On Reading The Perfect Archive by Paul Lisson

For David & Marcia Cohen

“Paul Lisson sits in the Bauhaus Cafe, gulping black tar-thick coffee, smoking cigarettes, sleepless but grinning as he talks about the plans for his latest mischief.” Jeff Mahoney.

“I am interested only in ‘nonsense;’ only in that which makes no practical sense. I am interested in life only in its absurd manifestations.” Daniil Kharms.

By J.S. Porter

Something unique, quirky, and daring comes your way, a book wet with the first dew of creation. It’s entitled The Perfect Archive, with scribbles over the word perfect.  (Maybe that’s the only kind of real perfection, perfection that recognizes the beauty of imperfection.) It’s by the Hamilton poet Paul Lisson who was born into a family “of union card-carrying steelworkers who played in bagpipe bands.”

I know Paul along with his wife Fiona Kinsella as the founders of Hamilton Arts and Letters, that seasonal miracle that brings beauty to the Internet. There is no writer or artist in Hamilton to my knowledge who is untouched by Paul’s generosity and encouragement.  Over the years he has spent much more time in promoting other people’s work than he has his own.

So, what to make of The Perfect Archive? How do you read it?  The narrator in “Awaiting the arrival of the butcher” says, “O, But what shall I tell you? What is there worth being told?” and “O, But what’s left to say? What is there that hasn’t been sold?”

I want to tell you how I’m reading Lisson’s book as I’m in the process of reading it.  The publisher Guernica says, “The Perfect Archive is a story in verse about an archivist who moves beyond his role as protector and cataloguer of others’ work and begins to question the very nature of a ‘pure and accurate’ archive.”  Well, maybe.  It’s also the story of an archivist who has gone rogue, who is tried and found guilty and during the stay of execution continues to write.

The archivist writes playfully, experimentally, ironically, even subversively. I want to read what he has written playfully, experimentally, ironically, even subversively. I will make many beginnings, many attempts just as the author is constantly re-presenting his book, cataloguing and re-cataloguing anew,  forever beginning again, starting over.  The book coils and uncoils and recoils—then it springs.  Then it bites.

Voice is always what draws me in.  The voice in The Perfect Archive, at least in the first few pages of prose, is flat, unemotional, deadpan, a little like Kafka in The Trial —the voice of clinical detachment.  “Whether the documents known as The Perfect Archive should be classified as a sub-fond or a series is debatable, and must be considered in the context of holdings culled from various agencies, and the authenticity of copies loaned by diverse sources.” Then the voice becomes more playful, like a wound-up toy moving in unpredictable directions.

The voice is perhaps closest to the style of Russian satirist, ironist and absurdist Daniils Kharms (The Blue Notebook), one of Paul Lisson’s favourite authors.  One imagines the author smiling or at least grinning to himself as his narrator observes and records the folly of human theatre.

Lisson’s book is a performance in words.  The first clue on how to read it is perhaps to look closely at Figure 1, a black mask in snow with overhanging icicles. The author is perhaps telling us that he’s wearing a mask and maybe we need to read with a mask.  You’ll remember from Oscar Wilde that masks often reveal more than faces; masks are often more real than the faces they cover.

There are other photographs in the book, all a little out of focus, somewhat blurred. A figure with a heavy-looking overcoat stands atop outdoor stairs, in a yard, in an alleyway, sits amongst garbage.

Poet, archivist, librarian, visual artist and storyteller: these five points of identity all play out in The Perfect Archive.  At times you think you’re reading library cards or archival notes, a dictionary, an encyclopedia, marginalia, errata.  Then you come upon breathtaking poetic lines such as, “Like bacilli swimming in a wound.”

You come upon numbers unexpectedly, like numbers in a Jasper Johns painting.  Aren’t books supposed to be made from words? Sometimes what Lisson does with number makes you rethink its relation to life and words:

Not many people can stand

this much beauty

Not too many people can stand

this much pain

So we must enumerate

Who knew that the purpose of number was to keep track of the beauty and pain in the world?

And you come upon poems—I come upon this poem—that you immediately ingest:

My bones one

by

one I

replace

with others

long buried

in secret places

crypts tombs

so that one

by

one I

reconstruct

my bones

with others

of dead people

more interesting

than me

 

When you read, you wait for something to strike you down, stagger you, render you agog. I too live with the dead. My bones are mixed with theirs to the point that to cut them is to cut me.

I read for strangeness, imaginative power, and mystery. Are they present in Lisson’s book? Yes, yes and yes. In these lines I experience all three phenomena:

Call, and around your table they’ll sit,

calmed by your story and its inflection

The ritual of expiration, when alone is only a word

The drawing of a bird, that finally becomes the bird

 

Isn’t that what the writer, the artist, yearns for: to draw a bird so that it becomes a bird, a bird that can fly and whose heart beats in your hand?

Did I tell you that the Acknowledgement pages are the best I’ve ever come upon? The first line is: “To my wife, the artist Fiona Kinsella,” the artist who sculpts wedding cakes with real teeth and hair.  And page 54 is very funny: an almost empty page with two lines—

A page

from a projected edition of Cicero.

The narrator (the author’s mask) glimpses “the smaller worlds,” those that may not yet be fully realized, those that are always underfoot and unseen.  He’s the poet of the unseen, the unrecognized, the neglected.

Paul Lisson

Paul Lisson is a maestro and impresario of the arts in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Paul Lisson – Paul Lisson’s DEBUT Book of Poetry • The Perfect Archive

Where to find his book:

Call your favourite bookseller and order a copy.
Buy from the publisher’s website: Guernica Editions.
Click here to contact the author.

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