Memory of the Prose Machine
by Sandra Doller
CutBank Books, Feb 2013
41 pages / $10 Buy from CutBank
Two days before I arrived home to the package that held Prose Machine, I sat in a restaurant in Moab, Utah, arguing with my girlfriend about poststructuralist theory. The endless bit about relevance. Do we really need to know that much about the gap between words and reality? About the absence of a referent for language? We’re eating hamburgers in a café here. We’re on a road trip in Utah. We’re speaking. We’re talking. Hello.
Emily wondered why the academics didn’t quit if the very form of their own work (language) went against the claims they made. As I saw it, admitting that language doesn’t have a one-to-one correspondence with what we’ve always hoped it does doesn’t make communication impossible; it just complicates it. Maybe even frees it.
Sandra Doller is, like me, one of the hopeful. She understands that a splatter of paint on the canvas is going to look like a penis to me and a popsicle to someone else. But that the important thing, I think, is the communication: there’s someone on the other end.
The central conflict of Memory of the Prose Machine, as of more than a couple other rad small press prose-poetry type books I’ve read recently, is meaning. That is, what does it mean when she says, in her opening lines:
Sandra Doller knows, because she’s already been told. She “has no theme,” her words are a bunch of words, that’s all, you can’t follow them because there’s nothing to follow. That’s just how the book is. And it’s not uncommon, I think, to have this kind of indeterminate non-referential Rorschach Test type of approach in cutting edge poetic writing these days. Language without a clear function. Phrases not connected in obvious ways. Words as the field of battle, rather than the images they evoke.
But Doller’s no noob. She’s not co-opting nonsense without some sort of reason. She strings her words together the way she does to make a point.
Memory of the Prose Machine is 41 pages long. It consists of page-long blocks of disjointed but playful prose alternating with quotations from outside sources on the nature of memory, memoir, and story-telling. It is short and weird. The words don’t make much sense as such but the book as a whole is very purposeful in its thrust: it is an alternative memoir, the kind that questions the way we process and then record memories.
Moab, Utah is about twenty miles down the road from the Delicate Arch, the desktop wallpaper for about every Windows-based computer between the years of 2005 and the present. When Emily and I did the hike to the spot, we carved up through a red rock cliff to find hundreds of tourists already installed, half of them with cameras: the ground zero of hyperreality. Japanese, Canadian, French, Chinese, and American tourists froze underneath the red rocks for a photo and then wandered on across the Navajo sandstone. The sun went downward. Finally when we left I tried a new route and happened (not entirely on accident) to stroll in front of the photographers.
“Excuse me,” a skinny guy in a cowboy hat yelled at me. “I’m taking a photograph.” I looked at him and his wooden box camera on a black metal tripod. “Long exposure,” he said, pointing at it.
All kinds of comebacks welled up. “You’re stealing the aura!” I wanted to say, from my girlfriend’s continued reflections on Walter Benjamin and “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” I could have shouted something about the Most Photographed Barn in America, courtesy of Don DeLillo and White Noise.
Turned out all I said was “Jesus Christ,” and threw up my hands. It’s hard to beat the truth: the representation of the experience is now more important than the experience itself. For a lot of folks, the representation is the experience.
Once you get into The Prose Machine the prose really does start to sound like it’s from a machine. Doller writes:
You can dismiss it as nonsense, sure. A random phrase generator. But we’re not talking totally random, here. What the machine really does is voyage Doller’s synapses in search of memory and trace the shortest possible line between memory fragments. In other words, an experiment in free association. (She’s taken one of her quotes from a fictional grant writer seeking “direct writing, which is maskless.”)
I won’t lie: I’ve done the same exercise, or an incarnation of it. And I’d venture to say that a lot of other writers have too. In fact the wrangle with meaning that seems so prominent to me in a lot of your more obscure literary stuff these days may really be a wrangle with process—with the system by which we bring about understanding from the glut of feeling within us. In an age when any linear narrative can seem constructed, random associations of phrases, objects, and memories often seem to be the only way to make something feel true.
By “mechanizing” this process, Doller questions its ability to get at something true and real and essential. Then again, by engaging in it so artfully, she questions the “mechanical” name she’s bestowed upon it. It’s hard to figure out whether the book is shooting itself in the foot or shooting you in the foot, as a joke.
That’s part of the reason why Memory of the Prose Machine is so good. Because you’re never sure which way it’s aiming.
Doller, for her part, is all over the outcomes of poststructuralist theory. She’s got Michel de Certeau in there, and Roland Barthes, plus a quote by Eleanor Antin where she says, “It is not the real thing that suggests the real in art. It is rather the slight disparity, the unexpected even, that will give the appearance of truth.”
That’s the thing, and that’s where me and my girlfriend have moseyed with regard to Benjamin’s “Art in the Age.” Whereas the first result of mechanical reproduction was to remove the aura from the art object by replicating it endlessly, the second result (in the age of Photoshop, CGI, etc., etc.) is actually to lend more credibility to representations that are damaged, imperfect, burned on the edges: because they don’t claim a one-to-one correspondence with reality, they seem more “honest” or even more “authentic.” Hence the explosion of Instagram. Hence the imitation wood camera used by my friend with the cowboy hat at the Delicate Arch. Hence the fragmentation of Doller’s memories into a stream of prose that seems connected only by the strands of her synapses.
Still, Sandra Doller is not a hipster taking photos in Utah. She’s taller than that. What she’s doing here, I think, is not so much embodying the phenomenon of narrative-free prose-poetry as trying to understand it from the outside, by doing it herself.
And indeed the book’s title claims to be as representative of its form as this review is trying to be. It and the majority of her chosen quotations focus on process, the way memories are created and retrieved. But Doller, I think, is just as focused on the reader’s response to all this. As is Eileen Myles, in yet another quote: “I don’t really give a shit about my memories. I really feel like it’s not about Eileen Miles. I’m kind of like the camera or the recording instrument.” These cameras know how to back off.
The absence of clear representation, in other words, doesn’t mean the reader’s mind conjures an empty blank. Though her words’ referent(s) might escape formulation in the reader’s inner eye—though there’s no determinate landscape she’s “describing”—the words themselves become a landscape. To me, a passage like, say, the one on pages 9 and 10 (there’s no other way to distinguish them) is the landscape of a country fair that is slowly emptying out following a rainstorm. Striped polypropylene tents sink into a mixture of foot-stirred mud and recalcitrant grass. The post-storm pressure change takes breath from you and mysterious men in jeans disappear around corners the second you glimpse them.
Details in the passage itself lead to this weird constitution in my mind: notes about an amusement park, playing next to a stream, grass and bricks and asphalt; then, at the end, the slow evacuation of the text via nostalgia for some sort of father or other departing friend.
And: “The difficulty of telling a story is never said. Never saying what the story is. If you tell a story then the story is killed.”
So instead there’s a series of phrases, and they become a new story, in our minds. There is no particular story told, and Sandra Doller knows this. But she also knows, and this is her second grace, that there is a story heard.
Dennis James Sweeney works at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. His work has shown up in places like Juked, Mid-American Review, and Pear Noir!. See what he’s reading and written at djsweeney.wordpress.com.