As I read Obliterations by Heather Aimee O’Neill and Jessica Piazza, I find it impossible to escape the intertextual gravity of William Carlos Williams’ famous assertion from “Asphodel” that “[i]t is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” I doubt this is the first time anyone has made this comparison to the text, but the reminder is apt, as O’Neill and Piazza take Williams’ sentiment both figuratively and literally. However, these poems are not the news talking, but poets talking through the news.
Obliterations is not an attempt to rectify this persistent struggle with meaning, but to inquire into ways of reading which produce extra-textual meaning through personal association and our own peculiar ways of comprehending information. Instead of concerning themselves with surfeit of essential truths toward which Williams’ lines gesture,
O’Neill and Piazza suggest that truths are there to find after all if we resist received ways of reading and approach mass media without a way of going about reading the particular form of media.
Alongside notions of “free press,” which usually denotes the power and latitude of text production, perhaps we should see Obliterations as a challenge to the reader to make good on their half of the bargain: to subjectively interpret what they read in order to make it truly meaningful once again. Perhaps what we see in these poems is less the product of a writing process as it is one of a reading process. These poems, as transactions with publicly-available news media, create speakers who function as parsers of the source texts from the New York Times, and not necessarily interpreters. This likely stems from their engagement with the practice of erasure if not its strict visual-physical form.
Unlike Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow, or Janet Holme’s ms of my kin (among other book reviews in which I’ve commented on various formal qualities of erasure), Obliterations goes beyond obliterating words. Readers do not see marked-out pages or the hallmark negative space of a typical erasure text. The poems in the manuscript confront the reader as acontextual, the knowledge which the introductory remarks and concluding source list confer, notwithstanding. While the reader knows the poems are sourced from various articles produced by the New York Times media machine, picking out phrases, syntax, or other linguistic markers which tie the poems to their source texts is nearly (if not completely impossible). After all, to “obliterate” is to destroy in total—to completely erase, and (as O’Neill and Piazza demonstrate) to reconstitute.
Strangely, the poems in Obliterations engage with notions of the uncanny: the familiar, yet unfamiliar. In addition to the various ways the authors re-present text to readers, they do so in duplicate. While the book appears to be co-authored, another “form” which we have come to understand, O’Neill and Piazza quickly dispel the notion that these poems are a hybrid or synthesis writing in the introductory note to the text that “[they] took the same articles and wrote [their] own erasures of them without seeing [each other’s] versions,” a collaborative form which enacts another “obliteration” in that there is no authoritative or “canonical” poem. This is not to write that there exists a competition between poets to lay claim to the “correct” object, but rather to create tension and perspective through the un/familiarity which readers gain with the term set of a given “section” of the book.
For example, in poems such as “With Two” and “Two Moons,” some readers will know not only the source text (a review of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84) but also the reviewed text itself. In addition, knowing that the original texts’ form is a book review in a newspaper, the reader is let in on the original context of the work. However, both poems quickly dissociate the intertextual associations and familiarities to not only one, but the constant set of two unfamiliar objects which acquire their own level of familiarity once read. As is often, and delightfully the case, the poets’ word choice only overlaps in the use of essential articles. A Murakami fan, beyond one or two key phrases which drew my attention, the poems successfully efface their original contexts; a reader unfamiliar with the specific language of the Murakami novel would likely not make the connections.
Though I refer to each spread of poems as a section, this might be a misnomer. Given O’Neill and Piazza’s exclusive process (i.e. not showing each other their erasures), these are much more akin to miniature folios or “potentialities” extant and hidden in the source material. Treating each section of the New York Times, it is inevitable when the poets come to a newspaper section such as “Politics,” the notion of these poems as “potential” is captivating.
Both poets transform a piece on female-as-voting-demographic into something much larger which feels more actionable—transcendent compared the original context. O’Neill’s half of the folio, “Female, Still” constructs woman as a force of nature, a “one woman tornado” which “God intended to happen” a “mythmaking” (as the poet writes) that is much more powerful and singular than the kind of mass demographic appeal with which the article engages. Piazza unknowingly picks up on the same thread and takes it a step further in “Crucial Female,” in which the speaker calls O’Neill’s powerful, mythical figures to a “battleground” which “needs: // volatile women important women / interesting women kaleidoscopic // as any fascinating men.”
Quite often, the interplay between the authors is a conversation-by-correspondence through a given source text, even if the resultant poems address different issues such as those contained in the “Opinionator” section, which accesses an opinion piece on gun control. O’Neill’s poem, “Why” occupies a minimalist, intimate interior where there is “barely a whisker of hope,” ending with a lyric incident of
[b]loodbath // You shot. // I reload.
while Piazza opts for a narrative approach in “Regulate” depicting a
[b]oy with a gun, // awash in minor / hopes of being safer.
In moments such as this, the reader encounters another kind of choice the collection presents: are these connected narratives? Or, are they separate? Whichever way the reader chooses to read the facing pages, the book foregrounds challenges against traditional readerly assumptions.
Some readers may come to Obliterations expecting one kind of erasure, but encounter something wholly different. O’Neill and Piazza work to create this kind of boundary-obscuring version of erasure in which the notion of form is taken in a different kind of literal direction, one in which any ghosts of the text are, even if only briefly, chased away, clearing space for the multiplicity of new speakers they create as well as the potential for others to approach the same sources to uncover voices previously unthought of or unheard among visual “noise,” creating the rare kind of silence which is truly the absence of all sound.