Tales From a New Frontier

Reviewed by Christina Turner

In a recent essay entitled “Epistemologies of Respect: A Poetics of Indigenous/Asian Relation,” Larissa Lai ponders how to proceed in returning the world to balance at “this late hour,” under “these imperfect conditions”—this hour being the time of global capitalism, its imperfect conditions the fact of living and working on occupied land. While Lai is interested primarily in respectful relations between Indigenous and other minoritized peoples in Canada, her questions are nevertheless crucial for any poet working toward a decolonizing poetics. Such a turn to balance cannot be a return, Lai emphasizes, because it “appears that backtracking is not possible. The colonial moment is still with us in the present. There is no romantic return.” A decolonizing poetics must dispense with the fantasy of the pre-contact blank slate. The poet begins from a place of messiness, imperfection, contamination.

Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel is similarly suspicious of the idea of a romantic return to a precolonial past. This suspicion shows itself foremost in his selection of base materials for his work. Abel leans toward texts that we now tend to view as outdated (and inaccurate) portraits of Indigenous peoples, works that have not aged well and yet were vastly influential in their time. His first book of poetry, The Place of Scraps, carved up Marius Barbeau’s Totem Poles, to craft a journey from the tributaries of the Pacific Northwest coast to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and back again. Abel is unwilling to condemn Barbeau’s work entirely. Instead, he approaches Totem Poles with a wary respect even as he cuts it up and rewrites it.

Abel’s first book is dedicated “to the Indigenous Peoples of North America,” signalling the activist and recuperative work he aspires to do through his poetry. His new work, Un/inhabited, bears the same dedication. Abel’s source text here is a compilation of ninety-one novels written in the Western pulp genre, first published in the early twentieth century and now available online through Project Gutenberg. Where Abel’s territory in The Place of Scraps was the Pacific Northwest, in Un/inhabited it is simultaneously the fictional landscapes of the American West and the new “frontier” of the digital commons.

The governing symbol of Place of Scraps was the totem pole—how these objects have been misread, appropriated, and how they can be reclaimed. In Un/inhabited, Abel takes an analogously symbolic interest in the map—how maps orient one in a new landscape, and how they are used to lay claim to land. This is a compelling and difficult text, one whose political resonance is made all the more evident by the ambiguities that pervade it.

The foundation for Un/inhabited is a body of pulp Westerns published in the early 20th century. They emerged only a few years after the American census bureau declared, in 1890, the frontier officially “closed,” likewise marking, as Frederick Jackson Turner wrote, the “closing of a great historic movement.” Turner saw the frontier as integral to the development of American consciousness, and so the novels that constitute Abel’s corpus evince a certain nostalgia for the West as a space of pure potential. As L. C. Mitchell writes in Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film, the “west in the Western matters less as verifiable topography than as space removed from cultural coercion, lying beyond ideology (and therefore, of course, the most ideological of terrains).” These books romanticize the landscapes of the American West. They are also deeply invested in what Daniel Francis has termed the “Imaginary Indian,” which is less a portrayal of actual Indigenous peoples and more a construct of what White people wanted to believe about Indigenous peoples. Abel cites these stereotypes with Un/inhabited’s collage cover image, in which snipped-up images of two Indigenous people, bearing the label “red man” are superimposed on an image of a cowboy pointing a shotgun into the middle distance.

The tropes of Western fiction (and later film) have provided a rich ground for satire by contemporary Indigenous artists. Think, for example, of Thomas King’s riotous send-up of B Westerns in Green Grass, Running Water, or Miss Chief Eagle Testickle’s dalliances with cowboys in the paintings of Kent Monkman. Like King and Monkman, Abel mounts a (sometimes wry) challenge to the representation of Indigenous peoples in Westerns, but his poetic practice is also in line with other recent works of experimental poetry, like Rachel Zolf’s Janey’s Arcadia (2014) and M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008), that use the techniques of concrete and found poetry to mine and expose the way colonialism’s physical and ideological violence is legitimized through text. In these works, as in Abel’s, the text which is the source of violence is also the wellspring of resistance, anger, reclamation, and hope.

To create Un/inhabited, Abel first copied and pasted the text of 91 out-of-copyright novels into a single, 10,000-page Word document. He then cut up and altered the base text in myriad ways to construct the book’s three chapters. For the first, “Pioneering,” Abel used Ctrl+F to search the master document for terms relating to land, territory, and property. He then copied and pasted the sentences containing a specific term into a new, compiled document. Finally, he deleted the relevant term from the sentence in which it was found, leaving only blank space behind. What results are nine poems, titled according to the missing search terms that organize them: “Uninhabited,” “Settler,” “Treaty,” and so on. Abel performs a triple violence on the novel as individual entity: first by compiling the novels into the one document, second by ripping sentences from their contexts within the novels, and third by removing key contextualizing words from sentences and replacing them with silence.

“Pioneering” reveals foremost the way that words—and words built upon words, to eventually create context, experience, ideology—shape our understanding of the world. Words, sentences, and literature can act like a map helping the reader to navigate a new territory. “Pioneering” points this out and undoes it. The deleted words in “Pioneering” mean that attempts to establish direction, to orient oneself within the text are quickly frustrated. But the deleted words remain as an echo and a reminder, calling us to fill in the blanks and orient ourselves as we read. The result is that each sentence unit carries a double meaning defined by both absence and presence, like the landscape that “appeared to be a dry, forest.” We are invited to consider how the meaning of the sentence changes based on the ghostly presence of an ideologically freighted word. The Western pulp novel’s investment in constructing a certain kind of masculinity is also made evident by the contextual words that surround the deleted terms, like “the sturdy, the man intent on building a home and establishing a fireside,” a description that becomes a kind of longhand for “settler” in the absence of that term.

Un/inhabited’s second chapter, “Cartography,” turns to concrete poetry to explore the relationship between aerial mapping and text. For this portion of the book Abel restored the deleted words to his compiled sentences, laid them out across the page, and superimposed map-shapes on top of them. Meaning is interrupted in a different way here: while the deleted words have been restored, the white shapes that creep across the page make it impossible to make sense of the compiled source sentences. Instead, “Cartography” invites a kind of distant reading, the small print contrasted with abstract land forms demanding that you flip through the book to observe how Abel’s mapped territory shifts and changes. The map shapes, which ooze over and eventually shatter the text beneath it, seem, at first, to suggest a kind of erasure. But if this is a process of reclaiming, it is an ambiguous one. Rather, the map shapes seem to represent a coastal zone, an interstitial space between land and water, absence and presence, past and present. In the final pages of “Cartography” the map-logic crumbles. Abel has filled these pages with fading, shattered words overlaid with blank spots, so it’s unclear whether something is being superimposed or whether the words themselves are decomposing and new meaning is being generated from what remains.

In the curatorial essay that appends Un/inhabited, Kathleen Ritter characterizes the final chapter, “Extraction,” as a “visual representation of the way [Abel] searched, collected and extracted text in the initial pages of the book.” Here, Abel has returned to his source text and copied large sections. This includes paratextual information from Project Gutenberg, including a somewhat tongue-in-cheek exhortation that “you may do practically ANYTHING with public domain ebooks.” If “Cartography” is interested in mapping from above, then “Extraction” looks at mapping from below, or sideways. Initially, superimposed strips of transparent white vertical blocks muddle the base text. Halfway through the chapter, solid white vertical columns appear, fully erasing the source text underneath. The resulting images resemble geological core samples (as Tracey Stefanucci notes in the book’s afterword). There seems to be a kind of tension here in between the two forms of text-alteration: whereas the transparent overlay creates a palimpsest-like effect, suggesting that new meaning can be generated from the tired old body of Western fiction, the white columns obliterate both text and meaning.

Like the one before, this chapter also encourages a kind of distant reading practice, and as the book is flipped through, the white columns multiply and become wider, until all that remains on the final page is blankness. The environmental analogy here is somewhat obvious: the source texts have been drilled, stripped, and blasted, until all that remains is a barren textual landscape. What renders this section intriguing is, again, Abel’s reliance on ambiguity: who is doing the stripping, the mining here? Are we meant to read this as an analogy for the way the reading process extracts meaning from the text? The blank space that remains at the end of Un/inhabited evokes both the promise of renewal—of a tearing-down to build up again—and its impossibility.

Maps help us orient ourselves in a landscape. They are also never neutral objects. As Mitchell points out, the Western genre takes as its content the labile space of the frontier West for the very reason that this space could be shaped according to specific ideas—of masculinity, of civilization, of savagery. This genre provided a conceptual language for the experience of settlement. Abel undoes this language through the experience of reading that Un/inhabited creates. One cannot simply float—through either text or land—in this book, from the jarring reading experience that defines “Pioneering” to the gradual process of erasure that characterizes “Extraction.” Eradication is not an option—we have to work, the book seems to imply, with the imperfect conditions and materials that we find ourselves with. We might now recognize the harmful stereotypes that Western pulp fiction relied upon, but to dismiss this genre entirely would be to ignore the profound influence it has—and continues to have—on culture.

Un/inhabited is rounded out by Ritter’s curatorial essay, “Ctrl+F: Reterritorializing the Canon,” as well as an index. While Ritter’s essay might be helpful in anchoring the reader through the occasionally overwhelming experience of encountering Abel’s work for the first time, to me what is most interesting about Un/inhabited is the ambiguity that complicates the more obvious metaphors linking text with land and reading with resource extraction. The book’s index is an example of this. It lists landforms rather than names, some of which (desert, gully) can be traced to an actual page, some of which (fjord, nunatak) cannot. If an index is ordinarily meant to provide a map to the reader to specific places in a text, then this index is a send-up of that task. Just as maps are never neutral, the terms with which we name parts of a landscape are also always inflected. Throughout Un/inhabited Abel undoes the cognitive mapping provided by genres like the Western pulp novel. As the incomplete index, blank spaces, and faded word-carvings of Un/inhabited illustrate, if the poet provides us with a map to navigate this new territory, it is a self-consciously incomplete one.


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