(REVIEW) Innately Dark Objects: Black Rooms by Elisabeth Molin
In this review, Denise Bonetti examines the intertextual dialogue and delectable economies of stuff, technology, poetics and perception in Elisabeth Molin’s twin pamphlets, Black Rooms and Lies and Diet Coke (2ncbooks, 2017).
> I have now been sitting in this cafe with Elisabeth Molin’s pamphlet Black Rooms for about an hour. My stuff is spread out on the small table – my laptop, notepads, pens, phone and headphone cable cutting up its surface into small little allotments, curved romboids, and dead-end corners. Circular wet marks surround my cup of coffee as if to suggest alternative ways for me to incorporate it into the arrangement on the table. The more I flick through Black Rooms, the more I can see my own greasy fingerprints on its matt black cover, and in a way, I can’t help but feel this might have been Molin’s plan all along.
> Black Rooms is a thin booklet made up of 15 narrative fragments, each of them a self-contained journey, a fully justified box of text existing within its own margins across the two white pages of each spread. Most of the fragments describe enclosed spaces that feel both detailed and surreal, like a simulation both hallucinatory and perfectly lucid projected onto a very real set. These are like ‘room[s] which [belong] in a dream’, as Molin explains one of them (‘Stones and Splinters’), explored with flair and narrative poise, and with an eye that is both taxonomic and incredibly imaginative, somewhere between the spatial dissections of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Snapshots, and the syntactical momentum of Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women:
It was a room which was coloured black from charred wood, almost as if someone had burned the wooden walls manually, centimetre by centimetre, with a lighter or a flaming wine cork. The room had a black chair standing against the longer side of the rectangular room, with a glass of black milk next to it. It was unclear if there was a person sitting on the chair or not, as at some moments it appeared that way, at others not, almost as if this person was a memory; someone you could recall sitting there, back hunched over with his hand on his forehead, in a grey dusty sweatshirt and sweatpants, bare feet, probably.
The room was occasionally interrupted by an abstract sound, the wheels of a car or the wings of an airplane, mechanical somehow, empty, or like a void, but a comfortable one, compressed, like white noise, like something you fell into – disappeared into somehow just to find yourself moments later, totally entrenched in smoky wood and a memory of a bonfire night from when you were a kind and they used to burn witches on the fire, not real ones but simulations.
(‘Charcoal Surfaces’, Black Rooms)
Molin often lingers not only on the materials, colours, and sculpture-like everyday objects that populate the rooms; she is irresistibly fascinated by the sounds these often seem to contain (breathing, echoes, often unidentified ‘click clacks’ quickly disappearing), and the unique consistency of the air inside each of them (thick, dusty, unstable, dry, electric, smoky but without odour). All these self-sufficient fragments work as identical small brush strokes gesturing towards a model of space that’s alive with sensory presence, vital with specificity, always flickering foreground and never background container. Leakage, disobedient fluids, objects hiding or burnt, furniture marking floors, shadows and outlines: this pamphlet draws boundaries within the space it builds, then makes them run into each other, bleed and mark the world again. Segment by segment, Black Rooms also dissects the invisible workings of the book medium itself as a physical space of mental architecture. Molin allows her language the power to now build up, now break down, blueprints of imagined spaces that look nothing like the ones we are used to:
all of these words, fragments and memories kept pouring into the room like images in different sizes and shapes. the prints landed on the ground like raindrops that filled up the room, like speech bubbles going everywhere, colliding with and laying on top of one another.
(‘Stones and Splinters’, Black Rooms)
> Molin’s interest in deception, blindness, and distorted representation is carried through in Black Rooms’ twin pamphlet, Lies and Diet Coke – sporting the exact same size (a slightly tallerandskinnier A5) but with a bright yellow cover, a red title, and a sans-serif title, instead of its sister’s elegant black and serious, whiteserifness. Both pamphlets unfold without page numbers, the same way the poems themselves seem more interested in marking space (with text) than inmarking (reading) time. (The last page of Black Rooms has no text, just a picture: the face of a wristwatch reflecting light off its surface, unmarked by lines.) Lies and Diet Coke is an arrangement of untitled notes or prose poems, more personal than Black Rooms, revolving around the different faces of failed representation, and how technology affects notions of perceived distance and proximity. As a wink to Black Rooms, it is full of darkness, night time, but also dark objects and their texture. Lots of them:
She gathered everything black in her flat and laid it all out in the middle of the living room floor. There were the black Ikea cushions, a flat screen tv, Adidas sneakers, Coke zero, coffee from Guatemala, raisins and a rotten banana.
As we sat down she talked about innately dark objects, like the obsidian rock on the table, the pieces of tar collected on a beach and the chunk of coal in the corner. She talked about the surface and texture of these objects, how some of them were shiny, reflective and attractive but also how they keep you at a distance, whereas the more matt and textured objects pull you in, allow your eyes to rest.
(Lies and Diet Coke)
The photographic concerns of Lies and Diet Coke talk to Black Rooms through the split meaning of ‘camera’, an etymological vaulted chamber; but Black Rooms itself offers a reciprocal gesture. ‘Stones and Splinters’ begins:
it was a room which belonged in a dream, with the black sand that filled up the room – filled up the camera – filled up the screen […].
Black Rooms also speaks to Lies and Diet Coke’s bright primary-coloured cover with its literal sparks of brightness within the text: the pamphlet is peppered with a few words printed in colour, similar to Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves; but Molin’s words are more synaesthetic, spelling one colour and performing another (did I already say ‘distorted representation’?). If Lies and Diet Coke is a bright box full of dark material, Black Rooms feels like the opposite: a black cover hiding a rainbow; a bouquet of language to make colours leak:
He walked around, opening and closing his eyes to see his vision transform – from black to violet – black to blood orange – black to jasmine green. The colours weren’t dense, but transparent like the lights from a disco, leaking, puncturing the darkness
(‘Back Pepper and Red Eyelid’)
You try to open your eyes in the space but it doesn’t make a difference or the difference is that of the wetness of your eyelids and the dryness of the room – an almost smoky air, piercing your retina, you try to ignore it – this taste of sulphur, as if the eyes could taste
I am very aware that the way I perceive the threads that Molin has woven between one pamphlet and another is dictated by the fact that I happened to pick up the black book first (blame my teenage goth phase); I read the failures of representation in terms of the texture of space and not the other way around (I wish I could compare notes with someone who’s read them in the reverse order). In fact, don’t think I’ve ever found myself in this situation: looking at two books by the same author that talk to each other, but aren’t related by any sort of hierarchical of hypotactical relationship, however subjective or questionable (is a newer book necessarily a product of or a response to the older book?). Sure, I am reminded of other books that run on two parallel narratives, like Ali Smith’s How to Be Both and Sam Riviere’s Safe Mode, holding two stories in dialogue within themselves, the precedence of one over the other entirely contingent on the reader’s (blind) choice. But there’s something about two separate objects, materially independent of one another while inextricably enmeshed in the virtual space of content. It seems that Molin did the unimaginable, the sort of dream that only self-publishing or small presses would allow (unless you’re Ali Smith, that is): she published two objects in parataxis, in orbit with each other, both equally outstanding. (But it’s ok to read only one, too; you really should).
Text: Denise Bonetti