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Black, Noel. "The Art of Memory." San Francisco Bay Guardian Literary Supplement (February 2001).
There's something pornographic about a list—about a naked catalog of facts, details, or observations. The Guinness Book of World Records, Harper's Index, Letterman's Top 10, Billboard charts, Top 40 radio, MTV's "Top 100 Pop Songs," etc. Whether hierarchical or arbitrary, the list as literary form has been particularly suited to the particularly American mixture of ideological materialism and egalitarianism ("democracy" being the practical reality). For Walt Whitman the list was both neobiblical and Democratic. "Leaves of Grass," his lyrical catalog of the people, places, ideas, and textures of American life, was meant to set all things down as equal parts of an idealized poetic nation. For Gertrude Stein the list served as a playground for words and sentences and parts of sentences and their rearrangements: the listing of language's possibilities. For Diane di Prima, Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, Anne Waldman, and other writers and poets of the postatomic age, the list became a form of indictment and a prophetic dirge meant to bring about consciousness and change. For the poet Ted Berrigan, famous for his "Things to Do" poems, the list became a location, a place to put words and experience in the same way one makes a shopping list—to organize and older the act of living. And for Joe Brainard, the artist and author of the recently republished cult favorite I Remember, the list became a vehicle for pure memory, a document of generalized American and American queer culture. As a list, I Remember brings the form to its apex as it finds its home in the ultimate pop aesthetic of absolute surface while somehow managing to consistently reveal and expose a personal honesty that makes artifice irrelevant. And, like porn, Brainard's writing is irresistible to the eye—the memory's eye.
Yon can't rightly call I Remember a book of poetry, though it does have some of those qualities. The fact that every entry begins with "I remember" might make it a memoir, except that it isn't. So it's just a list—a list that manages to mimic memory in the way that one actually remembers: by a strange chain of association that is the simultaneity of the past. Anything one might say about this book overcomplicates the beauty of its inherent simplicity. For example (at random):
I remember my father scratched his balls a lot.
I remember cheating at Solitaire.
I remember early fragments of daydreams of being a girl. Mostly I remember fabric. Satins and taffetas against flesh…
I remember "Double Bubble" gum comics, and licking off the sweet "powder."
I remember wondering about the shit (?) (ugh) in fucking up the butt.
What still amazes me about this 167-page book, republished by Granary Books after many small-press publications and one major run by Penguin in 1995, is that it doesn't bore. Even when I find my attention fading from the particulars, I'm still captivated by the repetitive incantation of the list in the same way that I'm charmed by the rapid-fire orations of the auctioneers in Werner Herzog's documentary How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck. Brainard's speech, like the pure capitalism in the auctioneer's, is practical, grotesque, and dazzling. Each detail seduces and reveals while remaining entirely true to the unsentimental demands of the form itself. That rare ability to evoke feeling without choking the reader becomes one of the book's greatest virtues, as it allows the leader to free up his or her own "I remembers."
The republication of I Remember coincides with the opening of the first major retrospective of Joe
Brainard's artwork, at the Berkeley Art Museum from February 7 to May 27. (Brainard died in 1993 of AIDS-related causes.) The catalogue to the exhibition, "Joe Brainard: A Retrospective", curated by Constance M. Lewallen, has also been issued by Granary Books. Like I Remember, Brainard's drawings, paintings, and collages turn the surfaces of American pop and queer culture into fetish objects. Unlike so many other pop artists who used surface only to create implied ironies, Brainard revered and embraced the iconography of pop, and used it to almost religious ends. "Good 'n Fruity Madonna," for example, a 1968 collage that assigns equal surface value to repeated images of a high Catholic Madonna and Child and a torn package of Good 'n Fruity Candy, employs Kurt Schwitter's garbage pastiche aesthetic, Warhol's repetition, and Brainard's own kitsch sensibility to create a bright and campy nod to the mama's boy. Aside from the obvious critique, the Good 'n Fruity package provides the exclamation point to what is a deceivingly simple pun. Irony, for Brainard, was both a means to amusement and a form of social discourse.
Similarly, in his "Nancy" paintings, Brainard uses Ernie Bushmiller's cartoon character Nancy as a persona—what Constance Lewallen calls his "mischievous alter ego"—to reevaluate assumed perceptions. In "If Nancy Was a Boy," Nancy holds up her skirt to show her penis. The familiarity of Nancy's image, the pun inherent in her name, and the jokey gender-fuck leave the viewer to think about what lies beneath the skirts of American appearances. While he is patently revealing himself as well, Brainard refrains from making an issue of his homosexuality, preferring instead to elaborate on his own symbols and make them, as his many paintings of pansies also show, as approachable as possible.
Also included in the second half of the catalog are selections of Brainard's writings about art, culled from his journals and prose; an interview with him by his friends poet Ron Padgett and Pat Padgett, and another by Anne Waldman; and a selection of letters to his poet and painter friends. All of these documents flesh out the life of an artist who was incapable of murk, being always too clear to get caught in the trappings of theory. His works aren't naïve, and they aren't simple; they're direct.
Both the catalog and the new edition of I Remember bring light to the career of an artist and writer who has been overlooked by the larger art and literary establishment. Brainard was, as John Ashbery says in his brief introduction to the catalog, "nice as a person and nice as an artist." This quality seldom does anything for one's career in a sensationalist culture, but time has proved his worth. And in the waning days of the urban gender wars, Brainard's matter-of-fact, noncontentious honesty about himself and the way he saw the world are more relevant that ever.
Noel Black is a San Francisco writer.
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