Loaded Arc: Laura Goldstein’s Mnemonic Poetics

loaded-arc-front-cover-203x300Post-Katrina. I sat in a Starbucks in the Andersonville neighborhood in Chicago, working, I think, on ideas for a film project for a class I was taking at Chicago Filmmakers. I don’t remember, exactly, what I was doing there. I do remember that my thoughts were interrupted by the complaint of a man who had recently returned from New Orleans. He recounted the unpleasant details. He had been helicoptered in to some really filthy places. He identified as a journalist. He summed up his experience: “I realized, I don’t do poor.” A kind of self-evaluation, which, of course, also functions as an evaluation of the “poor,” in a one to one, man versus poor relationship. The dismissal of so many individual sufferings by one stranger still haunts me.

Five years later I worked in a kitchen with a cook from New Orleans who had relocated to the Midwest after Katrina. An infectiously cheerful guy, he hadn’t been back after the disaster, and talking about it transformed him dramatically if temporarily, in the way trauma seems to rewire a person’s ‘natural’ personality. Now, I’m in Southern Louisiana, an hour from New Orleans, in Baton Rouge, a city where hundreds of thousands of refugees landed when the waters rose. A transplant of another kind, the trauma of Katrina flashes across my consciousness via contact with frontline survivors with the surprise of household electric shock, the mundane everyday life suddenly and painfully charged by the live wires of human memory, something a neighbor says, a colleague at the university, another stranger, in the supermarket, on the sidewalk, surges of memory fire without warning.

Released in 2013 by Trembling Pillow Press out of New Orleans, Laura Goldstein’s Loaded Arc explicitly connects two flood stories. Rather than connecting the two as anchors fixed in time and space, as the “arc” of the title might suggest, Goldstein’s “unlikely romance” between Noah and Katrina charts an unruly constellation of affinities. Loaded Arc remembers two events separated by time but Goldstein recalls to conflate, breaking wave upon wave of memory, storytelling, music, charlatanism, and terror in a unified tableau that foregrounds the way that stories are as malleable as the forms they take. But what of our ‘true stories’? Are our memories as malleable as our fiction? Goldstein’s early line, “Any good form does fine” riffs on the common mnemonic used by music students for remembering notes of the treble clef: “Every good boy does fine.” Memory is clearly important here, but the tongue in cheek tone, the toggle from “every” to “any,” and the strangely blasphemous suggestion, in a poetic context, that ‘any form will do’ destabilize the function of memory as a means toward carrying places, people, and events of the past into our present intact.

An expansive pool of possible title associations sets the stage—a stage?—any stage will do. Loaded gun, loaded with meaning, mother lode, welding spark, rainbow, a universe, with an arc, long but bending toward justice. Or? Or, book as arc as proscenium arch, full to overflowing with stories and their performers. Goldstein announces performative awareness from the first stanza of the first section, “clear your throat before you deliver these lines,” and early on she explicitly cites a medieval mystery play, “Noah’s Flood.”

From the medieval oral tradition through the performance of George W. Bush, cast as a fully loaded father figure, Goldstein builds a story of mass complicity: “Parades of people provide the building flood… our people rise to the occasion.” No one is spared. Goldstein brings the collusion present with the publication of her own performance, implicating herself. Throughout, Goldstein reports and reflects on the performance of ‘media coverage,’ linking production and consumption of media, old and new, to religious conveyance, as in the second ‘act’ of the first movement or ‘scene’ (untitled except in three Roman-numeraled sections):

for hours I sit and watch TV

its slow flashing washing me

into sleep at the end of evening. this

is as regular as growing up talking to God

The communication event, separate from the physical flood, effects an eerie baptismal, initiating the washed or flooded into an altered post-cataclysm, post-communication state. Communication takes on a negative valence; watery resistance to orderly established ‘facts’ marry it with its sister, memory.

The four-line stanzas that occupy each page of the first sequence, echo with aphoristic familiarity (in spite of the fact that sense and sentence enjamb across the pages):

old standards come into play. It may be something

you’ve heard before. All spiders spin webs weekly

even every day. god will protect me if i do

the right thing. it’s always been that way

Diction and rhythm combine, as in “[a]ll spiders spin webs weekly” to connect words in ways that seem like something we should have heard before—words of wisdom, truisms. When parsing reveals the ‘hoax,’ a ‘false positive’ recognition, the poem begs the question of relationship between language, these symbols we’ve designed to communicate, and ‘truth.’ If contemporary art must defamiliarize that which has been taken for granted,  Loaded Arc reminds us of the strangeness of lies. Not a little part of the strangeness results from the many ways “untruths” may unfold, from myth to dramatis personae to contested memory to the lie intended to divest a fellow creature of essential comfort for personal gain.

Loaded Arc ascribes unilaterally shared responsibility for our confused state, but we don’t suffer the consequences equally. The stakes are very high and the survival rate distributes along familiar have/have-not lines:

well we continue to build babel those who

can’t pay can’t stay rain rain and

they go away a ways to go two

of every no, ah, ah

Is there a silver lining softening the gloom in Loaded Arc? One back-cover blurb reads hope, in part “because the world / is for falling in love with…” But here, in Noah and Katrina, is dark romance; the kind to remind us that even “love” sometimes begs intervention. Is it possible to be suspicious and affirming?

Goldstein affirms the suspicions she tenders. Loaded Arc admits “hazy believing,” at least in penguins and ice. The world seen and told here contains music and light, but:

there are places in the head not

meant for light, destitute even, where patches of

darkness produce a vocabulary of endless rhyme

obscured ceaselessly by intervening themes.

Loaded Arc shines music and light on some really scary places—scary chapters in our history, scary patterns that sail from our stories of creation through to the present day, the scary faces of some of our treasured identifying capabilities, both socially and individually, such as acts of imagination and unique experience of time and memory. If there is hope here, it is in the text’s recognition that it may speak from a temporary immersion in desolation, as “there are places in the head not / meant for light” implies other “places in the head.” And surely these other places might be better?

Ultimately, Goldstein’s query into relationships between memory, experience, and story may be framed in a startling question: what happens when we live something that we thought was only a story? When the ultimate Western deluge myth seems to have foreshadowed a horrifying reality, we have to wonder whether all of our monsters and night terrors might be real. Loaded Arc plays out a possibility that we are summoning them into creation, as we summon into creation our own father figures, and the very problematic “super dome of heaven itself.”

Buy it from Trembling Pillow Press: $16.00

Anna Wilson’s poems, reviews, and interviews have been published or are forthcoming in the Chicago Reader, Gulf Coast, Meatpaper, New Delta Review, The Volta and elsewhere. A graduate teaching assistant and M.F.A. candidate at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, she writes and makes books, incorporating letterpress and other printing techniques, and handmade papers

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