rating: 5 of 5 stars
When I was a child, I used to quickly insert and slightly pull out my videogame cartridges, which would make the game go crazy—sometimes the game would play, but in a slightly off version, with bizarre blinking characters and anomalies going off all over the screen. My parents used to yell at me that I was going to break the machine, but I knew that it was only the brain of the thing that I was altering. This interest in malfunctions has continued into my adult life, insofar as some of my favorite writing concerns “malfunctions” of various kinds—obsessions, delusions, hallucinations, improbably beliefs, to name just a few. I like writing when the cartridge is pulled slightly out—this can be in terms of form or content or both. In the case of Lisa Janssen’s “Riffing on Bird and Other Sad Songs,” released way back in 2007 as part of the Dusie Kollectiv exchange, there is an obsessive quality that resonates with those same tendencies in myself (most of my projects arise out of one obsession or another).
The chapbook’s eponymous “Riffing on Bird, Unsung” is not about Charlie Parker but rather the actress and photographer Laurie Bird, of whom I knew nothing about prior to reading Janssen’s poem, but said poem collects a constellation of source materials and excerpts to give a seductively clear picture of the subject and the author’s interest in the subject. Indeed, the poem seems to be almost, if not entirely, assemblage, with very little authorial voice showing though save for in the authorial intent of assembling the various fragments. What results is not a disjointed montage, but rather a curiously complete-feeling narrative with considerable emotional resonance. The overall result is a hybrid akin to something that could be called “poetic journalism.” The one complaint I have is that I wish there could have been more of the same in the brief collection.
The other poems in the chapbook, a brief narrative concerning a character named Jenny with several extremely satisfying lines (“The sun beats down and bleaches white all of the bones of true romance. They are bones now. You can still live in them if you want.”) and the source of one of my own obsessions, the photographer Francesca Woodman (Janssen’s chapbook was, interestingly, part of the exchange in which I distributed my own, quite different, poems for Woodman), done in a somewhat familiar fashion with source texts from the photographer and a bit more authorial voicing. The net effect is a satisfying glimpse into a series of minds and stories just slightly out of synch with the rest of the world, but who indelibly leave their sometimes too brief mark on the minds of those who encounter them. “Someone who wished they were the shape of a breeze.”
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