Lucas Smith reviews About the Author Is Dead by Pascalle Burton

Pascalle Burton, About The Author Is Dead. Carlton South: Cordite Poetry, 2018. ISBN: 9780648056836

 

Lucas Smith

 

About the Author is Dead is a self-conscious book. Not in the sense of being painfully narcissistic or  reserved, but in its ever-present awareness of what Barthes called the ’tissue of citations’ of which all writing is constructed. If the consensus is that we are now post-original, post-genius, post-inspiration, then what is left? The works of others.

These are sprawling, spacious poems, and Burton, who is also a visual artist, musician and animator, has a clear voice that shines through the layers of allusion, citation and inventiveness with form. The book features narratives, lyrics, erasure poems, Oulipo techniques and significant use of special characters.

The book is divided into two parts, ‘About the Author’ and ‘The Author is Dead’. ‘About the Author’ opens with the three-page poem ‘bodies breathe in by themselves’. The title makes no assumptions, beginning with the very basics of human existence and doesn’t assume any particular subject or addressee. The poem makes use of non-standard poetic devices including check boxes as on a questionnaire, and a ‘blinking’ cursor. There is a clever paradox: ‘no one can afford to breathe’, and some of Burton’s most characteristic writing:

even though I have no grand illusions

I need Miranda July to read me my horoscope

maybe my grand illusion is my lack of one

(5)

Back-tracking, name-dropping, questioning, searching, confessing, citing, this is how Burton works through her material. The irony that your citations may not be what you think they are, or what you want them to be, that you can never completely co-opt an allusion, is summed up in a humorous aside about Moe Tucker.

I heard that Moe Tucker was

once a struggling single mom working at Walmart

           

I had five kids, I hadn’t worked in a year and a half. Desperate wasn’t          the word. I’m not a pushy person, but I leaped out of my seat screaming.

I can’t tell you how pissed I was.

 

and I heard that Moe Tucker was

a Tea Partier

(14)

The insights of post-structuralism are compelling but they do present creators with problems. Once the implications of textuality are laid out fully, authors run the risk of negating their own work from within the work. Taken to an extreme, we must agree that all understanding is an illusion, and communication, if it occurs, is random luck. If we don’t have any hope of being understood as authors, then what am I doing right now? At the risk of being too earnest, Burton’s ‘meta’ seems at times intrusive.

this page is not the this page

this page is another page clogged

(9)

Okay, but what am I reading then? As with most of this kind of writing, a lightness of touch is essential. In ‘archive fever’, an otherwise engaging poem, there is a cheap post-structuralism

we are writing our retractions as we speak

we are not who we say we are not

we are not saying anything

(47)

Ultimately no signifier can ever be pure negation. It is simply not possible to not say anything.

Burton is at her best when her gentle irony shines through, for example in a parody of the opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s famous Christian conversion poem ‘Ash Wednesday’:

we are both in this room feeling

we are both in this room

we are both feeling

(11)

In ‘transaction’ poignancy and humour combine.

‘you are the best thing to happen to me’

 

 

he is instead in the throes of a decision that, yes, he will

buy his own coffee plunger for the office. he is

over having to wash it

because the person who last used it was a slob

‘why are people such slobs?’ he thinks

(56)

Later in the poem a parody of academic life is juxtaposed with helping a child deal with the loss of a pet.

he is unaware he will never read

thomson using freud to introduce

derrida on heidegger on death

(57)

And the absurd juxtapositions of contemporary life are laid bare, the high and low, mingled under fluorescent lighting in front of motivational posters. Burton’s work is a place where, as Bella Li suggests in her introduction, texts can separate, amalgamate, and recombine with each other to become ‘new substances’.

Burton makes frequent use of non-standard textuality, including internet notation. The poem ‘the future is but the obsolete in reverse’, is a circular structure of words surrounding its title featuring a ‘refresh’ button in the bottom corner of the page. The poem ‘machine made out of words’ uses an Oulipo technique of letter substitution to generate several parodies of William Carlos Williams’ famous lines about the scarlet woodcart.

a red whimper

bassoon

 

glazed with ramification

wattage

 

beside the white

chimeras

(34)

And that’s not even the best one.

But the standout piece for me is ‘flarfing ginsberg’ with its hilarious line ‘join facebook to start connecting with allen ginsberg’. Flarfing is a poetic technique using random internet search results and collaboration to produce outrageous or shocking material. Burton’s flarf isn’t vulgar or shocking, but deeply ironic, ending with the lines

overestimate the importance

‘that’s not an accurate quotation’

(53)

When Burton peels away some of the layers of tissue and writes simply, she can be powerfully moving, as in the quasi-traditional in subject and style, ‘changing my perfume’.

Sleep helps you avoid everything

wastelands to bossmen

to magic tricking darkness in the stillest deep

with Jesus and Buddha and royalty

(18)

Cordite Books, or the author, or whoever decided to add the extremely helpful notes at the end of the book, which detail some of Burton’s methods and references, should be commended. They helped me avoid going to a screen for answers while immersed in this book.

About the Author is Dead is an expansive book, with wide space, in the text as well as the blank page, for the past and the future to intrude, invited or conjured by its citations, stories and dialogue. It adds a compelling layer of tissue.

 

Lucas Smith is a writer and writing teacher based in Victoria.

%d bloggers like this: