Avant-garde writing takes the tools of its trade and makes them into subject matter. If words are bricks, the writer starts with bricks and constructs a wall of words. This wall isn't intended to express the writer's ideas or feelings, but to show how the bricks and mortar of expressing those ideas and feelings can work, when divorced from them. Walling the reader out operates on her, interrupting her, demanding that she realize she's looking at language, not at a seductive narrative or image. Avant-garde methods include chance operations, and begin from rules; concept matters more than content (though content is often surprising, funny, jarring).
Avant-garde writing constructs a world, but it often appears removed from this one. Recent experimental writing suggests that such writing can be made from the real world, can be a new form of realism. As I proof-read a short essay I wrote on Alzheimer's, I find this sentence: "Experimental writing, which has traditionally started from language and worked back toward a life that considers itself sturdier than it is, can be used to write outward from identity's implosions." Poets now appropriate the avant-garde to engage with forces of history, nature, identity. Or is it the other way around?
Consider Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott. Their new book Decomp begins as concept-question: what happens when you take copies of Darwin's Origin of the Species and you put them in five ecosystems of British Columbia's wilderness for a year? Their only conscious contribution to the project--at first--was this laying down of books. A wait-see. An odd and compelling idea that would not germinate but fall apart. A mode of composition that would end as decomposition.
Their book is composed of photographs of the weathered books, poems, sections called "The Readable" that come from the decomposing texts, glosses, essayistic bits, quotations from Blanchot and other writers, reactions and poems from friends, including Fred Wah, dialogues between Collis and Scott. Unspoken dialogues with antecedent authors hum below the top soil: Susan Howe (on whom Collis has written beautifully), Ronald Johnson, Tom Phillips (where A Humument meets moss).
"Typos in the accidental, a species of form and will, when the form is ever so clearly: cadence as rot," they write on 95. In one of the "Readable" sections we see this: "during the period great piles of or life had erritory hardly." In another this:
Each ecosystem has its own textual form above and beyond loss. Some leave long lines, others short ones. Some ecosystems leave pine needles; others cover their books with a layer of dusky dirt. Some ecosystems leave more to read than others. Some reading is red.
The erasures by nature bleed into human typos: "the fosl of mmigration" (69). The writers are themselves an ecosystem, above and beyond, or at least beside, those of the forests they leave their books in. "An us, with our books, waiting at the edge in a kind of explicatory light, wondering what method mulch is, what understanding ensoilment. What is forbidden returned as litter. Our leaving on the ground, for the ground." Ground is precisely what the 20th century avant-garde wanted to refuse. Like place it was too sturdy a fiction, needed to be displaced. Displacement now replaced by decomposition, because place has regained its place in our world. It is what is most under threat, least to be taken for granted. Place itself devolves, becoming litter. The book is a place in this equation, and what we find in it comes in spite of destruction.
Allegory, then, of climate change? Of destruction as odd counterpoint to Darwin's evolution? Perhaps. But also a return to the avant-garde as politics, a very different form of it. If Futurism praised the machine, its maleness, its tendency to blow things up, then Decomp-ism praises a slower disintegration of the material world, even as it hints at a poetics of more--or less than--praise. Because, while the text is reduced to another kind of beauty than the one Darwin intended, it is also a symptom of unraveling. As in Alzheimer's the destruction of language becomes its remaining beauty. As in Alzheimer's what occurs is "natural," in the sense that decomposition and disease are natural. Until "The Readable" is an empty box only. "The book is buried and we cannot read a thing."
For the ones who try to read the text the forest has toyed with, there is a stark lesson. "At the edge of forest, I'm all mystery of separation; hologrammed immensity of what the forest does with us, with our entitlements" (117). We are the ones who disappear, along with our texts. That we have set this erasure in motion only makes it more pathetic, in the original sense of pathos. We have undone our best words. The forest has done what we knew it would do.
And yet, in the absence of a reader, there is still an interlocutor. Steve and Jordan keep talking. They continue to curate these erasures, and to write off of them, around them, through them. The process is a doing and an undoing at one and the same time: "Us in crustaceous forms weaving what is undone and what is done by our hands' distant cupping. What is to. To our undoing. Joined" (128)