Christine Hume and Jeff Clark, Questions Like A Face, Image Text Ithaca Press, 2017

Reviewed by Joe Sacksteder

[Review Guidelines]

The most powerful moment for me experiencing Christine Hume and Jeff Clark's Question Like A Face was absentmindedly flipping back through the images after having "finished" the text—it was an unconscious move, an imagined moment of decompression to lift the weight of witness off my chest—and suddenly noticing a police officer in a photo graph that before had yielded only a stereo, a hat, some sunglasses, and other bedroom detritus. Appropriate, I know, the ability of the white male reader to allow his cop-spotting faculties to atrophy. He's sort of in the background, but not so far as to excuse my misseeing, reflected in a mirror, bi-bisected by the camera he himself aims, just above the gun, just above the knees. Just a pelvis. The lenses of the sunglasses gaze up at the lens of the camera, their face invisible woman-ed late the night before by one resembling this civil servant.
      Not that the cursory attention I'd paid to the photograph the first time through had been entirely unmotivated by the visuals in this chapbook, photographs culled and arranged by poet / book designer Jeff Clark. Inside the cover, a two-page spread blooms blues and maroons on a mottled gray surface, an impressionistic album cover, an indistinct object at the far right edge that, by the time you reach the back cover, comes into focus as a bullet casing, the blooms blood. But that's later. The next image is simply the entryway of a crappy apartment, aggressively unphotogenic, a turn of the page opening a door onto the title page. Continued snapshots of miscellany train us not to look too hard—a pack of cigarettes, a rug, a junk drawer—even as the progression of the text begins to invest these items with a sense of foreboding. We notice the casual violence of a hole kicked in a hollow-core door, a chair turned over, scuffed Parquet. The text mentions a spent Taser wire that you might mistake for those scratches on the floor, and you turn back to the humdrum rug and see that you mistook the Taser wire for nothing at all. It might not be until the end that you really understand what you're looking at, tucked into the copyright page that usually precedes a text: "Photographs sourced from the Washtenaw County Prosecutor's Office." This page is a pack of cigarettes, meant to be overlooked but holding clues to a scrap of tragic history. Even the playful polka dots of the cover are transformed by now into bullet holes—or a distribution of sex offenders in the city of Ypsilanti, Michigan, "red upside-down tear drops flooding the topography." Sometimes both.
      Despite the innocence with which I was able to frolic through such a laden text, I know the community Hume writes about well, "a city so poor that our skies take on airport traffic so that other cities won't have to… a city so poor that land-lords welcome felons because the government pays the rent, a city of halfway houses and group homes." For five years I lived in a run-down house on Cross Street in Ypsilanti, attending and then teaching adjunct at Eastern Michigan University. The house was old, America-old at least, from 1855 or so, haunted by stories of dubious authenticity: its tenure as a brothel, the murders it had hosted. Although my fears were manifold—deadly mildew, drug-dealing neighbors, gunshots heard at night, financial insecurity, etc.—I generally came to regard my time there as safer-than-reported. That is, until I got a text three years after I'd moved away, a link from one of my fellow tenants to a news article reporting a grisly incident of deadly domestic abuse. Although the whole thing was awful, I was particularly chilled by the sight of another fellow tenant's Jeep in the driveway; while Courtney and I had dodged disaster, Deb had been living there at the time, just upstairs. That I would get so snagged on this Jeep amidst all the horror is a reminder that the image-viewing eye is an irrational archivist, a reminder of why Roland Barthes used the piercing capabilities of the punctum to describe such encounters with frozen time.
      "Inside her house," Hume writes, "a woman's habit becomes to wait for the next wave of rage." Men have been slower arriving at this rage—and it's doubtful that we can feel it as acutely as women—but the Trump/Weinstein era's daily dose of fresh new horrors is showing us what the world has always been like for other people—the powerlessness, the injustice, the comic apocalypse. "The civics of this place has turned men into parodies of themselves," she continues, "fixed in the posture of forever looking into the distance, where the beyond is invisible because it is too brightly lit." Indeed I realize that most of my review has represented my own experience of Ypsilanti and of the text, rather than the author's…
      It's more than just a simple difference between perceived safety/danger and the reality. Hume's text shows how living in a place like Ypsilanti throws us into constant oscillations between safety, danger, and the simulacra created by media and law enforcement to make us distrust our neighbors. We are in a tricky position: be aware of how surrounded we are by violence while not being duped by the scripts that would misuse our caution. Hume relates her experience of first moving to Ypsilanti and finding out that one of her neighbors had recently been raped by a stranger in the doorway of her house. The hush surrounding this horror is contrasted with an incident of police brutality from November 25th, 2014, the murder of Aura Rosser. Not only was she gunned down by Ann Arbor police officers on what many believe should have been a non-lethal domestic dispute intervention, but the investigations following the incident broadcasted Rosser's drug and alcohol use, her bipolar disorder, in a successful attempt to exonerate the offending officers. "Later the cops say she was 'advancing,' 'coming at them,' and 'confronting them,'" Hume gathers evidence. "A journalist describes her as 'wide-eyed' and 'wild'; it says she 'appeared to be in a deranged state,' with a 'blank stare.' We know this part of the story, how language transforms her into a mad beast who cannot feel pain." It was stickers of Rosser's face, which began to crop up around the Ypsi/Arbor area that seem to have prompted Question Like A Face: "She returns like a refusal. Ask a boyfriend, and he will tell you she wouldn't listen. Ask a cop, and he will tell you she was resisting. Her face is a hole cut in time." Rosser's appearance in the text moves beyond simple documentary poetics; it simultaneously amplifies Rosser's unique story while using it as synecdoche for a host of all-too-familiar social ills.
      Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas famously wrote that every face says "Don't kill me"; Hume/Clark's chapbook—the title of which can be read as command or description—both bears witness to this empathetic capacity of our species and puts pressure on its idealistic shortcomings. Rather: "How many times, her face is telling." We must question for faces no longer there to be unheeded, using art and every other tool at our disposal to dereify statistics on violence, narratives bent to serve the satisfied.