An invention of trauma-imbued art

From the book jacket
From the book jacket
Posted: November 27, 2011

By Kirsten Kaschock

Coffee House Press.

286 pp. $16.


Reviewed by Alison Barker
By the end of Kirsten Kaschock's debut novel Sleight, questions abound. How does she do that - create a novel like a set of Russian nesting dolls, each whimsical creation housing a new wonder? And, can someone please do the performance art she invents - called "sleight" - in the real world? Most important: Why can't more novels use fairy tale to ask big questions?

In Sleight we encounter part-living, part-inanimate objects called Needs and Souls; artists who apprentice as "hands" in secluded farmhouses; a girl's imaginary friend who is her late grandfather (as a young child), and a young man perpetually clutching a heavy rock (alternating hands year by year).

An accomplished poet, scholar, and currently a doctoral fellow in dance at Temple University, Kaschock invents "sleight," in which she invests the very real menace of individual and collective trauma. The novel thus overlays fairy tale with psychological disturbance, rattling with movement. Among the master artists of sleight are sisters Clef and Lark, and brothers Marvel and Byrne. Two sleight troupes are pulled into a daring new production, [Untitled], masterminded by a rogue director named West Early.

Lark, Clef, and Clef's lover and sleightist, Kitchen, are disciplined professionals who regularly isolate their abdominals and latissimi dorsi in warm-ups, and sustain "floor burns, fishwire and fiberglass cuts" from "architectures" - flexible, transparent structures of plastic and wire. Small acrobatic troupes train with language pulled from disciplines like the Kabbalah, psychoanalysis, physics, and voodoo: "1st sefirot, fortress, sacri-fly, infold, purl."

Footnotes illustrate sleight's rituals, which include real and fictional figures from dance and philosophy. One Antonia Bugliesi (who trained, we learn, under the real-life Marie Taglioni, a noted mid-19th-century ballerina) grew the art form, "an endless, associative play," around a series of intricate drawings by an obscure Jesuit priest named Pierre Revoix in Santo Domingo.

Kaschock, who has published two collections of poetry, Unfathoms and A Beautiful Name for a Girl, weaves a tight story. Her inventive, fragmented style scrambles subjects and objects to squeeze the inner world of artistic process onto the page. Former sleightist Lark is engrossed in a ritual of her own invention: the birthing/killing of her Needs. These are bodily excretions that she fossilizes, from which she extracts deep hues to paint dried, wooden representations of Need "husks." In Lark, Kaschock addresses the harrowing process of artistic creation - one that does not knowingly borrow any external references:

"What I draw has nothing to do with what's outside. This thing is inside me." She jabbed her finger down at the page. "This Need." Beneath her insistence, a rope bridge/noosed centipede was writhing. Twirling.

When Clef, Lark, Marvel, and Byrne join forces, and West injects [Untitled] with inspiration from a gruesome crime ripped directly from the headlines, the drama tightens and Sleight asks: Where is the line between exploitation and inspiration?

The artists' personal traumas manifest in their artwork, meaning [Untitled] reflects collective, remembered pain. And this, in turn, threatens to violate sleight's strict policy against meaning and storytelling. Clef, a budding choreographer, amplifies designs in her estranged sister's disturbing diary. Lark, a self-taught composer, kills her Needs and reconstructs them as Souls, a process deeply entwined with the drawings she makes for the performance. Byrne pens dirgelike, mournful chants that open the production.

What exactly do "architectures" really look like? In sleight, each angle or move of an architecture is one definition of it, and there can be up to 30 inversions of one architecture in a single sleight. Perhaps Kaschock leaves this work of imagination to the reader, just as sleight strives to reach audiences "beyond both emotion and reason."

There are clues, though. In an online biography from Ahsahta Press, Kaschock mentions among her influences the Franco-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois. Bourgeois sculptures are enclosures like cells, bodies, limbs, and houses. The "Femme Maison" series merges the female form with houses. Such shadows might dance on the wall during a sleight.

In interview transcripts, newspaper articles, and letters, we slowly learn that there is an untold history of sleight, and that Revoix's drawings are deeply embedded in a historical tragedy: Sleight has the power to connect people because it is built on a specific suffering. These are the nesting dolls Kaschock scatters: pain, imagination, memory, and individual artists. The ingredients erupt with great consequence in Sleight's finale performance of [Untitled].

The past is in front of us, Kaschock seems to be saying, and we, performers and audience members alike, are its visionaries. Sleight is a disgorged dream, painstakingly crystallized; when it ends, you'll want tickets to the show.


Alison Barker (abarke4@lsu.edu) teaches writing at Louisiana State University.

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