I reviewed here Peter Jaeger’s John Cage and Buddhist Ecopoetics last month and Rob Fitterman’s Holocaust Museum earlier this year. I discussed the former as if it were a book about John Cage and Buddhist ecopoetics and the latter as if were a book of poetry rather than one about Washington’s Holocaust Museum – even though Jaeger uses some of Cage’s poetry devices to structure his writing and Fitterman constructs his book entirely out of prose captions composed by the Washington DC museum.
This week I’ve been reading Jaeger’s chapbook The Persons, published in 2011 by the York (UK) artists press information as material. The press was founded in 2002 by the English conceptual artist Simon Morris, “as an independent imprint that publishes work by artists who use extant material — selecting it and reframing it to generate new meanings — and who, in doing so, disrupt the existing order of things.” Morris’s definition would include Fitterman’s book.
The Persons is a work of biography – or life writing, as many presently prefer to call it. It ‘writes’ the lives of hundreds of people whom Jaeger has encountered in print during his own life, giving each a minimum of one sentence, and no two sentences consecutively. Among the other constraints Jaeger places on his text is that each sentence must begin with a name that is followed immediately by a verb. Each sentence is appropriated from an existing source, whether
The cover is itself a witty work of art – a collage of what is apparently Jaeger’s own birth announcements and memorabilia. “You’re here!” it announces, with some visual fanfare. But inside, “here” turns out to be very brief – a mere one sentence long, a sentence vying for attention with seemingly countless other sentences. “Laura wears black.” "Tushar edits FHM." "Vikram has pain in his eyes, an ear infection, and rashes on his body." Here is human subjectivity. Ars longa, vita brevis, indeed. Textual lives briefer than in the 7th-century parable recounted by the Venerable Bede: a “swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall ... passing from winter to winter again.”
Is The Persons a book of poetry? That is what I read it as, and how it likely would have been viewed by a North American publisher. But the poetry scene is still very traditional in Britain, and Jaeger’s book is published by an artists press as an “artist’s book.” Interestingly, I had an email today from my US writer-friend David Rosenberg who was contemplating how language becomes poetry – and who concluded that it happened when language puts on “a poker face” – not insisting on a meaning, not begging for one to be received, but merely expecting a reader to either get or miss the point. I thought yes, that’s why for most of my adult life I have seen little value in literature that invites paraphrase.
The cover of Peter Jaeger’s The Persons is very much a poker face – and also the stunning text that follows.