Penny Ante Editions
168 pp, $14.95
Review by Amanda Montei
Janice Lee’s Damnation is composed of a series of responses to the films of Béla Tarr. Some ekphrastic, others seemingly commenting on the process of writing at hand, the short pieces that make up the text illustrate a world that is full of longing, sleeplessness, and the unsteady and uneven passage of time: “perhaps, spring is coming. Perhaps, spring is already here.” Lee’s work is one in a necessarily inconsistent line of texts that are trying to rethink how confessional and critical/theoretical modes might converge. I’m reminded of Kevin Killian’s Dargento Series, which similarly documents a kind of compulsive attempt to find emotional resonance in the films of Dario Argento. Like Killian, Lee is obviously searching out a linguistic counterpart for self, for writing, and for that affective gnawing that sometimes clutches us and drives us so deeply into cultural matter.
Without much awareness of Tarr’s films, what comes to the fore for me is instead “this kind of grim and dark and desperate kind of love” attributed throughout the text to the villagers, the lovers, the cows, the Lord himself. The book is also quit explicitly framed by the story of Lee’s obsession with Tarr’s work, which becomes inseparable from the micro-meditations that make up Lee’s text. As Jon Wagner writes in his incisive introduction, Lee’s collection of linked pieces develops “a conception of time washing over and awash in our efforts to represent and inhabit it.” So the book becomes neither autonomous from the films nor simply a commentary or translation of them, but rather an account of the temporality of obsession. This is what makes Lee’s book so revelatory—one cannot help but read her prose as always gestural, and yet if one is unfamiliar with the films, as I am, the gesture is one that points to the absence contained by the fullness of obsession, rather than to any filmic materiality. Lee isn’t reading Tarr’s work, but rather is inhabiting it, inhabiting a recursive experience with it, inhabiting lost time.
Like the villagers who, in an effort to drown out a mysteriously overpowering “layering of words and noise and music and rain,” “out of frustration add other noises to the mix, in hope of drowning out others, but only creating more and more layers so their ears are working overtime trying to keep up,” Lee’s documentation of fixation seems always to be an effort to flee or fill something we aren’t given in the text. The bleak landscape of the films only reiterates the longing from which the text emerges, that utter unfulfillment that feels something like love. Like Tarr’s infamous long take, Lee dares to sustain her looking—and in doing so reveals both nothing and everything about the actual scene at hand: the scene of writing/reading/thinking/working in language. “It’s about dread and acceptance of deterioration,” Lee writes in one piece. This is a book about what happens to time, and to bodies, when they both go missing, searching as they are for a home in “The Word” or even “the word.”
In this way, the book is in fact more an account of a writer’s obsession than it is a strict response to Tarr’s work—a documentation of Lee’s desire to re-present the films’ emotional quality diligently and of her collaborative engagements with Tarr’s work, but also of that effort to fill a void caused by a vaguely named emotional state that keeps her coming back to the films. In the afterword, Lee’s collaborator Jared Woodland describes Lee’s “scene-by-scene sketches, sleeplessness, and other signs that the director’s abyss had begun to stare deeply into her.” For Woodland, these homologous practices imbue the book with “incompleteness,” but it seems to me that it is in fact the painful wholeness of that incompleteness—the overwhelming, fleeting, insufficient, tender warmth of a desire to drown out the sound with more sound, more seeing—that Lee’s writing gives body to.
Amanda Montei holds an MFA from California Institute of the Arts, and is currently a PhD student at SUNY at Buffalo. She is co-editor, with Jon Rutzmoser, of Bon Aire Projects, and editor of the literary journal P-QUEUE. She is the co-author of DINNER POEMS. Her chapbook The Failure Age is forthcoming from Bloof Books, and her novel Two Memoirs is forthcoming from Jaded Ibis Press in 2014.