A review of Transcript of the Disappearance, Exact and Diminishing by Lynn Emanuel

Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

Transcript of the Disappearance, Exact and Diminishing
by Lynn Emanuel
University of Pittsburgh Press
Paperback, 80 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0822967187, Sept 2023

In “Depression Was,” Lynn Emanuel writes, “I was as disorderly as water,” which she attributes to Covid: “I landed here in the middle of winter in the middle of Covid. By ‘here’ I mean in the middle of my disorder.” Transcript of the Disappearance, Exact and Diminishing is a memoir in verse and prose, mainly during the pandemic lockdown but looking back to the rest of Lynn Emanuel’s life, not all the memories pleasant ones. As Diane Seuss perceptively notes in her back-cover endorsement, all memoir is elegy, a mourning for what’s gone – disappeared – just as an autobiography is often a literary attempt at recovery, preservation.

Transcript of the Disappearance, Exact and Diminishing is divided into three parts. In the first, in which she considers her “disorder,” she describes the terms of her project. In what may be in the voice of the Coronavirus talking to the poet, she writes in “Plague’s Monologue,”: “I erased the world so nothing can find it…” and concludes the piece, “…there is no limit to my appetite, my lust, my zeal for emptiness. But I know you—and you have kept a transcript of the disappearance.”

Titles from the first part, like “Retrospective Elegy for Charlotte” and “My Eurydice,” seem to send a mixed message, but the tone is definitely elegiac. “Where is my charming girlhood?” she plaintively asks in the long, diary-like piece, “Depression Was.” (Ou sont les nieges d’antan?) “I scrubbed my palette down to nothing,” she writes in “My Eurydice,” continuing the erasure theme, and concludes the poem:

About death
I didn’t give a damn.
I believed my hand
could open any lock.
And even if not,
as I forged ahead,
I did not once look back.

Eurydice, of course, is the figure from Greek mythology who does look back, when her husband Orpheus tries to bring her back from the dead.

In Part Two, Emanuel looks back, in search of that erased girlhood. This section comes with epigraphs on the concept of noir by the writers Catherine Gammon and Eddie Muller, who writes extensively about film noir, the cinematic term that describes crime dramas, particularly with a cynical attitude, films that focus on beat characters.  In “my life in noir films” Emanuel writes, “They were documentary. An archive.” The title of the very next poem says it succinctly: “During the late forties and in the fifties my mother and I lived on our own in a small residential hotel in a small, damp city. The cold war was all around us.” Already we’re set up for drab hopelessness.  “I was thrilled that I was not safe,” she writes and describes being left with ill-tempered, resentful acquaintances whenever her mother needed to be away, sleeping in a closet on a canvas cot from World War II. “My mother’s parents owned the Collins Hotel on US route 80 in Ely, Nevada” paints a further picture of noir bleakness. The isolation is almost palpable.

In “I have always loved the unassuming objects of noir,” “My early poems were filmic like ‘B’ movies” (“B films empowered me to write B poetry, with characters, situations, and events I thought not possible or permissible in more classical and decorous A poetry.”) and “My American Self-Portrait” Emanuel describes her fascination with noir, depicting her life in its terms. “The War ended in 1945” and “The Visit” are about her father, an artist who “shared a cold-water flat with the actor Zero Mostel,” her memories of “meeting my father / for the first time “ whom she calls “the unclosed cut of me.” When she was born in 1949, she writes that she and her mother lived on a working-class street in Denver with “my father-in-exile-from-New-York-City.” Clearly he’s getting ready to split the scene.

The second section ends with the poem, “Photos from a Highway Hotel Room,” which begins: “I love my misery first, then the overexposure.” It would be hard to come up with a more concise thumbnail description of film noir.

The final section is mainly comprised of “Pandemia Elegy,” a longish piece written like diary entries over the course of two weeks, but it begins with a poem called “Doing the Laundry with Jade, I Remember a Train Trip to Tuscaloosa Alabama to Give a Poetry Reading—A Collage.” Jade is a character, part muse, part confidante, whom Emanuel introduced in “Depression Was.” (“I had not seen the hospital since the ’60s. Jade and I were living in the East Village, writing our theses.”) Jade appears in “Day 5” and “Day 7” of “Pandemia Elegy.” She reads into Emanuel’s cellphone, which is how people communicated during the quarantine.  “My friend Jade reads these sentences to me on my iPhone: Everyone is in the scene, a living and  breathing stage set. Do not judge. Enter the scene,” she writes in “Day 5.” In “Day 7” she notes, “Jade continues giving a reading on my iPhone: Immanence is activated by Detail. Eternity is Today, and Everyone is in it.

It is impossible to overstate the devastation of Covid during its first appearance in New York City, before the vaccines were developed. People died like flies, corpses stored in refrigerated trucks converted into makeshift morgues. In an epigraph from a story in The New York Times to the poem, “This City as Afterlife,” we learn that 900,000 New Yorkers lost at least three loved ones to Covid and one in four lost at least one person who was close to them, during the first 16 months of the virus’s arrival. It is with this understanding that we read the “Pandemia Elegy,” Emanuel’s Notes from Underground. Almost all of the diary entries includes a Word-of-the-Day, leaves torn from a calendar (“Concupiscence,” “Longing,” “Delusion,” “Hysteric,” “Skulk,” etc.) as well as what she has for dinner; all of these include some sort of drug (Xanax, amphetamines, 10 mg., Famotidine, 20 mg., Rexalti, Trazodone, marijuana, etc.) – understood as a crutch to make it through. On Days 4 and 5 she completes and then paints over (erases) a painting titled Isolation Al Fresco. It’s a  brilliant, ingenious piece that screams DESPERATION in all caps. 

The use of the word “transcript” in the title is an intriguing choice. “An official record.” It’s a transcript of disappearance, no less, which sounds almost oxymoronic. But the term is so appropriate for this chronicle of the noir, as if it were lifted from Kafka. Transcript of the Disappearance, Exact and Diminishing is a worthwhile read.

About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His latest book, Mortal Coil, was published by Clare Songbirds Publishing, and his book, A Magician Among the Spirits was released by Blue Light Press in late 2022.