Saturday, July 21, 2012

Aimless Reading: The S's Part 37 (Robert Smithson)

Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings
Smithson, Robert
The Collected Writings

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books for a course taught by Susan Howe in graduate school.

This book, I would say, had a surprisingly large influence on me and my classmates in graduate school. I say 'surprising' only because it's a book by an artist and not a poet. Susan Howe was a huge advocate of his writing and work and once people started reading it in her classes they began to see it as a template for innovative poetic explorations of place.

Smithson's essay "A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey," in addition to making a literary connection with William Carlos Williams, gave many of us the idea that Buffalo, rather than being a place we had to suffer while we got our degrees, was a place worthy of exploration.

Suddenly graduate student poets were interested in the grain elevators, the Erie Canal, the Niagara Escarpment, Love Canal, and the history of Buffalo industrialization and de-industrialization. All of my Elevator artist book projects took cues from Smithson.  Jonathan Skinner's magazine ecopoetics, as well as his most recent book, The Birds of Tifft, did as well.

Buffalo's post-industrial landscape came to form a kind of collective subconscious for many of us, an infinitely fertile site for creative exploration, and for this poet, a place to live and to work in and at and on for the next fourteen years.

from A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey



Has Passaic replaced Rome as The Eternal City? If certain cities of the world were placed end to end in a straight line according to size, starting with Rome, where would Passaic be in that impossible progression? Each city would be a three-dimensional mirror that would reflect the next city into existence. The limits of eternity seem to contain such nefarious ideas.


The last monument was a sand box or a model desert. Under the dead light of the Passaic afternoon the desert became a map of infinite disintegration and forgetfulness. This monument of minute particles blazed under a bleakly glowing sun, and suggested the sullen dissolution of entire continents, the drying up of oceans–no longer were there green forests and high mountains–all that existed were millions of grains of sand, a vast deposit of bones and stones pulverized into dust. Every grain of sand was a dead metaphor that equaled timelessness, and to decipher such metaphors would take one through the false mirror of eternity. This sand box somehow doubled as an open grave–a grave that children cheerfully play in.


... all sense of reality was gone. In its place had come deep-seated illusions, absence of pupillary reaction to light, absence of knee reaction - symptoms all of progressive cerebral meningitis: the blanketing of the brain ...

–Louis Sullivan, "one of the greatest of all architects," quoted in Michel Butor's Mobile.



I should now like to prove the irreversibility of eternity by using a jejune experiment for proving entropy. Picture in your mind's eye the sandbox divided in half with black sand on one side and white sand on the other. We take a child and have him run hundreds of times clockwise in the box until the sand gets mixed and begins to turn grey; after that we have him run anti-clockwise but the result will not be restoration of the original division but a greater degree of greenness and an increase of entropy.


Of course, if we filmed such an experiment we could prove the reversibility of eternity by showing the film backwards, but then sooner or later the film itself would crumble or get lost and enter the state of irreversibility. Somehow this suggests that the cinema offers an illusive or temporary escape from physical dissolution. The false immortality of the film gives the viewer an illusion of control over eternity–but "the superstars" are fading.

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