Goings On and Tisa Bryant's Unexplained Presence

There has been so much going on in the Bay Area of late--Rae Armantrout and Laura Sims at Small Press Traffic and then Rae and Lisa Robertson in Berkeley on Saturday the 7th. Erica Kaufman & Brandon Brown will read at David Buuck's house on March 12th. This Friday the 13th, Small Press Traffic hosts Stacy Szymaszek and Craig Santos Perez. Ariana Reines and Barret Watten will be reading at 21 Grand Gallery in Oakland on Sunday March 15th.

But, Dear Readers, deadlines and the frantic pace of life keep intervening with my attendance......

Here's what I have to offer you today. I have been enjoying dipping into Tisa Bryant's Unexplained Presence published in 2007 by Leon Works. Her sentences are elastic. You'll want to follow them and her everywhere. Tisa will take you on a tour of engravings, illustrations and paintings (by S.H. Grimm and Willliam Hogarth among others), tv (Regency House Party), texts (work by Gaston Bachelar, Giorgio de Chirico, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Claire de Duras, Trin T. Minh-ha, Virginia Woolf, Emile Zola and others).

from the PREFACE:

Black figures in Eurocentric literature, film, and visual art are rarely presented without being given a distinct, racialized function, the import of which often goes largely undisputed, if not wholly unacknowledged, simply because the power of saying, of naming and describing it, has been withheld. The explanation for their presence and their function is hidden in plain sight, a double-sided sleight of hand between the maker and the subconscious, and between the maker and the receiver of the work. This sleight of hand intrigues me. Like watching two people (lovers? spies?) silently mouthing words to each other from across a crowded room, my comprehension of the message occurs surreptitiously. I know things I'm not supposed to know. I see without seeing, and witness an open secret, in a roomful of people where I am not the only one with such eyes.

But, as with lovers and spies and secret codes, we're conditioned not to look too long or too closely at how or why these figures do what they do, how they might perpetuate or debunk myths around race, sexuality, storytelling. We simply minimize, as needed, their effect on the environment (narrative), and on us, by shielding them, hand to eye, from our view.

The writings in this collection reflect the shifting landscape of racialized narratives, and interrogate this silent contract between maker and reader/viewer.
--Tisa Bryant

In prose highly attuned to the resonances of language, Bryant exposes these figures and their effects on the environment, on narrative, on us as participants in and co-creators of this environment.

Here are a couple of short pieces from the book. I encourage you to get a copy of the book for your own. You can, at Small Press Distribution, here.

S.H. grimm, Drolleries
June 14, 1771
Print Collection
Lewis Walpole Library
Yale University

An old woman in a humble cloak stops, thunderstruck, at the sight of a euphemisitic "lady of fashion," emerging from an avenue of lindens.

Behind her trails a black page in ornate suiting, a plumed turban on his head, her lapdog tucked in his arms. He, too, is the mark of fashion among such of the period, who promoted their charms within sight of the well-heeled.

The lady's hair is teased to an exaggerated height that rises into the trees. At the summit of her coiffure sits a ribboned hat. The old woman must lean back and scope with her hand cupped around her eye in order to take it all in. Her wrinkled hand reaches for her heart in dismay. Her mouth drops open.

"Heyday!" reads the caption. "Is this my daughter Anne?"


Negress Clock Case
Paris, CA. 1785
Bronze, Marble
Hillwood Gardens And Museum,
Washington, DC

"The bust-size figure of the negress is elegantly dressed with a feathered turban and bejeweled with earrings that would have activated an ingenious clock mechanism. In pulling the right earring, the hour would have appeared in the right eye. A pull to the left earring would have indicated the minutes in the left eye. A model of this clock made by the clockmaker Furet was delivered to Queen Marie Antoinette at Versailles. Before its delivery, the clock was exhibited in Furet's window shop where flocks of passersby stopped to contemplate it in awe."

Here's what a San Francisco Bay Guardian Reviewer had to say about Unexplained Presence:

Investigating the symbolic construction of identity and myth from the angle of art, Tisa Bryant's Unexplained Presence takes up "black presences in European literature, visual art, and film." Fusing criticism, film theory, and fiction with a keenly poetic ear, Bryant reenters cultural artifacts to open up these symbolically loaded but structurally silenced or backgrounded characters and motifs. Her stories trace the ways in which black subjectivity is distributed or denied within pictures and plots, between viewers and artworks and artists, and in acts of conversation and debate, of queer identification or refusal to see. What is most remarkable is how Bryant transforms these elisions into acts of imagination, restoring or reconfiguring partially glimpsed subjects via fleet and surprising sentences that traverse the distance between representation and meaning.

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