Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Clint Burnham Introduces Mercedes Eng

Mercedes Eng is a thirtysomething writer and activist in Vancouver. She’s been at Simon Fraser University for a few years now – maybe longer than I have – and is finishing up a graduate degree in English. She’s also one of the brightest young writers on the Vancouver scene, whose work combines tart insights into gender and racial relations, a playfulness of language not always found in political poetry, and a fine ear.

Mercy has two chapbooks out, both with black construction paper covers, both published by herself (in a loose collective that includes her confreres Peter McDonald, Emily Fedoruk, Cecily Nicholson). One came out during the Winter Olympics and is called February 2010. It documents, more or less, Eng’s activism during that heady time, when homeless people lay in Red Tents and demonstrators organized outside the opening ceremonies, knuckle-to-knuckle with cops from across the country. Into this mix, Eng throws the following stolen text:

When you become a police officer, people trust you with their property and with their lives. Law enforcement is more than just a job – it’s a calling. Is police school calling you?

It’s calling someone


“Later in the morning, Constable Peters recalled Constable Kojima making the comment, ‘now that was the shit you signed up for’.”

What works so well here is the reader’s uncertainty about when Eng is sampling an ad and when it’s her voice. That’s the point – the lack of difference between what is surely an advertisement for a police academy (perhaps the Justice Institute in New Westminster, B.C.) and what is Eng’s own commentary. Perhaps “It’s calling someone”, probably the slashes (used throughout the chapbook); but then the actual quoted statement, framed in quotation marks, makes us wonder if the first verse-paragraph is a quotation. Perhaps Eng just made it up, make a fake sample like Dr Dre used to with those wicked flutes on The Chronic.

Mercy’s second chapbook is untitled; it has an image of brass knuckles screenprinted on the cover. It is concerned with, on the one hand, B.C.’s “Highway of Tears” (a northern highway along which dozens of women, mostly aboriginal, have been found murdered), and Ontario’s “Highway of Heroes” (a stretch of highway along which the bodies of Canadian soldiers who died in Afghanistan are driven). So we have the institutionalization of B.C.’s missing/murdered women (in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as well as the north) and the commemoration of war heroes. Again, Eng works through appropriation, in a brilliant sampling of war reporting that is pitch-perfect:

Paul Strand: We’re, I would say, dozens of miles from Baghdad. I just talked to our commander, and he asked that I not be too specific about direction or distance; I think you can understand that. So far, everywhere we’ve gone we have seen artillery ahead of us and then artillery behind, and we’re getting reports that there’s fighting in all of the cities we’ve been through. So, I guess if this were the Old West, I’d say there were Injuns ahead of us, Injuns behind us, and Injuns on both sides too.

Conceptual writing, flarf, and the like use quotation as a way to indulge in what Slavoj Žižek would call the idiocy of our enjoyment – the sublime obscenity of post-internet culture. But Eng’s program is a little different. She uses their method – sampling, quotation, pastiche, call it what you will – both to implicate the hegemonic discourse of neoliberal police militarism (racism at home is tied to racism as foreign policy) and to keep herself in that mix, part of the problem. She’s angry, yes, but also too smart not to realize that some of that anger has to do with herself.

A final comment: when I was typing out the quotation above, MS Word didn’t try to correct my spelling of “Injuns.” Looks like Mercedes Eng still has some work to do.


Clint Burnham teaches in the Department of English at SFU. His research
interests include contemporary literature, cultural studies, Marxism, and
psychoanalysis. He is at present working on two book-length projects: one on
the Kootenay School of Writing, and another on Slavoj Zizek. His published
works include book-length studies of the Canadian poet Steve McCaffery and
the American theorist Fredric Jameson, and articles on imperialism &
contemporary art, bpNichol, and hiphop.


Lemon Hound said...

Thanks for this, Clint. I know both of those stretches of highways, and some of the discourse around them...and yes the racist discourse that is everywhere embedded in our language. Thanks for pointing out this poet. I was unaware of her until now.

Cathleen With said...

ooooo...very keen on being on a panel with mercedes at DTES writers' jamboree, thanks for this on her excellent work.