The found poetry of Jeff Griffin’s ‘Lost And’
What is a writer’s obligation to the privacy of his or her subjects? It’s a tricky question, especially in a culture as confessional this one, where we tweet or post with alarming frequency the mundane details of the day to day.
But what about those whose stories were never intended for a public airing, and yet have left behind a kind of testimony anyway? That issue resides at the center of Jeff Griffin’s remarkable and disturbing “Lost And” (University of Iowa Press: 160 pp., $20 paper), which gathers documents found at abandoned homes and trailers throughout the desert communities of Nevada and Southern California, using them to cast in stark relief the secret history of contemporary life.
Griffin, after all, is a scavenger, an artist drawn, notes Mark Levine in a revealing afterword, “to the areas beyond the edges of towns, far from shops, schools, and churches, where he would find sparse, makeshift settlements — campers and trailers and improvised structures, stand alone or in clusters … [which] appeared to have been abandoned as hastily as they had been established.”
“Lost And” is the result of these investigations, a book that reproduces the residue of these vanished lives. There are letters, poems, snapshots, little doodles, notes to self.
“March 4, 2002 / First Time have sex,” reads one in its entirety, a statement of pride or discontent, it’s not clear. On the facing page, another note, written in a different hand, declares: “I am sorry for all the things that I have done to you and others but there will be no more of that. I will be gone for good.”
To read this is to experience our discomfort, our (yes) voyeuristic tendencies. It’s a point Griffin makes explicit by not just reproducing the texts but the actual documents; the book is like a scrapbook, pages marked by scraps of paper, checklists, Sunday school assignments, typescripts, handwritten scrawl.
In one lengthy letter, found at Lida Junction in Pahrump, Nev., a woman writes to her distant and abusive boyfriend, giving him one last chance. “I learned long ago, she tells him chirpily, “it’s good therapy to write down one’s one feelings about things. It helps put them in perspective. (You might try it some time!)”
And yet, if this seems like the stuff of platitude, Griffin complicates our sense of it by going further in the correspondence, beginning with a follow-up note. Here, the tone is different, confrontational; “Do me one favor,” the woman demands, “aim your fist on my right cheek & eye, that way, they will match. Also, if you do, make it good this time! You may not want me getting up!!”
There’s something heartbreaking about the intimacy, about the way we see her almost entirely exposed. She can’t live with this man and yet she can’t let him go either … although, in the end, the fact that these letters were left behind, unsaved, hints at a resolution of a kind.
But what sort of resolution? “Lost And” does not conjecture, except to suggest by its mere existence that a similar resolution awaits every one of us. We are enmeshed in our lives, embroiled in our struggles, until one day they fade away. That’s the hidden message of these documents, which resonate with a profound echo of loss.
As for the ethics of it, they’re unclear to me; none of these people know their words are being reproduced. In that sense, “Lost And” is reminiscent of Sophie Calle’s transcendent “The Address Book,” another found art project that comments on its own exposure even as it uncovers private lives.
For Calle, the point is (at least, in part) provocation, although Griffin seems interested in something else. Call it empathy, call it restoration, call it an act of rehabilitation, a reclamation of the people no one sees.
“If tears could build / a stairway of memories,” one of his anonymous figures writes in a poem called “Missing Familey,” “I’d walk right up to / haven and bring you / home again.”
The spelling may be creaky but the message couldn’t be more moving, which might also be said of this unlikely and compelling book.
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