Sunday, October 22, 2023

Gail Scott, Furniture Music: A Northern in Manhattan: Poets/Politics [2008-2012]


Having hidden. Weeks. From blazing streets. Sliding, on this Depression-type day. Off meager patch of sun. On box pattern sheets. In search of tiny autumn rays. Mid shadow-casting high buildings. Trying scorching dusty bus-stop bench. Moving on to stone wall of NYU’s Silver Towers quadrant. Trying to read Stein. On governance + identity. Under stone-cold eye of huge flirty Picasso Sylvette sculpture. If there was no identity no one could be governed, but everybody is governed by everybody and that is why they make no master-pieces. Moving again for sun. To business school square. Suits milling chaotically. Notwithstanding bank bailouts. To calm the disaster. Late-afternoon vagabonds. Relaxing on benches. One stretched out on left side. Facing bench back. Pees, Piss’s meandering down slight incline of square. Till running between legs of your chair.

I’m fascinated by Montreal writer Gail Scott’s latest, Furniture Music: A Northern in Manhattan: Poets/Politics [2008-2012] (Seattle/New York: Wave Books, 2023), a prose lyric memoir from a particular period that the author lived in New York City. Scott offers a portrait of this stretch of history as it occurs, interweaving, layering and overlapping commentary, events, lines from other writers (a combination of Scott’s own reading, attending readings and further in-person interactions), politics (the newly-minted President Barack Obama, for example, as counterpoint to our then-Conservative Prime Minister), language, translation and multiple other threads, interwoven across a text akin to the journal-lyrics of the (since) late New York School poet Bernadette Mayer. Scott seeks, as she offers at one point, a new way of thinking about prose through interacting with experimental poetry and experimental poets. “Too bad poetic language making people nervous. Are not prose’s suppositions, comparisions, descripts, more clarifying?” At one point, Scott even attends a group reading of Mayer’s classic collection Midwinter Day (Turtle Island Foundation, 1982; New Directions, 1999), although there are elements of Scott’s prose that share just as many elements with Mayer’s 1970s-era collaborative Piece of Cake (with Lewis Warsh; Station Hill Press, 2020) [see my review of such here]. Moving from point to point to point, Scott composes a through-line structured around a myriad of voices, slang, quoted material and local activities. “Days progressing direct—>departure.” she writes, mid-way through. “At same time. Time feeling stopped. As in stagnant flat grey clouds. Over water towards atop buildings. Thermometer also stuck. Well above freezing. You. In some kind of trance. Processing return North. Meandering, into coconut-cream Parish Hall. For seminal 70s Midwinter Day 30th anniversary group reading. In homage to BM’s cold crisp bright December. [The kind you liking.] Which 120-page beauty. Said penned in 24 hours.”

[Here, Furniture Music. In back of head. Striking up refrain. Ostinato. Of North country’s tragic historic divide. As group of youthful First Nations. Fastest growing Canadian youth demographic.  Setting out from James Bay on snowshoes. Headed for Parliament. We are losing our territories, without them we are nothing. Walking for days. In up to -40C weather. Joined by hundreds more. Bearing gifts for Conservative Canadian Prime Minister: Pair of beautifully crafted snowshoes. But where is Mr. Harper on day they arriving in Ottawa capital? In another city welcoming pair of pandas. Flown in from China. They’re very wiggly, he giggles.]

There is an element of Scott’s interweavings, as a Canadian writer in New York seeking to understand the landscape of city, writing and writers from ground level reminiscent, slightly, of that early blend of essay and memoir by Ottawa writer Elizabeth Hay, Captivity Tales: Canadians in New York (New Star Books, 1993); whereas Hay looked to the past, and connections between New York and Canada, Scott deliberately embraces her immediate present, a perspective upon the surrounding community of writers, artists and thinkers from a Canadian perspective. As Scott offers, early on: “Any account of another country is an account of one left behind. Satie called background music Furniture Music. Trotting of Bowery, under Obama campaign portrait-posters.”

Scott works a first-person staccato into a magnificent, lively and immediate prose-tapestry, a bounce across sound and syntax nearly a prose-equivalent (simultaneously more readable and more complex) of the electric and punctuated gestures of the poetry of Canadian ex-pat Adeena Karasick. “Probably overstating how writing in English in Francophone Québec.” she writes, early on in the collection. “Impacting [as per Gertrude Stein in Paris] sentencing. For one, French syntax/cadence enhancing lingual gesturality. In local English. Given French sentencing’s tendency to be axed on the verb. While English sentencing classically more descriptive. More oriented toward object end of phrasing. Knowing on very thin ice.”

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