Clint Burnham: Laura Elrick’s Propagation

Laura Elrick, 2012

For better or for worse, there’s been a great deal of handwringing over stolen language – appropriation, collage, the overheard, the copied, the received. But perhaps it is not the stealing that is the big deal – or whatever verbs that mask that primary trauma (a trauma for some; not – let me declare – for me) & perhaps it isn’t the stealing that matters but rather what is done or not done with the words. What is done with the words after they’re stolen?

It seems to me that the messing that Laura Elrick does with words (and structures – syntax) in Propagation is both a lot of messing with – an intense kinda repetition and looping that’s half like out-takes from Warhol’s a and half what you’d hear on any urban bus (“please don’t judge me/on this/I’m here to learn” p. 45) or in any suburban high school cafeteria (“they’re just scum she sure sounds like a slut” p. 78). It’s both the messing with and not, not a change, not a wit.

To steal from Elrick, in an email she said (in reply to my lazy query as to the Stein-ness of her technique) that Stein’s repetition was “agentic, all about insistence and the love of (and faith in) the machine. Whereas mine is about being invaded, thus parasitical. Thus ‘donning the mask of the enemy and sliding it away from its source’… .” Elrick’s book is novelistic. Dialogue is almost never dialogue, mostly monologue (to mash up Bakhtin and Lacan: “there is no dialogic relation”). The dialogue in the monologue takes place in the repetition and the looping – looping now a spatiality in the non-space of the digital, but also a looping that is a returning. Not of the repressed (although more on repression shortly):

people who knew him

people who knew him


that people who

knew him

didn’t know him

really (p. 8)

Now, basic Poetry-being-done-now-101 says two things about such a passage. First, that we don’t know where sense (the “phrasal propulsion” that McCaffery talks about w/r/t Karen Mac Cormack’s work) begins or ends over line breaks. So we don’t know if “said” in Elrick’s third line is a verb that takes as its subject the phrase “people who knew him.” That is, because of the semblance of dialogue or conversation here, we don’t know if this is mimicking the effect of “someone” saying “people who knew him, people who knew him said …” or if there is more of a freedom of the text here (but which is also invasive/parasitical? parasitical I get – the text is parasitical on the repetition of the everyday, but invasive, not so much, unless it’s the other way around, the text is thus host to an invasion of the everyday).

The second thing is that uncertainly makes poetry of this ilk Political. Because the poem is not telling you how to make meaning, this reader is liberated from merely consuming meaning. The productive reader: hence the rejection of a prefab meaning, the rejection that meaning lies either with the author (humanism) or the text (formalism). The death of both of these (Barthes, Place).

But for all that influential body of theory, it is no longer adequate to account for what Elrick is doing here. Rather, we have to not even care about meaning qua interpretation. And I don’t mean (sorry) we should turn to affect, or praxis, or whatever is after afterness or older than old. What goes on a whole lot in Elrick’s book is the propagation – the spreading (of the word, of seeds, of words) – of how language is being used/is using “us” (in the limited sense of us speakers/writers/readers of English). So “people who knew him/people who knew him” is a kind of repetition that goes on orally (this is and is not a realism, but it also is and is not a narcissism) in the propagation of language. But also perhaps of meaning, but meaning spread so thin, we keep repeating ourselves. You know what I’m saying? See what I’m getting at? That old Get Smart joke: “Can you repeat that, Chief?” “What part didn’t you understand, Max?” “Everything after you said ‘Now listen carefully’.”

Or the guy on the radio this morning: “And you know as crazy as that – as crazy as that – as crazy as that sounds… .” Or when a student in my creative writing class, asked to record & transcribe a conversation, recorded me talking to the class, and I’m so articulate: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I-I did have it down that we’d start with the- the work but why don’t we actually start with umm.”

OK so my point is and is not that Elrick is just copying reality. Rather, what her work is pointing to is not so much in spoken discourse (whether through mimesis or simulation) but, what is not in spoken discourse, what we do not hear until Elrick put it into her book. And so we have the repetition – in the book – of repetition:

Whatever else they

do and

doing that



they do they’re (p. 38)


finding one’s joy

finding joy



scoot over the ink

watching it

one’s joy (p. 62)




what you can say

of the detail

is resonance

because the detail (p. 67)

So this is the form that Elrick works with here, and in or thru that form surfaces various so-called “content” – blood that looks so fake it may be real, vocalized universal resource locators or other digital para-literature, SWAT team do’s and don’ts, accounts of the death of the king of pop.

But – and this is where I disagree with the book’s two enframers, blurbers, Lyn Hejinian and Judith Goldman – who detect hope (“as an articulate practice” – LH) and positivity (the Joycean “yes – say – yes” – JG). I hate hope, it’s stupid, what you hit the poor over the head with hope you stupid fucker, quit complaining!

And thus where the repetition gains its force in Propagation, dare I say, is in the book’s late sequence of negativity, which begins:

I would never be

I would never be

an adjunct no

never an adjunct no

never would I be

an adjunct never

I would never be

an adjunct

and I would never be

a banker never a

banker I would never

be one

never a banker I

would never be

a banker and (84)

So this is genius, of course, to go from adjunct to banker. How do these speech acts differ? The one, the position of privilege (I would never stoop so low as to be a mere adjunct), or perhaps naïvete (I have a good degree, etc.) to the other – again, either privilege (I’ll take that NGO job while the rest of my MBA classmates go work on Wall Street) or cluelessness (as if I, the person writing this review, would ever be offered such a job, but then to make it into a mark of pride – enjoying your symptom yet?). Maybe it’s a failure of my imagination that I cannot imagine who would utter these sentences. Or that I can.

The repetition gets fugue-like here, as in Bach’s “Art of the Fugue,” a recursiveness that turns back on itself. This is what she or the poem would never be: an adjunct, a banker, a boss, a union boss, a wife, a bourgeois, a narcissist, a racist, a bully, a landlord, caught in culottes; or do: have my nails done, hit my brother, hurt my mother.

These are fantasies, then (of impermeable structures, to quote an earlier Elrick book)  – not disavowal, but something stronger. Not disavowal pace Goldman (“catches disavowal in its very turns of veiling”) but, perhaps, denial or even repression. Denial in the sense of not wanting to admit that one could be an adjunct, or not wanting to, denying, that one would hurt one’s mother or brother. The family romance here signals the specifically Freudian register along which I am arranging a continuum, from the relatively mild disavowal, to denial, then repression, and finally foreclosure.

This catalogue Žižek discusses in his recent Less than Nothing; it also permits us to map out a tension or antagonism in Propagation – or two antagonisms, the first local, between the structure of these denials or repressions and their content; the second between repetition as a strategy throughout the book and its ranging tactical moments. A closer reading of the this local moment in Propagation should then attend to the line, the linebreak, and how such lines as

I would never be


differ from


I would never


AND, then, the propagation of “content,” not merely of adjunct or banker or bourgeois but the quick turn, on page 85:


I would never no not ever

be a narcissist

or a racist

Because this is a play at the level of the signifier – brilliant in the sense of not only how much racism is a form of narcissism (when I am selfconsciously driving a white PT Cruiser in South Central LA believing that everyone knows & thinks about me as this white dude this of course is the height of narcissism) but also, presumably, that narcissism is a form of racism (the turn inward of the lyric, then – and hold on, I’ll get to this directly – the lyric turn constitutes thus a Eurocentric turn).

This last proposition (and I want to come back to what the “or” of “or a racist” is doing in the poem as well, or at least point to that logical vel) is perhaps illustrated by what follows the series of denials/repressions:

if this is lyric

as echo

and narcissus

as echo

this lyric is

an echo this

echo is

narcissus this

lyric as narcissus

and echo

as the critic is

lyric as

lyric echo and

narcissus stop

please not


return (p. 91)

So it’s complex what the poem is doing here: a notion of return, or copying, or echoing speech (Wordsworth/Grenier/Goldsmith), but also the entanglement of the lyric not only within that framework (critique of origin) but a specifically European history of the canon, of Greco-Roman myth. I mean, I could go off & google echo and narcissus and their myth (the mirror stage? the voice as object?) but let’s just leave it there.

Clint Burnham lives in Vancouver and teaches at Simon Fraser University. Work has recently appeared in _The Capilano Review_ and _West Coast Line_, and in the books _The Only Poetry that Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing_ (Arsenal, 2011) and _The Benjamin Sonnets_ (Bookthug, 2009).



Comments are closed.