Death Industrial Complex, by Candice Wuehle. South Bend, Indiana: Action Books, April 2020. 85 pages. $18.00, paper.
Candice Wuehle’s newest book, Death Industrial Complex, is a collection of ekphrastic poems made in conversation with the works of Francesca Woodman. Before reading the book, I had not known this. I was unfamiliar with the artist and her work. But throughout the course of my reading it always felt as if there was something looming in the background. The constant presence of mirrors and notes on fashion. The book often feels like a reflection of another medium. As if Wuehle has projected the photographs over each page as they were assembled. Building the text from the ground up as a manifestation/recycling of the photographic image. Converting every component of the latter into the former.
The text is a body of time. It is built from memories that you must move through. The reader appears as a cloaked/concealed spectre moving from fragment to fragment. Holding onto certain names and motifs—Vinny and Francesca, images of the mirror and the cult. “A thingish photo”: Memory is an inherently linguistic structure. Each is an abstract object rendered through utterance. The speaking of what has already occurred whether speculative or true.
The dissection of these memories (parts of memories/becoming-memories) is a dissection of language. It is the breaking down and recycling of each tactile component. As if looking into a cadaver, seeing the empty space, and refurbishing it with new tissue. But this construction/restoration is not foolproof. It is rife with glitches. Letters often repeat themselves and spaces manifest in unorthodox places, “birthdd ay”. Poems duplicate and reflect onto the other half of a page.
At times, these glitches appear ghostly. Scrawled in a light gray type. Projected behind the base-text or festering in the shadows beneath. When looking closely it is interesting to note that these passages are not just in a different color, but in a different texture. They are made from small dots. I’m sure the rest of the ink is laid using the same methods, but here it appears entirely different. As if it is a screen/window to be peered through. It is a different material of construction. Creating three distinct layers on each spread: black-text, gray-text, and page. Each resting at a different distance from the eye of the reader.
At this gray-text layer, the innards of each word become a cosmetic fascination. As if the skin has been rendered translucent. And the author/architect has revealed their construction as something not of this world. Or moreso, something resting in the space between real and not.
“i was charged with conspiring to convert / the appearance of nature”: Wuehle’s poetry is haunting and distant. It rests in an anomalous zone of intimate echoes. I do not know whether the speaker of these poems has a body, or if they have ever been anchored to a body. There is an abstract nature to the voice, as if it has become acclimated to this setting. As if it is a master of this unmaterialized environment.
In this sense, the book itself becomes a kind of environment/structure. Habitat of the ghostly voice. Source of the poetic glitch. Death Industrial Complex is something that must be traversed—a passage to or from the underworld maybe. It is the projection of time onto space. Turning memory into a system of rooms: “Shut / up while I murder architecture.” Here, the separate layers of black-text, gray-text, and page become materials for construction. Their interplay creates the unique blueprints of each room. Their reappearance the same as the reappearance of a pink linoleum floor bleeding from the kitchen into the hallway. The play of motifs and resourcefulness.
Death Industrial Complex is a work of archi-text-ure. It is the rendering of the book into a navigable space. It is the conversion of the text into a geographical-object. Reading Wuehle’s work here is like slowly making your way through a maze. Inching towards the center only to find that you were in a labyrinth all along. Where there is no final destination. There is only the structure itself. Feats of enigmatic and detailed architecture to be admired and analyzed. But nowhere to progress towards. There is no end matter to anxiously crawl towards. The importance and interest here is the particularities of each room/page.
“i am not a witch. i am trying / to occult nothing”: Wuehle’s poetry is not the otherworldly summonings of a primordial deity. It is a kind of nostalgia machine. An object that has been made to reconstruct memories and to render them traversable. The archi-text-ure of the page is then potentially an attempt to subvert the shortcomings of a physically-realized structure. The abstract materials of the text (language, design, etc) operate within the same ultimate ambiguity of memory. Where the decipherable is forever obfuscated. I can only ever assume that I am interpreting a text how it is intended in the same way that I can only ever assume my memories are as I remember them.
In this archi-text-ural space, we might then view Death Industrial Complex as a book of surfaces. Motifs/discussions of fashion and apparel. There is this fascination with the cosmetic—with outer aesthetics. “a bag over the head is iconic”: Wuehle attempts to find the constraints of the medium. She attempts to see what can be conveyed through a surface—through the shallow depth of the page. Navigating conventional and unconventional formats. Although I am still not incredibly familiar with the photography of Francesca Woodman, I can still feel her presence in the text. Her mirror-image reflecting through long exposures and fractured lenses. What can be gained from retreading the past? What can be gained from mutating it into an unfamiliar shape? These questions are complex and difficult, but they are also tethered to the surface. Wuehle expertly investigates this space, testing the potentialities of the poetic form, and examining how one medium might be reflected onto another.
Death Industrial Complex is a beautiful book. It is an important work of unconventional and innovative writing. A must-read for anyone interested in Woodman’s photography, haunting poetry, or experimental design.
Mike Corrao is the author of three books, Man, Oh Man (Orson’s Publishing), Two Novels (Orson’s Publishing), and Gut Text (11:11 Press); one chapbook, Avian Funeral March (Self-Fuck); and many short films. Along with earning multiple Best of the Net nominations, Mike’s work has been featured in publications such as 3:AM, The Collagist, Always Crashing, and The Portland Review. He lives in Minneapolis.