Captions without images

On Robert Fitterman’s ‘Holocaust Museum’

Rob Fitterman reads at the Poetic Research Bureau, Los Angeles, 2008.

As Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag amongst others have told us, when it comes to photographs, the caption is essential in relation to what we think we see: if the contextualizing text is changed, the meaning of the work as such will change significantly. In this light, it might be interesting to ask: what happens to the caption when there is no longer a photograph to contextualize? When the caption is isolated, it now refers to a referent that is no longer there. That is one of the issues raised by the American writer Robert Fitterman in his book Holocaust Museum, first published in 2011 and reprinted several times since in the US and in Great Britain.

Holocaust Museum is a piece of conceptual post-productive witness literature that deals with the representation of Holocaust. In the 124-page-long book, captions are being post-produced. They derive from a smaller selection of the 18,000 available photographs in the online archive at United States Holocaust Museum (USHMM), which is physically situated in Washington, DC. In Fitterman’s book, the captions are reprinted without the photograph they originally were written to stabilize. Three quotes introduce the book: a quote by the Czech-born media philosopher Vilém Flusser, from his book Towards a Philosophy of Photography; a quote by the American author Charles Reznikoff from his Holocaust; and a quote by the Austrian photographer and author Heimrad Bäcker from the English translation of nachschrift; transcript. In his philosophy of photography, Flusser states, among other things, that the photograph is not only a reproducing technology, but is in itself affecting and constituting a reality. That the same to some degree can be said about the caption as a genre may be one of the implicit statements in Holocaust Museum, that the caption both affects and so to speak constitutes the image that it accompanies. As with the references to Reznikoff and Bäcker, Fitterman marks an affinity and most probably also a direct inspiration from their work.

In his Holocaust, Charles Reznikoff’s method is documentary, and he post-produces and modifies real witness testimonies from the Nuremberg trials. Reznikoff divides his poems into twelve subcategories.[1] Fitterman has divided his poems into seventeen related categories.[2] Reznikoff organizes the material in Holocaust[3] in a way that resembles more traditional or conventional poetry with a clearly marked ending, a small blow with the tail so to speak, distinct (line) breaks between both verse and stanza and a clear (poetic) narrative in every poem. The method in nachschrift[4] is different. Heimrad Bäcker isolates, shortens, and sometimes also modifies quotes from various sources. Here the general impression is less explained, much less legible. Bäcker’s text fragments are torn out of different contexts in a way that can be somewhat confusing to the reader, or in a way that might make the reader even more exited and curious. In Reznikoff’s texts, the majority of the necessary information in order to ‘make sense’ of the poem is already present; here it tends to work in concluded sequences that might make it easier to identify as (a) ‘literature’ that through its narration allows the reader to get carried away. To use that metaphor. Fitterman lines up his captions, one after the other, raw, unexplained, unaltered, and only manipulated in their surroundings: they have been removed from their original context, taken away from the photographs and from the American Holocaust Museum (homepage), and moved into the book Holocaust Museum. And then of course, they are manipulated in the selection, in the different sequences and in the order they appear.

On the surface, the book is characterized by a degree of monotony, a tone of a matter-of-factness, and a self-confidence that is probably characteristic of the caption as such: a deictic pointing that also at the same time is being defamiliarized, now the object for the pointing is absent. It’s a textual effect that becomes apparent in the parentheses in a text like this:

Nazi propaganda slide featuring images of Wilhelm Gustloff, leader of the NSDAP’s foreign organization in Switzerland (left), and David Frankfurter, the Jewish student who assassinated him in 1936 (right). [Photograph #49763][5]

The referent — the photography — is missing. There’s nowhere for the eyes to wander. No visual details, no foreground or background, only the hard surface of the text; how Wilhelm Gustloff or David Frankfurter looks like, for one thing, is left to the imagination or whatever knowledge the reader may have. Still, Gustloff is probably placed to the left and Frankfurter to the right in that imagination; the stage directions helps furnish the reader’s inner room, place the seen in the imagined — provided that you are actually imagining anything when you read this. Also notice the reference in the square parentheses that indicates where the photograph is placed in the USHMM collection: this type of text is a recurrent epifor in all the captions of the book. These epifors work as source references, but, at the same time, also function as additional full stops. In itself active parts of the text, that can change what has just been read, as in these examples:

View of the former Kaiserwald concentration camp. [Photograph #96898]

View of the former Kaiserwald concentration camp. [Photograph #96896][6]

In the above example, the number in the squared parenthesis, the reference to the archive almost becomes a punctum in the Roland Barthian sense of the word: that is the specific experience of the detail and of time in the photography, the thing in the photo that really hits and almost hurt you.[7] It is because of the variation of the last number that we understand it is not the same text, not the same photograph, but another photograph of the same motif. This has both a significant meaning and effect several places in the book, where the texts are either verbatim repetitions or minor variations of other texts already read — but because of the number in the squared parenthesis, they become singular, and hence, via the book’s narrative organization or composition, to which I will return in a moment, in an almost performative manner adds to the amount of text and is not just a repetition of what is already there. More — new — American liberating soldiers, they teem through the text, more bodies, more mass graves, new bodies, more imprisoned SS guards, more female survivors gathering in front of their barracks.[8]

Together, the macro structure of the seventeen sections in Holocaust Museum mimes a chronology. As is also the case of Reznikoff’s Holocaust, which opens with Deportations and end in the grand Marches, as the concentration camps began to be evacuated due to the advancement of the Allied forces, finally we get the Escapes. Holocaust Museum opens with the Propaganda: anti-Jewish, racist, religious, pro Anschluß Österreichs. After that Family Photographs: pre-war portraits, families, parties, school, vacation, leisure. Boycotts: boycotts of Jews and Jewish tradesmen, often conducted physically by the SA. Burning of Books: especially the students are active. The Science of Race: ideological ‘scientifically based’ educational material, eugenics, racial hygiene. Gypsies: gypsies from all over Europe are detained and executed, also people related to gypsies are sterilized and more. Deportation: Jews from all over Europe are being deported to concentration camps, the long, and for many also deadly, journey by train, a for-the-witness literature classical Holocaust topoi.[9] Concentration Camps: initially, the concentration camps are seen from the outside and from above, the pictures derives from the liberations, American soldiers, some bodies and survivors, besides that snapshots of details from the camps. Uniform: from the camp to its inhabitants, a flood of various (types of) uniforms, this complete uniforming appear almost dehumanized — at least, it is always the uniform we see and not the human behind or inside. Shoes: shoes are made from whatever material is available by captives and Jews in camps and ghettoes, piles of shoes from the executed, the things that can be hidden in shoes, in the heels, and the absence of shoes, in the end: barefooted civilian German women forced to watch and walk amongst the reopened mass graves. Jewelry: confiscated jewels and jewelry, crucifixes worn by Jews living in hiding under Nazi occupation. Hair: enormous amounts of women’s hair packed into bales in the storage buildings of Auschwitz, ready to be sent to Germany, members of the French Resistance cutting the hair of a woman accused of ‘collaboration horizontale,’ a Jewish girl in hiding has dyed her hair blond, a plate explains the deciding genetics behind different hair colors. Zyklon B Canisters: Zyklon B canisters found, the canisters are clearly marked as deadly.

Notice how the last five sections all work metonymically and synecdochically, maybe in an operationalization of another way to comprehend the scale of the dead: the piles of hair, shoes, jewelry. The dehumanization: uniforms rather than individuals. All connected metonymically with these pairs of Zyklon B canisters in the next section, which — almost demonstratively — is the shortest section of the book. Only two texts. These Zyklon B canisters result in the enormous piles of bodies everywhere in the book. In same way as uniforms following a more straight forward logic, marks or symbolizes a certain belonging, so does jewelry and hair (color). And in the same way as a wrong uniform can mean the difference between life and death, so is it the case with the wrong kind of jewelry or hair color. The book continues with Gas Chambers: the architecture of the gas chambers and the crematories, the first presented as baths with piles of clothes in front of them, in the last: piles of body remnants, bones. Mass Graves: after gas chambers and crematories come mass graves. As in the concentration camps-section, it is here evident that the predominant documentary material dates from the liberation, consequently, it is not the establishment of the mass graves, we have photographs of, not the daily operation of the extermination camps, but the re-opening of the mass graves. But also of how they are organized, built, how the corpses are stacked as to create room for as many as possible. Local German civilians are being forced to witness the mass graves by the Allies, the many bodies. American Soldiers: in this and in the following section, there is a strong internal progress, the liberation, the surrender, time passes, you get the feeling of: very quickly. Troops advance through a geography, while the German forces surrender to the Americans. American soldiers in different places in Germany. American soldiers land in Normandy. American soldiers having Thanksgiving in Paris. American soldiers marching through Brandenburger Tor, they meet up with Russian soldiers in Berlin and in Linz. The survivors of the camps together with the American soldiers, American soldiers among the corpses, among the ruins of cities, advancing everywhere throughout Germany and Austria. Liberation: the camps are being liberated, in the beginning there are crosscuts between the French, the Spaniards, the Belgians, the Rumanians, the Dutch, the Russians, the Albanians, the Poles, the Jews, all celebrating everywhere. SS guards are arrested. Mass graves and heaps of corpses by the crematoriums are being revealed. SS guards who burn the captives to death in order to flee themselves. Towards the end of the text there’s a crosscutting between mainly female survivors, gathering in front of the barracks in the liberated camps, and a long line of portraits of the many people in different displaced person camps. The long journey home is about to begin. A journey many will not survive. The returning journey from the camps also holds its own significant place in the Holocaust witness literature.[10]

While the different sections read together in succession, define a clear course from pre-war to post-war, the text that appear in the individual sections are not governed by the same chronology. Here the time has been dissolved: the underlying organizing logic seems to be the search engine at USHMM’s homepage.[11] As we can see, there are two different temporal representational systems present at the same time in Holocaust Museum — the diachronic and the synchronic; both the horizontal (His)story and the vertical database: things we know about Holocaust.

One of the things that comes to the fore when reading Holocaust Museum is the many place names: names on places and on ethnical, national, and cultural affiliations, family names. This paratactic tangle of names of European places and more, mimes a Europe in total dissolution; a synchronistic chaos, where people from all over the continent gets that in common that they’re being assembled in these extermination camps. One has to imagine the sound track to these captions as a kind of Kauderwelsch — gibberish — or, as the Polish author Tadeusz Borowski writes in his testimonies about the language being spoken in Auschwitz: a crematorium Esperanto. The many different types of uniforms that rapidly pass the reader’s eyes in a flutter, in the section Uniforms are creating the same effect, in some sort of visual counterpart to the crematorium Esperanto: prison uniforms, camp uniforms, concentration camp uniforms, uniforms with distinctive badges, uniforms, Ustasa uniforms, uniforms of captains in the Hungarian army, Nazi military uniforms, uniforms of the Arrow Cross, military uniforms, scout uniforms, Polish army uniforms, not in uniforms, French military uniforms, striped prisoner uniforms, school uniforms, British uniforms, uniforms of the Danish Navy, uniforms of the Vichy fascist youth movement Moisson Nouvelles, volunteer service uniforms, uniforms of the Hungarian labor service, army uniforms, uniforms of the Danish Brigade in Sweden, Hashomer Hatzair uniforms, police uniforms, Maccabi Hatzair uniforms, UNRRA uniforms, uniforms of a Hungarian labor battalion.[12]

The place names help to geographically situate what is being documented. And what is being documented is of course different actions, but also, and not the least, the locations where these actions have taken place, and, to some degree, who has been involved. A regular mapping is happening, as when the Deportation-section is being initiated with the names on three ships being used to deport Norwegian Jews to Germany:

View of the SS Gotenland, one of the ships used to deport Jews from Norway to Germany. Only 25 of the 760 Jews deported from Norway survived. [Photograph #89095]

View of the SS Donau, one of the ships used to deport Jews from Norway to Germany. On November 26, 1943 the Donau sailed with 530 Jews aboard, 345 of whom went directly to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. [Photograph #89094]

View of the SS Monte Rosa, one of the ships used to deport Jews from Norway to Germany. Of the 760 Jews deported from Norway by ship only 25 survived. [Photograph #89094][13]

Another effect of the many foreign place names is that they implicitly call for the reader to leave the text and begin to research — or at least make a Google search after — historical facts and their geographical contexts. When the images are missing, the reader might get curious enough to not only try to envision them herself, but also to try to actually find them — on the Internet for instance. On just one and a half pages, the following concentration (sub)camps are mentioned: Dachau, Mauthausen, Buchenwald, Pocking, Novalky, Kaiserwald, Ohrdruf, Neuengamme, Plaszow, Majdanek.[14]

What are those names referring to? The only paratext of real significance the book itself is offering, consists of the blurbs written on the back. Here three advocators give their brief explanations as to why it is a good book, what it’s about, and how it’s about it.[15] Nowhere in the books is it stated that the source text derive from USHMM, even if it, for an American reader, probably would be an apparent association to make, given the title of the book. In his afterword to the English translation of Bäcker’s nachschrift; transcript, the American scholar Patrick Greaney writes that reading the book “knowledge of the Shoah becomes a project”; and the same can be said about Fitterman’s Holocaust Museum.[16] This is not to say that the sole quality of Holocaust Museum lies in its edifying qualities, which urge the reader to seek more knowledge about the Holocaust. That is one of the effects of the book. In the same manner as the reader have to leave the text, as I call it, to search for background knowledge in order to understand what is being read; the reader also and at the same time need to constantly focus on and delve into the text, and read it as a literary work that operates within its own internal dynamics and economy; a work that creates its own literary universe — in parallel with the simultaneous references to concrete historical events and places outside of the book. For instance, a text like the following becomes, in an almost absurd way, comical seen in relation to the surrounding text. It can be read as a commentary on the value of this preoccupation with naming time, place, persons, and relations as accurately as possible — which is one of the characteristics of witness literature as a genre — when we also need to know the name of the dog of the Lagerkommendant:

Majola, the mistress of commandant Amon Goeth, stands on the balcony of his villa in the Plaszow concentration camp with his dog Ralf. [Photograph #05287][17]

In between the more descriptive, distancing texts, all of a sudden other types of narratives evolve; small stories with several times inscribed, that shows compressed images of the Holocaust machinery’s radius and manner of operation; over time and in a kind of chains of cause-and-effect. How does the Nazi regime react, for instance, if it finds out that one of its trusted employees has a Jewish family background:

A German soldier stands guard in front of a castle. Pictured is Kurt Winterstein a member of the donor’s[18] family. He was one of Hitler’s personal drivers. When the Nazis found out that his mother was Gypsy they took him out of the army and sterilized him. [Photograph #33333][19]

Or how the SS guards tried to get rid of evidence and witness in a hasty retreat:

Emaciated body of a prisoner at Landsberg, found by the liberating American 7th Army. Original caption reads: “The Landsberg Atrocity: The emaciated bodies of Jewish prisoners bear evidence of the slow death by starvation they were undergoing before having been locked in their wooden huts by retreating Nazi prison guards, who set the huts afire and left.” [Photograph #496555][20]

And other captions that might look like short descriptive contextualizations of what is seen on the picture, but also in itself raises a number of questions: why Joseph Schleifstein still is wearing his camp uniform one or two years after being liberated,[21] or why the Serbian children are wearing Ustaša-uniforms.[22] And the child in this text, where the smile in itself is unexpected, and therefore may also rock the customary approach one might have, about child survivors from the camps. It creates an uncertainty in the reader, I claim, a Barthian punctum, also outside of the image, this smile:

A child survivor in a uniform stands smiling amid the rubble of Nordhausen concentration camp. [Photograph #42050][23]

Holocaust Museum is not an affirmative work, in the sense that it’s not just confirming our already conceived notions and knowledge. Rather it’s a work that, via captions for images that are so well known to us, that we can (almost) make do without them, destabilize meaning and activates the reader. By simply removing the photographs and leave the captions on their own, Fitterman manages to make the impossible representation of the complex of events we have named Holocaust new to our eyes. Captions are often immediately seen as a neutral appendix to the real work, the real documentation that is the photography. In Holocaust Museum we might actually, and maybe for the first time, read these captions. By swapping foreground and background — by completely removing the foreground — Fitterman provides us with new eyes.

“Incongruous Images,” by the American scholars Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer, takes its point of departure in the USHMM collection. Hirsch and Spitzer write on how the selection of photographs that are to represent the Holocaust officially takes place. On all levels of the selection, they write, there is a kind of (self-) censorship going on that has to do with how the photographs resemble something we already know before we find them appropriate. The motif has to be simple and easy decodeable; desolate, sullen, and not too complex.[24] When it comes to the conceptual literature that works post-productively, it’s important to ask what is going on: what is it that it does, how does it do it, how is it, so to speak, being curated. One must ask if it is denaturalizing what is being depicted and in that way whether it creates a more complex tissue of meaning that foregrounds aspects of the post-produced material that wasn’t readily available to us before. Or, the opposite: if the effect of the manipulation of the material is affirmative and just makes us stop at the first, best assumption, and only confirms what we thought we already knew without giving us the opportunity to reflect on what that might be. Or mean. How our knowledge is always situated. When a work depends so much on contextualization, as is the case with Holocaust Museum, what does that contextualization do with the work, with the reading of it. This is of course a question one has to ask in front of each individual work. I think that Fitterman’s work, so to speak, is part of complicating the picture of more mainstream Holocaust representation, alone through the way the text is being organized. Take for instance when the actions of the Auschwitz executioners is placed next to that of the French resistance:

Bales of human hair ready for shipment to Germany found in one the [sic] Auschwitz warehouses when the camp was liberated. In Auschwitz 7,000 kilo of human hair was found at liberation. [Photograph #66583]

Bales containing the hair of female prisoners lie in the courtyard of one of the warehouses in Auschwitz after the liberation. [Photograph #10867]

Members of the French resistance shear the hair of a young woman who consorted with the Germans during the occupation. [Photograph #81863][25]

And it becomes even more unsettling in the following text, where one must assume that the woman has no hair because she survived one of the extermination camps, but here the victim of the Nazis (the Jewish woman) oscillates with the victim for the resistance movement (‘the horizontal collaborator’) for a moment:

Jewish women learn to sew in a vocational training workshop in Lodz. The woman in the back has her head fully covered since her hair still has not grown in since the war. [Photograph #60791][26]

Hirsch and Spitzer write about some of the many curators and archivists who work with photographic Holocaust representations:

They display images that readily lend themselves to iconicization and repetition. But while this choice may allow them to stir viewers’ emotions and to gain their sympathetic attention, it also impedes troubling the well-known narratives about this time. It restricts their visitors’ engagement with the Holocaust’s more complex — and less easily categorized — visual and historical landscape. And, in so doing, it delimits the rich interpretive possibilities that this vast archive of private and public photographs can open and enable.[27]

The American scholar and poet Charles Bernstein reads the absence of the images in Holocaust Museum as a metaphor for the concrete loss that the Holocaust has inflicted on the world, the many dead and missing: “Page after page of catalog entries without photographs, names without faces, deeds without doers create a work more chilling than the original installation (…) Loss — erasure and absence — is made palpable by the marked suppression of the missing photographs.”[28] As you go through the book, he writes, the lists becomes litanies, with intricate and horrific repetitions, which simultaneously seem like the utmost dry and dull thing you could read. A part of the conceptual strategy, as we see it unfold in Holocaust Museum, is, in the words of Vanessa Place, to pour a hot content in a cool container.[29] That way, and with boredom as a kind of developer, it may become possible to see other structures than we usually do, in existing material. And it is this paradox, I suggest, the muted, almost boring (re)presentation of the horrible, that will make us read a work like Robert Fitterman’s Holocaust Museum with our eyes wide open.



1. Reznikoff’s headlines are: Deportation, Invasion, Research, Ghettos, Massacres, Gas Chambers and Gas Trucks, Work Camps, Children, Entertainment, Mass Graves, Marches, Escapes.

2. Fitterman’s headlines are: Propaganda, Family Photographs, Boycotts, Burning of Books, The Science of Race, Gypsies, Deportation, Concetration Camps, Uniforms, Shoes, Jewelry, Hair, Zyklon B Canisters, Gas Chambres, Mass Graves, American Soldiers, Liberation.

3. Charles Reznikoff, Holocaust (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1975).

4. Heimrad Bäcker, Nachschrift (Linz: Ed. Neue Texte, 1986).

5. Robert Fitterman, Holocaust Museum (Denver: Counterpath Press, 2013), 19.

6. Ibid., 58.

7. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).

8. For examples of repetition (with light variations), see Fitterman, Holocaust Museum, 58, 72–74, 93, 98, 100–103, 107–109, 116–118, 121–122.

9. See for example Jorge Semprún’s debut novel, The Cattle Truck (London: Serif, 1993). Also Semprún, The Long Voyage (New York: Grove Press, 1964).

10. See for example Tadeusz Borowski’s Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories, trans. Madeline G. Levine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). Also see Primo Levi’s The Truce: A Survivor’s Journey Home from Auschwitz (London: Bodley Head, 1965).

11. Charles Bernstein has showed how it’s likely that the texts have been selected. See: Charles Bernstein, “This Picture Intentionally Left Blank,” Jacket2, February 2012.

12. Fitterman, Holocaust Museum, 62–68.

13. Ibid., 48.

14. Ibid., 58–59.

15. Al Filreis, Vanessa Place, and Tim Atkins each wrote a blurb of approximately ten lines each.

16. Heimrad Bäcker, transcript (Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2010), 152.

17. Fitterman, Holocaust Museum, 58.

18. Donor here refers to that or those persons who donated the photography to USHMM.

19. Ibid., 43.

20. Ibid., 119–120.

21. Ibid., 64.

22. Ibid., 63. Ustaša is the name of the nationalistic, fascistic inspired Croatian terror organization that with the support of the Axis powers reigned Croatia 1941-45. Ustaša is infamous for comitting massive genocide on especially Serbs, Jews and Gypsies.

23. Ibid.

24. Karen Tilmans, Frank Van Vree, and Jay Winter, Performing the Past: Memory, History, and Identity in Modern Europe (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010), 170–73.

25. Fitterman, Holocaust Museum, 84.

26. Ibid., 85.

27. Tilmans, Van Vree, and Winter, Performing the Past, 173.

28. Bernstein, “This Picture Intentionally Left Blank.”

29. Place: “What interests me is what happens when you put a hot content in a cool container,” September 2011, Paris. See Serup, “Hot Content in a Cool Container.”

'Absolutely temporary'

Spicer, Burgess, and the ephemerality of coterie

Jack Spicer.
Jack Spicer.

In an unpublished letter to Robin Blaser and Jim Felts from the mid–1950s, Jack Spicer cautions his addressees against preserving their correspondence for posterity. “This will become a literary document,” he warns, “if you don’t burn it.”[1] Similarly, in a list outlining “What to do with the Boston News Letter” scrawled in one of Spicer’s notebooks, he advises readers of the poetry pamphlet to “[p]ost whatever pages of it you think well of in the most public place you can find — i.e. an art gallery, a bohemian bar, or a lavatory frequented by poets,” and to “[b]urn or give away the pages you do not want to make public. Do not keep them.”[2] In their biography of Spicer, Kevin Killian and Lew Ellingham refer to the Boston newsletter as an “exercise in poetic community” marked by “a curious blend of acid raillery and low camp.”[3] If the target of Spicer et al.’s “raillery” was, often, the literary establishment — the canon-defining university literature department and the market-driven major publishing house — then keeping poetry ephemeral, disposable even, was a way to circumvent and to resist co-optation by literary institutions of the social and material sites of avant-garde poetry. And the campy combativeness of the newsletter thus hinges upon its preference for the ephemeral exchange over and above the precious “document.”

A passage from Charles Olson’s Maximus suggests that “the social function of the little magazine” was a preoccupation for many postwar poets:

A magazine does have this ‘life’ to it (proper to it), does have streets,
can show lights, movie houses, bars, and, occasionally,

                        for those of us who do live our life quite properly in print

                        as properly, say, as Gloucester people live in Gloucester

you do meet someone

and I met you

on a printed page.[4]

Echoing Olson’s metaphoric mapping of the social space of the magazine, Jack Spicer declared, in his lecture on “Poetry and Politics” at the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965, that “a magazine is a society.”[5] These references to the social spaces and chance meetings out of which poetry emerges speak to the tension — found in much of the coterie poetry of the postwar period — between an attempt to formally recreate the spontaneity of social relations on the page, and the impossibility of capturing in print something that is, by its very nature, fleeting. One thinks of Frank O’Hara’s breathless exchanges with friends on the street, or the brief and ultimately unfulfilling pleasure of a one-night stand that Spicer uses as a metaphor for his early lyrics. Thus, we might read coterie poems, poems that can seem almost exclusionary in their persistent references to people and places unfamiliar to the uninitiated reader, as extensions of social life and as forms of social relation in and of themselves. And the fact that the beautiful-but-slapdash mimeographed journals and small press editions in which many of these poems were initially published were so insistently transitory — meant to be exchanged among friends and cast aside, and avowedly out of place in the university archive — raises, in another register, the same question of futurity that the poems themselves often raise. In response to a question about “the nature of a society like the Open Space society” in the same lecture I quoted above (Open Space being one of the short-lived print organs of the Spicer circle), Spicer rejects “[t]he idea of making things last,” and asserts that any desire for endurance “is something which just has to be conquered. The idea of Open Space was that these things would not last.”[6]

I want to locate a “secret history” of postwar coteries and their print media — in particular, the West Coast strain of the New American poetry — in the self-consciously ephemeral journals (or “bibelots”) of the fin de siècle.[7] Though “bibelots” were in no short supply at the close of the nineteenth century (Moods, The Fad, Impressions, A Little Spasm, Snap Shots, and Whims, to list a few with particularly apt titles), I focus here on those produced by San Francisco poet and humorist Gelett Burgess and his circle: The Lark and its spinoff, Le Petit Journal des Refusées, a chapbook printed on wallpaper which claims to feature work that had been rejected by several other journals, but which contains, in actuality, work by Burgess and a few of his friends. Both publications foreground their own construction as material and social artifacts and document the humor, gossip, and ribaldry generated among Burgess’s lively gang of artists and writers. They are also, crucially, parodies of literary institutions on par with Spicer’s Book of Magazine Verse, and wry critiques of the ways in which certain literary forms and formats are gendered.

Burgess and his band of pranksters quip, in the poem “Our Clubbing List,” from Le Petit Journal: “E is for Editor; what does it mean? / Everyone now runs his own magazine.”[8] Though it was published in 1896, this could just as easily be a tongue-in-cheek assessment of the period roughly between 1960 and 1980, when the ubiquity of mimeograph and xerox machines allowed poets to quickly and cheaply publish and distribute new work. Later in the same poem, Burgess et al. seem at once to satirize and to embrace the ephemerality of their contribution to American letters: “O’s for Oblivion — ultimate fate / Of most of the magazines published of late.”[9]

My sense of what these unusual publications share with Spicer’s work as a poet and editor began to crystallize around a curious biographical detail. In Poet, Be Like God, Killian and Ellingham mention the Spicer’s use of the term “goops” to refer, somewhat derogatorily, to his intimate, and often incestuous, cohort. George Stanley, one of the poets in the Spicer circle, is quoted as saying that Spicer’s derision was a response to one of the many romantic disappointments that punctuated his life (and helped generate some of his best work). In 1959, Spicer’s then lover and muse, the much younger Jim Alexander, began an affair with one of the comparatively few women in Spicer’s orbit. This woman, Dora Geissler, was also the partner of poet Harold Dull — the “Hal” of Spicer’s poem “For Hal” in Admonitions. That Spicer’s response to sexual betrayal was a brief disavowal of his (too?) closely-knit coterie and its claustrophobic insularity is not particularly surprising given Spicer’s ambivalence about collectivity (see, as example, the final poem in A Book of Magazine Verse). What is striking about Spicer’s wounded dismissal of the members of his coterie is the curious term he uses to slur them: “goops.” Ellingham and Killian indicate in their footnote that an acquaintance of Spicer’s told them, “without factual support, only [from] memory,” that Spicer associated the term with Alfred Hitchcock’s film The 39 Steps. But they also speculate that Spicer may have been familiar with Burgess’s 1900 book Goops and How to Be Them.[10] It seems fairly likely that Spicer was at the very least aware of Burgess’s writing, and of the arabesque, humanoid illustrations that grace the pages of his books and comprise the colophon for The Lark — figures that Burgess referred to as “goops.” Burgess’s goops are indistinguishable from one another in appearance and are often depicted in circular configurations, the limbs of one figure flowing seamlessly into those of another. Spicer’s use of the word “goop” in his poem “They Came to the Briers and the Briers Couldn’t Find ’Em” suggests that he might have derived the term from Burgess rather than from Hitchcock: “The goop is an international criminal organization / that talks to each other, makes passes at each other, / sings to each other, clings to each other, is as / absolutely alien to each other as a stone in Australia.”[11] The gloss that lurks spectrally below the poem proper — “In hell it is difficult to tell people from other people” — further reinforces the connection between Burgess’s goops and Spicer’s biting critique of coterie. It is a slippery slope, Spicer seems to warn in “They Came to the Briers,” from collectivity to alienation, from consensus to homogeneity. And Burgess’s illustrations serve as an apt metaphor for the circle of poets so closely abutted as to have congealed into a single, sticky mass.

“Les Jeunes,” the moniker for the somewhat fluid group of writers, artists, and bohemians in league with Burgess — including Bruce Porter, Willis Polk, Porter Garnett, and Yone Noguchi, among others — cleverly riffs on “yellow” (“jaune” in French) journalism (the sensationalism of which was often parodied in The Lark’s advertisements), and the freewheeling bohemian youth culture (“jeune” being French for “young”) the group can be said to embody, despite the fact that Burgess was nearly thirty in 1895, the year The Lark was founded.[12] Like “Les Jeunes” before them, Spicer and his cohort of self-proclaimed initiators of the “Berkeley Renaissance” were integral to the Bay Area bohemian milieu of the mid-twentieth century. The names that both coteries gave themselves reflect the combination of ribaldry and serious literary commitment, of self-parody and self-conscious mythmaking, that they share — indeed, the tongues of the original Berkeley Renaissance troika of Spicer, Duncan, and Blaser were only partially in their cheeks when they dubbed their nascent scene a “Renaissance.”

While I can only speculate about whether or not Spicer actually read Burgess, the uncanny biographical parallels between the two writers reveal certain shared sensibilities vis-à-vis coterie and career. While neither Spicer nor Burgess was born in the Bay Area, both considered the region their spiritual home. Born in Los Angeles, Spicer spent his first two years of college at the University of Redlands. In the fall of 1945, he transferred to UC Berkeley, and during that academic year, met Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser and later referred to that transformative year and the relationships it nurtured as the year of his birth.[13] If somewhat less mythologized, Burgess’s relocation to the Bay Area was no less of a homecoming. “One finds in San Francisco,” he once remarked, “whatever one looks for. I was young and ardent. I found Romance. I found Adventure. I found Bohemia.”[14] I can’t help but hear an echo of Burgess in Spicer’s repurposing of W. B. Yeats’s praise for philosopher George Berkeley (“All the philosophy one needs is in Berkeley”) as an epigraph to “Imaginary Elegies.” The in-jokey humor of this sleight-of-hand recontextualization of a proper name wittily highlights the centrality of the poet’s locale, and of the coterie networks that flourished within it, to his creative and intellectual practice. And since the energy generated in the apartments, seminar rooms, and bars of Berkeley and San Francisco’s North Beach could not, for Spicer at least, be separated from the persistent sense of its being always-about-to-end or always-already-over, a poetic tone I want to describe as insouciantly elegiac comes to characterize much of Spicer’s work. “Berkeley in a Time of Plague” and “A Postscript to the Berkeley Renaissance,” short lyrics written early in Spicer’s career, evoke losses not utterly irrevocable, but wistful, at times painful, all the same. Not irrevocable because, in the former, the speaker (a collective “we”) addresses us from a time after plague has come and gone and “taken [them]” to an otherworldly place — a kind of ghost Berkeley in the sky — from which poetry might still be written and transmitted. The shift from lament in the first stanza (“Plague took us and the land from under us, / Rose like a boil, enclosing us within”) to something like a cautious celebration of the generative power of transformation in the last (“Plague took us, laughed and reproportioned us, / Swelled us to dizzy, unaccustomed size. / We died prodigiously; it hurt awhile / But left a certain quiet in our eyes”) feels more like an embrace of the ephemerality of social relations than a fist raised, raging against it.[15]

The first lines of Spicer’s “Imaginary Elegies” (a series begun in 1948 and completed in 1954) overturn the classical conceit of poetry as preservation fantasy: as, in other words, a medium that — unlike love, friendship, flesh, etc. — endures.[16] Instead of the “living record of … memory” in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 54, or the “black lines” that keep the speaker’s beloved “green” in Sonnet 63, Spicer gives us “Poetry [that], almost blind like a camera / Is alive in sight for only a second.” A little later in the poem, he writes: “One can only worship / These cold eternals for their support of / What is absolutely temporary.”[17] “These cold eternals” refer here to what Spicer calls, elsewhere, “pure poetry”: poetry devoid of the warmth and vitality of the friends, lovers, and fellow travelers for and about whom it ought to be written.[18] The following poem, from Spicer’s 1957 book Admonitions, gives us a more fully articulated version of Spicerian ephemerality:

For Hal

Is no excuse for such things
Weigh like strawberries
On a shortcake.
To the root of the matter
Get laid
Have a friend
Do anything
But be a free fucking agent.
No one
Has lots of them
Lays or friends or anything
That can make a little light in all that darkness.
There is a cigarette you can hold for a minute
In your weak mouth
And then the light goes out,
Rival, honey, friend,
And then you stub it out.[19]

Written for and addressed to one of the young poetic initiates who formed the small circle around Spicer during the decades following WWII, the poem links mortality to poetic ephemerality (poem as lit cigarette), and both of those things to coterie (having a few friends or lays), as well as to something like political autonomy (“free fucking agent”). This special collocation of concerns could be said to emerge in part from Spicer’s interest in the poem as an occasion rather than an artifact, as one friend (or rival, or lover) talking to another.


I want to devote the remainder of this essay to The Lark and to the ways in which its editors’ remarks in the journal’s final issue — known as the “Epi-Lark” — register, both rhetorically and tonally, their sense of the “ultimate fate” referred to in the lines from “Our Clubbing List”: “O’s for Oblivion — ultimate fate / Of most of the magazines published of late.” Johns Hopkins University’s Special Collections owns all but five of The Lark’s twenty-five issues. They are ephemeral in every sense. No matter how delicately I handled them, their brittle edges and spines inevitably cracked and crumbled, due in part to their age but also to the gossamer bamboo paper on which the journal is printed. Since the pages are nearly transparent — more reminiscent of rough silk than of paper — each is printed on one side only. The epigraph (from The Taming of the Shrew) on the cover of the ninth issue — “What, is the jay more precious than the lark, because his feathers are more beautiful?” — seems a celebration of the magazine’s understated, homely charm. While typographical features like the “ragged right-hand margin” distinguish it, as the editors indicate in the “Epi-Lark,” from most other publications of the era, to a contemporary reader, there is a kind of beauty in its playful asymmetries.

The advertisements for Le Petit Journal des Refusées featured in The Lark are at once mock-sensationalist and self-effacing. An advertisement in issue thirteen boasts that the forthcoming publication will feature “A new Size. A new Paper. A new Shape. A new Type. … A new EVERYTHING!” and will be “The Sensation of the Century!” Its editors insist that it will be “More artistic than a Bicycle Catalog. More ingenious than the Lark. Weird as a Hasheesh Dream, or a Circus Dodger. An impossible Literary Prodigy.” These humorously bombastic claims for the magazine’s exemplarity are tempered in another ad, which markets Le Petit Journal as “the smallest and most extraordinary magazine in existence … [t]he margins … very, very wide, the cover almost impossible.”[20] It was small in the sense of there being only one issue, and very few copies of it at that, but this curious description of the projected publication — with its “impossible” combination of Lilliputian dimensions and gargantuan margins — evokes something like the inverse of Mallarmé’s equally impossible Livre. Burgess gives us the little magazine as a self-consciously and exaggeratedly marginal, minor enterprise, as rare and “homegrown” as an iris on the slopes of the Presidio (which was Bruce Porter’s metaphor for the magazine in his statement in the “Epi-Lark”), with a lifespan almost as brief and a circulation limited to the “blessed few” of the editors’ coterie.[21]

In his editorial statement for the “Epi-Lark,” Burgess attempts to situate the magazine’s minority as particularly timely — befitting an era punctuated by a series of fashions and fads:

For it has been a decade of small things and minor poesy, and the Lark was too amateurish an effort to stand for much more than a sincerity of impulse. But, though small, it has been a positive protest, — not in the debased meaning of the word, but in its original significance. It has protested the joy of life, the gladness of youth and love, and the belief that these shall endure.[22]

But what I want to call The Lark’s radical ephemerality was not merely symptomatic of a general trend — the decade of decadence’s “craze for odd sizes and shapes, freak illustrations, wide margins, uncut pages, Jenson types, scurrilous abuse and petty jealousies, impossible prose and doggerel rhyme,” as Burgess puts it — but a “revolt against the commonplace [which] aimed to overthrow the staid respectability of the larger magazines and to open to younger writers opportunities to be heard before they had obtained recognition from the autocratic editors.”[23]

Burgess begins his final remarks on the magazine by comparing it to a piece of music — a “short score” or a “brief song.” The figurative language employed in the closing paragraphs, however, is distinctly martial, as phrases like “riot of Decadence” and “revolt against the commonplace” thicken into a tableau of naval onslaught and retreat which serves as an extended metaphor for avant-garde fomentation:

But the war is almost over now, and the little wasp-like privateers that have swarmed the seas of Journalism are nearly all silenced; the freak fleet has disarmed, but who knows how many are missing? Not a port but gave help to the uprising and mustered its volunteers in the fight against Convention. It was a tea-pot tempest that made them and wrecked them, and yet, when the history of the Nineteenth Century decadence is written, these tiny eruptions of revolt, these pamphleteering amateurs cannot remain unnoticed, for their outbreak was a symptom of the discontent of the times, a wide-felt protest of emancipation from the dictates of the old literary tribunals. Little enough good has come of it that one can see at present, but the sedition is broached, and the next rebellion may have more blood to spill.[24]

It is difficult not to hear in Burgess’s fevered rhetoric the words of Mallarmé, another fin-de-siècle maverick whose influence on the print media of the period continues to be the subject of scholarly investigation: “I know of no other bomb but the book.” I also hear something along the lines of Rob Halpern’s coda to his 2009 book of poems, Disaster Suites. Halpern’s closing remarks speak, I think, to the contradiction at the heart of Spicer’s and Burgess’s preoccupation with ephemerality: that it is at once a state of affairs about which we are likely to feel ambivalent, perhaps even dismayed, and one that is also desirable. Desirable because whether a poem or a magazine endures or not depends at least in part upon the endurance of the historical conditions that make the poem or the magazine (or the friendship or the coterie) possible and necessary in the first place. This ambivalence is captured in Spicer’s second letter to Lorca, in which he writes that “[a] poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer,”[25] and more movingly still in Halpern’s: “I hope these poems don’t persist. Or rather, I hope the conditions that make them readable do not.”[26] If coterie writers like Burgess, Spicer, and others between and since battle against “Convention,” against the “dictates of the old literary tribunals,” against “the English Department of the spirit,”— and if poems, magazines, and coteries act as forms of resistance against things as they are — then an embrace of transience might reveal a more hopeful than resigned, a more cautiously utopian than nihilistic attitude about things as they might someday be.



1. Jack Spicer Papers, BANC MSS 2004/209, the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

2. Ibid.

3. Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, Poet, Be Like God (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1999), 75.

4. Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems, ed. George Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 28.

5. Peter Gizzi, ed., The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), 157.

6. Ibid., 166.

7. This is not to overlook the fact that many modernist magazines were, to a certain extent, ephemeral — precarious operations with limited budgets and short life spans. As the editors of American Prefaces observed in 1940, “the average influential little magazine flashes brightly for a year, like Seven Arts, then passes. For those who survive the first winter, the fourth-year mortality is a fearful danger; Emerson’s Dial fell victim to it.” (Theodore Peterson, Magazines in the Twentieth Century, qtd. in Suzanne W. Churchill and Adam McKible, eds., Little Magazines and Modernism [Ashgate 2007], 9). Part of the difference, I think, between the modernist magazine and the postwar variety has to do with the latter’s self-awareness about the aesthetics and politics of ephemerality and its links to coterie. Some recent studies that marry close attention to the hybrid forms of postwar American poetry with informed considerations of the social, political, and personal milieus out of which it has emerged include Lytle Shaw’s Frank O’Hara: Poetics of Coterie (2006), Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (2009), Stephen Voyce’s Poetic Community: Avant-Garde Activism and Cold War Culture (2013), and Among Friends: Engendering the Social Site of Poetry (2013), a collection of scholarly essays about the often messy relations among poetry, gender, and sociality, edited by Anne Dewey and Libbie Rifkin.

8. James Marrion, ed., Le Petit Journal des Refusées (San Francisco, 1896). James Marrion was one of Burgess’s pseudonyms. High resolution scans of Le Petit Journal are available online at the Modernist Journals Project. For more on Burgess and Le Petit Journal, see Johanna Drucker’s “Bohemian by Design: Gelett Burgess and Le Petit Journal des Refusées.”

9. Ibid.

10. Ellingham and Killian, Poet, 397.

11. Jack Spicer, My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, ed. Peter Gizzi (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 255.

12. Gelett Burgess, Bayside Bohemia: Fin de siècle San Francisco and its Little Magazines (San Francisco: Black Vine Press, 1954), vi.

13. Ellingham and Killian, Poet, 11.

14. Burgess, Bayside Bohemia, x.

15. Spicer, Vocabulary, 5.

16. I take the term “preservation fantasy” from Aaron Kunin’s article “Shakespeare’s Preservation Fantasy,” published in PMLA 124, no. 1 (January 2009).

17. Spicer, Vocabulary, 26

18. Spicer complained, in a short presentation for a symposium on “The Poet and Poetry” in 1949, that the New Critics “have completed the job of denuding [poetry] of any remaining connection to person place and time. What is left is proudly exhibited in their essays — the dull horror of naked, pure poetry.”

19. Spicer, Vocabulary, 167.

20. Gelett Burgess, ed., The Lark 13 (San Francisco: William F. Doxey, 1896).

21. The phrase “blessed few” comes from Burgess’s poem “Ballade of the Cognoscenti: To an Unknown Correspondent,” from issue 21 of The Lark. The poem depicts a friendship between two individuals whose “souls illumined” serve as a metaphor for the knowledge shared among a small group of initiates. Though Burgess’s diction is more reminiscent of Duncan than of Spicer, the poem’s depiction of friendship and/or coterie as gnosis is very much in the proverbial wheelhouses of both postwar poets:

So soul to soul doth boldly kinship claim
For them that know the Master Word and Clue;
So secret friendship kindles into flame

22. Gelett Burgess, ed., Epi-Lark (San Francisco: William F. Doxey, 1897).

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Spicer, Vocabulary, 122.

26. Rob Halpern, Disaster Suites (Palm Press, 2009). 

Time-lapse poemography

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,”[1] 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” [1062]) and “Paradise” (“literally begun on New Year’s Day, completed on New Year’s Eve” [1060]). This article’s title points to this effort to put writing back into poetry: graphy — “processes … of writing, drawing or … representation.”[2] 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).[3] 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.”[4] “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.”[5]

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.



1. Ron Silliman, The Alphabet (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008), 1058. All other references to this work are cited by page number in the text.

2. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “graphy.”

3. Also reflected in Ron Silliman’s The New Sentence (New York: Roof, 1987).

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.

5. John Ashbery, “An Interview in Warsaw,” interview by Piotr Sommer, in Code of Signals: Recent Writings in Poetics, ed. Michael Palmer (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 1983), 313.

Spatial motion

On Leslie Scalapino’s ‘How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind’

It is difficult to conceive of a literary work spun out of “spatial motion.” To read and consider a poem that defies iconographic metaphor and symbolic interpretation, a poem intrstead composed out of language’s own phenomenal play, is to butt up against traditional values about poetry that still slide toward the pictorially descriptive. Leslie Scalapino, however, repeatedly insisted that “the text … is a spatial motion, not a ‘memory.’”[1] And to be an audience of her hybrid poetry is to be faced with the poetic image’s instability as well as a phenomenal spatiality enmeshed in language’s fluidity and flux.

My essay studies this poetic “spatial motion” in the context of one of Scalapino’s greatest performance works, How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind. Her five-part tour de force poetry play — both as she scripted and released its various versions, and also as the piece was performed on both West and East coasts in 2002 — explores ways in which “spatial motion” is integral to poetry as well as to the spectator’s perception. My essay views Scalapino’s poetry play as an investigation into “the public world” of phenomena constructed within and through a perceiving language that moves and inhabits linguistic space. The essay also studies the way in which How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind embraces agitated movement — the internal restlessness — of the theatrical spectator before the poetry-play stage.

Scalapino published over thirty hybrid poetry books before her untimely death in 2010, all of which abound in a language of “impermanence” (her term). Hers is a poetic method diffident to verse formulas, genre matrixes, culturally regulated images, and standard literary motifs. Instead, this method engages linguistic unpredictability, and the potential volatility, of a writing steeped in language’s mobile, performative effects. Scalapino’s poetry showcases the internal “activity” (her word) of language as its own “drama.” It not only embraces the shiftiness and instability of a language always in motion; it creates what Adalaide Morris has called “a thinking as action,” the process by which “Epistemology is the action of the poem.”[2] Scalapino’s rigorous poetic experimentation effectively has challenged how we think, perceive, and “know” the phenomenal world through language.

Scalapino purposefully — with conceptual forethought and intent — reinvents poetic textuality as a mental, phenomenal, and agitated site with transformational image fields. Since her poetry becomes a zone of explosive “activity” rather than a series of more static images attempting to refer outside the text, her poetry fails to emulate the atomistic ideal of empirical perception, the psychology of individuation, poetic traditions of metaphor, or the narrative logic of cause and effect. Instead, the poetic text becomes an energy-phenomenon of its own — one that ignites multiple spaces for a visual as well as verbal perceiver, in a contextual field that lacks subjects and objects.

The explosive dynamo of “spatial motion” loosed within the Scalapino poetry text is not, of course, particular only to poetry, or to literary texts in general. In his philosophical explorations of language and communication, Jacques Derrida famously sought to show how all written texts reveal a spatializing process through the “trace” of deferred “meaning,” thereby destabilizing notions of the sacrosanct written document. If the generation of “meaning” is continuously deferred — a point he well articulates in his theory of “différance any given piece of writing inevitably produces “distance, divergence, delay” through the linguistic openings that incur. In his classic essay “Signature, Event, Context” (“SEC”), he further suggests that writing undergoes a “breaking force [force de rupture],” which “animates” the “writing/inscription” at any given moment and inaugurates an internal process Derrida himself calls “spacing [espacement].” Derrida comments that the “spacing” of the “written sign” defers and distinguishes itself from “other elements of the internal contextual chain … also from all forms of present reference.”[3]

Whether or not Scalapino intended to refer to Derrida’s “writing/inscription” theory of “spacing” in her own concept of “spatial motion” — a phrase she uses in her book As: All Occurrence in Structure, Unseen (Deer Night) — Scalapino was clearly talking about “writing” as poetic language. It is writing’s “spatial motion” that underscores her theory not necessarily of language or writing in general but of poetry specifically. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that poetry, for Scalapino, is that kind of language performing and re-performing a “spatial motion” inherent to any written text — but which seemingly may remain buried or suppressed. Poetry, for Scalapino, elevates all language to its own present, motion-filled, staged “event.” Thus, it is poetic language that is charged with exposing linguistic seams, digressions, inconsistencies. These in turn give poetry its performance-like mobility.

This unsentimental understanding of poetry suggests that poetry can powerfully, mentally transform our phenomenal shaping of events, politics, and spatial objects as they appear. Poetry, in fact, can reinvent what Scalapino refers to as “the public world” through poetry’s radically reworked concept of inner versus outer space. The Derridian force de rupture — what Scalapino calls in Deer Night that “schism” within language — becomes the aesthetic, effervescent poetic material to be formally released and manipulated by a given text. It is my argument that the poetry play How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind uses the internally linguistic, spatializing drama of and within poetic language to comment upon social-cultural upheaval, to create a profound epistemological revolution, and to call upon her audience to make political change.

The poet’s theater piece not only dismantles cherished ideals about language’s semantic efficacy (through “communication systems” like syntactic order and grammar); it also dismantles notions of vision’s efficacy and transparency before a spectator. Any theatrical spectator before the staged version witnesses a low-budget performance, one that offers the intensity of linguistic “spatial motion” and “schism” chiefly through the “unfolding” of strangely mediated, seemingly disconnected phrases and lines. Through the phenomenon of writing/language, the audience-spectator of How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind confronts a reverberating mirror of his or her own conundrums in visual acts of perceiving. Through the flooding of nonrepresentational series of images, the cracking open of the institutional-symbolic occurs. The audience-spectator is asked to examine the contradictions of seeing and perceiving on both linguistic and visual planes. La force de rupture within the “unfolding” of the nonlinear sequencing that creates the poetry play’s five parts mimics the paradigm of the spectator’s visual-perceptual drama. It is enacted as she/he looks upon and regards the minimalist staged space in the context of such rich liquid language.

I return to the important role of the audience-spectator later in my essay. First, in part one, I examine Scalapino’s own stated theories about writing and poetic language, her “poetics,” if you will, drawn from copious conceptual essays she produced both about her own work and that of others. These experimental essays map out multiple and various incantations of a “spatial motion” in poetic modes of discourse that demonstrate poetic writing to be an ongoing phenomenal “activity” and “event.” In part two, I examine the “unfolding” spatial metaphor that structures language in the written script, and how that metaphor is handled in a videotaped performance. How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind emboldens language’s “schism” through the movement (or its lack) of embodied players and the effects of mis-en-scène. In part three, I revisit the audience-spectator as a concept imbedded within the poetry play, linking its main concerns with perception, language, and phenomenal space to witnessing, observing, and seeing the play. I suggest that Scalapino’s spectator experiences “spatial motion” as a model for his/her own “schismatic,” fleeting subjectivity, one that purposely is unstable — and therefore transformable.

And here I consider the greater uses of “spatial motion” in the final act, called “The Hind,” in the context of the antiwar message the poetry play conveys. The script of “The Hind” describes the “spatial motion” of whirling, menacing Soviet-built “hind” helicopter gunships killing men and women on the ground. These airborne warships were first used in the earlier war of Afghanistan against local rebel tribesmen as they resisted the Soviet-supported autocracy. Later, they were absorbed by the Taliban. The “spatial motion” of the Soviet-built warships is also mirrored in the whirling “spatial motion” of twirling women in burqas performing a protest-ritual dance. The spectacle of “Muslim women” in their own kind of frenzied “spatial motion” personifies the real victims of gender and colonial oppression perpetuated by tribal autocracies and global superpowers alike. The literally moving, frenetic “female spectacle” in the performance as staged — like Scalapino’s motion-filled language itself — reanimates a potentially disengaged “bourgeois theater” spectator into action. The spectator is asked to interrogate a US foreign policy that called for the invasion of Afghanistan and other American-incited wars in the Middle East. A poetry play first staged only three months after President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan as a response to the 9/11 attacks on the United States, How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind reminds us that this war targeted not just the Taliban and Al-Qaeda but innocent Afghan civilians. In “hind”-sight, the audience-spectator becomes agitated. It is this spectator who will be best positioned to politically agitate against US imperialist aggression in the Middle East, and to protest the so-called “War on Terrorism” post-9/11.


If the essay is a worthwhile wager it is about startling the mind into action. — Joan Retallack[4]

Scalapino’s views on poetic language as recorded by her own copious aesthetic essays resonate not only with Derridian notions of “deferral” and “différance within written language, but also with other poststructural as well as phenomenological critiques on poetry and perception. Scalapino was never celebrated in her lifetime as a literary theorist and scholar, yet her essays provide a studied and dense assimilation of many theoretical concepts, all of which are recombined and rearticulated to produce her own aesthetic, and to enact her belief in poetry’s political efficacy on the public stage.

Like her poetry, Scalapino’s essays reflect what Morris reminds us is a language “predicated on enduring uncertainties.”[5] As Scalapino commentator and poet Joan Retallack suggests, ideas in any essay “should elude our grasp … give the reader real work to do,” thereby “startling the mind into action.”[6] Scalapino’s aesthetic essays are certainly exemplary of this effect, since they “evoke multiple senses of time, intersections of poetics and politics,” as Retallack notes.[7] Scalapino’s essays, in fact, are much more than works of literary or art criticism. They are conceptual reminders of her own poetry ethos, pieces that promote and explain her strong belief that the ironies and contradictions of “spatial motion” lie at the heart of any innovative poetry.

These essays repeatedly proclaim Scalapino’s idea that poetry is an “activity” or “event” internally in transience, and that language must bear the fragmentation of its own moving, phenomenal shape. Amidst the internal drifts and “schisms” and contradictions from which such writing springs, poetic language stages itself as a medium rife with unresolved fissures and erupting tensions. Scalapino’s view of poetic language and its failure to resolve those tensions into socially recognizable, institutionalized forms of “clarity” and meaning echoes that of another West Coast poet, Rae Armantrout, when the latter describes women’s poetic language, in general, as purposefully not “clear.” Rather than communicating a supposedly transparent view of the world through the symbolic, as Armantrout’s well-known argument concludes, women’s poetry should reveal the historically estranged relationship to that symbolic. This “activity” in the women’s avant-garde specifically discourages linguistic transparency. In fact, women’s radical poetry, Armantrout states, enacts the very way in which “the world” is not “readable” or “clear.”[8]

Yet if through their opaqueness and their “very incompleteness” Scalapino’s essays “bring words to life,” as Retallack writes,[9] Scalapino’s essays nevertheless do adopt their own consistently recurring, identifiable themes. One is the proposition that poetic writing is its own “event” or “activity,” terms Scalapino uses somewhat interchangeably in the essays. Another related theme is that poetic writing enacts “spatial motion” through its refusal to provide textual closure, in a dance-like movement that celebrates its own semantic-syntactic instability — its “conjecture,” in Morris’s word, like “the throwing together that is ‘syntactically impermanence’” (quoting one of Scalapino’s title phrases).[10] The poetic image must evocatively defy the reproductively mimetic. And mobility/transitionality inflects poetic image to the point at which subjectivity and “entity” exist as a fluid mirage. As Scalapino declares in one essay, on French writer Danielle Collobert, an “extinction of images” allows the reader

to get to the place where there is no identity is the place of actual identity unmediated by discursive reasoning … a divorce from self which is the real.[11]

Even a physical book for Scalapino is viewed as “detemporalized and spatial.”[12] Poetic language breeds a (non-)“identity” that “contains” only its performative “activity” — like an ephemeral masquerade of subjectivity that shape-shifts.

I should note that Scalapino’s essays are poetic writings that themselves are textual symptoms of her view of a subjectivity or “identity” suspended in “spatial motion,” and one that entirely lacks definitive location. Her essays are original but citational: Scalapino takes her conceptual-philosophical (non-)positions within the fluid contexts of and within other artistic texts. These may be her own texts that she works through, but they are often those of another’s writing and/or visual art, including the poetry of Gertrude Stein and Philip Whalen, Busby Berkeley movie follies, and the “self-portrait” photography of Cindy Sherman. Endlessly performative and vocally displaced, Scalapino’s essays do not generalize about poetry and art. They cite other works. Her essays’ citational effects allow Scalapino to perform instead of announce her concepts. Nevertheless, her essays generate unifying topics: internal textual movement, the paradigm of “change,” acts of seeing and vision. And her essays are “enacted,” as if staged, rather than discursively rendered through rhetorical statements.

In “Note on My Writing” and “Pattern — and the ‘Simulacral’” — essays both published in the 1989 first edition of How Phenomena Appear to Unfold, which also contains several pieces that later would constitute part of the 2002 theater work by a similar title — Scalapino describes the many verbal as well as visual texts she admires. In these texts, she writes, 

the notion of the pattern being the inherent nature of something as movement, the model of such writing … would be tuned to change occurring on every level.[13]

Her statement about “the pattern” that is “tuned to change” poses the argument that poetry is not a set of linked metaphorical images; nor is it defined as verse. Poetry is a “pattern” of “movement” in language that performs, and re-forms, its own “enduring uncertainties,” to borrow again from Morris, through poetry’s spatializing “patterns.” It is a language of changing “patterns,” which creates multiplicity in both image and what is traditionally called “poetic voice.” Scalapino adopts those “patterns” of multiple vocal resonance instead of the concept of a singular “voice.” She thereby shows that any “voice” is displaced “ventriloquism” — which is precisely how she describes Whalen’s poetry in her essay “The Radical Nature of Experience”: “Activity is everywhere,” she writes, “not operated upon by only one.”[14]

Discussing the writing of Stein in the essay “Pattern — and the ‘Simulacral,’” Scalapino “ventriloquizes” Stein’s own language from the latter’s own groundbreaking experimental essay “Composition as Explanation”:

The way things are seen in a time in that period of time; and is the composition of that times. The way things are seen is unique in any moment, as a new formation of events, objects, and cultural abstraction.[15]

Alluding through sound and syntax to Stein’s own rhetorical “pattern” as Stein considers the concept of a “continuous present,” Scalapino goes on to describe a “continuous present” occurring “when everything is unique, beginning again and again and again. A does not equal A.”[16] Filtered through Scalapino’s language, Stein’s “continuous present” becomes an actively moving “pattern” that “begins again” in a repetition that is non-linear. Scalapino also goes on to describe her own “pattern” in the essay; and she reveals how that “pattern” inflects the poet’s theater work that later would be called How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind:

New formations as words, fantasies, sounds, occur potentially infinitely. The ‘directorial intelligence’ is seen to be either author or context or the one as the other. Therefore our being replications or something being replicated takes place ‘visibly’ as an action.[17]

Scalapino again emphasizes spatial visibility, in addition to continuous “movement” in her poetic “pattern.” The “pattern” lacks stasis, origin, or singular identity; the concept of “directorial intelligence” is placed in citational quotes. Her poetic “pattern” displaces one “context” with an “other” through its internal motion. The “new formations” untether syntactic rules and the conventional image’s spatial boundaries. “The pattern being the inherent nature of something as movement,” poetic writing like Stein’s is shown to be a “model” that is “tuned to change occurring on every level.”

Scalapino’s understanding of poetry as being the “activity” of “change” embraces theories of performativity in language grounded in J. L. Austin’s analysis of “performative utterances” in speech, a theory recorded in his 1955 Harvard lectures and later published in How to Do Things with Words (1962). While challenging Austin’s reliance on “positivist assumptions” about language, which results in the privileging of speech over writing, Derrida’s “SEC” does concur with Austin’s general depiction of language’s unstable, transitory features. In the context of describing the “metaphor of performance” in postmodern culture, Julia Walker has revisited this debate between Austin and Derrida. She aptly summarizes Derrida’s own understanding of the linguistic “sign” as performance-based and semantically unstable through its own internal motion:

Every sign — whether written or spoken — automatically undergoes a process of dehiscence or self-alienation … it introduces a rupture between itself and the idea it names, it cannot be completely present to itself.[18]

It is this “deheiscence or self-alienation” that creates “rupture” within language, generating the performance-language paradigm that Julia Kristeva (after the Russian Formalists) also termed “poetic language.” According to Kristeva, “poetic language” embraces “an unsettling process — when not an outright destruction — of the identity of meaning and the speaking subject.”[19] Reading these “signifying operations” exemplified by early twentieth-century avant-garde French and Russian poets such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Antonin Artaud, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Kristeva also suggests that “poetic language” offers no metaphysical concept of transcendence. Instead, “poetic language” is that very language which 

Accompanies crises within social structures and institutions — the moments of their mutation, evolution, revolution, or disarray.[20]

The Kristevan theory of poetic language may be as well worn in today’s criticism as Derrida’s concept of “la rupture” in writing. I revisit Kristeva’s descriptions of poetic language, however, believing that Scalapino was either using these concepts directly or intuiting them through Scalapino’s own study of twentieth-century French poetry.[21] Like Kristeva, Scalapino considers “poetic language” to be a special kind of language and writing — what Kristeva calls a “mutation within language.”[22] Both consider “poetic language” to function as if it were a separate linguistic genus, one that traces a wayward movement away from socially recognized and well-grooved language forms. Its movement away from (beyond?) the socially and linguistically familiar makes “poetic language,” in Kristeva’s words, “revolutionary.” Both Kristeva and Scalapino view poetic language as a positive threat to social “coherence,” through its motion, its multiplicity of voices and objectives. Both suggest that poetic language destroys, in Kristeva’s words, the institutionalized “one meaning” described by “the philologists.”[23] And poetic language makes itself both “practice and subject,” writes Kristeva, in the process of undermining historic discourse about language.

As Kristeva summarizes, poetic language is always “walking a precarious tightrope. Poetic language … borders on psychosis,” in its continual shifting “from one structure to another, or from one meaning to another … the movement of becoming.”[24] But if it was Kristeva who most famously articulated these theories for literary studies of the 1970s and ’80s, it was the poet Scalapino who seems to have most clearly absorbed and used — and “mutated” — such theories. One might say that Scalapino’s poetic writings work at that similar borderline “psychotic” break that Kristeva describes in the lingo of psychoanalytic diagnosis (in addition to her use of Hegelian philosophies of negation). Yet Scalapino’s poetic theories differ from Kristeva’s, in that the former articulate poetry’s internal “schisms,” or breaks in linguistic meaning, as necessary not only for the aesthetics of literary art but for its politics. Poetic language should attack rhetorically discursive structures that shape the literary-political world(s) too often rejecting innovation, Scalapino suggests.

In a 2007 essay entitled “Disbelief,” originally delivered as a public lecture in New York City, Scalapino describes her own poetry’s destruction of rhetorical “bodily” figures as “healthy” — she uses that word in wry reference to an article cited from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the medical condition of “hippocampal amnesia,” whose subjects “lacked spatial coherence.”[25] Scalapino challenges in “Disbelief” the very notion of “coherence.” And she suggests in this essay that her writing purposefully evades seemingly automatic “spatial coherence” paradigms in order to challenge her spectator’s imaginary.

“Disbelief” discusses the particular technique of narrative texts that employ a “linkage,” which is mired in unacknowledged artifices. The “linkage” acts as a smooth conveyor belt that serves up an ideological “reality” to its textual audience, which may or may not have an authentic connection to “the public world.” This false “linkage” generates an impression of some “real” textual event that is riddled with untruths and inconsistencies. A truer textual world, Scalapino alternatively suggests, exists and is “re-presented” only through the miming of language’s internal movements — the continuous sway away from discursive summation or “naturalization” of textual artifice. Narrative “linkage” is too readily used, she argues — as are formations of discursive cause-effect logic. Such false “linkage” is predicated upon a priori assumptions about human social and logical relations; their use is dangerous because they encode belief systems that are kept hidden from potential discovery and analysis.

Reflecting upon a poem series she published in 1985,[26] Scalapino recalls her conscious attempt at the time of the writing to disconnect that “linkage of elements,” and thus to “widen” their gap. She recalls the effort it took to produce such a different kind of text that would incorporate such “space.” The writing

took intense concentration to ‘find’ the linkage of elements in space as to ‘allow’ these not to be linked, the distance to be widened between instigation and any after-effect so we can see in reading there being no cause and effect. I only see how I was basing this on visual illusion.[27]

Scalapino’s “spatial” method of textual transformation is predicated “on visual illusion,” as she stresses, allowing for greater performativity, linguistic play, and freedom.

The coveted model of visual freedom in poetry, for Scalapino, is coupled with a philosophical ideal she borrows from Buddhism — what she calls in an earlier essay, “Note on My Writing” (also on the topic of that they were at the beach), “phenomenal emptiness.” In the later essay “Disbelief,” she emphasizes the power of an ironic state of linguistic “disbelief”: “an operation of the writing, one being formed in it before the writing, however free one may be (or not) from the effect of being disbelieved (one being created by social pressure).”[28] Scalapino adds that she would “like to redo in writing that idea of: events there which, as not done there, can be seen simultaneously ‘undone.’”[29] Yet in different words, her earlier “Note on My Writing” likewise describes poetic “event” as appearing within such “emptiness.” As she writes in this essay: 

an event isn’t anything … No events occur … They don’t exist.[30]

Indeed, statements about poetic “event” as ironic formations of “non-existence” recur throughout several of her essays. And it may not be a coincidence that the poetry book Scalapino cites in both of the above essays, entitled that they were at the beach, mixes the visual art form of photography with poetry’s linguistic art. This visual-verbal hybrid work “appears” (before the reader-spectator) to put both poetic language and the photographic representation of human figures into motion and play. The stasis of seemingly captured, still-photographic images and the motion internal to the “playing” human figures themselves (for example, of people swinging on swings) may seem at odds.[31] But, in fact, that very dichotomy creates its own form of motion, causing before the spectator-reader a gyrational effect.

In other words, Scalapino’s text on the page generates a kind of moving performance between stasis and action on the page of the image. Just as the repeated images of humans on swings may seem to move back and forth as a photographic series, the visual field conceptually moves back and forth before the eye of Scalapino’s spectator, who takes in any given page for both linguistic and visual meaning. Motion becomes a form of meaning, established between and amidst these effects of stillness vs. motion. It becomes its own dialectical “pattern” of resisting closure, or one way of viewing/seeing.

Scalapino repeatedly employs this visual-verbal gyrational effect and its “spatial motion” in her later poetry play, How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind. She does so toward politically as well as aesthetically provocative ends. She uses the internal motion native to poetic language and vision to suggest that artistic “change” can promote political “change.” She suggests that art can reshape the way an audience thinks about and experiences what Scalapino refers to as “the public world.” That “public world,” for Scalapino, is a textual phenomenon. And it is nonetheless authentic, experiential, and perceptively visceral.

In yet another essay, “The Recovery of the Public World,” Scalapino writes that contradictory “phenomena” join perception to regenerate the (empty/full) “event” of a given poetic text. She declares in this essay that “all phenomena and perception are groundless” and that “perception itself is phenomena.”[32] She is meditating in this essay upon the Buddhist poet Nagarjuna’s Seventy Stanzas, and suggests that Nagarjuna’s poetry leads us to consider phenomenological as well as radically linguistic “public world” views. The very fact that phenomena are “empty,” she writes, creates a given poem’s visual-verbal appearance:

Phenomena hasn’t inherent existence — as it is not based on a single moment of a mind, nor on successive moments of a mind, as such moments arise dependently (don’t exist inherently, not being that phenomenon itself — although appearing to be).[33]

The suggestion that poetry emerges from (and becomes one with) this (empty) “phenomena” may echo ideas from Buddhist philosophy, which Scalapino may have embraced through her own Buddhist practice. But it also reverberates with Western philosophical concepts that emerged from a quite different cultural context, that of twentieth-century European phenomenology. The mid-twentieth-century French tradition of phenomenology, in particular, seems on par with Scalapino’s views of phenomenal emptiness as paradigm of perception and sight — a foundational topic (or series of topics) amply treated by both Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Gaston Bachelard. For Merleau-Ponty, phenomena is understood as inherently empty in of itself because it is but an “appearance” of “phenomena” before a spectator facing an uncertain “field of vision.” Objects in space are informed by invisible as well as visible matter, according to Merleau-Ponty, and this gives them their perspectival differences, their varying relational effects. Objects, seen or unseen, interact and inform a given “visual field,” which is itself conjectural, not fully (“visibly”) knowable.[34] But if it is Merleau-Ponty who has commented extensively on the potential for a seeming emptiness — or at least an invisibility — to affect the apparent “visibility” of objects in space, it is Bachelard’s phenomenological and epistemological writings that bear the closest kinship to Scalapino’s philosophies about poetry and language. Scalapino repeatedly articulates a concern with the instability of poetry’s objects in the spatial-visual but also linguistic field of objects. Her “phenomena” are revealed and sustained by poetic language. In his book on poetry, architectural symbolism, and spatial boundaries, The Poetics of Space, Bachelard likewise demonstrates that poetic language is a phenomenally spatialized activity. Educated as a phenomenologist influenced by Edmond Husserl but also considered an epistemologist, the difficult-to-categorize Bachelard describes his version of epistemological “thought structure” as a form of poetics — paralleling, perhaps, what Scalapino has called the “mind-wreckage” that a consciously spatialized poetics appoints.

Bachelard writes that poetry is a language that is “essentially variational … and not, as in the case of the concept, constitutive.”[35] Like Scalapino, he insists that there exists no rigid or spatially bound essence within poetry; rather, poetry works within a kind of spatial energy, with open, shifting parameters that move and repeatedly displace “originary” verbal-spatial contexts, which create an inner-motion “variation” at its very core (linguistically and interpretatively, lacking center or “origin”). Like Scalapino, Bachelard describes poetry as a fluid textual phenomenon that is a model of ontological-phenomenal “emptiness.” Therefore, and again like Scalapino, Bachelard shows us that poetry is neither sentiment nor “poetic idea” in verse form. Instead, poetry, he shows us, is a language about language, carved out and within the irony of “variational” verbal-visual space.

Like Scalapino, Bachelard suggests that his own understanding of poetry is that of a language putting forth “an image,” but one refusing the behavior of narrative pictorialism. Instead, in his words, poetry asks a reader to

consider an image not as an object and even less as the substitute for an object, but to seize its specific reality.[36]

That “specific reality,” as they both maintain, is the performance aspect of poetic language in action. Poetic language is all “activity,” variation; it is linguistic-performance “play.” Any “image” presented by poetry is but the resounding and destabilized echo of a performance within a given visual-linguistic field, as perceived within a specific spectatorial context. This “field” is the arena that surrounds — and also lies within — ranges and versions of the phenomenal spectator him/herself.

I will follow up on this theme of spectatorship and “variational” acts of vision in the poetic image shortly. First I want to emphasize why Scalapino destroys those false connections of “linkage” in favor of this porous and open field of play: to challenge and reawaken her reader-spectator, both rhetorically and socio-politically. Over and over in her essays, Scalapino articulates the point that poetry is not a transmitter of perception. She insists that poetry is the perception. Likewise, she reiterates, poetry is the phenomena being perceived. Language and perception are “activities” of the mind always “hinged,” a “linkage” that continuously must be reimagined. By reworking the interlocking connections amidst text, vision, and the space they create, Scalapino asks us to reimagine as well “the public world.”

Scalapino’s essays repeatedly seem to tell us that we can change our perceptions about “reality” and therefore change its “appearance” — at the very moment a particular “reality” might “unfold” before a spectator. This on-going shift in perceptival appearance is what marks both poetry’s accurate display of “the public world” as well as its “strangeness.” Scalapino’s poetry collaborator and close friend Lyn Hejinian has written eloquently on the “strange” aspect of poetry, specifically in terms of “linkage” (within her own theoretical essays on poetics). Hejinian prefers the term “transition,” or “hinge.” In Hejinian’s essay, entitled “Strangeness,” borrowing Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of “strangeness” in literary language in general (a term also translated from the Russian as “defamiliarization” [ostranenie]),[37] Hejinian, too, describes poetry as a continual process of observation toward, and within, the “hinge” — which is a connector or “transition” in action through lines and phrases.[38] Hejinian inaugurates her dual metaphor for poetry as both investigatory and “strange.” One must be like a detective or a traveler to undergo the “de-familiarizing” intellectual process that poetic language ignites in the mind. In the linguistic media of poetry, this investigatory and experiential observation occurs only via the gaps, or “transitions,” played out within “reality’s” liminal space(s). Hejinian’s version of what Scalapino calls the “activity” and the “spatial motion” of and within poetry is reflected upon by Scalapino herself in “The Radical Nature of Experience.” In this essay, Scalapino also contemplates the “strangeness” that haunts poetic writing.

Scalapino notes that a specific “unfamiliarity” charges what she calls the writing “prompt.”[39] “Unfamiliarity,” writes Scalapino, provokes investigative “seeing,” which is like observing, witnessing, a specifically visual effect in the text:

‘Seeing’ is not separate from being action and there are only the process of the text / one’s mind phenomena. Writing is therefore an experiment of reality.[40]

Poetic writing, Scalapino then declares, must be its own “syntactical and strident motion.”[41] Since there is no “there” there in the “motion,” writing “doesn’t exist — there at any place as sole entity in the series of sequence or whole.”[42]

The mirroring commentaries and interactions between Scalapino and Hejinian on poetics continue in another Hejinian essay, this one specifically on the topic of Scalapino’s writing. Entitled “Figuring Out,” this latter essay by Hejinian repeats and borrows from Scalapino’s citational design. It “figures out” how to read and perceive Scalapino’s poetry text as a series of spatial images, specifically targeting the example of Scalapino’s then-unpublished manuscript called “Secret Autobiography.” This later piece by Scalapino is itself written on the topic of an earlier piece of her writing, the poetry-performance work informally called Deer Night.[43] Hejinian writes: 

In her Secret Autobiography … Scalapino describes Deer Night as a “physiological-conceptual tracking (of) that is reoccurrence” and as “a particular schism / gyration of ‘the inside of the inside’ being ‘the outside of the outside’ at once.”

“The text,” Scalapino says, “is syntax of split or shape, a schism / gyration (experienced by me as a kid at age fourteen, it has a particular past) as only itself, ‘denoted’ as that split per se. … It is reoccurrence of that particular earlier conceptual configuration but — in Deer Night as text-configuration, not transcriptions of events of that time. . .”[44]

Hejinian concludes these two paragraphs that heavily quote Scalapino with a comment that again cites Scalapino’s Deer Night:

“It’s a spatial motion, not a ‘memory.’ No event as that is reproduced or articulated.”[45]

As Hejinian emphasizes in “Figuring Out,” Deer Night is also a poetry play, a text meant to enact “spatial motion.” Hejinian additionally argues that Scalapino’s poetry play adopts a cinema-like movement structure: “This text is a physiological-conceptual figure precisely as motion is in cinema.”[46] Conceptually in motion as “in cinema,” the poetry visual-performance text before Scalapino’s audience asks him/her to adopt a “motion-figure” for reading, viewing, and perceiving — in what Hejinian calls Scalapino’s “as-effect.”[47]

Through Hejinian’s elegant tracing of the important adverb “as,” both within Scalapino’s oeuvre and within the English language, Hejinian suggests in “Figuring Out” that “as” is the “effect” of Scalapino’s poetry, which moves metonymically forward and springs “syntax” into its own “impermanence.” The “as-effect” functions a bit like those “hinges” that bind Hejinian’s seamless “seams” in her “Strangeness” essay — in both the observation of phenomena and the phenomenon of poetry while one is observing/reading it. “Seams” without edge reconstitute a linguistic-sensory search for knowledge in the poetry and for the reader-spectator. Perception through language remains as spatially porous. Those opening yet simultaneously gathering “seams” not only provoke division and dissonance in a given poetic text. They also invite intellectual curiosity to evolve within the reader-perceiver, invoking and insisting upon her/his state of ontological freedom. It is through this model of spatialized, motion-filled “seams” within and towards language’s “seams” or “hinges” that Scalapino, like Hejinian, approaches the phenomenal “public world.” If poetry can be true to the rigors of phenomenal investigation, and underscore the change active in that “public world,” poetry can embody what Hejinian calls — citing William James — “‘the tissue of experience.’”[48]


I’m trying to write the modern world, which requires rewriting it. — Leslie Scalapino, The Front Matter, Dead Souls

Nowhere are these open “seams” of poetry’s transitional “strangeness” more resonant and visceral than in Scalapino’s written script for How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind and its 2002 public stagings. The notion that poetic language exists through and within its own “seams” — transitional “events” that are perpetually in motion, that are spatially, disparately “unfolding” in ongoing “activity” — is a political one in Scalapino’s view, which becomes increasingly clear to the audience reading or watching the play. This understanding of poetic language functions as a structure for how the text of the script “unfolded” creatively. It mirrors the very process by which How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind seems to have been composed, published, and staged, from the 1980s through the early years of the new millennium.

The poet’s theater work I am discussing actually has never has been published as one “final,” singular script. This form of the poetry play was performed twice — in San Francisco’s Small Press Traffic Literary Arts Center in January 2002, and then again at New York City’s Barnard College (as part of a conference entitled “The Poetry of Plays”) in April the same year. The scripted text I cite here is not one of its published versions. Instead, the scripted text I cite is a now dog-eared Xeroxed copy of what must have been the script used for the San Francisco performance. Scalapino gave it to me in person during a meeting we had in late 2001.

In my “script” copy, the title of her play streams over the photocopied cover, as well as titles for other short poetry plays that shared that same San Francisco stage — one by Tina Darragh, for example. According to the first page of my Xeroxed manuscript/script copy — which seems to duplicate a theater-program notice — these poetry plays were all performed together, although only How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind was directed by Zack (who goes by one name), at that time a Stanford University doctoral student of theater and who worked closely with Scalapino to create the performance.

A second page of this script manuscript, in addition to naming the director, notes that the poetry play has “five sections” and that “The whole is enacted in fifty-three minutes.” Those “five sections” would never be published officially together, as a “whole.” Each of the five pieces, however, would be published separately (most in the same collections), and four of the five had actually already been published — in that volume of Scalapino’s aesthetic essays, itself entitled How Phenomena Appear to Unfold (in its original edition, published by Poets & Potes Press in 1989). These pieces are more or less reproduced in the unpublished manuscript for the script in 2002, although their order is scrambled. And I note that these four pieces again would be issued later in the posthumously published and expanded, reedited version of How Phenomena Appear to Unfold, published by Litmus Press in 2011.[49]

To make matters even more complicated about this poetry play’s publication history, in the two different versions of the volume bearing the similar title to my Xeroxed script, those four disparate pieces are published only under their serial (sub)titles: for example, “Fin de Siècle I” or “Fin de Siècle — 20th Century.” And the final section of the “complete” poetry play as performed in 2002, called “The Hind,” was never published with the other four pieces. “The Hind,” instead, was published in a separate Scalapino collection, her so-called “detective novel,” Dahlias Iris: Secret Autobiography (FC2, 2003). Thus, the title “How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind” exists as a publically performed yet never really “fully published” work. Or, rather, it “exists” — but in fragmented, multiple parts whose incarnations have been offered to “the public world” through various textual settings.

The meaning of the poetry play’s title and its public versions throughout the decades can become a red herring for textual detectives. I believe we are asked to not take too seriously any one version’s textual “authenticity.” How appropriate it is that this poetry play’s “survival,” as it were — especially for literary scholars who thrive on textual veracity — becomes a phenomenal “emptiness.” There “exists” a copy of a copy of a Xerox that I am lucky to have in my possession. And there exists a copy of a copy of a VHS tape — a copy of which I kept, which was then digitally re-rendered for me into a DVD, and, for the purposes of this article, recently transformed into MP4. While I use both media in this article, I want to observe that an ironic joke “unfolds” in the unpublished script’s self-performance as formal-public “emptiness.” There is the script’s strangely “public” yet very limited presentation before those bicoastal avant-garde poetry communities and their rarified stages; there is the “repetition” of one of those performances in a VHS tape that has remained publically unavailable, kept in private hands. In choosing to cite my own copy of Scalapino’s Xeroxed but unpublished script, I become complicit with the joke, one intended by Scalapino or not. I am not trying to make heads or tails of what may or may not have been her “authenticated” text. Nor am I assessing just what the text on paper is or might have become.[50]

That all said, the “parts” or “acts” of the script are unchanging throughout their printed presentations. And the written script as a whole develops the model of “spatial motion” that the performances themselves would later dramatize through theatrical staging devices. Not surprisingly, the written script itself bears a plethora of poetic motifs about motion and other transitional, mobile literary effects. Descriptions of movement, like human figures described as walking, riding, floating — not to mention killing and other acts of physical violence — semantically illustrate what will become the actual movement-flow behind this lyric work’s pulsing, sonorous cadences. Indeed, it is the poetic written text that creates that “sound effect.” Charles Bernstein has spoken in general about Scalapino’s “rhythmic intensity,” whose 

overlays, repetitions, and torques enable proactive readers to enter the space of the poem as something akin to a holographic environment. The present time of the work is intensified by her echoes (overlapping waves of phrases) of what just happened and what is about to happen, so the present is expanded into a temporally multi-dimensional space.[51]

The multidimensionality of the “echoes” and “overlapping” sound-“space” produced by the poetic text mirrors the timeless warp of non-narrative “spatial motion” located within porous, incomplete visual images. In this script, motion is an issue characterized from the beginning, starting with the first act, entitled “Fin de Siècle I — A Play.” Stage directions on the first page of the script manuscript explicitly state that two men are “sitting” on box-like crates, and that they are “facing out, not towards each other.” The object of positionality is not just blandly remarked upon here but contains social implications. While presumably seated thus, a first man states:

I will be — as a construction

 — worker

 held under — in the world

 as a permanent lower class


A second man responds, in words that employ the gerund verbal form “riding,” which gives his language an active impulse across the page:

their people — riding on the steppes

 there isn’t anything — but

grass barren vast.[52] 

But who or what “people” are “riding”? Where, exactly? In these initial phrases stated by the two men on the crates, conventional “linkage” is steadfastly avoided. Yet such “linkage” may be rhetorically undermined while class “linkage” through social hierarchy is a highlighted theme. Scalapino’s stage directions for this scene describing how the men are to sit on the crates also tell us that lines are to be “spoken by pausing at line breaks and dashes.” This description of how the lines are to be “spoken” — as a series of halting pauses — expresses the “rupture” and “schism” already created visually by the placement of lines on the page. Lines alternate columns in small stanza-like “groups” and contain unorthodox line breaks and dashes. La force de rupture seems to permeate these two men’s acts of speaking. They can’t “communicate” — certainly not in a traditional sense. Yet they frame a dual “exchange,” however difficult given their positionality. And that rather odd “exchange” is actually performed in the poetic language’s oral rhythm reinforced by the visual use of page space. Meanwhile, according to the script’s stage directions, the men “face out,” do not look at one another, which truncates any seeming “direct” exchange of dialogue.

We as readers-auditors “ride” along with this language — much like those opaque, unknowable people-figures “riding on the steppes.” A forward-moving wave of motion is established in the very juxtaposition of the halting, broken, radically enjambed and also jigsaw-like poetic lines. Language in the script henceforth becomes a process of “activity” forwardness (in the truncated lines), but also a zigzagging bilateral effect. The strong forward-thrusting motion of the poetry is complicated by its simultaneous, multidirectional (or “multidimensional,” to use Bernstein’s term) “unfoldings.” Poetry lines accrete, build upon themselves, and form their own strange “activity,” taking the reader in a multitude of directions.

This motion “activity” occurs not only in the arrangement and sound of the lines but in “the mind” of the reader-perceiver. The arrangement of poetic sequences forces the reader to think — to use Hejinian’s essay title phrase, to “figure out” — about and within many levels of language, diction, and idea. Motion “activity” also occurs in the diverse and open images of various phenomenal “life” settings, like the mysterious land of the “steppes” or the “grass barren vast.” It “isn’t anything,” we are reminded repeatedly. “Phenomena” in this poetry is “empty” and yet full of “activity” at once.

Another source of “motion” in the script operates on a deep structural plane. It is less subtle than the image of human figures described in gerund verbals like “riding,” or “walking,” or “running,” often repeated throughout the poetry play. In the first act, and while the two male figures may not look toward or speak to one other directly, their lines of speech appear to sway into and intercept the other, especially as we see the lines work together on the page. Man No. 1 says, for example:

everything is simply doing

 as hammering riding



Then he adds, in a column of poetry that moves visually to the right on the page:

of — the — riding


 and — don’t know


about riding[53] 

Without seeming to address his colleague on the crate, Man No. 2 rhetorically picks up on Man No. 1’s “riding” theme; the columns on the page literally “sway” back and forth upon the page-space as we read. Similarly, Man No. 2 makes a remark that alludes to Man No. 1’s statement, when the former comments upon the class social status of the “construction worker”:

school says inferior


 worker — for it’s

 a corporation, so not

 go to it.[54]


This second man’s lines form an incomplete supplemental statement to the first man’s, just as the second man seems to address the economics behind the working-person’s plight in the packed metaphoric word “corporation.” The “corporation” is that emblem of an economic oligarchy that seals the class relations between the two men. It also is a word that literally blocks the movement of the man in the poetic line: “not go to it” (emphasis original). This man’s speech, indeed, indicates that the particular social and communication “block” that is “constructed” through the “corporation” is a product of capitalist organization that makes one man “inferior” to another. The two men may not “speak” to one another “face to face” or in semantically readable lines; but they “go to it” — to use their scripted phrase — in a coded form of implicit exchange.

Their language is socially subversive, as is this script’s. They “communicate” through metonymic “unfolding” patterns rather than metaphoric symbols to show us one of the ways motion can open up social organization paradigms by the placement of lines, statements, and words. Images of people and things, too, move with a wave-like flow; they do not stop and “memorialize” or recollect. This poetry play seems to offer from the beginning a new mode of perception and social change.

Furthermore, the ongoing use of the figure of exchange will teach us that partial, syntactically incomplete phrases can “exchange” each other — that they can they move back and forth in a relational spatial field both aural (the sensation of hearing the poetry) and visual (the experience of reading the lines of poetry on a page). In a syntax that is often broken and arrested — even purposely agrammatical — the men’s scripted speech strips readerly expectations for “realist” forms of dialogue, and instead forms the structure of movement and flow, alternating with stasis and rupture. Again, this new figure of dialogical exchange dismantles conventions of social repartee and institutional organization; it suggests that these conventions are arbitrarily made by a power elite.

The “rocking” motion of the language in the script of the play suggests both the equally truncated and arrested relationship between the two men — two “construction” workers “making” arbitrary relationships within the artifice of society — and the potential freedom of transformed social relationships within the artifice of creatively generated language. This rocking motion enacts “schism” and contradiction on thematic as well as linguistic levels. The rocking motion is also musical. In those beginning stage directions, Scalapino also writes that the lines should be “spoken … as if they were songs.” The ruptures and elisions forming the lines literally arrest — stop — any “man-to-man” dialogue. Yet these artificially “exchanged” lines, which seem so unnatural to the reader/auditor, lead him or her to question what might be “natural” at all, in this realm of utterances and words. Each line becomes its own heavy-duty “construction work.” They are labor-intensive but rewarding.

Thus, we are made aware that the connection between the two men exists entirely through the constructed state of their language; it is that “constructedness” — of their being and their language — that the men actually share. The visual page layout framing the different margins of their dual speech creates the “pattern” of a constructed musical rhythm, the “song,” as we move along this first act. The text’s visual use of the center page, which then moves to left- and right-hand columns — alternating line groupings in unpredictable and seemingly arbitrary ways — performs for the literal spectator of the script page the visual “spatial motion” we are seeing figurally, in body language performed on the stage.

The two men’s outward gazes may appear completely blank. Yet they look out upon another form of phenomenal “emptiness,” that which comprises their real and imaginary audience spectators watching the performance unfold. The audience spectators form an implicit “group,” one that is real and fantastical, material and imaginary. These spectators are lookers, too, who reflect back the men’s’ “empty” look(s). In this way, the spectators are visual perceivers who become part of the poetry play. They become its observational recorder, its relay point and mirror “motion” image. We, the spectators, become one with the both embodied and disembodied group of figures that Herbert Blau calls, in his book by that title, “the audience,” in all its alternating, contradictory, and dialectal features. The problem of “the audience” is not dissimilar to that empty “activity” of the language of artifice being staged before our eyes in the theater, as Blau notes. “The audience” represents both ontological presence and absence in the subjectivity of the witness but also the act of witnessing objects in space. Because “the audience” of How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind faces no ordinary “realist drama” but a play about language, it is invited to openly engage and reflect upon language’s multiple exchanges and contradictory spectatorial motions and relationships. Such reflection must remain hidden by the “realist” text and its myth of verisimilitude. But this poetry play will explode that myth from its inception.

This problem of “the audience” is yet another dimension of the “schism” and inherent mobility of radical poetic language in Scalapino’s poetry play. “The audience” mirrors the unstable sign of the instability of theatrical performance itself: that the “play” is just that — playful, and rhetorically, discursively, hollow. In the staged version of the poetry play directed by Zack, the creative use of stage design emphasizes that playfulness and figures of empty, arbitrary yet engaged language. The beginning speeches of the poetry play as they are performed — and I refer specifically to the videotaped performance of San Francisco in my possession and cited here — do not follow Scalapino’s scripted directions exactly. The staging in general is barebones. The box-like “crates” sit on the stage, and little else. The production’s simple mis-en-scène connotes an empty stillness (with the riffs of a pedal-steel guitar as hauntingly “still” musical backdrop), attributable perhaps to any poet’s theater low-budget production terms. But this minimalist use of stage design is “economically” transformed by director Zack into meaningful performance value. A purposeful kind of “staginess” repeats in the performance of such artifice, the staged emptiness and yet “activity” that so enhances the importance of the written script. “Activity” seems to generate from language and nothing else. That problem of the two men’s complicated and arrested dialogical “exchange” — and their linguistic artifice as well as their relational estrangement, one to the other — is embodied not only by staging but in the literal motion or stillness of the staged players.

The actors appear rather awkward on the stage, out of sorts with their physical location and their language enunciated in the performed production. The male players (Zack himself plays Man No. 2) appear through their awkward “act” as if they were false men: renegade actors on a play-pretend stage. I think this is purposeful. The men’s apparent lack of ease — their “uncomfortable” look as they “play” at their roles from the beginning of the poetry play — reflects the equal discomfort of the audience spectator trying to make traditional sense of the dissociated series of poetry lines.

In an innovation to the staged performance, “director” Zack — who is also playing Man No. 2 — “dresses” Man No. 1 in a construction outfit. The second man literally is shown to be constructing his scenic actor and stage “partner” in the guise of the “construction worker,” complete with overalls and head bandana:

In the play’s first “act,” this staged costuming of embodied players invokes problems of subjectivity connected to spectatorial identity and the audience. “Being” is shown to be a temporal masquerade of theatrical performance. According to Bachelard, this same problem of subjectivity, or “being,” is a component of poetic language. It concerns the “witness” who observes poetry’s visual (“spatialized”) effects. Referring to a poem about the “witness” by French writer Jean Tardeiu,[55] Bachelard comments on the lack of “center” in any witness or perceiver who sees — and therefore notices the appearance of “center” to an entity or “being” who “appears,” but as a partial absence. Human subjectivity through this gaze of the viewer elicits no character in the theater or poem, but instead elicits what Bachelard calls a “spiraled being.”[56] This “being” is empty, but also actively “spiraling” in “variational” space. Bachelard brings together linguistic issues of subjectivity with the ontological ones of “being/non-being” in his own uncannily poetic statement: “The being of man is an unsettled being which all expression unsettles.”[57]

It is this “unsettled being” that director Zack depicts in the opening “act” of Scalapino’s poetry play, when one “construction worker” player “costumes” another. This “costuming” or masquerade process occurs before our own spectatorial, witnessing eyes. Following Scalapino’s lead, Zack’s production seeks to denaturalize the performance in things performed. It unbinds, to use another term, the “seams” through the director’s performance choices. I use this term “seam” not only recalling Hejinian’s notion of “transition” from her essay “Strangeness” (which also recalls Scalapino’s concept of the “linkage” from her essay, “Disbelief”), but also as used by performance theorist Richard Schechner. In suggesting that Brechtian theater — clearly an inspiration to Scalapino’s experimental poetry-theater work — decodes and exposes “the seams between the theater and the script,” Schechner notes that these “terms” are usually bound together in the performance “circles.” When these “circles” joining elements of performance (like script, theater and drama) are taken apart, their relation one to the other is shown to be arbitrarily formed.[58] Avant-garde and conceptual theater artists after Brecht, like Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson, have continued to “explore the disjunctions between script and drama,” Schechner adds, while traditional “realist” theater and bourgeois drama fight to keep the “seams” connecting elements like “the theater and the script” tightly woven.[59]

Or they try to keep the “seams” binding performance elements from being exposed to the theatrical spectator. As in many other avant-garde experimental performance pieces, the staged rendering of How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind emphasizes those “seams” and their “disjunctions” over false “linkage” or unity. Zack’s direction follows closely these points as they are made in Scalapino’s script. The audience spectators, as a result, are “forced” (using Schechner’s word) to acknowledge the artifice of the staged setting, to expose “schism” and fissures both in language and performance “activity.” In other words, Zack’s staged performance, like Scalapino’s poetic language, opens those “seams” to our overt scrutiny. His method stretches and “plays” with them, like in the on-stage costuming of the “construction worker” (one who works at constructing performance texts).

Schechner writes about the importance of the audience spectator in all these matters, also calling the “seams” the “structural welds” in a given performance “event”:

The attention of the spectators is redirected to those structural welds where the presumed unified event is broken open. Instead of being absorbed into the event the spectator is invited (or forced) to experience where the event is “weak” and disjunctive. This breaking apart is analogous to the process of defiguration and abstraction that happened earlier in painting.[60]

The fact that this audience spectator always plays a part in the performance cycle is well highlighted by many other performance theorists, as well. For phenomenologists of theater, the spectator experiences what Bert O. States says is “the frontal quality” of the “object.” States views phenomenology and its investigations into “reality” as a “mode” that “the mind … adopts when questions relating to our awareness of being and appearance arise”; a work of “phenomenological criticism” becomes that which “posits a stopping place, as it were, at the starting place, not of all possible meanings but of meaning and feeling as they arise in a direct encounter with the art object.”[61] Theater makes a brilliant metaphor for this phenomenological critique of “reality” through the spectatorial experience of viewing events upon a stage. The viewer particularly of proscenium theater is made aware that she/he can never perceive the totalized object — including its interior and its backside, as well as “its composition, its angles and curves … its field of world relationships.”[62] States asks this rhetorical question about the status of the theatrical spectator’s experience when gazing upon a staged performance:

In what other art form is the frontality of experience more amply demonstrated? In what other art form do we apperceive so much rotundity in what we merely perceive?[63]

Citing Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion akin to Shakespeare’s — that “we are as spectators [not only actors] at a play” — States reminds us that the theater itself is “the paradigmatic place for the display of the drama of presence and absence.”[64] For the spectator, the very act of being inside the theater requires “a kind of bracketing,” what phenomenologists call the “epoche”: a setting-off of the perceiving viewer through the recognized artifice of belief about what is illusion and what is not, a belief mediated by theatrical “half-reality.”[65]

Phenomenological occurrence in theater is best described as that which is “‘seen’ … between these facets of the object.”[66] But if phenomenological critique shows “‘how the world becomes world,’” in the words of Merleau-Ponty,[67] Scalapino’s own phenomenological critique is suggested in her essays on poetics, which insist that that “world” is distinctly linguistic and that spectators of phenomena actually frame their perceptions within the realm of language. Just as there is no “outside” or “inside” to perceiving “reality” for the phenomenologist, Scalapino has adopted a use of language in this poetry play that holds no interior or exterior. Bachelard also describes an openness in the dialectic between “outside and inside” in his theories about the “poetics of space.” These are two terms, he insists, that are not oppositional or “symmetrical.” Bachelard seemed to have anticipated Scalapino’s conceptual view of poetic “activity” as one that records its own present phenomenal “reality” without dualistic terms, including inside-outside or past-present. Writing very much like Scalapino on poetry and its image, he suggests that this image in its “brilliance” can never be “an echo of the past.” Instead, it is “the distant past [that] resounds with echoes, and it is hard to know at what depth these echoes will … die away.”[68] Attempting to describe this changeable, ongoing “variational” quality in poetry, one that subsumes and engulfs its supposed “subject,” which has “a dynamism of its own,”[69] Bachelard also says that

the two terms “outside” and “inside” … are not symmetrical … can no longer be as taken in their simple reciprocity….[70]

Instead of “simple reciprocity,” in the design of the dualistic model of difference, Scalapino’s poetic language dives into a much more complicated, dialectic series of terms and visual-verbal fields. If “phenomenological criticism” is what States calls that approach to observation in which the visual field and its “reality” are entirely subject to the artifice of the viewer’s interpretive vision, How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind, surely acts out — or becomes — this same kind of linguistic-philosophical quagmire.

Throughout these gyrating dialectics of inside versus outside and stasis versus movement, the spectator’s desire is held in agitated suspense. We want to know, as we watch this poetry play: What will unfold? Yet as spectators, we may be out of sorts with the “unreadability” of this opaque, nonreferential text seemingly without telos or narrative trajectory. We may begin to perceive that the phenomena “unfolding” is rather engulfing as well as empty — a whirlpool of unstable language that we as spectators are caught within. And we may start to question: Why this destabilizing effect?

This performance work as a whole “stages” its own “variational” performance through its piece-by-piece movement in “acts.” How Phenomena Appears to Unfold/the Hind moves forward through four more daunting, difficult “acts,” some of which carry almost the same title. Each “act” shares little in terms of character or “content.” Yet in spite of the dissimilarities of these “acts,” they form an ongoing series that morph topics and language, all toward augmenting the value of temporal “activity” and “change.”

Complications arise between the script and the performance. Scalapino’s script makes the piece called “Sweet” the second “act”; Zack’s performance revises her order, making “Sweet” the fourth. All “acts” lack narrative elements of beginnings, middles, or conclusions. Each “act” can stand as a whole. Nevertheless, they also are related, evolving fragments.

I view them as musical “sets,” pieces focused upon the beauty and strangeness of their own language usages. As an unified ensemble of short works, these “acts” or “sets” compose the entirety of the linguistic drama that speak of poetic language’s impermanence, the lack of ontological center in “subjects,” and the internal linguistic “schisms” that escalate layers of gorgeous spatial resonance within this poetry. It is important to emphasize that these “acts,” per se (a favorite Scalapino phrase), are not impromptu but highly scripted. The language in each is intentional and precise.

It is the strangely relational movement of these “pieces” resting metonymically side by side that constitutes this performance piece in its entirety. I’ve already noted that “Fin de Siècle I” makes us aware of the fact that the poetry play is about language and appearances of “spatial motion” in many forms — the “talking man,” for example, who then mentions women “going into labor,” and another man who “makes fun” of a “newspaper boy” who is “dying and does, collapsing.”[71] While some “motion” phrases invoke quotidian movement (like “riding” and “walking” or “car — by goes cycle”), others suggest a surreal and fantastical mobility (like “insect jeweled / which is flying”).[72] The motion of human/animal/figural physicality is a major “thrust” throughout the rest of the pieces that follow. For example, in the second “act” (per the sequencing in Zack’s performance), “Sweet,” a group of young sunbathers called “groupies” are playing and romping together on a beach or by a waterside. They are “lying” on inner tubes and air mattresses, “knocking” in to one another, and “running,” a word that is repeated often throughout the script. They are also “lying” to themselves (while “lying” on the mattresses). Other “spatial motion” within the physical action of the script includes “swimming” and boat “rowing.” On the stage, such quotidian physical acts are embodied in the “act” by the “actors”:

The banality of the “groupies” engaged in “spatial motion” as sheer entertainment “act/ivity” pokes fun at the “spatial motion” underlying the poetry’s linguistic events. These “acts” by the “groupies” are trivial. While running and playing and bumping into one another, they are speaking to each other about the “activity” of human violence. Yet they report the violence from a detached perspective, as if just represented in a newspaper or witnessed on televised media. For example, they “report” the story of a journalist threatened with death on a video (which recalls the Daniel Pearl slaying, and today would reference the recent videotaped beheadings distributed by the fundamentalist Mid-East group known as ISIS). The “groupies” refer to the violence seen in a Kurosawa film among the samurai. Fictional violence is leveled with historical violence, just as imagined “scenes” from the Spanish Armada are equaled to Mecca riots. Violence does have this leveling effect — the “groupies” may be right in adopting their flat reportage style. But like the modern 24-hour news cycle, they are too detached from the physical violence itself; they appear to have lost their sense of reality, mesmerized as they are by the media. The young, trivial “groupies” represent human restlessness as wayward “motion” through brainless “activity.” They reveal the shallow understandings about human brutality that distorts knowledge of “the public world.”

The topic of human violence will “play out” in the script from beginning to end. We start with the oppressive class hierarchy represented by the men on the crates, and the “corporation” that insidiously is behind, or reflective of, the institutional human violence typifying the “fin de siècle” of the twentieth century. We conclude that commentary in a virtual war zone. In the middle parts of the poetry play, we read about and are shown all sorts of violent activities in the world, both interpersonal and on a mass scale. Some references to movement as forms of dysfunction, destruction or even death are associated with unfair systems of economic exchange, as in the first act and the dialogue “exchange” of the “construction workers.” But some references to violence are associated with linguistic violence, as well.

Movement revealed to be insidious violence also becomes the failure to communicate, to make someone understand a thought or to see the truth behind an image. When syntactic phrases are broken down and grammatical order is defied, that “spatial motion” cracks open an institutional language that has disallowed authentic human exchange and connection. We read and hear strange lines like “if you mutilate / people — they’ll be beggars”; or, “the construction worker says / the person being murdered / being in that section is understandable.”[73] These obtuse moments offering “strange” phrases about violence, one human to another, also offer up a version of language that is newly decontextualized — with the promise of being reimagined and reconstituted. It is as if language is destroyed — “mutilated” — to be remade. Violence is never gratuitous as usually represented in American media. Instead, violence becomes a kind of linguistic necessity — to reshape “the public world” and the perceiving subject’s view of that world. Poetic language is that kind of active “talk” that seems to require an internal violence shredding old linguistic skins.

Even by the beginning of the second act, entitled “Fin de Siècle 20th” (the third act in Zack’s performance arrangement), we cannot ignore the predominance of phrases about killing, murder, and human mutilation, along with the silliness of figures like the “groupies” who are “running,” “swimming,” “riding,” or “knocking” into one another. In a description of a violent Iranian mob scene, “crowds of millions” are “tearing at Khomeini’s/corpse for scraps of the shroud / carrying it trampling screaming …”[74] In “Sweet,” we are introduced to “two men and two women … concentrating very hard … and can’t tell the difference between language and action.”[75] We are also told that these “people” are “‘introducing’” — a word Scalapino qualifies with quotation marks — “new phenomena by speaking but also by moving (and the motions do not illustrate the speech).”[76] In Scalapino’s “Sweet,” where the “groupie” youngsters play and fight, these human figures have become bored voyeurs used to violence, who are cut off from sincere social relations. These “groupies” we are told are lonely: “in / their own / scene — so there is extreme / loneliness.”[77] Disconnected from human relations, caught in a mimetically violent world from which they also feel uninvolved, these figures are lost souls. They sublimate talk of violence to enjoy as gossip, “not wanting to / have a relation / to other / people in close / way.”[78]

This section of the poetry play seems to be a commentary on the corporate-controlled media coverage of world “events.” The people who swallow this reportage represent a form of unsettled violence, and their despair lies in their true isolation from each other. Political coverage, too, is alluded to as “empty” and unsettling, as in “the empty blonde / candidate as being.”[79] By the end of “Sweet,” the language of these empty, if playful, “beings” becomes increasingly surreal, filled with corpse imagery:

And greenish — dog — swelled belly

 So that it was huge — wavered on the shore

 and being in the boat rowing


 the corpse wavers

 on the shore

 comes up to it

 touching it




               a sack of

 a baby falls out of a

 — blood from her rear

 camel — dropping from her dead[80]


Not a “sweet” scene at all. In fact, “Sweet” encourages poetic language to swell like a corpse in fetid water, to inflate like the air mattresses upon which the “groupies” lie and float upon in an increasingly violent and “blood”-filled pool of words. Here language’s known boundaries, its “shore” of civil decency, retreats. All is fluid and mired in foul water. The “activity” now appears to be disintegration, coupled with the hyperactivity of verbal inflation. These images and the tragic scenes they recall for the audience auditor and spectator literally set the stage for the last portion of the play, called “The Hind.”

If for Scalapino poetic language “constitutes being in a state of turmoil,” as she writes in her essay “Pattern and the ‘Simulacral,’” there is no “extrication” from that “turmoil” in this last “act.” Named for the Soviet helicopter gunships technically called the MI-21s, the “hind” portion of her poetry play is a play upon endings and conclusions, and their lack of conclusion like that which has infected the war in Afghanistan, a war that was so long supported and charged by global superpowers. “The Hind” is a text aptly imitative of the frightening airborne vehicles whose artillery effectiveness wreaked so much havoc in Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries always at war over land, religion and oil. The “hinds” represent the power of technology when placed in the wrong hands. They cause massive death and destruction upon those relatively fragile regions of the geopolitical world.

The language of “The Hind” makes the flying warships seem visceral and real. Through the use of her radical poetic language, Scalapino makes us almost see these “hinds” hovering menacingly in the air. “The Hind” as a final “act” stages war’s “event” without narrative linkages or plot, however, or complete “realist” images. Instead, it reveals the hinds’ destructiveness through radical poetic, halting, truncated syntax. The “schisms” this provokes now tell a “story” but in non-narrative form. Poetic language does not describe; it shows — through the motion and fissures of the language itself as raconteur figure.

These warships seem to “appear” out of the linguistic skies like demonic incarnations. Their sudden “appearance” in the landscape of this staccato-like series of poetry lines is anyone’s worst nightmare:




 ‘at night’



We are “told” about the vulnerability of the local people on the ground, as they are pursued or “hunted” by the “hinds”:

… hunted

 (because they have

 no cover),

 if not killed

 by the Hinds,

 helicopters hunt them[81]


The human terror of the “hunted” humans creates a new form of identification within the audience spectator. She/he identifies not so much with the figures being “hunted,” but with the anxiety provoked by such radical vulnerability detailed through raw, oblique, partial poetry lines/phrases. Spectatorial anxiety is produced, in other words, specifically through the disjointed lines and dissociated phrases themselves, and the porous, unsteady and incomplete images they breed. The “hinds” float in the “cobalt” skies; what makes them so fearful is their pervasive uncertainty as images. “The Hinds” poetry script, like the hinds weaponry, threatens to rip apart both human subjects and visual-narrative texts. It is a script that exposes the horrors of war through the literal “spatial motion” of helicopter warships “appearing” but only in broken syntactic phrasing.

Before the terrorizing “turmoil” of “The Hinds” thrusts itself onto the poetry-play stage, Zack’s production of the two preceding “acts” is quietly understated. Although violence is sustained as a topic in the poetry, it is staged differently in those two “acts.” The embodied performers appear disengaged from their subjects. Sometimes they appear scarcely embodied at all — through the uses of voice-overs, lighting that produces human silhouettes, and the technological visual media. “Fin de Siècle 20th” is presented as a slideshow with such a voice-over, for example. It represents before the audience spectators a detached, highly intellectualized “lesson” about the politics behind war in the Middle East through projected maps, newspaper clippings, and photographs:

The language about violence continues to be dramatically understated in the opening to the fourth act in Zack’s performance, “Fin de Siècle III.” We hear about “soldiers” who are “pulling people out of trucks,” “firings” of “innocents,” and other war atrocities — but again in a disengaged and partially disembodied setting, in which two women are speaking onstage revealed only in silhouette relief:

Zack’s directorial choice to subdue the motion in violence through detached “embodied” presentation on the stage in these two penultimate “acts” gives that much more spectatorial movement and dramatic power to the fifth and final one, “The Hind.” By the time we see the performance of that final section, violent “turmoil” — to use Scalapino’s word — has accelerated to a heated boil. We watch “two men” and “two women” (per the script) relay eyewitness accounts of those war-weary victims who are assailed on the ground by the flying gunships. To emphasize the victims’ danger and their struggle, “The Hind” “recounts” their “stories” not as “memory” or narrative, but as ongoing “activity” whose “telling” is expressed through the ruptured images and lines. The attacks upon those figures are unfolding “phenomena” heightened by the multiplicity of voices in the language.

Those victims “voice” the specific acts of violence ongoing in the “hinds” attacks while executed. The victims’ “voicings” of these violent “events” increases spectatorial identification with war victims. We know that these are the authentic voices of the dispossessed: those both politically suppressed by their own government and by global superpowers invading their land. The political oppression is particularly poignant in the figures of the Afghan women, who are caught in the crossfire of artillery explosions.

These women are the war’s worst victims. To be an audience spectator of “The Hind” is to face the shattering fact that the poorest and most oppressed face the worst of a war they often have no part in engaging. These women’s situation is poignant; they are simply trying to stay alive. The focus on the women in Scalapino’s script for “The Hind” reminds the spectator that it is women in general who “have always borne part of the weight of war, and the major part,” in the words of nineteenth-century South African feminist Olive Schreiner. Women not only lose “the fields we tilled and the houses we built,” but also the human beings women themselves give birth to and raise, who are used as war’s fodder.[82]

If poetic language borders on “psychosis,” to recall that Kristevan term, the poetry war zone it (re)produces reveals a culturally “mental” and philosophical sickness. Poetic language in this “hind” section sheds an ugly strobe light on a war that the US commercial televised nightly news could not begin to show the full impact of — a war, in fact, celebrated in the post-9/11 era as easily “won” by the second Bush Administration. Since poetic language is the war zone in “The Hind,” this radical state of poetry’s “psychosis” depicts humanity at its broken worst. “The Hind” implies that “hinds” death machines are perpetuated by a state — and a state of mind — whose technological interventions have gone berserk. Hannah Arendt has written in On Violence — and her words seem never more true than in the last decade, which has seen the increasing use of detached robotic spying and killing machines like drones — that there are “few things … more frightening than the steadily increasing prestige of scientifically minded brain trusters in the councils of government,” those “science” officials who invent and wage war. Like Scalapino, Arendt depicts those who invent and deploy the accoutrements of war as representing a fundamental problem of human thinking, of thought itself. Arendt says that the problem is not that these scientific war-waging humans are “cold-blooded enough to ‘think the unthinkable.’ The problem is that they do not think … this is not science but pseudo-science.”[83]

In “The Hind,” Scalapino suggests that US-waged wars in the Middle East are “unthinkable.” And yet the wars go on. Scalapino has written a “conclusion” that is not a conclusion in “The Hind,” a piece whose fluid boundaries of “the poetics of space” have purposefully, totally run amok — along with those Soviet-built warships that float above a terrain whose violence has lasted too long, that has seen too many incarnations of war throughout the later twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The disaster zone framed within this poetry play also frames a “conclusion” that refuses to conclude. Instead, it deploys like a weapon the literary “pattern” of “spatial motion,” aiming to dislocate and disturb — to shake up — the audience spectator.

At this culminating moment in a very disturbing poetry play, that spectator is engulfed in the “ruptured” language-scape of poetic “schism” loosened more like erupting volcanoes than shooting guns. There is no protection for the “tribesmen,” or “the fighters, mujahedin,” from this linguistic volcanic spill, or for the impoverished Muslim women who face death. And just as there is no escaping destruction for these victims from what are completely inequitable military war games, there is no escaping for the audience spectator the ruthlessness of political policies that make them, enunciated by the “psychotic break” offered in poetic language. The audience spectator who sits in the poetry play’s theater is constructed to bear witness: to the heinous ways humans violently cohabitate in “the public world” of the new century. Scalapino’s audience spectator cannot remain indifferent to such forms of violence. She/he cannot exist in banal denial like the “groupies” of “Sweet.” Her audience spectator, instead, is charged with becoming its witness-activist, whose own “activity” now must inspire and insist upon political-poetic engagement.


They want the oil

 But they don’t want the people

 They want the oil

 But they don’t want the people …

Jayne Cortez[84] 

In his sustained meditation on the theatrical spectator, Blau laments the missing ideal of unified community for the audience spectator — or, rather, “the public we think we remember,”[85] and one he says is missing in the audience of modern drama. Recalling Arendt, Blau also laments what he calls her notion of a “space of organized remembrance that is the moral ground of history.”[86] This “space” represents for Blau the “res publica,” the shared political sphere. And it is a sphere not only asserted by the chorus of the ancient Greeks, but one which a twentieth-century writer like Arendt “tried to keep alive” in her study of totalitarianism.[87]

Scalapino’s poetry play does concern such a shared political space. How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind imparts a clear political message: that high-tech warfare and wars on foreign soil for oil and profit that kill innocent people are wrong. Yet the poetry play does not so much resemble that figure of moral “remembrance” or common “ground” — as if a container of political history can possibly invoke all spectators’ “memory.” Rather, her poetry play resists the very notion of a poetics of “memory.” And it by does so by destabilizing and exploding its own politicized use of the language of space.

How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind fractures and thereby releases the shreds of its political message by performing linguistic “schism” rather than reproducing rhetorical statement. In doing so, this poetry play may generate “a radical shift in what remains of the ideological expectancy of a public sphere.”[88] Such a “radical shift,” however, must offer a different form of engagement than that of “organized remembrance” or “moral ground.” The “radical shift” that is possible for Scalapino’s audience spectator does not evade “history.” Instead, it must reconceptualize “history”— as movement, as drift.

In How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind, the “continuous presence” of the ongoing “unfolding” re-represents how we understand “history.” It becomes its own movement and change in the context of this open and broken field of language. Through the “schism” effects within Scalapino’s use of poetic language, the potential for a different sort of politics emerges. Her “poetic” politics reconceive bad US foreign policies as an error in human consciousness and “mind.” The very openness of Scalapino’s poetry text and its destruction of language “regimes” encourage that “mind” shift to occur.

Scalapino writes in “Pattern and the ‘Simulacral’” that the medium of poetry requires living within “the loci (i.e., multiple) of change.” “Change” in this particular poetry play is figurally rendered as devastation and annihilation, however. Not only are the images of what Scalapino calls “apprehension outside” ghastly in this work; but a rhythmic frenzy in the sound of the lines in “The Hind” as a work of aural as well as visual poetry increases our spectatorial apprehension inside, in the mind that observes and perceives. Here Scalapino clearly strives to evoke “change” as a mental-emotional phenomena; such “change” — call it epistemological or psychological — is what can “change” the politics. And she achieves at least the first “change” by making her audience spectator uncomfortable as he/she watches, reads, listens.

Scalapino purposely makes her audience-spectator “nervous.” Blau describes the audience spectator of any staged performance outside of “realism’s” bourgeois-theater domain as being “nervous about its ability to understand” (“when not intimidated” to feel “flattered into compliance” with the experimental format and therefore returning the obedient, passive “look”).[89] In this manner, How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind generates spectatorial “nervousness” as our own audience potential for a change of thought and approach to problems in “the public world.” Such “nervousness” supports new inquiry and future moral-political as well as aesthetic thought. The poetry play exploits the agitated state of this audience spectator. It reminds us that every Western citizen has a complicity in the production and use of global war machines that kill indiscriminately in the name of oil in the Middle East. Too many citizens, however, are more than a little bit like those “groupies” in “Sweet”: we have been co-opted by post-9/11 drum rolls. The “War on Terrorism” has become a US doctrine that seduces its particular citizens into false rationales for invading foreign soils. This poetry play reminds us to not emulate the “groupies” retired into a voyeuristic observation of human violence without thinking. It reminds us we should acknowledge the power of US corporations that drive our Middle Eastern foreign policies, and asks us to continuously examine all motives behind all wars. We can be like the “groupie” who is “floating” away on

The lake
              And — isolated, alone there[90]

Or we can exist at the “raw edge to despair,” however painfully, to face the problems created by American dirty wars abroad.

“The enemy” is not one but several, as replicated in the poetic, performative, and political overlays that constitute “The Hind.” One concerns a patriarchal global culture and its states. Afghan women in the poetry play are the scarcely heard victims of the war zone depicted here. And their impoverished families are war’s usually unseen victims. In the poetry play, we witness one Afghan woman figure speaking of the mass death and destruction taking place on her native soil:

A million dead and the land waste seen at once
Launched anti-aircraft missile Stinger

She reports a firsthand view of other frightened burqa-clad women, presumably her neighbors, who scurry around trying to escape the approaching “hinds”:

pursuing in the cobalt sky a flock of women entire black
robes floating red plateaus of desert with Hinds (gunships)

In the staged production, these women in their “black / robes” (described in Scalapino’s script notes) are figures who don the burqa and “whirl.” Zack closely follows Scalapino’s stage directions by creating an ominous, slightly lit stage, upon which one, two, then three and four embodied players put on the “robes” — and start turning around:

These embodied players now covered head to toe in black burqas lose precise gender identity as we watch. On one hand, they are “coded” female by the oppressive covering of the full burqa, required female clothing by the Taliban in 2001. On the other hand, at least one of the “females” behind “her” burqa has a male voice. Gender identity whirls along with the whirling staged figures. “Wearing the burqa” becomes another sign of social construction through the dismantling of binary gender identity in this performance. The uncertainty of the “Afghan women’s” gendered category invokes a similar instability in poetic language. And it invokes a phenomenal instability in all “staged” settings, whether in a theater or in a “theater of war.”

The burqa-wearing “women” challenge the audience spectator to think in mobile terms about what we see and what we think we know. In the staged performance, these “women’s” moving frenzy coupled with the sound of drums portray the emotional agitation invoked by a “local” war that is truly a battle among superpowers. Our spectatorial emotions are being played for high stakes. We are reminded through the scene of these moving “women” that issues of cultural masculinity and its patriarchy is one key behind traditional war games and their technologies. We are reminded that ruling masculinist dynasties attack female victims on many levels. They symbolically if not literally “force the burqa” — by denying many women health care, professional status, education, free public space, and political voice. The dehumanization of women has occurred not just at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan but throughout history and across the globe.

The “women” in their “whirling” burqas tell us they are not mere victims. Just as they are not “just” female, they seem able to reverse not only their gender cultural status but their “victim” status, as well. These “women” in burqas are war protestors, “agitators” in all sense of the word. Through their poetry and ritual dance-like performance, they gesture towards their oppositional message: their antiwar message that moves away from established social beliefs and political discourses. Their very motion provides the “moving” vehicle that gets their radical message across: that we must change our political paradigms, that we should disturb the stagings of our politics and our languages. These women deploy performance elements of spectacle, theatrics, movement, and masquerade as their own weapon — to suggests that discursive forms of language and debate have served only the powerful elite. These spinning “women” are figural subversives, who refuse to perpetuate statically culturally feminine embodied behavior. One of them declares she will:

     rage if it’s

 properly feminine (‘appearing

 as placating’)[92]


Her woman’s “rage” refuses to “placate” the socially conscripted limits of female “robes” and roles, which only re-enforce women’s positions as silent and passive victims of men’s wars. Hence, the image of what it is supposed to be both “proper” and “feminine” in the above speaker’s gender code is challenged by images of the Soviet “hinds” attacking a group of Afghan women from the skies:

The dark cobalt and red.

 She finds the corpse and flying to him …

 the black robes

 billowed are embedded in the dark red horizon crags …



 I don’t have

 a voice in me[93]


Voicing her own voicelessness, the speaker and her “whirling” sisters literally “stage” questions about gender and gender violence in this war. While the “whirling” figures in “The Hind” spin, the speakers reiterate the tensions produced by socially engineered gendered difference in subtle as well as overt forms of violence, like the silencing of women.

The audience-spectator’s growing knowledge about the local peasant women who face this war in Afghanistan is heightened and enhanced by the poignant photographs of Afghan women standing in and around their cottages (sketchily suggested by Scalapino’s stage directions). These photographs are projected as a stage backdrop in Zack’s production design. The projection of these still photographic images behind the embodied “whirling” figures on the stage opens up new “patterns” for identification yet again for the audience spectator. Identification takes place not just through sympathy for the Afghan women as victims, but towards the radical figures of opposition, dissonance, and movement itself. Scalapino’s use of “schism” and contradiction in the poetry play no longer seems just an aesthetic choice. They become a poetic means to fight back against institutionalized violence and patriarchal tyranny.

“Schism” and contradiction through “spatial motion” become a way of examining, and thereby critiquing, “the public world” by destroying culturally masculinist political policies and logic. How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind, therefore, is one of Scalapino’s most radical and feminist texts. The two performances of Scalapino’s poetry play were well timed, produced in the difficult months following 9/11 and bravely asserting a view that many Americans did not share. The US presidency, the Congress, and the media hyped and supported the new “War on Terror” in those trauma-filled months. Scalapino’s poetry play does not make specific accusations or provide policy details that have been publically under scrutiny. Rather, her poetry play shows the insanity of war as a mode of retribution, especially when charged to unseat a difficult-to-locate enemy. And it intuits that the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was already in the works by the second Bush Administration before 9/11. It makes us consider that 9/11 itself may have been an excuse to increase US imperialism throughout that part of the globe, and not to punish the planners and funders of 9/11 attacks.

More importantly, How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind engages as a text with the inside structures that create and enforce institutionalized violence in general. It is not a policy statement. Instead, it reveals the structures within social play and its artifice, and particularly the social role of language that can recreate the way we think about and perpetuate cycles of war. This poetry play makes the audience spectator ask: Do we use language to conform to ideas we “know”? Or do we use language to open up and inquire into ideas, and to rip open the institutional logic that endorses further violence? The reader or audience spectator of How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind may leave the page or the theater in frustration with this difficult poetry play. There are no sharp delineations — no comforting bad guys and good guys — in a work of poetry using poetic language as a mode of open analysis. In the reflective arena offered between ideas and words, a space that spreads outwardly, the poetry play steadfastly resists any one reading. Instead, it makes us reflect upon the so-called “collateral damage” created by wars like the one in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, I believe that the poetry play does make one substantial political point: that the global superpowers “want the oil / but they do not want the people,” in the words of the great jazz poet Jayne Cortez.

The political message in this poetry play may not “move” the audience spectator to head for the streets, to march and wave signs protesting 9/11-inspired US wars. Instead, and in a more subtle “move,” the “spatial motion” realized on so many levels by the perceiver of the poetry play — of its phenomena that includes language, subjectivity, and moving bodies — means Scalapino’s work engages in what Phillip B. Zarrilli calls “performance as a mode of cultural action.” Zarrilli writes that performance in general is

not a simple reflection of some essentialized, fixed attributes of a static monolithic culture but an arena for the constant process of renegotiating experiences and means that constitute culture.[94]

Through awareness of the politics of poetry and “space” — through a poetics of space that renews multiple positions of viewing and perceiving — Scalapino’s poetry-performance spectator is offered a chance to engage in this “constant process of renegotiating experiences.”

The point is to transform and “change” the audience-spectator — but from the inside out (outside/in), through the gyrational effect of thought as language in “motion.” What is “brilliant” about “the audience,” in general, according to Blau, is its always mixed-up but transformational “bricolage of specular consciousness.”[95] Whether the thought-provoking and mobile “bricolage” effect leads to political efficacy or not, the spectator at the conclusion of How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind has multiple mental and political choices available. And these choices are offered by Scalapino’s performance work in the context of a wild poetic ride.



1. Leslie Scalapino, “As: All Occurrence in Structure, Unseen — (Deer Night),” in The Public World/Syntactically Impermanence (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1999), 42–43.

2. Adelaide Morris, “Thinking Toward Action: Epistemology, Politics, and the Syntax of Modernist Poetics,” HOW2 1, no. 7 (Spring 2002): paragraph 3 (emphasis in original) and paragraph 7 (in which Morris cites Ezra Pound’s Cantos).

3. Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” in Limited Inc, trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman, ed. Gerald Graff (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 7, 9. “Signature Event Context” is one early essay — originally delivered at the Congrès international des Sociétés de philosophie de langue francais in 1971 — that clearly articulates the views Derrida would develop throughout his career. In “SEC,” Derrida announces that “the structure of writing” “is to constitute itself,” creating not “communication” but “distance, divergence, delay” (7) — and the deferral of meaning that he called in a different essay (by that name) “différance.” What’s important about “SEC” to my own essay about Scalapino’s poet’s theater work is not only Derrida’s general critique of the view that language is “communication,” but also his description of the “performative” sign under the aegis of his critique of J. L. Austin on that topic. “La force de rupture” that “animates” the writing/inscription process “at a given moment” is also, in Derrida’s words in “SEC,” “tied to the spacing [espacement] that constitutes the written sign” (9). Derrida’s concept of “spacing” — like Scalapino’s “spatial motion”— is connected both to a written text’s performance activity as well as to its continuous deferral of “origin,” or “presence.” “SEC” was first published in Derrida’s Marges de la philosophie in 1972; I refer here to its reprint and translation in Limited Inc.

4. Joan Retallack, “Essay as Wager,” Chicago Review 49.1 (Spring 2003): 32.

5. Morris, “Thinking Toward Action,” paragraph 13.

6. Retallack, “Essay as Wager,” 2.

7. Ibid., 47.

8. Rae Armantrout, “Feminist Poetics and the Meaning of Clarity,” repr. in Artifice and Indeterminacy: An Anthology of New Poetics, ed. Christopher Beach (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998), 287–96. I rephrase Armantrout’s wry rhetorical question, which concerns “what one means by clarity,” or “readability.” She suggests that “clarity need not be equivalent to readability”; then she asks: “How readable is the world?” (288). Armantrout describes a poetics much like that of Scalapino’s and also genders that “writing” in its historic non-relation to the “symbolic” that I believe Scalapino herself shared.

9. Retallack, “Essay as Wager,” 47.

10. Morris, “Thinking Toward Action,” paragraph 13.

11. Leslie Scalapino, “Extinction of Images,” in Objects in the Terrifying Tense Longing from Taking Place (New York, NY: Roof Books, 1993), 8.

12. Leslie Scalapino, “Pattern — and the ‘Simulacral,’” in How Phenomena Appear to Unfold (Elmwood, CT: Potes & Poets Press, 1989), 34. This volume is an early edition of one of Scalapino’s collections of poetic commentaries and essays, containing pieces of, but to be distinguished from, the poetry play by similar title under discussion here.

13. Ibid., 31.

14. Leslie Scalapino, “The Radical Nature of Experience,” in The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1999), 5.

15. Scalapino, “Pattern — and the ‘Simulacral,’” 27.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., 30.

18. Julia A. Walker, “Why Performance? Why Now? Textuality and the Rearticulation of Human Presence,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 16, no. 1 (2003): 149, 159.

19. Julia Kristeva, “From One Identity to an Other,” in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 124–25. While I like Kristeva’s articulation of “poetic language” in this English language version of her published French essays in Desire in Language best, her premises about “poetic language” as a radically unstable, socially challenging, and “revolutionary” form of writing were earlier mapped out in La revolution du language poetique (published in French in 1974, and not published in its English translation as Revolution in Poetic Language until 1984).

20. Kristeva, “From One Identity to an Other,” 125.

21. Scalapino studied French poetry during her undergraduate education at Reed College and again at the University of California, Berkeley. It should be noted that Scalapino could have read Kristevan theory early in her own writing career in its French original, although her exposure to Kristeva’s essays remains unclear.

22. Kristeva, “From One Identity to an Other,” 125 (emphasis added).

23. Ibid, 126 (emphasis in original).

24. Ibid., 125–27.

25. Leslie Scalapino, “Disbelief: History/Memory/Body: Language is the Trace of Being,” EOAGH 4 (2008): paragraphs 1–2. “Disbelief” was originally delivered at the New York City Segue Poetry Series panel on “Language Poetry and the Body,” May 12, 2007. Available online at Chax Press.

26. Scalapino, that they were at the beach: aeolotropic series (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985).

27. Scalapino, “Disbelief,” paragraph 7.

28. Ibid., paragraph 10.

29. Ibid., paragraph 12.

30. Leslie Scalapino, “Note on my Writing,” in How Phenomena Appear to Unfold, 21.

31. Elizabeth Frost, for example, writes of the use of photographs in another Scalapino work, Crowd and not evening or light (Oakland, CA: O Books, 1992), as a paradigm of stasis, a contemplation on “stillness,” not of “motion”: “Scalapino’s fascination with bodies as minds — the mind as action — is realized, performed, through stillness, not in evocations of speed or even motion, but in frames of moments stilled to images.” See Frost, “How Bodies Act: Leslie Scalapino’s Still Performance,” HOW2 2, no. 2 (Spring 2004): paragraph 3.

32. Leslie Scalapino, “The Recovery of the Public World,” in The Public World/Syntactically Impermanence, 53.

33. Ibid.

34. Maurice Merleau-Ponty suggests these ideas about the perception of spatial objects in both his earlier book Phenomenology of Perception, first published under its French title Phénoménologie de la perception (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), and in his posthumously edited book, The Visible and the Invisible, “working notes” compiled by Claude Lefort, first published in French as Le Visible et l’invisible (Paris: Gallimard, 1964).

35. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), xv. (The Poetics of Space was orignally published as Le Poetique d‘espace [Paris: Press Universitaires de France, 1958]. Most of Bachelard’s general comments on poetry are contained in his introduction.)

36. Ibid.

37. See the essay “Art as Device” (also translated as “Art as Technique”), first published in Russian in 1917; rpt. in Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990), 1–14.

38. Lyn Hejinian, “Strangeness,” in The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 136.

39. Scalapino, “The Radical Nature of Experience,” 4.

40. Ibid., 8.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid., 6.

43. Scalapino’s “As: All Occurrence in Structure, Unseen — (Deer Night),” in The Public World/Syntactically Impermanence (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1999), is also quoted in Hejinian’s “Figuring Out,” paragraph 1–2. Note that after Hejinian published her essay, Scalapino’s unpublished work “Secret Autobiography” (on the topic of her earlier work from 1999 above) would be published in the volume, Dahlia’s Iris: Secret Autobiography and Fiction (Tuscaloosa: FC2, 2003).

44. Lyn Hejinian, “Figuring Out,” was published in How2 1, no. 7 (Spring 2002): paragraphs 1–2. However, I am citing a copy of the manuscript of the essay Hejinian herself gave to me after she delivered portions of it as a talk, on a panel I created for the Modernist Studies Association in October 2000 and of which we were both participants.

45. Ibid., paragraph 2.

46. Ibid., paragraph 3.

47. Ibid., paragraph 21.

48. Hejinian quotes William James from his Essays in Radical Empiricism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), in her preface to “Strangeness,” 136.

49. In that same volume is its title essay, “How Phenomena Appear to Unfold,” another one of Scalapino’s aesthetic essays. The essay by that title, which would later become part of the final play’s title, however, has no apparent connection to the poetry play published there or performed later. I say apparent connection, of course, because all of the other pieces — which are essays — in this volume entitled How Phenomena Appear to Unfold are expressions of Scalapino’s views on and practices of poetics; and these have much to do with her approaches to that shorter play, or series of short scripts, including “Fin de Siècle” — and the later (and longer) poetry play which it would help to build, How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind.

50. In personal conversation with Scalapino, she informed me that “the two plays,” which she called “How Phenomena Appear to Unfold” and “The Hind,” were never supposed to be published together. I didn’t at the time ask her why. That conversation took place at her Oakland home in April 2010, when I last visited her in between cancer treatments. She died in late May of that year. Regarding the video tape which I cite in this article: this is a recording of the first San Francisco performance, originally lent to me by the director, Zack, with Scalapino’s agreement. I held a copy of the copy in my possession for years, until I completed this article. I’m assuming that the Scalapino Literary Estate headed by Tracy Grinnell of Litmus Press has another copy, as does Zack himself. To my knowledge, there is no recording of the second performance at Barnard. But since I attended that performance held in April 2002, I have a vivid personal relationship to that “live” viewing experience. It is part of the irony for me that the illustrative film clips I present in this article are extrapolated from the video version taped in San Francisco that I did not actually witness or see as a spectator. And I do shamelessly draw upon personal memory in remembering the many nuances of the poetry play’s staging in that performance I technically cannot cite.

51. Bernstein used this phrase in his eulogy for Scalapino, in a memorial to her at the St. Marks Poetry Project on June 21, 2010. With his permission, this eulogy was published on my blog, Chant de la Sirene, June 24, 2010.

52. All citations with page numbers will be from the unpublished Xeroxed manuscript of the script for How Phenomena Appear to Unfold/the Hind, the copy given to me by Scalapino as described above. I will call this version of the poetry play script Manuscript (MS). Cited here is MS, 1.

53. MS, 3.

54. MS, 4.

55. Jean Tardeiu’s poem is called “Les Temoins invisible” (The Invisible Witness).

56. Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 214.

57. Ibid.

58. Richard Schechner, Performance Theory, 2nd. ed. (London, New York: Routledge, 1988), 70–73.

59. Ibid., 72.

60. Ibid., 73.

61. Bert O. States, “The Phenomenological Attitude,” in Critical Theory and Performance, ed. Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph R. Roach (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 371, 370.

62. Ibid., 371.

63. Ibid.

64. Ibid.

65. Ibid.

66. Ibid., 371–72.

67. Maurice Merleau Ponty, qtd. in Bert O. States, “The Phenomenological Attitude,” 372.

68. Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, xii.

69. Ibid., xv, xii.

70 Ibid., 215–16.

71. MS, 5.

72. MS, 4.

73. MS, 7.

74. MS, 14.

75. This quote is from Scalapino’s stage directions, MS, 20.

76. MS, 20.

77. MS, 24.

78. Ibid.

79. Ibid.

80. MS, 28.

81. MS, 30.

82. Olive Schreiner, excerpt from Women and Labour: Women and War, in Women on War, ed. Daniela Gioseffi (New York: The Feminist Press, 2003), 221–22.

83. Hannah Arendt, On Violence (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Publishing, 1969), 5–6. Arendt says she borrows this phrase “pseudo-science” from Noam Chomsky.

84. Lines chanted in Jayne Cortez’s poem, “Nigerian/American Relations,” both as recorded and also published in her collection, Firespitter (New York: Bola Press, 1982).

85. Herbert Blau, The Audience (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1990), 20.

86. Ibid., 21 (emphasis added).

87. Ibid., 21.

88. Ibid., 22.

89. Blau, The Audience, 24.

90. MS, 30.

91. MS, 31.

92. Ibid.

93. Ibid.

94. Phillip B. Zarrilli, “For Whom Is the King a King? Issues of Intercultural Production, Perception, and Reception in a Kathakali King Lear,” in Critical Theory and Performance, ed. Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph R. Roach (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 16.

95. Blau, The Audience, 1.

Joseph Donahue's 'bowls of memory'

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

In a recent interview with Jon Curley (The Conversant, April 2014), Joseph Donahue calls our attention to two lines from Emily Dickinson’s short poem “The spry Arms of the Wind”: 

I have an errand imminent
To an adjoining Zone —

“Each of those terms,” says Donahue, “‘errand,’ ‘immanent,’ ‘adjoining,’ and ‘zone,’ have for many, many years deeply engaged me. … the mixture of vocation, of meaning embedded in the material, of boundary, and of expanse, are a clarion call. … Where are those zones? What awaits there? Who would one be were one to go there and come back?”

There’s a revealing error here: Donahue inadvertently reads “imminent” as “immanent,” the latter word designating the manifestation of divine presence inherent in the material world (as opposed to transcendent). But why not read Dickinson’s “errand imminent” — her urgent errand — as a longing to discover the immanent? Donahue has always been concerned with the spiritual dimension of material existence: he is, that rare thing today, a seriously “religious” poet. I want here to look at how this poet’s “errand imminent (immanent)” to those “adjoining zones” works in the opening poem of his new collection, Red Flash on a Black Field (2014).

This poem has the tongue-twisting title “Where Every Hollow Holds a Hallow” — a title taken from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake with reference to Phoenix Park: “Over the bowls of memory where every hollow holds a hallow.” The verb “hallow” means to sanctify, make holy, as in “these hallowed halls” or “Hallowe’en.” Joyce playfully turned verb into noun: every hollow, he suggests, holds the memory of something sacred, something Other. And so, in Donahue’s dreamscape, the poet finds himself sleeping in a tree or a barrel or a gazebo, where a whirl of images delight the senses: in the first instance, “At night, / the tree flies to a beach where / the pebbles are gems. / Thunderclap: the moon / in bits.” And in the other two instances: 

I sleep in a barrel. At night,
the barrel flies to a mountain.
The cliffs are sapphire
Where the Hesperus
went up in flames and
I sleep in a gazebo. At night
the gazebo flies to a desert.
the spiders are feldspar.

But — sadly — not every hollow yields a hallow. Donahue’s 115-line poem, with its five stanzas of loose Yeatsian trimeters — the “Easter 1916” stanza — juxtaposes the lovely dream images above to other “bowls of memory” much harsher and prosaic: “An office, / a chair in front of a desk, / a hitch in the interview,” or again:

Was it so long
ago we drew the shades
at lunch, then ate
pound cake, fresh
from the freezer, and
Dad sipped vodka
As we sat in the dark,
playing comedy albums?

Dad sipping vodka and playing comedy albums: it’s a conventional enough picture of middle-class existence in suburban America. Donahue grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, and his décor is somewhat reminiscent of that earlier Irish American Catholic poet Frank O’Hara, who grew up in another dreary Massachusetts town, Grafton. “There,” as O’Hara put it, “I could never be a boy.” But the lines “pound cake, fresh / from the freezer” are vintage Donahue: what a shrunken existence it is, he suggests, when even the supermarket pound cake hasn’t been given time to defrost? Then, too:

An escapee lurks by a school.
Everywhere, choppers and cops

And further along, we read:

Then a college dean
collars me, crows to all
under the reunion tent:
Meet the one among you
renowned for classes missed
due to venereal misadventure.

After such memories, what forgiveness? The gemlike pebbles on the beach of line 3 give way to an “ocean, tied down / with garbage bags, green / and seething” and “bathers with towels / crossing the mud, down to / the plastic-covered sea.” 

What does it all mean? “While I was away, who lived? … who paid for these alterations”? What scars, the poet wonders, do I bear from what seems to have been such an “unhallowed” past? “Who reviewed my scandals”? But — and here the opposite note comes in — this self-lacerating poet is also one who, like the angel Raphael, “walked with Tobias,” guiding the young man back to help his father. The situation remains equivocal:

While the whirlwind held me,
who broke my bones?
Who underbid me?

The questions cannot be answered. In our most ecstatic moments, someone or something is always ready to bring us down, to underbid us and get the reward. We can only reap the whirlwind.

Donahue’s densely sounded poem escapes bathos by its remarkably agile shifts in register: just when we think things might become mawkish, the poet coolly undercuts a given image, revealing the sky as nothing but “a dirt sponge” and the earth “a bucket.” Just when the ecstatic moment should be savored, it morphs into “a dry run for the Angel of Death.” The visionary is always there, but it continues to elude us. Reading Donahue, one thinks of Hart Crane’s lines “From the Marriage of Faustus and Helen”:

There is the world dimensional for
those untwisted by the love of things
irreconcilable ...

But in the meantime “A billing fiasco looms.” The “adjoining zones” remain just beyond the next turn.