March 4th, 2009

A Review of Sachiko Murakami’s The Invisibility Exhibit (Talon Books, 2008).

 A Review of Sachiko Murakami’s The Invisibility Exhibit (Talon Books, 2008). 


In the press release for Sachiko Murakami’s The Invisibility Exhibit, an excerpt reads: “The poems were written in the political and emotional wake of the ‘Missing Women’ of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. . . . Irritated by the complacency, troubled by the determinate narrative and the relationship between struggle and the artistic representation of struggle, Murakami is bewildered by her city’s indifference to the neglect of its inhabitants.”  This chilling passage also accompanies a highly provocative cover in which a picture of what seems to be a futon couch or bench of some sort on a vast empty floor (evocative of a art gallery space that has been unadorned) is juxtaposed above a picture of downtown Vancouver.  To read The Invisibility Exhibit then is to move oneself into the framework of this urban milieu where bodies are lost or are ignored.  Like so many fierce poetry collections, Murakami’s is an activist project that nevertheless twines lyric density with social urgency.  This combination produces a number of poetic sequences that are admittedly difficult to read through, for their provocative content and for the problematic way in which the reader is always reminded that the lyrics are invoking social contexts that can be mapped onto external referents.  Between representation and reality and these doublings, I read The Invisibility Exhibit as a series of reflective devices where objects and words take on other meanings, creating gothic and grotesque lyric interventions. 


In “Allusion,” Murakami refigures the Cinderella mythology in a chilling image of dismemberment: 


Two girls walk in different stories

towards two words

of satisfaction and the crowd


that would catch the bouquet.

The carriage rolls up to the corner.

In it, the prince’s face, shadowed;

we see instead that shoe turned up

as evidence.  What else?  The parts

that fit into other parts, unearthed

self, her bartered sex.  We knew


when her shoe dropped he had found her,

that at the castle they’d unfurl

the carpet’s spilt scarlet to protect the Queen’s feet.


And the mess of limbs and blood is only a rumour

that happens after.  Do you remember that part?  That girl?  Do you? (17)


In a clear homage to Grimm’s fairy tales, the Cinderella story is re-written here in which violence is visited on the body of women.  The doubling that occurs in the story also arcs out in different ways.  The word “evidence” already suggests a crime has been committed, not simply that a glass slipper falls from Cinderella’s foot.  The “prince” then might be someone not so “charming” and as the poem advances, one wonders about the fate of the woman who has caught his eye.  Everywhere the poem speaks of uncanny repetitions, where the scarlet carpet invokes a bloody pathway and the question, “do you remember that part?” resonates not only as “part” of the story, but also “part” of a woman’s body.  The inclusion of the phrase, "bartered sex," de-stabilizes the fairy-tale innocence of Cinderella, leading us further into a gritty urban world.  In this eerie landscape, The Invisibility Exhibit generates its foreboding tonality where even poems that seem to speak of “love,” like the sonnet “The Exchange” might actually be conveying other lyric resonances:

Knit muscles hold my spine hostage,

all pain erased in the dumb knot that doesn’t speak

unless prodded.  It’s pure luck I’m so blessed

with such small mercies, though I don’t know if the will I have

is strong enough to bear any bigger wound.

I’d take your three-day migraines, the leg that snapped

in a corkscrew path, eczema, bruises

you got in a blackout, the exotic hepatitis, along with all the conditions

you insist exist, but no doctor can find,

if I could live from there, as the crouching tenant

in your body, carrying the weight of each starving,

luminous cell, if it meant a place

we could start from.  We could call it home (52). 


Where the free sonnet sequence might speak of love between two individuals and the desire to find a “place we could start from,” one wonders why the place has to be from somewhere related to bodily ailment?  Why is it that pain, disease, broken-ness is the site where “the exchange” can take place?  Certainly, the lyrics don’t seem too romantic, even though the opening does invoke an image of a the speaker desiring some sort of massage.  There seems to be an ethics here, where the speaker understands that what s/he experiences as “pain” is not much in comparison to other particular challenges.  The doubling that is so characteristic of Murakami’s work begins most specifically with the phrase, “the leg that snapped/ in a corkscrew path,” a concrete, but nevertheless violent image and we are then taken back to the question of who this broken leg refers to, and whether or not we are back within the realm of the invisibility exhibit, where disappearing women must be excavated and unearthed, made bodily, even if that means only with the remnants of what can be found.  Even then, the instability of meaning here, whether it is the desire to embrace a loved one even in the most painful of situations or its oblique reference to the “invisible” and the lost, generates a kind of uneasy tension. 

            Likewise, in “News,” Murakami’s speaker investigates suburban ennui and the politics of disaffected witnessing: 


Last week’s headlines.

Wrapped fresh meat.

Blood soaked through.

Inked fingers twined

the roast he’ll feed his family.

Twenty dollars.  Sunday dinner.

It has nothing to do with him (31). 


This poem is largely more indicative of the many that appear within The Invisibility Exhibit that refer to meat and blood, and generally of butchering.  What is of course uncanny is that the butchering of meat for food always exists in tension with the “butchering” of women.  People will go on eating as women go on missing.  Consequently, the speaker seems to suggest that suburban ennui exists not only on the level of the inability to be affected by daily news headlines, but also that the metaphorical resonance of people’s daily habits go unconnected.  Here, one immediately senses the postmodern sublime in its full terror. 

            The nature of publicity and what people do actually pay attention to reaches is apotheosis with “Monster (Godzilla)”:


Monster (Godzilla)


We fear that he might snap,

scoop up virgins and carry them off to Asia

where, unable to secure employment,

they’d be forced into arranged marriages.

After finding diaries with hearts looped

around the letter G, concerned parents

hand their daughters to psychiatrists, who diagnose

Godzillamania.  They’ve pills for it.


. . . .


He’s suspect of the film’s tricks,

forgets sometimes he’s larger than life.
Can’t tell when the film stops rolling

and accidentally squashes extras.

The studio uses the footage.  Audiences gobble it up.

Shot out of scale, next to Godzilla

the victims seem as big as thimbles, and as useful (37). 


The speaker of this particular piece demonstrates that even the realm of representation has the power to wield harm.  Godzilla comes to “life” and the violence that is suggested is one related to the question of counter-memory.  What are we willing to remember and what are we willing to forget?  In the cult of celebrity, here we have this fictive creature that generates all this attention and interest and one wonders about the victims that are forgotten, that have gone invisible.  In relation even to Godzilla, the figure we recall who was made out of the radiation fallout from the atomic bomb, one understands the context is ever important to situate.  Godzilla is not simply a monster, but was also became engendered through and by a historical event that should not be ignored or glossed over in the realm of public discourse and in creative representation.   So, too, does the invisibility exhibit exist at this juncture.  This impulse to recover is the foundation of The Invisibility Exhibit.