A Silent Occupation: Christien Gholson’s On the Side of the Crow

23 Feb 2012

On the Side of the Crow
Christien Gholson
Parthian Books, Paperback,
69 pages, 978-1931236553, £7.99

Nikolai Duffy

Christien Gholson’s On the Side of a Crow is a short collection of loosely connected prose poems that conjure drifting worlds and scenes, many of which scatter into shift and fade. It is a quiet and subtly affecting collection with narrative at its heart, frequently fantastic yet also deceptively familiar. A sense of the absurd runs through the majority of the narratives, together with a sense of the fabulous and the fabled.

In interview Gholson has commented how much of his poetry ‘makes connections by juxtaposition or in the flow of the overall pattern’ and it’s certainly a statement of poetics which applies well to On the Side of the Crow. These connections, between individual pieces across the collection as well as, often, within individual pieces themselves, often resemble the shape and thread of a musical score. Gholson has cited the influence of jazz on his writing but he might just as easily refer to fugues or arias, anything with an insistent melody which repeats and keeps check of each digression and deviation. In Gholson this melody is both formal and thematic. Even in its shifts and folds, both the collection as a whole, as well as each of its constitutive parts, is patterned into a coherent weave. A strand begins, shifts, moves off, before being reclaimed by the same recognisable melody, quietly insistent.

Given this impressive structural layering, it is perhaps surprising that On the Side of the Crow is actually Gholson’s first book. But it is also a book that has gone through a long creative process and, as with most things, patience pays off. First drafted back in 1994, Gholson revised the collection in 2001 before it was taken up by the New York-based Hanging Loose Press and first published in 2006. Parthian’s recent reissue of the collection coincides with their publication of Gholson’s first novel, A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind and introduces his earlier work to British readers, on whose shores he currently resides. Yet in spite of this relatively lengthy back story to the collection, one of the most noticeable features about On the Side of the Crow is its uncanny ability to strike a frequently contemporary note.

Much of this contemporaneity has to do with the way in which a number of the poems in the collection revolve around the fictional character Mae Sistore, a radical poet wanted by the FBI, who, through word and weave, repeatedly aims to inspire a silent revolution. In ‘30th Street Station, Philadelphia: Scene Painted Inside an Incoherent Loudspeaker’, where ‘National guardsmen stand at the entrance of every quay, scanning faces, fingers resting lightly on the triggers of their weapons,’ Mae Sistore sits on a bench next to a young mother and cautions quiet. Elsewhere, Sistore delivers radio broadcasts advocating that the time for change has arrived.

In a blog post for Parthian, Gholson has written how Sistore ‘could have been my antidote to the frustration I felt over the complacency that had settled over America during the Nineties. A massive vigil of silence seemed more powerful than any slogan I could come up with.’

As the collection develops – and in the wake of Sistore’s softly insistent example – people begin, simply, to gather together, to collect on the streets of capitals across America but doing so, crucially, without holding up signs or chanting slogans or making demands. This is a silent occupation and, as one of poems early on in the collection puts it, ‘Silence can be an empty white room with closed windows or it can be a rock dropped through a canyon’s shadow.’ In their own ways, both have the potential to challenge and change.

This idea of a silent occupation which espouses neither particular ideology nor common identity is not dissimilar to Maurice Blanchot’s idea of the ‘unavowable community,’ first conceived in response to the events in Paris during May 1968. As Blanchot wrote there, May 1968 showed how ‘without project, without conjuration, in the suddenness of a happy meeting, like a feast that breached the admitted and expected social norms, explosive communication could affirm itself (affirm itself beyond the usual forms of affirmation) as the opening that gave permission to everyone, without distinction of class, age, sex or culture, to mix with the first comer as if with an already loved being, precisely because he was the unknown-familiar.’ This is a form of protest without specific project and one which is premised, simply, on a wish to refuse. ‘When we refuse,’ Blanchot writes, ‘we refuse with a movement that is without contempt, without exaltation, and anonymous, as far as possible, for the power to refuse cannot come from us, not in our name alone, but from a very poor beginning that belongs first to those who cannot speak.’

It is within this critical fabric, I think, that the contemporary resonance of Gholson’s collection perhaps most particularly comes to the fore. This is where it suggests a strange mesh with and solidarity for the current occupations of Wall Street and the City of London and elsewhere, movements which, though not exactly silent, are consolidated more through the sheer fact of their being there – their physical coming together, the fact of their bodies on the street and of their persistence – than any specific rhetoric of demands or courses of action.

This isn’t to say that this is the only focus of Gholson’s collection. There are other stories and other narratives here, self-contained, tangential, which neither blend nor clash with this recurrent focus. And as Gholson has written, the original intention behind the book was ‘for it to be like a walk through a gallery – but a moving gallery, a gallery without walls, a gallery of stories rising from the faces I passed every day on the street.’ As a result, each narrative in the collection has a subtitle which signposts a work of visual art (‘Oil in the Manner of Edward Hopper,’ for example, or ‘An Aquatint Etching in the Manner of Goya’s Caprices’). For all that, though, there is often a curious disconnect between the artistic reference and the narratives which follow and it’s this deceptive disconnect which, for me, strikes the most interesting chord in the collection.

In interview Gholson has commented how his ‘own experience is that the self doesn’t really exist as some rigid, defined thing […] but that it exists only in context, mired in a constant process of creation and interaction with its surroundings.’ By his own admission, Gholson’s vision is influenced by the Buddhist tradition, specifically the ways in which ‘our concepts, expectations, desires, ideas of what life is and how we want it to be, are all blocking us from experiencing what is right there in front of us.’ The point is to find a way to strip back this interference and lay silence to noise. It’s debatable whether this perspective is exclusively or specifically Buddhist (Christian or Sufi mystics, for instance, maintain not dissimilar perspectives) but the most important idea is that, for Gholson, ‘mystery feeds us.’ It does, of course, and in manifold ways, and most frequently in ways that resound against the limits of what has been said or not said. And it’s this quality to Gholson’s writing that makes me most want to return to this collection and pick it up and read it all over again.

One last point: I don’t know if these are, strictly speaking, prose poems. There is such an insistent, if often thwarted, pull towards narrative throughout the collection that the simple term ‘story’ – or, at a push, maybe even ‘sketch’ – seemed to me more properly fitting. As I say, I don’t know. I like dictionaries as much as anyone but I also like walking the cracks. And perhaps none of this classification business matters much with a work such as this and to get hung up on classifications is to miss the very specific sightlines Gholson’s collection quietly lays open for inspection.

A crow lands on an ash tree and barks. It’s not clear whether his aim is to encourage or deter. It’s not really clear what he’s doing there. But a world opens up and, anyway, as Gholson’s collection concludes, ‘every work of art is about some kind of love.’

Nikolai Duffy’s first chapbook, the little shed of various lamps, was published by The Red Ceilings Press in 2011. His poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Blackbox Manifold, Ink Sweat & Tears, Jacket, Mosaic, Shearsman, and Stride. He is the founding editor of Like This Press (www.likethispress.co.uk). He teaches at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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