The Poetics of Trespass

By Erik Anderson

Otis Books/Seismicity Editions
June 2010, Paperback
104 pages


Reviewed by Amanda Goldblatt


In the writing of The Poetics of Trespass, Erik Anderson gave himself an assignment: to walk in a series of eight paths shaped by the letters of the word "pastoral" during the still-snowy February and March of Denver, Colorado, in 2007. The book is impressionistic rather than representational, or, more accurately, impressionistically conceptual; it extrudes from a set of very concrete experiences (the paths of P, a, S, T, and so on), a cycle of essays concerning cities, language, and the artistic self.

Reading Anderson’s work, I am reminded of the Situationist movement, those mid-twentieth century city-life post-modernists who walked the streets of Paris in order to discover what Guy Debord and others called "psychogeography," a system of urban spatial comprehension that has everything to do with the mapping of experiences, of how the patterns of human movement function within a given arondissment. The Situationists were known particularly for their dérives, long drifting walks for groups of three or four with no strict goal but to discover how it felt to move within a particular part of the city, often inviting picaresque escapades in local bars in order–they would later excuse themselves–to get out of the rain, or perhaps simply to get away from the eventual boredom inherent in an activity whose strict directive is attentive aimlessness.

In some respects, The Poetics of Trespass is antithetical to dérives, which, when you are in the wrong mood, can seem like so much pre-hippie frippery. At the same time, it is somehow twinned in mission. Anderson may prescribe his letter’d paths, but the dérive happening in this book is one of associative intellectual discovery. The picaresque is seriously cerebral.

Seeing a junked desk in an alley during his first a path, Anderson thinks to himself, and us, that though it is bereft of drawers and covered in scotch tape, the piece if sawed in half would make a fine pair of nightstands. In some ways, this is a good and careful metaphor for the use of the city of Denver in this book. Anderson employs re-fabrication and re-appropriation, as nonfiction always does, making nightstands out of a desk, an essay about language out of a city. We as readers can become quickly convinced that the city was simply camouflaged language all along—as if the desk had been designed to be nightstands from its inception.

Anderson chooses New York as the central case study for most of his discourse about cities; Denver more often than not stays in the periphery. Following along behind him, we do see chain-link fences and dumpsters and other such urban accessories, but there is little hereness in any of it. I wondered whether it mattered that it was Denver he walked in, or whether it could just as easily have been any city for the purposes and success of the project. Ultimately, even as Denver’s physicality goes largely unaddressed, the evidence of Denver emerges (perhaps secreted) in the thoughts and structures of the poet’s mind, simply by dint of the poet having been in Denver. We are products of our environment necessarily, particularly when engaged in physical activities and expressive arts.

Later in the essay, Denver emerges a bit more specifically, most notably when Anderson ascends the steps of the capitol building in hopes of getting out to its golden dome, which he has heard is something a person can do. But the air inside the building is tense and quiet. "I am a harmless person," he thinks, as he moves upwards to find only a hallway where the entrance out to the dome should be. This half-performed, half-sincere seeming embrace of harmlessness is an exciting component of a project whose opening gambit concerns Kafka’s Penal Colony torture machine which, Anderson reminds us, writes the crimes of a prisoner across his body over and over until, after much cruel delay, he dies from these wounds. "Carved into the earth," Anderson writes in the preface, "the city carves its maps into us."

The idea that the city inscribes itself upon humanity as much as humanity has composed the city is something that returns again and again throughout the book. We are harmless, carved, but also harmful, carving. Inside our brains we reshape everything, thoughts more potent than wrecking balls. Appropriately, Anderson’s voice is quiet and insistent, seemingly harmless in its own way, the conceptual acrobatics of the essay moving in a slow beautiful motion forward, full of intelligent motifs. A poet, Anderson works the words on the line in much the same way he works the structure of the piece in its entirety; the prose occasionally breaks open into lineated passages that constrict themes but do not separate one kind of terse lyricism from the other so much as to be unprofitably disruptive.

Anderson’s discussion of the pastoral, the rural, as a site traditionally connected to a shift in perspective (out of the urban climate), and a resultant sanity, puts me in mind not only of asylums, to which Anderson refers, but also of tuberculosis-era sanatoriums, where temporary residents swaddled in blankets sat in caned wheelchairs on grand patios, backed by large manors built into the sides of hills. But the country is also, Anderson notes, dirty, full of insects, even "squalid."

Is the act of carving "PaSToral" into urban Denver, then, about bringing that reference of sanity and different squalor into the city? (See: rooftop gardens and chicken coops, office worker apiarists, and tomato vines reaching across a network of apartment complex windows. Here in St. Louis, I spent just the other night in the backyard of a friend, sitting beside a bonfire, and, above me on the yard’s fence, three roosting chickens, hunkering at these high heights just two blocks away from where, last spring, my car had been broken into, that most citified of crimes—who ever heard of having your driver’s side window smashed in the country, when your car is parked twelve miles from even the nearest QuikTrip?)

There is also something about control of composition here; it is only the letters of "pastoral" which are carved; this makes a nice bed in which to think about such a strange, self-constructed imposition. The object of control is often order, and in Anderson’s case, it seems to be about creating an order around which his mind may cycle with uncommon freedom, even if the control presented here in these paths is, as he concedes, a kind of "lie."

At one point, thinking about tracking his own more organic movements while erranding, Anderson wonders "whether the mind isn’t an expert draftsman who, in planning the way to read the mountain hike from the grocery store before heading home, wants to draw a petal, a thumb, or a pear." What is Anderson doing when he imposes his letters on Denver? Is he obliterating this subconscious design, or merely veiling it?

The project, in prescribing the path, is mimicking in method the human-driven project of urbanism (especially planning, and within that, grid systems), and while this is the methodology of the project, it is not the substance. Rather, the essay is ultimately the tracking of an observing, hard-working, and elegant mind.

Anderson presents himself as a sort of metaphysical thinker, steeped in a good amount of semiotics. In his re-labeling of words as worlds and maps as personal documents, it becomes clear that his practice is about solving for the essential element of each conceptual component, a proof that casts the writer as a critic of the natural world and the built environment as something between historic artifact and fine art.

Like any good postmodernist, Anderson believes that deconstruction is a form of construction, and his dismantling discourse throughout convinces the reader of this, should she have any doubts. He writes, joyfully frustrated in the paradox, "One writes oneself into being at the expense of the self." And, later: "[Language] will always bear the mark of our existence." And in a breathy crescendo: "…to write is to walk all over the world."

Language is movement, Anderson seems to be saying, even as it remakes the original movement, obliterating its first-generation gestures in the name of a landscape of symbols. We are in our bodies even as we regularly, thoughtfully, escape them. In the contemporary era of the virtual, this book is both timely and gorgeous.