Now it can be told

1. Following up on this post, as follows:

Agius of Corvey heightens this biblical consolatio in the poem he composed in 876 on the death of the Abbes Hathumod (d. 874). He points out not only the patriarchs but also their wives died; likewise the Apostles and others besides. It takes him over a hundred lines (Poetae, III, 377, 229 ff.). Laudable industry! But hardly a "touching lament," as it has been called.
[Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 80-81]
2. But then as follows:
The piece is titled "Closet Drama" and has been performed twice so far, once in Portland (for the second Sound Poetry Festival in August of 2004) and once in Tucson in 2006. It is both time and location specific, and the content is generated anew for each performance

The performance consists of reading a list of family names taken from death records. There's a brief, ritualistic prelude in which I don a uniform of black hat, black leather jacket, black leather gloves. I read the names quickly -- not as fast as possible, but without pause, and rhythmically.

The laws regarding access to death records vary from state to state. In Portland, I was able to transcribe the names of recently deceased, from the three months prior to the performance; in Tucson, the information is sealed for fifty years. That creates a specific historical distance to whatever information the family names by themselves provide.

You may remember that the Office of Vital Statistics here would have charged a pretty substantial fee to provide the data to me, in electronic or hard-copy form, yet I was permitted to sit in the office of Vital Statistics and transcribe from their computer printouts onto a laptop at no charge (I borrowed your laptop, and accomplished it in an afternoon). In Oregon, the full records are only open to family and others with a demonstrated need or right to know; for nonauthorized persons, the information is limited to name, date of death, and not much else. (So, cause of death, address, etc. is suppressed.)

The piece operates for me on several levels -- it is a list poem, with alphabetic and temporal structures (in the Portland version, the alphabet starts over three times, once for each month from which the names are taken); it is a sound poem (or even text setting), which also represents in concrete form aspects of the makeup/distribution of the community (ethnicity of names, etc.); it is a dirge, an image of faceless dead (in that sense a sort of inverse of Christian Boltanski's nameless dead, the photographs of faces in some installations, that he has referred to as "my Swiss").

I think that it was also a response to the desire to read the phone book aloud -- something that I'd still like to do, but that presents severe logistical challenges. Of course, the two projects are complementary, dealing with the dead and the living. The incompleteness of each of those registers is also important -- that is, I couldn't say that those were the names of everyone who had died in Multnomah County in those three months, only that those were all the names on record . . . .
[David Abel, personal correspondence to me]
3. I guess there's no need to argue with someone writing in the early 1950s. But Curtius was so obviously misguided here. And I knew this because I had seen David perform his piece, and because it was an even more industrious, even more lengthy list of the dead. One that had even less traditional "literary merit" than Agius's, one that was even less concise and sharp-hewn, perhaps, in the sense that David didn't choose the names involved, but left everything to the Office of Vital Statistics and to the vagaries of death. So it was obvious that Curtius's rebuffing of the Agius for being too exhaustive and thus too boring and thus not moving was too simple.

But also, I knew how to listen to David's piece. For one thing, I had an immediate context for it: All those recitations of lists of names of those who died of AIDS that were so... well, "popular" isn't the word... back in the early nineties. And the technical interest of those readings, which at first seems almost inappropriate to mull over: How is this list of names organized? How is that name really supposed to be pronounced? What does it mean, to honor someone but mispronounce their name? Who has authority over the dead, who even has the authority to include them on this list? And when will it end, dear lord, when will it end? And it doesn't end, and it doesn't end, and you just wish it would end, and then you realize that the inappropriate train of thought has become appropriate, because of course you do wish it would end, you wish a cure would be found and this onslaught of death would end, because death is boring and repetitive and endless and we must have something better to do, but do we really have anything better to do than to remember, than try to understand, then try to work our way through the sheer weight of what death has done? Do we owe the dead at least that much? Or do we owe death that much?

4. Not to say that Agius's text does that. I have to track down Agius's text before I make any claims about what might be going on in it. Perhaps it was simply not industrious enough to be a properly "touching lament". Or perhaps Curtius was unable or unwilling to be touched by the text, to recognize its tedium as a effective and affective form of writing.



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