The Perfect Archive by Paul Lisson

Jun 7, 2021

In The Perfect Archive, Hamilton poet, archivist and librarian Paul Lisson stretches the boundaries of poetry and prose to perform an exacting/extracting critique of the archive. Reminiscent of Kafka, radical and irreverent, the archive at the centre of this dark tale of illusion, deception, and the contingent nature of truth itself, is brimful of contested knowledge and groans under the weight of its own power.

The book begins with the prose piece, “Notes regarding the provenance of The Perfect Archive.” The subject archive is comprised of the records of an unnamed archivist/creator condemned by the state for questioning/altering records under his care. In these notes—just the sort of thing a researcher in an archive would be given to guide their use of a complex set of records—Lisson hints at the inherent tension of the archive, that the instinct to accumulate records to manage an undertaking, their ordering and preservation, can equally upend an institution or a state (or, indeed, a person). He writes: “Researchers investigating __ _ __’s life are faced with revisionist histories, shifts in public perception, propagandizing, and censorship. Lauded for the pioneering use of punch-card and punch-film technologies; reviled for his careful cataloguing of our atrocities; …” (10) The notes also reference the tools used by __ _ __ to create the poems and marginalia that make up his collection, along with conjecture regarding the dates of works produced. All very proper descriptive work for an archivist. But in the context of The Perfect Archive, the notes read ominous, introduce doubt regarding __ _ __’s body of work, including the likelihood that the collection is incomplete. Brilliantly duplicitous, the notes can also be read as a commentary on the archive, not just __ _ __’s archive, but the archive as a social construct, a bureaucratic tool full of damning evidence, that is, in and of itself, a dangerous entity warranting oversight and control. So warned, we turn the page.

The poems, marginalia and blurred black and white photographs that make up the balance of the book are both allusive and inter-textual, riffing on archival theory and practice, and on “truths” bound into or purposefully left out of the archive – Lisson alludes variously to the sinking of the Titanic, the Spanish Civil War, Nazi Germany, the Berlin Wall, the Gulag, and the war in Vietnam, all of which are abundantly documented. In the first part, poems like “Numerals of the First Order,” “Conditions of Access,” “Ancien Regime” and “Cartesian Melody,” both engage with and pull apart archival craft. Lisson writes: “During the processing of new acquisitions, evidence of / cogitation must be monitored. Arrangement and description / are singular acts based upon diplomatic hierarchies. / Senior Cataloguers are responsible for record integrity and / may access levels which include purple, blue, and crimson. / Clerical entries will be etched in glass.” (25) In an untitled poem, Lisson begins by listing the standard elements of archival description: “Title / Creator / Subject …”, then slides in alternative terms: “First Line / Verses / Signature / Incipit / Stresses …” (33). This blend of technical and fabricated terminology troubles the reading, introduces doubt about the verity of records held by the archive, doubling down on the notion that they both hold and withhold—through sleight-of-hand, intervention, interpretation— essential evidence or truths.

In part two, the reader encounters the archivist’s “Marginalia”, a series of notes and wonderings associated with the poems in part one. Writes Lisson: “Truth still waits / at the bottom of a well” (56), and “There is always a before, and before that a reminder. / Before the seeing there is NOTHING. Where there / was NOTHING, there is now a reminder. / Creation resembles its antithesis. / Destruction is ruin, not a seed.” (70) Each of these brief pieces interrogates or pries into fractures in the original poem, suggesting the presence of an authoritative hand, of censorship and suppression, and the fallibility of the archive.

In the final sequence of poems, “Inevitabilities”, we wait with the archivist for the end. Writes Lisson, “… craft your own sacrament / observe your own sabbath / decompose / enrich / nurture / become food / become other”. (94) This denouement, these vivid, visceral final statements, produced during the archivist’s stay of execution, hearten the conclusion of the archivist’s tale. Even in the noir of The Perfect Archive, where “… Records do not participate. / They take no part. …”, (37) Lisson’s archivist breaks the archive open. And by doing so, introduces the promise of readings yet to come.

Paul Lisson’s The Perfect Archive was a finalist for the 27th Annual Hamilton Literary Awards and the Kerry Schooley Book Award. Lisson has received two City of Hamilton Arts Awards, the Rand Memorial Prize (McMaster University) and the International Merit Award for poetry from The Atlanta Review.

The Perfect Archive
by Paul Lisson
Guernica Editions, Essential Poets Series, 2019, 98 p.p., $20
ISBN: 9781771833721

Jody Baltessen is a Winnipeg poet, writer and long-time archivist. Her work has appeared in Prairie Fire and The New Quarterly.

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