Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School
of Disembodied Poetics FA2016 Low-res weekend
w/ Gabrielle Civil
When it began, the slow snake of the bass clarinet rose through a hiss of cymbals. Dancing in wavy extensions of her body, Gabrielle Civil circled a pile of books and pennies in the center of the stage-room. She picked up a book––Social Sciences––and, with it caressed to her chest, danced over to the audience and handed it off.
This was the beginning of the lecture-ritual-story-performance (let’s call it a presentation, in its traditional and medical references) of Gabrielle Civil’s “Against Oblivion” (which is not the title but makes a perfect stand-in for the memory of the evening). Her presentation ranged in modes, from dancing and musical accompaniment, to slide-show images and text, to poetry and ritualized audience participation. Each mode surrounded and elaborated on the first words Civil spoke, placing books down in different corners of the room: “This is my heart. These are my friends.”
As the presentation progressed, the conception of the “book” became mythic, came to include in its references the human soul, individuality, and community. Civil made it sacred:
“A book on the shelf has pinched her finger.
Diane Duane. A book, the medicine.
The barrage of names. A spell A spell
All the things naming can do
(spreading the pennies blood-copper
pennies “and it was all blood and it was
To defy oblivion –– to accept the past and
transform it. To make that book.”
But there was also an offering. So Civil told of her struggle to realize her book (her heart, her friend), and the forces acting against the book were the same as those that act against the liberation of humanity, and more specifically the liberation of African Americans from systematic oppression. Kevin Young’s conception of the “Shadow Book” haunted the stage. The Shadow Book occurs in three manifestations:
- The Lost Book. What was written and has disappeared.
- The Removed Book. Censured or lost, parts of this book are missing.
- The book that was never written. “Books the world didn’t want to exist.”
For the African-American writer the Shadow Book often falls within this third category. As life is denied, literature is denied existence. However, the Shadow Book, she stressed, is not the failure of the writer. It is the forces of oppression. “It is not your loss. It is a loss for all of us.” How do we carry the unwritten, the unbound book of loss, that which incurs, inflicts?: “A blessing is a wound and a gift.” Then, as spell, as solidification, the audience was called to name as many reasons as possible that keep a book from existence while Civil tore pages out of a paperback romance picked up from the stage display. The naming took on a physical presence, and scattered about the room lay the pages of “oblivion’s shadow.” To defy oblivion. To accept the past and transform it. To make that book.
At the heart of the presentation is the mantra: Books save lives. They are a project against oblivion. They are a ritual and an alchemical activation of the unwritten book/soul in you. They are both “a refuge, a possibility.”
To conclude the presentation Civil organized a circle in the center of the room, both convocation and invocation. Calling on all of our future books. “It was never about the book, it was about everything.”
reviewed by Julien Blundell
photo & video clip by Swanee