Annelise Roberts reviews “Sentences from the Archive” by Jen Webb
Sentences from the Archive
By Jenn Webb
Recent Work Press, 2016
Reviewed by ANNELISE ROBERTS
“I peeled apples and sliced them finger-nail deep, waking you with their scent” (1): Jen Webb’s Sentences from the Archive (Recent Work Press, 2016) begins with the pastel erotic vignette ‘Outside the Orchard’. It’s like a favourite private memory that gets indulgently recycled from time to time. “The astringent bite. Fluid in the mouth. Green skin, spiralling a green S across the lawn.” (1) But by the third poem ‘The heart of the sea’, the green is muddied, the tone becomes urgent, and the murmur of inner experience is abandoned for a collective voice: “The navy arrived in fast boats, urging us to board, guaranteeing our lives….” (3) The tense shifts midpoint to a present which seems to express a kind of futility, like the futility of prediction: “Tonight we wait, hand in hand, standing on the deck. In the distance we see it draw nearer. I think that it’s a rainstorm, but someone says no, it’s angels. Someone else says it is the herald of our end.” (3)
Webb is Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research at the University of Canberra. In her collection of prose poems Sentences from the Archive she develops this hybrid practice of her bread and butter, addressing both poetic and traditionally academic concerns, and playing with ways of figuring the personal and the political. A bio from online journal Meniscus, which she edits, explains her two major academic projects: “the first investigates the relationship between art and critical social moments; the other explores the relationship between creative practice and knowledge.”
In Sentences from the Archive, as Webb explains in the afterword to this collection, these ongoing enquiries are considered through the Derridean concept of the archive. The archive has two aspects: it is an historical record of the where and when of events (its ‘sequential’ aspect), and it is a political authority that determines what can be culturally knowable (the ‘jussive’ aspect): “archive that shapes the future through the way it records the past.” (54) Each prose poem here is a punchy and insistent item in a sprawling archive. In fact the prose poems are somehow object-like in their density — the blocks of text, the sentences usually short and the flow dimpled, lines often blunt, matter-of-fact and brief in a bitter way (“Watch me fly” ). Objects are also a means of pinning down events in an otherwise bewildering flow of ongoingness: for the event of the death of a loved one, empty vessels like schedules, packing crates, and skips; for making a relationship comprehensible there are supermarket tomatoes, avocados, and cheese.
Sentences from the Archive enacts an intense, repetitive struggle that occasionally resolves into apathy, guilt, or regret. Largely the opponent seems to be time. The fruit-softening domestic noir of poems like ‘Elegy III’, for instance: “The capsicum left too long in the fridge, the carrots left too long in the fridge, the potatoes that have grown eyes, the onions with their rotten cores, the love I never gave you.” (29) Time wins in the hopelessness of making rules, designing schedules which never seem executable and never permit you to keep up, be in charge, act decisively, as in the wonderful suite of poems ‘Waiting for the bus’: the bus “runs later each day, as though time were running out, as though time had lost its way.” (45) Time is a woman’s evening dress, powerfully attractive and disinterested in ‘What happened that night’. Time is the impending crisis, careless and inhuman in ‘Waiting for the phone to ring III’: “You know it’s on its way. You know it can’t be outrun. Keep your head down. Before the last chance reaches you, call me. I’ll find you if I can.” (13) Time is also the dominant figure of the ocean that is deep past and future, for the asylum seekers “our first home and our last,” (4) incomprehensibly sublime and complex, unnavigable, sometimes lover and sometimes cold aggressor. This allows for the endless dramatising of the loss of control: the ships are always drifting or else careening towards rocks, maps can never be followed.
Sometimes the abstract tension assumes a form, like an interpersonal situation, often romantic or familial. Usually the tension is buried in a kind of numb resignation, as in the ringing near-rhymes of this passage from ‘Dès due le soleil’: “I avoid you these days, just as I avoid the sun. The tree we planted casts a staggered shade, paints leaves on my skin. I sprawl beneath it, pour myself some wine, and when you call me I leave the phone to ring.” (7) People, too, are always already lost to each other even when in romantic proximity, as in ‘No Stories Please’: “We walk home, hand in hand. We are trying so hard. Don’t we deserve a prize?” (26) Or the looming thing might be economic: “Across the plain the storm is coming … The dollar has sunk to an historic low and the DAX is stumbling.” (‘On the Road II’, 15) However, always, once the terms of the battle have been outlined in such a way that anticipates the loser and the sense of loss settles in, there is a kind of comical and absurd waiting to be done: waiting for the phone, the bus, the moving thing on the horizon. At the airport: “We can’t be certain we’re alive. The clocks have stopped. The barista has gone home. Even the air smells of dead feet.” (‘En route’, 42)
In Webb’s afterword, she explains: “I have long been wrestling with the ways in which creative practice can operate in the political zone. … Now I shift my focus to small individual crises and memories, and am trying to think my way into how a person, no less than a nation, might construct archives, and make sense of the past, in the work of facing and building the future.” (54) Reading the collection as a whole, the paired categories Webb makes reference to here — the personal and the national, the creative and the political, the past and the future — sometimes feel like they are frozen in a relationship of fraught juxtaposition. Maybe this effect comes about, for instance, from the decision to immediately follow the luscious poem ‘Tarte au citron’ (“Afterward, the sweetness still on your skin, you would look at me, lubricious, and I would lean into you, hungry as a flame” ) with the desperate voices of asylum seekers in ‘The heart of the sea’ (“We know where safe passage ends: an unstable tent, our children stacked like stones to build a wall.” ) There is some difficulty in clarifying the relationship between these two aesthetics, the romantic and the political crisis, so that they sometimes feel paired in opposition. Juxtaposition of this kind feels like a state that can’t be developed, for all of the labouring and rumination, but is only relieved with shoulder shrugging or smiling as in the final poem ‘Da Capo’: “Inside is all shudder, and you need to sign that form and you find that dammit you’ve bought only purple garlic, not white, and the cat has trapped herself in the cupboard again, and no one has emptied the bin. Breathe. It’s easily fixed.” (53)
But in a poem that acts as a hinge for the collection, ‘Keeping the record straight’, Webb reaches an aesthetic complexity through a smooth diffraction of voices and scales that is the real achievement of the book:
If the north had stood beside us. If, turning to walk away, you had only said. If the north would unbend, just a little. A moment lost, and another. If I had seized. Made the right or any moves. If the north turned to south. Agreed to disagree. If the north would stretch out its
hand. Or buy a copy of my book. If just once; then never again this. (41)
Here the sentence, the concept at the heart of this collection of prose poems, shows us what it is for. The sentence is a technical, rhythmic and aesthetic device, with a logic that shines through once it has been cracked in half (“If I had seized”); at the same time it is a judgement in a court of memory and history that delivers both moot and legally binding decisions: “If just once; then never again this.” It makes pronouncements for populations, and for personal histories, but these pronouncements repeatedly turn away from being definitive or predictive. The struggle to compose the sentence is the struggle to work with time and its substance, memory. In finding a means of expression that performs all these functions so sensuously, Webb has spoken back eloquently to her own questions about creative practice and the political, and to the questions she is prompted to ask by the figure of the archive.
Sentences from the Archive is a dense, emotionally adventurous, and commendably experimental set of prose poems, with a vast network of intertextual references from the Biblical, to the ekphrastic, to the pop cultural (“if memory could speak it would say lock it in, Eddie, lock it in” ). Webb has developed her own form appropriate to the granular texture of time as we experience it, true to the shuttling resonance of memory and event, and awake to the entanglement of self with the world.
ANNELISE ROBERTS lives in Melbourne and is a PhD student in creative writing at the Australian National University. Her work is about family, radiation, and the British nuclear testing at Emu Field, South Australia.