Sunday, May 4, 2014

How to Read Wisconsin Death Trip

The following are reading notes I made for my Dartmouth College course "Raising the Dead," a creative writing and reading course in experimental nonfictions. I teach one of the books that introduced me to the genre, Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy, who taught me as an undergraduate 20 years ago. Back then, my classmates at Hampshire College and I were puzzled by the book, enthralled by it. I remain both puzzled and enthralled. First time I taught it at Dartmouth most of my students dismissed it out of hand. "It doesn't make sense," they said. "True," I agreed. "That doesn't make sense, either," they said. The problem, I came to suspect, was that they had little experience with a text without a plot, a text without an argument, a poem that does not look like a poem.

So I made these reading notes, about one of the first images in the book. This horse. The first time we see the horse, we get only the body. Emphasis on the mane. Emphasis on the phallus. Turn the pages, and the whole emerges. How to account for this? There are many possibilities. These are a few of them.

We begin with a horse. Or rather, a cropped photograph of a horse, a picture of part of a horse. Which part? Not the head, not the eyes -- the part of every animal we look to first.

Instead, a dichotomy: the mane and the phallus. The mane, an extraordinary mane, can’t be ignored; the phallus, meanwhile, has been made the focal point by the cropping of the image. So we look first at the mane and tally the obvious: long, white, wavy. Perhaps Rapunzel comes to mind. As for the phallus, there’s nothing so whimsical; just the fact of it.

In the text that follows, Lesy alerts us to his interest in archetypes. So we can read his cropped photo, his selection, in “traditional” terms: the mane is the feminine, the phallus is the male.

If that seems too simple, too reductive—as it should—just wait.

We read the introduction. We learn that there will be photographs of horses because the photographer, Charles Van Schaick, was paid to take photographs of horses. We learn that the photographer’s intentions were banal; at least, the ones he knew about. We learn that Lesy believes we have more intentions than we know about.

Then we turn the page, past the big numeral one—and again, the horse. Same picture. Right side of the page. Just the horse and nothing but the horse and not even the whole horse. Look at this horse! says Lesy. Because, after all, it seems to be a remarkable horse.

I mean, have you ever seen a horse like that?

“The thing to worry about,” Lesy has just told us, “is meanings, not appearances.”

Perhaps you, like me, are worrying about meanings. Perhaps you’re worrying, looking at this strange horse, that you don’t get it.

So you turn the page.  Ah! The whole horse. The horse depicted as a horse should be depicted, standing in profile, its most wonderful feature – that mane! – restored to its proper place as the focal point of the image, no longer in tension with the phallus. Now we know where to look and how to read the picture.

Nice horse. 

But what’s with this horse on the next page? 

Cropped, again. (In the book, we see just the body.) The whole head chopped off. (A horse head? The Godfather?* When did that come out? To Wikipedia: 1972. And Wisconsin Death Trip? 1973. Is it possible? That connection? But to what end? The horse head: chopped off. A warning?)

What’s left: Ribs. A reflection of the white horse’s mane, a photo negative. The glorious flamboyance reflected as bone against flesh. Mortality. Lesy’s told us what to look for: Life and death. Here we have it.

Turn the page. (Same image, cropped even tighter.) Closer now, the ribs, mortality, death, but the “camera” – Lesy’s cropping, our gaze – moves, up toward the head, almost to the head, almost to the eyes. Almost but not quite. Almost to the eyes looking toward the text, the page, our destination. Our eyes move there; we complete the horse, become the horse, the horse’s ribs become our ribs, the white horse’s mane our beauty, and now we’re in, animal observers of the stories that follow.

But how to read these stories? NOT STRAIGHT THROUGH. You’d die of terror or boredom or numbness. It’s worth paying attention to the title: A death trip. The drug allusion is deliberate: The book is a product of its times even as it stands outside of normal time. Now, I know none of us have any experience with mind-altering drugs, but we’ve seen the effects in the movies, so we know the experience isn’t linear or even narrative, precisely.

It may help us to turn to the definition of the “lyric essay” offered by Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, champions of the form: “Lyric essays forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation. . . . [The lyric essay] might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or sidewinding poetic logic.”

“Sidewinding poetic logic.” A poetic logic by which we give attention to repetition and pattern; a sidewinding logic in which we look for these patterns not by plowing from A to B to C but by jumping from A to K to G.

In other words, read enough of Wisconsin Death Trip straight through to start picking up patterns; then start jumping around.

And I do mean jump around – that means you jump backwards as well as forwards.

But all along, you're paying attention to the text to which Lesy calls our special attention. The passages of his writing – the full page italics, the conclusion, the boxed prose poems of themes in various years – and the passages of his commentators, as defined in his introduction.

The clippings are just that, clippings, no more no less. Read them, but not all of them; mark them not for information but for the moment when juxtapositions begin to make sense.

ONE LAST PIECE OF ADVICE: Return to the pictures. That’s the death trip. Note Lesy’s manipulations, his commentary in the form of line drawings. Don’t try to decode them; try to inhabit the pictures and the mind of this strange person, “Michael Lesy,” who has gathered them for us.

* You may be wondering what The Godfather is. That’s ok. That’s how allusion, intended and accidental, works: not by directing us only to texts we’re familiar with but by sending us off toward texts we don’t know, by developing a context, a landscape. It’s ok if we don’t catch all the allusions. They’re just there. Or they’re not.