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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Laura Sims' _Stranger_, reviewed by Ross Brighton

Laura Sims
Fence Books, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-934200-23-0
Paper: 88pp, $15.

Reviewed by Ross Brighton.

for life's not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis
- e. e. cummings, “since feeling is first”

This collection is a song of loss, an elegy to a departed mother. It is a coming-to-terms through language with both this death and the pseudo-presence of memory, and mother-in-daughter.

Somewhere Artaud proposes that the process of reading summons an ur-presence, a conjuration of that which is part-reader and part-author. In this text the epistemological questions arise: am I knowing Sims, or my construction of her? And what of her mother, who has departed into that ultimate (in every sense of the word) alterity?

Sims does not shy away from these issues of epistemology and metaphysics, nor does she presume to offer any answers. Instead the text functions as an investigation into the trauma of the death of a loved one, and the questions raised by their absence and yet-presence in the traces of memory and genetics. As such another level of existence is created within the matrix of the poem: a textual haunting.

Foremost, however, the poem is a record of loss. Syntactically broken, the fractures and stutters mirror the interruption of death, and its calling into question of the grammar/epistemological framework of the text of existence. Here the mimetic logic of grammar stumbles and breaks down, as any attempt at narrativisation or representation is doomed to failure as an attempt to write the unwriteable – to make sense of that which is essentially other. Here we find Derrida’s aporia (closely aligned with the concept of death), the logical misstep, a no-place or unreachability[i]

This is where cummings’ metaphor (which he disowns, yet still implies by stating/creating it) becomes untenable. The parenthetical, while housing a (semi-) discrete unit, does not entail a sentence, much less a paragraph – the presence of the signifiers between which said unit is housed embed it within the larger sentence-unit, which is in turn existent within the larger paragraph (or as a paragraph of its own – though the set ‘paragraph’ denotes a wider field or category than ‘sentence’). Furthermore, the designation of these as parenthetical statement, sentence, and paragraph imply the continuation of the text beyond them (at the very least as a logical possibility, if not in actuality). The death, or life, of an individual may be described as such, but only when witnessed/experienced from outside, and even then it maintains an intrinsic alterity, and can never be fully comprehended: as Derrida states, one’s own death is the one thing that can be claimed/experienced as truly and solely one’s own, yet still this remains unthinkable and unexperienceable until it has already happened – a non-event[ii]. As such, to return to the textual metaphor, death would be better described as the back cover to the book, where the turning of another page is an impossibility.

Sims’ book, with its almost-narrative of stutters, breaks, and false starts is an attempt to make sense of the literally unthinkable, and the implication of one’s own mortality (for if a mother, the ultimate bearer of life, can die, then so too can the daughter, who carries part of the mother within herself). As such Sims takes up the responsibility given in such events, to write what little that can be written. As such she creates “records of consequence” (37), drawing from the past “Those hidden things/ From the previous / Margin” (27), that are catalogued, yet remain “[blank]” (41).

These records take the form of an inscription of fractured moments, images and memories collected from the detritus of the past, “bring[ing] to mind /// yellow(s)* / (sunlit) – /// her myriad past” (11). But which is this “her”? The third person implies that it is not Sims (the younger); however, the recollection of memory implies that it is indeed the poet. This ambiguous use of the pronoun creates a link between mother and daughter, however tenuous – the sharing of a surrogate name.

Links are created, but “there is no such thing as a copy”(44). As Deleuze asserts[iii], repetition only occurs through difference; and these ‘hers’ are not the same. This difference is reinforced by one having become “[blank]”, the other left to “catalogue” this absence, and dispel the void through inscription. For the blank, through the inscription of its name between those brackets, becomes something other than the nothing it signifies, and thus Sims asserts herself, “two stories deep” (68, note the pun). As she states in the same poem (“From her mud plateau”), and once again with the ambiguous pronouns:

__She is twofold
__A compound
__That shape am I

Through inscription the “I” can take shape; and there, in the stillness of the white between the lines, something can coalesce. And this space, in its silence, also plays a large part in the poem (though this is more meditative than the sometimes shocking, traumatic silence of Myung Mi Kim). One is never sure what can come from death, if anything; but here there is something, and it comes, quietly, and with a beauty.

[i] See Jacques, Derrida. Aporias, Trans. Thomas Dutoit. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.

[ii] Ibid; see also The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2007 (2nd ed.).

[iii] Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press 1995.


Ross Brighton is the author of the chapbook A Pelt a Shrub a Soil Sample. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Catalyst, Side Stream, Otoliths (Aus), Reconfigurations (USA), No Tell Motel (USA) and Action Yes (USA). He is reviews editor for Tarpaulin Sky, and blogs on poetics and contemporary art at