The landscape of Hannah Weiner's late work
'The Book of Revelations'
“translate even into untold”
Hannah Weiner knew that thoughts are not our own. She knew this, but she still tried — harder than any other poet of her brief day save, perhaps, Jack Spicer — to enter into those thoughts that came to her from outside for as long as she could. In this condition, we might imagine Weiner alone and vigilant at her desk, open to the relentless flow of the manifold data of the world and recording words as they appeared on bodies before her and in the air thickened by them. Her inevitable failure to stay with all of the thoughts that come to thinking in a given moment in time is the essence of her style: a passage of intensities, a discontinuous series of enjambments. For despite first appearances, The Book Of Revelations is not prose. It is a poem which “appears inside prose, breaking it down into fragments around which text proliferates.” Its final value arises from its simultaneous abandonment of textual authorities and its embrace of language in the midst of its long shattering: “letting everything go was at last.”
Cover of The Book Of Revelations. By permission of Charles Bernstein for Hannah Weiner in trust.
“the lead comes from the heart”
The notebook containing the text of Weiner’s The Book Of Revelations is housed with the extensive collection of her papers in the Archive for New Poetry, Mandeville Special Collections, at the University of California, San Diego. Although materially it is clearly a holograph “notebook,” it is not included in the primary sequences of Weiner’s notebooks (1971–1975, 1976–1979, and 1990–1992), but classified instead as a “Manuscript” (box 10, folder 6), following Weiner’s own practice of keeping her working notebooks separate from her completed manuscript drafts.
The provenance and textual history of the notebook is partially recoverable. A commercially produced blank book, 6" x 9", with a heavy black cover and a sewn binding, it contains 110 pages. The pages, however, were ripped against a straight edge at different lengths and angles by the artist and writer Barbara Rosenthal, Weiner’s friend and occasional video and book collaborator, who gave the notebook to Weiner as a 1989 New Year’s present and a spur to writing. Weiner composed her texts on the turnable segments Rosenthal calls “pagels,” but the texts may also be read full-size by continuing down onto the longer pagels (what Rosenthal calls “slabs”) revealed underneath. The Book Of Revelations may be classified as an asynchronous collaboration composed by two authors and existing in two distinct incarnations — both an artist’s book, an ill-defined but important genre, and a notebook of written passages.
The blank, cut notebook in which Weiner composed Revelations is a syncopal object. One might see it and think of the old children’s game of writing sentences on a piece of paper, and then folding the paper so only the last line appears as a prompt for the next passage. Or, one might imagine it as an opening and closing fan, at once a container for Weiner’s words in motion as well as an instrument for winnowing them. As we turn the unnumbered pages of the notebook, the pattern of cuts and, later, of words, changes: while some lines are suddenly visible, others disappear momentarily or forever from sight. If we did not know for sure that Rosenthal had cut the pages before giving the notebook to Weiner to fill with writing, we might imagine that Weiner had made the cuts herself after composing the text, excising parts of the original. Yet the fragmented words and stray letters that appear at the far edges of the pages are not made victims by the straight edge. They become, rather, signs of another kind of syncope, of Weiner’s commitment to the principles of interruption and suspension. Later readings of the notebook will surely take up the critical question of the relationship between the text’s material divisions and textual limits — the way, at times, a physical section seems organized around a cluster of repeating themes or images, or the way a change startling shift in mood or scene by Weiner appears suddenly on an angle shift in Rosenthal’s tearing pattern. In the end, however, even as future readers perceive these correspondences, so too will they discover the need for a mode of reading that does not presume to know a priori where a text’s border is traced or what happens at that threshold. For far from being discrete, clearly bounded units, the different sections of the notebook function like waves, whose peripheries, blent with what precedes and follows them, cannot be measured accurately.
The Book Of Revelations, opened. By permission of Charles Bernstein for Hannah Weiner in trust.
The syncopal nature of the notebook reminds us, too, of another of its conditions. The Book Of Revelations is a limit case of translation — a translation without an original, a text transmitted from an unnameable source that can never be recovered. All texts, of course, may make this claim, but generally they make it against the counterclaims of their authors, who imagine themselves as the texts’ only sources. In the case of The Book Of Revelations, however, Weiner has left us not a singly-authored work, but a collaboration with the outside that continually foregrounds the tension between its documentation and its disappearance. What is most fugitive of all is the self. In the end, “Hannah Weiner” vanishes into what she unveils: “a future destined to be blue” (39).
Except for the title, which Weiner typed on a small white label and later affixed to the notebook’s front cover, she composed the text entirely in pencil. There are no margins on the blank leaves, and none imposed. Upon opening the notebook, we enter an all-consuming space of inscription. Here the handwriting varies only slightly across the notebook, giving the impression of a resistanceless pencil gliding over the paper. Even the light erasures and overwriting that appear on many pages, evidence of Weiner’s persistent need to revise her translation, seem part of the flow of script. There is no sign of the “tyrannical prehension” that sometimes grips the writer and refuses to let her release the pencil; rather, Weiner exhibits that rare power to stop writing, to, as Blanchot writes in “The Solitude of the Work,” to “interrupt what is being written, thereby restoring the present instant its rights, its decisive trenchancy” (25). When she came to the penultimate leaf of the notebook, she stopped in seeming mid-sentence, as if suddenly called away from her Revelations to other projects.
Between 1989 and the time of her death, Weiner readied other books for publication, including Weeks, an earlier collaboration with Rosenthal finished in 1986 but not printed until 1990; The Fast, the composition of which dates from the 1970s but which was not published in full until 1992; Silent Teachers Remembered, published in 1994; and And We Speak Silent, published in 1996. And while Weiner subjected each of these texts to an intense revisionary process — The Fast, for example, existed initially in more than 100 notebooks that she reduced and concentrated into a slim volume of forty pages — she seems never to have returned to The Book Of Revelations at all. Nor did she share the completed notebook, either with its first author and potential addressee, or with other readers near or far; rather, it remains buried, strangely preserved among her papers.
The idea of the minor work, already resonant with Weiner’s oeuvre, is especially resonant in thinking about The Book Of Revelations. If, as Gail Gilliland has proposed, “resistance to categorization is what makes a work minor,” then this solitary notebook, unaccompanied by companions, avowing itself as the site of a nomadic poetics where in place of an “at home-ness” there is “only an ever more displaced drifting,” embodies the very conditions of the minor work. And since, as Hans-Jost Frey reminds us, “Literary scholarship concerns itself with works as finished products, as texts that nothing and in which nothing is superfluous,” so Weiner’s Revelations cannot be the object even of a certain analytical gaze. “[U]nanimously undone […] / formality […] / abandoned / surplus / power” (21) could be Weiner’s description of a work accessible only via “varieties of wild concentration” (19) or by “just let[ting] the voices drift over” us (90).
“forthcoming and absolutely”
And so with these words the notebook begins. In the space of a few pages, however, it will show a strong tendency towards silence: “speak so no one will listen” (6). Written in the final decade of Hannah Weiner’s life and on the verge of the last decade of the twentieth century, there is a certain calendrical fatality to the notebook. It is a late work, not simply or primarily because it belongs to a far moment in the trajectory of her career or the century’s, or because it was composed during a period of ill health, which, after all, had plagued Weiner much of her life, but, rather, because its deepest concern is lateness: the end of the world, the irreversible conclusion of history at the conjuncture of heaven and earth. It belongs, if it can be classified at all, to an apocalyptic tradition in poetry at once ancient and postmodern. Yet in place of the illumination of ultimate mysteries, in place of the Parousia that lies at time’s end, Weiner instead reveals the way in which the world comes into being — or rather, into hiding — as an unseeable totality. Here, what is affirmed is the work of what Michel Serres has called “the multiple”; here, what is forfeited is the “harmonious synthesis” of all the world’s — and writing’s — “moments of breaking away.” The strange commandment closing the notebook’s opening section, “speak so no one will listen,” may now be better understood. Like the Kabbalah or the Gnostic gospels, Weiner’s Revelations may only be fully accessed by “insiders,” by an elect readership — and by no one in the present. The secret message of the work, if there is one, will declare itself only, as Frank Kermode writes of the oracular, “after a long delay and in circumstances not originally foreseeable.” Outside, for we are always outside, we can only take a measure of the work’s darknesses, move through it, “going by every possible path” (70).
It is difficult to follow the one who has given up all ideas of beginnings and endings, whose writing is an erring. It seems to make of our reading, too, an aimless wandering. And yet, by taking up the question of the path, of “every possible path,” in our reading of Weiner’s notebook, we discover that we have not only created our own system of orientation within it, but that we have been composing our own texts in the act of passing through hers. As such, our virtual itineraries may be nothing less than new poems.
“melody informant of cue”
A close reading of Weiner’s works reveals both the vast range of formal and expressive problems presented by her writings and the ways in which conflicting and simultaneous styles are in a constant and dynamic process of evolution. No stage or period, no matter how narrowly defined, is wholly given over to a single style or set of stylistic concerns. In Weiner’s case, the most obvious division may be between the works composed before she began to “see” words — for example, her early World Works and Street Works, The Magritte Poems, The Code Poems, and the remarkable transitional work The Fast — and those composed after her engagement of the gift — for example, the Clairvoyant Journal, generally considered the work in which Weiner’s clair-style finds its furthest expression, and the many works that followed, including the unpublished Book Of Revelations. Yet while the works including and following the Clairvoyant Journal exhibit many stylistic similarities, it is also possible to conceive significant differences, to see and hear moments when the prevailing clair-style reaches its outermost limits and a new style comes forward.
Photo © Tom Ahern 1978.
The clair-style itself developed slowly and adjacently to Weiner’s experience of “schizophrenia.” The limits her illness threatens to impose on our understanding of her work can properly be countered by her complex poetics, the alien quality of which cannot be ascribed to schizophrenia but, rather, to something “objective” within language itself in a way that she could grasp and manipulate. By Weiner’s own accounts, she “became extremely psychic” in 1970, first feeling and seeing auras, and then, in 1972, seeing words, initially one by one, later as short phrases. The unforeseen appearance of the words —“I SEE words on my forehead IN THE AIR on other people on the typewriter on the page” — was experienced ecstatically by Weiner: “DELIGHTFUL. I never expected to SEE WORDS.” Yet this gift would also prove to be elusive at times, the “secret seeing” arising not in contractual periods but only ever according to its own unknown laws. Thus, in her “Working Notes” to Weeks, composed around 1984, Weiner confessed: “Not seeing words anymore, I looked for another source.” The notebook in which she composed the text — an extended account of the television news — was a “page-a-day diary” given to her by “my friend […] Barbara Rosenthal, to encourage me to write.”
The notebook containing The Book Of Revelations was also given to Weiner, Rosenthal recalls, during such a period of worrisome blocked or diminished creativity. In this case, however, Weiner’s estrangement from the conditions under which words would appear, her dislocation, was transient. The secret seeing returned: “all the letters are in different colors” (48). There is no question that The Book Of Revelations is clairvoyantly composed, that the words, with their “rhymes and their reasons […] their histories and longings,” were once more visible to Weiner. But there is also no question that their salutary reappearance signaled a turn into a new topography, a luminous space of departure from which there would be no return. This change of scene — or perhaps only the scene’s falling away — is registered in the writing’s music, in its exorbitant measure, open to that which never reaches it: “listen unconsolably / the measure to” (22).
The many incisive and compelling accounts of Hannah Weiner’s clair-style as it first manifested itself in the Clairvoyant Journal and other works of her middle period all point to a crisis or conversion in Weiner’s relationship to the labor of writing. Suddenly, and without knowingly summoning them, Hannah Weiner was involved with distant collaborators. Upon first receiving the gift of second sight, she seems to have functioned much like a cryptanalyst, intercepting the fragmentary messages as they flashed by her but not yet unacquainted with the applicable transformation rules that might make them legible. At last, to translate these messages, Weiner relied on another collaborator — her electric typewriter, that object-muse known to so many of her modern predecessors and so long associated with “écriture automatique.” Eyewitnesses to Hannah Weiner’s writing have not come forward, yet in “A Short Interlude to Discuss Voices,” a subsection of her essay “Mostly About the Sentence,” Weiner reveals something about the compositional method of the Clairvoyant Journal and its dependence on the technology:
I bought a new electric typewriter in January 74 and said quite clearly, perhaps aloud, to the words (I talked to them as if they were separate from me, as indeed the part of my mind they come from is not known to me) I have this new typewriter and can only type lower case, capitals, or underlines (somehow I forgot, ignored, or couldn’t cope with in the speed I was seeing things, a fourth voice, underlined capitals) so you will have to settle yourself into three different prints. Thereafter I typed the large printed words I saw in CAPITALS, the words that appeared on the typewriter or the paper I was typing on in underlines (italics) and wrote the part of the journal that was unseen, my own words, in regular upper case. It turned out that the regular upper and lower case words described what I was doing, the CAPITALS gave me orders, and the underlines or italics made comments. This was not 100% true, but mostly so.
The sheer speed of the words as they appeared to Weiner in the 1970s led in the Clairvoyant Journal to a style in extremis. Cast in the present tense, writing here is less a system of signs than a current transmitted, an energy liberated in the replication of the brain’s incessant processing of sights and sounds. In place of a narrative thread long ago lost or continually interrupted we find line after paratactic line of non-syntactic statements, thoughts cathected and decathected in different directions, a streaming of citational shards, polyvocal phrasings, distress signals. Like the definition of the schizophrenic offered by Baudrillard, Weiner’s writings of this period seem “open to everything,” overexposed to the “transparency of the world”; they are “promiscuous,” at once “beleaguered” and “penetrated” by “the perpetual interconnection of all information and communication networks.” Even when in the very drive of writing the particles, bits, and flashes seem to fuse into a continuity that might be readable, the text exhibits an alienating opacity, simultaneously drawing in and then repelling the reader. Filled with noise, aired on too many frequencies at once, there may no longer be any clear distinction between work and debris.
Page 6 (unnumbered), detail, the Clairvoyant Journal. By permission of Charles Bernstein for Hannah Weiner in trust.
“does she speak backwards to you”
When someone as sui generis as “Hannah Weiner” appears, we go in search of her predecessors. Who, in the long history of communication, could have foretold Weiner? A backward search may lead us to Anna Winsor, whose remarkable case is reported by William James in his “Notes on Automatic Writing,” published in 1889, exactly one century before Weiner’s composition of The Book Of Revelations. The record, beginning in the nineteenth year of Winsor’s life and continuing for several more years, reveals the peculiar conditions under which the co-consciousness experienced by the automatic writer manifests. Miss Anna Winsor believes her right arm is not her own. The series of entries below, made by her first physician, Dr. C. W. Fillmore, of Providence, and published by James, offer further insight into the nature and progress of her “disorder”:
[Sept.] 29th . — Complains of great pain in right arm, more and more intense, when suddenly it falls down by her side. She looks at it in amazement. Thinks it belongs to someone else; positive it is not hers […]
Nov. 12th . — From eleven to twelve at night sits up, apparently asleep, and writes, with her paper against the wall. After she awakes, seems to be unconscious of what she has written […]
February 1 to 11. — Under the influence of magnetism writes poetry; personates different persons, mostly those who have long since passed away […]
March, 1861. — She became blind […]
January 4, 1862. — Is still blind; sees as well with eyes closed as open; keeps them closed much of the time; reads and draws with them closed. Draws in the dark as well as in the light; is clairvoyant […]
January 1863. — Her right arm and hand are not hers […]. This arm appears to have a separate intelligence. When she sleeps or writes, it converses by signs […]
Just as fin de siècle new ideas of empire, the rise of psychology and psychoanalysis, and the advent of telephenomena encouraged the emergence of the planchette-writer of a century ago, so the conditions of Weiner’s own uncanny historical moment seem to have prepared for the appearance of a new form of medium in contact with a new invisible.
The Wireless Messenger. WM. W. Wheeler Company. Design on paper-wood, 1898. By permission of the Museum of Talking Boards.
Initially, Weiner sought to translate the private, coded vision of the voices she and only she saw into the public, readable language of type. Those who have read her work know how far she succeeded. Yet it was also through the agency of Weiner’s typewriter that the essentially dialectical and destructive order of the world was revealed. “The ‘total typewriter,’” Friedrich Kittler writes, is associated with “trenches / blitz / stars.” While the Clairvoyant Journal seems to exist utterly disconnected from all capitalized or mainstream modes of production, its lawless and anarchic typography paradoxically reminds us of the ways in which even our writing tools may move violently against us, seeking to strike out difference, to homogenize and normalize the most alien of our thoughts. The very first word Hannah Weiner claims to have seen was the word “WRONG,” and as Charles Bernstein writes, “In her work [of this period] Weiner has explored — come upon — the language that fills, and often enough, controls our lives. That these elements are seen in the work, and hence physicalized, palpable, gives us a new view of what is given, what has been handed down: & by seeing language operate, we can start to free ourselves from a compulsive obedience to it. The darker other side of the coin is equally evident in Weiner’s work. When we begin to see words we may find ourselves tyrannized by them if we cannot at the same time question their authority.” Connected not only to the typewriter, but also to the wires and circuitry of the postmodern condition, the writer experiences a sense of her own endangerment: “GET OUT OF HERE see half the letters crazy […] SEE DANGER.”
“not if better I if say in ink”
The Book Of Revelations transports us into a different space than that of the Clairvoyant Journal — a space not so much before typography as apparently beyond it. In The Fast, Weiner offered the following beautiful description of her hands: “I began to see little green and blue and yellow candles come out of my fingertips.” In Revelations, her return to script seems to signal a newly intimate relationship to the work or to the voices, which no longer need to be differentiated from her own interior voice but are at last fused with it into a single flame. Here, Weiner’s immersion, even engulfment, in the material resistances of language registered in the Clairvoyant Journal, both in its essentially fugal structure and its disruptions of the uniplanar surface of the page, finds a final release in a flowing script that, page after page, engenders a feeling of continuous motion and unearthly tranquility. “The inscriptive process,” writes Serge Tisseron, “is above all the hand exploring a given space.” In The Book Of Revelations, each separate string of words appears to be en route; each line “fix[es] us in a direction of thought that comes from afar and stretches beyond” us. And even the handwriting, while still legible, seems on its way to becoming something else — a calligraphic pulse, a liberated stroke or scribble. Although it does not seem possible given the notebook’s 109 pages of writing, the uniformity of the streaming script gives the impression of a text composed in a single sitting, across a day and night.
The long crisis that inaugurated Weiner’s late clair-style did not in the end lead to a total rejection of its earlier characteristics. In The Book Of Revelations the economy, compression, and tendency towards ellipsis emblematic of the high clair-style endure. What is discarded in the late clair-style is, rather, the trial of writing, the grappling and tension enacted by the dialectical method that governed Weiner’s works of the 1970s and early 1980s even as they sought an escape from it. In the wake of dialectical polarities, the “interferences,” as Weiner names them, are present in The Book Of Revelations only as a hushed undercurrent in its flow of “infinite passages” (9) and “alternating waves of fluency” (13) “leaving […] contest ” (33) behind. Vestiges of an earlier, more purely lyric style reappear suddenly, as if Weiner found a transient asylum in the old, incandescent melodies of The Code Poems while reaching out in search of a style as yet unknown. From the metrical experimentation that marks all of Weiner’s writings at last issues a “measure of useless words unmeaning” (22), an imagination of language’s ultimate latening and annihilation: “unto language alls my tired (94) / there’s nothing to write about” (64). Finally, there is only glossolalia, enjambment with the outside, with a “future withheld indifferently” (43).
“an exterior melody listens”
The notebook embodies what Adorno and Said have called an “exilic realm,” a work that “turns its emptiness outward.” Like Wiener’s scene of writing, the exilic realm in The Book Of Revelations is alternately figured as “isolation chamber,” “desert,” “night” — vacant yet dilated and visionary topographies. Here, as if the notebook’s clairvoyance divests it of both future and present by conflating them, few temporal markers remain. Instead, we come to a radically atopic space of pure transit, of journeying “inbetween.” In this transverse, where “all words travel” (34), there can be no fixed point of departure and no final point of termination. What appears in the late work is perhaps something akin to what Levinas called the il y a, the “there is,” an elusive and “anonymous current of being,” an “atmospheric density” that may be plenitude “or the murmur of silence.” In The Book Of Revelations, the crossing “I,” “bonded to a neutrality calm” (22) and “subject to exchange forever” (43), lets go the thread between origin and destination and severs its moorings:
SI Where are you from?
EQS Anywhere else
SH Where are you bound?
(Weiner, The Code Poems)
“underneath it all shone”
The Book Of Revelations bears witness to the decreation of the world: “the late irreducible formality / brilliantly without system / cancel every reminder of it” (21). Yet what ends here is not the earth itself, but the mind’s tyrannizing compulsion to classify and unify, to make of the fragile spinning planet’s disparate things a totality: “cross-reference impulses uninhabitable now” (16). Unhoused and immersed in a “luminous absence” (15), there is nothing but space to oppose the mind. The region we have entered in Weiner’s late work is undefined by elements or boundaries. Having come to the “end to craving” (54) we “discover [the world] without desire” (54). Here we are committed irretrievably to the fullness of chance: “we make variable shapes / there is no predictability” (59).
“[O]bliterations are enjoyable,” Weiner joyfully writes, and among the first things obliterated we must name not only orientation — a sense of direction in and through the world — but also the “I” and its aggregated memories: “she doesn’t live here any” (68). In the trajectory of self-abandonment, several moments seem to succeed one another: first revealed as homeless, “undone and solely alone” (42), the singular self recognizes its ecstatic condition — “yourself beside yourself” (67) — then undergoes a chemical transformation — “obliteration of molecules” (27) that results initially in “the elimination of subject” (27) but ends in the emptied subject’s assumption of a “dreaming body” animate with “silent knowing” (68). A new form of drifting attention attends this change in form, an “ability to concentrate lightly / some distance from the whole / forgiven for not holding on” (28). In the sweep of language the “I” exists only as exscribed transitivity: leaving not only “contest” but “diary” behind, “she cannot write in the first” (82) — person.
Unlike narrative, whose nature is linked to a deep impulse to remember and recount, to conjure up long gone but specific events in our lives, Weiner’s late writings issue from an “indefinite” — that is to say, unlimited — “resolution to forget” (19). The side effects of memory loss, a condition generally feared, prove liberating from Weiner’s perspective: “without memory,” she writes, “surprises occur” (37). No longer embedded in time, the measuring system used to sequence events and the intervals dividing them and to calculate the motions of objects, the “I” knows neither beginning nor ending, but only the “inevitability of propulsion” (26) through “infinite passages” (9). Time, wrote Raymond Cummings, “is what keeps everything from happening at once,” or, to use Weiner’s words, “from one time to another we / consequently there is medium” (23). Thus the radically disjunctive and nonsequential quality of The Book Of Revelations is related to its expulsion from time; to its syncopal coming into being in the “inbetween.” Paradoxically, in this space where the “future is withheld indifferently” (43), “the invisible is more powerful” (38) and, perhaps, nearer.
It is tempting to think of Weiner’s writing as foreseeing its readers. Yet having discarded its powers of recollection in favor of immediacy, Weiner’s writing can no longer be addressed to anyone in particular and must “give up sending messages” (47) forever. Instead of seeking to establish contact with us, Weiner turns in this late work ever more fully towards the voices outside: “listen to remote sensations” (47). Once appearing essentially as a form of quotation within her printed works, an “other” within her typescripts — “you can’t tell what they’re saying” (60) — Weiner’s very script is now a kind of whispering and sussuration. Like the mystical voices de Certeau writes of, Weiner’s “uttering occurs outside the places in which systems of statements are composed. One no longer knows where speaking comes from, and one understands less and less how writing, which articulates power, could speak.” Here, as Weiner writes, only “mastery of non-mastery [is] certain” (76), “letting go without trembling” (48).
“close your eyes and the hidden”
In the time loop of Weiner’s apocalyptic writing we seem to be in two times/places at once: transported beyond earth’s end and returned to its chaotic origins. Scattered premonitions — or lost memories — of disaster on an unimaginable scale enter Weiner’s language, itself at times sharing semiotic space with the languages of subatomic physics and revelation: “what if the universe dissolved” (69), “somewhere the end is coming” (107), “as a rule waves cause trouble” (59), “temperatures rise above normal” (18), “things form and split apart” (60), “the disappearance of meaning / the images of the dead appear” (71). The disaster’s vibrations are registered by the minutest beings — “only a moth can perceive it / integrated storms rise” (22), but projected into the furthest reaches of space — “the great attractor galaxies” (109), “matter / force / star […] / orb […] / light” (70). The universe’s entropic impulse, once released, may return all to disorder or emptiness: “the result will vanish” (30).
The plangent, almost keening strain of the notebook made audible in writing’s “unstable singing low” (28) signals its lamentation for losses, for the loss — seemingly — of the world. Yet the losses are offset by the notebook’s still deeper intimations of what the disaster has spared or set aside: “[T]he desert,” Weiner writes, “has plenty to offer” (62). The evacuation of the world’s phenomena, “the removal of all objects” (20), opens a space of interior vision, or what Gaston Bachelard calls a “phenomenality without phenomenon”: “close your eyes and the hidden” (56) will appear. The “wheel” turns and “scenes of nature pass by” (55, 43). What is perceived when “the transfer [of] images to the brain” (45) is complete is not cosmic ruin, not a black hole, but a secret plenitude, a landscape of vectors and moving energies perceived by means of a rapid zooming in and out of focus. “[S]omeday you will see it clearly” (45): a world unfinished yet suffused with beauty, pierced by unexpected instants of grace.
everlasting pine trees on a calm day / suddenly everything went blue (11)
the unwavering fondness of sea / solely to perform one instant (22)
too many birds have flown here (30)
charm the equations out of stars (60)
chokecherries pale cedar fire (72)
summach carob walnut trees / ownerless property (84)
craggy rocks with grass too steep (90)
escape from night (43)
no one can eliminate a particle (60)
the dawn everything when the (63)
beyond belief is the sun (64)
whatever befalls the earth befalls the (89)
suddenly everything went blue (11)
In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin proposed that “every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.” Similarly, in The Book Of Revelations, each incomplete passage harbors this same perilous hope of radical conclusion; each fragment and part-word, “every detail,” is en route “into infinity” (67).
“renunciation and something else”
In the opening sections of the notebook, we are caught up in a whirlwind of repeating motifs and leitmotifs: anonymity, chance, forgetfulness, chaos, time, belief, solitude, surplus, world. In the later and still more profoundly enigmatic sections, a fragmentary narrative seems to break through in constellations of images before being abandoned for the last time. Although impossible to pinpoint the exact moment of the notebook’s turn, the commandment “go into an isolation chamber” (61) may inaugurate a change of scene, a transition to the outside where “the reversal of everything” (67) restores access momentarily to the unbroken “feeling of presence” (91). Most importantly for this late work, what Weiner passes outside of is history and the assertions and abstractions that drive it; and this passage outside is synonymous with deliverance: “the elimination of god is historical […] / cease believing in history / step aside and save your life” (69–71). In the fragmentary lines that follow, the world, or language, is evoked as a space of wonder, a holy site: “His light image moved to the […] / disappearance of meaning […] / images of the dead appear […] / He can cause it to rain […] / filling in the blank spaces […] / she picked a rose by the […] / let each be burnt by itself […] / the burning spices ever” (69–83).
Then suddenly, we are swept back to a still more primordial time, to a time before the institution of the law of sacrifice, burnt offerings, and possibly to the non-time of the original division of nothingness into creation: “mountains hills seas rivers / at intervals of time they begin / there is but one world it says […] / dividing the structure […] / sometimes the memory comes […] / so he says its revealed what” (84–87). At the end of The Book Of Revelations, the strangest — which is to say the most estranged — of all voices enters the text: “Ah said the God, I can see a point of / in my if not finished work I’m […] / felt very and thought pleased oh” (89). The voice comes from very far, very near. The language of God is ungrammatical: the language of exclamation, words in an unknown order, break up as they hit the air. Here, random and ultimately mysterious allusions to books, first to a theft — “I stole a book today guess if” (88) — and then to an incomplete set — “three books instead of the four” (109) — suggest an oblique link between the secret, missing texts of the Gnostic tradition and the notebook we’re reading. The Book Of Revelations, Hannah Weiner’s “stolen book,” is also a work of negative theology through which she transmits an unexpected message of hope.
Like the language of absolute otherness, the language of love is also ungrammatical. Towards the beginning of the notebook, Weiner affirms, “the lead comes from the heart / the suddenness of capitulation” (27); in its final pages, she again connects writing with “the right ventricle” (82): “now when there is the last place […] / go toward the bum at the corner / the unthought speaking other […] / when it rains the trees wave / love come to a” (108–109).
“night late at read write watch”
In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau describes the reader’s essentially peripatetic impulse: “Far from being writers, founders of their own place, […] readers are travelers. They move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads […]” “To read,” de Certeau continues, “is to be elsewhere, where they are not, in another world; it is to constitute a secret scene, a place one can enter and leave when one wishes.” In the last pages of The Book Of Revelations, Weiner seems to turn to the reader reading late at night, “all alone in a quieting time” (63). The exercise of reading, Weiner knew, is “business without bond” (27): it neither takes “measures against the erosion of time” nor “keep[s]what it acquires,” so that “each of the places through which it passes is a lost paradise.”
In de Certeau’s description of the reader as the figure who always “deterritorializes” herself, and whose untraceable path enables her to “escape the law of each text in particular” (The Practice of Everyday Life, 174) in order to enjoy an extraordinary freedom, we also discover a portrait of the writer “Hannah Weiner”: she who SAW words and was carried away by them. Like all readers, she is “elsewhere,” perhaps lost. And we, who have been trying to track her across the notebook, noting the directions she takes and the velocities at which she travels, must ultimately submit to her disappearance at the extreme limit of the text. All at once, The Book Of Revelations is at once a holy site and a site abandoned. When we turn the page she is gone, having exited work and world apparently in the same second.
Yet it is not the back cover board of the notebook that we turn into at this crucial threshold, but, rather, the single unwritten page at its end: “why the white space” (95). By breaking off writing before the leaves of the notebook run out, Weiner seems to summon — or, to use her more familiar word,” signal” — to the reader, “telepathic knowing we are connected” (106), and then to trade places with her: “I let ___ deal with it last page / the order of the reader beyond the” (109) — book? Writer? The writer may be the reader in “reverse substantive” (93). For even when “there is nothing to write about” (64), “there is no ending to this” (66) text; the exchange of minds between the writer and reader continues, along with the bewildering of the boundaries between writing and reading.
Finally, at the very end of The Book Of Revelations, Weiner affirms the randomness and sovereignty of both these acts — how at any moment we may lift our eyes or our pencil from the page and fall out of relation to the text forever: “my life is granted / upon a page / listener / silence” (92). The ending suggests the experience of syncope, cerebral eclipse. Scanning words in the air, Weiner misses a beat, and the earth sinks back. The Book Of Revelations is the work she falls out of. Yet paradoxically, in falling out of relation to the work, Weiner reveals its — and all her writings’ — deepest origins in the same region of syncope. Indeed, The Book Of Revelations exists between two moments of eclipse — the moment of sinking into reading and the moment of departing from writing. It is “when one returns from syncope,” Catherine Clément tells us, that “the real world suddenly looks strange.” The Book Of Revelations is Weiner’s report on what she saw in the interval where time falters and spins.
Hannah Weiner, still from Semaphore Poems, video by Barbara Rosenthal from concept and book of Weiner by same title. Photo reproduced with the permission of eMediaLoft.
Works Cited and Consulted
Adorno, Theodor W. “Late Style in Beethoven.” In Essays on Music. Edited by Richard Leppert. Translated by Susan H. Gillespie. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 564–68.
Bachelard, Gaston. Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement. Translated by Edith R. Farrell and C. Frederick Farrell. Dallas: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1988.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication. Edited by Sylvère Lotringer. Translated by Bernard Schutze and Caroline Schutze. New York: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series, 1988.
Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 253–64.
Bergvall, Caroline. “Body & Sign: Some Thoughts Around the Work of Aaron Williamson, Hannah Weiner, and Henri Michaux.” Jacket 22 (May 2003).
Bernstein, Charles. “Hannah Weiner.” Poetry Project Newsletter, 1997.
———. “Making Words Visible/Hannah Weiner.” In Content’s Dream: Essays 1975–1984. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001. 266–70.
Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Translated by Ann Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
Clément, Catherine. Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture. Translated by Sally O’Driscoll and Deirdre M. Mahoney. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.
Cummings, Raymond King. The Girl in the Golden Atom. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
Damon, Maria. “Hannah Weiner Beside Herself: Clairvoyance Aftershock or The Nice Jewish Girl Who Knew Too Much.” The East Village 8.
de Certeau, Michel. Heterologies: Discourse on the Other. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
———, The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Translated by Dana Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
Donovan, Thom. “Silent Teacher Remembered: Hannah Weiner’s Open House.” Fanzine, December 20, 2007.
Durgin, Patrick F. “Introduction: Avant-Garde Journalism: Hannah Weiner’s Early and Clairvoyant Journals.” http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/weiner/.
———. “Psychosocial Disability and Post-Ableist Poetics: The ‘Case’ of Hannah Weiner’s Clairvoyant Journals.” Contemporary Women’s Writing 2, no. 2 (2008): 131–154.
Frey, Hans-Jost. Interruptions. Translated by Georgia Albert. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.
Gilliland, Gail. Being a Minor Writer. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994.
Goldman, Judith. “Hannah=hannaH: Politics, Ethics, and Clairvoyance in the Work of Hannah Weiner.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12, no. 2 (2001): 121–168.
James, William. The Works of William James: Essays in Psychical Research. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt and Fredson Bowers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.
Joris, Pierre. A Nomad Poetics: Essays. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.
Kermode, Frank. The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.
Kimball, Jack. “Mad in Craft: Hannah Weiner and Alan Sondheim.” Jacket 12 (2000).
Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wultz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Koeneke, Rodney. “Hannah Weiner and Basic English.” Paper presented at the National Poetry Conference: Poetry of the 1970s, Orono, ME, June 2008.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Existence and Existents. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2001.
———. Time and the Other. Translated by Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1990.
McSweeney, Joyelle. “Disabled Texts and the Threat of Hannah Weiner.” Boundary 2 36, no. 3 (2009): 123–132.
Peters, John Durham. “Information: Notes Toward a Critical History.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 12, no. 2 (1988): 9–23.
Said, Edward. On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. New York: Pantheon Books, 2006.
Rosenthal, Barbara. Homo Futurus. Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1986.
———. Homo Futurus blank book. New York: eMedia Loft, 1984.
———. Soul & Psyche. Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1998.
Serres, Michel. Genesis. Translated by Geneviève James and James Nielson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Thurschwell, Pamela. Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880–1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Tisseron, Serge. “All Writing is Drawing: The Spatial Development of the Manuscript.” Yale French Studies 84 (1994): 29–42.
Weiner, Hannah. Clairvoyant Journal. Lenox, MA: Angel Hair Books, 1978.
———. The Code Poems. Barrytown, NY: Open Book, 1982.
———. The Fast. New York: United Artists, 1992.
———. Hannah Weiner’s Open House. Edited by Patrick F. Durgin. Berkeley: Kenning Editions, 2007.
———. Nijole’s House. Needham, MA: Potes and Poets Press, 1981.
———. Page. New York: Roof Books, 2002.
———. Silent Teachers/Remembered Sequel. Providence: Tender Buttons, 1994.
———. Sixteen. Windsor, VT: Awede, 1983.
———. Spoke. Washington DC: Sun and Moon, 1984.
———.We Speak Silent. New York: Roof Books, 1996.
———. Weeks. Madison, WI: Xexoxial Editions, 1990.
———. Written In / The Zero One. Mooroolbark, Australia: Post Neo Productions, 1985.
Weiner, Hannah, and Andrew Schelling. “Mostly About the Sentence.” Jimmy & Lucy’s House of “K” 7 (1986): 54–70.
7. Michael Serres, Genesis, trans. Geneviève James and James Nielson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 101, and Theodor Adorno, “Late Style in Beethoven,” in Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert, trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 567.
9. For a deeply nuanced discussion of Weiner’s psychological condition and its relation to her poetics, see Patrick F. Durgin, “Psychosocial Disability and Post-Ableist Poetics: The ‘Case’ of Hannah Weiner’s Clairvoyant Journals,” Contemporary Women’s Writing 2, no. 2 (2008): 131–154.
10. See Weiner, Silent Teachers/Remembered Sequel, qtd. in Thom Donovan, “Silent Teacher Remembered: Hannah Weiner’s Open House,” Fanzine, December 20, 2007, 6, and Weiner, “Pictures and Early Words,” qtd. in Donovan, 9.
16. William James, “Notes on Automatic Writing,” in The Works of William James: Essays in Psychical Research, ed. Frederick Burkhardt and Fredson Bowers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 41–43.