Max Karpinski on Jessica Bozek: The Tales

71llRO4dxqL._SL1500_There is a reticence in the sentences of Jessica Bozek’s The Tales (Les Figues Press, 2013). This is a slow and heavy read, a difficult text that requires sitting and soaking. Bozek treads carefully, weaving a convoluted story out of sometimes contradictory and confusing prose poems. But The Tales is less about a narrative, less about understanding what exactly happens to our protagonist(s), than it is about language. There is a struggle at the core of this book, an attempt to grow a restorative or transformative utterance from within a language contaminated by discourses of American empire and colonialism.

Before we begin the poems proper, we are met with a cryptic preface. In the space of three sentences Bozek provides a framework for her reader, only to immediately explode it:

Once upon a recent time, a very powerful nation attempted to destroy another nation via a military mission deceptively named Operation Sleep. The very powerful nation succeeded but for a single inexplicable survivor, known to those unmarked as the Lone Survivor. This book includes his story and many versions of what may or may not be the same story. (5)

What follows is a series of short prose sections that mingle the perspectives of the Lone Survivor, government officials (public relations consultants and claims adjusters), animals (birds and dogs), and “fairy tales” told from an anonymous third person point of view. Bozek builds a generically unique text that finds its influences in fields as diverse as science fiction and Native American storytelling. Indeed, The Tales won the NOS Book Award from Les Figues Press; the title of the award, which stands for “not otherwise specified,” gestures towards a blurring of formal and generic boundaries, towards a text that is not easily categorized. Bozek’s experimentation arrives at a genre that both accommodates a dystopian consciousness and gives form to the voices, human and non-human, usually unheard.

But the Preface, and especially that final impish sentence, also provokes a critical engagement with the text’s formal properties. In an interview with Gregory Lawless on the publication of her first full-length book of poetry, The Bodyfeel Lexicon (2009), Bozek reveals a fascination with forms of paratextual destabilization. In terms that resonate strongly with the work of The Tales, she specifically mentions “polyvocal inhabitations and abandonments,” the “slipperiness of [the story’s] personae,” and an appreciation of texts that require us to “read against habit.” The Preface, along with an extended “Notes” section that feverishly documents sources, functions as an appendage that obscures as much as it reveals. The presence of these authoritative apparatuses forces the reader into difficult critical and affective engagements with the text. We are constantly in a state of limbo; our impulse is to search for a decipherable narrative from ellipses and lacunae, to cobble together points of view that we know from the beginning “may or may not” tell the same, single tale.

Very quickly, the history framed in the Preface begins to splinter. What seems to be set up as an analogue for the Iraq War begins to resemble intra-national warfare. The people who have “disappeared” are also “citizens” of the “very powerful nation”: “in their view, only the foreign attacked” (24). In the “Notes,” Bozek reveals that a number of sections appropriate language from John Tanner’s nineteenth-century translations of Ojibwa picture-songs. Her characterization of the picture-songs’ “heart-stopping simplicity” also suggests their potential influence on the text’s previously mentioned reticence (69). Reading The Tales as allegory of American colonialism layers meanings onto the “nations” involved in the event described in the Preface; even further, the name “Operation Sleep” becomes available as a chilling reference to the infamous smallpox-infected blankets.

Rather than engaging with a single, specific act of war, the tales that grow out of Bozek’s imagined military mission explore the affective legacy of colonization and genocide. The Lone Survivor becomes a sort of living display, a reminder of “Destroyed Peoples” at the “State Museum for the Justification of Military Action” (51). The history of American colonialism fuses with the contemporary understanding of American empire and the crisis of capitalism; again in the “Notes,” Bozek catalogues her appropriations from sources dealing with the war in Iraq. This is the difficulty at the centre of the text: how does the poet speak from within a nation not only steeped in a history of genocide, but a nation that is currently engaged in acts of racialized oppression and murder, at home and abroad?

Tucked away in parentheses, the closing line of the text’s first section points towards an answer: “(This is not a fantasy of rescue but of appropriation.)” (31). The Tales is not a story of absolution. Bozek is not naïve about the potential effects of a politically informed poetics. The “fantasy…of appropriation” is an attempt to speak sideways into a language dulled by decades of neoliberal propaganda, centuries of imperial rhetoric. It is an attempt to invade a grammar and to refigure or torque it from within. Most importantly, it is an attempt to speak through the gaps in the official records; it is a desire, as the Lone Survivor tells us, to “unspool the words of those lost” (37). The Tales implores us to attend to the past, to recognize and think critically about the ways histories and relations of oppression are replicated in the present moment.

Borrowing a term from Raymond Williams, Ann Cvetkovich argues for an affective engagement with legacies of trauma: “the goal is something more than statues and monuments, something that involves ways of living, structures of feeling” (465). In the final section of the text, the Lone Survivor is tasked with creating a monument for the Destroyed Peoples. As Bozek explains in the “Notes,” he arrives at something approximating a “counter-monument” (74). The example she provides is Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz’s Monument against Fascism in Harburg, Germany. The monument’s inscription is worth quoting in full:

We invite the citizens of Harburg, and visitors to the town, to add their names here next to ours. In doing so we commit ourselves to remain vigilant. As more and more names cover this 12-metre tall lead column, it will gradually be lowered into the ground. One day it will have disappeared completely, and the site of the Harburg Monument against Fascism will be empty. In the end it is only we ourselves who can stand up against injustice. (74)

A counter-monument does not cordon off history; it is not an attempt to excise, externalize, and reify past trauma. Counter-monuments demand attention and entrance on the part of the citizen. They depict the past as always inflecting the present. The Lone Survivor understands the necessity of articulating this intersection: “I need a memorial that will disintegrate over time, gray and fray as most of the dead did not have a chance to” (66). In the monosyllabic movement from “gray” to “fray,” the language enacts the sort of crumbling it describes. But “fray” also makes available an image of battle or embodied resistance. There is something at stake in our engagement with memorial sites, in our engagement with works of art that seek to blur, trouble, or challenge our inherited understandings of historical trauma. Bozek’s imagined military mission, in its fusing of temporalities, precisely challenges a version of history that speaks of American colonialism as “past” or historical. This rhetoric revels in the erasure of lived experiences of structural violence, the normalization of oppression. It is here that the text demands that its readers “remain vigilant.” And it is in its final section that The Tales lays out its hopes for potential, actual effects.

The closing prose poem does not belong to the Lone Survivor. Rather, it is the “Seamstresses,” an apt stand-in for the readers, who describe their construction of the counter-monument: “We hung the clothes from branches…Eventually, some birds took portions for their nests. We liked the metaphor of it” (67). We each take pieces of the monument, of the work of art, of the text. We take what we like, what moves us, what makes us think. And the hope, for Bozek, is that we build with it. This is the “something more” that Cvetkovich describes. The Tales does not entertain any “fantasy of rescue.” Like its sentences, the text’s hope is a slow one. It is the hope that we continue to build and that we continue to examine our way of living. It is the hope that we continue to seek and explore new and alternative structures of feeling. It is the desire for a creeping, molecular transformation.


Works Cited

Bozek, Jessica. Interview by Gregory Lawless. “Another Tongue I Don’t Know: An interview with Jessica Bozek.” I Thought I Was New Here. Gregory Lawless, 12 May 2009. Web. 13 March 2014.

Cvetkovich, Ann. “Public Feelings.” South Atlantic Quarterly 106.3 (Summer 2007). 459-468.


193031_1584237220023_1951913_oMax Karpinski is a poet and translator who lives and works in Montreal.