Ron Silliman's poetry of accretion
Two poems in Ron Silliman’s poetry collection The Alphabet,“Jones” and “Skies,” are yearlong projects. For “Jones,” as Silliman writes in his notes, “Every day for a year I looked at the ground,” and similarly for “Skies,” “Every day for one year I looked at the sky & noted what I saw” (1060). Other poems in the collection are similarly crafted: “You” (“One paragraph a day, one section a week for a year” ) and “Paradise” (“literally begun on New Year’s Day, completed on New Year’s Eve” ). This article’s title points to this effort to put writing back into poetry: graphy — “processes … of writing, drawing or … representation.” This is a poetry of the transformation of looking into writing. I call it time-lapse poemography because it takes daily verbal “snapshots” and accretes them into a composite of a year. The interval is the day, though for motifs, it is the month. The exposure length is the moment of looking and the slightly longer moment of recording. The frame is the field of vision, largely the poet’s window, door or porch, but sometimes a plane window or the view of wherever he happens to be on that day. The bracketing is the focus of the viewpoint, in the case of these two poems, either looking up or looking down.
Time-span. Time-lapse photography selects subject matter that changes over time and that has some kind of beginning and concluding state. A typical image is that of a flower in bud, photographed in carefully timed intervals to record its blooming. A year is the time-span for these poems because of its importance in human life units, but unlike the photograph’s subject, there is no opening or closing moment, such as birth or death; there is only the beginning and ending by date, a cultural designation.
The method of yearlong or longer daily projects is established in the visual and performance arts, as in On Kawara’s Today series, for which he painted the date every day, or his I Got Up series, for which he sent postcards every day between 1966 and 1979. Tehching Hsieh is a master of the one-year form: he spent 1978–1979 in a barred cell, punched a time card every hour on the hour in 1980–1981, stayed outdoors with only a sleeping bag and no transportation in 1981–1982, was tied to Linda Montano by the waist in 1983–1984, and did not look at or talk about art in 1985–1986. Since then, the one-year project has been embraced by popular culture, including No Impact Man, Living Oprah, and wearing the same dress (brown or black, according to the project), among others.
Tracking. Time-lapse photography records change over time. Through the year’s span, Silliman’s writing-each-day-for-a-year poems record change as well, but change through the destruction or mangling (in “Jones”) of that which are at once reconfigured into this new space. The poem becomes these layers with the depths of strata overlying strata, the detritus of urban existence, the craft of the description of perpetual destruction. These poems are anti-object but use objects to create a fusion: “the sufficiency of nature / like this hand towel rotting in the gutter / the narrative implicit, indeterminate, complete” (130). These are objects in the process of merging into the field.
Destruction transpires through the energy of the verbs. These might be verbs of compression, dissolution, decay, and breakages, but the description’s matter-of-fact tone lifts them into charged experience and creates positivity through destruction. This is a “cornucopia” of the city and of human life (113). The cement and asphalt are riddled with cracks, webs, and veins. They are amalgamated through the “pulpy mush” (133) of mashed, crushed, gouged, flattened, embedded (129), and thinly sliced pink dildos. The palette, aside from occasional bits of pink (gum, dildos), is a muted brown, gray, black, largely discolored and freckled: “spots on the sidewalk soon fade to gray” (121); this is a “sullen spectra” (134); “the street itself is a collage of dozens of greys” (133).
The things described are less important than the excavation — “objects are pointless evident to anyone” (114), “open-ended as in free-falling, in search of punctuation or an object” (127) — but this is an excavation in reverse, a time-lapse run backward like the drop of water film that starts with the ripples in the liquid and then draws up into the initiating droplet that is now its culmination. Through the act of describing these layers, the poet creates them: “planet’s skin thick as the rind of a tangelo, thin as that of a potato, or all skin, layer within layer, like flesh, like an onion” (123); “a view from which the surface is no surface at all, but an endless, soft, off-white layering of cloud” (115); “pry into a primal scene” (128). “In Baltimore, where I am not,” the poem explains, “there’s an exhibit near the aquarium, the Visible Street, … a cross section, layered as flesh is layered, pipes, tubing, wires beneath the dark meat of asphalt (not only hokey but false: skin’s dead layer flakes away while here, in Baltimore, not Berkeley, it’s simply piled on, the newest flesh is at the outer edge, tender, alive with root and worm)” (127). This “newest flesh” is the focus of the poet’s looking down and depicting; layers “piled on” over time, the poem’s layers in the same manner.
Layers are also set up through the repeated incorporation of text inside parentheses, as in the previous quotation from the poem. This text is designated by the enclosed spaces as asides, and therefore not to be taken as the primary focus of the poems. To set up this hierarchy, words in parentheses are read with lower voice inflections. However, just as in a Jackson Pollock painting a glimpse of red or bare canvas will leap through the overlaying drips, these parenthetical layers in the text create depth and burst through the neutral description, bearing the weight of the poems, that “ground defined by my relation to it” (114); “who knows what a fact is, solid ground” (123).
Subject. Tracking is the movement of the camera over time in time-lapse photography, so that the created film takes into account not merely change over time, but follows a passage in depicting time and space at once. Time-lapse photography is meant to provide a close view of events that occur too slowly for our eyes to track them. Descriptions are the poet’s tool to create a clearer view of change over time. Silliman says in “Skies”: “I want to describe description, what is already there (sound, light, weather) … (metonymy is the problem of choice)” (469), but later he says, “(I am not interested in description, but detail, transition, all the nameless, half-known tones reducible to blue)” (474). By description he means, therefore, not simply the effort to depict what he sees, feels, smells, and hears, but to go into what the process of creating that depiction might mean.
The poem “Skies” is even more invested in this focus than “Jones.” As with “Jones,” which I call the “looking down poem,” the poet sets himself a task to look up and write every day about what he saw for a year in forming the poem “Skies.” Looking down in a city provides endless fodder for description, and a city is so busy that adhering largely to the visual provides ample material; looking up put the poet against the wall of description. Here is a restricted palette; here are restricted objects of focus. The poet turns to the senses to expand the options: sounds, smells, physical sensations. Motifs shape the poem through their recursion: a plum tree, laundry hanging out to dry, jets, spiders.
The poem is composed as well, as in composing the shot: “(against selection I want to pose the partial determination of what I find beyond these doors)” (470); “I scratch these words out and try others” (469). In “Skies” Silliman refers to his concern with “sentence type” (469). Bob Perelman writes that for Silliman, “Sentences are semi-autonomous units, but they are not atomized into sameness: they are variously expressive, analytic, and narrative.” “I prefer,” Silliman says in “Skies,” “the prepositional form of possession’s discreteness, adjectives are not aspects (but projections)” (469). Intriguing here is the reliance on parentheses, mentioned earlier, but clearly the tool for insertion of metapoetics. These descriptions of sentence, sentence type, and word type draw the reader’s focus to the particulars of the language, but also, as Perelman suggests, force attention to individual sentences by disaggregating them from the poems’ welter of sentences and images.
Adding time, tracking. The poem follows routes through these daily entries merged into masses of text, though in “Skies,” as the poem says, with a space between sections to indicate months. These routes, these passages, are called “paths” in the poems. The matter-of-fact tone and this approach to experience take their lead from religious lessons, the “light’s path” (122). This is, the poem says, “not a straight line but like the logic of chess, each more (each word) opens entire sequences, others shut forever (train plunges into the tunnel) and reversing your steps can never take you back” (133). Even in tasks as restricted as the ones set in these two poems (looking up and looking down), infinite options present themselves to the poet; those selected can never be undone, but have instead created the course of existence: “walk in any direction in a straight line and you will arrive at the edge, but no path is harder than a path to define” (128). John Ashbery describes this process in less shaping but similar terms: “It’s getting from one place to another, from one moment to another. … It happens by itself and we’re part of its happening.”
Stuttered time-lapse. The motion of the time-lapse in these poems is stuttered, for the frame intervals are at 365 per year, so that following one motif over the year’s span reflects this jerky sensation (motifs are even more stuttered as they are spaced into month-long intervals): “Heat will cause the plums to drop” (457); “Everything blisters in a rare heat (leaves on the plum tree curl & crackle …)” (460); “plum tree’s branch bobs into view” (460); “Hummingbirds in the plum tree” (464); “the jet in the plum tree exits” (464); “Leaves fall from the plum tree, drifting into the snail-chewed spinach” (466); “one bird somewhere in the plum tree” (468); “shimmer of a spider’s thread in the plum tree light” (468); “the wind drives the last leaves from the plum tree” (469); “the night sky against the plum tree is deep grey against deeper grey” (473); “A light gust rattles the plum tree” (478); “Plums have fallen where the onions have just started to sprout” (479). The plum tree, standing outside Silliman’s house, becomes his regular filter for his daily shots of the sky. While the tree itself is stationary and recurs nearly monthly in the poem, its state is never static. It stands in the heat and wind, day and night. It frames the birds, jets, and spiders. It contrasts with the sky behind it. It orients the poet, between the ground of the garden, over which it stands, and the sky that rises through it, above it, and beyond it. The plum represents, therefore, the change of the seasons, the erratic nature of the weather, and the constant outside activity, as well as a grounding of a type found in “Jones.”
This is a coming into existence out of the expanded scope of the sky, the diminished options of topics. The poem becomes about the path, about description; it is time-lapse poetry. “Repetition flags the theme … Repetition flogs the theme / the intent thickens / as the cement hardens” (129). In “Skies,” the poet wrestles with repetition because looking up provides, as he says, an “unbroken sameness” (457), a “restricted palette” (457). Within the constraints of this repetition, a compressed color scheme and a paucity of elements, the sentences in their endless distinctiveness, changing over time, over days, over the year’s span, form the texture of the year. “[G]rammar is weather” (470), he says.
The point of these poems is, therefore, that human existence is this layering of experience, this compression through time and memory into sedimentation. In creating the layers of the poem through the layering of days and description and moments of physical experience, Silliman creates the reverse of an archaeological dig. The “whole of word enclosed” (122), he says, is contained in the poem, and as “the world is revealed in in- / crements” (469–70), this “theory [of description that creates a path of existence] fertilizes a seed of intuition” (127). These are timescapes, what the poet sees over time. The objects flicker in and out of the frame as the year passes, marked by glimpses of hanging wash, the plum tree, the spiders, the jets, appearing and reappearing, always mutated by the difference of the day, the light, the time of year, the framing. This is time-lapse poemography, not just looking up and looking down, but looking backwards and forwards at once.
4. Bob Perelman, “Parataxis and Narrative: The New Sentence in Theory and Practice,” in The Ends of Theory,ed. Jerry Herron, Dorothy Huson, Ross Pudaloff, and Robert Strozier (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996), 250.