We’ll Call Them Contact Zones

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Based in research of museum design, and memorialization, Slot’s narrator moves inside public landmarks dedicated to various disasters—9/11, slavery, Hiroshima, the Holocaust— and explores ways memorialization acts on conscience and memory, interrogating the urge to abstract, label, and catalogue suffering.

If understanding a poem requires I first read Saussure in the primary, it’s over before it begins. And while books with the words “intertextual investigation” on the jacket may be of some interest, I rarely find myself moved by them. Call me pedestrian, call me lazy, just give me a book of poems with a pulse and I’ll be happy. At first glance, Jill Magi’s Slot appears to be another academy production starched with theory, and the description, “An experiential investigation of how we move through cultural landmarks” doesn’t exactly rev one’s engines. But don’t be fooled, the poems inside are very much alive, and far more radical than their marketing suggests.

Her fourth full collection, Slot addresses “landscaped memory” through Magi’s characteristic hybrid of image, poetry, and samplings of texts from a broad bibliography. Based in research of museum design, and memorialization, Slot’s narrator moves inside public landmarks dedicated to various disasters—9/11, slavery, Hiroshima, the Holocaust— and explores ways memorialization acts on conscience and memory, interrogating the urge to abstract, label, and catalogue suffering. At times she is led through these institutional spaces by a faceless guide who vacillates between hapless and downright sociopathic. The guide absorbs and recapitulates the cultural chorus in a motion akin to circular breathing. Never forget, buy the T-shirt, be a part of the healing. The memorial’s premise is isolate atrocity transcended, but Magi reminds us that each site is as layered as the earth it inhabits with displacements, grief, and forgetting. Her subtle subversion of that premise is present throughout the book. On a tour through a plantation-cum-museum she’s guided by a woman wearing a period hoop-skirt, who points out the original wall hangings, the art, while the slave quarters remain conspicuously absent. We see manicured lawns in the foreground, and behind; a glimpse of present day destruction. “I notice the work to erase the slave quarters, oil refineries up the river, chemical plants barely visible through the trees.”

The memorials visited in Slot serve many functions; to erase certain narratives while emphasizing others, to cleanse consciences, to condense and burnish the disparate shards of history. The act of history as curation responds to our anxieties about realness, relevance, and our place in the world. “History is that which transforms documents into monuments,” wrote Foucault, continuous history consoles mankind, the promise that all loose threads will be gathered into a single coherent narrative. Dissonance resolves when everything’s filed in its right place:

So as to remember the ruin
Leave a space in the new house undone—

Like many of her contemporaries, Magi incorporates text from other authors in her work. In this case; museum questionnaires, anthropological accounts of tribal rituals, and Let’s Go Germany, among others. Which specific words are Magi’s and which originated with her sources is not made explicitly clear, though the bibliography is dispersed throughout, a design choice, like that of its manila cover, that adds to the overall feeling of the book as a field guide.

The various texts combine to form several discrete voices, each raring to weigh in. A wonderful tension is achieved in the juxtaposition of text about tribal ritual and plans for the 9/11 memorial in her home town of NYC. For example, her misbegotten guide informs her:

We’ll call them Experience Stages. Documentary Zones…We’ll call them contact zones, connective tissue. Quiet alcoves and simple benches. Interior and exterior gardens from which to escape: refuges.

Later, she remembers the night of 9/11:

I awake to find my neighbor at the door, with one candle lit …
These are not our instructions:
The visitors are the forgiving party.
The men and the women sit down and weep together.
The dancers shake their enemies from the back.

In one of the book’s most beautiful and arresting sections, the poet samples Pete’s Seeger’s song of protest “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” For those who don’t remember the original, the song tells the tale of an army platoon made to ford a river at night by order of an arrogant captain. The troop moves deeper into the big muddy, and despite their protests, “the big fool says to push on,” an allusion to the Vietnam War and President Johnson’s policy of escalation. Déjà Vu all over again for a post 9/11 New Yorker in the midst of her own generation’s endless war.

when I feel the darkness deeply
twist in me like a river
to the hollow of my hands
to my city of sleepers
come a drummer
come a beating drum
through the deep muddy
I’m wading
fool says push on
fool says push on

In the end of the Seeger song the captain drowns and the narrator has just enough time to reverse his course and escape ruin. In Slot our narrator questions her tour guide, and her guide, tearing her “stub sternly,” reminds her that the consequence of dissent may be punitive. Ten years since the towers, since the Homeland Security Act, I read this section on the day Obama signs into effect the “indefinite detention bill,” and chilling waves of recognition roll through me. This is the power of intertextual investigation. It is the power of poetry.

There’s dark humor in many of these samples, the weirdest of which come from copy on exhibit design:

A glass elevator takes visitors down to a meditation garden … where visitors can leave flowers and tokens of remembrance.

Hall of Commitment: Here they sign a statement of personal commitment to the cause, their portrait is taken, and their faces are added to a video-mosaic of faces that merge and rise up the tower in an iconic representation of the of the community of Human Rights constantly replenishing itself.

These selections highlight the absurdity and commerciality of many memorials, but the author never stresses that conclusion. The selections are given room to breathe, to stand on their own, to be assessed in the sobering light of distance. Far from a polemic, the poet questions with potent vulnerability, her own experience of trauma, “Uncertain how my body holds the memory. I have no visible scar.” If no visible scar, can the grief be real? If we reject the museum, its gift shop and slick surfaces, how do we remember? In whom do we place our belief, “If a frame/ made from the body/ is broken and vulnerable to vines”? These are vital questions, and by asking them the author places in our hands a guide far better than she received.

Lisa Wells is the author of Beast, a collection of poems, and Yeah. No. Totally., a book of essays. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon she currently lives in Iowa City. More from this author →