The Invisibility Exhibit, Talon 2008
In our post 9/11 world even (especially?) pronouns are risky. The difference between the already complex markers of me and you, us and them is increasingly great. It seems to me that as a woman, and academic, and a citizen of the world it is my responsibility to take more chances in my writing. As I was thinking about pronouns I happened across American writer Joan Retallack’s “Essay as Wager.” In it Retallack makes two claims early on: first, that writing which is concerned with the present (as well as the future) allows us to “rethink habits of thought by…. unsettling familiar terrain” (1). Her second claim is that the only way to jar our collective thoughts is to have “concern and courage as an artist” (4). I found myself wondering, why courage? The answer that I’ve arrived at is this: to risk the pronoun is to place a bet on hope. For, whether I am thinking about global catastrophes or the minutiae of everyday life I can no longer simply assume that I am heard by you. Furthermore, to think, in poetry, about the pronoun is to wager that there is an audience willing to meet the text halfway. Turns out, it is a risk certain writers are compelled to take.
A striking example of one writer’s attempt to enact a radicalization of the politics of pronouns is the recent work of poet Sachiko Murakami. Her debut collection is built around something, or rather someone missing. Murakami deftly manipulates the fine distinction between these pronouns. Her poetry asks the reader who do you see when you look at a woman on the street? A person, or a thing? Do you see her at all? Or do you only see her when she is gone? The Invisibility Exhibit walks the reader through the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside paying close attention to the people the Olympic planners would rather you didn’t see. Whether stalking ghosts or examining the minutiae left behind, the poet unflinchingly looks into the void left by the scores of women who have gone missing from Vancouver’s Skid Row. The implicit and urgent question here is what damage do we perpetuate when we thing someone.
Her poem “Exhibit A (Boxes)” uses the imperative to direct the reader’s gaze: “Leave the box beneath the tree. Leave parents to their cruelty./ For dinner, try pasta, try fury, try feeding after fray./ Try a split lip. Try Exhibit A./ Open the box: lump of coal, wormy dirt, slap of adult palm to knee,/ you and your big disappointment.” The rhetoric of courtroom evidence is woven with the language of the quotidian around a disturbing lacuna. “Exhibit A” does not have a subject, it has many, or none, depending on what the reader commits to seeing. But, as the poet concedes, not even mighty Charon can “bring to rest/ images of the dead” for whether or not we can spare any change, these dead “never lived” (“Negotiating with the Ferryman”).
One of Murakami’s most effective tropes is the use of repeated images that are subtly threaded through the collection. There is the bag of Okanagan peaches, appearing first in “Portrait of Mother as Missing Woman” (“haven’t spoken since that day/ in the hotel with a bagful of Okanagan peaches/ I didn’t want, wanted her to have”), then in “Poem to stop the Recurring Dream,” (“No one knows/ what’s worth archiving. Peach rot slicked pebbles ripped pictures can’t stop”), and again in “Exhibit D (Peaches)” (“Now she is too thin from her smaller and smaller suppers/…./ a bag of useless imaginary peaches”). There is also the recurring correlation between women and meat, where the faceless man makes the uncomfortable connection between dinner and the news but “swears it has nothing to do with him” (“Meat”). These reoccurring images work to sketch the connection between the reader and the missing: who deserves to be seen? Don’t mistake Murakami here, this is not a question for Vancouver alone, this is a question to you, to Canada, and to the world, whose eyes will be on us soon enough. Which brings me back to my initial question of pronouns. Murakami writes around real absences, the women who have left these voids are irrevocably gone. It seems to me that the function of the pronoun, part of its inherent risk, is that while it may elicit a response, it may just as well hold us all at a distance from one another. Trapped in the grammar of our “social decorum,” we may recognize each other, though we may not act.
Ultimately the demand Murakami makes is, fittingly enough, left invisible: will you continue to look when it is inconvenient? When the spotlights are off and the media has packed up, will you remember these women? “Now that the lab is nearly empty./ What gentleness we muster now, to lift DNA/ from a microscopic edge, to protect/ the whole of the woman contained there” (“We’ve Seen Littler of Her in Life and Less of Her in Death”). By writing around the missing women Murakami makes it impossible for her reader not to look for them.
Erin Wunker completed her PhD at the University of Calgary. Her dissertation, "Archive Undone: Feminisms and the Future" occurs at the interstices of public memory, poetry, feminism, and performance theory.