August Cross’s Immaterials—new from indie Inpatient Press—is a dark, strange hybrid of art and poetry. Cross offers 32 chapters here, each combining a stark, rough black and white and gray watercolor with a spare (not-quite) haiku. Cross takes his lead from Francisco Goya here—specifically Goya’s black and white aquatint series, Los Caprichos, and the later etching series The Disasters of War. Cross’s contemporary riff on Goya is apparent in the opener “unmanned,” where Goya’s witches turn into drones:
The text accompanying the image introduces the biting, cruel irony that courses throughout Immaterials:
While the phrase “unmanned” refers overtly to the drones themselves, it also reflects back on the attempt to completely depersonalize modern warfare—to unman, unperson both the remote pilot and the target, who becomes “no human life.” That spirit of irony and criticism, often oblique, informs all of Immaterials.
In “monolith,” Cross updates Goya’s The Third of May, 1808, ending the accompanying poem with the line: “a warning to whistleblowers”:
In “dat capitol,” Cross transmutes Goya’s Colossus into a bizarre, dark-eyed lover, a politician gripping the capitol sensually, violently, sucking from its teat. The tone is simultaneously playful and ominous (just like Goya’s work):
That same dark, violent humor is readily apparent in many of the pieces, like “selfie,” where a grinning cop takes a selfie with his miserable captive, or “big game,” where “the tie is a leash / the boot is a lack / uniforms trick young men into shocked shells”:
There’s a roughness, a rudeness to Cross’s work—a splattering of ink, a muddiness to the grays, a blurriness of line that causes the viewer to have to intensify his gaze in an attempt to resolve the picture (or perhaps look away). The poems too at first appear simple, rude, rough—Cross opts for the monosyllable, the German root. But again, an intensified gaze—a review, a reread—reveals the second and third meanings of each phrase, where the inelegant alliteration of “shocked shells” hides the vacant human subject—the shell, its immaterial essence choked out.
Immaterials presents a sharp if oblique critique of contemporary American society, perhaps summed up best in the two faces in the center of this detail from “gaol over-crowded:
Might the howl of the center left figure turn into a laugh? A bark? Either way, it’s tempered by the grimace of the man center right, who focuses intently away from the gaze of the viewer, aiming sights on something the viewer cannot see, can never see.
by Willa Cather
It was Paul’s afternoon to appear before the faculty of the Pittsburgh High School to account for his various misdemeanors. He had been suspended a week ago, and his father had called at the Principal’s office and confessed his perplexity about his son. Paul entered the faculty room suave and smiling. His clothes were a trifle outgrown, and the tan velvet on the collar of his open overcoat was frayed and worn; but for all that there was something of the dandy about him, and he wore an opal pin in his neatly knotted black four-in-hand, and a red carnation in his buttonhole. This latter adornment the faculty somehow felt was not properly significant of the contrite spirit befitting a boy under the ban of suspension.
Paul was tall for his age and very thin, with high, cramped shoulders and a narrow chest. His eyes were remarkable for a certain hysterical brilliancy, and he continually used them in a conscious, theatrical sort of way, peculiarly offensive in a boy. The pupils were abnormally large, as though he were addicted to belladonna, but there was a glassy glitter about them which that drug does not produce.
When questioned by the Principal as to why he was there Paul stated, politely enough, that he wanted to come back to school. This was a lie, but Paul was quite accustomed to lying; found it, indeed, indispensable for overcoming friction. His teachers were asked to state their respective charges against him, which they did with such a rancor and aggrievedness as evinced that this was not a usual case, Disorder and impertinence were among the offenses named, yet each of his instructors felt that it was scarcely possible to put into words the real cause of the trouble, which lay in a sort of hysterically defiant manner of the boy’s; in the contempt which they all knew he felt for them, and which he seemingly made not the least effort to conceal. Once, when he had been making a synopsis of a paragraph at the blackboard, his English teacher had stepped to his side and attempted to guide his hand. Paul had started back with a shudder and thrust his hands violently behind him. The astonished woman could scarcely have been more hurt and embarrassed had he struck at her. The insult was so involuntary and definitely personal as to be unforgettable. In one way and another he had made all his teachers, men and women alike, conscious of the same feeling of physical aversion. In one class he habitually sat with his hand shading his eyes; in another he always looked out of the window during the recitation; in another he made a running commentary on the lecture, with humorous intention.
His teachers felt this afternoon that his whole attitude was symbolized by his shrug and his flippantly red carnation flower, and they fell upon him without mercy, his English teacher leading the pack. He stood through it smiling, his pale lips parted over his white teeth. (His lips were continually twitching, and he had a habit of raising his eyebrows that was contemptuous and irritating to the last degree.) Older boys than Paul had broken down and shed tears under that baptism of fire, but his set smile did not once desert him, and his only sign of discomfort was the nervous trembling of the fingers that toyed with the buttons of his overcoat, and an occasional jerking of the other hand that held his hat. Paul was always smiling, always glancing about him, seeming to feel that people might be watching him and trying to detect something. This conscious expression, since it was as far as possible from boyish mirthfulness, was usually attributed to insolence or “smartness.”
- An article to be made of telling the stories of the tiles of an old-fashioned chimney-piece to a child.
- A person conscious that he was soon to die, the humor in which he would pay his last visit to familiar persons and things.
- A description of the various classes of hotels and taverns, and the prominent personages in each. There should be some story connected with it,–as of a person commencing with boarding at a great hotel, and gradually, as his means grew less, descending in life, till he got below ground into a cellar.
- A person to be in the possession of something as perfect as mortal man has a right to demand; he tries to make it better, and ruins it entirely.
- A person to spend all his life and splendid talents in trying to achieve something naturally impossible,–as to make a conquest over Nature.
- Meditations about the main gas-pipe of a great city,–if the supply were to be stopped, what would happen? How many different scenes it sheds light on? It might be made emblematical of something.
- A fairy tale about chasing Echo to her hiding-place. Echo is the voice of a reflection in a mirror.
from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Note-Books.
Picked up books last week, not needing them, but hey.
A digest of Kafka’s diaries; good stuff, great random reading.
This is a great little anecdote:
Austerlitz is of course the name of a W.G. Sebald novel. From that novel:
I also picked up the sixth issue of Swords of Cerebus by Dave Sim. It’s a second printing and in terrible shape and I already have the issues in other forms (reprint and graphic novel) but it’s still a pretty rare find. And I am a nerd.
The book also includes a short little excellent wordless comic, “A Night on the Town,” where Cerebus parties with a corpse. I have the reprint somewhere else, but still:
William S. Burroughs was a high modernist and a writer of complete trash; the two are by no means mutually exclusive. He was a genius and a bullshit artist. If his books prove anything, it’s that profundity and inanity can skip along merrily arm in arm. Sometimes his work was heavyweight, sometimes dumb. To borrow a Freudian analogy, sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar and sometimes a man who taught his asshole to talk really is just a man who taught his asshole how to talk (what it’s saying and why is a different story). The paradox of the freest writer being a lifelong junky is really no paradox at all. As a user and pedlar, he understood the mechanics of how it all worked and kindly pointed it out to us, even as he was picking our pockets. He was a stiff morose patrician figure in a suit (so much so his friend Herbert Huncke initially took him for an undercover agent) with books and a history full of debauchery and depravity. If there seems a contradiction there, it’s in the eye of the beholder. What makes Burroughs’ work seem prophetic is that he was perceptive enough to see that people don’t change, the secret to all successful prophecies. We’re still continually re-enacting Greek myths on a daily basis and always will. Psychosis may mirror the zeitgeist (whether it’s paranoia of witches, Jews, communists, drug fiends, Islamists or whoever next) but its essential character doesn’t alter. The bugs and the feds are always with us and there’s only so much one man can do, calling door to door with an extermination kit.