Found – in the Desert
I am queuing up three posts on recent books of “found” poetry and photographs. Each book represents a different approach to re-using extant texts, as well as distinctly different types of photography.
But before I go any further, I want to put in a plug for one of my favorite writers, Marjorie Perloff, and especially for her 2010 book Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (University of Chicago Press). Perloff’s books have long served as an essential guide to the proliferation of poetic forms in the 20th century, and with this book she moves into the 21st century. In Unoriginal Genius she traces the arc of “citational” or intertextual poetry from Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project to Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic, a book of poetry that consists entirely of radio traffic reports. “Citational” is a polite academic term, but I am going to stick with “found” as a way of categorizing the texts in these three books, for reasons that will become obvious.
The first book under consideration is Jeff Griffin’s Lost and (University of Iowa Press, 2013). Here is Griffin’s Preface in its entirety: “The following work I found discarded at various locations around the desert, mostly in abandoned trailers and homesteads, from 2010 to 2013. The pieces are either transcribed verbatim or scanned as is.” What follows are some 150 pages of personal notes, pages from journals, snapshots, letters, poems and stories by children and amateur writers, and other miscellaneous papers left behind or lost in the deserts of California and Nevada. Although the book is divided into five geographical sections indicating the deserts in which materials were found, I tend to view Lost and as a single book-length poem. It opens with the transcription of notebook containing an alphabetically-ordered list of the words and phrases that someone’s pet budgie was capable of speaking. “Where’s the beer, Barbara?” “He’s a bad budgie.” “Give me a kiss Billy Boy!” “Drink it – drink it!” Thus we are immediately confronted with an exquisitely complicated and contradictory image of language as something that can be taught, spoken, written, and sorted into a pidgin dictionary that – to the bird, at least – is totally devoid of meaning. It also sets up the central trope for Lost and – the human need to communicate.
The brutally beautiful deserts of the American West are places of tragedy and despair and visions. For early settlers, they served as one of the Herculean labors that had to be surmounted before reaching the Eden of California and the succor of the Pacific Ocean. As a No-Man’s-Land, the deserts were – and still are, to some extent – unmapped places where one can dream of regeneration, flee civilization or the law, or simply find a harsh solitude. The notes and letters and photograph in Lost and deal with troubled relationships, sex, drugs, alcohol, depression, regret, failure, hope and religion. Many of the written pieces have a tone of desperation. “Estée, I do love and I do want to change for the Better I need you. Love T. P.S. I owe you $20:00.” Here’s the ending of a letter found east of the desert town of Twentynine Palms, California:
…I hope that someday you find true happiness within yourself. But please, for yourself, figure out what it is that you want before you get yourself involved in another situation like this. No one wins. Three of us got in this and that didn’t need to happen.
Oh, just one thing before I go. I want you to know one more time that I’m sorry and that I miss you already. I’ll think about you every day for a long time.
Take care, Lori
P.S. I wasn’t planning on not seeing you again so I borrowed your sweatshirt when I left Saturday night. I woke up and was really cold so I put it on. If you want it back let me know where/when I can drop if off. I would drop it at your apartment when you’re not there but I can’t get in the building.
Just about dead center in the book is a remarkable and rather long document, precisely dated “6:20 P.M. 4/17/96, Wed.” Written by someone who claims to have met Alexander Hamilton at a party in 1950 and to have “corresponded” with Admiral Byrd, it has visionary aspirations almost worthy of William Blake.
we are so brainwashed by all forms of media that our brains are like a clogged-up chimney with black negative thoughts and feelings which have blinded our true understanding and we need a good chimney sweep to blast this nonsense out of our heads and let our hearts pulsate a flame up through our heads and coming to a point above the head just like a match flame and pulsate up on to our Higher Consciousness to literally lift us out of the mess we are in! …I could paint you pictures of how we have been destroying our civilizations by the misuse of just our tetrahedrons. A tetrahedron is the most beautiful and exciting thing you have ever thought of or visualized in its magnificent glory.
The proliferation and variety of actual poems included in Lost and says something about the culturally perceived value of poetic forms. While contemporary poets may struggle for an audience, Lost and is a vivid reminder that the general public frequently shifts into poetic mode for all sorts of reasons. Poetry is widely employed as a powerful structure for communication, even if the outcome might be little more than a silly ditty or an evocation of Hallmark card sentimentality. The poems here are used to mark occasions, elevate emotional intensity, or simply to set certain communications apart from ordinary daily discourse. On occasion, however, some of these outsider poems resonate on a higher level. The book closes with a poem titled “Alone With Out You” a piece of writing that might struggle with grammar and spelling, but which otherwise makes its point with great effect.
The photographs in Lost and are all personal snapshots and thus function rather differently than the written matter. In general, snapshots tend to be only be fully comprehensible to the limited circle of people who have shared knowledge of the people or things or moments depicted. As outsiders, we look at these snapshots of unfamiliar people and often puzzling events largely for their aesthetic values. Our understanding of the content of most snapshots is dramatically different from the insider’s. Thanks to earlier generations of artful photographers like Lisette Model, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand,we have a rich aesthetic construct that encourages us to relish the the accidental and the incidental in photographs – elements the snapshot photographer is likely to overlook entirely. In fact, much of the pleasure of looking at anonymous snapshots lies in being aware of the gulf between our outsider’s reading of the image and the probable view of the insider,in the discordance between what the outsider and the insider see as important and meaningful. In many ways, the snapshot aesthetic actually depends on our not fully understanding the content.