Book Review: Woman’s World

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One look at the page count listed in the publisher’s information for Woman’s World yields a curious result: at 437 pages, it’s clear that this book is not necessarily reading material for an afternoon. And neither publisher nor author define the book as poetry. As such, taking this book up as a candidate for review at FPR seems a little dubious from the start. But, trading in the same space as Phillips’ A Humument, Graham Rawle’s work in Woman’s World is similarly epic and no less poetic or visionary. Culled from 40,000 fragments of text cut from various women’s magazines, Rawle’s work engages with the kinds of traditions that we’re interested in, taking the Dadaist/Gysin method of the “cut-up” to new extremes which are no less profitable to consider in relation to the various ways that contemporary writers encounter, subvert, and call attention to the massive media landscape in which we find ourselves. As Rawle’s text finds its source material in magazines from the 1960s, it’s not hard to imagine the volume of information bias and overload that is of interest to many poets working with cut-up processes now.

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Woman’s World
Graham RawleCounterpoint Press, 2008
437 pp.

Woman’s World is the narrative of Norma Fontaine, whose life and behavior are both created through and by the kinds of domestic registers which one might expect to find in Rawle’s source material. Male characters surrounding Norma seem to be fascinated with “[capturing] her feminine allure,” a provocation to which Norma responds by buying in, wondering if she can “look like one of the glamorous models from the women’s magazines.” Rawle’s self-referential play with the media format which constitutes his source pervades the text as seen through explicit reference or in the ways that the reader can imagine the sources from which the text is taken. While some snippets are printed in subdued serif body text, others are taken from what one assumes to be headlines or even ads. The contrast of looping script type versus the sober look and feel of other text creates a reading experience in which the reader buys in, too—albeit with an ironic sense of awareness.

But Woman’s World is not concerned with its own novelty to any great extent. Perhaps it is better said that, while Rawle’s composition method is a trick, the book is not a trick which aspires to novelty—

instead it co-opts the reader into a world which seems at first innocent and naïve, but contains the much darker stuff of the space between the lines and the kinds of violence caused by wholly subscribing to the cosmetic, commercial tone of the text which Rawle is sampling.

In this, Woman’s World is as much poetry as it is fiction; Rawle’s position of text and selection of size, proportion, and color (though assumed, as the manuscript printed in black and white), endows language with energy, ferocity, and emotional depth that both supplements and counterpoints action occurring in the narrative. As the story proceeds, the relative chaos and composition of the text (both visually and semantically) gives the reader a much darker sense of the world in which Norma lives and how our notions of “progress” might be undermined. Though the novel is created from material that is over fifty years old, it is arresting to see contemporary culture reflected in the lens of historic language.

While the impact of the narrative as a novel is of keen interest, I argue that what Rawle has done with Woman’s World might be much more akin to a form of cut-up, long-form, narrative prose poetry. Many reviews of the book focus on Rawle’s process (a five-year, 17-hour-a-day Spartan discipline), but elide how his process shares much more ground with poets like Gysin and Tzara than the novel tradition. The way that the fragments fall on the page, for example, force Rawle to have to create restrictive margins which (superficially) create a shape that forces emphasis on the line as a unit of tension rather than meaning. In the same way that cutting single words and working them together creates a sense of juxtaposition, Rawles is able to accomplish similar feats of extra-narrative momentum from the ways that larger cuttings of information interplay. Consider a forced lineation from the end of the 16th chapter, “all [Roy’s] dark secrets, hovered over them like the / Hindenburg. The sun was momentarily lost / behind its dark form” (my representation of the lineation). From another moment in the book:

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The forced lineation and Rawle’s working outside the margin creates a sense of pressure placed on language which maintains the narrative, but also heightens the significance and stakes in the language. To recall earlier comments about typefaces, even the way that Rawle positions words such as “Maltesers” and “Walking on Pillows” creates a sense of the text as extra-textual, the kind of allusiveness (and elusiveness) which reminds me of work by Susan Howe and Robert Fitterman.

Spending a small amount of time considering the process behind Woman’s World leads me to make other direct comparisons to Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager which attains a similar level of consciousness in composition. Rawle, similar to Reddy, lives with language that means much more than it says and indicates much more than what it modifies on the page. In devoting himself to the language at such a deep level, Rawle’s work speaks through the language by both accessing what it says and what it does not (but should) say. With this as a focus, Woman’s World becomes a much truer narrative of experience than the shiny, abstracted lives that even contemporary popular magazines might lead us to believe that we desire. Rawle’s argument here is clear: both the language we use and the way that we use or represent it can be sinister even if it seems innocuous. There is nothing so glossy as to obscure its meaning, and nothing so insidious as intent.

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