In his essay collection Ozone Journal, Peter Balakian defines “shadow” as a “force that follows something with fidelity” only to “cast a dark light” on that person, object, view, or perspective. For Balakian, this fraught proximity — a closeness that blocks the line of vision — is one of the most essential characteristics of a work of art. After all, it is what we sense, but do not yet see, that beckons us farther into a half-lit room. The careful architecture of a poem — a space that is gradually illuminated for the reader — depends upon all that is hidden as a necessary condition, much more so than the visible beauty or significance of a particular image.
Three recent hybrid works fully do justice to this intricate relationship between secrets, shadow, and the aesthetic imagination. In Henry Hoke’s Genevieves, Kirsten Kaschock’s Confessional Sci-Fi: A Primer, and Matthew Rohrer’s The Others, the unknown emerges as a source of both light and its surrounding darkness. Though vastly different in style and approach, these three writers share a gift for a skillful and calculated withholding, the suggestion of a buried narrative “quietly ghosting” all that is immediately perceptible. Here, what is hidden offers an invitation, an occasion for collaboration between the poem and its reader, creating a third space that belongs to both of them (and at the same time, neither of them). Each of these texts becomes “a glass bridge between buildings,” the beginning of an incandescent structure that is built across temporal, psychic, and geographic boundaries.
Early in the 20th century, modernists described this kind of innovative text as a “machine for generating meaning.” The poet’s task, then, was to guide the reader’s imaginative work, slowly revealing a vast and luminous fictive terrain without limiting what is possible within it. In the work of Hoke, Kaschock, and Rohrer, this graceful movement between revelation and concealment is most visible in their treatment of familiar narrative structures. We are uncertain whether the “pursuit” is ending or beginning, as the reader almost always finds herself “where it all began.” “You will wonder if it was the threshold,” Kaschock explains. In each of these beautifully rendered collections, uncertainty becomes a “window,” an “entrance,” and an “invention.”
Hoke’s Genevieves, for instance, reads as a ledger of what cannot, will not, be said aloud. Presented as a series of intricately linked hybrid texts, which are each themselves comprised of discrete episodes, Hoke’s writing allows uncertainty to accumulate in the space between things. These absences, the “silent” and “unsmiling” gaps between prose narratives, articulate — through their expertly-timed jump cuts and ruptures — a question that is refined over the course of the larger collection. In this subtle and beguiling book, Hoke asks what happens when we refuse to speak, whether this refusal constitutes an end — to discovery, knowledge, and self-actualization — or possibility, a beautiful “doorway” opening “with a flourish.”
Reminiscent of early twentieth century experimental films, particularly their creators’ prediction for montage, Hoke reminds us that silence, and the subsequent lack of a clear narrative, make space for the other, inviting “the Crowd” in all of its problematic splendor into the room. He writes, for example, in the first section of this haunted and haunting collection:
Weaponize your juvenilia.
There are only so many times you can come home before you have to decide why you’re there. Before you have to decide when you’re getting away. Carolina sat.
There was a soft cough outside her door. Carolina opened it with a crack and met her half-brother for the first time.
I’ve also been hiding, he said.
Hoke offers a seamless matching of style and content, as the preponderance of secrets in this Southern family is enacted within the behavior of the language itself. Here the connections between things, the transitional language we are so accustomed to, is purposefully admitted. For example, each sentence, and the widening expanses between them, asks of the reader a leap in logic, point of view, and syntax. This movement between perspectives is perhaps most visible when the speaker’s half-brother walks through the door (“I’ve also been
hiding…”). Like a room opening inside what we thought was a single room, the narrative generates possibility through these abrupt shifts in rhetorical modes, and the line of reasoning that each one represents. As Hoke’s prose ambulates between ways of seeing, and the elisions they give rise to, we are prompted — inevitably, irrefusably — to locate ourselves in this gorgeous imagined topography. Hoke himself explains, “As I slip below the waves I’ll see light.”
Kaschock’s Confessional Sci-Fi: A Primer continues this engagement with concealment and its seemingly infinite possibilities for readerly participation. Here, too, the transitional language we have come to expect is skillfully hidden from view. We are offered a montage “brimming with chocolates,” “cigarettes,” and “dipped carnations,” all stripped of their narrative artifice, that unnecessary ornamentation. Similar in structure to Genevieves, Kaschock’s discrete prose texts represent a dialogue between facets of the same voice, or parts of the same consciousness, rather than a conventionally unified narrative. Her elliptical and gorgeously fractured texts — and the echoing space between them — also becomes metaphor, instructing us as to how the work should be read, engaged with, imagined with.
For Kaschock, all of thought is a conversation, evoking what Mikhail Bakhtin described as “the dialogic imagination.” Just as she responds to and interrogates her own observations, deconstructing the various ways of seeing that she inhabits, Kaschock prompts her reader to do the same. Consider the transition between sections in “After Museum,”
To the museum’s visitors (a collective to which you know belong) the two-way guide is a winged primate, atrophying.
The first room is one woman. A strung-out. She is laid on a loom, and her eyes have accepted this.
Kaschock’s presentation of the “woman” reads as a response to the images of community that are presented in the first stanza — that “collective to which you
now belong.” As the poem unfolds, she refines these recurring questions of choice and agency, considering our roles as readers and consumers of mass culture. More specifically, the text posits the human mind as a museum, exhibiting the various ephemera, cultural symbols, and pieces of language that have accumulated within it — mementoes that we have not necessarily chosen ourselves. As “the museum’s visitors” wander Kaschock’s display of elusive, elliptical hybrid creations, they become themselves curators, and Kaschock is implicated in her own incisive, thought-provoking cultural critique. Yet the moment we think we have discerned intent, “it all flies outside and into the porchlight like moths, of course and forever…”
Wonderfully ambitious and fully realized, Rohrer’s The Others engages similar questions of readerly participation and, more specifically, the cultivation of a shared consciousness through art. In the book’s sprawling fictive terrain, the constant presence of the other within the self — that eternal alterity — is a shadow story that haunts the narrative proper. As the work unfolds, it is this secret, hidden most of all from the speaker of the poem, that is gradually revealed, understood, and dramatized beautifully in the style of the writing itself.
Early in the poem, Rohrer’s speaker makes frequent reference to “the others,” speculating about their inner lives. “At least I always assumed the others hated their jobs too,” he writes. Here, and elsewhere in the opening pages, we encounter a clear divide between subject and object that is skillfully interrogated, and incisively deconstructed, as the book unfolds. Indeed, the polyphonic, collectively voiced style of the poem complicates this line of thinking, positing all of thought, and our life in language, as a shared endeavor. The project often takes the form of a linguistic collage, a carefully orchestrated assemblage of attributed language. For example, he writes,
“It wasn’t real, I think, but I saw it for sure. The image was broadcast To my brain to see it.
So I saw it, I guess.
“Well, that’s not really much of a ghost story, Ron. I’ve actually got one. Can I tell it to you?”
In much the same way that the story takes up haunting as one of its primary considerations, we are made to see voice as persistently inhabited by language and rhetoric that is not one’s own. This idea manifests perhaps most visibly in Rohrer’s use of dialogue. This passage, like many others in the collection, transitions swiftly between quoted sections, the narrative arising from what is really a chorus of voices, a vocal and dissonant collective. With that in mind, his technique not only becomes commentary on the narrative, but rather, it becomes the narrative. It is this provocative tension — between what is explicitly stated and all that is implied by the behavior of the language itself — that drives the collection. What’s more, this disconnect, this gorgeous complexity becomes an aperture, a doorway through which the reader may enter the work’s vast and radiant fictive topography.
Much like Hoke and Kaschock, Rohrer purposefully refuses exposition, bringing to mind Objectivist poets like Oppen, Niedecker, and Zukofsky. Yet The Others situates this rich artistic tradition in a dialogue with more recent conceptual writing and the lyric, ultimately refining their initial question, that lingering doubt as to whether the aesthetic imagination can exist in isolation. Rohrer shows us that voice arises within the context of a community, and that we are indebted to it, whether or not we fully realize it. As Rohrer himself reminds us, “the gate is already down / and the trap has been sprung.”