by Sarah Anne Cox
O Books 2006
Reviewed by Mike McDonough
Sarah Anne Cox’s Parcel reads like a Cliff Notes version of the aesthetics of the fragment. While the book can stand on its own, I think the reader can get more out of it by referring to its predecessors. Long ago, when dinosaurs ruled the earth, and Guy Davenport had recently published the first translations of Sappho preserving the blank spaces and lacunae of ancient sources rather than patching them with complete sentences, Armand Schwerner started writing The Tablets, a series of poems in which a fictional scholar-translator offers translations of ancient cuneiform tablets.
Much of the interest of The Tablets lies in the tension between the ostensibly objective translation of the scholar translator and the anguished identity crisis his texts and glosses reveal. Given the gaps, untranslatable sections and many alternate readings the tablets present (made visible by a set of ostensibly scholarly symbols), we see that his translation inevitably creates a new text for his own personal reasons. In Parcel, though, it is taken for granted that we are looking at the present with the eye of an archaeologist. In one poem, Phaedra writes a suicide note, but the narrator/ archaeologist (my own term) finds only parts of it, making it read like a weird multiple choice test. Elsewhere, women are forced to fill out forms to find their beloveds lost to war. The fragments are very self conscious, which suggests the poet is questioning her urge to create an alternate narrative:
I am afraid of stories, Of where they lead people, of the costume’s various hemlines, of the bleak night that has connected the teller with the fortitude and the moral ground. Even collections of facts are suspect, psychological profiles, a shocking array of imported fruit, a warning to small craft, a slave rebellion, a Papal council.
In The Tablets the scholar-translator’s anxious thoroughness piled up evidence of the subjectivity of his text. Parcel takes subjectivity for granted, and Cox’s female narrator can be read as a contemporary counterpart of Schwerner’s anxious scholar-translator. The fragmentary texts Cox presents here are postcards rather than broadsides, and often carefully pointed with the purpose of empowering the reader. Here’s section 2 from “The Scribes (considering Linear B text)”:
beginning from numbers
the absence of a word for scribe
no special name
your name here
it is said men wore striped gym socks
should there be different words for shoes and socks.
Her modes are various and her work is always smart. She can mix the ancient and the contemporary without sounding forced. This classical veneer lends some weight to Cox’s sharp critique of the current political scene, most obviously in “We of the Capitals”:
god and he by the water cooler, in the limo, in the rec. room
choking over pretzels during football
god loves him because he is rich and powerful but also humble
And Cox knows where this ignorance leads us: “We can no longer use words without becoming dirty ourselves.” Cox is not simply recovering an alternate narrative but trying to create a space where the story isn’t simply a story of dominance and submission:
I dyed my hair blond because of a lack I perceived….
To what extent is this an act of submission certain that there
cannot be two things at once…
It is true we colluded with the things that would undo us
in order to tame them
in order that we could have a say
in our own undoing
In Cox’s work we learn how to read our own narratives in the cultural fragments we find. We confront the simple drama of humans using and being used by language. Here’s section 17 of “The Scribes:”
of hard gray.
In the final long poem “Offering Table with Hearth in Center,” the narrator-archaeologist digs into what she calls a “text from the first body.” Her diagrams of the excavation fill themselves with greyed-out background texts in what I can’t help but thinking of as a response to The Tablets. The following section is enclosed in a rectangle with rounded corners, recalling the outline of a tablet:
the running man to the woman of
possessions one to the other marked in
wwww lllluuu kkkhhhaaa
then reduced or expressed more
formally clay tablets not baked
but liquefied lists to be remade the
way of transportation several
men on a ship owning no shirts
owning each counted by the
creaking in the hull
the ship is to the body a chest is smooth
and rippled with goosebumps full
sound wet air untranslatable texts
the weld adheres to steel because
the eye saw to it.
The efficiency of Parcel is admirable and welcome, as well as its unabashed love of kitsch. I do miss the often funny and sprawling contingency of Schwerner’s scholar translator as he begins to suspect his text is self-created, though I admit that Parcel is an easier read. Where The Tablets deals more directly with bodily functions, lust, and decay, Parcel deals more directly with modern life, including for example a poem titled “My Hello Kitty Motherhood,” and a willingness to deal with the very recent past, including a brief, but surprising reference to GM’s late, unlamented, and formerly ubiquitous J Car platform. Cox reminds us that fragments are not just monumental or sacred inscriptions on rocks and parchment, but toys, postcards, forms, receipts, the junk of today, and that anxiety need not rise to a classic, keening pitch. Whatever form the message takes, sacred, secular or banal, both books remind us that human emotions remain unchanged.