Stephen Ellis


On Kristin Prevallet's Stratch Sides

Scratch Sides
Kristin Prevallet
Skanky Possum

The primary compass in Kristin Prevallet's recent Scratch Sides (Skanky Possum, Austin, Texas, 2002, 73 pp.) revolves around the use of source and secondary texts, and the tensions drawn between individual effort and various methods of collaboration with them. Collaboration in this case is defined as cooperation with an agency or instrumentality with which one is not immediately connected; that is, the work in part involves connections to what would here-to-fore remain undisclosed, the process thereby attaining to an oft discontinuous yet resonant combination of intent as parsed by and with so-called "alien" textual incursions that motivate and complete the individualized, vehicular form.

Yet the completion is not the more ordinal one of closure; Prevallet instead uses materials and sources heterogeneous to a given lyric /epic mode in order to achieve an accomplished working that employs textual trauma conditional to combinations personal, social, scientific, ecological, religious and political to reveal the nature of the enlightening incursion; the "thinking" that moves the work is not entirely Prevallet's own, but takes place at the edge of "body", "self" and (mediating) "text" that defines the constant engagement with one's world, which, in the case of Scratch Sides involves a sure sense of subversion, dogged humor often bordering on the sarcastic, and a provisional and at times apocalyptic sense of interplay with regard to one's position in the on-going process, both in the text, and in one's now alive life.

The book is divided into nine sections, the last of which - "demystifying the process" - explains the methods by which the various other works were written. The tenor of the remaining eight sections is frankly exploratory and open, from the meditatively lyric "Love Poem, Untitled", through the travel report of "Non-Stop Kansas" to the recombinant cut-up sections of "Lyric Infiltration". The collection begins with "Lead, Glass, and Poppy", which uses source texts including several New York Times articles about charred bodies found in France, a comet that emits x-rays, a sun-disk culture of ancient Panama and the 28,000 year old recently orphaned Wanniya-laeto culture of Sri Lanka to establish vertical, associational, rather than narrative, thinking centered around themes of burning and cultic wreckage; the poem is divided each page in halves, the right being a more prosaic summary of the newspaper articles (concluding "[t]here seems to be / a significant chance / that within the next / 1.14 million years, / an asteroid named / 433 Eros / could hit Earth / with dire results / for the human / race and most / other species"), while the left is more poetic, yet remains thematically connected to the newspaper stories (last lines: "to Eros, you / burn me / straight through to the wars /over the rumors / of wars / where a fire means / there is always another side / that has died for one reason / or another.")

"Lyric Infiltration" employs vertical thinking in a somewhat different way; the lines of verse written in italics are apparently Prevallet's own, but they are interspersed every other line with lines taken from a variety of newspaper and magazine articles, so the effect is often startlingly spectral in its Noh-like discontinuity -

Perpendicular west of imaginary
                                       night no doubt makes trees red.

His trailer was floating on Interstate 10, but his cab was nowhere in sight.

Shade opens places in the yard
                                       to another space.

Re-imagine the graphic image of abstract numbers.

The sound of glass cut in half
                                       shards of chirping in the window.

Sometimes we just find bones.

The section concludes with several prose paragraphs having a sexual/political cast, using further, new source texts, as well as recirculating phrases used previously, so the impression is one of persistently new alignments of fragmented memory in part redeemed through constant, invented abandon: "The Supreme Court said that unless the Florida courts put in place even more protective measures to re-imagine the graphic image of abstract numbers, a position that is constitutionally impossible as the judges knew - they would have to account for the mangled wreckage of tiny grains of sand. This crossed their hearts and their minds because it meant that the Court would have to change rather than interpret why his trailer was floating on Interstate 10."

The writing of part three, "Reading Index", is superimposed on graph paper, with justified margins right and left on the lefthand side of the page; the right side is composed of lie-detector-like lines on the graph that chart the varying intensities of the poem in indices including, for example, confusion, anxiety, fear & anger, which appear as measure markers along the top edge of the graph, the poem thus placed and measured as a kind of neurological, if fictive, aptitude. Section four employs random video shots of street environs to provide material for meditations on the nature of social context; in the first, Prevallet provides a good working definition of abstraction as it applies to her own work: "An abstraction (defined): 1. if the image is not immediately recognizable; 2. if the image has multiple working parts, which are strangely juxtaposed; 3. so the viewer has to construct the context of the image; 4. because the context is not immediately obvious." The last paragraph in the section could be taken to be, in part, a fair summary of the book's political concerns as a whole; taking off from Olson's dictum form follows content, Prevallet states that "form follows profit" and continues with a mediatation about the banking world that ends with banks "signify[ing] not the position of the sun but a structure which works to transform the street from a public space into a private enterprise."

Section five is made up of visual, advertising imagery - like the bargain clippings you might find in your daily newspaper - cut with sarcastic humor in terms of product culture; for example, superimposed over a picture of candybars are the words "Love 1 ... Get 1 FREE! 6-pack ... assorted SUPER-SIZE! Singles' Bars ... He's a beauty! Don't be shy!" The next section - "The People Database" - also uses visuals; this time, the peeled-off backs of passport photos. While there are no obvious outside textual insertions here, Prevallet, in using the blurred images of individuals unknown to her to create narratives of others, often finds in their very otherness the otherwise undisclosed personal recollection, concern and belief inherent in the social identity of shared experience.

There follows a set of poems Prevallet composed by putting herself in stance between a previous collaboration between Franscesco Clemente and Robert Creeley, following out her impressions of Clemente's paintings, and the tone of Creeley's poems, and making herself in continuo, as she says, "an unseen collaborator." There's also a beautifully sharp yet sensual love poem - "Beds on top of each other without boards. / Opposites. / Jointed water, holed spark. / Brilliantly opposed fish. / Fishy rooftops, loose shingles. / Opened flow, bottled stomach. / Flowy elbows, swirled laughter, wet wood." - and there's even a song written to the tune of "Whoopee Ti Yi Yo, Git Along, Little Doggies."

The book closes with "Non-Stop Kansas" in which landscape itself becomes text whose index is perceptually how one gets across it; it is narrated by combinations of AM radio talk, billboard signs and descriptions of the indigenous landscape and settlements in parallel with poetic remarks on same, reaching finally that place, not where one comes to rest, but where the work itself begins -

A man on the radio suggests investing in the gold market after the stock market fell 200 points in the middle quarter on 1996. The mountain are standing by for gold to reach 400, at which time they will open up, veins bursting with copper and ore, and make us millionaires. There's a one-eyed sheriff standing by to keep law and order. Once the mercury goes molten, they will all crumble. We're waiting for the gold rush.

Small beady figures moving atop a hill in the distance. Cows searching for water. Where they lie, there dig your well.