Various American poets have taken on other texts with an eye toward doctoring, treating, or otherwise erasing most of the original. Ronald Johnson’s RADI OS is something of a touchstone in this area, with other notable contributions by Stephen Ratcliffe, Jen Bervin, and Mary Ruefle, among others.
Whether the source text is canonical (Milton for Johnson, Shakespeare for Ratcliffe and Bervin) or not, the linguistic possibilities afforded by the source ultimately shape any later treatments of it. RADI OS, for example, is often as intense and intensely lyrical as its source text, Paradise Lost. And as Guy Davenport has noted, the book conjures “an image of America as a paradise lost,” thus demonstrating how a treatment can seem both intriguing and necessary, even inevitable.
This connection between past and present has been a central element of most erasure projects. So it’s curious that Travis MacDonald reworks a contemporary document in The O Mission Repo, and that his source is not literary but entirely worldly—functional, political, commission-y. In re-working The 9/11 Commission Report, MacDonald demonstrates how poetry can reside, or hide, within the most utilitarian of language, inside the most public of documents.
MacDonald transforms the report’s “Preface” to “reface” and the chapters “We Have Some Planes,” “The Foundation of the New Terrorism,” “Counterterrorism Evolves,” and “Responses to Al Qaeda’s Initial Assaults” to “We Ave Plan,” “The Found Error,” “Errorism Evolves,” and “Re Po in A,” respectively. Throughout the text, some common replacements include “light” for “flight,” “Unit” for “United,” “Lad” for “Bin Laden,” “error” and “errorism” for “terror” and “terrorism,” and “opera” for “operation.” These changes end up exerting a powerful force on the new text.
Each chapter employs a different erasure technique and thus retains, or effaces, the original text to varying degrees. Most of the original preface has been covered with a thick black line, bearing some resemblance to the “censorial dash” in Bob Brown’s Gems. The book’s opening announces its own project: “We the narrative of / America / present this repo / as a / history of the / how.” Within the field of serviceable communal prose, MacDonald isolates and retains the communal while locating the profound by (and at) the end of his “reface”: “We / have searched / past / sight // and witness / for // This final / fraction of / light. // We emerge from this / or / into this / as / other.”
In “We Ave Plan,” MacDonald crosses through most of the existing text, but because his lines are not quite letter-height, we can make out the original text, albeit with some eye strain. However closely we examine the stricken words, we are not allowed to entirely ignore the presence of the original. By treating the timeline of the hijacking of the airplanes on 9/11, MacDonald fashions a shadow narrative—one that’s both strange and poignant:
At 8:54, the craft was lost. At 9:00, lines had been lost to Unit. At 9:12, the point was cut off after the first call. At 9:29, the Dull east light. At 9:34, vice pointed toward the Pen and advanced the throttles. At 9:37, Liberty was delayed at the gate. When it left America.
(In the original, of course, the words are scattered across several pages, in their positions in the original document.)
In “The Found Error” chapter, MacDonald blurs the original and maintains the legibility of the words he wants to retain. Again, the original remains legible, with some effort, its presence unmistakeable. He even carries this technique over to a photograph of Osama Bin Laden, blurring out the face and thus turning the focus of the photograph to the palm of his hand. Similarly, in a map of Afghanistan, the country itself has been blurred out, and only the map’s legend remains legible—a visual commentary, perhaps, on the myopia of the War on Terror.
The format of the “Errorism Evolves” chapter resembles that of RADI OS, in that the original text not retained by MacDonald is simply absent. But unlike in RADI OS, the language here is workaday, at least initially: “In Chapter 2, we described a new kind of error / In this / chapter we trace the parallel evolution of / Unit…” Some passages manage to approach the high lyrical (“o form / aging form”) or revel in the bawdy: “the enlightened hand of self-interest // demands // a hardened cock // a vault of / cock // locked in / cement.”
The book’s last chapter, “Re Po in A,” nods to Zukofsky while positioning the non-erased text on a scaffolding of musical staffs. These emerge as frequently operatic and dramatic, particularly when we recall the catalyst for the book’s source: “O / maker— / O / man / O / mission / o / found ember of / old / vision…” The performance ends when “Unit finally found Lad as this opera ground to a close.”
Of course, Unit has not really found Lad, and MacDonald’s treatment remains an imaginative and physical reworking of both reality and The 9/11 Commission Report. For taking on such a document with such incisiveness, and for allowing himself to move beyond the usual pieties associated with that day, MacDonald has performed his own act of public (and poetic) service.