by Jamie Townsend
When I lived in New York between the summer of 2012 and the winter of 2015 I worked as a bookseller at the Tenement Museum, an immigration history destination spot, situated in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Every day I was tasked to recommend books to the streams of tourists cycling through the visitor center and shop – books that unreservedly praised the uniqueness and vitality of the American experiment New York exemplified, as well as books that outlined in lurid detail the innumerable disasters, both large and small, that continue to meter the city’s history.
I’ve been thinking about that time in my life a lot lately – mainly the process of moving to New York, fleeing really, in the wake of a messy divorce and the death of my half-brother to cancer. How my filter of the world became irrevocably tuned to the idea of the after, how one survives and begins to rebuild after the perceived worst has happened. Working at the Tenement provided additional perspective and fine-tuning to this filter – a mind-numbing retail job within a time capsule, surrounded by disasters that rocked the lives of NYC residents, both the persistent day-to-day economic and class oppression visited on newly arrived residents as well as singularly destructive events – the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the sinking of the General Slocum. More and more I accepted that the dream that stands in place of life was inexorably wound up in death on a massive scale. In a city buzzing with so much life, I began to recognize the naiveté of escape in the face of a disaster that has projected our course and is always moving through us.
I take the Tenement Museum tour because I work across the street on Orchard in an expensive clothing boutique with glass shelves in a structure built in 1929, just 9 years after the disaster.
I watch a documentary about the disaster made in 2011. It works to make the workers real so many years later, but it works too hard and instead makes them pathetic, diluted. (Disaster 39, 40)
In Madison Davis’s debut collection Disaster, time is never linear and effects are never predicted by causes. What we experience most profoundly in the space of devastation is simultaneously the exact measure of our limits and a total horizon of experience pushed back. We are reminded that individual lives are never discrete and that to walk out into inevitable wreckage again and again means to risk surety or survival. It also means that the consuming void marches toward us at “an unbelievable speed.” We offer up a portion of ourselves to the void in an empathetic extension beyond the flat record of any single event. Without the safety of a larger sense of design, the writing attunes itself to the details that are provided and the whole is always portioned, and made personal.
This attention Madison draws to the personal nested within the universal makes clear our persistent obsession with the coming apocalypse, realizing more and more that we are always in the middle of it and any false distance provided by the linear is that which obscures disaster. As Madison, quoting Maurice Blanchot, notes “since disaster always takes place after taking place, there cannot possibly be any experience of it” (52).
To read disaster is also to concede to the illiteracy of our historical existence. That is not to say that we cannot look for language to fill the space of the ineffable, but rather that disaster precludes our being in the world, it precludes our record. Tours at the Tenement Museum would often focus around primary source documents: letters, registries, manifests, as well as personal affects and remnants pulled from excavations of tenement apartments – some material fact to suggest a continuity of story. These pieces of historical record became the site of speculation, rewriting or reexamining the assumed lives of the individuals and families that occupied these places. In Disaster these same types of source documents often function differently, not to illuminate but rather point at the discontinuities, the lack of what can be held up by our understanding; “No one knows where exactly to look. / The numbers are in dispute. / There is beginning a flood” (58).
Impressions, first-hand accounts, then later perhaps even museums accumulate around the site of disaster providing it presence and shape through negation. Its qualities are tracked through the movement of what orbits, and so the writing in Disaster acts as a reverse erasure, building in relation to an absented center. The book also interrogates itself through a series of rhetorical questions calling into witness an audience but leaving little space for response or surety (there is nothing, really, to say). So Madison writes around, loops, repeats, postulates, collages, creates a pointillist structure – a book emerges from the ruin of one, like Bhanu Kapil’s discarded notebook in Schizophrene that lays in a garden all winter, accumulating the effects of weather and time.
Writing in this aggregate space of ruin merges the body of the writer and reader together into an imperfect translation, into expansion and collapse, into the place where disaster is co-created in the moment of witness. Sections of Disaster include many infamous historical events, such as the Columbia Shuttle crash, the sinking of the General Slocum, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Yet by incorporating autobiographic writing, as well as elliptical philosophic arguments, repetition, and conflicting accounts, Madison manages to seamlessly remove the site of disaster from history, to look at it from a multidimensional perspective where time is as material as flesh, is moved through, touched and affected by a witness, but also touches back, subtly or exponentially changing our course. We progress through the book as through a void where both of these feelings are weighted, drawing us to an undefined meeting place in the middle. As she notes in the collection’s afterword, “It is in that liminal space that I was caught while writing Disaster, and what I can tell you now is that I don’t feel like an only child in the world even though my sibling has died, and it has something to do with living in that space, with surviving there” (65). Disaster provides continuity and connection through its bare survival in a space of uncertainty, drawing the reader into the perpetually active site of loss. As Madison echoes in refrain throughout the book, “There are more than I can hold up.”
In the afterword Madison also makes an important distinction between disasters that are natural (the “already always happened”) and the specific disasters written about in the book, those “orchestrated by a sickening mix of poor planning, miscommunication, fatal indifference, and chance” (66). Within this distinction she teases out the agency of disaster itself, one that is situated in decisions made by individuals and societies, and directed by chance. The accumulation of these circumstances, details, and turns creates the shape of disaster, “an outcome like a constellation of stars,” a shape only realized by connecting the dots. What’s most startling about this realization is that Madison uses a sense of pattern recognition to extend the process of encountering these culturally orchestrated tragic events into the personal, events that previously have become scattered, calcified or flattened by history. Throughout Disaster sections titled after specific events are repeated, flowing into each other as well as into biographic and expository lyric fragments that prompt the reader to question each event. By recording historic details expressionistically and weaving them into her questions and personal remembrances Madison is able to achieve a multiplicity of levels and registers in her thinking, a text / meta-text dynamic that organically merges the story of these deaths with the death of her own brother in a car accident.
When my brother died in an accident, I mourned in part by combing the details. I marched through the poor planning, miscommunication, fatal indifference, and chance. I studied the details, the car his friend was driving, the weather conditions, the curve in the road. From this distance, I can see clearly the momentum leading to the disaster and the critical moment in which futures diverge. (67)
This is the ethical work of memoir, lyric essay, and hybrid writing Madison uses to such powerful effect. To find a bridge that leads to the unspeakable through the common, the quotidian, even as death is “routine…the very unoriginal happening” (67) that is happening everywhere. It’s an ethics also centered on the importance of not looking away, though we are so often biologically and politically maneuvered to do so. In the acceptance and scrutiny of disaster, this work of social and personal excavation is where we find some measure of survival.
The morning I was planning on finishing this review I woke up to the news that a massive fire had broken out at the Ghost Ship warehouse during a concert the night previous. At least nine were dead and dozens missing. As the day advanced the official figures shifted and an article in the New York Times listed the potential loss of life as up to 40 individuals, with reports the following day listing the number confirmed dead at 33 or more. Words from Disaster lingered like a virus in my head: “the numbers will rise.” What was most troubling about the nature of reporting around this immense tragedy, was the callous insistence by the Oakland City Hall and others of the numerous fire and safety code violations that had been under investigation regarding this space – a work/live space for punks and artists similar to one my partner Ivy lived in for the last year and a half. The news treated this as the tragic culmination of factors that, like the disasters in Madison’s book, could’ve been avoided by twists of fate, policy, or infrastructure. What was not discussed was widespread urban socioeconomic disaster, epidemic but not endemic to Oakland, that causes artists to occupy unsanctioned warehouse spaces, and to throw concerts and parties there, often as fundraisers toward a means to live.
The ambient disaster of unchecked capitalism, of gentrification, city governance privileging big business has occurred, is occurring, and will continue to occur. It is a system of violence that has pushed POC, queer, immigrant, and other precarious bodies into these spaces of potential disaster, spaces where they can for a moment exist and work in community as rents soar and tenant rights are stripped, spaces that are forgotten by the larger machinery of culture around them until it is time to point a finger at what went wrong. Books like Disaster are vital right now because they serve as heartening reminders of the importance of empathy, an active solidarity across limits of experience that the worst events can stir within us. They remind us that bodies are never just numbers and the record is never the whole story. Disaster also offers strength and insistence toward not hiding ourselves from what rends but instead facing it head-on; a strength and insistence that comes from brokenness, from dutifully studying the pieces, preparing us for whatever comes next. And it cannot be overqualified that the tragedy of Ghost Ship, like the tragedies that weave in and out of Disaster, is not the result of a breakdown in public record or the failure of a community that didn’t follow an established order, but rather the cold indifference of a culture obsessed with immortality in the face of “our continuous death…challenged to exist in the present” (26).