An American Filing Cabinet
Allison Cobb:: Green-Wood:: Factory School
Documentary poetry, a term that brackets together Place’s text with the disparate poetic projects of Muriel Rukeyser, Juliana Spahr, Claudia Rankine, Charles Reznikoff, Barrett Watten and countless others, stands more as a floating signifier than a tenable category. Characteristically, the label evokes a range of aesthetic impulses and ethical critiques that relax the boundaries of the page in order to bring the poem into a more direct relationship with the voices that for various sociopolitical reasons disrupt the teleological march towards progress and therefore stand to be silenced. Of course there are documentary poems that depart from this thumbnail description, but in general it is a mode of expression coeval with the generic concerns it incites. Bearing witness to the unpredictable particularity of these voices, silenced under piles of non-fictive material, the documentary poem counters the notion of fixed, insoluble genres by marrying aberrant content with a form equal itself to the unconventional. Thus the documentary poem questions the question of poetry’s waning efficacy as a delimiting genre. To carry this line of thinking to any useful conclusion strikes me as far too expansive a task to take up in a brief review. Nonetheless, I mention it here because it resonates so adamantly with the drive to document the documentary that Allison Cobb enunciates in her recent book Green-Wood.
Through a mixture of prose passages, lyrical sequences, and embedded quotations, Green-Wood delivers a disjunctive account of Brooklyn’s famous nineteenth-century cemetery of the same name. Referring to it as America’s first filing system, Cobb follows a historical index of headstones and exhumes a series of facts that connects America’s current political climate to topics as diverse as Emersonian self-reliance, Marxist interpretations of British Enclosure Acts, and Colonial Ornithology. The book’s ecological concerns are not limited to content. Through formal decisions, Cobb implicitly critiques the self-satisfaction associated with sentimental portrayals of paradise waxing parking lot. By organizing Green-Wood into succinct prose-blocks, Cobb uses juxtaposition to draw attention to the associative space that separates and connects any two prose-block passages. The intermediary space between passages becomes as important to the arc of the book as the content of any single passage. This formal choice demonstrates Cobb’s awareness that ecology is not merely the study of organisms; it also applies to the constant discovery of relations that connect and separate organisms to, and from, one another and their physical surroundings.
Rather than make superficial comments on a large swath of quotations from Green-Wood, I want to address a single passage, which touches upon three thematic concerns that recur throughout the book. On the first page Cobb writes:
Among the crowd I see Micah Garen, who will be kidnapped in Iraq while
shooting a documentary about looted artifacts. Fact means not “true.” But
“to make.” The fact of art a trace.
The statement offers both journalistic reportage and inferred commentary on the nature of aesthetic experience. By drawing our attention to the documentary filmmaker, Cobb foregrounds the self-referentiality of her own documentarian project. This kind of meta-gesture develops throughout the book into what I see as the first thematic concern: the poet’s sustained deliberation on the often unacknowledged instruments of knowledge production. In the above scene, Garen arises out of context. We see him enjoying life in the same physical body that will later become instrumentalized by the camera, and thereby sublimated in order to function as a part of the frame that separates and connects “real life” and documentary film. Here the filmmaker’s body stands at the mercy of someone else’s candid vision. Cobb records Garen outside of his role as filmmaker, producing the effect one might associate with coming upon a screwdriver left surprisingly on the bathroom sink. Taken out the expected context of the toolbox, the screwdriver becomes noticeable in a manner that highlights its stunning utility (Why is there a screwdriver in the bathroom, a screw must have been loose around the lightswitch plate). Likewise, when Cobb places Garen’s body inside a context different than the documentary film, she arrests the reader with the utilitarian function of his body, showing it to be a part of the filmic scaffolding that makes possible the documentary aesthetic. His emergence from the crowd, like Stetson in Eliot’s “The Burial of the Dead,” demonstrates Cobb’s quickness to notice the confrontation between everyday experience and documentary mediation that ultimately reveals the latter’s profound artifice.
Cobb’s decision to include the filmmaker into her depiction of the cemetery sets up the theme of intersecting contexts, earlier referred to as the book’s ecopoetics of relation. The Garen episode develops out of Cobb’s description of the cemetery on a day in which the management has agreed to open its historic catacombs to visitors. By meandering into the historic building, Garen activates the book’s sprawl to embrace one topic after another. Spotting the documentary filmmaker leads to a discussion about the Iraq war, and from there an observation on late capitalism in general. This overlapping propulsion enacts a salient commentary commensurable not only with an ecopoetics of relation, but also with Francis Fukuyama’s contentious conception of “The End of History.” The end of history, according to Fukuyama is tantamount to the flattening out of cultural difference under one homogenous market. Cobb, however, shows how this cultural flattening is anything but apolitical, when she reminds us that Garen’s position at the nexus of contemporary life depends upon his being kidnapped by Iraqi militants.
In her mentioning of trace, “The fact of art a trace,” we’re shown another theme that appears throughout Green-Wood: the discussion of art in terms of its material remnants, the residue of creativity. In the passage, we’re told that Garen’s work in Iraq involves accounting for archeological sites that were ransacked during the early stages of the war. His lot then is to document the absence produced by pillaging and warfare. The filmmaker is left with no option but to collect interviews in hopes of casting a keener lens on vacancy, since the artifacts are not visibly accessible. This rhymes with the poet’s task of building her utterance out of the invisible contents of a cemetery. Rather than interviews or accounts, Cobb’s compositional practice includes historical curiosities, common-book quotations and litanies, consisting of objects left by grave-side visitors at Green-Wood:
stars and stripes pinwheel
muddy stuffed bunny face down near Crescent Water
Batman action figure
frog riding a bicycle
Virgin of Guadalupe pen
DADDY WE MISS YOU pumpkin
These objects signal the bind inherent in the act of documenting that inherently produces absence. Such is Maurice Blanchot’s point in “Literature and the Right to Death,” where he recognizes literature as “a being deprived of its being”. Laid bare to strangers who happen upon the headstones (like the reader), these memorial arrangements abbreviate the departed into an empirical trace.
Also, the trace line touches upon a formal technique that appears throughout Green-Wood. Repeatedly, italicized statements cut the informative tone of Cobb’s prose-block with an indeterminate lyrical flourish. Oftentimes the use of italics implies that the emphasized line of text has been drawn from another source, one that can be traced, as it were, in the lengthy notes section at the end of the book. At other points, the italicized statements evade citation and seem to suggest a pattern of meta-commentary. In the Micah Garen passage, the italicized trace leads us to consider not only Garen’s elegiac footage of missing artifacts, but also the level to which an irreducible absent presence characterizes Cobb’s own writerly relationship to the empirical world. The phrase insinuates that the work of art evolves, and is then limited to, a factual dimension. The corporeality of the canvas, sculpture, and poem are hulls through which inspiration once passed.
With its exegetical prose, Green-Wood resembles the footnotes that might accompany the classically difficult Modernist long poem more than it does the actual Modernist long poem. And this will likely cause some to question the book’s generic fidelity. But the faithful reader will surely regard Cobb’s generic promiscuity as indistinguishable from her larger critique of problematic economies of exclusion—the cordoning off of the human from the non-human, and the garden from the wasteland. In so far as documentary poetry is far too broad a concept to function as a delimiting genre, it is serves as the perfect marker for Cobb’s brand of cross-genre work. For her, like Susan Howe and Robert Duncan, the truth of what a fact is lies in the term’s historical derivation, and that truth, contrary to popular belief, shows fact to be a form of social production, a gathering rather than a dividing of cultural values and observations. To think of fact in this way, socially constructed and process oriented, compels us then to re-imagine the parameters of Perloff’s question. One reason for writing something that doesn’t resemble “poetry” and then passing it off as such, could be to historicize and denaturalize the very notion of genres. Cobb confirms art and fact to be ineluctably commensurable with one another, conceiving both to be in essential correspondence with the trace. With Green-Wood, she maintains that the document, the archive, and the cemetery industrial complex—all facets of the empirical world—exceed their own non-fictive function and imprint themselves in patterns of prose upon the imagination.
Allison Cobb:: Green-Wood:: Factory School