Monday, February 02, 2004

a displacement in reading: Meredith Quartermain's The Eye-Shift of Surface

In an essay on Susan Howe, the American poet Cole Swensen wrote, “Words on a page or on any other surface constitute a different event from words presented in any other way. Poetry amounts to a partially heightened instance of this event because, with its attention to line break and page space, it accentuates the visual aspect, engaging our two main senses, seeing and hearing, and in much contemporary poetry, because of an emphasis on form, these two senses are engaged equally, resulting in an overload, an overflow, which spills into another zone of perception, some active hybrid between the two senses.”

What some the “language poets” often fail to realize, that words can't help but mean. Vancouver writer Meredith Quartermain never suffers that, but plays off the meanings, weaving in and out of things understood. In The Eye-Shift of Surface (2003, greenboathouse books: Victoria) and previous works, such as A Thousand Mornings (2002, Nomados: Vancouver), Quartermain moves comfortably over shifting terrain, exploring those shifts, embracing them. A beautifully designed chapbook in an edition of fifty-two, published by Jason Dewinetz's greenboathouse books, The Eye-Shift of Surface is a forty-one part piece numbered up to forty, with the last fragment as an unacknowledged coda.

Eye was here. Eye was open. Eye was near. Eye was a little further, was there.
Eye was all there was, eating and eaten. Eye was blue and read and closed.
(p 1)

Even watching changes something, as even a passive action remains an action, and Meredith Quartermain is no passive observer. A writer capable of formidable play and patience, in Quartermain's texts, the shifts run quick along the ground, from “The is trains run on eye rails” or “With an O and an I men waven what they wede to wear” (p 2). She speaks of omens and other such. In “I Came Bearing Bears, a novel (manuscript)” from How2, Quartermain's own narrator speaks of these shifts, asking “But then who am I and who are you but people I invent?” and again, in the last line, “Can one ever cease to invent one's self? Apart from death?”

Even through her presence, she cultivates an absence, in various small press publications over the years, including Terms of Sale (1996, Meow Press: Buffalo), Abstract Relations (1998, Keefer Street: Vancouver), Spatial Relations (2001, Diaeresis: Florida), Veers (1998, Backwoods Broadsides: Maine), to more recent publications, such as the collaborative Wanders, with Robin Blaser, or A Thousand Mornings, both published by Quartermain's own Nomados, a recent press publishing various authors including Daphne Marlatt and Dodie Bellamy. Despite all of this activity, Quartermain has remained elusive in her publishing – a poem surreptitiously appearing in Xerography from Vancouver, another in an American journal, Birddog, her forthcoming chapbook with Arizona’s CHAX Press – and her first trade collection of poetry (apart from the self-published A Thousand Mornings) appearing only in spring 2005 with Edmonton’s NeWest Press, an amazing achievement for any publishing house. Although hardly a deliberate absence, she claims. Quietly, I might add.

Deliberate I am fixed. You are flickering – a light. Him to have slain beside
the haystack the gazers strike. Quick eyes gone under earth's lid – I, an epic.
(p 11)

In an interview with Aaron Peck on the Greenboathouse books website, Quartermain says, “The self is a medley of discourses carried out on behalf of the state and social institutions such as the family. There is no I, but rather a myriad of I's, chattering away the texts already formulated by the social grammar. Moreover, these same social institutions have an interest in maintaining our addiction to a phantom I, a prosthetic I, so that we imagine ourselves heroes in a narrative of life in which we have real choices.” Quartermain's shift of the I/eye in this work is the focal point, well before meaning or intention, or whatever else comes through the text as secondary.

The eye moves, as does the I. A mixture of being and seeing.

There is also a repetitive shift in pieces such as those in her collection, Gospel According to Bees (2000, Keefer Street: Vancouver), from the title poem:

Spell binding like book binding.


Spell spider sprue
Spell spool boil
Spell spry spume
Spell sugar spiro


Spell our prayer, spell our casting, spell our temple, spell our masking.
(Gospel According to Bees)

to the end of the piece “Forensic Pleasure: Jubilate”:

For pleasure's bent for jewels and justice
For pleasure's bound for ashes and money
For pleasure's drink and write for morning
For pleasure's made for foreign rain
For pleasure's itch embrace its fissures fishers fish in foreign leisure
For line for line, point to point, pleasure's dome swamps all pastures
And therefore sail
And therefore come
And therefore cities are there for her
And therefore she will punish money
And therefore play hard her sure desire
Hear ye therefore and therefore be sailed
Hear ye obscure and therefore be sacred
Hear ye beauteous and therefore be forest
Hear ye gentle and therefore be won

Quartermain’s repetition work almost as echoes, or reverb, as movements in sound that the sameness adds through its differences. Through its breaking down. From the same interview, Quartermain says, “Perhaps now we can only write of the experience of language – the experience of this chattering of discourses running hither and thither through our brains and bodies – the experience of arbitrary grammar in social relations – a grammar of global capital and the master narrative of capitalism. There is something in us that experiences. Some have called it desire. Against all of this, I set out to explore the word I and its intimate connection to eye.”

In The Eye-Shift of Surface, Quartermain manages to bring everything in. Less a collage than a deliberate weave of various threads. Everything the eye or the I can see. In the difference between looking, and seeing.

Combustion Engine. I was intermediate frequency and instrumental
landing system with flight rules identifying friend or foe.

Time the radio tuners carried IC’s like Spicer’s. Integrated circuits must have reverence to write by the sea side, waled wide.

ICE will make great use of the future.
(p 29)

rob mclennan

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