Essay Press, 2007, ISBN-13: 978-0-9791189-1-3 / List Price: $12.95

Reviewed by David Berridge

The autobiographical has always been part of Kristin Prevallet's conception of a "Documentary" or "Investigative" poetics. In her essay in Telling it Slant she sets herself a "RAPID EXPERIMENT", a "ONE-DAY DATA CLUSTER RESEARCH PROJECT" to "MINE HER MEMORY OF PERSONAL AND CULTURAL EVENTS" of the year 1968. Her essay for Fence on what she terms "Relational Investigative Poetics" concludes with the notion: "Relational Investigation signifies the dehomogenization, the fertile contamination of poetry. Through these practices, poetry is infused with the flow of larger reality, a space occupied with objects in constant motion, and with people – us – who exist in relation to both our personal histories, our political inheritance, and the strata of the land upon which we are standing."

None of her previous collections, however, have approached the autobiographical with as sustained, direct and intense a focus as [I, AFTERLIFE] [ESSAY IN MOURNING TIME], which collects a series of responses and explorations following the suicide of her father. One of the first publications from Ohio based Essay Press, its individual sections are woven together both by the notion of the book as an "essay" and by an exquisite, thoughtful design. The opening of the book appears to be a carefully choreographed series of black and white pages, where different configurations of author and title appear, as if in different relationships both positive and negative.

A [PREFACE] outlines the circumstances of her father's death in objective and descriptive tones: "My father walked into a hospital. Outpatient. He was suffering from severe panic attacks" (xv). But, as Prevallet begins her book "The narrative goes something like this." It is the incompleteness and uncertainty suggested by that "something" which becomes her main focus. The supposedly objective description generates questions. What purports to be a narrative is formally a set of fragments rarely more than one or two sentences. The visual form mirrors the conclusion's affirmation of absence "But this is not the whole story. The whole story is gaping with holes. The "hole" story is conflicted, abstract, difficult to explain" (xvii)

Prevallet's essay, then, does not unfold an argument towards a conclusion but seeks to inhabit this space of gaps and holes. Part one of [I, AFTERLIFE] is called [FORMS OF ELEGY], like the title suggesting an endlessly proliferating network of brackets within brackets. The opening section "The Sublimation of Dying" can be read as a kind of primer with its twelve sections titled: Mythology, Homonym, Dream, Distraction, Will, Marginalia, Art, Distraction, Maxim, Fear, Grammar and Conclusion. The titles suggest a variety of methodologies, styles, languages held together in an unstable, open system. Each of the individual sections is also a working out of relationships, of ontology and difference, as in the opening section, Mythology, which sets the tone for what follows:

In time there are contraries and opposites.
In the sky there is either a savior or a flaming ball of fire.
The son and the sun are one and the same; they exist
   Simultaneously but in different forms.
One and the other are one and the same.
Rocking forward and backward.
Wavering in the subatomic netherworld, preoccupied by thoughts
   of mourning. (3)
Prevallet enacts a kind of thought that proceeds associatively, moving forward, constantly turning upon itself, as when she writes "dis-//APPEAR." [DREAM] for example can begin with simple declarative statements such as "I sat! and "It was night" before building through that both to some emergent statement and an almost simultaneous critical reflection upon that statement:

The means of arriving through and around the facts of longing,
   and the need to extend beyond the personal and out towards
   the intolerable present.
Through the words that are in me I decipher the night,
   and then remembered that darkness has its own resolution. (3)
How an investigative poetics works in relationship to other systems of representation is evident in [CRIME SCENE LOG] which returns to, and works with the scene of the crime, and the police procedures and reports through which her fathers suicide became represented. In [CRIME SCENE LOG 11.20.00] Prevallet prints ten black images. The squares evoke a host of visual references – Reinhardt, Rauschenberg, Malevich –suggesting that across the uniform descriptive surfaces of the police report a variety of textures and tones become apparent. Knowing Prevallet's previous works we can see evocations of the charred books of Anselm Kiefer, or also, thinking of their shape, some drastically altered, blacked out or erased passport photograph.

The images are captioned by edited extracts from a police crime report: "Forced entry pronounced dead….at 15:54 hours…." And "They thought that seemed unusual" The editing of the text and the images both suggest a mystery and a context. But, aware of a host of avant-garde conventions for considering image-text relationships, Prevallet does not want the experience of this section to be a consideration of the ambiguity between image and text. Two short texts prefacing and concluding this sequence of images, offer a specific frame for viewing what is contained within them, reminding us "The text that is grieving has no thesis: only speculations.//There is no resolution to this story because emotional closure is impossible.//"Nothing" is closure.// False closure: notes written at the scene of a suicide to express, narratively, the scene of the suicide."

A collage and intercutting of forms and materials and contexts has been key to Prevallet's poetics in both Scratch Sides and Shadow Evidence Intelligence. The same methodology is at work here, with a considerable difference of tone, amongst the evidence of a private life. In [EULOGY] Prevallet describes how amongst her fathers things she finds a copy of D.T.Suzuki's Manual of Zen Buddhism, reproducing her father's notations, which she responds to with her own reflections: "We are not born. We are not annihilated. So where are we?" (28) Prevallet observes that her father seems to have read as far as The Kwannon Sutra which reads: "If being are to be saved by his assuming a State-Officer's form the Bostash will manifest himself in the form of a state-officer and preach him the Dharma." (35) She imitates this form and, in a playful and critical conversation with her father and the Kwannon Sutra, adapts it to include both contemporary references and the attitudes and stances of a New York School poetics:

If a person is to be saved by a herd of elk
then a herd of elk will appear to the person
and lead him to the sunward side of the mountain.

If a person is to be saved by a person who understands the Dow
then a person who understands the Dow
will appear to the person and teach him about investments. (35)
The second half of [I, AFTERLIFE] is comprised of a single section, [THE DISTANCE BETWEEN HERE&AFTER], articulating how "As a political position, I hold on to grief". They explore paradigms of thought that have emerged out of her father's death, although the process of doing so leads her to think in broader contexts of global death and violence. Many juxtapose a way of thinking that accepts uncertainty – the "gaps" and "holes" – against a false certainty: choosing "elegy" over "afterlife", "chaotic" over order. Building on physical acts of building shrines of ever changing objects, Prevallet chooses poetry as the language and methodology for this state of uncertainty characterised by its quality of "spatial distance":

There is an immeasurable distance between the mind and geography that makes walking a landscape tenuous… Certainly presence and awareness can connect a person to the land they are treading. But usually a mindset of spatial distance prevents a person from ever being one with the world. (47)
And, in a slightly different context:

The lack of communication between the living and the dead makes the living wild with fear. It is in this distance, the space between, that grieving finds form in poetry. (48)
Most of these reflections are in prose. Lyric poems explore the same territory through commitment to a world of imagery, where, as throughout the books, there are repetitions, echoes, reversals, tracings of elsewhere, elliptical in ways both more distant and more intimate:

"How mighty are the fallen"
tree-necked and crashing

to the ground
sacred spotted giraffes

pistol-bound to the throat
two-directional hit

one up, one down
red is a fountain

gushing uncontaminated

collapse standing
yet falter, falling

felled and left there

hailing "the end
of the world." (57)
In an [AFTERWORD] Prevallet ends her book with a story from before it began, a fishing trip with her father that follows on from her mother's death. In another text echoing and re-working the Kwannon Sutra, she makes a series of demands of nature in her search for proof as to an afterlife: "I said, if there is an afterlife, then make a fish jump now. Nothing happened. I said, make a dragonfly appear across my line of vision now. Nothing happened… I concluded that there is no afterlife. My father appeared with two fish, he put them in the cooler. I looked back at the stream as we drove away, but there was nothing. I saw what was there. Only this: it was autumn." (63). Seasons have mixed status as meteorological phenomenon, poetic tropes, fixed categories and chaotic flux. A perception that "sees" and "makes" seasons is appropriate for the investigative and relational poetics this book so powerfully demonstrates.

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