Kristina Marie Darling

Mar 05, 2018

In her recent article, “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power,” Sandra Lee Bartky argues that for many women, “surveillance, and the self-surveillance prompted by constant observation, is covertly coded as a masculine gaze,” evoking the myriad ways that power and disempowerment are internalized.  Bartky rightly frames looking as bound up with larger institutional structures of gender, authority, and violence, a sprawling landscape of “dead space” and “battlefield illumination” that is reflected back even when we look at ourselves.   Indeed, the wonder and terror of being seen intrude on even our most solitary moments, dictating the terms of our dreaming, inscribing the boundaries of all that we are willing to imagine.

Three recent collection of poetry fully do justice to the complex relationship between gender, power, and surveillance.  Solmaz Sharif’s Look, Jessica Baran’s Common Sense, and Andrew Seguin’s The Room In Which I Work consider, with impressive technical dexterity, the possibility of creating alternative spaces in language, which resist the gaze of the nation state, and which deliberately position those in power as textual outsiders.  Yet these writers go beyond simple reversals of power, envisioning the complexities of language as a refuge, obfuscation as a “kind of game” in which a genuine ethical sensibility stands to be lost or won.  Though vastly divergent in form and approach, these three innovative practitioners share a commitment to poetry as a hypothetical testing ground, where we can reimagine the social order starting with its very foundations:  language itself. 

This implementation of textual difficulty as a political gesture, as a show of both solidarity and resistance, is perhaps most visible in these writers’ approach to syntax.  Here, we have clauses that fit together, yet resist any clear causal relationships that we attempt to impose.  In the work of Baran, Sharif, and Seguin, we are offered the illusion of cohesion, a wholeness that fractures when we look too closely.  As Solmaz Sharif tells us, “There is nothing that has nothing to do with this.” 

Andrew Seguin’s The Room In Which I Work is presented as a lyrical history of the camera.  Because Seguin’s own practice involves both text and image, the narrative reads, in many ways, as a story of literary origin, an articulation of artistic geneology. Seguin envisions the poetic image and the photographic image as being coeval for modern practitioners, who are reared “in this age” of digitized excess, in which all that darkness “might come home as memory with a scalloped edge.”

If the poetic image, as imagined by modern practitioners, shares its origins with the glittering “mechanisms” of surveillance, Seguin prompts us to consider the possibility of reclaiming this vast and far-reaching cultural machinery.  Indeed, many of the poems contextualize the photograph as the work of one’s hands, a product of skilled labor and artistry. “My camera listens for the sun in woodsmoke,” he writes, “its mirror not even / breathing in the dark.”  Here, the photographic image is humanized, and re-envisioned as an artisanal object, one that is carefully curated, deliberately crafted by the individual citizen’s hand.  Even more importantly, Seguin calls our attention to photography as a visceral and embodied language, a lexicon unto itself. 

He renegotiates, in true Steinian fashion, the relationship between signifier and signified within the exquisite tapestry of visual rhetoric that unfolds throughout his collection. The book is populated by familiar archival material, which Seguin expertly complicates, pairing each of these images with hybrid texts that interrogate, and undermine, and their photographic counterparts.  “Authority loves fixed points,” he explains, offering a self-reflexive commentary on the work’s destabilizing effects.   Part of the work’s difficulty, and its pleasure, is the way that text and image together generate possibility. What’s more, The Room In Which I Work allows each of these distinct lexicons to interrogate one another, so that the work reads as a conversation about, and between, the two mediums.  “Lavender, moss, phosphor, squash,” Seguin writes, “from each he asked a secret.”

Solmaz Sharif’s Look, like Seguin’s collection, considers the relationship between language and the photographic image.  She also examines the ways the rhetoric of surveillance infiltrates our most commonplace social interactions.  Here, language, through its implicit hierarchies, its subtle ordering of the world, becomes a means of intruding on, and ultimately shaping, our actions in what we thought were private spaces.  Every gesture is revealed as politically charged, whether we fully realize our complicity or not.  “This is no innocent passage,” she informs us.    

Sharif elaborates,

I see him
between odd jobs in four different states,
and on the video our friend shows baba a picture
of me and asks how do you feel when you see Solmaz?

Here, we are made to understand how this awareness of being seen is inevitably internalized.  As the book unfolds, Sharif shows us the many forms that this self-surveillance can take, ranging from deliberate spectacle to a kind of unconscious censorship in one’s most solitary moments, a silencing that becomes almost second nature. Even more importantly, she reveals the language of surveillance as a presence we rarely recognize, intruding on our psyche, inscribing the boundaries of all that we dare to imagine.  We do not realize that the “threshold” we cross has a double meaning, culled from the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms.  Likewise, we remain largely unaware that the word “look,” in mine warfare, is “a period during which a mine circuit is receptive to an influence.”

What is perhaps most provocative about Sharif’s work is that she confronts the violence that has been enacted onto language, through language.  The words we use are revealed as conduits for various abuses of power, a doorway into the psyche that allows for intrusions, that frightening presence of other within the most intimate spaces of the mind. 

Baran, like Seguin and Sharif, writes against, and in spite of, the mechanisms of surveillance, and the various structures of power that they represent.  Through her gratifyingly dense style, and her innovative use of prose forms, Baran proffers language as an opportunity for both complicity and resistance.  Here, textual difficulty becomes a gesture of opposition and empowerment.  It is the text’s intricacy, the sheer labyrinthine quality of its dream-logic, that becomes as what Julia Kristeva termed “a revolution in poetic language.”  

Certainly, Baran’s work arises out of the same philosophical problem that Sharif confronts in Look, bringing to light the many ways that the mechanisms of violence and power intrude on the psyche through language, that necessary condition of dreaming.  And like Seguin, Baran reimagines the relationship between signifier and signified, creating a new lexicon, one that is not yet implicated by the cultural machinery she resists.  Yet her work is marked by an interest in creating an alternative space through poetry, in which language can be fully reimagined, with violence and threat no longer submerged beneath its glittering surface.   Baran elaborates, in “Teenage Lust,”

Reports disturb:  teenage lust is waning.
Graduate dreams, parental affection—
all fail-safe measures, have, in fact succeeded

in abolishing hallway trysts
during fundraiser lock-ins.  Molly bloom
in high school undoubtedly drew

Baroque notes to a different Leopold. 

What’s particularly revealing about this passage is the way narrative convention no longer means what we think it does. We are offered resolution after resolution:  “abolished hallway trysts,” “a different Leopold,” “the fail-safe measures, in fact succeeding.” Yet the world around us has come undone.    The poems resist conventional logic, becoming a kind a laboratory, a hypothetical testing space for various changes to the order of things.  What’s more, the poet’s hand remains carefully hidden throughout all of this, the pronoun “I” rarely appearing in the collection. We traverse the dystopian space that Baran has created, certain that it is merely façade, that the answer to our questions is stowed behind a locked door.  Much like the work of Sharif and Seguin, Baran’s collection shows us a provocative reversal of power, calling into question “the assorted fictions” that govern our life in language.