This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman.
What does it mean for a text to be othered, to be cast apart or treated as foreign, strange, or deliberately distanced? After reading the simple question, think about how odd it sounds. Normally texts do the othering of a subject or render a portrayal of another culture as being “othered.” However, in Travis Macdonald’s case, The O Mission Repo is a book that inserts a text (and highly-charged cultural document, at that) in a position of being unrecognizable in the way that many literary texts position personas as opposites. The source text, The 9/11 Commission Report published in 2004, went on to win a National Book Award, and it is fair to assume that many who will approach Macdonald’s careful and tightly-focused erasure have read it. But the effect that Macdonald achieves is to dispel the original text and all of our associations with it – as the speaker of the “reface” (the appropriately re-titled preface) claims, “our aim has been to // redress / its // lexicon” in an effort to exercise “the instruments of / change // over every page”, setting an ambitious framework for the text – to alter the orientation so much so that the entire text is “refaced,” as if a secret subtext has been decoded, rendered such that
we emerge from // or / into this // as / other
in our position to the original. But Macdonald’s approach decenters the reader a level further creating a character, much like Phillip’s A Humument, in creating a protagonist, “Unit,” as an everyman as a proxy for cultural experience.
Over the course of the book, Macdonald’s transformations reflect notions of transparency and withholding, enacting operations on the text that evolve from markout to erasure. The “reface” is marked out much like a FOIA request subjected to significant redaction (heavy black bars obscuring the whole lines), imparting a sense on the reader that there is some certainty behind what has been forcibly omitted, due to the obvious care the speaker takes in ensuring that all traces of undesirable text are marked out. The markings used in the proceeding sections begin to introduce a theme of uncertainty; the second section “We Ave Plan” uses thinner lines that expose more of the background text on the page. The lines “erased” in the third section, “The Found Error” are blurred rather than erased. The fourth section endeavors to more traditional erasure, while the last – “Repo in A” – finds the section’s speaker imposing the musical notion of the grand staff on the text, setting the words among the lines of the treble and bass clefs, the running narrative of the text declared an “opera” in several places throughout the text – a term fitting the ambitiousness of both the project, and the continually-developing storyline rooted in situational circumstance.
One layer of appropriation exists in the acts of erasure and markout, and Macdonald’s second, the “refacing” of content and type is another, morphing the document from one that is known to one that is altogether foreign. In the first two sections, the original words, though obscured remain, leaving some semblance that fact and evidence are retrievable. In this sense, the title term “repo” exhibits a double-meaning. As modern shorthand, it stands for “repository,” a place of stored artifacts and knowledge, or, in a traditional lexicon, “repossession,” the reclaiming of a type of collateral. The O Mission Repo is both simultaneously; Macdonald’s first two sections are the former, whereas the text slowly becomes the latter, as if to return the text from original author to present reader, becoming “a subject // in the art // of instability”.
With changing forms, each providing the reader with a different approach to how information is concealed, the surrounding structure of language disappearing and becoming repurposed.
The O Mission Repo’s notion of speaker is complicated by this shifting sense of both purpose and ownership. With regard to information, who has authority to repurpose or reconstitute ownership and content? For Macdonald, the more appropriate question is what, as “reface” opens, “we the narrative of // America // present this repo” – making the speaker of the entire volume the document itself, defining “context // for // culture seen as obstacle”. By parting away the context of the source text, Macdonald frees a document so strictly rooted in one event and appropriates it in order to allow it to speak for the culture surrounding the text, a continuation of the decoding of the document that is implied by the author’s strategy. If the “instruments of / change” are the tools or frame for O Mission Repo, their work is to prove that “the source / is no document // no note // in the shelter // of // form”.
No matter how much a reader may be able to separate themselves from the source text of found work, when such a politically-charged document as The 9/11 Commission Report is used as source material, it is an impossibility to come through the reading experience of The O Mission Repo without extracting ideological argument. But Macdonald considers historical documentation to be a living thing; in that way, reading an erasure of the commission’s report issued seven years post-9/1l and situated in a world that has been so profoundly affected by the aftershocks of the tragedy, the text is an argument for truth borne out in the statistics. For Macdonald, what is significant is not the focus of the source text, but how the attitudes and evidence presented therein represent a broader view, a voice enciphered in the original document that, when ornamentation and reason are pared away, shows how the “additional layers would provide / pre / flawed // specific plots and / could develop // data”.
Often found work approaches historical documents either far removed in time or situation from the global state of play. Macdonald, in embracing a timeline that is still occurring, positions O Mission Repo for future addition, editions, and expansion. Considering that the present volume is 143 pages derived from a work nearly five times that length, this volume operates as the overture for this “new opera,” though the work ends as “this // Opera- // ground // to a close”. As it ends, the text acknowledges the perpetual life of the narrative in the speaker’s claim that work is, under a “new director,” beginning “on a new opera // relying more on / the / extended scope of // limited circumstance”. In the data, there are more narratives and more “opera,” and how we manipulate it tells more of a story than what was originally on the page.