Perpetual Breaks of Strata

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Rarely has a book of poetry offered such total, and carefully constructed immersion.

Every once in a while, when our schedules permit, my girlfriend and I trek Upstate, or out to New Jersey, and make the rounds of estate sales. I like to think of it as treasure hunting. I’ve wound up in soggy, crumbling Victorians packed wall-to-wall with sex toys and pornography, or low-key ranches filled with breathtaking original art. The point is that you never know what you’re going to find. That’s what makes the whole thing exciting.

In one instance, in a basement lined with padlocked steel doors and rusty, obsolete machinery, I uncovered a phonebook-thick stack of papers, rubber-banded tightly and stained with water damage. After removing the rubber bands, flipping through some of the papers, it quickly became clear that I was audience to the home owner’s life story. Here was a copy of their immigration forms, their proof of citizenship and medical school transcript and licensing application from some Eastern European country. Years of this person’s life unfolded in my hands, page after page. They received an award for their dedication to helping others, sold and bought property, made carbon copies of their correspondence to their peers, and then, abruptly, I had reached the last page. There was nothing else to tell.

Reading David Wolach’s Occultations, his 2010 poetry collection released by Black Radish Books, brought back that day in that musty basement with those water-damage pages in the best way possible. Rarely has a book of poetry offered such total, and carefully constructed immersion.

In Wolach’s work, scraps of text float uneasily atop scanned images of confidential documents, inky, Xerox-quality images hover throughout the book like omens. About halfway through the book, we’re given a hand-drawn diagram, seemingly explaining the text’s placement on the page, scribbled notes connected with arrows that say things like “feed back loop,” or “Windows of what? Or For?”

Wolach layers text upon text, smudging lines with strikethroughs, gray boxes, as if he were self- consciously presenting his process alongside the work. It’s occasionally muddled and confusing, but more often thrilling—chipping away at some sense of authorial identity, these pictures of ear lobes, nipples, windows—filters clogged with dead skin and shed hair. Wolach writes, “as if we ever made a name, it was the, later they, later still, it. how abstraction drowns a river, how oxygen needs be said just once more for oxygen to become its opposite.” In the crowded, junked-up space of Occultations, text can’t exist without imposing its very body upon the space of some other—and often what’s being hidden speaks volumes.

The main text is broken up into six sections with titles like “modular arterial cacophony” and “body maps and distraction zones.” Each section has its own distinctive feel, form and tone. The writing therein is both highly technical—a blurb on the back cover name-checks a slew of poetic techniques such as “procedural interference” and “affiliative appropriation”—and playfully inventive. For example:

Our lacquered surfaces stand nose
To nose, we made this feed
Back loop, now this feed
Loops back, our words catch
In the wire mesh

This is the kind of book that I was comfortable writing in. After finishing it for the first time, I went back through with a pen in hand, marking up nearly every page, drawing arrows of my own, looking for answers, working to uncover the covered parts. I bracketed chunks of text that seemed to contain what I was looking for: “we collect like coughs on glass, stains, your mouth runs to the pane with furious. breath to [wipe off] breath. [a preferred] breath. with thumb and. compulsion. what orgy. fragile stains. whose.” Or, my favorite: “paper organs altering shoreline after shoreline after up to the [sick] smell of a rope-burned neck. thankful, dying, spent.”

The real standout of Occultations is its “body maps and distraction zones.” Here, everything that Wolach has worked so hard to destroy construct for us is on display in full force. Each “Distraction Zone” begins with a brief explanation, much like an obstruction, for example, “…written while watching 1) online homemade pornography (no audio), and 2) surgical imaging stills of the inside of my urinary tract. Oscillating between viewing (1) and (2), 30 second intervals.” The ensuing poem, entitled “(muted domestic pornography)” is all the more effective because we understand its context, the fact that it filtered through like an ooze:

Tensing with a perverting here
Here the sheen of a slowly open

Curve a depth I’ve seen this before
Before I roamed corporate clinics

My holes are a constant testing
Ground perpetual breaks of strata

Occultations is a fascinating—if not totally accessible—book. After reading through it a handful of times, it remains elusive in my memory, like so much of life’s light. I was reminded of the moments in the car, driving home after reading those documents in the basement of that estate sale, wondering what happened to that man, why his belongings were being thumbed through by strangers, or if those pages, those words that erected a life before my eyes, just became more fuel for the ever-working stoker. And I was relieved, so many months later, to read one of the epigraphs in this strange book, a quote from the Buddha, which says “everything is burning.”

There is comfort in that, I think. Maybe hiding.

David Peak's most recent book is The River Through the Trees. His blog is He lives in Chicago. More from this author →