Ron Silliman’s poetry of accretion
Two poems in Ron Silliman’s poetry collection The Alphabet, “Jones” and “Skies,” are yearlong projects. For “Jones,” as Silliman writes in his notes, “Every day for a year I looked at the ground,” and similarly for “Skies,” “Every day for one year I looked at the sky & noted what I saw” (1060). Other poems in the collection are similarly crafted: “You” (“One paragraph a day, one section a week for a year” ) and “Paradise” (“literally begun on New Year’s Day, completed on New Year’s Eve” ). This article’s title points to this effort to put writing back into poetry: graphy — “processes … of writing, drawing or … representation.” This is a poetry of the transformation of looking into writing. I call it time-lapse poemography because it takes daily verbal “snapshots” and accretes them into a composite of a year. The interval is the day, though for motifs, it is the month. The exposure length is the moment of looking and the slightly longer moment of recording. The frame is the field of vision, largely the poet’s window, door or porch, but sometimes a plane window or the view of wherever he happens to be on that day. The bracketing is the focus of the viewpoint, in the case of these two poems, either looking up or looking down.
Time-span. Time-lapse photography selects subject matter that changes over time and that has some kind of beginning and concluding state. A typical image is that of a flower in bud, photographed in carefully timed intervals to record its blooming. A year is the time-span for these poems because of its importance in human life units, but unlike the photograph’s subject, there is no opening or closing moment, such as birth or death; there is only the beginning and ending by date, a cultural designation.
The method of yearlong or longer daily projects is established in the visual and performance arts, as in On Kawara’s Today series, for which he painted the date every day, or his I Got Up series, for which he sent postcards every day between 1966 and 1979. Tehching Hsieh is a master of the one-year form: he spent 1978–1979 in a barred cell, punched a time card every hour on the hour in 1980–1981, stayed outdoors with only a sleeping bag and no transportation in 1981–1982, was tied to Linda Montano by the waist in 1983–1984, and did not look at or talk about art in 1985–1986. Since then, the one-year project has been embraced by popular culture, including No Impact Man, Living Oprah, and wearing the same dress (brown or black, according to the project), among others.
Tracking. Time-lapse photography records change over time. Through the year’s span, Silliman’s writing-each-day-for-a-year poems record change as well, but change through the destruction or mangling (in “Jones”) of that which are at once reconfigured into this new space. The poem becomes these layers with the depths of strata overlying strata, the detritus of urban existence, the craft of the description of perpetual destruction. These poems are anti-object but use objects to create a fusion: “the sufficiency of nature / like this hand towel rotting in the gutter / the narrative implicit, indeterminate, complete” (130). These are objects in the process of merging into the field.
Destruction transpires through the energy of the verbs. These might be verbs of compression, dissolution, decay, and breakages, but the description’s matter-of-fact tone lifts them into charged experience and creates positivity through destruction. This is a “cornucopia” of the city and of human life (113). The cement and asphalt are riddled with cracks, webs, and veins. They are amalgamated through the “pulpy mush” (133) of mashed, crushed, gouged, flattened, embedded (129), and thinly sliced pink dildos. The palette, aside from occasional bits of pink (gum, dildos), is a muted brown, gray, black, largely discolored and freckled: “spots on the sidewalk soon fade to gray” (121); this is a “sullen spectra” (134); “the street itself is a collage of dozens of greys” (133).
The things described are less important than the excavation — “objects are pointless evident to anyone” (114), “open-ended as in free-falling, in search of punctuation or an object” (127) — but this is an excavation in reverse, a time-lapse run backward like the drop of water film that starts with the ripples in the liquid and then draws up into the initiating droplet that is now its culmination. Through the act of describing these layers, the poet creates them: “planet’s skin thick as the rind of a tangelo, thin as that of a potato, or all skin, layer within layer, like flesh, like an onion” (123); “a view from which the surface is no surface at all, but an endless, soft, off-white layering of cloud” (115); “pry into a primal scene” (128). “In Baltimore, where I am not,” the poem explains, “there’s an exhibit near the aquarium, the Visible Street, … a cross section, layered as flesh is layered, pipes, tubing, wires beneath the dark meat of asphalt (not only hokey but false: skin’s dead layer flakes away while here, in Baltimore, not Berkeley, it’s simply piled on, the newest flesh is at the outer edge, tender, alive with root and worm)” (127). This “newest flesh” is the focus of the poet’s looking down and depicting; layers “piled on” over time, the poem’s layers in the same manner.
Layers are also set up through the repeated incorporation of text inside parentheses, as in the previous quotation from the poem. This text is designated by the enclosed spaces as asides, and therefore not to be taken as the primary focus of the poems. To set up this hierarchy, words in parentheses are read with lower voice inflections. However, just as in a Jackson Pollock painting a glimpse of red or bare canvas will leap through the overlaying drips, these parenthetical layers in the text create depth and burst through the neutral description, bearing the weight of the poems, that “ground defined by my relation to it” (114); “who knows what a fact is, solid ground” (123).
Subject. Tracking is the movement of the camera over time in time-lapse photography, so that the created film takes into account not merely change over time, but follows a passage in depicting time and space at once. Time-lapse photography is meant to provide a close view of events that occur too slowly for our eyes to track them. Descriptions are the poet’s tool to create a clearer view of change over time. Silliman says in “Skies”: “I want to describe description, what is already there (sound, light, weather) … (metonymy is the problem of choice)” (469), but later he says, “(I am not interested in description, but detail, transition, all the nameless, half-known tones reducible to blue)” (474). By description he means, therefore, not simply the effort to depict what he sees, feels, smells, and hears, but to go into what the process of creating that depiction might mean.
The poem “Skies” is even more invested in this focus than “Jones.” As with “Jones,” which I call the “looking down poem,” the poet sets himself a task to look up and write every day about what he saw for a year in forming the poem “Skies.” Looking down in a city provides endless fodder for description, and a city is so busy that adhering largely to the visual provides ample material; looking up put the poet against the wall of description. Here is a restricted palette; here are restricted objects of focus. The poet turns to the senses to expand the options: sounds, smells, physical sensations. Motifs shape the poem through their recursion: a plum tree, laundry hanging out to dry, jets, spiders.
The poem is composed as well, as in composing the shot: “(against selection I want to pose the partial determination of what I find beyond these doors)” (470); “I scratch these words out and try others” (469). In “Skies” Silliman refers to his concern with “sentence type” (469). Bob Perelman writes that for Silliman, “Sentences are semi-autonomous units, but they are not atomized into sameness: they are variously expressive, analytic, and narrative.” “I prefer,” Silliman says in “Skies,” “the prepositional form of possession’s discreteness, adjectives are not aspects (but projections)” (469). Intriguing here is the reliance on parentheses, mentioned earlier, but clearly the tool for insertion of metapoetics. These descriptions of sentence, sentence type, and word type draw the reader’s focus to the particulars of the language, but also, as Perelman suggests, force attention to individual sentences by disaggregating them from the poems’ welter of sentences and images.
Adding time, tracking. The poem follows routes through these daily entries merged into masses of text, though in “Skies,” as the poem says, with a space between sections to indicate months. These routes, these passages, are called “paths” in the poems. The matter-of-fact tone and this approach to experience take their lead from religious lessons, the “light’s path” (122). This is, the poem says, “not a straight line but like the logic of chess, each more (each word) opens entire sequences, others shut forever (train plunges into the tunnel) and reversing your steps can never take you back” (133). Even in tasks as restricted as the ones set in these two poems (looking up and looking down), infinite options present themselves to the poet; those selected can never be undone, but have instead created the course of existence: “walk in any direction in a straight line and you will arrive at the edge, but no path is harder than a path to define” (128). John Ashbery describes this process in less shaping but similar terms: “It’s getting from one place to another, from one moment to another. … It happens by itself and we’re part of its happening.”
Stuttered time-lapse. The motion of the time-lapse in these poems is stuttered, for the frame intervals are at 365 per year, so that following one motif over the year’s span reflects this jerky sensation (motifs are even more stuttered as they are spaced into month-long intervals): “Heat will cause the plums to drop” (457); “Everything blisters in a rare heat (leaves on the plum tree curl & crackle …)” (460); “plum tree’s branch bobs into view” (460); “Hummingbirds in the plum tree” (464); “the jet in the plum tree exits” (464); “Leaves fall from the plum tree, drifting into the snail-chewed spinach” (466); “one bird somewhere in the plum tree” (468); “shimmer of a spider’s thread in the plum tree light” (468); “the wind drives the last leaves from the plum tree” (469); “the night sky against the plum tree is deep grey against deeper grey” (473); “A light gust rattles the plum tree” (478); “Plums have fallen where the onions have just started to sprout” (479). The plum tree, standing outside Silliman’s house, becomes his regular filter for his daily shots of the sky. While the tree itself is stationary and recurs nearly monthly in the poem, its state is never static. It stands in the heat and wind, day and night. It frames the birds, jets, and spiders. It contrasts with the sky behind it. It orients the poet, between the ground of the garden, over which it stands, and the sky that rises through it, above it, and beyond it. The plum represents, therefore, the change of the seasons, the erratic nature of the weather, and the constant outside activity, as well as a grounding of a type found in “Jones.”
This is a coming into existence out of the expanded scope of the sky, the diminished options of topics. The poem becomes about the path, about description; it is time-lapse poetry. “Repetition flags the theme … Repetition flogs the theme / the intent thickens / as the cement hardens” (129). In “Skies,” the poet wrestles with repetition because looking up provides, as he says, an “unbroken sameness” (457), a “restricted palette” (457). Within the constraints of this repetition, a compressed color scheme and a paucity of elements, the sentences in their endless distinctiveness, changing over time, over days, over the year’s span, form the texture of the year. “[G]rammar is weather” (470), he says.
The point of these poems is, therefore, that human existence is this layering of experience, this compression through time and memory into sedimentation. In creating the layers of the poem through the layering of days and description and moments of physical experience, Silliman creates the reverse of an archaeological dig. The “whole of word enclosed” (122), he says, is contained in the poem, and as “the world is revealed in in- / crements” (469–70), this “theory [of description that creates a path of existence] fertilizes a seed of intuition” (127). These are timescapes, what the poet sees over time. The objects flicker in and out of the frame as the year passes, marked by glimpses of hanging wash, the plum tree, the spiders, the jets, appearing and reappearing, always mutated by the difference of the day, the light, the time of year, the framing. This is time-lapse poemography, not just looking up and looking down, but looking backwards and forwards at once.
4. Bob Perelman, “Parataxis and Narrative: The New Sentence in Theory and Practice,” in The Ends of Theory, ed. Jerry Herron, Dorothy Huson, Ross Pudaloff, and Robert Strozier (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996), 250.
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.’” 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.” 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.”
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
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.” 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.” 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. 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.”
Yet if through their opaqueness and their “very incompleteness” Scalapino’s essays “bring words to life,” as Retallack writes, 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). 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.
Even a physical book for Scalapino is viewed as “detemporalized and spatial.” 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.
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.”
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.
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.” 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.
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.
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.” 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.
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. Like Kristeva, Scalapino considers “poetic language” to be a special kind of language and writing — what Kristeva calls a “mutation within language.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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, 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.
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).” 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.’” 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.
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. 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.” 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).
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. 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.” 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.
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]), 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. 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.” “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.
Poetic writing, Scalapino then declares, must be its own “syntactical and strident motion.” 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.”
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. 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. . .”
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.”
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.” 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.”
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.’”
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.
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,” Dahlia’s 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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, 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.” 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.”
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. 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.
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.
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.” 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.” 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?
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.” 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.”
Phenomenological occurrence in theater is best described as that which is “‘seen’ … between these facets of the object.” But if phenomenological critique shows “‘how the world becomes world,’” in the words of Merleau-Ponty, 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.” 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,” Bachelard also says that
the two terms “outside” and “inside” … are not symmetrical … can no longer be as taken in their simple reciprocity….
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.” 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”). 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.” 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 …” In “Sweet,” we are introduced to “two men and two women … concentrating very hard … and can’t tell the difference between language and action.” 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).” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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
a sack of
a baby falls out of a
— blood from her rear
camel — dropping from her dead
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:
We are “told” about the vulnerability of the local people on the ground, as they are pursued or “hunted” by the “hinds”:
(because they have
if not killed
by the Hinds,
helicopters hunt them
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.
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.”
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
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,” 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.” 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.
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.” 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”). 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
And — isolated, alone there
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
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
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.
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.” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
But in the meantime “A billing fiasco looms.” The “adjoining zones” remain just beyond the next turn.
As near as I can see — and this is just in riffling through one of Joe Donahue’s books, not even attempting to dig far down but just gathering from what is scattered so availably on the various emerging surfaces — we have here, at one point or another, letter, memoir, history, philosophical dialogue, mantra, aria, imagist snapshot, news flash, plot line, art critique, joke, memorandum, oracle, marginalia, tourist guide, surveillance tape, weather report, playlist, glossary … and none of those in isolation, none that is not so spun together with the rest as to be inextricable without risking rips and warps.
Yet interwoven as the elements are, there is no turn that does not yield bare statement. “Ralph Albert Blakelock / paints black trees”: this is information of the most straightforward kind, a guide to the identification of work, yet also the creation of an eternal present in which Blakelock is never done painting, and yet again, maybe, a whisper of astonishment at what is going on — did you hear? — in an asylum, as we have just previously been informed, an asylum where the sun is present at night (“At night the sun is in an asylum”). All of this is only the continuation of a stream of painterly evocations, Frederick Church followed by Thomas Cole. Art history, except that nothing can remain history. A present in which all of history is contained, and in which all its elements leak into each other, continuously imposes itself: “For the first time, we feel / what it means to live on a planet. … the water in the lake / has turned to a white mist. … Mist is spilling from the hollows. … The sun is the light of revelation.” It is that sun of revelation that leads in the most natural fashion into the mad blackness of Blakelock’s trees, “black trees without leaves / on a starless night.” The poem (“Hudson River School” in Terra Lucida) does not end there — it trails off into silence or perhaps into a different sound range inaudible at this time. I call it a poem, but it is a section of a larger section of a book which is part of a longer ongoing threadlike work.
As the thread spirals, different points along its curve signal to each other in echo or contradiction or commentary. A unity is being made, but the elements out of which it is being made are apt to protest and argue. Delight and terror are engaged in intimate dialogue all along the way. Bits of catastrophic wreckage turn up in the oddest places, burnished like gems sometimes. Prophecy might be twisted rumor, delirium might be prayer. Corkscrewing movements, intimations of dread, pirouette gracefully into wide unencumbered spaces. “Lies” (falsehoods) give way to what “lies ready for / the end of / secrets” — not just that, but “the secret of / the end / of secrets” — all of this is part of an unfolding unanswerable question: “Until / whatever is, / is a lie?” The unanswerable question, that ancient form, is another of the genres that insists on making its presence known. “Ask: why is / this not all sky?”
A sort of vaulting archery shoots for the beyond, the vacant, the inexplicable dazzle — not on a rare bet but as ongoing practice, continuing exercises in the act of aiming — until the eye can scan the pages and see a string of stratospheric haiku, a seascape of luminous distances. Dissolves represents the most intensely compressed phase of this practice thus far. Yet it all takes place somewhere — there is a geography and city map and family tree and neighborhood watch and glittery public square whose details are lit up as they come into the poem. The most abstract reaches (and they aspire toward an abstraction that is realized over and over in the most finely calibrated music) are never cut loose from the dark and earthly heaviness that is the other pole: the world of stories and all the inherited encyclopedia of violence and sacrificial terror, which carries with it a thickly mixed-up argot of taunts and confessions and emergency reports bouncing around in a past that remains defiantly unburied. The way stations of a populous and talkative underworld are other points on the grid, perhaps even the same points but viewed through a different prism: “right now, / amid all the others / en route, at a late hour, / beneath the / starlight / of this way / station.” That is how Dissolves dissolves.
This poetry is not a description but an extension of life.
What there is in it
There is an abiding sense of emergence: The red burst upon the field is one color that flashes out from among the many hues that constitute black. Or perhaps the red has shot down from the sky to spark across the dark expanse. In any case, the title poem of Joseph Donahue’s most recent collection, Red Flash on a Black Field, carries forward the theme of coming into being that has marked the poet’s work since his debut collection, Before Creation, whose title announced this preoccupation. In its demonstratively terse first line, “Trees flower,” Red Flash establishes the familiar nature trope of rebirth, one that is immediately brought into a grosser realm of materiality with the next: “The air has the reek / of semen in a steam bath.” Donahue complicates the image by calling up not only reproductive biology’s physical details, but his conjuring of sex (masturbatory? homosexual?) at the gym subverts reproduction itself. In these opening lines, we have the coupling of incarnation and mortality, of celebration and elegy, that forms the expressive chords between which the poet pivots in every book, in nearly every poem.
There is a disquieting insistence of the improbable: We are told that the “chemicals of / the dream remake the body of the dreamer,” that the monkey king “orders the other monkeys / to dive into the well, to save the moon.” While among Donahue’s influences we can count the visionary tradition of Donne, Duncan, and Herbert, as well as the Surrealist energies of Desnos, Peret, Lamantia, his own renderings of these extravagant impulses is one both plainspoken and measured. That monkey king, he “sees, deep in the well, the moon” and then sends his simian subjects into the dark pit. The scene we might imagine is clamorous with squeals and chaos, yet the poet refrains from high-octane adjectives, choosing instead to report this implausible (impossible) drama with the straightforward language and syntax of a newspaper account. The calmness, of course, accentuates the oneiric quality of the image. Donahue presents the dream as if commonplace, thereby solidifying the dream’s tactility. His grace note — delivered in the deadpan tone of a local TV reporter broadcasting live from the scene of the monkey sacrifice — confirms the improbability: “The tale does not end happily.”
There is the purposefully absurd: “On TV, it’s the Branch Davidian // “Reunion Special.” This observation is followed by the image of a child’s drawing (one of those that died in the Waco conflagration?) of a ladder that “rises to heaven.” Then: “Cut to: smoke across a dry field.” In these rapid-fire lines, Donahue sparks pathos, leavened by media critique (“Cut to” — such is the nature of contemporary screen-made consciousness, we are always about to “cut to”), and then envelops both in the absurd. His quick strokes allow us to conjure a possible voice-over: Welcome to a special hour in which we’ll meet and reminisce with some of America’s most famous martyrs. The latent spiritual dimension of pop culture’s incongruities (the authentically awful entwined with the awfully authentic) percolates to the surface of this poem to sow our happy viewing hours with discontent. Donahue is Christopher Smart in possession of a mega-channel cable package.
There is, much appreciated amidst the darker notes, some sex: “Arms around each other, kissing, / but they have no skin. There are waves of tendons, / and veins, and sparkling nerves.” Okay, maybe that isn’t quite the frisson we craved — a pair of skinless lovers, their exposed nerves wet and shimmering. But the image isn’t quite as macabre as it seems; Donahue is imagining a “man and woman, as they might be seen in / a middle school biology class wall chart.” So this encounter is mere simulacrum — a depiction of a depiction. No actual humans were harmed in the production of this coupling. The passage segues into a description of a phone sex worker who slips “his hand on and off / the receiver, so that / the illusion of passion is maintained.” The illusion. Of passion. This is better than no illusion at all. And maybe, given Donahue’s neutral, if not forgiving, tone, the illusion’s better than actual passion.
There is adventure: “I cross a volcanic crater // in a rainstorm, warm steam rising / from openings in the earth. Cross a strafe of gray through black, / crystalline flecks of ruby in the / whiteness of a beach pebble / from when the world was molten.” The poem handily balances hallucination, introspection, and a sense of the epic. Donahue smoothly moves from one tonality to another, all of his voices unified by the shortness of his lines, their telegraphic directness. We detect the changes in scene and vocal register only after they’ve occurred. These lines — and those that immediately follow — lean into a brooding, biblical stateliness. “I now know the / origin of the earth,” the poet pronounces upon completing the perilous journey across the crater. Yet there comes a deft, barely perceptible turn to a colloquial precocity — the smart aleck in the back row needling the teacher: “but / could you explain to me // the continuity of the / generations?” Adventure is found among geologies, genealogies, and in how Donahue do these different voices.
There is the past that isn’t even past: “The VC pull the smoking bones / of the pilot from the treetop wreckage // and sell them back. / That bravura in the bamboo / could be the sun.” The poem moves through time with the light step of a vaudevillian’s soft shoe. Bombs fall over Baghdad. Cleopatra’s lovelorn slave. A destroyer in the Pacific. Fascists in the ’30s. Elton John sings at Diana’s funeral and Nietzsche rebukes the reader. And, of course, for a poet who was draft age in 1972, Vietnam. Disaster, eros, and longing play out on a global stage on which time is a mere conceit. Simultaneity rules Donahue’s clock as if the essence of events were some kind of eternally lingering vapor (“smoking bones”) that mixes with whatever follows yet is never dispelled, never without its imprint on our senses. Our apprehension of the past binds us together, Donahue posits; it’s what Crane would an call “infinite consanguinity”: The pilot’s remains mutate into bravura, the bravura into the sun, and the sun becomes, “the mind turning to / phosphorous / which means you are // receiving thoughts from afar, from someone inseparable from you.” Our deaths are ours alone, our bones destined for sale, but there is commonality in the ongoing experience of history, in its totality, which may be found in any pebble.
There is nature, but it’s not quite natural: “On a mesa with / magnetic properties / long held to be healing, / a blue butterfly pops up, dazzling wings, huge, the size of a hand.” The subtly varied alliteration (mesa, magnetic; held, healing; blue, butterfly; huge, hand) draws us effortlessly through what seems to be a conventional image from the pages of National Geographic. On closer inspection the scene takes on a stranger cast. The mesa is a mythic locale, one capable of vibratory emanations; the butterfly appears in the desert abruptly, a burst of deep-sky color against earthen reds and browns, and its extraordinary size an emblem of the landscape’s supernatural resonance. A kind of magic realism infuses an image that is both filmic (the poet’s eye is panoramic) and palpably eerie. The butterfly — unnaturally large, luminescent — is a harbinger of timeless, otherworldly forces. Toward what Bethlehem, toward what birth, does this dazzler slouch?
And there is a sense of loss: “The stones sing / high above the tree line / where, as legend says, // the moon tore loose / and left its light behind.” Satellite and its radiance — not one, but two things. The moon departs, leaving behind its most salient feature. Is light then its essence? It is for those who look up at the night sky. But the lifeless rock, of course, only reflects rather than produces its glow. So what has been separated — the thing from our perception of the thing? The loss the poet articulates is that space between moon and its beam, which we may also read as the gap between the object of desire and desire itself. Earlier in the poem Donahue describes an “Edwardian nymph, eyes closed, head tilted dreamily back. / A man behind her buries his head in her hair.” There is another woman and another man and Donahue notes this is a “dance of stone called / “The Solitude of the Soul.” We can learn that these four figures separately arrayed yet “tenderly touching” around a block of rough-hewn marble are, in fact, the subject of a sculpture by Lorado Taft that bears that title. The piece on display at the Art Institute of Chicago presents these people as barely emerging from the block that still holds them fast. They have not “torn loose” from the rock; their effort to find the solace of connection is thwarted and they are shown caught between desire and the desired. They are alone, but emerging into. Perhaps they are even about to arrive in our world of flesh, where the semen reeks and bones smoke. Where birth and death are bright flashes on the human field.