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John Melillo is a visiting Faculty Fellow at the University of Arizona for 2011-2013. He specializes in poetry and twentieth century British and American Literature. John studies the relationship between sound and meaning in a variety of literary and cultural contexts, from the rhetorical strategies of modernist poets to the contemporary performance of punk music. In addition to his academic research in noise, John writes art and music criticism and plays guitar and sings, most recently in the pop/noise project Algae and Tentacles.
Visual artist Noah Saterstrom and poet Anne Waldman collaborated to create Soldiering / Dreams of Wartimes, which was on display at the Poetry Center from September 27 to December 15, 2011. The exhibit consisted of a 45’ frieze of oil paintings, a continuous narrative painted by Saterstrom in response to and in conjunction with Waldman’s text. The single work spanned the walls of the Poetry Center Library and was accompanied by printed excerpts from the text. Noah Saterstrom is a visual artist and independent curator and lecturer. Recent solo exhibitions of his paintings and drawings include Bisbee, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Glasgow, and Asheville, North Carolina.
As the Poetry Center removes Anne Waldman and Noah Saterstrom’s frieze from its walls, I want to take a moment to reflect and offer up a sort of “speech de clôture,” or closing speech, (to take a phrase from Waldman’s poem) for this remarkable piece. This collaboration matches a text by Waldman to Saterstrom’s elusive figures. The text, which takes on the immense and intractable subject of war, begins with a phrase from a conversation that Waldman overheard: “She wanted to be a soldier.” Saterstrom’s combination of surreal imagery and abstract brushwork does more than illustrate Waldman’s text. Recognizable military forms (all taken from a researched “vocabulary”) intersperse with images from other contexts, like a wolf watching over a dead deer at the end of the sequence (evoking a kind of peaceful violence). Saterstrom uses a pointedly muddy style that inhibits any easy recognition of his sources. This muddiness is strategic: Soldatesque / Soldiering avoids any overt statement about war, and yet it explores the awkward ways in which violence infiltrates our speech and our thinking.
Waldman’s poem takes an unnamed “she” who wants “to soldier” into a vortex of language—not any specific war-like language, but the disembodied, abstract language of “apparati and apparitions.” “To soldier and to soldier through it” references not only the profession but also the endurance, the stoical attitude, for which “soldiering through” has become the idiom. This sense of endurance is important because we go through this collaboration. That is, because it is a frieze—a series of images that run together along a wall or other architectural space—we follow it both in time and in physical space. Usually a frieze wraps around the inside or outside border of a building or other architectural form, and artists can take advantage of these long horizontal stretches to create decorative patterns or readable narratives. The most famous friezes, like those in the Parthenon or in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building, narrate foundational myths and invoke the past as something continuous with the present. The scope of the frieze, the fact that it literally can “envelope” its viewer, affords it a definite power over the atmosphere of a place and a person’s reaction to it. They can make institutional places simultaneously human—as we see stories, designs, and faces that we can identify with—and magical—as historical memory, ritualistic explanation, and “timeless” myth exceeds and overwhelms us. Saterstrom and Waldman’s frieze plays with and within these boundaries and possibilities. They take up a form more usually identified with official public spaces and destabilize it. Instead of familiar images that re-present to us Nationalist mythologies that feed into war, we are confronted with the task of coming to our own understanding of the unfamiliar (yet familiar) images that seem to create confusion and ambiguity. We “soldier through” the empty significance of war, even as its existence in relation to our everyday lives is ignored or downplayed by the institutions around us.
Paradoxically, it is through this lack of significance that Soldatesque / Soldiering sustains an idea of narrative, if only through the frieze-form. It works as if it were narrative, a story, a defined and coded structure, but it is not. Nothing is explicit and realized but everything is felt. Images and words are intuited and remembered as unremembered, like the dream you know you had but can’t tell. This is, of course, the very structure of war in contemporary Western society, where we are removed from actual combat. War is hazy dreamscape that is remembered, even as it happens, only as after-image and rhetorical gesture. We are not dupes, though. We all know what happens in a war—in our wars—but the real power of this knowledge never transforms into pity, rage or fear, just vague unease. Saterstrom’s painting—a muddy materiality devoid of specific detail but filled with the erased codes of former image-worlds—presents this unease. We read these images—a muted, brownish color scheme, plastic toy soldiers, empty rooms, riven landscapes, cloud-like helicopters, floating boys looking through keyholes—as literal no-man’s-lands. They are abstract to a degree where we cannot identify with them. We cannot see ourselves in the faces, places, and people represented; instead the materials reintroduce us to a disorienting past. These images are revenants, arising out of our collective ambivalence to remind us of…what, exactly? What do we see in that keyhole as we float into space?
We know but we do not know. This is the disturbing aspect of the frieze. Like all friezes, it works not by ecstatic recognition but rather by narrative concatenation. But instead of a teleological story we are given an assemblage of phrases. And not necessarily in a fragmented, alienating way. The poetry is recombinatory but also conversational, off-the-cuff, at times very direct: “A curvature in a uniform”; “to be within or without”; “try not to kill anyone, my soldier.” Waldman’s words, like Saterstrom’s pictures, are projections onto fog. Precision gives way to flux, and meanings happen through the slow accrual and loss of information. Without any grid-like placeholders, we are left to our own devices and thrown into the chaotic space of war as we—and the frieze itself—can only imagine it to be.
But this chaotic sense of the piece—which is, after all, an installation, a thing inside of a center for poetry—does not say that war happens “over there” and that this work of art brings it “over here” and makes it present for us. Rather, it claims that war happens here, too, in our language, in our idioms, in the spaces we occupy, the poems we read. The frieze begins in the Poetry Center’s lobby and wraps around, question-mark-like, into the opening shelves of the library. It is, physically, an invitation into the poetry. As we follow it, we go into the stacks. At the end of the poem, Saterstrom deftly moves us away from the mud and darkness of his previous images: a hand pulls back a white curtain onto a white, snow-covered landscape where we see a village and a lone scout. The frieze here, like the poem, explicitly imagines itself as a “curtain speech” to the “theater of war.” What do we see when the speech is over and the curtain is pulled back? A kind of calm—but a calm that still contains violence, the hunted, death. “L’appareil est une roquette vers la morte.” “The device is a rocket to the dead.” What is this rocket but words and pictures? What are the devices for killing? Words, words, words...