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At Full Stop: The Paper-Poems of Erica Baum & Susan Howe

By Harriet Staff

At Full Stop, Sam Rowe has a beautiful essay centering on Erica Baum’s recent collection of photographs, Dog Ear (UDP 2011), which “contains 24 close-up color photos, shot with crisp uniformity, of carefully dog-eared pages in old books, with fragments of text from two facing pages running horizontally and vertically and meeting in a diagonal crease.” Moreoever, this is about paper:

Baum is, according to most profiles, a photographer and not a poet, but I’m not sure I buy it: the work in Dog Ear seamlessly integrates process, visual poetics, fragmentation, and the use of found texts, four of the major currents in the past half-century of avante-garde poetry. (Baum’s other work, much of which is now on ubuweb, includes close-up shots of indexes, card catalogue entries, and most recently, player-piano rolls.) Kenneth Goldsmith and Béatrice Gross, who provide an introduction and a post-script to the print version of Dog Ear, say more or less as much, Goldsmith leaning heavily on the multiple paths of reading that Baum’s deceptively simple constructions make available, and Gross dwelling beautifully on Baum’s appropriation of the quotidian practice of dog-earring, considering the fold as both “method and motif.”

One aspect of Dog Ear that Goldsmith and Gross don’t dwell on is its preoccupation with paper: the photos put us into a position of almost stifling proximity with the books that are their subjects, allowing us to see the grain of the paper, its discolorations (Derrida, in the interview cited above, declares “the color of paper” to be “a vast subject”) and stray fibers, and to imagine a certain tactile sensuality in the act of turning down the corner of a page. Yet the photos interdict the very desire for closeness to paper that generates them: as photos of paper printed on paper, they function according to the logic of “mechanical reproduction” that inheres in the photographic form, spectralizing the particular materiality of their subjects. One piece of paper is not just like any another, the photos seem to insist; yet the very possibility of reproducing the photos on different yet interchangeable pieces of paper ironizes this insistence. The same can be said of the texts produced by Baum’s dog ears. The graphic and semantic dissonances that result from the collision of different lines of type at each photo’s central fold are untranscribable, as are the minute blotches and imperfections that the photos make visible, if one looks carefully enough, in the type itself. Yet letters on a page are still letters on a page, and remain legible as such even once Baum’s photos have reminded us that we are not looking at ink on paper and not a “text.” In this way, Dog Ear seduces us with what Derrida calls “fantasies of contact,” simultaneously cultivating and interdicting a desire for closeness to printed words and the books that bear them.

Rowe also looks closely at Baum’s individual pieces:

In fact, the proliferation of invisible text beyond the threshold of the crease becomes faintly perceptible when the books photographed are either old enough or cheap enough to be printed on slightly translucent paper. In “Laceless,” for example, at least three layers of text are visible: that printed on the visible surface of the page, its counterpart on the recto side, and, faintly, the text on the verso side of the previous leaf. It is thus tempting these to call the image a palimpsest. But this isn’t quite right: the palimpsest is about the persistence and eventual decay into illegibility of old layers beneath new ones. . . .

If this weren’t enough, Rowe also brings to bear Susan Howe’s work in common, writing that “Baum’s and Howe’s paper-poems (strange phrase — as if there were any other kind) are powerful because they are caught between two forms of aesthetic compulsion: between the logic within which paper sacrifices itself to become pure medium, and the nostalgia that attempts to recuperate this sacrifice — that is, a nostalgia both for the age in which paper reigned supreme and for the sacrificed body of paper itself.” More about Howe’s The Midnight:

In their simultaneous use of paper as surface and threshold, Baum’s photos recall Susan Howe’s 2003 book-length poem The Midnight. A toweringly complex work that intersperses laconic, difficult verse with prose commentary on subjects as diverse as Howe’s mother (the Irish-American actress Mary Manning), the landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, the rust-belt architecture of Buffalo, New York, and a visit to Harvard’s Houghton Library to look at Emily Dickinson’s papers, The Midnight cannot be discussed with anything resembling completeness here. So bewildering is the poem that Marjorie Perloff devotes an entire chapter to it in her Unoriginal Genius without exhausting its depths, and with only secondary attention to the enigmatic photographs included with the text, which will be my primary concern here.

Anticipating Baum’s fascination with paper as a permeable threshold, The Midnight is concerned in large part with interleaves, bed hangings, curtains, and other diaphanous membranes. The book opens with two photos of the title page of an old edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae: one is taken through the translucent interleaf (a sheet of tissue paper tipped in between the title page and frontispiece in order to keep ink from seeping between them); the other is a mirror image of its companion. These two photos are printed on both sides of one page to create the effect of two interleaves enclosing a disembodied text. Thus, Howe gives us two views of a piece of paper, neither of which records the surface of the paper itself, one of which adopts a perspective that doesn’t exist within the physical architecture of the book, and both of which blur the title page’s text to the point of semi-legibility. It is as if the title page itself has been dissolved by its protective membrane, leaving behind only the impressions stamped into it. Of course, as impressions without surface or substrate, the characters on the title page are, strictly speaking, unthinkable. The characters that denominate Stevenson’s novel are only partially legible, as if dissolving along with the paper that bears them or occluded behind a thick haze — as if suspended in a process of dematerialization that never begins and is never complete, has neither a before nor an or after. The page that opens Howe’s poem, then, visualizes (quite literally) the disappearance of paper and the subsequent birth of the puzzling, difficult object we carelessly call a “text.”

Read (really really) the full essay here.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012 by Harriet Staff.