By Greg Bem
You are not to speak after this manner in the Court
I will speak the Truth as long as I live.
The power of history is in its sense of foundation. History is heavy, sturdy, and yet buried. It is at once knowable and unknowable, arousing yet distanced. In today’s world of the minute, precise present, where every moment is a tweet, and every flick of the wrist receives, shares, or creates information, the object as bound to history feels more and more exotic. This exoticism may be a distant echo brimming of nostalgia and heartache, or a fuzzy layer destabilizing the already-frail sense of place within the contemporary. Structure is provided by the artists, who pull us in, making history more accessible, more enjoyable, more present. Even at their most abstracted and amorphous, it is artwork that turns history into arousal, into the poetic.
In Salem, Catherine Corman’s new collection of collage poems and original photography, is a new example of such arousal. Before the book even opens, it invites the reader with a 16th Century image from a book on witchcraft. The text inside is at once literary and visual. Short poems fill the left-hand side of the book. Short poems pulled directly from the voices of testimonies from the Salem Witch Trials. Multiple women’s voices are present and enmeshed with the accusing/prosecuting authorities: Abigail Hobbs, Deliverance Hobbs, Dorcas Hoar, Elizabeth Johnson, Elizabeth Proctor, and Mary Etsy. The found text is picked apart, pulled together, informed through and through. The resulting “collage” revisits the grim history in a new, brief form. One moment on one page the poetry feels absurd. Several pages later, it is depressing. Times still, it feels distant and murky. Corman’s ability to weave the dramatic with the harsh invigorates the sense of history that often comes off flat when retold by authors or thorough realists. The world of then, as with the world of now, has both concise and broad brushstrokes of cruelty and compassion. The goal of this book appears to show representation of both. One of the goals of In Salem, in other words, appears to be in the placement of the reader “in Salem.”
The children cryed there was a yellow bird with her
Challenged by history, challenged by time, books often utilize techniques to create new layers of meaning, improved understanding of complexity. Lenses upon lenses overlap, thwarting a bias towards reduction and simplicity. Corman’s poetry, collaged and swirling like fog over a coastline, goes far in indicating complexity. It is supported with black and white images on the right-hand side of each spread. These images offer glimpses, visualizations, of the dry, cutting trial testimony within the text. Images of the rooms and pastoral scenes of the properties reveal the lives of these phantom-like voices. They are another form of foundation, despite how fleeting they too feel in the course of the book.
The book feels quite fleeting from the moment it begins. It is a blink in history that is tackled by an artist who is concerned with the assault upon and oppression of a very specific group of women in American history. By the time the back cover is reached, the urge to begin the text for a second time erupts. Could that be all there is? Isn’t there more? The imposing pressure of such a short work leaves the reader with great urgency. But that foundation of history—its presence, its realm of possibilities—remains, and grows. In many ways, thus, In Salem is a portal capable of triggering significant transformation, though such change requires a steadied, focused reader who brings their own intention into Corman’s framework.
You can find the book here: https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781946433626/in-salem.aspx
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at www.gregbem.com.