Thursday, April 8, 2010
Dispatch from a Windowless Room in San Diego
In front of me now are a foam cradle and two lead snakes. Next to those is archival box 34 (folders 1-17) of the George Oppen papers, the only materials in the holdings that can be accessed materially, physically, instead of through microfilm.
Although the scanned, grainy, backlit black-and-white pages as they slide across on the microfilm screen have their own magic, their own special illumination of the phenomenology of writing (I am not one who categorically harbors contempt for the mediations of technology), this form and mode is not a surrogate for engaging original documents. Microfilm stands apart, boasts its own values. Rendering manuscripts as coils of tiny-then-magnified translucent images deceptively converts often wildly heterogeneous papers into a sort of dream-book---a glowing, whirring, clicking scroll before which one sits bewitched, but also in control, fiddling with knobs and buttons: forward or backward at variable speeds, up, down, rotate, focus, print.
Such enchantment and such pleasures of control are fine, I say, as far as they go, but one wants and needs also (not necessarily only) to hold the leaves, sheets, slips, fascicles; to see how the different inks and colors and markings play off each other; to determine or at least have better guesses about what words a scribbled phrase really consists in; and withal to find oneself in the place of, or as, the writer, physically oriented to some given page or pages just as the handler-inscriber of said materials might have been.