“The Lovely Disorder” of Suzanne Doppelt
“You see an object better by looking at it sideways rather than straight on” [RRW]
Perhaps because she sees herself as both a poet and a photographer, Suzanne Doppelt’s books place words and photographs on equal footing. Neither one illustrates or explains the other, they rarely even seem to refer directly to the other. And yet the text and the images find a kind of harmony and balance that is probably impossible to describe. To date, Doppelt has only had two of her books translated from her original French into English: RING RANG WRONG (Burning Deck, 2006) and The Field Is Lethal (Counterpath, 2011). Both deal with the cosmos, nature, mysterious powers, and, at times, philosophical concepts, yet the “world” that one steps into upon reading Doppelt seems delicate. Everything is permeable. Doppelt’s work is densely referential and allusive – and decidedly elusive. It’s almost a kind of attention-deficit poetics, with objects, ideas, voices, places, references, and more making momentary appearances in the poems as if they were transitory particles being recorded in an accelerator.
Maurice Blanchot has written that “the time of the poem is not human time,” and in Doppelt’s books, one might also say that the place of the poem is not a human place, even though it closely resembles one. It is as if the reader has entered a diorama in a natural history museum, where everything is made of plaster and balsa wood but where the laws of the universe are mysteriously distorted or exempt.
The diorama changes before your eyes, matter infiltrates and combines, malleable, alterable; it never ends: stones are moss, and moss, birds. Water moves deep down in the water, above, below, making bubbles of various sizes, the simple flower morphs into a double, a mushroom into a bird, an imperceptible point turns into a worm, which suddenly changes, is flying in red and green and azure. Clouds make vast, vague shadows, scenes take shape, images come and go, the field is kinetic.[Lethal]
The text of RING RANG WRONG (it’s original title was Quelque Chose Cloche) is described by the publisher as “mock-philosophical meditations on astronomy, weather, the five senses, plant life, the insect world, and the nature of time, all in an implicit dialogue with the pre-Socratics,” which is as good as any general summary that I could write. (Doppelt originally studied and taught philosophy.) The prose poems are interrupted by photographs (always in pairs) and by a kind of nonsense language described as “pre-Socratic fragments [which] appear translated into a phonetic language by the composer Georges Aperghis.” This language looks like this: “rirugré-uc-hard-uc-d’namgéïsseu-l’cieuse-uc-t’sulon-s’onge-sugor-gréssuc-…” It seems designed to be impenetrable and unpronounceable, hence an unknowable and unutterable language. And yet, because these fragments are literally dropped into the middle of normal sentences, they make me think of those moments in speaking when we shift to another language, even if it’s a language we don’t know, like certain phrases that are ritually uttered in Latin during Catholic mass or when we interrupt ourselves to knock on wood as a way of addressing our superstitions.
From The Field Is Lethal.
In The Field Is Lethal we enter the world of spiritualism, dreams and nightmares; we shift back and forth in time, listening to voices address us. Doppelt destabilizes the world and the reader, intent on reclaiming modes of receptivity and perception that have largely been banished from modern life.
The room is dim and so encourages disintegration, broken spirits, an unknown worm, a thumbtack, and ardent opal that clears a path outside if this keeps up I’m going to faint. Can you read my mind, every crumb is unique. They’re full of angles, it’s absurdly barely enough to eat. You’re going to be here a while, listen, matter is turning, it takes a lot of patience, when are you coming back.
The photographs in both of these books come in three basic flavors. First and most frequent are pure abstractions: precise yet delicate images of grids, patterns, and shapes that make me immediately think of the painter Agnes Martin. Second are images of nature – water, plants, shadows – often slightly blurred. A third type of imagery appears mostly in RING RANG WRONG, photographs of a human hand performing on a tabletop. In a parody of images found in how-to books or instruction manuals, the hands are pointing, holding objects, or demonstrating simple acts. The photographs always appear in pairs and grids, and the grids often contain images that repeat or vary subtly from each other, creating patterns. Because of this, I found myself seeking and seeing “meanings”of various sorts in the pairings and the patterns. For this reason, it felt like I was engaging in similar types of reading activities whether I was looking at a text page or an image page.
In a pair of YouTube videos here and here, Doppelt can be seen reading in French from a newer book called La Plus Grand Aberration, alongside her English translator, the poet Cole Swenson, who reads from her recent book Gravesend.
Doppelt’s photographs also appear in a collaboration with poet Pierre Alferi in his book OXO (Burning Deck, 2004).