The current issue (number three) of the Brooklyn-based independent literary magazine The Coffin Factory features a collaborative piece by writer Justin Taylor and artist Bill Hayward entitled “From Notes on the Inconsolable,” in which Taylor performs an erasure based on W. G. Sebald’s novel The Emigrants. The result is a fairly short poem by Taylor into which Hayward inserts three of his own photographs, à la Sebald. On Hayward’s blog, the work featured in The Coffin Factory is described as “an excerpt,” which suggests there is more to come one day. Here’s a bit of commentary by Taylor on his process of erasure:
Erasure is a method of delving into the depths of a text to see what can be found there. But the eraser is liberated—as well as made anxious—by the knowledge that said findings are not discoveries but creations. The erasure-text is not a salvage: it has no reality independent of the search for it, the searching is in fact what made it real. Erasure, therefore, is a way of being read, at least as much as it is a way of reading.
For the most part, the result truly is “liberated.” Other than the use of the highly-recognizable quotation “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead…”, one would be hard pressed to identify Sebald as the source for the Taylor’s enigmatic new poem. Perhaps most noticeably, the narrative voice in Taylor’s piece is utterly different. Here’s an excerpt:
and you already know
how things went from never able
to bring myself to anything I still don’t know
for sure what made us drift apart
between his legs, the muzzle
There is a small universe of erasure-based poetry, but probably the most well-known example is A Humument, in which Tom Phillips made an entirely new, illustrated novel by eliminating parts of the text of an obscure Victorian book. Phillips painted on and decorated the original pages of the book as a way of editing out much of the original text, saying that he “plundered, mined, and undermined its text to make it yield the ghosts of other possible stories, scenes, poems.” Taylor’s strategy is very similar, although he’s only using (and retyping) Sebald’s altered text rather than playing with the physical pages of Sebald’s book.
Taylor explains that he asked Hayward “to punctuate my erasure-text with images that would simultaneously pay homage to Sebald at the level of form while undermining or re-imagining them at the level of content.” Unlike Sebald’s snapshots and found photographs, Hayward’s are described as “intentional artworks.” They also deliberately relocate” The Emigrants to the US, where both Taylor and Hayward live. Based on the three photographs in this excerpt, it’s seems fair to say that Hayward has created a parallel imagery that references Sebald’s photographs in several ways. Reminiscent of the many sources for Sebald’s imagery, the three photographs here are done in three distinct styles: a sharply-focused sepia image of a 1940s car on a road in the American West; a dark, over-exposed black-and-white image of a small boy dressed in Western clothing (almost an ironic twist on the cover photograph from Austerlitz); and a slightly blurred image of a young woman making an enigmatic gesture or movement, as if cleaning something from her blouse.