John Paetsch’s brnt ghst vlnt

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brnt ghst vlnt was selected as one of The Volta’s books of the year for 2013

There is a moment in “Come Down to Us,” the final track on Burial’s recent Rival Dealer EP, when, the song’s rhythm having slunk itself into yet another fragmentary dissolve of tape hiss and crackling static, Bevan’s signature vocal pitch-shifting rises as if on wings—yeah, wings, angel wings—and upon rising is cut down by the blade of quick, slicing DJ scratches. I’m pinpointing this moment to begin discussing John Paetsch’s brnt ghst vlnt, released by Gauss PDF in October 2013, because Bevan’s acuity for patching sources into a blurred-beyond-context cathartic sheen seems the distillation of Paetsch’s operation in this text. brnt ghst vlnt resists the reader’s traditional impulses in approaching a text in order to repackage and redeliver them with surprising potency. Both “Come Down to Us” and brnt ghst vlnt accumulate their energy through the sectioning and fragmentation of a sustained idea, and, as the sword-like slashing of the record scratching demonstrates, these are works of art whose joints are stronger for their breaking, allowing for more and greater fusion to occur in the broken places. Paetsch’s use for this fragmentation and fusion is to “Deduce their universal principles in excessively tinseled hierarchies” (39). In a world whose framework is that “all / Bodies have been eclipsed by Existence, to toil in its / shadow” (69), such deduction is a task that demands approaches both ephemeral and rigorous, and where Paetsch successfully fuses these two, brnt ghst vlnt rises like a hulking computation from a near and nearly-probable future.

 In brnt ghst vlnt’s fragmentary landscape the reader encounters competing linguistic registers, drastically-shifting and -evolving forms, snippets of basic grammar primers, NBA coach Rick Adelman, and “eNcHaiNtEd” Bodies, plus the three Mansions of Virtuality, Existence, and Unrealty. Many of these and other touchstones of the text are staunchly in the periphery; but the periphery of brnt ghst vlnt is one that continually intrudes and dissolves into the reader’s view. Forms and ways of viewing are particularly important to a book like this, where, from early on, the text is heavily textured and feels imagistic and actual images are interspersed within the text. The first is of a glowing blue figure in a rocky desert landscape, the image in-between sequences, like a VHS tape with tracking issues; the second of a similar figure in the same landscape, this time floating just off the ground in pyramid frame composed of the same white-blue glowing light. There is undeniably a straight-to-VHS, public-access mysticism to these images, which do not seek to exalt their figure but to frame a figure—any figure—within the degraded magnetic representation of the stark physical imposition of the desert. This tactic of communicating (often un- or only partially-identifiable) feeling through the accumulation of competing sources and impulses is itself nothing new, especially in the mediums of electronic and experimental music and film. But where a musician like Burial can evoke nostalgia and pathos—and torque these responses into something distinct from their base emotion—immediately and with great complexity due to his medium’s properties, a similar textual layering is nearly impossible to accomplish with such clarity and proximity. Yet Paetsch’s unrelenting application of the technique forces brnt ghst vlnt into an unexpectedly nuanced range; by not granting the reader any point of exit from the text’s mode of operation (it is a closed system; it is only system), Paetsch forces the reader into finding her own point of entry.

 Written in three largely-undefined but evident sections, brnt ghst vlnt is inhabited by myriad potential arrangements and readings. The aforementioned layering of the text provides a local example of this, but on the global scale the book’s mutations come unannounced and unexplained: a form will appear for a few pages, then never again; a section will slowly dissolve and grind along in sparse inscrutable symbols, then revive itself, wholly changed; a “SET OF SETS OF OBJECTI ONS” will suggest synthesis but continually evade it as it recurs over a dozen pages. The book’s most distinct section is the one at its center, the rigid philosophical inquiry into the Mansions of Virtuality, Existence, and Unrealty (70). Coming in after sixty-some pages of fragmentary txtspeaking, “Tru-speaking” (119), and theorizing on unspecified subjects, the middle section is the most engaging portion of the book, designed to serve as brnt ghst vlnt’s anchor. Extended axiomatic proofs have a way of reading weighty however metaphysical their topic, and Paetsch casts some of his cleverest and most stimulating alloys via this philosophical structure. The below excerpt of two consecutive pages demonstrates the range Paetsch can traverse without sacrificing either pole to a secondary function:

 A3: If a Master can produce an effect, it will produce that effect.

Lemma 1: If a Master can make a play, it will make

that play continually. It will “make it rain.”

Corollary 1: Since by IsC1 every Body has at last one

Master, and since by A2 a Master may produce effects in a

Body at all times, by A3 it follows that Masters make plays

continually on a Body so long as it is unreal, which is always. (81)

//{part} : Thus the Body is eNcHaiNtEd, for every second is the small

gateway in time through which the Master may enter to empty

dishes and overturn tables for strays. But there are many ways to do

this, to get ahead.

D2: That in Unrealty played at all times, lacking necessity, I

call an Automaton.

P2: By C1, it is evident that all Bodies are Automatons.

//{producer} : Seeing a Body as an Automaton is analogous to seeing one

figure as a limiting case or variant of another. “I believe he is not an

Automaton,” just like that, so far makes no sense. (82)

Most of my favorite single moments in the book arise from the stark juxtaposition of rigid axiom with post-ironic idiosyncrasy. Paetsch maximizes the effectiveness of his playful and witty turns not by carving out a space for it but by embedding it whole within the philosophy’s granite. Thus, to “make it rain” is a sly reference to rap culture and showy rituals of excess as well as a fitting and evocative expression of his axiom. The two are fused, and it is the energy gained by this fusion that gives what could be another alienating portion of the book an energy that ripples out into the sections that flank it.

 In earnest dialectical fashion, the third section synthesizes the previous two, taking section one’s ghostly fragmentation and section two’s philosophizing into a single flow of “Objections and Replies.” Yet the synthesis does nothing to transcend into a higher dialectic; there is no foothold to give a leg up into the crawlspace beyond. Rather, the synthesis reveals the degradation Paetsch theorized in section two: section three is language-construction, and language-construction, in one of the various ways defined by Paetsch, is

 the residua of Thought

expiring in an Automaton, the linguistic plane evaporating

at it Limit, correlate of the conceptual plane. Its

condensations- these language-constructions- opaquely

refract, neither transparent nor iridescent. (100)

 Do these opaquely-refracted language-constructions describe Paetsch’s own? This is one explanation for the embedded text of the first section, its hierarchies of text color and spatial positioning. It also provides an answer for the function of the text(s) in section one: that which is most recognizably textual material, the body of the poem, will contain the highest levels of grammatical, syntactical, and linguistic iridescence-opacity. Conversely, the peripheral text, in its ghostly and its reference-book manifestations, will contain the greatest degree of transparency. Its opacity is literally contained within its make-up, presented by being difficult, at times, to read, to even see, and otherwise provide additional disruptions to the reading of the “body” text. The effect is a disorienting besiege, the modes various enough and the codes switched quick enough to leave the reader continually on the verge of—if not comprehension—the anchor that will, grappled, sink her to a seafloor where solidity exists, some firmness, even if the firmness means she’s drowning.

 Where Paetsch’s impulses can be located, they are located in a system whose disorienting pathways enforce its totalitarian origins. In brnt ghst vlnt, Paetsch has fabricated a nexus of information and competing wavelengths of linguistic data whose authority stems from its unlocatability; we treat with most awe what reveals itself minimally and forcibly. Beyond the surface sheen of mysticism in the book’s visual aesthetic, the void tended by this authority-by-absence is where brnt ghst vlnt’s mystery accumulates. The middle section’s philosophy primes the void because its form takes a shape recognizable enough to respond with that biblical awe, though the first section’s sustained resistance to the surly bonds of Existence (the most grounded of Paetsch’s Mansions), makes for a polarity that the book, in the end, cannot entirely weather. But it may not need to, because brnt ghst vlnt “is no place. There are no objects. Take a look at my files” (126).

Available as a free PDF from Gauss PDF and for purchase in B/W ($5.90) and Color ($29.81)

read more at Contemporary Practice, from Andy Martrich

 An Ohio native, Logan Fry lives in Austin, Texas where he received his MFA at the University of Texas and teaches at Texas State. He is the founder and co-editor of Flag + Void with Matthew Moore, and his poetry has appeared in Columbia Poetry Review, DIAGRAM, Bestoned, The Cultural Society, Forklift, Ohio, and elsewhere.

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