This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman.
Any book that starts with a turkey, Falstaff beer and The Chiffons can’t be all that bad. A couple of songs and movie pitches later, everything changes.
In the Afterword to his 2013 book 7 American Deaths and Disasters, Kenneth Goldsmith writes of “the modern era of spectacle” associated with the assassination of JFK prompting him to begin the narrative line of his book with a transcription of the KLIF radio broadcast from 22 November, 1963. Spectacle, in the traditional sense of the word, is problematic when approaching writing; the sort of dramatization of text that the word implies is one that typically belongs to film, live theatre, or other visual media. It associates with the massive, connotes awe and the fantastical; it creates indelible memory; it brings with it the idea that what is a spectacle is a major act, perhaps the unbelievable or overwhelming. One does not see spectacle every day.
Can text overwhelm? Certainly. Is it able to present stunningly complex representations in a reader’s imagination? Absolutely. However, rarely upon reading a book do we consider it “spectacle,” though we may call it “spectacular,” if only to relay how terrific or striking a text was for us as a reader.
Goldsmith’s work is characterized by challenges to the typical definitions of terms associated with writing and culture. And, spectacle is now among them.
The redefinition that “spectacle” undergoes rends it from the typical “unbelievable” connotations to which it is often associated. Rather, what is spectacular in 7 American Deaths… is that which is believable, precisely because the events being recounted are firmly rooted in global history, though they are American in situation. They are part of our DNA, politically, culturally, and personally. For many, the mention of the JFK assassination brings out the immediate reminiscence of where they were when they received first word from Dealey Plaza. Those in my generation will readily have the same reactions to references to 11 September, 2001 or the events at Columbine High School. The deaths of the Challenger crew had a profound effect on the world.
These feelings and thoughts are largely the product of sense impressions that rely on our memory of a mixture of coverage in major media and other voices present while events occurred. While it is impossible to revisit these points in time as they are fixed in history, Goldsmith’s transcriptions of these voices bring the reader as close to the rawness of the moment as they possibly can get. In text, we are able to relive these fragments of experience as objectively as possible. Our emotions and thoughts may emerge the same, or we may come away from the experience as somewhat changed. This is what is spectacular about Goldsmith’s work – that he lays out a sequence of events in a staged manner that inspires us to be stunned or awe-struck along with the flood of other feeling and memory from which our perception is already constructed.
What is captivating is that it is no matter that readers will know the paths that these deaths and disasters will take. While these stories have been heard, seen by or narrated for us before, it does not matter; we come back to the wellspring of these transcribed texts finding a new set of evoked emotions.
This evocation is done with scientific precision, a feature that also typifies Goldsmith’s approach to his reappropriation of text. In this case, he examines the various inflection points, the moments of inertia around which time must flow and those which alter direction. For example, in his transcription of a cassette tape of a listener scanning radio stations on 8 December, 1980:
“John Smith is on the line and I don’t care what’s on the line, Howard Cosell, you have got to say that we know in the booth. Yes we have to say it. Remember this is just a football game no matter who wins or loses.” And then, suddenly:
An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City. John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous perhaps of all of the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival. Hard to go back to the game after that newsflash.
And, it is hard to go back. Or forward. Goldsmith builds to such “flashes,” acute and blinding, that slow the reader to a near grinding halt. Those who can remember hearing reports like these will linger at the limits of memory, the half-speed of remembrance. For those who were not alive at the time, some texts will cause them to be jolted from placid, everyday momentum of life into the realm of the spectacular, a surreal and ethereal place. Other pieces, such as Goldsmith’s transcription of a 911 call from Columbine High School and World Trade Center reports, are abrupt and surrendering. The urgency and immediacy of the accounts change, inducing a much more arresting reaction from the reader as Goldsmith jumps between third, second and first-hand accounts.
With the controversy surrounding Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing,” the question is begged: why is this text significant for poetry or literature in general? What has been central to the poet’s work, even in his past assertions of being someone observing or seeking out the “boring” (a pursuit he had sworn off before beginning 7 American Deaths…), has been a drive toward serving as an instrument of precision. In this endeavor he has done it, achieved something contained in shades among his previous work – the acute nature of his typings and retypings capture the events that were and those that weren’t, moments interrupted, changed and morphed in history before our eyes. The difference here that signals a departure from his previous work is that of the clarity of his concept, highlighting the gaps and aforementioned “inflections” that create (or recreate) a narrative, gesturing toward an uncertain future of more “almosts” and “almost nots.” We are there, not only with the voices, but with an author without a director or control over the text, helpless while watching the spectacle of disaster unfold.