Body, ritual, and erasure

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, 'swims,' 2014. All images by Nick Burnett.

My current writing project, swims, exemplifies a kind of Conceptual writing that employs ritual and bodily practice to explore environmental activism. A long poem documenting wild swims across the UK, it starts and ends in Devon, my home county, taking in rivers through Somerset, Surrey, London, Kent, Herefordshire, and the Lake District. Each swim is conceived of as environmental action, which questions how (or whether) individuals can effect environmental change, while also foregrounding the importance of pleasure, leisure, and optimism in the undertaking.

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett,
swims, 2014.

Swim IV, (the River Ouse, Surrey), arose as a result of the following email sent to participants:

I’ll be doing a swim wearing a swimsuit on which I’ve written some hopes and fears on current environmental issues. I’m inviting you to write your own hopes and fears on my swimsuit which I will take with me as I swim, writing the water with our collective thoughts. Your writing can be as brief or long as you like, as the space of the swimsuit permits. You may have a few lines, or a single word. I may sink with the weight of them or rise with their purpose.[1]

I transcribed the text that appeared on the swimsuit before the swim and what was left on it afterwards. The resulting poem has three text columns: on the left, the text before the swim; on the right, the text after the swim; and in the middle, a text composed in dialogue with the process. It has also been displayed in a gallery context as part of The Trembling Grass, an exhibition I curated in collaboration with the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World (CCANW).[2] This form of the piece uses images documenting different stages of the swim (before, during, and after), while the text version uses the space of the page (left, middle, right) to enact these stages.

Ritual is present in the sense of the swim — I use this action to engage materially with the natural world (entering my body into water), gaining a sense of enlarged corporeality and porous subjectivity in which the self is not isolated from nature, as the preface to the overall project states:

To not end where you thought you did,
not with skin but water
not with arms but meadow
of watercress, dropwort, floating pennywort,
against all odds to be buoyant. (lines 9–13)

Yet this action also always takes place within an awareness of its temporality — knowing that the intensity of the sensation of immersion and emancipation is temporary and confined to the swim, although there is also the capacity for more lasting cognitive and affective shifts. There is also the presiding knowledge of the limitations of the action in an activist sense. Will the environmental fears expressed on the swimsuit be solved by my swim? Doubtful. But can the swim have a relational and energising function that gives renewed momentum in the face of a precarious environmental situation? Hopeful.

Many of the swims evolve from invitations to correspondents or other collaborators, using Bourriaud’s sense of the artwork as “a programme to be carried out”[3] to produce relational exchanges. I also identify this relational ritual as “poethical,”[4] in Retallack’s sense of a poetic practice that impacts everyday life, beyond the parameters of the gallery space. I gesture with these swims towards an integration of art and everyday life where my actions have resonances that continue long after the swims have finished.[5]  

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett,
swims, 2014.

There is also a sense of guilt (environmental and humanitarian), whereby the pleasure experienced in swimming is counterbalanced by a lament at the degradation of the environment in which it takes place. In the preface and Swim I (The Teign), pollutants and inhumane fishing practices are charted, “metal onto clay, / acid onto wire, / electrified chicken wire to keep the salmon in” (preface, lines 27–29), while Swim II (The Barle) muses on disasters further afield, “as in Fukushima, fishermen / record radioactive caesium in fish,” (lines 12–13), a situation discussed “a year on from the earthquake” (Swim II, line 14) and returned to four years later in Swim IX (Grasmere). The pleasure involved in the swim is a necessary part of the ritual, which serves to energise both the swimmer and (it is hoped) the correspondents in the projects, and the readers of/audience for the poems, to provide them with the renewed vigour required to live with environmental degradation without losing faith in the possibilities of agency. This pleasure is always in the context of a larger pain and in this sense, as the closing lines of Swim II assert: “Though we leave the water, there is no emergence” (lines 27–28).

1. Email from author, sent June 8, 2014.

2. Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, The Trembling Grass, the Innovation Centre, University of Exeter, displayed September–November 2014.

3. Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Les Presse Du Reel, 1998), 70.

4. Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager (Los Angeles: University of California Press), 2003.

5. Though these swims could also be seen to occur within the kind of holiday space that Bourriaud outlines — these ideas of temporality, leisure, commerce, and the everyday invite further discussion beyond the scope of the current word count.

Repetition and revulsion

So a call for effect: I ask ________. I ask ________. I ask ________. I ask ________. The repeat entreats, endures out a threshold in its and again and again and again. A really really really ask “but not only that,”[1] the performance of devotion: I won’t stop since the source of power, the entreatied, doesn’t want me to stop “but not only that,” the source is boundless and will only answer if it reckons me for kin. So again and again and again as “recursiveness, incantatory insistence … repeated ritual sip … aiming to undo the obstruction it reports.”[2] Again.

Or sampling. A repetition of someone else. Thus, metonymy and synecdoche as much as reference or allusion. Because to quote is to act on the desire for something of the source for one’s own — a piece, a residue, a proximity. As is to sample. As is to appropriate. To gaffle. Want_______. Want_______. Want_______. Want_______. To want and take is an act of will. Oh yes. One wants this part, one wants this whole, for what one wants them for, and the taking shows one’s power as much as how one uses what one takes. Look what I know and/or look what I can do with this knowledge. And that knowledge is first that there is something I know to want. And that want is a fingerprint. And that want is one’s whether one wants it or not.

Do it again but also don’t.

Brick and brick and brick may make a house — that house a haptic and optic riff of brick. Pattern’s a sense language. When sonic, repetition may also make a sound house out of air in a someplace, and that place is a context in which and against which. Mantra-dome. Chant-manor. Blues-house. Jazz-rise. Rock-fort. Highlife-compound. Loop-redoubt broken out the cut. And in the sound houses, too, people occupy, occupied with being in the houses, and leaving them to come back often, and sometimes to stay out and out. From outside the house, we hear some of what’s happening in, and hear something else when the door swings open with coming, with going.

When I think of repetition, I also think of loop. And the loop is a circle that accumulates. “… the climax could be the accumulated weight of the repetition …”[3] The weight revises the repetition even without changing its components. “What does it mean for characters to say the same thing twice”[4] — that they are no longer saying the same thing; they are saying the same thing again. A revision. It changes. It isn’t static. Here, hear, it grows.

… don’t stop don’t stop don’t stop don’t stop don’t stop …
… stop don’t stop don’t stop don’t stop don’t stop don’t …

To beg: stop! don’t! again and over, is to ward against another’s again. An agon, an agony. Sun up to sun down / picking that cotton then Sun up to sun down / chained and shackled then Sun up to sun down / whupped by the master arecycles of labor and suffering within the macro cycle of a day into night, the refrain of “sun up to sun down” a measure of the loop and a rhetorical mooring for an improvisational recount of woe: “picking that cotton” or “whupped by the master” or “stay dogged by one-time” or. These improvisations set in a field of constraint, a field that constrains in a loop of “sun up to sun down.” These improvisations, reports of labor, and endurance that exceed the single loop of one day. These improvisations are not the improvisers, who repeat (work) till they can’t because they must because someone else demands it so. These improvisations are not synecdoches of that work. They are an additional work. Neither work is static, they grow as they strain as they grow till.

To rework that work is “performing unfreedom.”[5] A done to def. And def a cut death of the not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good genus. Death, in some ontologies, offs the on & on & on it kept on. But doing death is a cut doing to death, which is an on & on & on (a repeated action: a labor) to the break of dawn. Sun down to sun up. To death, and death a cut that cuts other cuts. An ending. Breaks are allowed in labor to prevent laborers from breaking, but to work past it? Grunt. Selected instructions for reading certain poems: do it louder and louder till you can’t, then do it one more time. Another’s: say “ng” again and again in a way that courts vomiting or fainting till the recording ends. Be doing death to def. Doing to def is ill. Doing death is cyclical till something breaks.

Don’t do it again but also do.

I be doing death.

… is cyclical sick till something breaks.

1. Nathaniel Mackey, “Preface,” Splay Anthem (New York: New Directions, 2006), xv.

2. Ibid., xiv.

3. Susan Parks, “Elements of Style,” The America Play (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1995), 10.

4. Ibid.

5. Joshua Lam, “Sonic Afro-Postmodernity: Voice, Duende, and Doubling in Douglas Kearney’s Poetics” (paper presented at the Northeast Modern Language Association Convention, Toronto, Canada, May 3, 2015).

Of theology, forms, and absence

Left: 'Exercises in Style,' © 1947 by Editions Gallimard. © 1958, 1981 Barbara Wright. Cover courtesy of New Directions Publishing Corp.

What writing isn’t conceptual? This is what a pundit might ask.

My book I Didn’t Know Mani Was a Conceptualist conflated the idea of Conceptual art and Conceptual writing, both riding on how an originary idea trumps its actual issuance, the flesh and bone and sinew and materiality of its product. The instruction to myself was simply to explore the fine line between the prose poem and flash fiction. This instruction was less prescriptive, more intuitive, and in the end, I realized I was attending to the rise and dip of each vignette’s lyric quality. The texts have been described as “impenetrable.” I prefer the phrase “unboring boring,” as Kenneth Goldsmith might understand.

The book stemmed from my own research into postmodern theology years ago, which offered a healthy questioning with regard to metanarratives and truth claims. Postmodern theology was like a wondrous catchment that had a place for seeming impossibilities to those happy with dominant discourses. It could straddle the polar ends of atheism and pluralism, the ideas of negation and syncretism having undergirded much of my own writing. Perhaps, at a subconscious level, this duality of the Nothing and the Many has become a kind of instruction — an exercise of inquiry — in my work. I’m not sure if that calls into attention any conceptual top notes and base notes with regard to my way around texts. Indeed, perhaps having a “singular” Dasein from which the writing is borne is instruction enough. All my books will also speak to each other. They leave clues to each other, they make allusions to one another, in an effort to generate a dialogic oeuvre.

The sonnet form has a ridiculous, unexplained salience in my books. I adore its classic stature, but like it best when it’s toyed with, as seen in Martín Espada’s “Sonnet to Jaiva Pie” and Tomaz Salamun’s “The Slovenian Sonnet,” both attending to formal strictures in such astonishing and dramatic ways. Sometimes, Conceptual writers appear in my books, simply as a gesture of taking my hat off to them. For instance, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style is at the knowable/unknowable center of my novel, Singular Acts of Endearment. There’s even a chapter titled “‘S’ Bus,” which is the bus Queneau’s narrator takes in a story that goes through numerous iterations. I found the S bus charming, and related it to Gao Xingjian’s first play, Bus Stop — in the play, the bus simply passes by, over and over again, the city that represents freedom and hope for the play’s various characters. 

In another book, Sanctus Sanctus Dirgha Sanctus, I pay homage to the wild talent of Christian Bök, whose Eunoia remains one of my all-time favorite poetry collections. My penultimate sestina, titled “Eunoia Eye to Eye,” is an acrostic one, with “eunoia” repeated through the six sestets before the tornada. The book only houses four of what I call “monostitch sestinas,” with one line of each sestina printed on its own page, each sestina moving languidly through forty pages.

In I Didn’t Know Mani Was a Conceptualist, the sonnet found its voice in the chapter, “In Memoriam to a Marionette: Caudate Sonnet of the Year Ad Interim,” with its twenty-four installments. These small tracts of sci-fi — I only noticed its genre, that I’d been working in that space, after John Wilkinson pointed it out — revolve around Resident 97, the other numbered Residents having less than an ancillary character function. The same menagerie is seen in the chapter, “When Dada Rewrote Koans” (with the archivist, Yellow Emperor, Liuling, Dada, teacher, student, curator, pilgrim, cellist, chess master, architect, graphologist), as well as “Dakini Proxemics” (with its various dakinis, these Hindu and Buddhist  “sky walker” deities which morph and travel through time and space).

I liked the inability for such short narrative forms — unlike the novel — to bear the weight of so many named characters. I liked that they had a presence in the storytelling, despite the clear absence of any foreshadowing or personal histories or purposefulness in the larger scheme of things. I recall the moment I fell in love with compression, the sort of extreme tropic density that can render a work unreadable, which underscores notions of Conceptual writing as a thinker’s activity, so much as to say the reading might become altogether unnecessary.

That love of compression has an unlikely origin: that of reading the metaphysical poets. In an act of repetition, I asked what it’d be like to extend their idea of the conceit (never mind the difference between it and the extended metaphor) to other tropes. To reduce the space between tropes and words — the particularity of language — thereby creating the illusion of coherence, but through such disparate association to situate a rhizomatic spray/splaying of aporia, the absence of expected meaning and meaningful connection creating that Derridean difficulty of passage and/or passing. This plays out like a minefield against the larger vista of the book as an impasse. A deadlock between elements within the narrative that not so much cripples, but slows down the read to a kind of stasis. A kind of deep sleep. 

Current status

Specific objects. In his 1964 statement of that title, Donald Judd returns over and over to the same words to describe his art and his milieu: “the new three dimensional work,” “work in three dimensions,” “the use of three dimensions,” “three dimensions,” and so forth. There’s something about that phrase and what it points toward — not a movement, not a medium, not an art form, but a volume — that has resonated with me these past five or six years. Partly it’s the subtle implications of the phrase, that it is so many things — a description, a sort of technique, almost a name, but not — and also just one thing, the simple fact of space, all around you all the time: as if you looked up from the page and realized, there’s there here. Most of all it appeals to me, though, because that’s how I read — distractedly — and it captures something about the work I do and the work I care to read. Briefly, I find myself most attracted to projects that take up the book, the page, the screen — the many, many sites of reading and writing that stand in simultaneous relation in a given work, at a given moment, over time, and make it specific — but also, always, break it up, make it generic, diffuse it, send it coursing down new paths and channels each time we each open it.

Two images come to mind:

1. I’m in the Reading Room of the NYPL, poring over Boccaccio’s Genealogy. My phone is on the table next to me, and from time to time I use it to look up some obscure name or clarify some point of Latin grammar — even tho I can only “really read” the facing translation. In my headphones: Sabbracadaver. Boccaccio sez noctis erunt filie, they are the daughters of night, and my phone lights up — it’s a text from Holly Melgard. I look across the room to find her sitting with Anna Vitale, staring in unison at me. The text sez: too bad the people at your ten o’clock are being amazing right now, and ten o’clock is underscored with a link to my calendar.

2. I’m on my laptop, making notes for this piece — but actually I’m online, reading an Atlantic article abt Yale’s acquisition of three thousand slasher films on VHS, which I picked up thru Twitter. I flip to Google Docs and type three thousand slasher films on VHS. I do a quick search for Sorority Babes in the Dance-a-thon of Death, then abandon it. More windows and tabs in the background: Yumchat, a ’90s-era auto-refresh chatroom; Fetlife, a social network; Judd’s essay, an imperfect scan in PDF; the Encyclopedia Metallum page for Grave Upheaval. Textedit is open. My handwritten notes for this piece are scattered on the table, a splayed notebook and two quarter-pages of scrap paper dredged from the recycling bin. The browser on my phone is open at Wiktionary — “dimension: (geometry) The number of independent coordinates needed to specify uniquely the location of a point in space” — behind a lock screen showing a Kimochi “feelings” plush: cranky.

What is the minimum number of points needed to specify the location of reading and writing under these conditions? How could we not begin to produce work that takes in many points of reference “off the page” — across pages and platforms, spaces and programs and devices? Books that incorporate the book itself as one more in a complex series — an arrangement — of mediations. Works written for ZIP file. Pieces that involve skimming and looking and looking up and running and scrolling, and have forgotten what reading is and have to find it again in all these things, because it’s all of these things, it’s crowded now and beautifully dispersed, focus held in solution like pink glitter.

So when I read and write, I look to Tan Lin’s Heath, in which the pages form a thoughtfully, but carelessly made transcript of the writer’s reading life, flashing up text and images of text and images from his reading or writing like so many screens in codex form.

I look to Rob Fitterman’s Sprawl, in which the mall directory (already a complex volumetric form) is flattened and embedded strangely in a book, and reinflated with other flat layers of borrowed text.

I look to Kieran Daly’s Tentatively nullpropriated assay from Gauss PDF’s 36 (missed by two), which puts me at a null point between file types, swimming in generic content: an MP4, an uncertain movement, the edge of a carpet, and a phantom urge to click.

I look to Kristen Gallagher’s Dossier on the Site of A Shooting — written, transcribed, screenshotted, video’d and visited and walked thru in the wrong-right privileged body some time after the horrible fact. Dossier: a perfect, imperfect, always incomplete nonliterary form.

I look to Holly Melgard’s Black Friday, in which the Lulu printing process itself is at stake — and what a book is, and what is “content” — and I watch the oil from my fingertips make tracks across its ink-blackened pages.

I read @organ_____ on Twitter. Friedrich Kittler describes a time when language was the only conduit for recording experience in complex forms, then shows us how that unity was broken across media — breaking us up — then shows again how it’s been (partly) recentralized in computational media, distributing the person, what a person is, anew. In Specific Objects Judd points out, “Materials may vary and are simply materials — formica, aluminum, cold-rolled steel, plexiglas, red and common brass, and so forth. They are specific.” What makes a work specific is what they produce in how they’re brought together. 

Peter Lamborn Wilson: A PennSound archive

P. L. Wilson, “Pang Yang & the Publick Universal Friend” (2010).

                               Who knows

 what future poets suffered here, precocious

 existential crises moved

 by an apprehension of mourning

 sorrows precious & redeemable.

                         — P. L. Wilson, “Wallkill” (358)[1]

I met Peter Lamborn Wilson in the late ’80s at Naropa Institute, and after acquiring his pamphlet Chaos, written under the takhallus Hakim Bey, became a devotee to his work. His support of DIY efforts was encouraging and validating, and We Press took up the invitation to “pirate” Chaos by way of corporate resources we had at our disposal at the time.

After falling in and out of touch over the years, on a visit to Woodstock in 2013 I learned he now resides there. Less than a year later — two days after my family moved to the Hudson Valley in August 2014 — I found my way to a poetry reading featuring Wilson, Sparrow, and Michael Brownstein at the Golden Notebook in Woodstock (which can be heard on Funk’s SoundBox: version archival). Knowing him primarily as a cultural critic and writer of prose, to hear Wilson’s verse was something new, and a delight. He read from an “unpublished six hundred page-long collected poems”; these works are animated, elegant, erudite, conclusory, sometimes humorous exhortations (e.g., “Bumpersticker”: “If you’d ‘rather be fishing’ / then fish for fuckssake” [424]).

I first learned of (and acquired) his book riverpeople (Autonomedia, 2013) that night. Being a “co-realization” with the local waterscape (and more), it was the perfect book to have fall into my hands, providing a poeticized orientation to things I was eager to know about regionally through a series of extraordinary written and visual mappings involving poetry, field trips, and various types of invocation. The book is so potent, communal, and beautiful, I almost can’t believe it exists!

In March 2015, seeking a collaborative project, I discussed doing a recording session with him. He brought up the six hundred pages of unpublished poems, suggesting we could document them. Having high regard for his writing, knowing his work as a poet is essentially unknown beyond the circle of people who are part of his community, this was a grand idea, and something different than any other previous audio project I’d done before: focusing on the work of a single poet over a course of many weeks. For one thing, the duration, scale, and informal approach enabled a series of routines to develop. Some were minor, some technical and pragmatic, and others symbolic. I decided, for example, to bring a different piece of small visual art along to each of our nine sessions, to “keep us company” and temporarily transform decor in his studio apartment during the many hours we spent at work on our endeavor. Chuck Stein joined us on two occasions, further adding to our ambiance and milieu.

Before offering Wilson’s own statement about the poems, here are a few comments of my own. One of the most striking aspects of this Wilson’s poetry or writing is his use of several well-known poetic forms (or “pseudo-versions” of these forms): the ghazal, sonnet, and haiku. While such forms may seem antiquated to some, they are not so when left to the devices of a writer as gifted — and yet loose — with craft as is Wilson. Along these lines, I also found it intriguing that he decided to begin our very first session by reading a madrigal poem written in 1600 by Thomas Weelkes — followed by his contemporary response to it. While not wishing to suggest Wilson is a madrigal-ist, I do believe it is plausible that anyone interested in setting these poems to music could do so. One sonnet proclaims his sense of the power of organized poetic projection:

Don’t slack off the Stakhanovite pace

 of sonnet production now in this vital

 transitional era between something

 & something else probably equally

 squalid — nor flaunt the Flaubertian

 bathos of today’s irresistible win/win

 situation — comrade. (64)


Further, the choice of a quote from Gérard de Nerval’s Aurélia ou le Rêve et la Vie as an epigraph to the manuscript would seem to indicate we are somehow witness to Wilson’s own rediscovery of, “the lost letter or the vanished sign.” where he recomposes “the dissonant scale,” and gains “strength in the world of the spirits” (4). In addition to those attributes or expressive dimensions, healthy doses of philosophy and blatant cultural criticism are clearly present. His poems are informative on multiple levels; some even became instructive. For instance, after hearing the poem “Stencils” (68), one line especially made an impression, inspiring me to produce a stencil featuring one of its lines (“Not A Landscape”). Wilson also continues exploring his interest in local waterways in several poems in this audio collection, including a series titled Hydrographicon (as part of the 5/7/15 session).

Poems in this sound archive were composed between 1999 and 2012 while Wilson lived in New Paltz, NY. After relocating to Woodstock he edited the material, resulting in this manuscript. Describing the body of work heard here, Wilson comments,

Moving to the country coincided with a terminus to a twenty-year project to figure out what the fuck was going on in the world. By that time, I figured out what was going on, so that was the end of that project. I decided I would take up art and poetry again, which I had put aside for a twenty-year period, more or less, and worked on prose. That period really started with T.A.Z., and the new period begins with Black Fez Manifesto (Autonomedia, 2008). The poems in Black Fez and Ec(o)logues (Station Hill, 2011) came out of that body of material, so they actually belong in with this stuff, but those poems are ones that I took out from the body of work, edited and finished during that period. The rest of it I just stacked up on my desk until I got around to doing something with it here in Woodstock. It took me a few months to go through the whole stack, and throw out stuff I didn’t like, cut lines I didn’t like, amalgamate and edit and rearrange it. (Conversation, 6/26/15)

Listeners engaging with this work may wish to reference a digital file of the printed manuscript Wilson read from (although he eschews a conventional, front-to-back approach), prepared by Nathan Smith and kindly provided to us by George Quasha; page numbers are bracketed [ ] in the index. As readers of this text will see, the author intends for the manuscript to incorporate illustrations, which are not yet in place; Raymond Foye generously supplied representative scans, which bracket this introduction.

Discussing the collection with Wilson, he emphasized the notion that the collection was not complete, and that it wouldn’t be so until printed in a book. His sense is that it is along the way to being finished — not raw, but not necessarily the final version either. In all we recorded for PennSoundmore than five hundred poems between April and June 2015. In them, Wilson offers an impressive degree of fluidity and wide range of topicality. These are lucid reflections and ruminations of someone who “WAS THERE THEN” (533), who keeps traversing expansive pathways, whose worldly experience is consequential and delivered to us via these poems now.

P.L. Wilson, “Esopus Island #3: Father Divine & Crowley” (2010).

 — Chris Funkhouser
Rhinebeck, July 2015


1. Note: all parenthetical citations refer to this 2014 collection of Wilson’s unpublished poems.