Jennifer Firestone's Story
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019)
The setting is rendered at once crystalline as the water, white light glinting off the waves, the heat and brightness of the sun—and grainy as the mottled brown sand, as the air that hangs heavy with salt spray, or as the 35mm film grain by which the scene appears to project itself on the imagination. It’s a day at the beach. As the narrator of Jennifer Firestone’s Story initiates the book-length poem: “A beach at midday in a foreign land read as a good beginning”. The statement is retrospective, as if the narrator were already calling into question the wisdom of such a beginning. As the poem proceeds, this narrative voice becomes increasingly inseparable from the narrative itself (one thinks of Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman) while, at the same time, it strangely splits itself from a protagonist who is “the story.” What is the difference between a narrative and a story, the poem asks, and also perhaps: Is poetry uniquely positioned to explore this difference?
Formally, Story opens onto a spare scene: a single page bearing two couplets with lines of uneven length—an extra carriage return between the lines lending an airiness to the page, the second line of the couplet always indented and placed in quotation marks. One couplet occupies the upper half of the page and the other hovers below, a ribbon of blankness separating them (see Fig. 1). For the first third of the book, this pattern continues unabated. And yet, even as the couplet form dissolves on page 48 into a single line running across the top of the page like a horizon, which then cascades into a stanzaic stack, a brief poetic catalogue—even then, the poem soon returns to the couplet as if coming back to the “tonic,” i.e., as in music, the keynote of a scale.
These three forms—double couplet, horizon line, and catalogue stanza—continue to recur in irregular but rhythmic cycles throughout the book, which closes as it opens, with couplet. The one notable interruption of this loose cyclical pattern occurs on pages 82 through 91 (unnumbered in the book), wherein the poetic line suddenly breaks free from the typographic grid, landing on the page at various angles, as in a Jean Arp chance collage, or, more germane to the medium of poetry—strongly reminiscent of Susan Howe’s spare type-collage poems, down to the way in which the lines are broken and frequently clipped mid-word (see Fig. 2). While this singular section of the book reads as a clear homage to Howe’s visual poetics, Firestone’s collages are aesthetically distinctive. She seems to play more intentionally with the implicit typographic grid and its conventions—with the convergence and divergence of lines away from parallelism—such that the “lines” read as rays rather than lines, perhaps with a nod to the “unrelenting sun” of this day at the beach.
In the collage section of Story, Firestone manages to exploit the connection to Howe’s type-collages in one other subtle and rather ingenious way: Whereas Howe’s compositions are made up entirely of appropriated or “quoted” texts by other authors (either photocopied directly from books or typed up by Howe from original manuscripts), in Story, the collages are comprised of self-quotation, of lines recycled from previous parts of this book. Not much more than halfway through its own telling, Story begins to consume, digest, and cite itself—in effect, to write itself baldly as a text (i.e., this collective, repetitious cultural production), rather than attempting to maintain its originality, singularity, or its essential nature (as, for example, when we assert that each person has their own “story,” or when we regard that story as synonymous with the person).
Story questions and uncouples the relationship between character and narrative. As one couplet reads:
You were a stranger to yourself but strangely moreso to your story.
“First, and then second.”
The first line of the couplet introduces the nonidentity of story and person: Not only is the story not the person, the story may fail to recognize the person to whom the story may be said to belong—in other words, its own protagonist. Here, a further distinction is drawn between a person (“you”) and a character (the “you” inside “your story,” i.e., a protagonist). Furthermore, in Story, this relationship between person and story, as between person and character, is frequently marked by antagonism. The story manipulates the person by reducing them to a character who is subject to a controlling diegesis, or to the necessary causality of narrative sequence: “First, and then second.”
Moments of antagonism appear in the overt violence of a line such as, “The story made his body flip repeatedly” and “The story is dominating with its ferocious scope”. Its dominion also registers in the subtler sense of control permeating lines like “They shook the film from their skins and tried to break through” or “The film persisted as she watched herself perform.” The film, as proxy of the story, operates as an imprisoning or constraining structure, as in a “film” on the surface of water that might trap bodies below it (e.g. a film like an oil slick). The narrator informs that “The characters would like to drift, swim,” but the story demands action, conflict, a narrative sequence of events, the “Camera’s insistent sequencing of stories.” We get the feeling there will be no drifting, since, “The writer likes trauma. / The audience likes trauma.” Elsewhere, a couplet performatively enacts the story’s despotism—the second line reading as a direct command from the story to its characters:
We like conflict, climax, and then control.
Throughout Story, Firestone exploits the yoked form of the couplet for dramatic effect—emphasizing the separateness of the lines almost more than their conjunction, such that each line functions as one of two tracks running simultaneous to each other: as in the video and audio tracks of a movie, or as in an image and its caption. Above: the narrative runs continuous, unfolding the “story”; below: a broken flow of images, as in a filmic montage. (One thinks particularly of the films of Chris Marker.)
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin describes the way in which film, through its inexorable sequencing of images, effectively internalizes the photographic caption, which otherwise appears as a supplement to the image. In Benjamin’s view, the caption is an instrument of political pacification. Whereas photography, occupying an ambiguous space between aesthetic object and historical document (“evidence in the historical trial [Prozess]”) challenges “free-floating [i.e. purely aesthetic] contemplation” and “unsettle[s] the viewer,” the caption mollifies the viewer by dictating a socio-politically appropriate/safe reception of the image (e.g. rather than seeing inequality and oppression in images of wealth, the caption teaches the viewer to see a desirable lifestyle). Through sequencing that operates as an implicit narrative, Benjamin argues, “The directives given by captions to those looking at images in illustrated magazines soon become even more precise and commanding in films, where the way each single image is understood seems prescribed by the sequence of all the preceding images.”
“What a bastard this story, spreading into the space,” Firestone writes. Story operates as a poetic interrogation of narrative’s tendency to proliferate, permeate, and appropriate everything to its rational (from ratio, proportion) and teleological impulses. At the center of Story is an unnamed traumatic event. The narrative dubiously organizes itself around this event; one could say that narrative in fact produces it and simultaneously annuls it. It lends a logic to the event that robs it of its power to disrupt, its eventness.
However, unlike the internalized captions of film or the explicit captions on advertising images in illustrated magazines, the captions (if that is how we read the second lines of the couplets) of Story do not anchor the narrative; they do not consolidate a message. As in photography in its most potent form, the poem confronts the reader with a language hovering uncertainly between the aesthetic and the political, between art and evidence. The reader must then ask of the poem: What is it that flashes up, and what might we glimpse, if we can simply hold open, even momentarily, the interstices of a story? In Story, a cynical narrator puts the question conversely: “When a story / writes itself as one is living it / how complicit are you in its fiction?.” But the poem leaves us with another thought: When a poem unwrites a story as one is reading it, what do you discover there, moving beyond either fact or fiction?