[Essay Press; 2020 / Apocalypse Party; 2021]
At One End and Midwestern Infinity Doctrine are two stunning new works by Jessica Baer that explore mergings and transformations of yous and Is, pasts and futures, trauma and its aftermaths. In the interstices of sound, where words merge, the living world in Baer’s writing bursts outward — an island ascending as foiled tectonic shift. This linguistic merging is also a thaw evoking an apparition of identity, haunted luminescence of self-in-mutation.
The writer characterizes At One End as “excerpts from a long science fiction epic.” In this collection of five titled segments, an unnamed time traveler is the only narrative constant as they move through time, affective spaces, and alternative endings. Through the sporing of time, in the metamorphoses of living, the present has been rewound, “No singularity, but repetition.” Assemblages of sense are made and unmade; narrative arches drawn then demurred; and references to characters (a mother, a lover) renewed across geographic signposts — New Jersey, Providence, the Moon.
Baer’s genre-bending text is an extended exploration of metaphors, such as of overheated and melting bodies standing for psychic instability, that survey the experience of being alive at a point in time inhabiting a body-in-formation. It explores these metaphors to convey the dissociative experience of the trans-body or the liquifying logic of recombining embodiment. In the introduction, Baer writes “The trans-body here, my trans body represents an attempted topography, mouthing around shapehood, which fails to resolve into any ideal epistemological dimensions but, instead, like the syntax, mutates within your looking at me.”
Selfhood in Baer’s universe does not parallel self-awareness or the ability to name one’s affective states. It is rather a relational tension between the speaking subject (which is multiple, engrained in oceanic resilience) and what lurks adjacent to breath. The “I” is ever dissolving itself so as to reemerge. And the “you” is an “I” looking at itself, but never fully distinct from it. Baer’s writing rips through the “you,” a redacted self, a grounded observational fissure. It remakes the “you” in myriad guises: the fecund image of a lover, a mother. The desiring and regretful “I” moves in the shadow of interrupted speech and averted gaze, a disappearing and estranged observer of one’s observing, whose “gendersmelt” holds the slippery wave of its escaping.
Images of self keep transforming and replicating. In the folds of time, phases ellipse into phases, so “you phase transitioned, shifting between states of solidity and fluency, slagging your neon green across the red sheets.” The body melting into steel or elsewhere built “from spare parts” beams with affective vibrations and object-knowledge. It absorbs and emits a history of sensations. It has been inducted by the implications of unilateral desire. At times, the body becomes heat, a tungsten connectivity turned telepathic hotspot: “see my body is burning all the time but no one else can see it so they can’t avoid the flickering halo of flames and I never wanted to hurt anybody.” Temperature unleashes the body’s travels thru misunderstood connections between body and brain. The burning sways in general invisibility.
At the end of this text, an exchange occurs between two entities, a reconciliation between the “I” and “NJMother.” Yet, the undergirding conflict is not specified. The NJMother assuages the “I” of an unspecified guilt: “It’s not your fault.” In this reconciliation, things of the past are exchanged and shed — a transaction that decides a future: “I just wanted to pick my things and leave theirs in exchange.” Many questions remain. Do the things of “theirs” belong to the lover in the first section? Or is the “theirs” referring to an abandoned iteration of the self? Why does NJMother appear here forming a kind of triangulation? The indeterminacy here is perhaps the point. Which object or being is so singular as to detach itself from its own mirror image? What is so distant as to have no parallel or precedent? This hyperbolic quest to fully inhabit one’s singularity lies at the heart of At One End. The title itself indicates that the one is only one. Nothing exists besides what is manifest in this iteration. Yet, the world repeats. Repetition is everywhere and the alienation pleating Baer’s writing dwells within a paradoxical tension. The pain (and forgiveness) the you/I needs emits from the one end, one exit, one premise jutting awkwardly against the “yet again.” Baer says it all distinctively:
Back on the moon, I remember my anti-quark, and wonder where it’s waiting for me. Maybe it’s stuck in the charged vistoelasticity of the lunar dust. Perhaps I was brought here to disturb the dust so that it plumes in dense flurries of soft white. If I could loosen my disremembered anti-quark from the lunar surface soil, which disintegrates to itself, I could break this chirality. I would disengender the spin that drives me away from you.
“To break this chirality” is to create a new equation, to reestablish novel relations of mass and perhaps also to recalibrate the psyche toward a fresh order, but also to “disengender” the motions that frame dialogical understandings within consciousness. Let me state the obvious: there are many possible readings of the above passage. This hermeneutical richness and density epitomizes the experience of reading Baer’s work — the very reason it requires an almost Weilian attention to unfurl its vibrant signifying range.
Midwestern Infinity Doctrine is a cosmological interpretation of the posttraumatic condition.
Here, Baer continues to blend autofiction and science fiction to explore a repository of personal history. Vampirism and alien abduction exist alongside the distillation of quotidian life and memory. In this longer manuscript, time travel becomes a state of consciousness, which represents the experience of trauma and abuse; the narrative unravels in fractured chrono-nuggets, from the future into an uncovered past back to some uncategorizable time-spindle. The world moves backward into the sight of grief and loss, into the autobiographical pressure of meta-commentary:
The auditory hallucination I’ve been experiencing since I left an abusive person in 2016 is my brain’s attempt at a hypercompletion of ambient sounds it’s a PTSD-related phenomenon in the complicatedly intertwining zone between the body and the mind where my dysregulated autonomic nervous system and my hypervigilance device eachother together to gather me away from
what is ruptured-time
and you’re not here in the pause but the wreck in my body
Time is a socio-political relationship that permits the funnel tension of desire — which in Baer’s text is the driving force of time travel. Desire propels the time traveler who seeks to escape traumatic pasts but yearns for different endings, for the elusive variation of life. The past endures in the entanglement through which mechanisms of surveillance turn biological life into a late capitalist laboratory of institutional experimentation. So, Baer writes, “To situate ourselves within the polis is to situate our dreamful proximity to the idealism of linear time and it is in this sense that time becomes the privileged site where bare life is transformed into politicized life, reflexive with the coefficients of slowness and speed accounted for in a normativizing gesture towards homogenized time.” If norms spur forces of compliance and categorization, Baer’s text instills a total disruption of expectation through virtuosic linguistic and narrative inventiveness. Notice, for example, how the analytic mode of the previous passage shifts elsewhere toward an incomparable lyric register, one that recreates the negative space between words to rephrase their conceptual meanings:
We were cryogenically frozen into the hillside, for a trilliontrillion years, devoured by plantmatter. Here, We lose four hands making the shape of what is only between them. The earth ruptures its belt and the mountain buckled, drawing everything into the void pause before matter evolves, a chemically evoked litany. Yr body is the wet shell of a naked fetus this life feeds there, vibratile plasma. And the stars run hyperchromatic scales furling the night further away, a helix magnetizes: two ends that never meet. Repulsed because they were the self-identical.
What destroys us is also what releases an expansive perception of the pulsating chains of connection between events, people, and the tiny links driving the unimaginable. Yet, an inability to break with the re-experiencing of traumatic memory undergirds the notion of infinity that grips the attention of the subject. In the fold of an eye, the refracted light revels in endlessness. Looking itself mimics the experience of infinitude, and the multiple ruptures in the act of seeing mold the possible iterations of becoming. In the chapter “Earth In Memoriam,” we learn that “Jessica Baer,” the persona through which we experience the text, has been admitted into a hospital ward. The details of Baer’s life unfold under a scene of institutional surveillance:
“Your patient file mentions that you’re from the south.”
“Why don’t you spend more time in the recreational hall? The nurses mentioned that they never see you socializing with the other patients.”
“We need you to provide an emergency contact. If we could just contact your family, we could make arrangements to keep you here. Without insurance, you’re likely to be transferred to the state hospital. I think you will find our facilities significantly more comfortable.”
Under such institutional scrutiny, Baer introduces the idea of infinity, here inspired by Emmanuel Levinas. For Levinas, we encounter the idea of infinity through our finite thought and the overwhelming sense of an infinite content that can fill it. In looking at another, one finds the plural singularity that each gaze returns — the Other is a face looking at our unseen face. The “I” is a face shielded from itself, that approaches itself only through what it mirrors for the eyes of another: “He jots a few notes, in a jerky authoritative hand. One last look through glass lenses, the light slips across, blotting out his eyes: infinity. Levinas annotated this division holding me closed.” The posttraumatic condition holds the subject captive in a loop that the awareness of infinity alone may interrupt. Infinity recognizes the irreplaceable singularity of each finite being, a relation that precludes the possibility of repetition.
Isabel Sobral Campos’s new poetry collection is How to Make Words of Rubble (Blue Figure Press, 2020). Other works include Your Person Doesn’t Belong to You (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2018), Material (No, Dear and Small Anchor Press, 2015), You Will Be Made of Stone (dancing girl press, 2018), and Autobiographical Ecology (Above/Ground Press, 2019). She is the co-founder of the Sputnik & Fizzle publishing series.