“Escape from Freedom”: Vincent James Perrone Reviews PILOT, a debut collection of poetry by Danika Stegeman LeMay

“In the name of ‘freedom’ life loses all structure; it is composed of many little pieces, each separate from the other and lacking any sense as a whole. The individual is left alone with these pieces like a child with a puzzle”
—Erich Fromm

Body and Machine

The text begins at the body—the B-o-d-i-e-s—the individual you and I. Shredded, eviscerated, left on a beach, coming together after coming apart. The bodies cannot all be accounted for, only the speaking parts—Jack, Hugo, Kate, Sawyer, etc—the characters we are to watch, imagine, and inhabit. Though we are not privy to their individual narratives, their place in space and time. Instead, they are verbalized, written and rewritten though never fully abstracted. Bodies bleed, witness, forgive, attempt escape.

In Danika Stegeman LeMay’s debut collection of poetry, Pilot, we are provided vignettes of trauma, stratified from their source text. The television show, Lost, provides the catalyst to reckoning. The bodies and debris become avatars of our own world. The text of the show becomes another kind of debris, reassembled to commune with us or fed into the maw of a coded program creating its own script. The poems inhabit the ghost world of mechanically generated text, erasure, and free-lyric, wherein, like all great poetry, they exhibit further potentialities.

The common perception of the individual is of free choice, “This is us taking control of our destiny.” As well, the perception of a text is one of free choice; a writer chooses the next word, the next line, the next subject. If this freedom is revoked (by being stranded on an island) or given up freely, the individual is transmogrified. If the choice of an individual is made up of preconceived possibilities, what would be the difference between you and I and a machine? A program designed to make a series of choices based on provided variables—a script.

There becomes no avoiding the precedent set by LeMay’s positioning of bodies and machines. We are all the confluence of scripts, of abstracted possibilities, stranded.

Of course, there are other bodies. The ocean surrounding an island; the boundaries of one world and another. The extended body of a television universe bound by its own logic, prescribed by the writers.

Image and Future

Watching television, whether alone or with others, we can only perceive action linearly, from one shot to the next. But what if we are to “perform an autopsy on the camera”? We can dismember the parts, examine captured images on film, now rendered immobile and static. We can “rethread the film” but to interact with something is to change it. If we are aware of our constructions, we may unravel or, at the very least, necessitate a new construction. A plot twist to reinstate further possibility. The discovery of a hidden building, the reveal of a new monster.

Yet, in Pilot, the action carries on, despite the unraveling, “there’s no stopping / [jump cut/splice] the future [splice] entering into [splice].” Everything is another sharp twist, a cliffhanger to hang our hopes on. We are provided images of a future and a history, a flash-forward, a flash-back. Moments set upon a timeline that obscures the frequent oversight of a deus ex machina—another machine to craft another possibility, one outside of ourselves but still fed on false futures.

When we look at the guts of a camera can we assuage ourselves that what is captured is only a sum of experience? To be alive is neither figurative nor abstract. If we move from image to thought, say, while watching a television show, what intercedes between our viewing and our thinking? A dual experience—a couplet—frames two lines as a dialectic, a discourse hewn by mediating dialogues, attempting to delineate when and where we are. As LeMay writes, with striking clarity, “If you watch what I watch / at the same time, does the material / join us?”

Fiction and Escape

I have not watched Lost in its entirety, but I have a distinct personal affiliation with the show. A decade or so ago, a close friend was detoxing through a self-prescribed television binge. He watched the series, from pilot to finale, over the course of two weeks, quarantined in a smokey basement. He entered the show in a state of severe chemical dependency, and by the time the final credits crossed the screen, the symptoms had subsided.

What the lasting impact of the show had on him, I can only guess. It seemed to me at the time, and seems now in memory, that the show’s dense mythology and careening stories provided both empathy and tension, something he could place his corporeal being within. The various plotlines could be both natural foils to his situation—his relative comfort in a quiet basement with plenty of food and entertainment—as well as relatable, as he was, after all, confined to a physical state of isolation and lack.

There is plenty known and written about the power of escapism. Hiding out in beloved media to alleviate, transcend, or subvert our material reality. But total escapism is fictitious. To live inside something unconnected from our own temporality would require a total escape from self, creating an impassable contradiction. To commune, we must be a self. LeMay has recognizes the falsehood of escape, save for exiting the physical world in its entirety—i.e. death. But then, all images are ghosts. We are retained even as we gesture toward freedom.

The refusal to let go or to be let go is not a failing of spirit. Forgiveness and absolution are packed tightly within much of Pilot, protruding out like flora from beach sand. For as much as we look for escape, it can’t possibly be what we want. We are tuned in, eager for the structured plotting of network television to sublimate the freedom of our own experience.

Pilot, by Danika Stegeman LeMay. Tucson, Arizona: Spork Press, April 2020. $18.00, paper.

Vincent James Perrone is the author of the full-length book of poetry, Starving Romantic (11:11 Press, 2018), the microchap, Travelogue For The Dispossessed (Ghost City Press, 2021), and a contributor to Collective Voices in the Expanding Field (11:11 Press, 2020). Recent work published and forthcoming from Storm Cellar, The Indianapolis Review, Levee Magazine, and Emerge Literary Journal. He lives in Detroit.

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