Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No Poetry But in Fact: Allison Cobb's _Green-Wood_

[grave site at Valley of the Temples, Ahuimanu, O`ahu]

A gravestone offers facts: name, dates, relationships. It also--through these same channels and that of its narrow platform--offers poem. The gravestone is in equal measure original (here lay one particular person) and derivative (formal choices few, language abstract). The hyphen between dates turns us all into quotations.

Allison Cobb's Green-Wood traces the history of a cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. It begins aptly with two head-notes: quotations, titles, names, dates. The poet doesn't yet speak for herself, but first through an 1857 book about the cemetery by Nehemiah Cleaveland. His words are transplanted into hers:

You are about, kind Reader, to enter and explore a still yet populous Village of the Dead. Through its labyrinths of roads and footpaths--of thicket and lawn--you will need a guide. Take one that will be silent and unobtrusive, and not unintelligent.

By virtue of its being quotation, that last sentence sounds a note of humility, but these words describe the poet's mien, her task. She is no Virgil, more a ranger, or arranger. In the final section of her book, Cobb makes several poetic moves that she soon turns against: "That arc, it's fake," she writes (127). After one particularly high-flown phrase, she re-turns back: "No that's Poetry-swagger, false, a cover like / the cemetery = sleep" (129). Swagger is false metaphor, is the Victorians' substitution of "falling asleep" for "dying." Graveyards are incomparable places.

Metaphors there are in this book, but they emerge from square sections of text. The book's form is that of short prose paragraphs, slabs really, or gravestones that appear on the page with aisles between them. It's there reader walks with poet: "Wait. I came to know the place by waiting. Not waiting. By standing still and also walking. I lived. From the Old Teutonic stem 'to remain'" (8). Cobb's book often traces words back to their origins, stems, in this way. But the poet takes reader on a tour of life between its origin and end. That pathway is historical, not transcendent, even if part of the history of the cemetery is embedded in Cobb's research on the American Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Beecher Stowe among them.

If there is a starting place to this book for Cobb, it's 9/11. I can't find the marker just now, but Cobb writes of hearing about the attacks on the World Trade Center off the radio of a delivery truck. The driver too happily announces there will be revenge; he promises that the unmarked cemetery that lower Manhattan becomes will be replicated elsewhere. This is reproduction, but of a deathly kind. Among the graves are many of people killed on 9/11, others of soldiers killed in Iraq. Beside the stones Cobb finds objects:

stars and stripes pinwheel glow-in-the-dark
muddy stuffed bunny face
down near Crescent Water

Batman action figure
frog riding a bicycle
Virgin of Guadalupe pen

DADDY WE MISS YOU pumpkin (33)

So much unsaid, yet visible to the eye: American patriotism (jingoism), the Hispanic/Catholic dead father, perhaps a soldier; the autumn season (with Halloween lurking in the pumpkin); the kids' toys; the odd humor of a frog riding a bicycle. Cobb calls these "juicy intervals" (33).

Although the objects appear at seeming random, they make an awful sense, one that draws the poet into the story. On one walk, Cobb finds an airplane part, clearly off the Airbus on its way to the Dominican Republic that crashed in November, 2001, making that autumn even more grim. (It's easy to forget that anthrax was traveling through the U.S. mail during that time, as well, dealing its own manner of death and terror.) On the discovered tag is manufacturing information, a kind of headnote in the airplane's memory. Having recorded the PART NO. of the airplane, Cobb notes that "The first five digits match my Social Security number" (32). The moment is sublime, but it's a bureaucratic, corporate sublime that draws a witness into its vortex. The uncanny identifies a "horse of disaster" with the poet whose eyes are glued to her grove of graves.

Before I return to groves, let me quote another bit of connective tissue, one about connection: "Ovid in the Fasti wages a pitched battle between order and chaos says the classicist Barbara Weidon Boyd. She discerns patterns in the seemingly unrelated episodes that keep sending us back, inviting us to make new connections between previously unconnected phenomena" (93). The cemetery does not come with a map, but with these landmark passages that teach us how to read the book about the cemetery.

And again, of Emerson and Benjamin: "Each focused on the minuscule as a container or concentration of the whole, hoping to encounter in the small and minute not just emblems or symbols but an actual instance of the all in concentrated form--as Benjamin wrote, the crystal of the total event" (120).

When you begin to stitch connections, you find yourself linking activities: walking, observing, researching. You stack up histories: Revolutionary, Transcendental, the Vietnam War, 9/11, Iraq. You put together etymologies, facts, objects, land, birds, 19th century collections, trees. You put many of these in lists, along with the names of drugs and pesticides. You take down names of the dead who have left their influence in the poet's thinking: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Linnaeus, N. Cleaveland, Alfred Russel Wallace, Walter Benjamin, Birute M.F. Galdikas. You note land that has been taken and/or devastated from the American Colonies to Papua New Guinea. You consider that the poet is at once naturalist, historian, citizen, and mother.

Or, she wants to be a mother. Cobb, who is partnered to a woman, undergoes fertility treatments, has frozen sperm shipped to her doctor, tries and tries again. She walks through the Village of Death, and cannot seem to enter a region of new life. Presented as fact, the name of the fertility drug, Clomid, bears affect in its trace. There is no baby at the end of the book. That is not metaphor or narrative arc. That is fact.

America is death-drenched, but cannot grieve. Like Emerson his late wife and then his son, America digs up its dead and then keeps quiet. "Of these experiences, Emerson recorded nothing" (72). Like Mayor Bloomberg, perhaps, Emerson was embarrassed by grief. Of some families he spoke to a year after 9/11, Bloomburg said, "It's not my business to say that to a woman, 'Suck it up and get going,' but that is the way I feel. You've got to look to the future" (72). The silences of the private sphere become screams from the public, another of the graveyard's paradoxes.

A cemetery's future lies not simply in its dead, but also in its trees. Cobb writes lists of the trees she sees at Green-Wood. She also writes about arsenic that's used as a preservative in wood. And she chronicles the perverse process of transplanting trees to New Jersey before planting them at the WTC site because New Jersey's climate is the same at that of New York City. "Those that can't adjust--the weak and the dying--will be 'culled' before planting" (70). When Green-Wood gets too crowded, an old tree is cut to clear the ground. Fertility and infertility alternate in the cemetery, but perversely, through human agency (transplanting, culling, poisoning, cutting, treating).

The fact of art a trace (9). Facts are made things, not truths. In this book, Cobb has constructed her paragraphs to offer us traces to the facts we make. Fact is not inert object, then, but a series of connections, the tissue of stories we tell ourselves about American history. The back jacket tells us that this book is "poetry" and also "American Studies." But what I love most about this back cover space is that, though it folds over a book of epitaphs, it offers up no blurbs.

What the book does contain is "heart pillow wrapped in a plastic grocery bag" (38). No aura here, but an amazing work of documentary poetry. Gravestones, like photographs, are not original, but the (mechanical) re-productions of image and text in Cobb's book offer us a point from which to contemplate our own citizenship, and to hope to parent a better world.

Allison Cobb, Green-Wood. Queens, NY: Factory School, 2010. Buy it here.

For more on Factory School, click this link.

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