The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Defacing the Monument by Susan Briante

This selection, chosen by Guest Curator Elizabeth Vignali, is from Defacing the Monument by Susan Briante, released by Noemi Press in 2020. 


In the final row of the courtroom, with a legal pad and a draft copy of the calendar, I can only glimpse the migrants’ faces when they enter or exit. I lose track of which defendant speaks, can’t hear what their lawyers say.

About Operation Streamline, the poet Brandon Shimoda observes: “It is easy, in a space designed to bleed people of their stories, for the imagination to go dark and stay dark.”8

The court reporter’s face is lit by a screen. The marshal in the back row rubs his eyes, checks his phone. Whatever I show you is a representation, filtered and partial.

“If poetry is an archive, then so too is a poem—or any text—and the writer is a kind of archivist…” writes poet and critic Joseph Harrington. “This issue [is] an especially important one for those who would include documents in poetry. Which documents? And why not include them all?”9

Just as the document elides and erases, so does the poem and the poet.

As witnesses, as researchers, as those who possess an “imagination enlarged by compassion,” (to rewrite Shelley) we need to understand our documents as well as ourselves within the web of power and processes that produce them.

Sometimes it helps to sit inside a building and feverishly recreate what’s beyond its walls, in order discern one’s orientation.

As the poet Kristin Prevallet reminds us: “If poetry (or prose) for that matter is ‘relational[,]’ it is not because it appropriates sources as conquered territories, forcing them into the logic of the new text or subordinating them to some notion of perfection or ‘totality.’”10 Here she references Édouard Glissant’s theories of relational poetics and continues: “Rather, Relational poetics looks at texts as being themselves in a constant state of motion, dispersion, and permeability that is inseparable not only from the shifting social and political context, but from the cycles of the earth and the diversity of nature.”

We cannot use the documents to serve the “logic” of our poems or our world views, but we can use the poem to expand our view of the world. The reading or writing of a poem can help us to reflect on our place within the spheres of power and powerlessness that constitute our world.

Behind each name on each document: a face, a story, an opportunity for complication /connection. That will not be static; that can’t be dependable.

8 Brandon Shimoda, “Operation Streamline,” The New Inquiry, (May 3, 2017): web.
9 Joseph Harrington,“Docupoetry and Archive Desire,” Jacket2, (October 27, 2011): web.
10 Kristin Prevallet, “Writing is Never by Itself Alone: Six Mini-Essays on Relational Investigative Poetics,” Fence, (Spring 2003): 20.

Susan Briante is the author most recently of Defacing the Monument, a series of essays on immigration, archives, aesthetics and the state, winner of the Poetry Foundation’s Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism in 2021. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly calls the collection “a superb examination of the ethical issues facing artists who tell others’ stories” and a “dazzlingly inventive and searching text.” Briante is also the author of three books of poetry:  Pioneers in the Study of Motion, Utopia Minus, and The Market Wonders.

Elizabeth Vignali is the author of the poetry collection House of the Silverfish (Unsolicited Press 2021) and three chapbooks, the most recent of which is Endangered [Animal] (Floating Bridge Press 2019). Her work has appeared in Willow Springs, Poetry Northwest, Cincinnati Review, Mid-American Review, Tinderbox, The Literary Review, and elsewhere. She lives in the Pacific Northwest on the land of the Noxwsʼáʔaq and Xwlemi peoples, where she works as an optician, produces the Bellingham Kitchen Session reading series, and serves as poetry editor of Sweet Tree Review.

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