Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture by Lisa Robertson (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2010)
Medea by Catherine Theis (Plays Inverse Press, 2017)
Lucinda by John Beer (Marfa, TX: Canarium Books, 2016)
In a recent essay, Virginia Konchan describes the domestic sublime as “a song of praise” that takes one’s “dual identity,” that push and pull between public and private spaces, as its subject. Indeed, to enter “the house of our childhood,” with its “nooks and garrets and stairs and passages,” is to witness the self as it is made strange, to see the public persona one remembers so clearly held at a distance. When one praises this divide, one is singing of the otherness that is contained within the self, finding beauty in the instability inherent in one’s own identity.
Three recent experimental texts pay homage to this duality, this division, with subtlety and grace. Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, Catherine Theis’s Medea, and John Beer’s Lucinda praise the movement between architectural spaces, and between selves, while at the same time calling attention to the problems this poses for a conventional understanding of voice, identity, and memory. Though vastly different in style and approach, these three collections present voice, and the self it embodies, as a performance of the spaces we inhabit, or, more specifically, their buried histories, narratives, and politics.
In many ways, this idea of voice as a performance, as an interpretation of architectural space, is enacted most visibly in these writers’ representations of femininity. While ranging from verse plays to enjambed lines, hybrid forms, and gratifyingly dense essays, these beautifully rendered texts are driven by an interest in the ways that “narrow scaffolds” and “stolen engravings” can give rise to artifice, that visible girlishness which “blooms in tandem with decay.”
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Catherine Theis’ Medea posits voice as an architecture in itself, a carefully decorated room within the room that the speaker inhabits. Though taking the form of a verse play, and framed as a creative translation of the original text, Theis offers her own unique vocabulary of imagery to accompany the heroine’s descent into a broken marriage, substance abuse, and despair. As the book unfolds, the “white flowers” and “vases of irises” that surround Medea elicit vastly different soliloquies and conversations, all of which offer insight into different facts of both her character and the narrative that it gives rise to.
For instance, Medea’s dialogue section when “near the tennis courts of a neighborhood park” considers the self-censorship and erasure of voice that the suburbs, and their implicit gender politics, give rise to,
I’m dead serious when I say all I want to do is drink beer and eat stinky cheese that smells and looks like dead matter from inside an old man’s nose until my middle bloats […]
Though Medea’s soliloquy reads as an interrogation of the space she inhabits, Theis’s use of form ultimately complicates what might otherwise have been construed as a simple argument. In many ways, Theis’s use of strikethrough powerfully evokes the fact that architectural spaces give rise to erasure – of voices, of selves, and of possibilities. The gentrified setting ultimately determines what cannot, and will not ever, be spoken. Additionally, the fragments of language we are left with (“I’m dead serious” and “looks like dead matter”) do not fit together neatly, grammatically or narratively speaking. The incongruousness of these fragments, their ill-fitting clauses, speaks to the contradictions inherent in this dividedness, the difficulty of inhabiting an identity that is so entirely changeable.
As the play unfolds, this problem – of the self and its instability as it passes through “coffee shops,” “bars” and “libraries” – is revealed as an inexorable part of the female condition. In Scene One of the Fourth Movement of the play, Media traipses through a “kitchen,” replete with “a large sign above the sink. It reads: If you dirty a dish / You wash that fish / Off the plate or else!” Here we witness Media attempting to reclaim the domestic, not as a space of labor, but one of collaboration and partnership. When she speaks, what seems like a performance, and subversion, of the implicit politics of the domestic becomes less clear-cut:
Prevention better than tragedy?
Is that even possible?
I’d rather be an atomic flower.
Pretty, but self-imploding.
Theis, through Medea’s provocative metaphor of the “atomic flower,” calls our attention to the violence inherent in the domestic. The female protagonist must inhabit a space that is historically one of disempowerment, performing the function the space demands while at the same reclaiming agency among the “pink napkins” and “embroidery” that surrounds her. In many ways, this “pretty, but self-imploding” vision of womanhood represents a kind of identity in which this implicit violence, this dividedness, is internalized. What’s more, one reclaims agency while at the same time questioning its permanence, especially as one shifts between rooms and buildings. As Media herself asks moments later, “Are you still listening to me?”
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Beer’s Lucinda complicates Theis’s exploration of voice as an interpretation, and an enactment, of the architectural spaces we inhabit. Though drifting from verse to prose, dramatic writing, and hybrid forms, this innovative text is unified by its abiding interest in moments of incongruity, refusals to perform a particular role when prompted. As the work unfolds, Beer embraces and interrogates this luminous aperture between oneself and the version of oneself demanded by a particular context. In many ways, Beer’s approach to identity and voice gives rise to a much larger question: a consideration of whether there exists an identity core, a self that persists even as we pass from room to room.
Beer writes, for example, midway through Lucinda,
Joey: I guess one difference would be that poets write poems. I mean, I write poems. I don’t write philosophy.
Ross & Rachel: Joey!
Joey: I’m just saying. I’m curious. I’m a curious person.
Chandler: You are indeed, buddy.
Phoebe: CHAOS WAITS FOR THE TOUCH OF LOVE TO UNFOLD AS A HARMONIOUS WHOLE! Wait, did I say that out loud?
All others: Uh-huh.
Beer immediately calls our attention to the disconnect between mass culture, a setting derived from the most widely circulated text of its oeuvre, and the texture of the language presented within that seemingly superficial context. He subtly and skillfully suggests that it is the setting, a familiar and widely televised apartment, that renders the language not only strange, but entirely inappropriate. What’s more, by enlisting the cast of Friends to discuss the boundaries of poetry and philosophy, and forcing them to transition between lyrical and colloquial language, Beer evokes the interstitial space between self and performance.
In many ways, this notion of an identity buried beneath what is visible to the world comes across most powerfully in Phoebe’s dialogue section, with those the wildly metaphorical lines she does not initially realize she has spoken aloud. Beer asks us to consider what is withheld as a result of architectural spaces, their implicit boundaries and politics. He reminds us that identity and silence are inevitably, inextricably bound together.
With that in mind, Beer also reminds us that this space between thought and speech is where the self, in all of its wonder and complexity, where what is real and true about identity, resides.
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For Lisa Robertson, architectural spaces are artifacts of this interplay of power between individual and collective, and all of the implicit constructions of race, class, gender, and sexuality that collectivity implies. Like Beer and Theis, she interrogates the interstitial spaces between self and performance, between speech and silence, between rooms within the same “spacio-economic system.” As the satisfyingly dense essays in this volume unfold, Robertson posits architectural space as a voice in and of itself, the articulation of a shared cultural imagination, its valuations, and its hierarchies.
In many ways, this extended metaphor – of spatial design as collective voice, as articulation of power – comes through most visibly in Robertson’s portrayal of archival spaces in “Doubt and the History of Scaffolding.” She writes near the beginning of the essay,
The history of scaffolding has been dismantled. We can’t write this history because there are so few documents – only a slim sheaf of photographs. So we study the construction of the present and form theories. We use the alphabet as a ladder.
What is particularly revealing about this passage is the way that the objects furnishing a given room become an exercise in exclusion, an erasure of voice and its once infinite possibilities. Here “the construction of the present,” its visibility in the archive, offers a window into a culture’s implicit judgments about history, and more specifically, what histories are worth preserving. Indeed, the exclusion of everything but “a slim sheaf of photographs” represents a silencing of not only a particular aesthetics, but a disavowal of the laboring class, its artisans, and their rich discursive history. Robertson reveals this absence as a subtle manifestation of power, a tacit affirmation of disenfranchisement and of hierarchy. In other words, it is a refusal “to register, to list.”
The book is perhaps most fascinating when Robertson engages the disparity between actual architectures and the aspirational discourses surrounding this discipline. Robertson explains that “[w]e believe that the object of architecture is to give happiness.” By describing the pleasure given by inhabiting a particular space as “gift,” suggesting care, forethought, and perhaps a bit of extravagance, is to call attention to the shortcomings of so many rooms, the impossibility of their aspirations, as they accumulate before us.
For Robertson, architecture is a voice marked only by its false promises, its silent wielding of power. It is a shifting power, one that metamorphoses as much as we do the moment we open the door, as soon as we cross the threshold into that darkening expanse. Like Beer and Theis, Robertson gives voice to our own desires within these spaces, as we long for a bit of music to ground us in the passage between anteroom and corridor, a greater “stability in the transitions between gestures.”
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Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty-seven books of poetry, most recently Ghost / Landscape (with John Gallaher; BlazeVox Books, 2016) and the forthcoming Dark Horse (C&R Press, 2017). Her awards include three residencies at Yaddo, where she has held the Martha Walsh Pulver Residency for a Poet, as well as a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, a Fundacion Valparaiso Fellowship, and three residencies at the American Academy in Rome. She is the recipient of grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her poems appear in New American Writing, The Harvard Review, The Mid-American Review, Poetry International, Passages North, Nimrod, and many other magazines. She has published essays in Agni, The Gettysburg Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Iowa Review, The Literary Review, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She is Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Quarterly, Associate Editor-in-Chief at Tupelo Press, and a contributing writer at Publishers Weekly.