Before we go any further I think I’d better describe my current feelings about conceptual work. Kenneth Goldsmith has defined conceptual poetry as material that’s more interesting to think and talk about as an idea than it is to read. I can see how this might apply to some of Goldsmith’s output although I do remain an occasional but avid reader of his ‘Traffic’.
I’d like to draw a distinction between this kind of ‘pure’ conceptualism and the kind that does start from a conceit (in the sense that Spenser used it in the letter to Raleigh) but consists of work that can and should be read as well. The work of Vanessa Place falls into this category and I’m making the same claim for ‘Sightings’.
I’d also like to make a case for appropriation, i.e. the practice of using already produced material as the text for the poem. In some circles this is also frowned upon because it undermines the notion of the poet as the solitary creator of carefully crafted and original lines. I think that this misses the ‘point’ and doesn’t give sufficient weight to the process of selection, it also carefully avoids the fact that all poetry is an echo of the poems that have been written in the last three thousand years and that some of our very best poetry is soaked though with what has gone before.
This is what Baum has to say about ‘Sightings’-
Prose poems depict witness descriptions of ufo encounters. Figures and shadows loom suggestively. Newsprint collages attest to the variety of odd occurences. Is the evidence of an alien invasion all around us ? The transparant and elastic meanings in ‘sightings’ suggest a transformation of ordinary facts, an absurdist archaeology of the everyday.
To produce an ‘absurdist archaeology of the everyday’ is an ambitious goal and I’m not sure that Baum achieves it. What I do know is that the juxtaposition of words and photographs of words and photographs that may or may not depict ufos seems to be a very successful way of saying complicated things about the uncanny and about the way things come to an end.
The most accessible parts of the text are the prose accounts of ufo sightings. I am old enough to recall a time when such events were treated much more seriously than they are now, particularly in the US. It seems to me that this kind of fevered paranoia was a neat ‘fit’ with the cold war angst about the ‘red menace’ presented by the Soviet Union. None of the accounts here appear to have any kind of ‘literary’ merit and read as authentic- the tone is reminiscent of the media reports of the time.
Of course, extra-terrestrials can be considered to be the ultimate Other in that we can attribute to them any attributes that we choose but these aren’t descriptions of alien life forms but of the craft that carry them- which have been the focus of conspiracy theories ever since. It may just be my optimistic perspective but I find it hard to conceive of a film like ‘Close Encounters’ having the same success now. UFOs aside, the other textual material relates to phrases and parts of phrases photographed as if the pages have been placed in a filing cabinet. Some of these phrases are only partially visible which means that a few are difficult to read. It is possible to read the legible lines as verse, albeit absurdist verse-
falling into a ravine of moths or butterflies
us inside a space meant to evoke packed with
stars that wobble under the influence of
Their are other photographs depicting what appear to be the edges of books so that parts of images and text are visible. Other images are of clouds, shadows and what might be ufos.
So, what I’m trying to say is that this is the kind of collection that might be labelled as ‘conceptual’ but also has serious and thought-provoking content. Here we have a series of points being made about the way we have thought about and imagined the strange / Other and the relationship between cognition and only partial or occluded phenomena. There’s also something about the end of things in this post-analogue, post soviet world.
Incidentally, the ubuweb site has a collection of Baum’s earlier stuff in pdf- I’m particularly fond of ‘The Naked Eye’ and ‘Card Catalogue’ both of which are equally startling but in very different ways.