Public Figuresby Jena Osman
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Public Figures is an essay-poem with photographs and text that begins with a playful thought experiment: statues of people in public spaces have eyes, but what are they looking at? To answer that question, Jena Osman sets up a camera to track the gaze of a number of statues in Philadelphia—mostly 19th century military figures carrying weapons. How does their point of view differ from our own? And how does it compare, say, to the point of view of other watchful military figures, such as drone pilots? In this book, Osman combines the histories behind these statues with poetic narratives that ask us to think about our own relational positions, and how our own everyday gaze may be complicit with the gun-sights of war. Public Figures illustrates how history is transformed, and even erased, by monuments and other public records of events. Through poetry, those histories can be made visible again. Check for the online reader’s companion at http://publicfigures.site.wesleyan.edu.
“Osman puts public memory back in the public memorials.”—Rachel Trousdale, Rain Taxi
“As much as it objects to some wars far away, the essay keeps its heart in Osman’s Philly, whose streetscapes point both to the present and back to the U.S. Civil War. Osman’s terse juxtapositions, careful background, and her lightly used but deeply relevant quotations place her close to Claudia Rankine, or to Juliana Sphar.”—Publishers Weekly
“What Osman’s politically-engaged text does is force us to confront the alternating ugliness and meaninglessness of our historical sense, not to mention the travesties of language that that benighted sense often compels us to endorse. …Public Figures is a compelling read from every and any angle.”—Seth Abramson, Huffington Post
“The essayistic concept at the heart of the book is brilliant. … Like the best documentary work, Public Figures answers the hand-wringing question of ‘how can art be political’ rather simply: you make it about the world. As in the passage quoted above, the playfully intent moments of Osman’s guidebook (there are some fantastic pages in which Osman diagrams the intersecting gazes of several martial statues) enliven one’s historical imagination, while also revealing a ‘you’ that moves in our shared present.”—Zach Savich, Kenyon Review
“…multi-award winner Jena Osman draws on a slide lecture to offer a mediation on public statuary in Philadelphia, particularly those bearing arms.”—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Read an Excerpt
By Jena Osman
Wesleyan University PressCopyright © 2012 Jena Osman
All rights reserved.
How did it occur?
Was it this:
One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: "I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor."
— Rol and Barthes, CAMERA LUCIDA
Or was it this:
If you could see what I've seen with your eyes ...
— Roy Batty, BLADE RUNNER
Or was it this:
Pausing before an 18th-century church cemetery you look through the locked gate. There, on a small hill, is a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary. Her gaze rests on an enormous red and white banner for an athletic club franchise across the street.
The idea occurred:
Photograph the figurative statues that populate your city. Then bring the camera to their eyes (find a way) and shoot their points of view. What does such a figure see?
To see the sigh of sighted stone you activate the idea.
You find a way, jerry-rig an apparatus made from a mop handle, a disposable camera with a timer, some velcro tape.
Out in the field, you observe and take notes. You set the timer and pull the pin.
Erected in 1884 and located on the north side of Philadelphia's City Hall, this statue of Major John Fulton Reynolds was the city's first equestrian statue and first public monument in honor of a Civil War soldier. Reynolds was from Lancaster, killed at Gettysburg, and his nickname was "Old Common Sense."
And here is what he's looking at:
Reynolds was very well respected, but his career had few successes. For instance, once after two long days of battle, he fell asleep under a tree and was taken prisoner for six weeks. Was that tree like this tree? Is Reynolds being forced to look at an emblem of what was perhaps his greatest embarrassment? You'd like to get back in the air.
Next to Reynolds is another Civil War soldier, General George McClellan. McClellan was considered a good organizer, but not a particularly good general. He had a variety of nicknames, such as "The Young Napoleon," "Mac the Unready," and — because of his reluctance to attack — "The Little Corporal of Unsought Fields."
He looks out and sees:
You yourself are a patch-wearer; you are committed to your job. Most figurative sculptures are clustered along the river drive that is part of Frederick Law Olmsted's Fairmount Park. From their pedestals they have lovely static views of the river and trees.
They loom above you. You map out a rescue plan.
When you are out there with the camera apparatus, it takes passersby a minute to understand what you are doing. But when they do — the moment when they realize that these figures indeed have a gaze projected outward — they gasp and laugh. Immobile, you watch it all the way to impact.
For the most part, the sculptures seem to be looking at nothing in particular; they have a gaze, but they don't have a need for it. You wonder about your experiment, whether it has any value at all. You wind up and throw it in the air.
While proceeding, you become aware of your not noticing. You walk around these figures as if they are buildings or large pieces of furniture. You navigate their boundaries without a momentary meditation on who they are or why they're there. With that public invisibility in mind, you become aware that a fair number of these statues populating your city are armed.
Story: Instructions come in a blue envelope carefully sealed and stamped with the word "government." Use a letter opener and slide it inside the fold, cutting cleanly across as you've been taught to do. Your gloves leave no prints.
You kneel with knees in the mud.
As if a cloud were just a set of lines, manmade and fierce.
A thing, eyes to the sky and hands outstretched.
You see yourself as a cliché, just a body beneath the stars and open to the elements.
Caption: A couple arm in arm. Three pass. Two pass. Now three now one. Man in shirt sleeves. Man with bag slung over shoulder. Sad presentiments of what must come to pass.
Story: The mission is already dead in the water. If it hadn't been for a lucky break (which you failed to mention in your report) you might not be where you are today. The mission part is difficult. It requires a certain language, the language of dispersal and direction. It requires following orders without really understanding ultimate goals. It requires endurance and a cheery heart.
Bayonets and daggers.
The men in uniform with their flat hats and scabbards, their knapsacks and greatcoats.
The men without hats in their street clothes and high socks, drooling blood.
The woman behind the knee, the child below the knee, the man who sets the knife to the child.
Can one sharpened pole win against manufactured arms?
A people and their poles, with or without reason.
Caption: Woman hunched over in red sweater getting into white SUV with younger, taller woman. Man with pin-striped pants. With or without reason.
Story: It has dawned on you that although you're intimately familiar with every crease in the map, you're not entirely sure of where you're going. You look for clues as to what you may be looking for. You set in motion some investigations, a thing among things. At the moment, the results are not particularly interesting — not nearly as interesting as the idea itself. But maybe there's something you're not seeing ... You tear up the floorboards. You hide the telephone in a drawer. You carry the evidence in a blue plastic envelope and clutch it to your chest.
The long rope taut over the shoulder.
The knots around the ankles of the other.
The man as sheepskin on the back of the long rope, deserving.
The weight of the body as it's dragged.
A man raises his baton.
A shadow behind the sheepskin points the unsheathed sword.
Caption: Two women pulling rolling luggage. Two men running. Woman on phone. Man on bike. He deserved it.
This statue depicts the Nordic explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni. He landed in North America in 1010 or maybe it was 1004, following hot on Leif Ericson's discovery of the magical land of Vinland, or Wineland, or was it Grassland? He landed although nobody really knows where ... it was somewhere between Newfoundland and Virginia. He created a settlement that for a variety of reasons, including internal dissension, desertion, and native attacks, lasted a mere three years. Over nine centuries later, at the beginning of World War I, the sculptor Einar Jónsson was brought from Iceland to Philadelphia to make this sculpture. There are no actual images of Karlsefni, so this work is an imaginary rendition based on a bleary set of facts, a commissioned animation in a time of war. Your streaming data needs to be nimble.
You stand quietly by the side of the road.
Perhaps the greatest work by the Scottish poet and sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay is his garden, Little Sparta. This pastoral space is filled with words captioning walls, gates, trees, sundials, buildings, and bridges: "wave" "little fields long" "there is happiness" "azure & son / islands LTD / oceans inc." "nuclear sail."
In an essay on Little Sparta, Susan Stewart writes that in this garden "all space has been made semantic space."
In contrast, if your city and its sculptures are a kind of garden (can it be called a war garden?), it is a garden that has lost its semantic drive. These carefully designed emblems of wars past — symbols of values and virtues defended by spears and sabers — register only with the occasional tourist. The figures wait for your demands. Screens sweep you into their petrified world.
You wonder how a weapon, and the body that carries it, can become so neutralized — to the point where you no longer take it in.
In the Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin wrote "The new, dialectical method of doing history presents itself as the art of experiencing the present as waking world." At this point it's an old idea that you can understand the past only from the standpoint of the present. You understand a place, a person, an action, not from what has been recorded, but from what has fallen out of the picture, forgotten. The historical fact is a double vision: tumbling into the present, it picks itself up and walks quickly away — at first flashing, clashing, then disappearing into the crowd. You take a sample, test the residue. You are the sensor.
The base for the Washington Grays monument was begun in 1872; the bronze figure was added in 1908. After four moves, the statue now stands in front of the Union League on Broad Street. The inscription reads "To Our Fallen Comrades 1861–1866."
As part of the Pennsylvania volunteer regiment during the Civil War, the Washington Grays Artillery Corp was one of the first groups to arrive in Washington at Lincoln's call, fully armed and ready for action. Most of the men were members of Philadelphia's elite class, then to be recast in stone. You stay with the program.
The Smithsonian Inventory of American Sculpture states that the Washington Grays monument was the brainchild of Edwin North Benson, a former member of the Gray Reserves, who donated $2,000 in 1871 toward its creation. As a wealthy and prominent member of postwar Philadelphia society (he was a banker before the war and an insurance magnate afterwards), he had the money to fund such memorials.
Benson was also a veteran of the Collis Zouaves d'Afrique, 114th Pennsylvania Volunteers. The Civil War Zouave soldiers were modeled after the French Zouaves, who themselves were modeled after Berbers in northern Algeria from the Zouaoua tribe. In the 1830s, the Berbers had been hired by the French to help them colonize North Africa. They became part of the occupying forces in Algeria and were known for their particularly aggressive fighting style.
Eventually the French replaced all of the Berber soldiers-for-hire with Frenchmen who called themselves the Zouaves. They adopted the Zouaoua style of dress, which included baggy pants, a sash, a short embroidered jacket and a tasseled red fez. You are suited up.
During the Crimean War, Captain McClellan (later to be General McClellan of the Civil War or "the Little Corporal of Unsought Fields"), saw the French Zouaves in action. He considered the Zouaves to be ideal soldiers and brought their method and fashion back to the United States. Thus, the Civil War Union soldiers, while purportedly fighting against slavery, adopted the outfits of the French colonizers of North Africa. You are half-way around the world in a trailer.
Zouave uniforms were used to reward Union army regiments for exceptional battlefield performance. While Zouave units proliferated, the Zouave style started a fashion craze, influencing women and children's clothing.
On the field, the Civil War Zouave uniforms quickly wore out and the U.S. government refused to replace them due to the expense. Your outer skin, your inner skin, is metal.
However, the style lives on thanks to groups such as the Collis Zouave reenactors at Gettysburg. Their website asks:
Do you want to be authentic, but also portray a zouave? Are you tired of "progressive" and "campaigner" meaning you can only wear blue? If so, you have come to the right place. We want to show the reenacting community that you CAN be a zouave and still have the highest authenticity standards!
It would be our hope that you or someone you know would like to join our living monument to the original 114th ...
You are a rotating sphere of optics.
A year or so before Edwin Benson joined the Gray Reserves, Baudelaire wrote "The Painter of Modern Life." The "Military Man" section of the essay catalogs the variety of military uniforms in such detail that war reads as a kind of fashion show.
No matter the costume, Baudelaire notes the common element shared by all of the soldiers (including the Zouaves):
Here we can see that uniformity of expression which is created by suffering and obedience endured in common, that resigned air of courage which has been put to the test by long, wearisome fatigues.
You get spun and then called back.
This photo, by Max Becherer, appeared in the New York Times on February 5, 2006. The accompanying article by Dexter Filkins states:
A group of about 20 uniformed Iraqi men, with a prisoner in its possession, was halted at a checkpoint. The men were wearing the telltale camouflage outfits of the police commandos ... They seemed legitimate.
But, after some checking, the Iraqis manning the checkpoint discovered that the men were not commandos after all. They were taking their prisoner to be shot.
The caption beneath the photo says "CAMOUFLAGE It's hard, in Iraq, to tell an enemy from an enemy's enemy. A villager can be an insurgent; a uniform can hide loyalty to a militia; a terrorist group can change its name."
There is something you're not seeing and you can sense it buzzing in the atmosphere as you stand quietly by the side of the road. Are you making progress? What do you shoot, save, rescue, aid, or err in this process?
Story: Is there a way to wake up? Light reaches in before you're ready and the envelope already awaits. You hold it in your hand and for a moment imagine not opening it, just walking away: a true improvisatory device. But the thought of breaking the routine that has held your life together for the past few years is more than you can bear.
The closed fist, the open hand.
The butcher wields his axe with skulls in his sleeves.
The flat hats are dying, the daggers win against the scabbards and swords.
The boots, the short pants unbuttoned at the calf.
The high-waisted belted support, a certain attire that speaks, arms above the head.
Everything the same to the upper right: the arm that holds the dagger, the hand that tries to stop the blow, the axe above the head before it crashes down.
Caption: Woman on phone. Two women walking and talking. Man with books and brown paper bag opening black car door looking at parking meter. The same.
Story: You begin the day with a brisk step and sense of purpose. But as soon as you meet the first stopping point in your delivered set of coordinates, you find yourself pausing too long. Long enough to give away the farm. So you push yourself along before your task is done, so as not to give yourself away.
Image: Thinly masked critiques at the end of the disasters.
The leader as bishop is a hawk with heads sutured at the ends of each wing.
With knees in the mud.
The parrot, the ass, the dog, the monkey, the wolf.
Infantalized humanoids, all cower in their bestial cover behind the leader like a cloud, his wings holding back their perfidy of which he is a part.
You are the shadow at the back, looming like a trace of escape.
Caption: Man with safety orange sweater looking in backpack, then putting it on back. Man running while on cell phone. Family of three. Troupe of charlatans.
Story: The mission is like a caption that underlines all things. There are no trips to the grocery store without you thinking "I'm performing the act of shopping at the grocery store while in fact I'm fulfilling the terms of my contract." Sometimes you imagine yourself the hero so the more mundane aspects of your job seem filled with possibility.
In the foreground four dead men.
Three are naked, their clothes being ripped from them by the ones in sashes.
One man's head barely has features like a cartoon; another man dead with sideburns and a muscular chest.
Bodies collect around a tree, clumped by the roots.
The moustaches of the ones with sashes, the hilts of their swords.
Garments pulled over the head, pulled down to the ankles.
The broken tree limbs, the vague mountain.
Caption: Young woman in beach hat and thigh-high boots. Woman running with headphones. A couple holding hands. They avail themselves.
You look out and see:
Holding a golden sword and an enormous Bible, Johnnie Ring stands on a high pedestal behind the faculty club at Temple University in North Philadelphia. On one side of the pedestal is a long inscription:
Johnnie Ring was the youth whose example in life and heroism in death provided inspiration that led to the founding of Temple University. In the war between the states, he was personal orderly to captain Russell H. Conwell of the 46th Massachusetts infantry. The moving forces of his life at that time were his religious faith and his devotion to Captain Conwell. When a surprise attack routed Union troops ...
Excerpted from Public Figures by Jena Osman. Copyright © 2012 Jena Osman. Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
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Meet the Author
JENA OSMAN is the author of three previous books, including The Network, winner of the 2009 National Poetry Series Award, and The Character, winner of the 1998 Barnard College New Women Poets Prize. She teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Temple University.
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