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Buck Downs stumbled onto the Congressional Cemetery grounds for the first time shortly after moving to the surrounding neighborhood in 1994. At first, there was nothing more to his visits than curiosity: “It was just part of exploring the neighborhood I was living in,” he says. But by 1996, he began to see the place as more than just a collection of dead government employees.
To Downs, a Louisiana State University–trained conceptual poet who cites Ronald Johnson (perhaps best-known for his Radi Os, an abstraction of Paradise Lost) as an influence, a possible project emerged. “In the course of walking around and getting familiar with the cemetery,” he says, “it became apparent to me that there was this multiacre body of text.”
Downs began carrying graphite and paper on his trips through the cemetery. He made rubbings of names and portions of epitaphs—anything that appeared on a headstone. From these, he began to assemble sequences of words to create poems. Haphazard though his approach may seem, Downs claims to have employed a method: “Each sequence was created by starting from a random point in the cemetery and proceeding, to discover each next word as the site and my ability to perceive it would disclose,” he writes in the foreword to the book that resulted from the project, In Memory D Thompson.
Downs, who spends a great deal of time thinking about words and how they should appear on the page, admits that this sentence may be a bit “packed.” But he insists he means exactly what it says. After walking around the cemetery for about a half-hour, he gets into “a meditative state” and finds a word. He then makes a rubbing, and after “walking around for four or five minutes considering all the grammatic possibilities,” he decides on the next piece of the poem. “Over the course of an hour, hour and a half, two hours, one of the word sequences would [emerge],” he says.
In Memory D Thompson features five such sequences. As poetry, Downs’ work is not far from that of the finer refrigerator-magnet-mash-makers’—words awkwardly assembled simply because they were there. “SPRING/CHASE/OFF/MOOT/CHANCE/AS/LOW/FLIGHT/OVER/HAZARD/DRAW/GREEN GREEN/DE MENT,” goes one. Still, presented as it is in the book, with one rubbing per page, sometimes in the creepy original 19th-century graveyard type styles, the stuff takes on a bit of power, if more as an art project than as a literary one. Indeed, Downs might have done well to stick the rubbings on some gallery’s wall rather than into a book.
And, as it turns out, he has. On Dec. 16, Downs opened an exhibition at the District of Columbia Arts Center (DCAC) named for his book. Never mind that he had to pay for the privilege (Downs got the right to exhibit by paying for two $50 tickets to the DCAC’s annual Exhibition Raffle). The alternative format puts a visual emphasis on Downs’ work and, in doing so, removes some of the literary pressure that binding tends to put on an author—both welcome developments.
Downs admits that his project plays into what he calls “the dopey poetry cliché of the solitary promenader walking through the cemetery.” But he’s not trying to back away from that image. In fact, he seems to regard the experience as something of a privilege. “There is something about being able to have any kind of interaction with the dead,” he says.—Mike Kanin