Poetry News

On Artist Moyra Davey's The Problem of Reading

By Harriet Staff


Rachel Levitsky and Ariel Goldberg have had the minds' eyes to write about Moyra Davey, the artist, photographer, and writer of incredible clarity (she'll show New Yorkers at The Poetry Project this Wednesday) for Jacket2. An excerpt from "A same time speed: Moyra Davey's 'The Problem of Reading'":

Davey’s “problem of reading” is not the problem of close reading but rather the problem of the habit of reading. In particular reading choices. Davey’s essay is a progression of thought and collected research through that progression. The essay is embedded in a volume in which the text takes turns with Davey’s photographs as well as photographs by JoAnn Verburg and James Welling. Verburg’s subjects are overshadowed by the newspaper in their hands and Welling’s are close-ups of intimate scripty handwritings with leaves and feathers as their flattened companions. The photographs are all “about” reading, but what do they do in terms of the progression of the essay, how they more than lend a claustrophobic atmosphere, remains suspended.

I’m reading Damnation by Janice Lee, an ekphrasis of Béla Tarr’s films. It is a book that among other things addresses time and cinema, or image, against the time of narrative. Both of these writers pose the question of correspondence between the time of writing and the time of image. Take for example the case mentioned above, in which Davey switches from talking generally about the subject to talking about herself as the subject invoking herself by using a “she” pronoun. We know that the position of interpretation has shifted. You cannot make a pronoun of a character change in a photograph as you can in a progression of sentences. You can’t represent the writing in the photograph or the photograph in the writing but what Davey does do in both is produce a corresponding or same time, speed, and affect. Deeply contemplative. Sort of slow. At least steady. There is a trust to the next footfall, like a walking meditation. It’s a modernist time. Virginia Woolf. Calvino. I have no patience for Harold Bloom and I was interested in Davey’s patience with him, the crotchety adult with mean requirements versus pleasure, play, politics.

Additionally in both the photographs and the essay, Davey is tracking a sense that proliferation exceeds the measure of her (attempts at) steadiness, progression, control. At the limit between her work and the place of its making is a feeling of out-of-controlness, i.e. the ever-present horror: how much there is to read. Her work pronounces (confesses?) with humble honesty while indulging in the narrative of process. Photographs serve as the intermediary. Holding space, keeping horror at bay.

Inside The Problem of Reading lies a critique of how in our present, everything is planned, announced. There is intentionality in doing a project and then there is the unplanned present of something you cannot predict. Davey both maintains a Kafka-esque, absolute enrapture with a text, while muddied by the curiosity into any possibility, what she might miss, what may not have place. The contradiction of mastery and childlikeness.

Read it all here. And definitely check out Moyra Davey's The Problem of Reading and Long Life Cool White.

Image at top: Still from Moyra Davey's Les Goddesses, 2011, HD video with sound.