Public Figures
By Jena Osman
Wesleyan University Press, 2012

How come there are no right wing poets actively working today? There must be a few out there somewhere, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across one. I wondered about this while reading Public Figures by Jena Osman since, even though there is no real mention of her political position anywhere within the book, in many ways my reading of it hinged on the likely assumption she is to be found somewhere on the left.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Public Figures begins with an almost whimsical premise. Osman noticed the statues in her hometown of Philadelphia and wondered what they were looking at. She jerry-rigged a camera atop of a mop handle and placed the camera in front of each statues gaze. The early pages of the book feature photographs of the statues, photographs of what they are looking at, and descriptions of both. Juxtaposed with this world of statues, and running along the bottom of these pages, is a fragmented, verbatim text (taken from YouTube) of various U.S. drone pilots mounting attacks in foreign deserts. For example:

 impact     possible new target     was that tree like this tree

confirmed     sensor confirms     3 2 1 rifle     3 2 1 impact

All of this conjures up the contemporary zeitgeist of a desire for more ‘reality’ in art (which I also very much desire), as outlined in the book Reality Hunger by David Shields and, in a different way, by the various discourses surrounding conceptual poetry. The fact that Osman actually went out and placed a camera in front of these statues makes us read her account differently. This is something she really did, not something she only imagined. The fact that the drone pilot texts also come from the real world, are transcribed from YouTube, has a similar effect.

At the same time, this ‘return of the real’ gets my devils-advocate-mind wondering what is deeply real in all of this, about the reality of the perspective behind this work. I somehow know that Osman is transcribing these drone pilots in order to criticize them and the foreign policy they serve, but what if she weren’t? What if I’m only projecting? What if she were a right wing poet transcribing this exact same material in order to celebrate it? I’m obviously letting my imagination run wild here, but it is a thought experiment that leads me so many wild places. Twice in this bottom-of-the-page drone narrative children enter the frame, and the pilots seemingly hold their fire until the children are out of the way. And yet we know that children have been, and are, being killed. Is Osman letting the pilots off the hook too easily? Am I reading it too literally? Or does the very fact that children appear in the drone-crosshairs do enough to suggest the horrific/unimaginable?

About a quarter of the way through the book, we can feel Osman’s desire to know what the statues are looking at begin to falter. She writes:

For the most part, the sculptures seem to be looking at nothing in particular; they have a gaze, but they don’t have a need for it. You wonder about your experiment, whether it has any value at all.

As the book continues, describing the gaze of the statues is replaced by a variety of other strategies. For me the most striking of these are historical anecdotes about the statues themselves, fascinating stories about the Nordic explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni, the Civil War Zouave soldiers, the liar Johnnie Ring, the contested authorship of the Spirit of the American Doughboy, the 18th-century Venezuelan general Francisco de Miranda C, etc. There are also reflections from and on Benjamin, Baudelaire and Ian Hamilton Finlay’s artist garden Little Sparta. All while the drone pilots cumulative YouTube-derived monolog trails along the bottom of the page, much like it does in the distant background of our daily lives, occasionally drifting up into the main section: a technical way of speaking violence that certainly conveys the stressed-out yet deadening routine of the job. The juxtaposition between the military history of the statues and current U.S. military reality is of course telling. It is unlikely anyone will every build statues to commemorate these anonymous drone operators. There is nothing heroic in their behavior.

When I think of American military drones killing people in, for example, Pakistan, I am overcome with anger and outrage. It is a kind of outrage that breaks me, breaks my ability to speak, breaks my ability to write about it effectively, and perhaps also undercuts my ability to fairly review this book. Is the dryness of Osman’s verbatim drone pilots also a sign of this brokenness of language? Then again, is there any reason this book should share my anger and outrage? Should I expect Osman to write about these questions in a manner that, at the very least, meets my anger half way? I don’t know what I should or shouldn’t expect. I have always believed in political art and also know, from personal experience, that as soon as you bring politics into your work you open yourself up to criticism from all sides. Some will say your work is too political, while others will insist it is not nearly political enough.

The last line of Public Figures is:

everything relies on visual confirmation, action no longer sensation.

The drone pilots no longer feel the physical impact of their actions. The military statues certainly no longer feel the impact of their actions. And we live in a world where we kill and, like in a video game, can feel almost nothing.

Public Figures is a charming, insightful, precisely written work. Its use of hybrid form and content is consistently effective and often uncanny. Which brings me back to my somewhat ridiculous opening salvo. Would it be possible to imagine this book written by a right wing poet? It is written with a kind of objectivity – with its cards close to its chest – that doesn’t readily suggest what lies behind. We need to read between the lines, need to assume. I could almost imagine Jimmy Stewart, in some old movie, jerry-rigging a camera to a broomstick in order to head out, find out what the statues see, then getting distracted and instead researching historical anecdotes about the statues themselves. Of course, despite his unflagging support of Reagan, Jimmy Stewart still has a warm place in my memory and heart.

I don’t know all the reasons why this book makes me long for something more horrified, not the passive voice of American drone pilots, but the mangled outrage of children being killed. (Which, in literature, is often equally problematic.) I suspect mangled melodrama, not to mention didacticism, is exactly what Osman was here trying to avoid. Maybe it is only like with a friend who is too reserved too often. You just want to see them lose their temper, get angry, break. Nonetheless, I want to fight against what is skilled and effective in this book, since I am mortified by so much of the world today, by so much of human history, and therefore (at times) want all literary good taste to shatter. I want something else and yet, with Public Figures, Osman has successfully, perhaps unintentionally, made me question art, life and politics all over again, not for the first nor last time.

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Jacob Wren is a writer and maker of eccentric performances. His books include: Unrehearsed Beauty, Families Are Formed Through Copulation and Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed. These books have been published in French translation by Le Quartanier. As co-artistic director of Montreal-based interdisciplinary group PME-ART he has co-created: En français comme en anglais, it’s easy to criticize (1998), Unrehearsed Beauty / Le génie des autres (2002), La famille se crée en copulant (2005) and the ongoing HOSPITALITÉ / HOSPITALITY series which includes Individualism Was a Mistake (2008) and The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information (2011). He has also collaborated with Nadia Ross and her company STO Union. Together they co-wrote and co-directed Recent Experiences (2000) and Revolutions in Therapy (2004). International projects include: a stage adaptation of the 1954 Wolfgang Koeppen novel Der Tod in Rom (Sophiensaele, Berlin, 2007), An Anthology of Optimism (with Pieter De Buysser / Campo, Ghent, 2008) and No Double Life for the Wicked (with Tori Kudo / Tokyo, 2012.)  He travels internationally with alarming frequency and frequently writes about contemporary art.