Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review of Things Come On: An Amneoir by Joseph Harrington

Things Come On: An Amneoir by Joe Harrington is one of an emerging group of creative works that maps the interplay between media and human consciousness. Sherman Alexie’s short story “Any Little Hurricane” is an example of a story told by a young boy about an out-of-control party that resembles hurricane formation on the weather channel. Reality and TV images of a category-four storm mix into one narrative. Similarly, Harrington recounts the story of his mother’s battle with breast cancer in the context of the Watergate Scandal, which was the news event at the time of his mother’s death. His mother died the day Nixon resigned. He combines the words “amnesia” and “memoir” to create his subtitle “An Amneoir.” This suggests the slippage of electronic and remembered realities.

     Harrington creates various strands of images and narratives that continue through the story in a way that reignites the experience of a boy’s loss of his mother. To read this book is to become engaged. Another way to understand the book is to see it as a graphic novel that has broken out of the linear-cell comic book/graphic novel format. “Mixed media” is not a term that specifically can describe the cloud of photographs, typeface variants, medical records, interviews, TV transcripts, diagrams, scanned letters, newspaper clippings, graphs, and more. Yet Harrington maintains control, so the movement from diagnosis to loss is gripping.
     The book guides the reader into a consciousness where distance is impossible. Watergate language of cover-up blends with medical language of cover-up. The half-truths told to patients by doctors of the mid-20th century overlap those told by the government under Nixon. The implication is these half-truths continue to be told. Public language interacts with the very core of human identity—language—and implications are as profound as those in Aristotle’s Athens.
     This is not a grim book. It is exploratory: tentative and sure at the same time, suggestive and definitive. It is, in short, fine poetry of a new cast order. Here is a sequence that illustrates the intermixing of personal and public realities in the mind of the young narrator. The two quotations are from Watergate testimony of Sam Ervin (first) and Gordon Liddy’s secretary Sally J. Harmony (second).


Q: So you would have been ten, when your mother was diagnosed? What did you know and when did you know it?
   “. . . whisked away under cover of darkness and forced to submit to an ordeal cloaked in secrecy . . .”
(mugging squads, kidnapping teams, prostitutes, electronic surveillance, intercepted aircraft communications, espionage, shredding)
   “I did know absolutely nothing”

Harrington also authored Poetry and the Public: The Social Form of Modern U.S. Poetics, which examines poetry in newspapers and other public exchanges. (Wesleyan Univ. Press, 2002) and poetry chapbook Earth Day Suite (Chicago: Beard of Bees Press, 2010). Poems are published in Hotel Amerika, Otoliths, Fact-Simile, and Tarpaulin Sky, among others. He is a Pushcart Prize Nominee (2011), Hall Center for the Humanities Fellow (2010 and 2000), and Fulbright Distinguished Chair at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands (2005). -