- I think what I wanted was not synthesis, but the coexistence of forms: it was important to me that the images and text together created a world, while at the same time retaining their distinctness as different modes of expression. My Last Book with Bella Li in The Suburban Review
- In the Spirit of Disappearance: An Interview with Bella Li in Peril Magazine What I wanted to convey in Argosy, beyond the madness of embarking on expeditions of discovery, beyond the exigencies of specific people in specific times, was a general atmosphere of strangeness. Because everything, when you look closely, is strange: people, history, language—language most of all. The more I think about poetry as a genre, the more I see it as a space for estrangement: where language—that which ostensibly provides a common ground on which to stand—can be most thoroughly interrogated.
Disappearance, a particular species of the unknown, is a passing from the recorded and catalogued into the unnamed and unremarked, by a path that is unclear. The word itself invites openness, a suspension and deferral of explanations; it can evoke contradictory or incongruous alternatives without resolving them one way or another. It’s this openness and spaciousness that I find most compelling, not only in the poetry of Rimbaud, but in any work of art.
There is, of course, a political dimension to the material on which ‘Pérouse’ is based—in the history of colonial appropriation, the gathering of knowledge often precedes and informs conquest, and the dissemination of this knowledge amounts to an act of erasure. Disappearance creates a palpable gap in the known, one that draws attention not only to the disappeared (in this case, it is the explorer who vanishes), but also to the fact that knowledge is always contingent and never absolute.
To write with an awareness, and in the spirit, of disappearance is to recognise that the persistence of gaps is necessary. The seeking of discontinuities and ambiguities, not only in accounts of the past and present, but in language itself, and their proliferation—the multiplication of possibilities and the refusal of smooth transitions and definitive statements—are uses to which poetry is particularly well suited.
Argosy began with the ‘Pérouse’ collages and the photographs in ‘La ténébreuse’, which were shot during a period when I’d stopped reading and writing poetry altogether. Working in a different medium meant a lot of time feeling my way through the dark, stumbling and making mistakes. But while the material was different, the methodology of collage and recombination was largely the same: in my poems, which are generally inclined towards the visual, I am often appropriating other titles and phrases and themes, disassembling and reassembling.
The book draws on surrealist conventions in visual art, where a sense of the uncanny, as well as playfulness, are central, and whimsy and terror are often conveyed simultaneously. I also wanted to reference and evoke, through the lexicon of images, the genres of horror and adventure—the work of Poe and Lovecraft, Verne and Stevenson—in which the monstrous always borders on, and to some extent draws its power from, the comic—as well as the aesthetics of comics and pulp magazines. Because Argosy, for me, combines all of these influences and traditions.
On a structural level, the collage novels of Max Ernst were crucial in providing frames within which disparate elements, both visual and textual, could come into sharper focus and cohere. This coherence was particularly important: reading is an encounter with the world of a book—an encounter that occurs on its terms, not yours—but it is the task of the author to convince you of this reality. Argosy is first and foremost an attempt to create a world, subject to its own laws, and distinct and strange in its own way.
Kate Middleton Reviews Bella Li in Cordite
This work is fundamentally hybrid: amid short texts and textual sequences that may be termed prose poems, or micro-essays, or short short fictions, Li intersperses works of collage and photography. These visual elements of the work are not supplemental or separate, but are themselves linked to its central narratives.
Li offers discrete segments of pure visual narrative, followed by sections of the work in which only text appears. The full-colour reproduction of this work makes for a lush object, which reminds us how central the ability to dwell with pictorial work has been in the history of reading. The interplay between the visual and verbal work provides a dimensionality that would be difficult to achieve through text alone, allowing critique to emerge in the friction between the two. These are works that are informed by postcolonial and feminist thought: they do not provide disquisition upon these topics, but offer instead an imaginative inhabitation of these ways of seeing the world.
Li composes three sequences of collage before presenting the reader with the first textual sequence. In these collages, the interplay between human and nonhuman is central. Boats are rendered strange as they carry enormous cargoes of shells: here an inverted gastropod shell stands on its tip, replacing the mast of the ship; there an oared boat is propelled forward by wind in the wing-like sails of oversized, splayed mussel shells. Hovering over one open boat is the grass-thatched roof of a Pacific island fala, while on the stern of another, gigantic flora blooms. The strange birds of strange lands are rendered stranger, as they too are made enormous when compared to the tiny bodies of the explorers and the European houses in which they normally dwell. Such play with gigantism can be seen in the way the unknown – exoticised in the huge, near-naked bodies of men bearing weapons, their heads replaced with seashells and flora, given scale by the trees and clothed men who sit at their feet – loomed large in the minds of explorers such as La Pérouse, and continues to loom large today. Think of the latest iteration of King Kong, its weirdly unlocatable South Pacific site filled with a myriad of strange gigantic creatures: Western culture has not moved beyond this form of exoticisation.
Against these images that, by their embodiment of the strange, answer back to the explorers who recorded them, Li writes two sequences of prose. These works are understated and restrained, occupying the gaze of the explorer who is concerned with cataloguing what he sees. This creation of binaries is evident in the opening text:
This day we sail, dividing the waters from the heavens. I am my own guide, the steerage, the hull. This day by sea, by the sea we lie. Sharp peaks divided, three by two by three. Our man at the helm, broad-shouldered and in love, saying: This but not this. This, but not this. You ford the stream. You move.
The self that is its own guide, its own hull, is set against everything that is not the self in this sequence. Division is the fundamental action of the newcomer as he encounters the new: we don’t need to know what is being catalogued in the words, ‘This, but not this’. It is the world in its entirety.
The second half of the book takes the reader to a compendium of stories and images that investigate women. ‘The Hundred Headless Woman’ is reinvented many times, as Li moves through historical, literary and cinematic sources; at the same time she uses her own photography and collage to comment on contemporary visions of femininity. In ‘Eve & Co’ she presents photographs of often run-down urban environments, with the juxtaposition of (headless) illustrations drawn from sewing-packet instructions for women’s clothing. The scale and placement of these women within the city-scapes is both a contrast – their brightly coloured, immaculately illustrated stylish clothes are at odds with the unglamorous environments in which they stand – and a comment on the perceived requirements of womanhood – whether lived headlessly or not. Meanwhile, the final photographic sequence of the book, ‘La ténébreuse’ shows a long-haired woman whose hair, in each configuration, is the centrepiece of the image. Whether she has her back turned or is seen side-on in various settings, her hair replaces her face. This facelessness is a form of anonymity that speaks both to the exceptional women of the text in this sequence, and the many more women who have not risen above their historical anonymity.
There is a very old tradition of automatons in the Black Forest. Through the ages—in the shooting galleries, the cheap bars, the lottery booths—they meet by chance, they meet in silence. A body is a body, but only voices are capable of love.
Highlighting this different between the body and the voice – that the voice is what allows emotion to manifest – again recalls the spectre of the ‘Hundred Headless Woman’. The Isadora of ‘Isadora: a Western’ is unidentified, though the name recalls the remarkable Isadora Duncan, whose life and death are outsized, making the idea of her as heroine of a Western as likely as anything that actually took place in her life. In the realm of cinematic influence, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden and Luca Guadagnino’s Io Sono Amore (or I Am Love) provide the starting points for other sections of this sequence. Its variety of voices, and their far-flung origins, allows the reader to perceive womanhood through a lens that is constantly on the move.
For all that Argosy is a work that draws upon many texts, Li occupies distinctively original imaginative spaces within her writing. Familiarity with the specific novels and films to which she refers can work in concert with her writing, but it is equally possible to fall into this work without seeking each and every intertextual link. The gestures through which Li examines the worlds of her characters create a sustained voice and vision. The production values visible in this edition are impressive, making for a sumptuous book: unique, unclassifiable.