Book Review: The Ground I Stand on Is Not My Ground

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This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman.

It is a virtual impossibility to consider stillness, stasis, or silence among thoughts of violence and war. Reading and watching the narrative history of conflict, it is almost a certainty that even the quietest moments are underpinned by notions of impending destruction or foretell troop movements, or aerial bombardments. To some degree, even the most scholarly analysis cannot break free from notions of violence, an intrinsic part of documents and records of conflict—they are practically woven from it. And while no text rooted in either the time or place of war can escape the spectre of such terrible acts, reading The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground there is a sense of, as Forrest Gander writes in his introduction to the Collier Nogues’ inaugural Drunken Boat Book Contest-winning collection, that she is able to “[carve] critical observations into slow motion,” the effect of which is a sense of stillness and quiet that is only degrees away from disquiet such as in moments like that of “Stories I Hear” where the speaker places the reader in this state of time suspension as

[a]fter the tempest, the air is very still//the wind delayed,//                              a flickering sun/busy in the habit of dwelling in any/weather” exists amid “uprooted houses blow[ing] to fragments.

The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground

The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground
Collier Nogues
Drunken Boat Books, 2015
65 pp.

There is at once the recognition of what is contained in the documents that Nogues deconstructs and the consideration of what remains after the violence of the original documents has been enacted. The poems of The Ground I Stand On… inhabit the decades after the end of these scenes, and are fragments unearthed after an act of reclaiming the texts which are erased to create them. It is an act that, as the speaker of “Editor’s Introduction” recognizes, is one attacking a sense of the various “legal fiction[s]” created in the language of after-action reports and documents written in the hand of the home front that “has a hazy power in its standardization.” As such, Nogues’ task is one of resistance—to recognize the voice among the words who otherwise would disappear without a trace, the one who now speaks “burned,/                and began to dissolve//and the universe assembled without me.”

One of the major feats of the collection is Nogues’ ability to not only make such powerful work from, sometimes, such austere documents, but also to sequence and create the work with such an eye to using heterogeneous source material to craft what feels to be a single speaker of these poems. Even in the epistolary series “Dear Grace,” the poems feel as if they are documents being read over by the speaker established in the first half of the book which resumes once the letter-based series concludes. By this duality, I am reminded of Janet Holmes’ the ms of my kin, in which the reader, aware that the poems being erased are originally by poet who favored near-poet speakers, sees a multiplicity of voices that verges on cacophony.

With The Ground I Stand On… Nogues does the exact opposite creating one apparent speaker out of a polyphony of voices while relying on a large array of different types of source texts.

Forrest Gander’s introduction also compares the text to Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager, and the comparison is certainly more than apt. But what perhaps most striking about The Ground I Stand On… is that it also seems to carry on the work of Voyager as not only spiritual or poetic successor, but as a sequitur text—one that partially fills in the lacuna of the poetic narrative of World War II. Focused around Nogues’ experience of growing up at a military base on Okinawa, the text is a chronicle of a process that writes through a lexicon of various structures of post-war power to discover a latent level of language residing therein. Perhaps more so than Voyager, Nogues’ text takes Reddy’s task of capturing a figure in their own incongruities of history and places the burden on an entire tradition—a set of documents that, save for Nogues’ practice of reading-through, might have otherwise been allowed to stand, enabling essential truths of the matter to remain hidden and unquestioned as parts of larger seemingly untouchable historical constructs.

As a supplement to the book, each poem features a QR code which links to an online companion which features the original source as an interactive object allowing viewers to mouse over the document and reveal/obscure the text to enact the same erasure as Nogues’ pieces. If there is one issue with the printed form of The Ground I Stand On…, it is due to how dynamic and immersive its digital counterpart is. This is in no small part due to the difference in arranging erased poems on a page versus the fully graphic presentation of documents that the interactive, digital side of the book provides. Given that the materiality of these documents is an entirely other layer of meaning and power with regard to these poems, both versions of the text can exist side-by-side (as book technologies aren’t at the level where the effect of the online text could be reproduced in consumable book form), the transition from the texts placed in their original document form back to the typescript version of the text (without any of the visual content accompanying it) feels as if two different worlds are operating in parallel. However, given the dimension that the interactive feature adds, the text is in a unique position to reveal process in a way that is similar to that of Voyager, endowing the reading experience with another kind of duality next to that of the time-space that these poems inhabit.

While Nogues’ text engages with representations of empire, war, displacement, and loss, the sum-total of the force of these poems is decidedly one of hope, or at least a belief in it; perhaps it is the fragmentary that gives some sense of hope—that there will always be those who can do the work of working through the past and its representations, to help us recover the place where “the foliage is always green/and the island is always picturesque,” and, as the speaker of “Day Trip” recalls, those moments where “[w]e carve/a seat out of the sand and name the/glass boats//the people//all the corals and fishes//                      the fishes with vivid colors/            swimming around in the paradise//I remember the old name of.”