REVIEW: Gash Atlas by Jessica Lawson. Kore Press Institute, September 2022. ISBN: 978-1-888553-80-2. 101 pages. $18.95 | Reviewed by A. E. Weisgerber
In her 2021 nonfiction essay, “Shot,” Jessica Lawson thinks about the word ‘shot,’ “and all the things it can mean,” including inoculations, booze, photos, opportunities, and guns. In “Shot,” Lawson describes herself as “a single working mom raising two kids on 20K a year.” Both that autobiographical detail, of hauling a family through life solo, and the tractate-minded approach to exploring words, are present in Gash Atlas.
Matthew Zapruder, in his book Why Poetry, defines the tractate as: a systematic exploration of a subject, with a sustained effort to fully understand something through a series of attempts.
In Gash Atlas, Lawson utilizes systematic approaches — thesaurus entries, erasures, collage, and blackout– to control adversaries. Kore Press Institute calls this “the nightmarish cartography of life in and beyond the Trump era. Through poetic and visual ‘maps,’ this new work, selected by Erica Hunt for first place in Kore Press Institute’s Poetry Prize, surveys the cultural present while folding back nested histories of personal and cultural violence.”
It seemed to me Lawson mulls the idea of a void in female bodies, race identity, and paternalistic politics. In Part III, the speaker has a moment of self-awareness, underscoring the importance of pushing back.
The text is full of Surrealist games, and even gives passing mention of Oulipian Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, which I found charming. And any allusion to Perec brings with it his masterwork, A Void, which is also the exploration of something gone missing: the letter ‘e.’
This elevated my interest in Gash Atlas. I associate texts with other texts, and the first portion of Gash Atlas seemed to be in conversation with another George: Orwell. In his 1949 essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell states language is “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.”
This shaping is recalled when Lawson’s speaker lists and defines the terms with which a terrifying male (codenamed Christopher Columbus) addresses her.
At the end of this section, the speaker wins, as her aggressor disappears in the speaker’s own language, “chokes without permission and fingers back into the world’s curtain, gone.” It’s a triumph, but the cost is exhausting.
Gash Atlas is a text that is attentive to itself, which made engaging with it, at times, difficult for this reader, in a way that mirrors the difficulty any of us has when engaging an unwelcoming world. This poetry, as W. H. Auden insists poetry must, exists in the valley of its own making.
In Roxane Gay’s 2011 essay, “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” she defines rape culture as “a place where we are inundated, in different ways, by the idea that male aggression and violence toward women is acceptable, and often inevitable.” Gay also states it is troubling “how we have allowed intellectual distance between violence and the representation of violence.”
Gash Atlas carefully delineates this world of aggression through its victims. When Gay says language is used (by the media) “to buffer our sensibilities,” it got me thinking that Lawson has turned that on its head, and is using language to defamiliarize and shake the reader’s sense of our world, by presenting it as drawn by a victim.
Sidebar. This summer, I saw a performance of (another Georges!) Bizet’s Carmen at the Santa Fe Opera House. It was a revisionist adaptation, by stage director Mariame Clément and scene and costume designer Julia Hansen. In it, rather than the usual flamenco dresses and bright sets and costuming, the story takes place in a broken-down amusement park. Far from traditional, far from lush, far from colorful. I remember telling my partner at intermission (many did not return to their seats after the break) how it can feel disappointing when art doesn’t do what you expect it to do. But capital A art doesn’t care, nor should it. So even if I am disappointed in Art, I am 100% team ars gratia artis. There is art that is made for sale, and there is art that is made because it must be.
Throughout her collection, Lawson’s speaker is assaulted in myriad ways: criminal aggression (sleezy bosses, traffic cop rapists, and politicians willing to “foie-gras our delicate constitution”), and micro-aggression (1-star reviews of transgender books, insincere left-leaning professors who hand out slacktivist cookies to students). But then, there is the rape of a saint.
The speaker gives no allowance for empathy, and perhaps the withholding of this is powerful. It creates new voids. There are things we cannot know, nor can be known, about this speaker.
If you like reading texts that have a sense of gamesmanship, that have a sense of language as a tool to be commanded and wielded for self-preservation, then buy Gash Atlas and join the club.
If you'd like a copy of Lawson's prizewinning text, order here