Review: Andrew Zawacki’s VIDEOTAPE by Daniel Scott Parker

Zawacki-cover

My younger brother is now a filmmaker in Atlanta. I’ve got nearly a decade on him. A year or so after I’d finished undergrad, he called me and asked if I’d ever seen A Clockwork Orange. I told him I had. He went on to explain that, having known it was supposed to be a classic, he’d invited a girl over to our parents’ house for a movie date. “It was the worst date ever,” he explained.

Last night I watched Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video for the first time. Thank god it wasn’t a date. Andrew Zawacki’s Videotape is nothing like A Clockwork Orange or Benny’s Video (Videotape would be just fine for a date, especially in Paris), but Haneke’s 1992 film reminded me of the role videos play in our sense of reality. Videotape does this, too, and poetically examines the phenomenology of the camera while reminding us of our fraught relationship with language.

In Videotape (Counterpath Press, 2013), Zawacki tests the limits of language, crowbarring into our epistemological penny pigs that we’re so used to banking on. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—break it.” The book buzzes with the digital noise of the language of new media, but Zawacki doesn’t take his language exclusively from prosumer technological jargon. There’s also the analogue practice of 16th century Japanese ceramics, textiles and fabrics, or the harder science of dendrology, for one. “Poems should also not be indexed,” writes Marcella Durand,

“but rather understood through a spectrum of scientific and emotional knowledge, including common-sense intuition, which is the amalgamation of all sorts of knowledge and vocabulary, gathered from reading newspapers and watching television, from watching how water pours into a sink, or from adjusting one’s body to walk down a street. This way a poem can enter the spaces between observer and observed in a more necessary way.”

It’s a new kind of polyglossia, this composite lexicon, which could potentially yield a formidable and daunting terrain for unaccustomed readers. But that’s okay. Poetry isn’t supposed to be easy. In a short piece on poetics and the poetic practice, Michael Palmer writes, “I have felt identification with a poetry of a certain kind of complexity and resistance—resistance in terms of resistance to meaning in the simplest sense . . . resistance, let’s say, to pre-inscribed meaning.” And this pre-inscribed meaning is exactly what Zawacki wants to bust open: “-us is a semaphore,” the poet tells us. Before we’re too quick to read the -us—too indiscreetly as part of the anteceding phosphor—on the next page we’re given this: “while a Lazar- / us us is us / -hered by the afternoon to / rise, receive the storm.” Us us is us, unyoking any discrete signified from the two letters we often internalize as the pronominal objective signifier. Or the United States? And I can’t imagine the poet isn’t also hinting at the fact that, although us us is us, us is almost is, too.

I just opened the book again and came across this: “blowing / its antecedent to / muslin glass: no / longer a language for / a love for what it / it is.” But I’m not surprised. The book follows its own code, recreating its own DNA. Zawacki’s words love the language for what it is, and what it isn’t, and can only exist through a new- or mis-understanding: “Signal glitch is a cut flower.” And the polysemy at play isn’t only a concept in the work; elsewhere we see more clearly the fracturing and multiplicity in moments when “a trillion mini / miroirs among the mullions / composing, composting the bank, / to show the singular, macular / sun what it looks like—severally.”

In his piece on poetics, Palmer cites Zukofsky, who has said, “Don’t worry about the sense for now, just listen to the noise, and if you like the noise, come back and figure it out later.” Everything I have read by Zawacki has always throbbed with lyric and music, and no doubt he gets the value of noise in experiencing the world:

“Noises that Skype us, scuff us awake: a moto coughing, donkey next door, the imam at 5 a.m. Muzak of the spheres: electronic tropics with Duracell birds, waves breaking in lullaby from a mobile set to ‘nature.’ Poltergeist & guttural: to mutter, là-bas, as the Niger does—muddied, & with a mouth.”

Mough is what I initially and accidentally typed, which is what I must have heard in the glottal slough-speak of the river fango.

Videotape highlights the unheimlich nature of language and how its defamiliarization is a way of creating new forms of meaning. Palmer’s essay, too, considers Jack Spicer’s “investigation of the play of loss and error within the poetic sign, his investigation of the perversity of meaning in the poem, the uses of disjuncture and counter-logic,” in which we might say that “the unraveling of the sign was involved with the unraveling of the subject.” Like Spicer in this sense, Zawacki’s modus operandus is to explore those moments of disjuncture, loss, and the value found in both the anti and the double exposed—to catch a “breath of fresh / error.” The first section of the book is called ERRORMIRROR. And in terms of concern for the subject, Zawacki underscores the epistemological acrobatics that are actually involved: “this I I tightrope walk a wire with.” When I is I as lens, as it is for most of Videotape, the question we need to ask is what it means to see, or to see something when the it, or when the I isn’t there. “In the frame of a Sony portable cam, I is everything that is not the case.”

As with I is everything that is not, the ontological premise of the text is its negative image, and with this “Nonontology . . . the planet is enhaloed with holes: andscape, endscape, in-, e-.” On the first page, this: “a 60-watt sun uns / -crewed from the / woebegone sky: rip- / rap & coal slurries.” The sun undoes itself “crewed,” or, crudely, or, in a RAW image format. We experience the scape of Videotape through a digital negative, which isn’t itself usable as an image but has all the necessary info to (re)create the image. RAW images are known for having a more dynamic color spectrum: the ROY G BIV 2.0 is wasabi, Fanta, grenadine, “saturating the view / -er & the view.” And the rip-rap and coal slurries? Digital noise, I’d imagine, in the diffused 60 watts halflighting the camera’s subject.

Zawacki touches the hot stove of language, just to see what will happen. As with ERRORMIRROR, there is much play with the portmanteau, suggesting that words actually perform the function of translating meaning, but what we really discover is that language is “as if a trap / door in the trap door.” Inside each word, there is a room. And inside each room is another room.

—or the word with

-out a language/

a ligature

sound-/

surrounding its sing

-le event, like a chain

saw loose in some angel’s

mouth, teething a wound in the

structure/ the suture, as a storm.

There’s the storm the poet calls us to rise to and receive. What is a word without a language, or an I/eye without a landscape? “[T]he syntax of where I stand is where I stand.” I can’t help but read an ecopoetic preoccupation in this work. “[T]he figure in any landscape is the landscape,” and yet, “‘[l]ocation is where the camera is’”: “‘I remember that month of January in Tokyo,’ the narrator says, ‘or rather I remember the images I filmed of the month of January in Tokyo.’” In coming to grips with this, there is “the knowledge / this will be watched by someone,” that “the world exists to end up on DVD.” But “[t]here is another world,” the poet assures us, “& it / is this one . . . the window with // a view of the view.” This is the world behind the camera. Zawacki digs his nails into the relationship between language, landscape, identity, and the camera as a means for unifying subject, object, and agency.

If documentary filmmaking can be thought of as the corner of an actuality as seen through a sentiment, Zawacki’s Videotape could be thought of as the corner of a sentiment as seen through an actuality as seen through the lens of a camcorder. In the (non)space of the lens, subject and object can become conflated, so although we have a speaking, seeing eye, it is the referent that becomes the lens: “Au petit matin / unspooled from its cartridge, / haze filter / fitted, the futter and wow, / a gobo to cut down on / Luberon lumens / & cyan à la / Cézanne.”

Second generation Futurist Encico Prampolini, who helped conceive of a spazioscenico polidimensionale futurista, or a polydimensional scenospace, demanded “the immediate and radical removal of all static, painted scenery and its replacement by dynamic electromechanical scenic architecture of luminous plastic elements in motion.” In other words, his desire was to remove all boundaries between observer space and image space via technology. The lens—ironically, perhaps, in ecopoetic terms—achieves this.

But if there’s a nonontology in Videotape, there’s an ontology, too: “That things mean by being.” But what isn’t said is that things also mean by being seen: “klieg lights / thru a window / write a window / on the wall.” The window is made window in light. Location is where the camera is. I videotape, therefore I is.

Zawacki chroma keys Montparnasse over Dixie, Syria over the Appalachians, and in varying opacities “choreo- / graphed to laughter / & to lifelike- / nesslessness.” Abstracted iconography allows for more fluid and variable meaning than does absolute representation. Sometimes in order to get closer to a thing, you must move further away. But even close has its own bag of party tricks, for as Francis Ponge might insist, the gap between près and proche is immeasurable. So how do you get closer to everything? I mean inside and outside the words at the same time. A word, too, is a kind of photograph. Click is a word. Hear its noise: here, it’s noise: Click.

One of the epigraphs to the book reads —edgeless, and partial to nothing—. Initially I scratched out nothing and wrote everything? But now I realize the epigraph is right: because an openness to everything is both a partiality to nothing and a predilection for everything at the same time: “Uncon- / cern with everything but / care for / every thing.” After all, “[t]he center equals all asides aside.” Think, the sun, severally. “The center is liquid, lakelike,” and “whatever / is not water is / what water takes its form / & color from.” Inside and outside, more than contrapuntal, become mutually informative and forming. “[T]he / re’re insides in / side the inside & out / sides in there too,” “turning / round a turning / cage, like a cubist / Rubik’s Cube.”

Again, Zawacki poses questions that are ultimately of ecopoetic concern—that to get some kind of grasp on identity and language, one must consider the world: “What is the world. What isn’t.” Or, “As if to render a center / peripheral,” “[t]he center, ici, is elsewhere’s edge.” Ici, or, here, is the stillpoint, the moment that the camera is able to freeze in spacetime. Take a picture; it’ll last longer.

In a piece on exergue and the ex-cinema, Akira Lippit writes that “[a]n exergue locates an outside space that is included in the work as its outside,” so outside is never truly outside but instead calls into question the interstice that frames the body of work, thus “blending [it] into one, a single work whose inside and out are no longer distinguishable.” I take this, in part, to mean that an exergue simultaneously concretizes a work in time (here Lippit cites a reading of Nietzche by Derrida) while also unhinging it from a past and future into the moment of shadowlessness of an always-already present. This is true on an emotional level as well as theoretical: “I’m / scared to hell of the fuck if / I know, / that something will take you, before I can go, / & haul me with it while / leaving / me behind: / a man can unbuckle at / nothing, at night—like a ripple / peeled back / from a blade.” At its core, Videotape is about trying to remain present. The last entry in Videotape begins “33˚5’16”N 83˚14’0”W” and ends, simply, “—here.” Zawacki’s discrete “here” is unstuck from the rest of the text and is locked in a moment, at least for the moment, of specificity.

The last section of the book is called “TRACK B: ZEROGARDEN.” It’s hard not to think of this Zerogarden as the site of the post-postlapsarian, where, after the fall of mankind brought about a new kind of knowledge, there was the fall of language, which brings about a new kind of knowing. But how do we read this final section? Is it presumptuous to take zero as 0, and this then to mean nothingness, or better yet, nothingnesslessness? Or perhaps is it a symbol for unity, for wholeness, for circularity, with no discernable beginning or end. And the garden: jardin, from the Old French for enclosure, concealed, protected—yet a jurisdiction for growth, renewal, arrival, and, like April, an opening? After all, “the feedback loop / it seines for a tearing.”

 

-by Daniel Scott Parker

 

References

Durand, Marcella. “The Ecology of Poetry.” Ecolanguage Reader. Ed. Brenda Iijima. Nightboat Books, 2010.

Grau, Oliver. “Intermedia Stages of Virtual Reality in the Twentieth Century: Art as Inspiration of Evolving Media.” Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion. MIT Press, 2003.

Lippit, Akira. “Exergue Ex-Cinema.” Ex-Cinema: From a Theory of Experimental Film and Video. University of California Press, 2005.

Palmer, Michael. “Counter-Poetics and Current Practice.” Active Boundaries: Selected Essays and Talks. New Directions Books, 1985, 2008.