REVIEW: Who Owns Primo’s by Andy Sterling

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by Andy Martrich

Andy Sterling’s 2016 book Who Owns Primo’s is the 24th book of the Gauss PDF Editions imprint. As with all Gauss PDF Editions, it’s available in both PDF and book form.

Who Owns Primo’s is minimalistic. Its pages contain more space than text, consisting of anywhere from one to nine double-spaced lines descending from the top margin. The text is predominantly composed of names and references to names that seem to mask a broader and unnamed conspiracy at work. What or what isn’t behind them becomes an obsessive quality of the piece, because in Who Owns Primo’s masks are the only certainty—even Sam Tierney’s cover drawing suggests this foundational premise. It is the book’s mask, nodding to corollaries within.

Before discussing the specifics of Who Owns Primo’s, it’s important to mention Sterling’s previous book, Supergroup, also published by Gauss PDF Editions in 2013. Supergroup is a rough documentation of credits from albums released by Virgin Records in alphabetical order through the letter L, which were gathered from Wikipedia and Discogs. It reads like a directory, each page featuring eight names coupled with the player’s respective instrument or role, typically positioned to look like two four-lined stanzas:

John McCoy — bass guitar
Mike Thompson — French horn on “Woman”
Tom Saviano — tenor saxophone
Gordon Haskell — bass guitar, vocals

Baptiste Brondy — drums
Dick Pearce — flugelhorn, trumpet
Craig Pruess — string conduction
Brian Scott — tubulum  (24)

In Supergroup, names and roles appear severed from their previous commercial context, functioning solely as terms in a hypothetical directory. Like Supergroup, Who Owns Primo’s is onomastic, highlighting proper names, but where Supergroup has a specific conceptual bent regarding the usage of names (i.e., as credits), Who Owns Primo’s is dislodged from this constraint, free to cite names in the context of the title line, which appears on page 13:

Who owns Primo’s?

Sarah.

Grey Black.

Du Pont.

Schulz. (13)

The esoteric quality of Who Owns Primo’s makes it more unsettling than Supergroup. Although both pieces illustrate the strangeness of names, Supergroup plays with an established order toggled loose from its original context, but still methodically and smoothly. On the other hand, Who Owns Primo’s is indicative of an intangible breakdown, a deficiency that persists throughout the work. This is articulated in gaps, pauses, and large spaces interspersed throughout the text, giving it a porous, ephemeral look and feel. The content, as well, is terse and fragmentary. In the above example, the cryptic quality of the question “Who owns Primo’s?” is enhanced by the names and gaps that follow, equally dim signifiers.

Before finding out who owns Primo’s, it’s necessary to define what Primo’s is. Early on it’s not so clear. At first, Primo’s seems to be a kind of restaurant, given lines like “Primo’s dinner” (12) and “Have you tried Primo’s?” (14). But this definition quickly becomes inadequate when considering the long list of mysterious suspects regarding its ownership, a list that extends well beyond Sarah, Grey Black, Du Pont, Schulz. Despite the textual brevity of the piece, there are over 190 proper names that appear throughout. Google searches on individual names rarely provide helpful information, and one wonders if Sterling purposefully uses popular or common names, Robert Adam for example, in effort to widen the anonymity of possible entities tied to names; however, occasional hints are provided:

Titus Prude.

6-4 Robert Adam.

Classical Architecture.

London.

A dusty, little, black copy of Florida Today. (18)

The use of “Classical Architecture” and “London” may lead the reader to believe that Robert Adam refers to the 18th century architect of the same name. But does it matter? Probably not, as names typically appear alongside each other without any obvious connection—Sarah, Grey Black, Du Pont, Schulz. Titus Prude, Robert Adam. Titus Prude seems to refer to a high school tennis player. Every name that appears on page 23 is associated with a microbiologist or a student of microbiology. On page 17 we find “Sean Aslin” and “Will Whecton.” Are these misspellings of the actors Sean Astin and Wil Wheaton? Maybe. A Google search suggests those alternatives. But to a large extent, if not completely, who these names may or may not represent is of no recourse. A simple search reveals how vapid names can be as search terms, populating results as incidental as a wedding registry, an art student’s WordPress site, photographs of random people, scattered lists and metadata, profiles on Etsy, LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest. Who are all these people? These generalities create fodder for playful gestures throughout the text, for example:

John Dam, Vind Qnion II. VN.

John Dink 270 Swanston Street.  (34)

The names “John Dam” and “John Dink” could very well be the same thing. And, in this context, that’s exactly what they are. They are nothing if not generic identifiers. Sterling points again and again to the inanity of names and their associations. Identity, or rather nonidentity, appears to be at the heart of Primo’s, as the association of names with ambiguity, and the futility of identity formation via what one ostensibly thinks, does, or says, only ends up indicating an erasure. What manufactures the identities that may or may not be found behind these names? Other names and masks. The names of people, the names of places, the names of roles and positions, the names of bands. Ironically, this matryoshka-like persistence ends up being a true supposition, as the names that encase these nominal identities are solely identifiers signifying an equally generic cloud of surrogates—everything defines everyone.

Given the possibility of name for name substitution, Who Owns Primo’s could just have easily been titled Who Owns Titus Prude, Who Owns Florida Today, Who Owns Grey Black. Primo’s, after all, is just another name. In this sense, the representatives (names) of supposed entities, are entities unto themselves, the only entities, the identifiers of no one in particular or anyone at all. Who, indeed, owns Primo’s? No one in particular; anyone at all? It would seem that way. A name representing a sea of miscellany can never be specific, and therefore it’s impossible to encounter this or that thing beyond it. A supposed catalog of selves is by default inaccessible, or as Sterling writes:

They acted like somebody’s there, Ryan. There wasn’t nobody there.  (77)

Ryan wasn’t there either. If whoever or whatever owned Primo’s ever existed, that entity has been erased. They had only acted, an imitation of what we have no reason to believe was there to begin with. So who or what exactly provides this information? There is indeed someone or something that speaks, a sort of impersonal narrator that Sterling has created. Spoken sentences and phrases appear brusquely, reading similarly to the names, continuing the trek of anonymity. Just as there is no self or identity to represent, the phrases only indicate trace occurrences of no obvious consequence. The voice cycles through various banal activities—borrowing its father’s sport jacket, leaning into a car, running everything on batteries, while referencing other names in vaguely paralleled events:

But how am I to know who helped Anson to build that apple pie?

Who rose by the sword no further than Carli?

What’s love got to do with H biography?  (41)

As in the above example, there are places in the text where the disjunctive relationship between events and names reads like spam. Spamming is an act representative of the onomastization of language, rendering it general and anonymous. Who Owns Primo’s is suggestive of a world where identity feels very much like spam—piecemeal lists, curt metadata, cheap imitations, personalities presented like advertising. Nevertheless, the voice explores identity formation via the naming of names and fragmented routines. It searches for a continuity of associations with other nonentities and fantasies, as is evident in the recurrence of scenes and ploys for acceptance—as personal identity only appears relative to these ethereal others:

To get yourself in, Everhard’s in New York. (25)

Randy hit the scene with Clive. (53)

Had we not broken apart and invited you, Bernard? (89)

…and the relationship between names and spheres of activity is exemplified in a line found earlier in the text:

The scene, the practice, the name. I came. (16)

This implies that a mask is earned. First comes the scene, a current to which it’s possible to latch on, where the identity is doled out and nurtured according to the parameters of a collective interest—a fashion scene, a music scene, a writing scene. Then comes the practice, a commitment to an active concurrence within that commonality. The name comes finally as some kind of reward, a developed security in relation to a centralized construct. Thus, the voice’s formula for identity formation is ultimately narcissistic, engaging with scenes and practices, names and generalities in order to experience a personal continuity. ”I came” constitutes a sort of immaterial masturbation, a sense of temporary elation at the notion of becoming. Regardless, the voice is incapable of being accepted, as there are no entities to relate to outside of the identifiers, and therefore nothing really to accept it. It speaks from a peripheral, solipsistic emptiness:

The affinity of all souls pitched in the same room and quiet.

That isolationist-scene New York-aise. With no pussy.

A band played—“Wicker Park”—and I can only describe them through fly-wire doors. (29)

The voice is merely a voyeur, a disembodied peeping tom with acceptance and identity formation as its fantasies. Yet it acknowledges that it’s capable of being referenced despite its disconnection and anonymity:

The shepherded abortion contained an embrace. (66)

The embrace of absence is exactly this ability to be referred to as a hypothetical something or other, a centralization, of which the voice only achieves as a theoretical modulation—narration, not name, is its mask. It speaks other names in narration as its name, associations that allow it a remedial existence as a talker, so to speak. No where is this more evident than in the mundane dialogue that takes place between the voice and the name “Charles” between pages 47 and 71. I use the word dialogue loosely, as the trajectory of the piece doesn’t change—it maintains a dim transience, rather the voice begins to directly address a specific name:

“I say, Charles, assorted factors drive people.”

I think Charles packs better when he’s attempting to drive.

I work in Asia with a world-cave and a lop-ear. Charles plays the fool. (48)

The voice may as well be talking to itself. Charles is anonymous, lifeless—an imaginary friend. Both the name and the voice are equally without identities. Charles only says one thing, “Up or down” to which the voice replies, “Up, if I win” (55). The supposition of up versus down provides another general relationship, subjective and dependent upon position and relativity. What could possibly constitute winning in Who Owns Primo’s other than assimilation to the generic, the acquisition of an effective mask like a ghost that conforms to the striations of a superficial mold. Up, if centralized; up, if a blank reference.

What makes Who Owns Primo’s so unsettling is the relevancy of its suggestion that identity is nothing but a fog of cryptic hearsay—especially in a contemporary context where it’s necessary to constantly define ourselves via fill-in-the-blank profiles, tags, and avatars. This, too, is a world where identities have been succumbed by meaningless identifiers. Names are masks for what exactly? Anonymous voices, ghosts, imitations—masks on top of speculations, erasures, disguises, other lists and names.

And no one came within.

Speculated man. Demolished potato. (62)

Andy Martrich is the author of Pitching with Demonic Sigil Grips (PRB Editions), Blackmar-Diemer Gambit (Gauss PDF Editions), and Iona (BlazeVOX Books), among others. He lives in France.

REVIEW: Calamities by Renee Gladman

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by Sam Lohmann

Renee Gladman’s new book Calamities (Wave, 2016) wrecks genre. Let’s say it’s written in the essay line, each problem leading to further problems. Line and essay problems write and draw, don’t solve, each other.

Calamities is a book of episodic displacements and frames within frames. Each essay is a fragment, a new beginning, discontinuous from its neighbors but in conversation with them. Each one (until the final section, “The Eleven Calamities”—there are actually 14) begins with the phrase I began the day, which works not only to establish sequence but to place the narrator within three simultaneous frames: doing something (in the past, on a day), narrating the doing (in the book’s present), and writing, revising, worrying over the narration (in an ambiguous past-tense present, maybe the same day). The narrator often seems to be doing, thinking, writing by hand and typing on a computer all at once, or alternately. There are open quotations whose close is narrated verbally rather than typeset, essays within dreams within essays, and many remembered and imagined books and drafts and drawings. A peculiar mix of specificity and dreamy vagueness displaces each episode to a realm of fable rather than autobiography— narrator’s city and university go unnamed, while other names pass too briefly to ever pin down the narrator or her surroundings. This deflection comes to form, in Gladman’s words, “the scarring that made people feel safe in public,” in a story “rupturing, never completing itself, rather, endlessly repeating, starting again and again, in the sense that sometimes beginnings are slow and last forever and everything you need is within them.”

Calamities is a book about writing and how to go on. The central, centripetal strategy is analogy, between genres, media, modes of action. To begin (or, the narrator finds eventually, to stop), writing has to be something else—walking, thinking, folding paper scraps, or, inescapably, drawing. This speculative identity draws a meandering line through Gladman’s works: “I did every kind of walk down this corridor to arrive at the room of writing, and I walked with every kind of feeling, so that it wouldn’t always be the same text I was writing.”

The anthropologist Tim Ingold, in Lines: A Brief History, situates writing as a form of drawing, an activitation of line. His taxonomy of thread and trace, guideline and plotline, may be useful, but no explicit definitions are needed for Gladman’s practice and theory to go on. Analogy between media, pursued with visionary literalism or sly duplicity, has proven liberating for many artists: I’m thinking of Barbara Guest’s relation to painting, Nathaniel Mackey’s to music (specifically in his ongoing great jazz novel), or Cy Twombly’s to writing. If that’s one tradition Gladman’s work belongs to, she can also be read in traditions of black speculative fiction (with Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler), black transgressive conceptual art (Adrian Piper, Ralph Lemon), and American women’s writing at the intersection of daily life and linguistic experiment (from Gertrude Stein to Etel Adnan, say).

As Gladman has explained: “Recently, I have been playing around with the idea that there is a spectrum along which sentences become drawings.” (And in Calamities she says they are “identical gestures made with the hand.”) Ingold would take exception to the sentence, which he sees as an imposition from print culture, but that would miss Gladman’s point. Print is where we’ve been, and the sentence has been a primary object of experiment—and obsession—for the hundred years since Stein at least.

Gladman obsesses and opens new airways at the levels of sentence, story, essay, sequence, model, and of discrete words that draw themselves through the thickness and unexpectedness of their phonemes: Ravickians or looning up on claw or geoscography. Late in Calamities, the narrator holds the word sentence in her mouth and becomes aware of “the essence of sentence” like a paper chain or papier-mâché sculpture that absorbs the world into its sculptural content: “It sucked everything in and enforced an order that made me particularly aware of time.”

Counterbalancing the strategy of analogy is the centrifugal and contrapuntal tactic of essay as a unit of thought and of life. By making each essay coterminous with a day, Gladman estranges and doubles the day and makes it the site of problems to be essayed. The problems that engage her are fundamental, the solutions provisional and idiosyncratic. A book on architecture titled The Atlas of Novel Tectonics becomes a divinatory source for the novelist; one drawing demands to be redrawn hundreds of times in lieu of writing; a particular student (but which one?) is taken for the person in the world—“the person who is the most perplexed of all persons.” These insolvent solutions might be unsatisfying if the narrator, in her bewilderment and ours, weren’t such wonderful company.

Commuting by train, the narrator finds the Atlantic Northeast transformed into the Pacific Northwest, which seems to match the New England personality—“I mean, they really did already act as if all there was was rain.” Later the narrator, reading Herta Müller, considers the possibility that she has become a different person by laying eyes on the page: an “Eastern-European African American” in an atopian “undermining of all that is the case,” wishing she could get people “to understand how black people are another kind of Eastern European” and wondering how it would be “for the Eastern Europeans to call themselves black, or even black Asian.” Gladman’s experience as a black lesbian writer and academic is implicit throughout the book, while at the same time identity and its attendant characters—and all qualities of self we’d suppose permanent—come unstitched through the wayfaring of her narration. Calamities is a book about daily life, which is shown to be a series of transformations whose end is unknown. Ingold might describe it as a line traveled along rather than to or from: but Gladman’s line is discontinuous like letters in printed sentences. Each transformation is a calamity, unresolved but pointing to further possibilities.

Buy it from Wave Books: $18.00

Sam Lohmann is a poet and librarian living in Portland, Oregon. His recent books include Unless As Stone Is (eth press, 2014) and Day Use Area (Couch Press, 2014). Adventitious writings can be found at thefirmandaerie.tumblr.com.