Penury/The Stripped of Comprehensive Knowledge (an essay/an installation-in-progress)

Jill Magi


My father once said, “I think the forest in winter is more interesting than summer because you can see through it.” He continued, “I like the monochromatic quality of it: the grays and browns, and the white when there’s snow.”

berry with number

In 1976, around the same time as my father was driving me to school and telling me these things, Lauren Brown’s Weeds and Wildflowers in Winter was published. She writes, “Although they may be dead, many herbaceous plants do not disappear over the winter” and “many of them are spectacularly beautiful.” As line drawings, her illustrations are in a slightly looser hand than botanical illustrations of an earlier century.

Brown book

In the summer, I made nine life-sized embroideries based on her drawings.

That summer, I was also trying to write poems about economics. I was exploring the possibility of writing as drawing and stitching between image and minimalism.

winter weed 2

Stitching established close contact with these weeds. A dead thing, I watched each one grow in my hands.

ghosted weed 1

winter weed 3

I do not know what this future installation of stitched weeds ghosted light prints knows.

I had been contemplating penury and lack, abundance and affluence.

winter weed close up


I asked my friend Johannah Rodgers what she made of these stitched winter weeds. She said something about medieval tapestries and then botanicals.

When I think about botanical illustration, I think of the drive to collect, to identify. Yet, amidst this cataloguing, as Césaire articulates in Discourse on Colonialism, it is the colonizer who holds things back: a system of plunder and a certain kind of love of knowledge production—epistephilia—right next to penury.

I am familiar with the pleasure of isolating the figure, holding things back in order to heighten sensation. Artists sidle right up to this territory compressed on two sides by the erotics of knowing, the erotics of partiality.

stripped of compr

I am trying to think through “the stripped of comprehensive knowledge,” a phrase from my notebook when I was teaching Myung Mi Kim’s work and poetics. Floating on a page with very little context and no citation, I don’t know if the phrase is hers or mine, but I lean toward the belief that it is hers.


Myung Mi Kim’s Penury, published in 2009, is a book that is emptied out; there are numerous blank double-page spreads; it is painfully stark, withheld; there are rarely more than six lines per page; there is hardly any narrative context. There seem to be poor people, an English language primer, war, an orchestrated famine, grieving rituals.


Here is some language from the book—

“does a single tree list”

“stepping on people with shoes on”

“Pick at                  root out”

making rent

In the following line, the slip of a wrong article:

“When you come, you start from the scratch”

Our quick ability to pick out that error: indicative of a kind of penury. That it is possible to boil a person down to non-native English speaking status—a person who performs this one syllable of difference, even though we know exactly what they mean, yet we might miss the meaning of their hard work, their struggle.


Embroidery withholds seeing—embroidery asks the needle to find its way up from underneath, working in the blind.

Can you imagine a painter closing her eyes every other stroke?

Therefore, embroidery is the stripped of comprehensive seeing—it is muscle memory and spatial relationships: haptics.

Brathwaite Sycorax

Stitching words, I consistently fail to create a smooth edge. This is line by accrual, and all the approaches and near misses total up to a sign. The lack of a clear edge contains a meaning of its own: an excess in its lack.

This is pixilation—I’m thinking of Kamau Brathwaite’s Sycorax font.


I’m thinking of ikat weaving, where fibers are dyed before they are woven and the pattern comes together again as the cloth is made, but it will not come together perfectly: this is a centuries-old desired aesthetic.

In Digital Film Event, Elizabeth Dungan asks Trinh T. Minh-ha: “‘We work with being, but non-being is what we use,’” said Lao Tzu. Considering your move to digital format, how might The Fourth Dimension relate to non-being, or emptiness?”

Minh-ha answers: “What characterized the digital image is its inherent mutability—the constant movement of appearing and vanishing that underlies its formation. In today’s electronic space of computerized realities, the sage’s words would fare quite well, for one can hear in them all at once: the practical voice of ancient wisdom, the dissenting voice of postcoloniality, and the visionary voice of technology.”

Parker sampler framed


Elizabeth Parker stitched this sampler in the 19th century. Last June, I sat in front of her work in the Victoria and Albert Museum textile archive, asking, “What is this text?” and “Who is this person?”

Parker sampler close up

This is not really a sampler—it is autobiography, confession, diary. Parker is working out more than the shape of each letter. She is practicing complaint and resolution. Her work is maximal and stripped at the same time.

Parker went to work for an abusive employer. It was a domestic situation. She was violated—the offenses are vague. She considered suicide. She confessed to God and was delivered from the abusive household.

The sampler that is not really a sampler trails off, unfinished.

Parker sampler end

The slow, meticulous performance of desperation—“what will become of my soul”—and deliverance: an exposition on domestic labor in vibration.

Parker sampler large text field


1685 remaining

Question one: Art critic Nancy Princethal asks, “Are numbers more abstract than letters or more embodied, arising as they do from a language first counted out on fingers?”

Question two: If, according to Nicholas Lemann’s 2012 New Yorker article, “The most striking change in American society in the past generation . . . has been the increase in the inequality of income and wealth,” then why have no politicians seized upon this issue?

Third question: how might poetry seize upon this issue?

A Story:

I found numbers, tucked in the margins of years of notebooks, usually scribbled at an angle: they are bank balances, minus upcoming rent, plus incoming checks: the story of a household cashflow.

Until I became exhausted by my constant figuring.

i have a full time job

So I stitched my desired position in yellow thread and soon after landed a sustaining job, but I do not want to suggest that this energy transfer is some kind of lesson and that anyone else should try my digital financial fix-it.

ghosted weed 7


Who can address lack? Who can explore penury? Those who lack? Or those who have? When do their/our/my territories touch?

step on people

winter weed 4

Sociologists have shown that suffering comes from relative deprivation: when those who do not have find out what is possible to have. The problem of measuring up, the problem of withholding.

The poor person’s world is often a world on display—inside out—stains worn publicly. One of the meanings of this is that the suffering of the wealthy is often hidden while the poor are pathologized.

This situation of seen/unseen doesn’t mean that the wealthy do not suffer, nor does it mean that the poor are always unhappy.

Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for the guaranteed income so that no one would be in poverty. But this idea went nowhere, perhaps because his life ended too early and perhaps because we are addicted to looking at poor people’s stains.


I have written about this before—and keep returning, this time asking “how do you strip away the way that you see so that you can see an other?”:

In “The Original Affluent Society,” Marshall Sahlins critiques the modern anthropological assertion that the hunter-gatherer spends most of their time struggling for survival. Sahlins systematically and ethnographically disproves this, showing, instead, that they have a lot of time off, they are unfamiliar with scarcity as a behavior-governing concept, they feast often when food is abundant, and they engage in many hours of “leisurely activity” such as “visiting” and “resting.”

Sahlins’ essay was a corrective, in the 1970s, to a particular ethnographic bias: the western world view that to toil away at a job and to be busy is to progress. In early anthropological attempts to make visible the complexities of hunter-gatherers, anthropologists succeeded, more so, in fusing their experiences and values onto the other.

In a note at the end of the essay, Sahlins relays the findings of a study that points out that ants—often heralded for their hard work—actually spend a tremendous amount of time “loafing” and “primping.”

winter weed 6

winter weed 5


Because stitching requires a piercing of the substrate, it will always show itself to be applied: it doesn’t adhere or fuse to the substrate—as a dye would permeate a fabric, or paper absorbs ink. It is dry work, no melding. Two materials as two territories, resting on top of one another, making something new without becoming one another.

Stitching in order to sidestep the falsity of a too-fused, this-equals-that inscription.

wheelchair close up

When you touch an embroidery, what are you touching? Substrate or stitch? The partnership in the creation of the figure is a vibration of differentiation, of self and other, of attachment that contains space.

wheelchair large view

At the end of summer into fall I stitched a wheelchair, a work inspired by the cover of the anthology Beauty is a Verb and a shape that I associate with my mother, a shape that will never adhere to my experience. I come close, but we do not fuse.


Shisheh or ablah barat embroidery incorporates small glass pieces—the one who looks at the surface is refracted further by the surface. Mirror over window.

It is not possible to look for or at the other—in judgment, curiosity, or admiration—without seeing parts of the self in refraction.



As with stitching, there is a kind of writing against volume, depth, and against “the real.” Leslie Scalapino said about Myung Mi Kim’s Penury that it is not a representation of anything so it doesn’t falsify anything.

Is it possible that this kind of text has tiny mirrors stitched into its surfaces?

But when does a text need to reject the surface that refracts, the surface that repels, the surface that shows its constructedness? In other words, are there times when content is so reflexive that it trumps any of the self-reflexivity language moves of experimentalism? When, in my projects, do I need to spell things out? How can I make an intimate connection to information, and what context do I imagine for the reception of that information in my work? Can the harm of penury be dismantled by a kind of compositional withholding? Such as in Myung’s work?

I am not sure of answers here and don’t know what kind of book I’ll write next.

Attempting to connect to information, I tried, this summer, to write economy poems. Here is one:

“See the Monetary Control Act of 1980”

see deregulation of airlines,
trucking, oil and natural gas, and
finance, see Carter, then Reagan


gemoetric embr 1

I saw the sameness in the two USAmerican political parties; I saw the primacy of money as influence for decades; I saw the depth of the lie around the rhetoric of “opportunity for all”; I saw “socially liberal” as the biggest cloak for economic-policy banditry. The word “poverty” went missing.

My studies of the economy were both enlightening and lyrically flat. I did not resist this quality in the sequence of poems that I wrote. But I did not write very many of them. I needed to move on.

What is desirous to me these days is geometry—carefully considered relations of space. Another kind of measuring. Drawn toward objects arranged in a room. Drawn to surfaces, flatness, patterning, I wonder: is this my foreign location, my leave of absence, a sustaining job—every day I look down from the 27th floor into a mosque. I can see the management lines in the red carpet where the men line up, shoulder to shoulder despite inequalities, to pray.

geometric embr 2

To end without concluding, here are two sentences:

If I only wrote books that I could also stitch there would have to be sentences withheld.

The extreme sunlight where I am living now has taught me that it is possible to make a mark by withholding parts of a surface from the light.

winter weed 8


Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics presents “Sewing is Writing is Body is Sewing” as part of the inaugural [DIS]EMBODIED POETICS Conference, occurring in conjunction with the Kerouac School’s 40th anniversary. The panel was given in October 2014.