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“Confounded by textures”: The Pink Institution

 

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After he shot himself, my grandfather’s face was a spangle bouquet that made grass die. What is difficult about looking at something like that is not that the mind resists fragmentation in general, but that it is confounded by textures which refuse the tensions one desires through edges.

I recently discovered Selah Saterstrom’s well-received first novel The Pink Institution (Coffee House Press, 2004), a tiny but powerful book of sparse poetic prose. Setting her book in the deep South, Saterstrom gives us a disorienting, visceral vision of four generations struggling with poverty, alcoholism, pills, abuse, rape, violence, and more. Instead of a linear narrative, The Pink Institution has dozens of brief, focused sections that are rarely longer than a page. Each section tells a fragment of a story or lingers over an object, a list, or a setting, forcing the reader to slow down and try to fit each loose puzzle piece into some sort of whole. In several sections, Saterstrom employs different tools to make the reader approach her prose as poetry – in effect, pacing the reader’s progress. She will wrap each word within extra spaces or insert semicolons after every second or third word. I loved reading this book, but when I was done I found myself incapable of encapsulating what I had just read. I think that’s the point. This is a book to linger over and re-read.

Here is one of the less narrative, more poem-like fragments in its entirety:

You expel a seed. Bitch hip dripping operating theater table edge. Girl Confederates, ride out to war. Oxidize Stirrup Bridge with hotlamp vaginal curdle smell. Jowl quiver overhang. Wrap it around. Glove will snatch corner air laid into iodine tile. Fleshpink powder-sucked, he shall pop the milky glove. Rifling through pockets of bloody Rebs, you are women now.

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The Pink Institution includes six small, somewhat indistinct photographs (presumably made by the author) that precede each of the book’s five major sections, with one image serving as the book’s coda. The first four photographs have the dreamy and unfocused appearance that comes from using something like a Diana camera with its cheap plastic lens. If nothing else, these first four images visually reinforce the dark tenor of Saterstrom’s book: a close-up photograph of a man’s arms holding the antlers of a dead deer, a blurry image of a young girl wearing a party hat and holding a balloon or a pumpkin, an even blurrier image of an adult and a small child walking in front of a building, and a creepy portrait of a female in a devil costume. The final two images depict the front and the back of a very young girl in a fancy white dress and a tiny matching hat clinging to the side of her hair (perhaps for Easter). This prim, formal, and shockingly crisp portrait seems utterly at odds with the rest of the book. Saterstrom is clearly trying to end The Pink Institution on a note of restored innocence, but these two images make a jarring close to a book that unflinchingly portrays how violence and familial dysfunction are handed down from generation to generation as if embedded in the DNA. To be honest, I feel that all of the photographs tend to work against the grain of Saterstrom’s fluid, emotional prose, which forces us to reside in the powerful realm of the imagination. The photographs, on the other hand, want to drag us back into the world that is precise and, therefore, limiting.

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