Jim Elkins's Reviews > Sinking

Sinking by Michael Cawood Green
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An excellent and little-known experimental text

This is experimental writing: a mixture of poetry, song lyrics, historical narrative, essays supposedly written by other people, and a glossary. It concerns a sinkhole that appeared in a mining community called Blyvooruitzicht in South Africa in 1964 and swallowed a house, killing five people. I have three sorts of comments: on the book's structure, on its precedents, and on the oddly marginal place of the visual.

A. Structure
The book is divided into three sections. First are twenty-one poems (they are numbered), many about people who died or were involved in the event; a "Mediation" (subtitled "Appendices"), with six short poems on such things as "Ethics" and "Autobiography"; a section of "Commentary" supposedly written by someone named Alan Charles; and finally a third section called "Present," which is a prose essay on "The Secret History of 'Sinking,'" signed by Michael Green. The book concludes with Green's song lyrics.

The author presents himself (or rather, the ostensibly multiple authors present themselves) as fully aware of the complications of this structure, and its inability to hold. At one point, for example, Green notes that "with this the allegory / Becomes rather heavy-handed" (p. 74); and there is a poem called "Failures with Metaphor" (p. 84). (It's ironic in a different way that the author himself makes a negative comment on his website concerning reviewers of the book who didn't see the structure.) The preeminent tone is realist, and the book is principally posed as a historical inquiry and archive, with the important -- central -- exception of the twenty-one poems, which play with the metaphor of sinking and the coincidences of politics and geology.

B. Precedents
As a collection of self-aware, historiographically ironic fragments, mingled with first-person prose and serious poetry, this book is not without precedents. Here are a few, in some order from those the author knows and acknowledges to those he doesn't mention and may not know:

1. The chapters and poems are peppered with epigraphs by Walter Benjamin, Camus, Nietzsche, Jameson, Barthes, and Derrida: a sadly predictable canon of theorists favored in poststructuralism. Green uses the quotations well, but they are such a familiar territory that they bring back the smell of certain academic hallways in the 1980s.

2. The chapters and poems are also decorated with epigraphs by Woolf, Auden ("In Praise of Limestone," an inevitable parallel), William Carlos Williams, and others, pointing to a conservative reading of English-language modernists. Green has one of his fictional contributors say that he is "not content with aspiring to a 'Wasteland'" for South Africa" (p. 111). This is somewhat at odds with the academic citations, because Green's literary epigraphs miss the generation of Barthes and Derrida, and the authors they themselves read (including older writers like Balzac and Flaubert, and contemporaries like Ponge, Cixous, and Jabès). The book's structure is itself partly beholden to Woolf, Auden, Eliot, and other modernists, especially Williams. "Paterson" is a proximate model for the mixture of essays, documents, and poetry, but Williams mingles, uneasily in my reading, with the poststructuralist intertextuality suggested, and practiced, by Benjamin, Derrida, and others.

3. The poems themselves owe something to confessional poetry, and something to Williams (there's a pastiche on p. 50), but also a lot to Wallace Stevens, especially in their intermittent illogic, their direct grammar, and their propensity to flow into allegory without announcing the fact.

4. A text that Green appears not to know, but is a close parallel, is Hans Magnus Enzensberger's wonderful book-length poem on the Titanic. Enzensberger is also concerned with ethics and politics, and the impossibility of capturing a disaster in poetry. And like Green, he experiments with the limits of metaphor.

5. Another is Paul Metcalf, whose books combine factual information with prose narrative, occasional poems, and documents.

6. Or, more recently, William Vollmann's "Imperial."

In short: the book as a whole is not as new as it proposes. Some of its voices are in dialogue with the past, but others aren't.

C. Regarding the visual
One reason I bought this book is the picture on the back cover, showing the sinkhole at the Blyvooruitzicht Mine, with neighboring houses perched at the brink. It's a remarkable photograph.

On the front cover is a woman holding her hands to her face, apparently in shock. (The photo is credited to someone named Carole Lynch, possibly his partner.) It's a hokey image, especially the way it's designed as if the edges had been ripped; but it's much better than the cover Green himself wanted, which is on his website (michaelcawoodgreen.com). That cover, "designed by his partner, Carole," includes Millais's "Ophelia."

But it's the image on the back cover that interests me. Why, given Green's wide-ranging interest in documentation of all kinds, did he not illustrate his book? Why not put that image in the text itself, if only as a frontispiece? For me (and I suspect this must be the case with other readers), the photograph on the back cover is integral to the book. I often turned to it to compare details described in the book. There are several references to news photographs in the book -- especially a passage citing "Several of the photographic spreads / Covering Blyvooruitzicht's overnight sensation / Feature it: / A washing machine / Poised inches from the edge of the half-house" (p. 23). At one point we learn that Green had "four years of tertiary [graduate-level] History of Art," even though he was always weak at visual arts (pp. 123-4).

It is a sign, for me, of a pervasively non-visual imagination that it did not seem at all anomalous to put a magnetically attractive, narratively central object outside the text itself. There it sits, with the usual cover blurb flowing around it, and a pensive author's photo below.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
February 11, 2013 – Shelved
February 11, 2013 – Shelved as: south-african

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