Lake Antiquity, by Brandon Downing (Fence Books, 2009)
A pencil-drawn dog gazes at a constellation of gold-star stickers; cut-out almonds descend upon a chart of raccoons, wolves, and other low-lying predators; Big Bird lowers its head and covers its eyes as a peasant girl smiles for her postcard portrait. Whether the visual collages in Brandon Downing’s latest book are articulated as poems, or the overlaid text-collages themselves engender elegantly bizarre pictures, these hybrid works reveal a common practice behind seemingly divergent modes of making art. The varied materials Downing incorporates in his assemblages—of found images and found text—become equivalent bases for the rarely mixed, the decontextualized, the disassociated. Leafing through Lake Antiquity feels not unlike rummaging through an oak chest found in an abandoned attic: beginnings and endings collapse as history and stuff tumble out into a mismatched pile that only makes sense when considered as a material portrait of its absent owner.
This history Downing mines is itself a careful collage pieced together from post-modern detritus—post-Dada, post-Ashbery, post-psychology—and post-consumer waste. While the imagery may, in its juxtaposition, yield surreality, its readymade sources are rational and enlightened in spirit, like Duchamp’s famously repurposed snow shovel. The Space Race, corporate boardrooms, industrialized cityscapes, nature field guides, and architectural blueprints are the backdrops for Downing’s scenes; Harpers, Popular Mechanics, and Fortune magazines are his big-box stores of ephemera. What intrudes upon this humanist vision of civilizational decline are the subtle but looming intimations of the defeat of humanism itself: charts of WWII “foes”; outdated racial profiles; a burnt-edge swath of red, white, and black stripes. In its lament over the failure of reason, Lake Antiquity is a deliberate Modernist throwback—a hand-crafted anachronism. Despite the outsized references, Downing’s cultural critique has a light touch and is mostly executed via absurdity: enter Big Bird, star-gazing dogs, rainstorms of almonds. It’s the prevalence of the absurd and the poetic—where Dada and Ashbery make their presence known—that places this work firmly adrift in the ahistoric and the emotional. The oak chest’s owner was a person of his time, but mostly of his sentiments.
While we were talking about it she took my hand and played with my fingers. When you know
what things are really like, you can make no poems about them.
I thought: they were hers: the slumbering countries which she passed did not dream
In fact, it may be the very quality of literary “sentiment” that informs the atmosphere of Lake Antiquity, just as it is writers such as George Meredith and Isak Dinesen, Downing’s recurring points of reference, who anchor the work, ultimately, in lyricism. Beyond cultural critique, the world is maudlin with romantic nostalgia and epochal regret; and the crisis of, simply, too much stuff is the durable story of humans communicating. In the X-Acto sliced and re-edited texts that compose Downing's poems, the cut-out word “history” is perhaps outnumbered by the cut-out word “love.” Neither the poems nor the collages are mere topical indictments of fascism, consumerism, or the disappearance of nature-as-muse; rather they’re about palpable and idiosyncratic I’s and you’s struggling to make a claim on intimacy in language as infinitely reused as the popular ads that create their visual backdrop. What, then, can be said again, but perhaps with fresh meaning, this time? As the piled layers of sources amass, Downing seems to suggest that the answer to this question is anyone's guess.
I am not in the least autonomous and superhuman —
a master of pastiche and of sentimental effects
and the skeleton of her vision against that surrogate god . . .
The work itself becomes yet another object—words as clip-outs acting as things, arranged amid other things and looking suddenly new, like a sea shell placed next to a sculpted marble fist in a cabinet of wonders. By both suggesting taxonomic order and utterly disregarding it, Downing’s collection of wind current diagrams and pattern samples, lunch menus and mushroom illustrations, teaches the reader to unlearn what we thought we already knew. History, as it’s told to us, is always at a remove and always at the whim of the narrator. That Downing presents it non-sequentially may indicate a different brand of truth—that of a reader himself, making his own route through the incomprehensible volumes of the past. As long as we remain receptive, as readers we are all conveyors of possible truth:
one who could set down, Dying for Love,
character of the divers ages of Love,
the Age of violent attractions
Forward and back Love’s electric messenger rushed
from heart to heart, knocking at each
Which is to say, that history is not told by the victorious, but by those who take ardent interest in what they see and “set down.” And, to repurpose a line from Browning, both his and our looks go everywhere.
Lake Antiquity is, in the end, a kind of pastoral, conjuring a landscape that we enter like idle walkers who have stumbled upon a destination but lack the requisite field guide. So we make it up as we go, which means perhaps that we must give new names to things we think of as familiar, that might already be codified like trees or plants, but, without maps or markers, are nameless to us. Downing seems to offer a new source of instruction—or a new way to instruct ourselves—by suggesting that the well-tread world is always left open to the next resourceful bricoleur and willing chronicler of awe.