Laurie Clements Lambeth
ERASURE AS RECLAMATION
I admit I'm new to it, so I am no expert on the art of writing erasure poetry. I also do not consider myself an heir to the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E school of poetry, from which some poets and critics believe erasure emanates. But I love a good experiment. In particular I like the way erasure stretches my mind and my work, how it makes me read differently, how it distances me temporarily from my native narrative-lyric impulses.
With erasure, the poet enters a dialog with the original text, "erasing" or crossing out some parts of it, while highlighting other parts. Mary Ruefle's erasures are beautiful little parcels, and her book A Little White Shadow dances with the original text, barely covering certain words with white-out, creating not only Ruefle's own spare poems on its pages, but allowing the original text to haunt the poem, in effect evoking a sense of palimpsest, layers upon layers of history, of language, culture, and human emotion.
I have written "found" poetry before, and erasure feels just a few paces away from that. My poem "In Japan, Woman Can Doze with Man Pillow," began when I noticed that some lines in an AP article with that headline rhymed and seemed like the core of a villanelle ("It keeps holding me all the way through," and "this [pillow] does not betray me"), so I incorporated them and other parts of the article to help construct a villanelle. Of course, erasure is a far cry from a sixteenth-century French form, and it straddles the border between poetry and art. However, like certain traditional poetic forms, erasure takes away some possibilities for excess, and allows a kind of flourishing within a cage. With erasure, the poet creates the cage through negation (liberating), and cannot add new words (limiting). In this way it's kind of like a game or puzzle.
For the erasure printed here in Wordgathering, my first erasure, I used a recent report from an MRI of my brain.
MRI is one of the main evidence-based tools for diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, and it helps doctors understand the progression or stasis of an MS person's condition. Sometimes a person experiences symptoms for which there is little evidence on MRI, and sometimes the MRI picks up more disease activity than a person with MS notices in his or her body or cognition. For instance, at the time the MRI was taken, my left leg was stiff and weak, but no "enhancing lesions," the ones that would show new disease activity, appeared. My doctor acknowledged that this sometimes happens. I am blessed–and I must stress this, because the erasure is a bit cheeky and I don't want to seem ungrateful, only aware of ironies and entering a dialog with evidence-based medicine–to live near a thriving medical center where I can get top-notch care and can view reports online. The actual MRI images themselves do not come through online, unfortunately.
My knowledge is limited, then, to the report given by the radiologist who reads the images. Does this sound like any other kind of literacy? Think back a couple hundred years and picture illiterate masses going to worship and being told how to understand scripture. Only here, it's a narrative of my body, of my brain, which I can only understand through the filter of a different kind of cleric: a medical professional who neither knows me nor lives in my body but can decipher it through language. And that's a bit curious, because we all know what power language wields. When the radiologist writes that "Lesions [are] too numerous and confluent to count," I want to step inside those words. I inhabit them, anyway, don't I?
Or do I rent them? Even here, I love the double-edged association of renting as we do property, but also ripping, tearing those words used to describe my body.
What I inhabit, of course, is my body, and reading the report with its normal/abnormal findings, its detection of my lesions closing in on one another or joining and lengthening their reach, my black holes of permanent damage unchanged, and its evaluation of my current brain volume, speaks volumes to me about what I can do to imaginatively reclaim that brain and the language (metaphors!) used to describe it.
In this way, erasure is for me a project in excavation.
The dig led me in different directions than we usually use for reading. Wanting to make the erasure look like a poem rather than words scattered here and there across the page, and wanting to open the syntax, I learned to read vertically. What words or phrases appeared beneath other words? What syntax or rhythm did that create? What meanings or associations? Instead of reading sentences as they were intended, I created phrases and clauses from what I found. A reader may read my erasure differently than I intend–perhaps as two vertical columns–but that's the spirit of the form. At certain points I drove the poem more than others. Medical documents like this have a definite poverty of verbs. For instance, the word "left", referring to the left side, appears a couple of times in the first paragraph of the radiologist's report, so I made that into a verb, and was able to choose the location that I felt best suited the mood and silences I wanted to evoke.
Silence is perhaps where my brain joins the words used to describe it, and the space for silence feels a bit like my brain insisting upon its own space, its own volume and voice. Its (my) own story.
My first look at erasures came in a couple volumes of poetry I encountered doing preliminary judging for a poetry book contest. I first thought, what is this? And then I thought, what IS this, with wonder and awe. Some poets and artists draw continual scenes, near doodles but much closer to illuminations, eroding the text by drawing over it. Some poets black out the text as redactions, such as those in confidential or classified documents, or rewrite them as Nick Flynn does quite powerfully in his "seven testimonies (redacted)," in The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, where Flynn reprints entire testimonies by Abu Ghraib detainees, displays the erasure with black redactions on the inside cover of the book, and rewrites the erasures in stanzas along the margin within the book. Wave Books, who published Ruefle's A Little White Shadow, has an erasures "game" you can try with texts they have collected here. There, the words and punctuation are partially erased on screen.
With this first erasure, "Examination: MRI of the Brain with and without contrast," I attempted to black out the text first, but found that white-out provided a certain fragility and texture, and I could keep portions of words partially legible, delicious words like "pontomedullary." I do wish the original document looked more like something one would receive on paper from a hospital, but alas, it arrived via a series of clicks. With that in mind I quite obviously taped the logo that appears on the webpage before clicking through to the actual test result: "Baylor Clinic: It's personal." It can be read as a threat ("now it's personal"), a reclamation (this is personal information that I am taking back), and a customer service claim to serve the patient on a personal level. The logo seems to circle, like a spinning wheel on a board game, and one interpretation informs the next and the next: threat, service, reclamation, threat. With erasure one story, one text informs the next, and they circle back upon each other, endlessly spinning, opening and closing, simultaneously with and without contrast.