[ bookreviews ]
Citing Sappho and Heraclitus, Olivia Dresher points out in her introduction that many works of fragmentary writing were never intended to be read as such; Dresher is less interested in such works as in those where the author has deliberately set out to write something incomplete: "the focus of In Pieces is intentional fragments". Does this mean that every contribution in an anthology of fragmentary writing is paradoxically more complete than a contribution in a regular anthology; that they are whole fragments rather than fragments of a whole? Dresher does not satisfactorily answer this question in her introduction and indeed rather muddies the water by including in her anthology many pieces that go against her stated editorial policy. Of the 37 contributions 22 are subtitled "selections" and Dresher explains that these works are selections that she has made from "book-length submissions I received as editor of Impassio Press". Writing that has been rendered fragmentary by the passage of time is out, writing rendered fragmentary by Dresher's editorial scissors are in. And at this point the groundbreaking "anthology of fragmentary writing" ends up looking like a run of the mill "anthology of fragments of writing". Still more so because, even after editing, many of these pieces still don't feel fragmentary. Take this from Felicia Waynesboro:
"My husband is white and was raised Mormon. He says that everything he was taught about persecution, which the Mormons suffered mightily, was meant to teach him to have faith. I am black and I say that everything I was taught about persecution was meant to teach me to have rage. Yet it is he who has developed the greater portion of rage and I who have developed - not faith but - the greater portion of tolerance and empathy. We have each been taught poorly."
This is an interesting observation but can an anecdote told in grammatically compete sentences and which even goes so far as to draw a conclusion really be considered as fragmentary? Dresher would argue that it can because it is part of a journal and that the fragmentary nature of such writing is evident in the lack of connections between each entry. As she explains in an interview on the website of the Impassio Press,
"[j]ournals and diaries are fragmentary because they're written over time, in spurts, each entry being spontaneously written in the moment without a distinct outline or plan. The dates in a diary break the writing into pieces, pieces of a life. The author is free within this fragmentary form, especially since there's no need to be concerned about an overriding structure. One just writes, and the writing can take whatever shape the author wishes."
But if the writing can really "take whatever shape the author wishes" then it can, as in the example from Felicia Waynesboro above, end up taking the shape of perfectly regular, beginning-middle-and-endy prose. Dresher's equation of spontaneity with fragmentation is refuted by such writing but also by writing whose fragmentary state is the result of rewriting, planning and erasing; is The Waste Land any less fragmentary because it was planned out by TS Eliot in advance and then given a good going over by Ezra Pound? Or how about Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project, which is nothing but a "distinct outline or plan" but is no less fragmentary for that?
This book would have been stronger, and the claims made for fragmentary writing "as a literary genre in its own right" easier to defend, if Dresher had cut a lot of the journals and diaries that make up the bulk of this book. Or, since the Impassio Press is, after all, dedicated to "establishing journals, diaries, and notebooks as a valid literary art form" then why not forget all the theorizing about fragments and change the title to something more accurate like "an anthology of short, personal writing"? Any anthology after all is a collection of fragments and what seems to unite the pieces in this book is less their form than the fact that they are for the most part written out of immediate personal experience.
Of these personal accounts some are better than others, either because the experience being described is an unusual one (like Arthur Winfield Knight's account of seeing "a burning cow run through a field alongside the highway shortly after we left Lone Pine") or because the author has the skill to render an inherently banal event in an imaginative way. Such is the case with Thomas R Heisler, who creates a Warholian persona whose unbearably boring urban life is both compelling and funny, or Eberle Umbach, who adapts the lists and short prose of the 11th century Japanese writer, Sei Shonagon, to describe daily life in Adams County, Idaho, in works like 'Eight Dollars in December':
2 green peppers
1 bunch spring onions
1 bunch spinach
1 head cabbage
or 'Things Near and Far':
Stop light: 30 miles
Rice vinegar: 30 miles
Fast food: 75 miles
Hell's Canyon: 75 miles
Mall: 100 miles
Airport: 100 miles
Rodeo: 15 miles
Lettuce: 15 miles
Gun club: 2 miles
Church: 2 miles
Here, a landscape, its inhabitants, their way of life and the different values of the author - the juxtaposition of "Church" and "Gun club" is not accidental - are all evoked with a minimum of words.
Jason Anthony also engages with an isolated landscape - in this case, Antarctica - and the way nothingness heightens one's perception and appreciation of the "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is". His descriptions of the noises of Antarctica, the "firework pops and snaps that accompany the cracking [of ice]" or the "dense susurrus of air from the ice. [like] the whoosh in the instant a peal of thunder begins" are beautiful, and build up to the synesthetic observation that Antarctica's silence "comes not so much from an aural experience as from a visual one: we look out onto empty icescapes, find ourselves intuiting the silence that hovers right outside the portholes of our perception".
It is not always the famous names who come across best in this anthology: William Stafford's aphorisms sound forced and rather goofy besides the work of the Australian writer, Matt Hetherington or the American, Andrew T McCarter, and the 'Notes on Poetry & Related Matters' of Pulitzer nominee William Pitt Root are rather slight. An exception to this rule is the long and thought-provoking essay on postcards by Roy Arenella, a photographer who has exhibited his work in the Whitney Museum in New York and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Arenella, who creates postcards using his own photos which he then sends out to friends all over the world, allowing the stains and tears they encounter en route to become part of the artwork, asks himself whether the postcard can be considered a fragmentary form, and in doing so provides some of the editorial overview missing from Dresher's introduction. "The postcard itself is complete in itself; in that sense it is not a fragment" he writes but continues that its "small size, few words, & episodic occurrence make it feel fragmentary." This could be applied to many of the contributions to this anthology: not really fragments but either because of their brevity, eschewal of narrative or paratactic arrangement they feel like they are.
If Arenella suggests here that many so-called fragments are not actually fragmentary, in his next paragraph he turns this insight on its head. "Yet I do," he writes, "in practice consider my photo/cards as fragments. Hopefully they are part of something larger & ongoing. Each card is an addition to what will become a series of cards to another individual. Each will add a small particle to a larger & more detailed picture that is being created by the exchange between us." If the definition of a fragment is not what it is but what it is part of then the inescapable conclusion is that everything is, at the end of the day, a fragment. After all, what work of art is not part of a "larger & more detailed picture" that is being created by the exchange between artist and audience?
With this anthology, Dresher sets out to "honor the fragment as a literary genre in its own right". She does not succeed in doing this, not least because she is at the same time trying to disturb the hierarchy in which novels and poems lord it over journals and notebooks; these are two different projects. But if she fails to argue the case for the fragment she scores an unexpected victory in the battle between lowly non-fiction and lofty fiction in the suggestion contained in Arenella's essay that any writing in any genre is contingent and partial and no more than a fragment of an eternally incomplete whole.