Threads by Jill Magi
(futurepoem books, New York 2007)
Jill Magi’s book Threads is a beautiful collaging of poetry, prose, visual art and found texts that blurs the boundaries between genres. In taking up the question of how we understand who we are, Threads explores the edges of family narrative, especially the silent places. The story of the author’s family in Estonia, a small Baltic country occupied by many countries during its history and mostly recently, by the Soviets, is one of disruption and fracture.
As the title suggests, the book also weaves connections -- societal, linguistic, cultural and familial as its narrative unfolds. This movement back and forth between what has unraveled (country, culture, family) and what is being pulled together (family, history, memory) is represented metaphorically through the title. Told in the first person as Magi travels throughout Estonia, her father’s and grandparents’ homeland, the book is excavation of both personal and societal memory and history. There is a new language to be mastered. There are maps to be deciphered, all in an effort to understand, as Magi so poignantly writes, “the position of the single body versus a whole family,” a horrific image literally describing the war-torn countryside, but also touching on the question of self identity in relation to this history.
Plaited elements of prose, poetry, found texts and visual images are interspersed with swaths of white space. And thus the placement of text and image on the page is yet another feature of the narrative. Along with language from guidebooks, Estonian poetry, as well as writings by her grandfather, there are instructions on book-repair and book-binding that serve as a kind of instruction manual for Threads. Indeed, the book does bind together a complicated story that has been torn and scattered by war and immigration. I love this particular series of manipulated instructions.
Reflect that there are three statements of force concerning the thread.
A pull or tension unchanged.
A relation between the tensions of the two sides.
A force to feel, of generative tensions.
These tensions are beautifully represented through images as well as language. Magi has manipulated and recast documents such as maps, letters, and postcards. For instance, a photocopied page has been torn and stitched together. A hand-drawn map of a neighborhood presumably in Estonia has been stained and blurred so that it’s new -- as much a visual work of art as directions to a family homestead. Poetic language appears on travel documents. Image and imagery are startling.
I’ve made artifacts with my hands like a trail of
breadcrumbs. To find a way back to a
The shuttling between visual images and language is one of the compelling aspects of the Threads. I have to admit wanting to take the book apart so I might hang each lovely page on a wall just to look at and then read this moving book. But I realized the beautiful container -- the book -- would be destroyed. "The book comes into being," writes the Egyptian poet Emond Jabes, "by allowing itself to be read as it will be." The poet Susan Howe has worked beyond the boundaries of image and text. So too has Anne Carson blended genres to make another way of telling a story. Like those writers, Jill Magi demonstrates in this compelling book that the “breaking and vanishing” of borders is part of how we make meaning to arrive at self knowledge.
Pamela Hart is a former journalist. Her chapbook, The End of the Body, was published last year by Toadlily Press. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has been published in journals like Rattapallax, Lumina, Kalliope and BigCityLit. Check out her blog, A Walk around the Lake, at pamelahart.blogspot.com.