by Jill Magi
Ugly Duckling Presse 2011
Reviewed by Gina Myers
“…if I flee consolation…”
In Jill Magi’s new collection of poetry, to slot means to curate, to categorize, to place away. Dedicated to New York and written in the wake of September 11, 2001, Slot shows Magi, a New York City resident, on a quest to understand memorializing and acts of public and private grief. Published in Ugly Duckling Presse’s Dossier Series, which features works of an investigative nature, Slot looks to a variety of sources in an attempt to make sense of this era. However, the more she investigates and learns, the more complicated the issue becomes.
In Slot, the speaker wanders in and out of museums, goes to work in the days following September 11th, attends a candlelight vigil with her neighbors, and consults a variety of sources, from a mentor to guide books, scholarly works, poetry, and art. Presented as a hybrid, the book combines prose poetry and short lyric poems with photographs, quotes, and bibliography. The bibliography does not occupy its usual spot at the end of the collection; instead, it is woven throughout. Without numbered end notes or citations following the quoted material, it is not exactly clear what comes from where, but that hardly seems to be the point here. Instead, Magi is bringing together a variety of sources and placing them collage-like in conversation with one another as well as with herself:
In November, a place loosened in my throat, I got rid of it, and thought I was sick like the others.
“Perhaps the voids now define a design line that cannot be crossed.”
Thinking that dispatches such as the above were taking a toll on my body, I sought the following:
“Violent city: resembling an ink spot splashed onto the sky—
we saw, together, the glass towers slip and the light quiver shut.
Violent forest: stitched together in wet tunnels.”
Early in the collection, Magi asks, “Am I turning to poetry? As an escape or to make sense?” And it’s possible that she’s doing both—separating herself from the events by attempting to intellectualize them.
In her quest, Magi doesn’t just look to materials about September 11th for answers. She turns to other museums and memorials, from Holocaust Memorials to Hiroshima, the Devil’s Rope Museum in Texas, and the Colonial Williamsburg Escaped Slave Program where “guests are approached by a runaway slave. Visitors know that they are surrounded by slave catchers and so the park’s guests must react instinctively to the situation.” Magi is struggling to understand the memorial in general—how an event can be reduced to a monument and cheapened by a gift shop. She writes:
At the Office, I unroll one of the blueprints:
In the first place, the changing gallery.
In the second, the Café, the Gift Shoppe, 10:46 am. Dusk.
Lively hub of orientation and ticketing. Resource Center. Midnight.
Her mentor comments, “We’ll call them Experience Stages. Documentary Zones. Semi-enclosed spaces. Parental guidance areas so that families, according to their children, may edit.” Through memorialization, history and suffering become sanitized and consumable—something one can edit for his or her children. “Modesty screens” can be used to “prevent small children from watching the graphic and murderous scenes.” At another site, Magi notices “the work to erase the slave quarters, oil refineries up the river, chemical plants barely visible through the trees,” and elsewhere she notes the irony of twenty-nine lynching photos framed in light Georgia oak.
The purpose of memorial is called into question any time beauty or free-spiritedness/childish behavior is juxtaposed with the seriousness or solemnity the memorial should project, and Magi masterfully points a number of these moments out, such as when the Berlin Holocaust Museum opens and “an ‘unidentified youth’ is photographed jumping from pillar to pillar.” She also includes entries from a guestbook and survey questions like “Is there anything that makes an historical site particularly enjoyable for you?”
Even while searching for understanding and attempting to make sense of these contradictions, Magi resists—even rejects—slotting:
Because if I flee consolation
if I midnight. If I contest claims to store, stock, arcade,
If a frame
made from the body
is broken and vulnerable to vines,
There’s a sense that slotting something is to strip it down, to simplify and sterilize, to enforce a single and digestible narrative. While finding a slot for her experiences and feelings surrounding September 11th may make things easier and bring her consolation, Magi knows it wouldn’t be a true representation of things.
Despite the wide-ranging thoughtful investigation of this collection, it is hard to ignore the bit of irony that exists in the fact that Magi’s desire to refuse “slotting” events and grief results in a perfect-bound book, a container of these thoughts and questions that can easily be closed and put away in an open slot on a bookcase. Nonetheless, this is an important collection that is wise in its inquiry and wise in its refusal to reach resolution. In her acknowledgments, Magi writes of her sources, “This ‘incorporation’ is a result of reading and research, writing and rewriting. It is my hope Slot may be a conduit back to these texts, an invitation to study and make brand new incorporations.” And in this way, the book and investigation remain open, waiting for the reader to join the conversation.