17 December 2012

Letters to Kelly Clarkson

The overriding conceit of Julia Bloch’s first book Letters to Kelly Clarkson (Sidebrow Books, 2012) is a series of epistolary prose poems addressed to American Idol cum pop star Kelly Clarkson. And like other collections that follow a similar form (e.g. Spicer’s After Lorca or Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy's), direct address to a cultural figure or entity infuses the book with a certain amount of levity. But the humor inherent in this imagined correspondence does not negate the more serious theoretical concerns of the book. In an interview on rob mclennan’s blog, Bloch states that Letters explores “representations of female celebrity, the female body as a spectacle, reality TV as a profit machine that we feel emotionally attached to, our relationship to pop culture, our desire for and fear of intimacy.” Take, for example the following letter:
Dear Kelly,

Clutched in femininity’s dystopic embrace as if it were a big clammy hand from the deep, I watch the bright box, forgetting to blink, I know I should be turning to the book and reading and writing but the images keep coming, trafficking my sense of the real and the room. The screen is sometimes described as an eye or a tube filled with celebrity jelly. I can’t see any of your pores; I know I shouldn’t but I want you to be a real girl, muscular, with a hair shade that doesn’t make a sound. (43)
“Clutched in femininty’s dystopic embrace,” the speaker foregoes her work-related tasks of “reading and writing,” even suspends normal body functions such as blinking, in order to “watch the bright box” of television. And the images the television provides distort her “sense of the real” by slathering them in a “celebrity jelly” that erases all trace of naturalness (e.g. “pores” etc.) from those who appear on the small screen. Yet even though her sense of reality has been distorted, the speaker still yearns for Clarkson “to be a real girl.”

The problem, of course, is evident: if we desire something “real,” but television alters our fundamental perception of the “real” through fabricated imagery, what is it that we desire? A previously false and fabricated image, or some long-lost image that predated mass media and consumerism? Trafficking between our new, fabricated realities and some lost authenticity, then, produces a compelling tension within Bloch’s book. On one hand, the speaker informs Clarkson of her need to “write to you in consideration of subjectivity” (24), but knows the difficulty of doing so when viewing the world through the “great eye of public” (5) and its “aesthetic of the shitty” (65).

The speaker of Letters to Kelly Clarkson, thankfully, does not sound overbearing or didactic because she imbricates herself with the public and its shitty aesthetic. In one instance, she confesses that: “I try to dignify myself on the pale couch, writing these notes down, but inside I abandon myself to the next huge dream…Girl you sure were swell up there, backlit and startling” (7). The speaker tries to maintain an objective distance by “writing these notes,” but inevitably abandons herself “to the next huge dream” produced by the image of Clarkson “up there” on a televised stage, “backlit and startling.” In another instance later in the book, Bloch writes: “On television, we can see each curve of your skull; you live in a land of light gels and leg doubles” (38). The use of the first-person plural revives the notion of the “great eye of public,” in that we all “see each curve” of Clarkson’s “skull” in unison; moreover, we see it in a world of artifice becoming reality: “a land of light gels and leg doubles.”

How, then, should we proceed in this world of mass-produced and contrived subjectivities? Toward the conclusion of the collection, Bloch writes:
I think I should like to be erased, like a certain word is from these letters. No: I think I’d like to hold a certain feeling like a cut thing, with the light shining all around your forehead and the last failed years toppled over at the entrance to 101 on Bayshore. (75)
The speaker’s first inclination is for complete removal from our cultural landscape, to be “erased” like a word from her letters. But such a response is self-annihilating and, ultimately, futile, in that it does not produce an affirmative reaction to a problematic trend within our contemporary times. No doubt understanding this fact, the speaker immediately negates her initial response (but does not “erase” it from her letter) and, instead, desires to “hold a certain feeling like a cut thing” in the “light shining all around” Clarkson’s head. Perhaps we can interpret this as some oblique reference to Adorno’s belief that: “The detached observer is as much entangled as the active participant,” and her recognition of that entanglement offers “the infinitesimal freedom that lies in knowledge as such.” Yes, the speaker is wholeheartedly part of the “failed years” and does view it through the great public eye; but, she is ever mindful of this knowledge, which provides her an “infinitesimal freedom.”

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