Videotape, poetry by Andrew Zawacki, reviewed by Jeremy Behreandt


The world is striated with trajectories, accelerations, projections and predictions in Andrew Zawacki’s Videotape. Clouds become metaphors for computations, extracted and processed patterns become a substrate for new randomness to sprout. “The damascene sky / is a lantern slide, clouds a collodian positive on glass” while “bonbon / wrappers strewn on the hedges / like asteroid shards.” Zawacki finds the parquet, the arabesque, the mosaic, the metal inlay in landscapes natural, contaminated, designed, abandoned and otherwise. Video—and the poetry which runs parallel to it in this collection—construct the very notion of landscape as opposed to portrait, and Zawacki finds brilliant ways to erase those boundaries: “Places named for people named for places somewhere else: a blizzard / flecking from histogram cliffs, prairies glossed to palladium print.” The subjecthoods portraited in these poems are so dependent on the technology they’ve propagated that they would look as through a viewfinder or screen even after the battery is dead and the digital glow is lost. If video-language is a human attempt to curate the above flux, the volatility of the material which creates video, whether analog or digital, threatens to lapse documentation into glitch, lag, stutter.

Videotape is comprised of four sections: “Track A: Errormirror,” “Track B: Lumièrethèque,” “Track A: Glassscape” and “Track B: Zerogarden.” While the Track A sections consist of fragmented columns each divided by a pause ( || ) glyph, the Track B sections are horizontal prose poems four lines long on the page’s bottom edge. Zawaki explains in an interview with Barbara Claire Freeman at Omniverse that

the vertical tracks are meant to be frenetic, interruptive and self-disrupting, charged, voltaic. The horizontal poems, by contrast, are numb and neutral, with a narrow bandwidth. […] B is designed to be counterrhymthic to A, and vice versa: a broken, zigzagging syntax, all jitterbug and jackanapes, versus a smooth, affectless, unaccented tone, and each a “backtrack” to the other. B is roughly the pace of play—clickety-clack, clickety-clack—, whereas A is rewind and fast-forward.

While I think there are limitations to how much the medium poetry can emulate the medium video, and the pause glyph at the top of each page in both A tracks is ambiguous in relation to Zawacki’s claim that they flow at the pace of rewind and fast-forward, and phrases from “Zerogarden” like “Rhizome of a railway thru the Bordeaux countryside: to speak is a federal blue” or “Locust buzz of a scuzzy lamp, in a Budget parking lot” hardly seem toneless, there’s little comment on form for me to append here.

The present climate of the poemland, so far as I can tell, suggests that the author is not dead but undead. To read a poetry collection—or project or whatever we’re calling them now—as a single experience (text) met by undivided attention is viewed as an ungenerous reading. Instead the poem is deliberately fragmented, cryptic, allusive; the poem is to be read alongside interviews with the author explaining the intention behind the poem, with the numerous texts that have allegedly inspired the poem or would provide a desirable philosophical orientation to the poem, with Wikipedia open so as to actually see a visual work whenever ekphrasis, popular as ever, neglects to actually describe the work it’s exfoliating. The serial poem-project is a deliberate ruin, haunted by a once-and-future poem which may first be excavated or constructed in order to be enjoyed, yet whose construction faces perpetual interference (difficulty) for fear that any fundamental driving force behind the poem’s creation will be vulnerable once it receives sustained attention rather than distraction. This is, I suspect, due to an attitude that driving force, or will, is violence (violence so broadly construed that it is everywhere and inescapable), that belief in the fundamentals is a fundamentalism, such that facades are left half unbuilt and scaffolding blooms perennially. The indeterminate or haptic is to be preferred to the focused. I think this is where poemland could stand to learn from the video game scene. In games, pleasure is not stupid; difficulty is not vaunted for its own sake; game-breaking bugs are charted in play-testing. In games, ‘difficulty’ is too vague to even have currency. Rather, game critic-developers explores how difficulty is created, how strategies are developed to meet that difficulty, and how the conjunction between the two engender a pleasure among a community which has access to and facility with those strategies. Apprehension is a pleasure, immersion is a pleasure, neither of which need diminish a game’s replayability, neither of which need diminish a poem’s re-readability.

This tangent, I hope, backgrounds the hindrances to my enjoyment of Videotape. I read without the Internet so as to read with fewer distractions, so when I found myself trudging to the nearest wi-fi connection to look up ‘calvados’, ‘malbec’, ‘sancerre’ or ‘refošk’ only to discover they were French liquors, I felt duped and irritated by this cheapest of all difficulties: vocabulary designed to keep out the riffraff rather than reconfigure the sensoria through new analyses and syntheses. At the risk of sounding parochial, I’ll say the beautiful line “le lever de / soleil was a radiator coil inside a cloud” is undermined by what looks to be the sentiment that ‘sunrise’ would render the simile too pedestrian. The line is further undermined by the fact that the reader has to slog through the slogan “As if to render a center / peripheral” to get there, even more irritating because it is a recapitulation of “as if the margins were / swarming with centers.” As if Zawacki couldn’t insist enough on his credentials in French critical theory. Along with recherche vocabulary, the decomposition of words by enjambment to particles is too clever by half and undeveloped by the poems into a more significant statement. (Or if it is a statement, it goes no further than a rough correspondence of words eroding on the page to images eroding on celluloid.) For example, I don’t see what the line breaks contribute to

fallaway sh
ekinah – I
will try to sh
ield you from the sh
ards of bulbs the sh

by drawing attention to the ‘sh’ and ‘a’ sounds. If the ‘sh’ sounds created by the line are supposed to insert a semantic ‘hush’ in the gaps between the complete thought, the pun pushes what would otherwise be intriguing (shattered asters, suggesting either stars or flowers or both) into corniness … or high artifice, at least … I wouldn’t be surprised if yet another poet relishes handcuffing a lyrical moment with irony and reflexive awareness. (‘Shekinah’ is—I guess—the immanence, rather than transcendence, of God in the world, and either has implications for other religious themes in the rest of Videotape too numerous to delve into here or no implications at all, hard to say when implications abound.) Another example: “je / -rry-rigged & je / -june, in June.” Pose the haphazard fragmentations here alongside those of Nick Demske’s sonnets, where the same technique works upon the sonnet tradition to signify how the grotesque and comic can be created by over-adherence to—rather than abandonment of—one principle in an ecosystem at the expense of other principles (in Demske’s case, the principle of right margin stressed exact rhymes interrupts the integrity and pronunciation of the words).

Contrast the above with passages where Zawacki’s virtuosic language play is done not for virtuosity’s sake but for another goal and you will find Videotape revelatory. A suitable passage for a (p)review, as it forthrightly addresses the themes suggested in the title, might be:

this will be watched by someone

other than who is now &
here […]

fastened to a future

forged of after, in de-
fault: virtual,
vicarious ec-

fact embroidered/
-balmed on video/ -tapes-

Let’s pause in our harassing the Levinasian other with our ethical concern for a second and begin at the last three lines. In the aforementioned interview, Zawacki comments on the process of writing Videotape:

I started researching into videotape, with Eli Levitan’s 1971 guide to the medium […] Among many other things, I learned that a magnetic tape comprises four tracks, with the soundtrack scrolling lowest, along the footer. Not unlike the Tapestry of Bayeux, in fact, where the narrative occupying the center is supplemented by three other tracks running in parallel, including a symbolic summary sauntering across the bottom. Dividing my book into four tracks was a simple, quasi-concrete gesture toward mimicking those architectures.

The comparison of videotape to The Bayeux Tapestry is surprising, if perhaps a stretch, and illuminates not only the form of Videotape but also the content above. While it’s lame that this comparison was left nascent and un-sustained in the poem itself, and had to be excavated from an interview, it does open thought toward mediation of historical events, especially violent ones. The poetry explores videotape as athwart documentation and art. Video, when given to the disempowered for example, can capture (make static) and transmit horrific deeds done by the powerful which might otherwise go unnoticed. Yet video can also attend to things, allowing them to stand outside themselves, reveal their significance. The mass of raw footage is an embalming of flux, yet the editing process is an embroidering, a making of pattern out of chaos, of that footage. Maybe I enjoy picking the low-hanging fruit, but I enjoy these straightforward ekphastric passages. Another description of video recording as the “look / for leaks / within / the negative / cutting / of Zeno’s / zones” links the technological with the metaphysical. While Zeno dispels the illusion of motion by cutting it into so many instances, or zones, that Achilles will neither depart nor arrive, Muybridge and others reignite the illusion by stitching those instances back together.

This review were perhaps better written in serial form. Instead of paragraphs, sections separated by some cool glyph so as to reveal that the process of writing is never begun and never concluded despite the alleged unified facade of the concluded text. Optimally, the glyph would signify a mathematical function, suggesting the division between numerals and letters is arbitrary, suggesting that thought’s convolutions form a Riemann surface or something. Instead of sentences, fragments emerging from em dashes, since an open text is like an open building is like liberty is good and a closed text is like a closed building is like fascism is bad. Instead of a desire to communicate (and therefore be in commerce and in congress), a noble reticence, lest a word be carelessly chosen, lest its constituent phonemes and graphemes, lest its etymology pass the reader by, lest the failure to not only inhabit representation but also to escape the language of representation not be appropriately agonized over. I have not agonized here so much as procrastinated, so I leave you by collapsing into the meets-meets-meets phreneticism of the review genre: if Videotape had a soundtrack, it’d be Basinski’s Disintegration Loops (come now, Radiohead would be too obvious); if it were adapted into a movie, it’d be Morrison’s Decasia; if it has an architecture, Koolhaas’s “Junkspace” is it; if it captioned photos, Burtynsky’s landscapes of the artificial sublime would make a wonderful match; if it were a weather—

Videotape, by Andrew Zawacki. Counterpath Press. 113 pages. $14.00, paper.

Jeremy Behreandt lives in Madison, WI.

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