Lorazepam and the Valley of Skin: Extrapolations on Los Angeles
Friday, January 29th, 2010
There are books that are necessary and those that aren’t, and those whose very unnecessariness, like feral kittens, commends them. Lorazepam and the Valley of Skin: Extrapolations on Los Angeles is of this kind. A bilingual Swedish-English book that is not so much collaboration as conspiracy, the first book in what promises to be a series of engagements between American/Californian and Swedish/Swedish artist/writers. Slash as in the most kindest cut of all. Series curator/publisher J.S. Davis explains in a thoughtful and loosely personal forward that the project sprung from the flux of Davis’s content and dis- with both countries. Both of which are, it need not be pointed out, but will be, as it is both obvious and still important, nations of the very first world order. First world nations, as we also know, have a problem with excess, being by their very nature de trop. As with their other expendable consumables—boutique food, durable and unendurable plastic goods—first world nations produce an excess of youth. This is evidenced in everything from the proliferation of summer dick flicks and comp lit profs who call themselves “kidz,” to the perpetual round of blank-eyed art rats, those with the sharp appetites of teenagers and the soft teeth of early middle age.
Disaffection is often affectation, just as lack of affect it is the preferred sentiment of the overly sentimental. In other words, it is dangerous to write smart from the street and from the heart. One runs the risk of falling face first into Rimbaudean cliché, or worse, being applauded by those who don’t know better, and discounted by those who should. For the truth is that, as always, all is true: there are disaffected youth who stay disaffected as they become less youth, and there’s equal parts real pathos and cheap feeling in this, and the cheap pathetic part of real feeling, in that. Andrea Lambert’s poems hit these notes exactly. They are as raw as wheat paste, as sweetly sentimental as the handmade missing persons posters that sprinkle LA streets. Despite the occasional slip into over-stating the lower case, Lambert regularly manages to pull off a soft staccato sneer that skitters off into real unblinking delight. In the very fine “Symptoms,” the epidemiology includes:
Restlessness, difficulty falling asleep.
A sudden, intense interest in parlor tricks and tidying.
Obsessions; avocados—an intense desire for avocados.
I can eat when I’m dead.
A few chunks of memory, some moments of missing, and then, the inevitable what’s left:
The font should be Helvetica.
The sadness of the discontinued font.
The darkness of the discontinued font.
I can eat when I’m dead.
Like her title promises, Lorazepam addresses anxiety by inducing the five effects of a solid benzodiazepine drug: anxiolytic, amnesic, sedative/hypnotic, anticonvulsant and muscle relaxant. So there are funny art-school jokes, like “Grocery List,” a riff on Basquiat, where the fairly fey “Toothpaste (whitening orange zest)” takes the place of smack as a reassuring must-have. Other list poems have the sedating air of Nothing To Do, including the one-word pointless (“Powder” (“Ways to Self-Medicate”)) and the two-word pummeled (“List-making” (“Ways to Procrastinate”)), wedded to the fundamentally addictive (). Lambert is pure LA in many of these moments—smart without seeming so, unsettling as a step back, quietly comfortable in the abyss-adjacent. There is something about consistently good weather that should make you afraid, just a little, of what happens next (“Sell Nick on eBay,” “Get PhD” (“Post-MFA Employment Ideas”)).
Next in text is 720910-2155, the Swedish writer who opts to be known by government ID number rather than Christian or sur-name. This appears to be a bid for anonymity as well as a remark upon the anonymity of the bureaucratic variety (“What is personal about a number?” (“Straight Up”)), but I want it to be something more interesting, for what is less repetitious than a number, less impersonal than a personal ID? And, as 720910-2155 does point out, “It cannot be pronounced, but it can be read.” According to facebook, there is at least one other Vanessa Place, who lives in Dublin, and does not want to be my friend. She is smarter than I am, for she ignores her doppelgänger as I knock, unsmiling, at the door. Similarly unsmiling is 720910-2155, who writes on the pin-head of self-awareness, “Isn’t everybody trying to be a hero?” and self-abnegation, “Somewhere in all these stories there are elements that allow the reader to identify himself with a particular character to understand that the hero is simply somebody else, someone they probably don’t know and never will” (“State of Exception”). The prose pieces penned by 720910-2155 are thickly spread amalgams of theory and acts such as are found in playlets, or snaps as may be taken in anyone’s blue kitchen. 720910-2155 seems very nice, and very conscientious, reading Agamben into daily life as the unexceptional state, and calling out aphoristic dictates (“Go Beyond Conceptualized Thought”) and aesthetic/ethical theorems (“Benefactor/Beneficiary”) with the measured enthusiasm of exercise, regularly taken. When I went to southern Sweden a few years ago, I was surprised at how very much they loved Matisse. But I was there in March, and my surprise was literally cooled to complete understanding. Every place has its arenas where what is simply nature in another place is the breathtakingly artificial in another. And we love these moments of great artificiality because they serve as false and reassuring desublimation: in other words, California’s burnt (sun-and-out) laconicism is happiest when hysterical, just as Sweden wishes it were not so very Swedish.
He wanted to see what life could be like without continuously being reminded of the past. He wondered what his art could look like if he did not have a body of work to build upon. He wanted to see what would happen if the slate were clean.
In the pale and patterned IKEA-land, one wants burnt oranges and marine blues, and Cali bodies that know no boundaries: 720910-2155 and Lambert were made to mirror one another insofar as mirrors both reflect and project whatever light is cast upon them.
If one is to be concerned with the idea of freedom, one must consider one’s own perception of experience. The question is whether or not freedom is truly desirable at all.
Om man bryr sig om frihetstanken så är man tvungen att ta i akt ens egen uppfattning om det man upplever. Frågan är om frihet egentligen alls är önskvärd.
In the introduction, J.S. Davis notes that the concept for the project was criticized for its particular geographic selection, and for the notion of geographic selection itself. There also appeared to have been the occasion for some well-intended lecture on the need not to lionize any one geography. In short, I think someone argued that some other locale, that is to say, some locale that was more Other, would be better as an object for cultural engagement, that is to say, would provide more of an object lesson (“object” should, by rights, be capitalized). This is a stupid critique. Geography is history, as we all now know, and just as it is very important not to forget that Haiti has a history of the U.S. Marines landing to save the calamitous day and then forgetting to leave, so too is it important to be reminded of the palpable souls of less (to the post-colonial mind) exotic locales. Indigenous is as indigenous does, and we all want something. Want as in lack. We as in the gluttonous us. At a recent poetry conference in Oslo, I was told that a leading Swedish journal on art and philosophy had decided to publish only in English because there were simply not enough Swedish speakers to justify the native text. To see how art is, how culture is, how youth will wear down even as it is retread and prolonged past the point of bloom, it is also important to look at the poor us of the wealthier world. Not to pity its thick-waisted hungers or its fait d’ennui, but to understand that, Malmø to Echo Park, we hope to hope, and that in that, we hang by the same well-licked thread.