LAYERED LOOK. If you like your biography, fiction, and even poetry handed mindlessly to you like printed TV, then you'll be confounded by the work of Karen Mac Cormack.
That said, go hear her read from her newest book, published collaboratively by Tucson's Chax Press and the UK's West House Books. It's a style of writing in which one rarely comes to the point. You can pour through her work endlessly, discovering new threads at each reading.
Implexures, the title of Mac Cormack's third book put out by Chax Press, weaves its many voices, explains the Toronto-based author. "The title itself is from the Latin and also has a lovely French connection. It's an archaic word that means 'enfolding' or 'entwining' or having a complicated plot. You won't find it in a regular dictionary. I had to search through many dictionaries of etymology to find this word."
Mac Cormack is not above neologism or borrowing. She wants to wake up the reader with new words and nonlinearity, as she's done in six books of poetry, a couple of chapbooks and numerous publications in anthologies of innovative writing. She employs many tricks and devices.
"Obviously, this book is not a conventional biography. But that was never my intent. It was written in a deliberatively disjunctive manner like the work of other women poets--Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, Susan Howe, Nicole Brossard. But I imported a lot of archaic slang into my work and discovered in the process that it sounded amazingly contemporary."
So a term like "knowledge box," used ages ago to refer to our brain, sounds like something a geeky kid might refer to in a text message dashed off to his friend sitting on the other side of study hall. As a matter of fact, letters are a big part of both Mac Cormack's life and the very text of Implexures. Thirteen of the 19 sections of the book are numbered and dubbed "historical letters." But don't expect an epistolary novel. There are no romantic salutations. Instead, there's a layering of voices, a "delicate polybiographic structure (of) research, hearsay and quotation," so says Cole Swensen's blurb on the back of the book.
"I'm one of the few who treat e-mail as if it's more a real letter," explains Mac Cormack, on the phone from Toronto, where she admits at the end of our conversation that an e-mail interview would have been more precise, more to her liking. "As someone who's traveled a lot, I'm used to writing letters in my life. For Implexures, I did a good deal of research on family correspondences, particularly the work of Madame de Sévigné, the 17th-century French aristocrat who wrote endlessly to her daughter--what we would call stream-of-consciousness letters. I also delved into the correspondences of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West for ideas. So the form of letters evolved easily."
"And there's something that comes out in letters," she adds. "The history of correspondence is very interesting to me. Sadly, letter writing has really diminished these days."
As you read Mac Cormack, it doesn't matter that you don't know who's writing the letters. The multiple voices enliven the text, as in this excerpt:
"...this is not a conversation nor a theme, it is a letter, another fold in a fan where the writer in this decade sees the angled history of a past decade's correspondent snapped shut."
For Mac Cormack, the image of the fan is repeated, both in words and her own line drawings sprinkled throughout the text. She's tackling history, memory, time. Implexures jumps off from her own family biography, written by her great-great aunt Susan Hicks Beach. But from there, it's a definite departure for Mac Cormack.
"It's an engagement of historical events," she clarifies. "People's experience of reading the work is confusion about who's speaking. That's a deliberate blurring. I didn't want a central subject dominating. Instead, I interwove a series of enfoldings and entwinings."
Mac Cormack witnesses many a furrowed brow from her students who often complain that they don't understand her work. Her response is simple.
"Instead of being so conscious of its nonlinearity, don't resist it. Just go with the flow. It's amazing to me that young people are incredibly sophisticated visually and so incapable of linguistic nonlinearity. Music videos and jump cuts have been around for a long time. Why is it that people want grammar to be terra firma? Especially the English language. It's always shifting and flexing into new forms. Amazing things will happen if you just encourage your own notions of linguistic limits."
And how does this form reflect the content in a text written by an author bent on marrying disparate fragments?
"My primary goal is to confront habitual ideas of how we think about language, but also perception," explains Mac Cormack. She sees it seeping into our quotidian activities. Tumbling across Mac Cormack's pages comes a line that sums it up:
"As for a blind date, well, that's how I met I."