Beauty, Risk, & the Paratext by Kristina Marie Darling
Sarah Ann Winn, Field Guide to Alma Avenue and Frew Drive, Essay Press (September 2016), 48pp.
Carrie Lorig, The Book of Repulsive Women, Essay Press (April 2016), 72pp.
Sarah Minor, The Persistence of the Bonyleg: Annotated, Essay Press (April 2016), 60pp.
In a recent New York Times article on the history of artistic innovation, Costica Bradatan states unequivocally that “change comes from the margins.” Bradatan cites Tzara, Loy, and other Dadaist practitioners, who frequently flaunted their otherness as though it were a badge of honor, or further evidence of their progressive thinking. Yet this argument could be taken much more literally, as a testament to the endless possibility inherent in a number of distinct paratextual zones.
Any prose text is governed by a clear set of hierarchies, which enact judgments about the relative importance of various types of language and modes of thinking. The text proper is reserved for what is truly illuminating, with footnotes, glossaries, appendices, and endnotes being tertiary, orbiting around this supposedly radiant center. Yet because the main text is burdened by the weight of knowing, the margins are rife with possibility, and bursting with light. Recent years have seen a proliferation of experimental works that utilize the techniques of both conceptual poetry and scholarly prose. These hybrid texts remind us that the margins are more conducive to risk, and more amenable to moments of beauty and wonder, than a main text constrained by its own importance, and halted by a burden of readerly expectation. Taking the form of mislaid glossaries, unruly footnotes, and wildly imaginative annotations, these recent works—Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay, Kristy Bowen’s In the Bird Museum, and Kim Gek Lin Short’s The Bugging Watch being merely a few examples—reimagine the paratext as an alternative space, in which transformation becomes suddenly and wonderfully possible.
Sarah Ann Winn’s Field Guide to Alma Avenue and Frew Drive, Carrie Lorig’s The Book of Repulsive Women, and Sarah Minor’s The Persistence of the Bonyleg: Annotated continue this necessary exploration of inherent freedom in the margins. Although vastly different in style and approach, these exquisite collections share an investment in questioning the hierarchies that tend to impose upon the various components of prose. Here readers are made to experience the sorrow of inhabiting a main text “littered with all the wrong words,” glowing with an “unfamiliar light.” What’s more, we encounter the “oblong memory of loss,” a “sudden gulp of regret” as they sprawl beyond the boundaries of traditional narrative, as annotations and spare, singing fragments become the text proper. In each of these stunning volumes, we are reminded of what possibility lies buried underneath a conventional prose paragraph, that “still body of water,” that “lake too large to shout across.”
* * *
In Winn’s Field Guide to Alma Avenue and Frew Drive, the margins offer a point of entry to a stunning exploration of the lyric fragment, its unique artistic possibilities, and its inherent limitations. Taking the form of seemingly endless appendices, which remain unattached to a main text, the poems in this curated collection remind us that the paratext is not fraught with the pressures of wholeness or cohesion. Winn turns to the margins because they are more amenable to fragments of “old paper,” the “dog-eared pages crisp for her tongue,” as she states in the collection’s opening piece.
As the book unfolds, we are made to see there is a certain line of thinking that is only possible within fractured language, since more traditional forms often foreclose the wild associative leaps and ruptures that populate Winn’s gorgeous, singing work. She writes, for example, in “Notes From In-House Field Survey,”
+ elders may be present singly or in pairs, always accompanied by a child to study the lay of the land in secret
+ recrumpled paper to reshape waves
+ calculated the number of pedal pushes past the distant shore, graphed the lily pads, marked points from the bottom of the low hill to the screen door and then calculated the increase of stories in relation to time
+ furtive ethnographer
It is in the space between “secrets” and “recrumpled paper” that transformation becomes possible. As the first prose stanza unfolds, we are presented with uncertainty after uncertainty: elders arrive “singly or in pairs,” a “child” shrouded in “secrecy” from a threat never fully revealed. Each hypothesis, each conjecture is described in a voice that is fully convincing in its stately tone, the faultless logic of syntax, the implied causations of its grammatical workings. Upon transitioning to the second prose stanza, however, Winn’s rhetorical mode has shifted in the space between paratextual zones. Indeed, we encounter a luminous and fierce machinery that examines its own workings. The “recrumpled paper” and “reshaped waves” may be read as metaphors for the movement of the text itself, which eventually becomes “a distant shore,” the reader a “furtive ethnographer,” attempting to map a forever shifting terrain. In many ways, this is what makes Winn’s work so compelling and gratifyingly subversive. The fractured form she has chosen— appendices to appendices to a text that we cannot, and may never, have access to—effectually evades the expectation, and the strictures, of wholeness. In each gap, and within each rupture, the rules of this imaginative topography have been wholly revised. The paratext, with its fissures and elisions, is filled with liminal spaces, in which nearly anything becomes possible.
* * *
Much like Winn’s collection, Lorig’s The Book of Repulsive Women envisions the paratext as a space for transformation. Here, though, paratext becomes palimpsest, as both the main text and its proliferations are repeatedly erased and written over. Presented as several possible or alternate versions of the same piece, Lorig’s work also positions itself in relation to John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, as the phrase “John Berryman’s Feminist Revenge” is repeated and, in this repetition, transfigured. Yet the work reads more as revision of Berryman’s text than annotation. It is “an essay on distance and estrangement,” as exegesis becomes a space for interrogation, irreverence, and eventually reversals of power. In many ways, the work’s orientation as paratext makes possible this questioning, this coup d’etat, as one finds greater motive for revolution when placed firmly in the margins.
Lorig reminds us, as Jenny Boully did in her seminal work, The Body: An Essay, that women’s voices have, in essence, been confined to these paratextual zones. Yet Lorig reimagines what is possible within this rhetorical space. The margins are no longer exclusively for “citation,” but, rather, they become an “intervention” that is rife with possibility. Lorig writes, for instance, midway through the collection:
The Narrative Mouth—
Nobody else but yours Nobody else but These This
They can’t copy it.
Lorig gestures at both the predominantly male artistic tradition she has inherited and the accompanying expectations of the female voice, which frequently involve “lilacs” and the ever-present conventions of “narrative.” Lorig shows us that “the narrative mouth” that speaks in much of literature is also heteronormative in its assumptions, as the speaker recounts the readerly expectations, values, and judgments that are inevitably internalized: “Nobody else / Nobody else but yours…” Yet as the book unfolds, each incarnation of The Book of Repulsive Women, and each iteration of the speaker’s voice, grows more unruly. We encounter “blood and rags,” the female spectator turned voyeur (“…she filmed them…”). The marginal space is revealed as sublimated violence, as repression turned outward. “There is a devil inside me / there is a flower inside me,” Lorig writes. We irrevocably understand how both can be true at once.
* * *
Minor’s The Persistence of Bonyleg: Annotated, like the work of Winn and Lorig, re-envisions what is possible in the margins of a prose text. Main text and paratext are coeval, emerging at the same moment as part of the same imaginative topography. What’s more, they fuel one another, intertwining like a “coniferous forest,” that place “where spruce spines string Europe to China and Mongolia to the arctic arc.” As the sequence progresses, and as we find ourselves more and more lost in its luminous “folds” of “ribbon,” Minor subtly challenges many of our preconceived notions about the paratext, particularly the idea that text and paratext are separate entities, with different intentions and divergent motives. Minor certainly questions the hierarchies that are often imposed upon the various components of a prose work. But she also interrogates our notions of textual ownership inherent in this division, showing us that all of language is a collective endeavor, a conversation, a confluence.
In many ways, Minor’s investment in language as collectively voiced, as a social endeavor, is most visible in the evolution of the “narrator.” Appearing first as a kind of lyrical voiceover, responding to and clarifying a main text in which “the Lykovs were a family of six Old Believers who followed a river…into the wilderness,” the narrator’s sections become increasingly dialogic, increasingly dependent upon other voices, texts, and textures of language. Minor elaborates,
1. Scientists: “At first we had a hard time understanding the daughters’ speech. Their way of speaking was unique—a muffled, nasal chanting. When the sisters talked to each other, it sounded like a slow, blurred cooing.”
2. Narrator: This I is shifting, okay? Over there, I was a schismatic. I’s own birth was an act of rebellion.
3. Fairytale: The taiga is a swath of coniferous forest—the world’s largest Terrestrial Biome. Eleven percent of the northern hemisphere. You go in by helicopter….
Here, and throughout the collection, Minor has created a voice that reflects on its own movement through an inherently unstable cultural landscape. The “I” is perpetually “shifting,” its “birth” an “act of rebellion” against the all too static categories of language, genres, and texts.
What’s more, Minor’s enduring interest in all of speech as collective, and voice as a social construct, is enacted in the writing style itself. The narrator is eventually revealed as the “daughter” subjected to the scrutiny of the scientists, those purveyors of reason who “had a hard time understanding” her “speech.” During the transition from speaker to speaker, we find that every texture of language, and each discourse that Minor inhabits, culls material from the others. The scientifically minded rhetoric at the very beginning of the quoted passage proves necessary when describing the fairy tale’s “taiga,” posited as “the world’s largest Terrestrial Biome,” comprising “eleven percent of the northern hemisphere.” In much the same way that Minor’s “I” “was a “schismatic,” these disparate, often divergent voices constitute a dialogue between parts of the self, or parts of consciousness. Approached with that in mind, text and paratext are revealed not as separate things, under “confinement,” but instead parts of “a collective work,” “a mirror.”
As the boundaries between text and paratext begin to crumble, so too do the structures of power and authority embedded in every sentence, and in every seemingly pristine prose paragraph. Within each of these innovative and striking collections, this subversion of textual hierarchies gives rise to gorgeous, unruly music.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty-seven books of poetry, most recently Ghost / Landscape (with John Gallaher; BlazeVox Books, 2016) and the forthcoming Dark Horse(C&R Press, 2017). Her awards include three residencies at Yaddo, where she has held the Martha Walsh Pulver Residency for a Poet, as well as a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, a Fundacion Valparaiso Fellowship, and three residencies at the American Academy in Rome. She is the recipient of grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her poems appear in New American Writing, The Mid-American Review, Poetry International, Passages North, Nimrod, and many other magazines. She has published essays in Agni, The Gettysburg Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Iowa Review, The Literary Review, Descant, and elsewhere. She is Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Quarterly and Grants Specialist at Black Ocean. She divides her time between the United States and Europe.