Reviewed by Kathleen Ossip
When I read Jena Osman’s The Character in May 2000, I wrote the following in my journal:
For me, a book like The Character is just about as sentimental as Hallmark verse. In that it assumes its reader is already on the same page with it, it is preaching to the choir. Maybe any language that does not seek to elucidate something new--really elucidate, for someone who might find the point tough--is sentimental. . . . It's almost pornographic too in that one side of things--what would you call it: the intellectual, haute philosophical?--is highlighted, twisted, powdered and rouged, overblown and fetishized to the exclusion of all else. All other pleasures are forbidden. No lyric pleasure. Just as there is no pleasure in pornography other than the sexual, and no pleasure in Hallmark other than the crudely emotional. And "experimental" (the word connotes the opposite of conventional) it may be, but it never steps outside the conventions of the experimental. In this, it is genre writing.
Two years later:
Update (6-02): I now love Osman’s book. I pulled an Yvor Winters and slammed something because it didn’t conform to my preferences . . . I would be embarrassed to admit this . . . Alas, I do still feel it’s preaching to the choir in its political content ... no one but the choir is likely to read it. But at least it has content ... And it is interesting, not too starchy to read, and has an appealing form . . .
Already I’m the unreliable reviewer. What happened in those two years? I reread and got less defensive about a poetry that was doing something I myself had no interest in doing. And I caught on to Osman’s M.O. and let go, a little, of a need for the old music. Then too, a serious political poetry seemed more important and more relevant in 2002 than it had in 2000.
Now we have Jena Osman’s new book, An Essay in Asterisks, which I necessarily read with a more open mind, but I do think this is a much richer book than The Character, more generous in its pleasures. Here she is again, probing consciousness and politics and language in a variety of inventive ways. These tricks might be called wordplay but the end is anything but playful. The best element of the collection is its political (and I mean the word in its broadest sense) content. Osman’s poetry might be considered truly utilitarian were there any chance it could end up in the hands of a reader who did not already believe, for example, that the U.S. war on Iraq is wicked or that the justice system doesn’t always live up to its name. Since that is all but impossible, I suppose the book might be considered a memento mori or memento belli, a reminder of what we already know, for the purpose of bringing it to our fore-minds, encouraging meditation and, perhaps, action.
The opening piece, also called “An Essay in Asterisks,” lets us know from the start that nothing perceived will go unquestioned:
If we place all stock in the space where words are missing, there is greater possibility of emotional range. Because memory is often like that as well . . . You fill the blank (the hollow of what you can’t remember) with a picture. First there is a series of images that you can’t shake, as if you were there and it was a significant part of your childhood: a burning car, the crux of a tree, a desert scene and walking through branches. Also a bright kitchen in the sun . . . These must have been part of your life. Yet later you learn that they were just images from a film . . .
Thus, the setup: Osman’s speaker does not trust language, does not believe perception and wants to persuade us to the same. How can we disagree? But the logic of her arguments is always complexly didactic. The ellipses in the above excerpt take the place of action images, whether from life or from cinema we don’t know. For example:
If we place all stock in the space where words are missing, there is greater possibility of emotional range. Because memory is often like that as well . . . LOCKING THE BOX AND PUTTING THE BAG OVER SHOULDER. You fill the blank (the hollow of what you can’t remember) with a picture. First there is a series of images that you can’t shake, as if you were there and it was a significant part of your childhood: a burning car, the crux of a tree, a desert scene and walking through branches. Also a bright kitchen in the sun. WALKING OUT THE DOOR WITHOUT LOOKING . . .
From this first piece to the last, pieces of various types of language are put together; Osman’s meaning emerges in the ways the pieces jostle each other. Yet Osman does proceed--what else can she do?--to fill that space where words are missing with words . . . or almost all of it. It is the space that’s left where the emotional (and philosophical) meaning resides. This is the logic of juxtaposition.
Her methods are Socratic; she interrogates language, as the engine of belief. Her aim is philosophical/epistemological; she asks “How do we create memory? What makes communication possible and meaningful?” If in the past 15 or 20 years there has been an explosion of poets interested in using every resource of language (in An Essay in Asterisks, Osman uses textual and typographical and graphic and photographic effects), and if they seem to fall into categories, Osman lives squarely in Gertrude Stein’s villa.
I think the term “experimental poetry” is cringe-worthy, but it is currently used to suggest poetry that foregrounds language, letting content recede. “Experimental” poets, then, trust to some degree in the wisdom inherent in language. Osman does a neat turnabout: she uses this wisdom to cast a very skeptical eye on the capacities of language, its distorting powers, its powers to create unrealities. Osman is an experimentalist in the same way that all poets are who write beyond the edge of their own confidence and certainty (which means all poets who deserve the name), and the results of experiments must always be open to failure or they’re not worth much. So “Press Scrutiny: The Doubles” includes the following elements:
A synopsis of a New Yorker article on censorship in Burma
Snippets of a conversation in which mishearing plays a part
Several short fiction-like narratives
Some language equations that call language into question (e.g., “HOSPITALITY” = THE END OF LOVE)
Some language transformations (e.g., “analysis of the straight right” in one section becomes in the transformed next section “synthesis of the late night”)
A couple of short-lined lyrics
A consideration of a list of homophones (air, heir, ere, err)
This list isn’t exhaustive, and many of the elements are gratifying, pleasing, thought-provoking, but I’m not sure they strike against each other and ignite.
Other, more successful sections include “Bowdlerizer,” which considers euphemisms in contexts from popular music to the Bush administration’s newspeak; “The Astounding Complex,” in which the author subjects Supreme Court case summaries to various linguistic procedures in the hope of investigating how much of “certainty” is “grammar”; and the final, long “Memory Error Theater,” a rigorous exploration of memory which springboards from the speaker’s discovery that “three sharp images from my childhood” were actually memories of the Nicholas Roeg film Walkabout. The inventiveness of An Essay in Asterisks is bracing and truly impressive; this is an essentially didactic book that is also extremely readable.