by Bethann Garramon Merkle
In weaving together contrasting memories, archived photographs, and contemporary fashion fetishes, Spring Ulmer stitches a narrative in which humanity’s closet is rifled through. “I am interested in how clothes fit us or don’t. I like to be able, for instance, to hide in my clothes,” she discloses.
Ulmer begins with fairly tranquil vignettes which share a fashion-as-identity theme; clothing is what makes the people on Ulmer’s pages vivid. After “trying on a few outfits,” Ulmer trades out a silk dress for her father’s sweatshirts plus pants with dragging cuffs. Her reverie accelerates into an imaginary triste with a rustically dressed Italian farmer she fancies from an old photograph. It is a subtle, mundane, romantic episode that doesn’t actually happen, though, thanks to Ulmer’s vivid prose, you can almost believe the encounter is real.
Ulmer walks an imaginary donkey down the pictured road, envisioning a liaison comes to be. In the vision, she writes, “My farmer lifts his arms and shakes off his coat…the ripped armpits endear me. He covers us both with it as we recline onto the cold, slightly damp ground.” Fixated on the photograph of her fellow and his companions’ clothing, Ulmer muses, “I find their unfitted wear beseeching. I want them in these ill-fitting suits, enjoying their outing, looking so ephemeral.”
And then, she drops you off an emotional cliff.
Abruptly, you land in the milieu of Spring Ulmer’s meditations on torture, slaughter, and the severity of so many human relationships. Epitomizing these nightmarish circumstances is her preoccupation with the ‘Made in the USA’ chairs that are used for controlling violent inmates (at prisons and mental institutions alike) and also for force feeding prisoners of war attempting hunger strikes. Driven to see for herself, Ulmer seeks out the retired military officer-turned county sheriff who makes these chairs in his basement workshop. In a poignant-yet-bile-inducing noninterview, Ulmer asks him:
“…the same questions I am asking myself about the roles we play in other peoples’ suffering, because I can’t sit in my room fearing that people are being tortured and not do something. I’m not sure I believe in a just war.”
Essay snippets reflect on lynching films, an array of war atrocities, and occasional rest stops near Ulmer’s non-reproductive status. Piled in amongst these recurrent themes are snapshots of a circus elephant deliberately fed cyanide-laced carrots, shod with copper shoes, and publicly electrocuted; a pet pig starving itself after being separated from its lifelong companion, an autistic boy anguished over the mutual loss; mass graves in Rwanda.
Ulmer builds jagged teetering stacks, bleak discomfiting moments of social unrest and individual trauma and tragedy layered upon each other. Through it all, Ulmer compels the reader – by herself unflinchingly facing a web of contemplation – to concede how powerless words are. Powerless in the face of tragedy. In the face of terror. In the face of blind violent patriotism. In the face of radioactive waste – waste tallied as much in sickened humans as in stores of nuclear byproducts.
Although she resists this impotence, trying to perpetuate the notion that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’ Ulmer struggles mightily. Candidly. And, she fails. Fails to convince herself, never mind the reader, that words can change, that words can compel justice, that words can conjure empathy where only suspicion exists.
And yet, she advocates writing. Doggedly. In particular, Ulmer carries on a one-way correspondence with Jumah, a Guantanamo Bay detainee. In one of her many officially refused never-reached-the-prisoner letters, she maintains, “…my not writing would imply that writing doesn’t matter, and I cannot stand such a thought. Even if what I write is simply a record of barbarism […], it is still a record.”
In the wake of the walking-nightmare tone that dominates most of the book, Ulmer’s final chapter, “The age of numbing,” comes as the kind of relief she may be seeking. It is here, with the reader immobilized by the relentless desecration of decency Ulmer has exposed, that her parents’ role in the narrative becomes explicit. Throughout the book it seems Ulmer’s parents are equivalent to her dragon-and-pheasant emblazoned mug – moments of mundanity sprinkled in, not as respite, but to remind the reader that, yes, this whole wide world weighs down, even on the most ordinary souls.
However, in her final chapter, Ulmer’s parents evolve into a metaphor which reunites with the Walter Benjamin quote which prefaces her book: “There is no difference between a human life and a word.” If humans and words are no different, and words are powerless, where then does that leave Ulmer in her grieving and atrocity-grappling? Like her memory of her father, she, too is working “like a madman, hauling stone here and there, hammering, sawing.” And yet, as she says of her own mother, within Ulmer’s text “there’s something in her manic energy these days, though, that isn’t always practical.”
Ulmer’s book was published in 2009. That year, Barack Obama became a Nobel Laureate and president of the United States; Slumdog Millionaire won Golden Globe and Academy Awards; countries on every continent declared recessions. Bombings, assassinations, and powerful storms and tsunamis rocked the world. The Iraq war was not over.
Yes, the events leading up to The Age of Virtual Reproduction were grim. And yet, political and pop cultural events since have demonstrated the power of people and words to make change, which is why Ulmer’s concern about impracticality will likely stand out to contemporary readers. Although bleak events dominate the news, there may be more practical reasons to hope for change. Since 2009, diplomatic relations have been re-established with Cuba. Massive protests around the globe have demonstrated extensive citizen backlash against financial inequities in the US, corrupt governments, and other injustices. And, in keeping with Ulmer’s penchant for moments of mundane relief, since her book was published, Lady Gaga and Will and Kate became household names, and “Gangnam Style” reached 1 billion views on YouTube (the first such video ever). Still terrible things keep happening, including enough suicide bombings and mass shootings that these awful incidents have lost some of their urgency and claim to noteworthiness. 115 men are still imprisoned in Guantanamo. Garment factory collapses in southeast Asia graphically demonstrate how ugly fashion can be.
Through it all, words have had the last word, despite Ulmer’s articulate well-founded doubts about the efficacy of writing. Social media is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. WikiLeaks caused a massive whistleblower uproar, Edward Snowden leaked extensive US state secrets and went into exile in Russia, and Pope Francis continues shocking and thrilling the world with edicts and encyclicals.
We swim in a vast sea of words. According to one study cited by Forbes magazine in 2012, the average adult can read and comprehend 300 words per minute. Another, cited by The New York Times in 2009, reports we absorb 34 gigabytes of content (some 100,000 words) every day. At more than 5.5 hours of reading every day devoted to processing the horror and opportunities surrounding us, that’s no minor time commitment.
In the face of all this tragedy, joy, and banality, perhaps it is worth reinterpreting Ulmer (and the Benjamin quote she starts with). If a few of those daily reading hours were devoted to provocative witness prose like Ulmer’s, perhaps we readers would find words and humans are interchangeable because their very presence is power.
Essay Press: $13.95