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Lisa Andrews

Erasure, Syria
By Susana H. Case
Recto y Verso Editions Inc. 2018
142 pages, ISBN 978-0-692-11672-2

These poems, erasures of 52 days of sequential news on the war in Syria, presented in separate plates within black squares, are an argument for poetry as action, as well as aesthetics. Through redacting, choosing, and arranging, Case forces us to see not only what is potentially hidden from view, but what we may be choosing, consciously or unconsciously, not to see, an extraordinary mixture of what might be considered more purely visual, and the business of words and language. For example, there is the way the word and the image of sugar function in #28.

sugar function-28

We have life, and, after a space (a space where a word, or more, once was), into, and then (dropped down), the next word, directly below “into” is sugar, somehow, suddenly, horrifying, and then, sugar itself becomes an entity, as if it were itself doubled over, the start of a word cluster that begins after a space, a space blacked out just to the right of sugar. In my favorite, #30, the words near the bottom of the frame are somewhat centered, apart from death, which is flush left:

sugar function-30

Each time a single redaction is read, it may be seen/read differently. #3 is a possible description of the redacted:

sugar function-3

[T]he carnage last week (near the bottom of #6) is both a truncated phrase, floating, unmoored and detached from whatever might have been before it, or after it, and a type of headline, detonating against the redacted background, all the more so for the society-page language around it, a constellation of words such as the hyphenated happy-time, and, equally out of place, cocktail and prank. The mention of last week—the news of the carnage perhaps coming late, the underlying unspoken and ruthless acceptance—imply this may well be the case for far more than weeks to come.

[M]other arsenal is itself a casualty of language (#8) and is part of an erasure that reads like a lyric poem, a poem of mourning, of being beyond the last chance.Authorize my /
           casualty / Call in            the inhuman. (Not wildly unlike Lady Macbeth’s Unsex me, though not calling, as Lady Macbeth might, for the inhuman to come forth, as if to battle: this voice is asking for “the inhuman” to be "called in")

Each time I read what is here, I see or hear something I may have failed to notice before. The reader is left to decode, to translate, to decide. These poems are not wildly unlike constellations; we see in them what we will.

Here is the inhuman language of bureaucracy set against the plain-spoken, clearly stated, unadorned, and utterly horrifying fact: people have become skeletons (#9).

Here is the language of government and policy (#17): scorched-earth and mistakes (nearly at opposite ends of the same line), and we let things go too long (suspended a line or two below, and roughly between, those two fragments, and above the end of the plate or page).

And here is the tepid or diluted language of “concern”: the words concerned (devalued even as it is repeated) and concerns (#21). The use of the past tense, the passive voice, the emptiness of being very and deeply concerned. Language that is stern and restrained, even if it thinks itself a representative of “kindness”; language that expresses only what is meaningless.

The phrases hobbled [blacked-out space] by optimism and grand bargain (#27) are frightening. [H]obbled by optimism sounds like some kind of coded language, shorthand for something not allowed to be said, another type of redaction. [G]rand bargain reminds me of “The Great Game,” and also sounds like some kind of “bargain basement” diplomatic-speak, cringeworthy, as diplomacy remains one of the world’s best hopes.

The fragments found throughout these erasures lead me to think of coffee grounds, or of something distilled, or some byproduct of alchemy—like those lines or fragments in the margins of a poem by Brenda Hillman. The amount of space between language and reality, between thought and action is achingly stretched out, attenuated to the point of hopelessness.

The phrase fallen through time (#38, at the very bottom, flush right) reverberates throughout my reading and studying these plates. Syrian lives are falling; words are falling (or failing, or flailing); we are all, if I may risk aligning my comfort with those whose lives are at risk this instant, falling through time. [F]allen through time, however, is far stronger; has no hope within it of touching (safe) ground. Fallen is not pretty, and it is devoid of potential.

[The] “suspected” crematory [that was] free of snow: The horrifying juxtaposition of the word “crematory” with the seemingly innocuous details of landscape or weather (#40). The word crematory shocks us all the more as it comes at the beginning of the bottom line: the roof of the building suspected to be a / crematory was free of snow. How arrestingly out of place, if not alarming, the word free is here: not free from sorrow or pain, as a human being might wish to be, but a roof spared, for whatever fiendish reason, the burden or cover of snow.

In #42, we read: the scent of something like burning hair:

sugar function-42

The unimaginable horror is made even greater by approximation, indirection, itself a type of redaction, the something like. In opposition to this indelible image, we have, in #44, the expression one-off. How disarmingly “breezy” it sounds to the ear; how unnervingly “jaunty.”

Individual words and fragments speak to each other across and within the pages. The placement of these words—as words (words as symbols or objects or images unto themselves); as images (purely “visual” and devoid of any specific meaning); as the objects the words may be understood to represent (rugs bird cages mattresses)—becomes a kind of argument, a kind of balancing act. We have words that may be taken as representative of what remains: the once chosen, now random lost objects of the departed, living or dead. And we have words that are far less concrete. Each group of words is deliberately balanced (literally balanced, arranged on the page, through the redacting hand of the poet), and each group of words may be said to appear to be arranged in order to balance itself against an opposing cluster.

Through the force of language and the impact of the visual arrangement of words on the page Case attempts to balance what is utterly out of balance. We see the attempt, and how bold and fragile it is. It’s almost as if the words were trying their hardest to wrest control, to assert control, in any way possible, however provisionally. It may well be, for words, a balancing act doomed to failure. Whether we were initially susceptible to a belief in the seemingly unlimited possibilities of this balancing act or not, as readers, we cannot help but see and feel the balancing act that remains, behind and in the placement of words. Everything is capable of being read or seen, transformed or taken as something else. What we have been given, what we have seen, however, will not be so easily forgotten.

I read and see (and hear) these 52 plates as snatches of overheard music. The plates are poems, and the plates are prints or photographs. What the reader sees, the reader cannot look away from—not any longer. The words are white hot. They will not let the reader stand/be/remain out of reach(#27, bottom right), out of hearing, seeing, witnessing, beyond the reach of history, of memory, of what is happening even now.

The words bear witness, all the more so for being carved out, set against a background of no words or light. In a reversal of the expected (and unredacted) black type or print against a white page, we have bright white letters against a black background of lost and redacted space, punctuation, and language. What remains, on these plates, are the words that have survived erasure. It is up to us to receive and decode what is in these words, these messages, these images that remain.