CONCORDANCE by MEI-MEI BERSSENBRUGGE and KIKI SMITHBRENDA IIJIMA Reviews
CONCORDANCE with poems by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and art by Kiki Smith
(Kelsey Street Press, Berkeley, 2006)
The book’s face is a 9’x 9’ square with a painted owl visage on sandy colored ground. A bush-like mound, fully frontal with a penetrating (not ominous—sad, perhaps) stare in indigo ink and dull gold is how the owl is rendered. Concordance, the title falls simply across the upper top portion of the book while at the bottom, camouflaged within the owl’s feathers are the names Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Kiki Smith. The back cover is a mirror image of the art work found on the front cover, except that the owl is now positioned more to the left side and is cropped slightly. Press information, an isbn number and the price are now nestled within the owl’s feathers.
Concordance opens up with this dedication: “for the frogs and the toads”. I don’t think this is merely whimsy. Toads and frogs and canaries in the coal mine warn of impending environmental issues. Toads and frogs are particularly sensitive to toxic chemicals that have been released into the ecosphere—they are the first to show signs of disease and distress. Eleni Stecopoulos’s insightful talk: Composition by Electromagnetic Field: Weiner, Berssenbrugge, and the Poetics of Sensitivity which she presented at the CUNY Conference on Contemporary Poetry in November, 2005 highlighted the ways in which Berssenbrugge as a poet registers the unseen but bodily experienced presence of chemical disturbances as she moves within various environments. Substance is chemical and biological systems interact and are in flux with these components. The mind and the body are nothing more: chemical substances within biological systems, interactive, or?. These substances, in particular formations are able to generate the imaginative thought patterns and bodily expressions humans have. Substances flowing within and among substances—this is our condition. Our membranes are permeable. (It is interesting to contemplate how history can be understood (or is understood) chemically.)
Concordance is a book conjoining two artists and contains two works plus the visual responses that accompany these poetic texts. “Concordance” is the first section and is printed on a slightly thinner, stiff, sand colored paper that the cover is printed on. The second piece in the book is titled “Red Quiet” and is printed on a vibrant red, soft, slightly translucent rice paper without drawings by Smith. This is how “Concordance” begins:
“Writing encounters one who
does not write and I don’t try
for him, but face-to-face draw
you onto a line or flight like a
brake that may be extended,
the way milkweed filling space
above the field is ‘like’ reading.”
The words are enigmatic and ethereal but also, connected to terrestrial happening— immediacies. The enigmatic and ethereal have to do with the internalizations, transformations of thought, recalibrations that happen between outside and inside. The traceries of sight are both artists’ gestures. Tugs of animal, mineral and spirit. “Writing encounters one who does not write”—is this a reference to the owl, does the owl allude to infancy and pre-cultural states? The ever presently returning query: Nature ? Culture? Culture? Nature?
“Then it’s possible to undo
misunderstanding from inside
by tracing the flight or thread of
empty space running through
things, even a relation that’s
Where do the aporias form—in the gap between speech and language? On the boundaries of semantics, semiotics, as objects meet up with materiality? When meanings become malleable through time and space? Between the space of the personal and the social—an irreconcilable space where the social can never quite fully account for all that is personal and visa versa? Between what is animal and that space that is thought of as other and in addition: humanism (is there such a space, really?)? Or is it within imagination, where a concrete term can have burgeoning additional, connective meanings? In these unspeakable, transcendent situations the world fluctuates. Perhaps, in these unmentionable but fertile zones concepts are formed—temporary crystallizations out of mutable ground.
“Seeds disperse in summer air.
Sunrays cease to represent parallel
passages in a book, i.e., not coming
from what I see and feel
Relation is in the middle, relay,
flower description to flower
becoming of the eye between light
Kiki Smith’s drawings are tiles. If the book were dissembled and arranged edge to edge, a single image would emerge except that the images are printed on front and back sides making this physically impossible—they can’t be re-arranged like a Rubik’s Cube. There is a witty placement within the book. The image that follows the table of contents is a detail of a frond. At the very bottom of the page there is the same texture as that of the owl’s head. On turning a couple of pages, the owl indeed shows up—with the top portion of its head cropped. So the book introduces the visual world from top down. The images are animal, particle and vegetal. A human hand reaches for a milkweed pod. Ants crawl over flower sepals. An iconic bird (not the owl), a dove is a curvaceous shape that breaks up the square page. A frog shows up in the middle of the book. There isn’t a boundary separating the animal from the human.
“Warmth, which was parallel, moves
across the shard, smoothes and makes
it porous, matter breath, light
materializing dear ants and dear words.”
What does this have to with animals: animals who engage in language acts and those that are seen as not able to engage? As Giorgio Agamben points out, “Animals are not in fact denied language; on the contrary, they are always and totally language. In them la voix sacrée de la terre ingénue (the sacred voice of the unknowing earth—which Mallermé, hearing the chirp of a cricket, sets against the human voice as une and non-décomposée (one and indivisible)—knows no breaks or interruptions. Animals do not enter language, they are already inside it. Man, instead, by having an infancy, by preceding speech, splits this single language and, in order to speak, has to constitute himself as the subject of language—he has to say I. Thus, if language is truly man’s nature (and nature, on reflection, can only mean language without speech, génesis synechés, ‘continuous origin’, by Aristotle’s definition, and to be nature means being always-already inside language), then man’s nature is split at its source, for infancy brings it discontinuity and the difference between language and discourse.” (Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, p. 59) And Agamben goes on to state that this discontinuity and difference is what institutes historicity. And, stated in a slightly different way Judith Butler contends, “The ‘I’ emerges as a deliberating subject only once the world has appeared as a countervailing picture, an externality to be known and negotiate at an epistemological distance. (Giving an Account of Oneself, p. 110-111) Yes, it seems, a mirror so often gets in the way—of continuousness!
“Since animals don’t judge, their
evolving cosmic skills are a source
of richness for us.”
For Berssenbrugge there is concordance—with animals, when humans, in a tentative, dissipating (now a definitive creative act) can be seen as animals. The dynamic shifts when humans claim otherwise and gain additional power by separating themselves out of the continuum. With genocides and mass extinctions happening at unprecedented, accelerating speeds, these understandings are vital to consider.
“Color is a mirror where we see
ourselves with living things, scarlet
neck feathers, infant asleep across
your heart, like-to-like.
Attention gives light shine on a
baby’s calf; as he hears what I say,
I become that.
‘Red Quiet’ is the pulmonary interior—what surges through: psychic states, ghost particles, words spoken, vibrations, sex, love, floral blossoms. This sequence at first seems to me to be more intense because of the experience of reading text against glowing red (almost damp) paper; my body response to the color saturation. The tone of this poem is slightly more confrontational than the opening sequence—intensified by this heightened presentation. The poem begins with eye contact and how this will feed awareness—human to human.
“I look into his eyes and feel my
awareness expand to contain what he
will tell me, as if what he says is a
photography of landscape and in my
mind will be a painting of “Hill,”
“Part of the Cliffs,” “Purple Hills.”
These words are the opposite of
Here, vulnerability unravels: impression on impression. “Listeners, like water, resonate dread/in a blue vase, in glasses. There is ever so slightly a register of claustrophobia whereas; in the opening sequence there was expansiveness: the open, the outside while also being inside too: wave lengths of music emanating, dream visions. “Red maintains a strong impression/of the body, while consciousness/flows along its inner images.” The reader suddenly is without tangible imagery (Kiki Smith’s). Now mind and body generate images from our insides; it is a startling transition. “I send out an emotion of warmth,/welcome, the way scientists erase/sound with sound.” This move of articulation from visual to verbal is an intense shrinking and an act of concentration. This is the domesticated (acculturated) space of standardization, yet the imagination flourishes here (also).
The way these two texts are presented shakes up Western notions of time. Time is not separate, acting on its own accord. It is tied up to situation, to atmosphere. Each inference is a revolving universe that brushes up against other inferences but they are all one time. Time isn’t an arrow. Time isn’t a point along a path. It is incidence and inference, a morphic field, a reoccurrence and a resonance. “Friends witnessing grief enter your/consciousness, illuminating your form, so quiet comes.” Seeing is conducted with feeling; here the poetic is not privileged over lived occurrence. History is not supplanting the lived (this need not be paradoxical). And too, time buds and saturates as if osmosis, mitosis. An instance in/of time shifts (in and out and among) space (s), shape shifts out of the sheath imposed on by the Greeks, [periechón]. The eye is no longer the dominant eye witness position—Berssenbrugge reveals an immersive eco body sensorium and maybe there isn’t all word to represent this perceptive stance.
Brenda Iijima is the author of Around Sea (O Books). Animate, Inanimate Aims is forthcoming from Litmus Press in May, 2007 and Eco Quarry Bellwether will be released this summer from Outside Voices. Lately she has been working with sound artist Austin Publicover to produce Council of Worms, a collaborative cd. She lives in Brooklyn, NY where she runs Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs.