJs for never boring me. Thank you for no homogeneity!

Mónica’s musical range runs the gamut from detournements to Zukofsyesque, often macaronic, sound-centered poems, vispos that are also performance texts, co-interviews on language acquisition ( a wonderful collaboration with Sujin Lee that incidentally speaks to my profession as an ESL teacher), a partially erased text culled from letters to the editor, a whole almost Arabically vowelless page of text that seems to address war, a wonderful carnival of emails (with photos!) regarding “other” Mónica de la Torres, oh and very very much more. You will love this book and you will love Kim’s book, too, please buy and enjoy them both.

I haven’t told you yet, though, what is perhaps my favorite piece in Mónica’s book, a section of poems & texts entitled The Crush. All the pieces in this section deal with an infatuation – real? imagined? : “I have a crush on a musician, or is it his music.” I do so want to ask Mónica if this “really happened,” but of course, that’s beside the point. “This piece is therapeutic,” she writes, and, “If this piece seems adolescent to you, there you go.” It doesn’t matter if it’s real, but it’s convincing, it’s pathos-funny, it mimics the forms of obsession, and emerges as almost Yoko Onoesque conceptual art:

Tell one of our mutual friends that an acquaintance of mine wants to do an interview with Blank for the publication that I work for, and needs to contact him. Once I have his contact info, write him a letter for every pice of music that he’s ever composed, performed, or produced, each one revolving around the idea of air. Write it on a surface on which it will disintegrate ¬ a block of ice, sand, on the sidewalk with a watering can – take a picture, and fax it to him.

[and note that this is only one of the brilliant schemes that emerges in this list of how to move through her obsession]

Just to give some sense, also, of the phonemic sensuality of this book as well, I quote from another poem in this section (beautifully footnoted, “Lists could turn into lisps”) entitled “Telephone Cryptomessage”:

oh yo be
in co.,
cougar sweet
they roof,
fir, oh moon
o’ mere wrong
coo, no, totter

I need to say it loud: I love both of these books, and their authors. I’m thrilled to have such entertaining, ingenious virtuoso sisters writing in the same city as me, no less. Run, don’t walk, to the websites of les figues and Roof Books, or SPD if these books are stocked there, and get these in your backpacks. You will surely be amused and enriched by the experience of reading them.

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