Reviewed August 1, 2014 by Valerie Witte.
“you stand the figures / in a circle and behind / like the bed sheet indentations of someone who has left / each one a person in the light that shines through / each letting flicker as it slips”
What’s so striking when reading erica lewis’s murmur in the inventory (Shearsman Books, 2013) is not so much what is on the page as what is left out—the disconnection among assorted body parts, the gaps inherent in a set of lyrics, the distance between partners now parted, the blank response to unanswered questions, what can be seen in the reversal of a film negative, the mystery inherent in perceived ghosts. murmur is at its most fundamental an inventory, as it were, of such fragments, inviting the reader to puzzle through the collection and make sense of the language given—as well as the information withheld.
Like with any great collection, the underlying significance of these fragments when assembled as a whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. These items come together to form a narrative (of sorts) that explores many aspects of human existence, and throughout the story, where one apparent truth ends, the other begins, or rather, the place where two opposing ideas meet is completely blurred. And so we are left pondering life and death, partnership and aloneness, reality and fabrication, body and mind—and everything in between.
look at your hands
in the shape of a tree branch
body steering the mind
out of the way
the force compels the character
makes a zero of things
leaves behind fragments
trumpeting into an empty drain
you see that split between atoms
say i’m bleeding on my own body
but i can’t speak outside the things i mean
i mean this place has failed us
states have a history
you gather something you leave something you’ve been hauling with you behind
it is hard to stumble across a fictitious version of yourself
confusing the movement with the dancing
of course you love the monsters
how the sky turned white how everybody froze
i suffer mornings most of all
relying on signals for comfort
you would feel negative towards a square of paper
but i like the sound of that word kite
we look up to discard the weight
Here, we are witness to the ordinarily invisible and seemingly insignificant “zero of things,” the power of negation that is more often than not overlooked. And that negation, expressed, for example, in the phrase, “you would feel negative towards a square of paper,” can be viewed as a reference to a photographic negative as well. Though less directly than in other works by lewis, in this book the prominence of visual art, particularly photographs, emerges. The notion of a transparent sheet of negatives has many thematic echoes in the text—the elusiveness of honesty in human relationships, one’s personal and ongoing search for identity, the perceived presence of a loved one after their departure. These negatives underscore what we do not see, what exists in the spaces where we typically do not look.
In her previous books, lewis’s text interacts directly with artwork that accompanies the poems. Those books also explore how people relate to each other and to themselves. But in murmur, the text itself is the artwork: “elsewhere and elsewhere we can almost remember / this is a photograph of real life this is the only chance you have at real life / the place where things are cut.” And like photographs, these memories, though representative of one’s past experiences, do not represent reality itself but are merely one depiction of a history, edited by our own fallible memories and tendency to block out what we do not want to remember.
And yet, what can such transparency expose? In this text, everything about a self is laid bare. In an interview with Alicia Coombes for Art Animal magazine, lewis acknowledges this, noting that the work asks, “when everything you’ve known has been stripped away—when the thing that you thought was your identity is no longer how you can define yourself—then who are you? How do you know you’re still there? How do you survive when you’ve already disappeared?” The process of exploring these issues of identity as seen through negation and fragmentation forms the premise at work at the heart of this book.
The book’s treatment of fragments is particularly effective and most tangible in its depiction of parts of the human body—in most cases, isolated from the body as a whole and often presented as somewhat incidental—“I touched those eyelids as objects,” “this spurt response caught in your head / or window your faceted object,” “hands on the ceiling / it won’t replace / right where you would fall,” “your eyelashes / jumping into my chest,” “what you can’t predict / to the bone / stop trying / for a mouth to repeat in,” “already a man without lips,” “i carry your face as water / this is why i beg.”
But the body and its parts are not merely incidental to this narrative—they are inextricably attached to the function of memory as the speaker tries to assemble the narrative of her own life. As the physical body breaks down, memory remains, though partial and flawed, attempting to fill in the spaces left by the hollowed body. “I have long since lost my hands in the circuitry.” The speaker’s body having fallen away, she relies solely on the circuitry of the brain, on the ever-present compulsion to replay scenes of the past, no matter how painful and no matter how vague or incomplete the memory is.
I was the sea
in the house where the noise started
a thousand miles of it
i forgot i forgot
to ask you everything
The recurring, almost obsessive, refrain of forgetting is a clear illustration of the prominence of memory to the narrative, even when it fails: “i no longer remember the exact date only the month and year / there was a rare electrical storm and I just watched it sweep across the sky / a lick around the perimeter and then you forget.” The speaker clings to memory in her search for understanding, as a source of explanation of what has led her to this place of deep-rooted uneasiness and doubt. Yet the text reflects a strong sense of ambivalence toward memory in terms of both reliability and effectiveness in working out the problems of regret and finding a way to move forward:
the past seeping in and in
forms as silent observers
that dirty fallow feeling
it draws you in hopefully
it stays with you
everything very very angular and small
but you see the ebb and flow
wants to knock you out of your complacency
means to an end that refuses you
The way the book is structured further contributes to the sense of fragmentation and haunting that permeates the work. The complete lack of punctuation between words, phrases, and sentences lends a ghostly resonance to the text, simultaneously challenging the reader’s desire for understanding and offering room for interpretation. This is evident in the few prose passages where the phrases bleed into and out of one another, with no clear delineation, creating an effect that mirrors the instability of the speaker as well as the idea of floating in and out of consciousness, of recognition, of memory:
say you have died but disclosure doesn’t necessarily lead to enlightenment the more clearly the past is revealed in fact the less the characters seem to understand one another or themselves it isn’t insight that binds it’s the absence of it
This fracturing of text/self is clearly felt through the main book structure as well. The work is essentially composed of disembodied phrases—it is a long series of individual lines seemingly disconnected but combining to create a thematically cohesive whole. And the gaps between and around these lines are representative of the absence that lies at the core of the book, demonstrating what happens, mentally and physically, in such absence.
The effectiveness of these fragments is also due in large part to the intimacy they create, like the best song lyrics. Concise and spare, and without sentimentality, murmur’s lyrics depict a specific, yet universally relatable, emotional state, with doubts and insecurities keenly observed and felt. As a song invites a listener to embody another person’s, or character’s, experiences and associate them with one’s own, in building a scaffolding upon which the narrative’s impact rests, the speaker struggles to build a more complete set of memories. These lines reveal a deep sense of longing, of reaching for another time and another possible outcome to past difficulties that continue to leave an impression on the speaker’s psyche. And in references to body parts somehow separate from the body as a whole, they illustrate the disintegration not only of the body but of the sense of self.
memory resolves to nothing but what’s upon us
like the men we used to be
bailing wire and duct tape
a sort of fissure left standing there
the way the sun has coppered our faces
like spectres like pilot flames
every now and then
we all just wait for a minute
for things to draw near
i put my wrists in
a little ghost to lick your palm
these lines of thought and fracture
which i repeat back
i say them quietly back to you
These lines embody the sense of the necessity yet futility of continuously reflecting on the past, and the body’s inability to contain and process these thoughts. Such poetic lyrics address the human struggle to find meaning in life, while acknowledging at some point that the uniquely human need to unlock such mystery may never be fulfilled. They convey the wistfulness with which one often views the past, yet carry with them the recognition that the innocence lost long ago can never be recovered.
These feelings of regret, encapsulated in the desire to return to “the men we used to be” are echoed in the closing pages of murmur, in which the speaker yearns to go back to the way things were—or the way she remembers them—yet is resigned to the fact that this carefully constructed inventory is all an act of mental processing—that these “memories” may not accurately reflect reality; that a seemingly “simple” relationship may not be salvageable; that a true “reversal” may not be possible.
lately i’ve caught myself feeling
this is a fairytale
better get my shit together better gather my shit
let the ground know who’s standing on him
you’re in this condition of doubt
you have to throw the right way or you have to let go
you shouldn’t be trying to juggle your own fire all the time
such collapsing bleeds under the skin
the body is akin to the conspiracy but because it cannot be rational is makes it clear it does not matter
time stops and you are reminded that human relationships can be both
simple and unsolvable
So, how do you make something meaningful—substantial—out of mere fragments? One answer this book gives us is this: by operating with such sheer honesty that one cannot help but see the connections among the fragments; by enabling us feel the impact of each part and the space around it; and by showing, with quiet conviction, the presence within the absence. Put another way: by cutting open a body to reveal what the parts are doing, and how the parts are constantly working together to keep a life going.
The book’s preoccupation with what once was or what might have been and what consistently, relentlessly haunts us—the dead, the unreal and imagined—proves that ultimately, ghosts are everywhere. This space, like all spaces—is populated with “spectres,” whether in the literal sense of the spirit of the dead, or in the haunting realization of something gone missing, or wrong, and the unsettled sensation that this leaves us with. In either case, the feeling of loss is palpable, as we think about “the way that people die into existence.”
if you repeat the names they disappear
between water and a line of type
a lump in my throat
blows into the tubes located at your shoulders
the hole in your lip is bleeding
you don’t know what to think so i’ll tell you
both are true
there are no neutral storms
memory or loss bores holes into you
here’s what happened here’s what some people say what happened
i can’t separate the two
The power of this book lies in the gaps, in the cracks in reality and splintering of expectation, in the questions that remain when two people part:
Can a relationship withstand separation?
Who do we trust and what can we believe?
Can we ever really know a person, including ourselves? Who is more mysterious?
What happened? What did people say happened?
Are you real? Am I?
Are you leaving? Will you ever come back? Will I still be here when and if you do?
Are you OK?
In the end, these answers are left out of the telling—and that is kind of the point.
* * *
Valerie Witte is a member of Kelsey Street Press and co-founder of the Bay Area Correspondence School (BACS). Her chapbook, The History of Mining, was published by the g.e. collective in San Francisco, and her work has appeared in various journals, such as Barrow Street, VOLT, Interim, and Letterbox. Her manuscript, A Game of Correspondence, was a finalist for the 2013 Gatewood Prize (Switchback Books). Check out her work at valeriewitte.squarespace.com.