I made this piece after a failed attempt at choreographing a very mathematical solo using John Ashbery’s “Default Mode” as a movement map. It was tiring and the words weren’t sticking with the individual movements. I made a “seed phrase” for “They were living in America” that was repeated with different variations for each line. I didn’t get past “Does this doughnut remind you of a life preserver?”!
I read “Uptick” and found it to be a rather chewy poem, meaning it’s terse but there’s so much there about time and sequence and viewing. After reading it about twenty times aloud in the studio with Marissa (my collaborator) I decided to make a duet that never left the floor where the dancers never touched each other. I was interested in extremes of timing and creating a certain reverberation in the air between the bodies. The piece, to me, feels like two different audio frequencies on one side of a very strange phone call.
Editing by Cory Antiel. Videography by Adam Fitzgerald.
It is a Tuesday evening in January at the azotea, the home of Reina María Rodríguez, where so far two writers have stopped in for a coffee and conversation. Others might or might not come tonight; there’s another gathering in a couple of days. Reina lives a short walk away from the Capitol building in Havana, in an apartment building a few blocks from the ocean. The apartment itself comes with a literary history. Reina used to host much larger gatherings here, particularly during Cuba’s “Special Period” of economic crisis in the 1990s, when artists and writers met regularly. Nowadays she remarks that the work of hosting all those salons in her home is too much to undertake.Still, she continues to work as a literary organizer, and the azotea is still a place where smaller events happen from time to time, and where university and cultural tour groups listen to readings by local writers.
Formal or informal, an evening at the azotea generally includes established writers as well as others who are just emerging. It’s also common to find a mix of people who still live in Cuba and those who are partially or completely based abroad — a regular thing in the everyday life of the capital city in the post-Soviet era. The intensity of emigration and the growing acknowledgment of diasporic Cuban life do not erase all of the tensions around this subject in Havana, but many individual Cubans and institutions are increasingly comfortable referring to the phenomenon.
At my side today is Richard: Ricardo Alberto Pérez, whom I have met at the azotea in the past. He continues to live and work on the island.
Ricardo Alberto Pérez with Reina María Rodríguez in the living room at the azotea. Photographs by Kristin Dykstra, 10 January 2013.
While Richard has published work in other countries, relatively little has appeared in the United States or in English, despite the fact that people here refer to him using the English version of his first name. I ask him to answer some questions for me. Where were you born? In Havana. What part of Havana? Arroyo de Naranjo, which is to the southeastern side of the city (but we have to consult two other people to confirm this point: Richard explains that geography is not his strong suit). When did you begin to write poetry? At age sixteen, and those early poems were very bad. Reina refuses to make any more coffee now, having made croquetas and the first round of coffee, so Richard disappears into the kitchen for a short time. The conversation continues nonetheless, including some dark humor about whether or not it will make one a famous poet in the US if I write here that said poet’s immediate family includes several suicides, including his mother, who made eighteen attempts before the one that took her life in the Special Period. This is, in fact, all true of Richard’s life. It leads to some remarks about Angel Escobar, the poet whose suicide from the late ’90s is still a regular point of reference here. Many of the poets from the greater Havana area had known Escobar well for years. Nearly all are careful not to overstate their friendships with him, perhaps in part because his worsening illness eventually affected his personality and ability to exchange his writing with them.
Despite the significance of these digressions I return to my questions for Richard. For years he has been a regular at the azotea events and those at the Torre de Letras, which has a very small space for workshops and readings granted by the Cuban Book Institute (Instituto Cubano del Libro) on Obispo Street in Old Havana. During my very short visit I’ve heard a great deal of debate about how official the Torre has become, what degree of officialness to attribute to it. This is a debate about where the borderline of the margin begins and whether you can really locate it or hold it in one place. Reina maintains that the Torre is the most alternative of spaces that has still been able to publish some books here and there, while allowing writers themselves to make editorial decisions rather than bureaucrats. This is not the same thing as being an independent press, since the Torre group depends on assistance from institutions in the sense that it must await access and permission for printing its work. Whatever one’s exact argument about degrees and forms of marginality, it is still certain that the Torre has a different and less central status than projects run straight out of UNEAC or Casa de las Americas, or the University of Havana. (There is general interest in the future possibility that truly independent literary presses might come to exist. Perhaps it will involve new digital options, although Reina emphasizes that the majority of Cubans can’t access that type of space, let alone do so regularly: Cuba has the lowest rate of connectivity in the hemisphere, and government regulation of email and internet access remains a central, vexing issue, alongside questions of economic limitation. Print, then, continues to be important here.)
Like many established Havana writers, Richard has spent time outside the island, which not only gave him a broader perspective on literatures and cultures but also led to publishing projects like the anthology La Habana Medieval, his edited collection of contemporary Cuban poetry released by a Brazilian university press and available in some US libraries. Among his other books are Geanot (1993, poetry), Nietzsche dibuja a Cosima Wagner (1995, poetry), Turin sin pájaros sin reloj (1999, Brazil, bilingual edition of poetry), Trillos urbanos (which refers to a song by Caetano Veloso; 2003, poetry), Vibraciones del buey (2004, poetry), Catorce poetas brasileños (2006, translations of Brazilian poetry), Perhappenis (2007, anthology and translations featuring the work of Paulo Leminsky), Oral B (2007, which won the Nicolás Guillén prize for poetry), and Para qué el cine? (2010, a collaborative work with artist Ezequiel Suárez). Richard has another book in press as I write: Vengan a ver las palomas de Varsovia, a poetry collection.
In addition to composing his own writing, Richard does a radio program dedicated to international poetry. And recently, he began to publish essays about Cuban artists, pieces that are more accessible to readers of English than most of his other writing to date. The art essays are being translated into English and appear online at the British site Cuba Absolutely.
When I finish adding italics to all the book titles in my list, I look up and find that everyone has disappeared. I find them clustered by the bathroom. Richard is attempting to fix the sink. No one has been able to stop this week’s especially pernicious leak, Reina says. Watching nearby is Ramón Hondal, who has recently finished writing his third book of poetry and is next in line to fix the bathroom sink. He adjusts a large plumber’s wrench.
Ramón’s books are not yet published, but Reina is encouraging him to move forward with them and thinks the latest one is especially good. Meanwhile, he has been amassing a collection of audio recordings of poets, including material by Escobar. I go back into the kitchen to see how the sink is coming along and find Richard with a broom: “This is going really well,” he says to me, and I realize that the sink problem has escalated and the entire floor is covered in water, which he’s sweeping out onto the roof. “We’re going to be cleaning all night!” Reina says. It will take a while for the floor to dry, so everyone goes outside as the sun sets. Richard and Ramón spar about who has done more damage to the sink. This episode might seem to be irrelevant — another digression derailing my dispatch — and yet there’s a material impact for local poetry. It is the sort of occurrence that causes Reina to reflect on why she has not returned to hosting more large-scale readings out of her home.
Problem sink at the azotea.
Life intrudes again on literature: another poet, Carlos, calls to say that his car has broken down. After literally pushing it down the street, he will have to spend the evening running around in search of parts, so he can’t make it today.
Richard’s poetry has changed in recent years. Earlier books, the ones up to Oral B, are collections of poems he conceived one at a time, individually, then organized into groups afterwards. His most recent manuscripts are evolving differently. The concept comes first, and individual texts are subsidiary to it; some have no title. These newest manuscripts can even be seen as partner projects. The content of one book engages moments of strangeness within national culture. He comments that his most recent works are most influenced by North American writing, emphasizing shorter poem lengths and a certain quality of agility he associates with English-language writing. Two of his manuscripts in progress are currently entitled Miedo a las ranas and Piñera en el balancin (he points to a rocking chair to illustrate what “Balancin” means, and emphasizes the reference to Virgilio Piñera).
We look at the title poem of the book that is just about to come out, and I write up a translation.
Come! and see the pigeons of Warsaw
Come! and see the pigeons of Warsaw.
The pigeons of Arezzo.
Their biological activity the counter-attack.
Pigeons are deceptive specimens,
an unreal music,
a piece the virtuoso refuses to play.
Once they consecrate the ruins, definitively,
pigeons will become a musical staff attracting attention.
over which the walls shed antiquity
with uric acid.
Vengan a ver las palomas de Varsovia
Vengan a ver las palomas de Varsovia.
Las palomas de Arezzo.
Su actividad biológica a contragolpe.
Las palomas son piezas engañosas,
una música falsa,
una obra que se niega a tocar el virtuoso.
Al consagrarse las ruinas definitivamente
las palomas serán un pentagrama atendible.
donde los muros desgranan antigüedad
ante el ácido úrico.
Why Warsaw? I ask Richard, taking advantage of this opportunity to ask the little questions. He smiles: he’s fascinated with post-Soviet nations, with the complexities of their relationships to the past and the present. In this respect, Eastern Europe exists in a sort of parallel space to Cuba. Why Arezzo? Personal touch. It’s where a former girlfriend lives.
When I come back to this commentary two days later, before a reading at the azotea for a literary tour group, I remember that I once translated a handful of poems from one of Richard’s earlier books, Vibraciones del buey, but never published them.
Regarding swine, the Chinese, and Catalans
Some Chinese brought a handful of
tattooed swine to Barcelona,
the Catalans didn’t understand the ideograms
and stared suspiciously at the swine.
The ART fair
placed the swine in the most seductive location.
The swine more Chinese than swine,
more white than yellow,
recognized themselves inside the web of seduction
and directed ironic gazes toward the Catalans.
The Catalans understood nothing and the swine
less swine than ideograms
returned to China,
leaving an expression on the Catalans: dumbfounded, as if suspended.
Sobre cerdos, chinos y catalanes
Unos chinos llevaron a Barcelona
un puñado de cerdos tatuados,
los catalanes no entendían los ideogramas
y miraron con malos ojos a los cerdos.
La feria de EL ARTE
puso en el lugar más seductor a los cerdos.
Los cerdos más chinos que cerdos,
más blancos que amarillos
se reconocieron en la membrana de la seducción
dedicándose a mirar con ironía a los catalanes.
Los catalanes no comprendieron nada y los cerdos
menos cerdos que ideogramas
regresaron a China,
dejando pasmada, como en vilo, la expresión de los catalanes.
Critical essay about my father’s hands
My father had hands perfect
for applauding at the circus.
The tightrope walker
gave me less pleasure than my father’s fingers, dancing
with folkloric passion.
My father’s thumb was the high ground
to which I climbed every day.
(manufacturer of perfumes)
He came back with a bandaged hand:
the circus held no more meaning for me
until the politicians’ speeches grew less consistent.
Ensayo crítico sobre las manos de mi padre
Mi padre tenía unas manos perfectas
para aplaudir en el circo.
Más que del equilibrista,
yo gustaba de sus dedos danzando
en una pasión folclórica.
El dedón de mi padre era un terreno elevado
donde escalaba cada día.
(fabricante de perfumas)
Regresó con la mano vendada:
el circo dejó de tener sentido para mí,
hasta el discurso de los políticos parecía menos consistente.
Oxen are brains of moss,
they climb another evolutionary step;
the heron who shits
on their heads
improves the texture of the breeze,
a different rain awaits her
at harvest’s close.
Los bueyes son cerebros de musgo,
en la labranza
escalan otra evolución;
la garza que caga
mejora la textura del aire,
otra lluvia esperará por ella
al fin de la cosecha.
8 and 10 January 2013, Havana
The novel in a virtual absentia
I found myself talking to myself saying there must be an identity I’m getting acquainted with living in the postmodern — or is it the post-postmodern? It’s an identity I know nothing about. It knows nothing while seeming to know everything. It’s not the everything of the Victorian age, though, nor the ignorance of the perspicacious liberal skeptic. Those are identities with a past, ones I am familiar with, through usage as well as tradition and education. This one has no particular past it is not so sketchy about that it seems an abstraction.
Rather than puzzle out the why or how or origins of the identity I’m talking about, a task I feel beyond me, I had better identify it somehow. I can use my words and thoughts as well as referencing some literary fiction I’ve been reading lately, culminating in Andrew Levy’s Nothing Is in Here, that seem to manifest this identity. If it’s an identity, it’s not a fact, a thing, or a given, but then I’m not sure in what sense it’s a construction or a premise, nor whether it has a nature.
An identity may emerge somehow and invade, by osmosis, our pores, or mine, and become familiar, barely ever noticed, without defining who I am. My identity is plastic, mercurial, adaptive, like, I would suppose, anyone else’s. I don’t seem to be seen as the same at work as I am at home, though I’m the same guy; I’m not given the same identity by those I serve at work as by my kids.
In a postmodern or post-postmodern age, identity may be more generic and more plastic than ever, close to collapse into a liquid. The avatar doesn’t much count as an identity. What remains is vague. Vagueness and plasticity may be afunctional or dysfunctional by known standards, but might be one’s best shot at adjustment to the dystopia or atopia one may feel increasingly destined to envision as well-nigh hegemonic and definitive, and yet not quite. People still relate cooperatively, at times and in places. Dystopia and atopia are, like utopias, imaginative constructions that draw on experience (experiences of fantasy and of consensual reality). Even if they’re visionary and delusional, such constructions can become shared and come to condition and tailor one another’s response.
[The use of a-, as in atopia and afunctional, is intended, as in apolitical or amoral, to mean “without regard for” or “without reference to.” An amoral orientation has no investment in whether it’s morally right or wrong, whereas an immoral orientation clearly defies moral standards. An immoral choice violates morality; an amoral choice doesn’t reference morality. So an atopic orientation has no particular sense of place; an afunctional activity has no particular expectation regarding its function.]
The afunctionality of the atopia may begin to supersede the wobble between utopia and dystopia observed through recorded history, or better still, to triangulate with them, the better to evaluate our own times. For all their hopes for enlightened consciousnesses in the postmodern period, people have also suffered perennial and acute betrayals of promises, abdications of premises, and hard-hearted brutality and trauma-reenactment as standards for their operating procedures, hard truths to look in the face day in day out, for which compromise, civilization, and progress have served as justification and cover.
Robert Musil’s unfinished second (and last) novel, The Man without Qualities, written from 1921 until his death in 1932, over 1700 pages long in a current Vintage paperback edition, is to me as uncanny and familiar a read as Tristram Shandy or De Rerum Natura, but represents a different age, so close to our own as to seem to bleed through it, indistinguishably, ours being an age in which the residues of the past seem ridiculous, hopeless, and pointless, in which the promise of the future may be lost in speculation, potentiality, and questioning.
The central character, Ulrich, is so absorbed in his idiosyncratic ideological dilemma regarding his technocratic orientation and his intuitive tendencies that he barely seems to do anything but pontificate at tangents, given opportunity for conversation, and the manner of his musings and pronouncements is as one with that of the narrator. Walter, a compulsive romantic and, like all the other characters, a perspicacious yet unreliable authority on that with which he is intimately familiar, says of his old friend Ulrich,
“He is gifted, strong-willed, open-minded, fearless, tenacious, dashing, circumspect — why quibble, suppose we grant him all these qualities — yet he has none of them! They’ve made him what he is, they’ve set his course for him, and yet they don’t belong to him. When he is angry, something in him laughs. When he is sad, he is up to something. When something moves him, he turns against it. He’ll always see a good side to every bad action. What he thinks of anything will always depend on some possible context — nothing is, to him, what it is; everything is subject to change, in flux, part of a whole, of an infinite number of wholes presumably adding up to a superwhole that, however, he knows nothing about. So every answer he gives is only a partial answer, every feeling only an opinion, and he never cares what something is, only ‘how’ it is — some extraneous seasoning that somehow goes along with it, that’s what interests him. I don’t know whether I’m making myself clear —?”
“Quite clear,” Clarisse said, “but I think that’s all very nice of him.”
This world is in its own way timeless, not as a traditional, ahistorical, and unchanging culture might be but as a moment that doesn’t resolve, pivoting between the decided and the undecidable. Wonderfully, events do transpire and have consequences, including other events, although whether any of these events matter, on any scale, is difficult to determine. As the author, or the narrator (no distinction is attempted), says in parsing Ulrich’s development, as a reflection of Ulrich’s own thoughts about it,
The drive of his own nature to keep developing prevents him from believing that anything is final and complete, yet everything that he encounters behaves as though it were final and complete. He suspects that the given order of things is not as solid as it pretends to be; no thing, no self, no form, no principle, is safe, everything is undergoing an invisible but ceaseless transformation, the unsettled holds more of the future than the settled, and the present is nothing but a hypothesis that has not yet been surmounted. 
Ulrich attempts to orient as follows, at least in one discussion with his cousin Diotima:
“For quite obvious reasons, every generation treats the life into which it is born as firmly established, except for those few things it is interested in changing. This is practical, but it’s wrong. The world can be changed in all directions at any moment, or at least in any direction it chooses; it’s in the world’s nature. Wouldn’t it be more original to try to live, not as a definite person in a definite world where only a few buttons need adjusting — what we call evolution — but rather to behave from the start as someone born to change surrounded by a world created to change, roughly like a drop of water inside a cloud? Are you annoyed with me for being so obscure again?”
“I’m not annoyed with you, but I can’t understand you.”
Women think in this book too but mostly quietly and to themselves, patronizing the ravings and ramblings of their male friends in a sort of abject appreciation. If Musil respects women, he doesn’t take this further than he can handle it, and he certainly represents a prefeminist realm.
One either cares, or doesn’t — never for the characters but perhaps rather for what happens in the thinking and writing committed to their consideration. The reader feels as if lost despite never leaving an orderly and unremarkable progress of personal and diplomatic relations that provide convincing contexts for unpredictable tides of reflection and realization that wash up breathtakingly from page to page. The present appears never to have impact or direction; its persons are alive with understandings that feel redolent with startling and yet unpurposed significance. People want things and hold huge ambitions, and yet one doesn’t sense their efforts lead them toward any sort of achievement.
“Now please don’t think,” he said, turning to her in all seriousness, “that all I mean by this is that everyone wants what is hard to get, and despises the attainable. What I mean is this: Within reality there is a senseless craving for unreality.”
J. M. Coetzee’s 2007 novel, Diary of a Bad Year, is set in Australia, where he became a citizen in 2006. It presents itself initially as a set of brief essays on topics he feels strongly about — gripes, or critiques — which we gather he’s prepared for publication in a proposed anthology of such pieces, but this might be a fiction. Here they are juxtaposed (passim, on the same pages, separated by horizontal lines) with brief passages in a developing account of his intrigued acquaintance with an attractive younger Filipina he takes on as typist and impromptu critic. After a second horizontal line is introduced on later pages, we also read her own sympathetic and acerbic reflections on both Coetzee and the man with whom she lives upstairs. Juxtapositions of passages from these superficially unrelated and yet approximately contemporaneous discourses break time and space into fragments, focusing a tension in the unmanageability of personalities that soon seem all too contracted in value and abilities.
One full sample page reads so:
In the days when Poland was under Communist rule, there were dissidents who conducted night classes in their homes, running seminars on writers and philosophers excluded from the official cannon (for example, Plato). No money changed hands, though there may have been other forms of payment. If the spirit of the university is to survive, something along those lines may have to come into being in countries where tertiary education has been wholly subordinated to business principles. In other words the real university may have to move into people’s homes and grant degrees for which the sole backing will be the names of the scholars who sign the certificates.
If you wanted a CV you should have asked for it at the beginning, she says. Instead of hiring me on the basis of my looks. Do you want to call it quits right now? That would suit me. Then you can find someone else who meets your high standards. Or go to a bureau, like I suggested in the first place.
Alan comes into the room while I am typing. So what are you up to now? he says. Typing for the old man, I say. What is it about? he says. Samurai, I say. He comes and reads over my shoulder. Birth certificates for animals, he says — is he crazy? Does he want to give them all names? Clifford John Rat. Annabel Rat. What about death certificates too, while he is about it? When are you coming to bed?
The power of thought, plainly reactive and responsive to circumstances, stymies any efficacy in altering them, even as it scores high points with remarkable consistency. As in The Man Without Qualities, little beyond discoursing occurs, and what does is commonplace and predictable, such as might have happened anyway, despite characters’ word-bound development of ambitious possibilities never pressed toward realization. Setting the novel in 2005 Australia serves little but to anchor it to Coetzee’s actual biography.
Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel, Chronic City, is set in Manhattan, across the East River from its author’s most accustomed stomping grounds. Lethem does not appear in this book, nor anyone who might appear to stand in for him, though he may share predictaments with all those he represents here. “Predictaments” are predicaments that are not only wholly predictable on the basis of what’s already been told as known but also more than likely to result in outcomes well-anticipated in advance, which themselves may seem more more-of-the-same than novel.
That Lethem frames such a pedestrian progress in an alarmingly comic and charismatic field of peculiar suspense, reverie, and disintegration is remarkable enough, but that he does it without ever suggesting one believe in, much less sympathize with, his characters or their commitments, in a prose style by and large unmarked and yet as vital as anyone’s circulatory system, evokes my running astonishment. So what? One gets acquainted with a way of seeming and reflections on it that seduce and betray attention, animated as it is in regions of reality more alternate than actual, in which representation, symbol, fantasy, and the quotidian are looped in a fatal web of perpetually reconditioned actuality the persons, if they are such, collude against and with, discovering further intrigues or, failing that, explanations that feel sooner or later beside the point.
For me the central axis that spins this coil of existence out of control is expounded halfway through the narrative, when three central characters address the premises of “simulated worlds theory,” which posits that computing power can grow to simulate an entire universe in every detail, down to the avatars’ conviction that their experiences are genuine and their perceptions spontaneous, that “the odds are overwhelming that it’s already happened” and therefore that their lives and conversation occur within a gigantic computer simulation, “one of innumerable universes living in parallel, a series of experiments just to see how things will develop.”
“There might be trillions of these simulations going on all at once.”
“Why couldn’t we be the original?” I asked.
“We could be,” said Oona. “But the odds aren’t good. You wouldn’t want to bet on it.”
I didn’t protest to Oona that we felt like the original, to me. I knew she’d say that every fake universe would feel like the original, to its inhabitants. Yet everything around me, every tangy specific in the simulation in which I found myself embedded, militated against the suggestion that it was a simulation: the furls of stale smoke and gritty phosphenes drifting between my eyes and the kitchen’s overhead light, the involuntary memory-echo telling me one of the rock bands Perkus had played was called Crispy Ambulance, a throbbing hangnail I’d misguidedly gnawed at and now worked to ignore, the secret parts of Oona Laszlo I’d uncover and touch and taste within the hour, if my guess was right.
“The problem,” she continued, “is that our own simulated reality might only be allowed to continue if it were either informative or entertaining enough to be worth the computing power. Or anyway, as long as we didn’t use too much, they might not unplug us. That’s assuming there remains some limit on that kind of resource, which all our physical laws suggest would be the case. So the moment we develop our own computers capable of spinning out their own virtual universes — like Yet Another World — we become a drastic drain on their computing power. It’s exponential, because now they have to generate all our simulations, too. We wouldn’t be worth the trouble at that point, we’d have blown the budget allocated to our particular little simulation. They’d just pull our plug. I mean, they’d have millions of other realities running, they’d hardly miss one. But, you know, too bad for us.”
This theme is virtually eclipsed, scarcely addressed, through the remainder of the novel, one of many subtexts that subtend the functioning of its narrated evolution. What is this miracle of life? Why am I here? What can I do with this opportunity? These questions reverberate, pointedly unasked, in the halls of spectacle, capital, and intentionality. The non-actor as actor, the actor as non-actor, unwittingly cased within a script preset by conspiracy within the higher ground of capital, cannot, does not leave, without an opportunity arising. The text recoils on itself, rejecting its own resolution as foreign matter, consigning the reader to nocturnal indeterminacies and considerations that fail to link content with context so that they hold. Unlike Coetzee, Lethem makes mincemeat of sentimentality, while recognizing and condoning sentiments’ compulsive functions in the human world. Much occurs, much of it dismaying, its implications, however directly elaborated, nevertheless all up for grabs. Manhattan here becomes so nebulous, so problematic, it ceases to exist — even while the existence of its boroughs and suburbs, sites of possible awakening, remains an object of speculation.
Andrew Levy’s only novel so far as I know, Nothing Is in Here takes place in an everynow in which the foreseeable future slips barely recognizably through the immediate present into the accepted and yet contested history of the past. In this present, things are as vague, rubbery, and slippery as attention’s swiveling between self and other, artifice and gut reaction, capital and helpless evaporation. Rereading is necessary, as a reader experiences focus sliding backward, skipping ahead, bushwhacking through the present — the text makes itself instantly available, yet collectively absent. Like a series of false starts that stand for the way things really are but cannot lead one to understanding it, the sections, which are segments laid out diversely as prose, verse, collage, lead into a world of trouble less Manhattan than a streaming of consciousnessness, here a drizzle, there a backed-up polluted quagmire, now a gushing torrent, then some muck, and again a spreading puddle stamped on by unknown soles. Writing, Levy sticks his neck out and follows it as far as it will go, at each glance, which at times means stumbling, sometimes tumbling head over heels into a world any reader might not know rabbits share with us.
Reading takes precedence as protagonist of this untoward picaresque. Any and all books make up the narrative of this bildungsroman. Our earliest hopes, expectations, and disappointments in literacy might be the ground or subject of this book. Perhaps “nothing is in here” because this is all projection. Ideals of reading the book we’ve severally inherited from childhood, the mystery that was made of it by our not yet reading and our coming to read: a time, I take it, when we could know, experientially, the emptiness of the book, a cypher, along with its profound fullness when read aloud by another and its absorption of others reading silently alone.
Neither big nor small, Nothing is as shapeless as the left half of a Rorschach blotch. It finds scale and orientation, shape and form in the reader’s apprehensiveness, dissolving and reshaping in response to that. The reader suffers narcissistic injury — realizing: it’s not about you, it’s not here for your convenience.
It’s the kind of text one might open anywhere and, doing so, discover it’s the farthest thing from logical, despite its often standard syntax. Existentialist, however, a Nausea for our time, I can’t deny. After a fragment of uncredited dialogue from The Brothers Karamazov reflecting on the inevitability of crime and amorality premised on the death of God, comes a question, without apparent connection,
“Is beauty made, perceived, witnessed and felt in a momentary bump in the minutest cessation of desire?”
Then, in the same paragraph, reflection on how any instance of reality or revelation might manifest unremarkably, or just barely remarkably, as “a blip on the radar, a blink” — too much to think about, embedded in a throwaway line. Is beauty, then, an exceptional incident to be, possibly, encountered in the relentless progress of corruption? Is there beauty here, in this poetry, er, fiction?
I’ll proceed to a nearby sentence cluster, which is still less than a complete paragraph (stanza, poem):
“To read a story and a table light to see by is something I can do myself. I’d thought I could do it myself, but I cannot. Whether he had known that, or had not, it was something that supported him that was always there. To act so that thought could possibly be read in ways different than one expected. His thought, from childhood, that it had been explained. These are the rewards for reading. The places you return to, to go over, again. The places that is more beautiful. That supports, that’s always there.”
Following any precise quotation from this text, one may well add “[sic].” Is this cut-up, free association, or a crafted exposition of some arcanely advanced kind? The text offers little traction to such queries, no gloss but variants of same. Close readings could bore through such verbiage a thousand ways, productively, I’m afraid, and remind us where things have been heading. Is this only a worrisome, cautionary, fatalistic, and burdensome text, or does it embody, also at all points, epiphany, home, transformation, and return to fertile potentialities? I think so.
Any reading has to reveal the text’s implicit code, that this is only one way of looking at it, telling it. The not-necessarily-so is embedded diversely and at all points, by the face (I had meant to write the fact, but face is better) that this is writing, not life; this is the trace of unsuccessful mediation, not a proof or justification, of the way things are.
The passage I copied out above, “To read a story …,” ends a paragraph and precedes a heading (or should I say, a centered line, with title caps?); it concludes the paragraph that began with the question about beauty, quoted further above.
Nothing, however, does not refer back and forth like I do. It just revises, alters, reframes, repeats, and ignores its own rhetorical gambits and assertions in the context of others. They all seem easy enough to make, though they may have taken Andrew Levy a lot of trouble to come up with, for all we know. Either he is a Dylanesque genius from whom this sort of thing just streams out, creating meaning through a logic peculiar to itself and perverse by any other standard, or he has sweated bullets to generate as nonviolent a text as this. Not that it’s perfect. In fact, his writing has achieved with extraordinary grace an imperfectness that deranges and then reconfigures one’s sense of time and sense as dramatically as electronics and corporate personhood, but in a different and humanly tuned key.
The passage quoted above does touch on or resynthesize themes recurrent throughout the text —beauty, reading, self, explainings, place, repetition. Repetition might not be as good a term as déjà vu, reiteration, or some kind of bargain-basement table of eternal recurrence.
“The places that is more beautiful,” then. Not “most beautiful,” but more than … More than they were, before one’s return, perhaps. I can accept that. Then what? Well, what about that singular verb, after a plural subject, in a noun phrase, is it?, not a complete sentence anyway. Is text missing? E.g., “The places that one preferred to that which actually is more beautiful”?
Levy’s Nothing proposes nature, as we cannot fail to know it, suffering the thrill of download and remastering with the electronic intelligence of a global corporate age, from the vantage point of some quotidien personal life in Manhattan. It may not be the life of any one person, any “I” or “he,” the self itself seen as in suspension as well as flux. Slippage of grammar and idea are congruent and consistent with slippage of identity and locus of control; in fact, any idea or image registered can only be a blip or bump in the perpetual slippage we enjoy or suffer, as circumstances and attitude allow. A startle response in the eye of the beholder — there are a million of them, and more await a second reading.
Thus, reading is not the author’s intention transposed to the reader’s assimilation and framing but the returned-as-different of thought, attention, and awareness. “These are the rewards for reading,” this text says. Why not “of reading”? Maybe there’s no reason, just slippage. Maybe this is how reading, like a kinder slot machine, spits out benefit, coinage negotiable but value undefined. Reading will not make sense; it will generate sense-accessible counters and their associations, and people, should they appear to answer their own apprehension, may make something of it.
But Nothing is hardly a desiring machine per se. It is a lot of parts that one is more or less familiar with from some of them, crowding one another illegitimately or dispersing by high-handed accident until we grab one and hug it to another and hit them both with a third. What? No! They actually connect? Short-circuit?
Luminous jets of nebulosity blossomed outward from a bright,
highly condensed nucleus.
These commentary fragments — countless bits
of metal and stone —
A meteor is not a particle of matter itself. It is merely
the short-lived streak of light produced by the meteoroid as it
is heated to incandescence by its plunge
The dollar was strong, the dollar was going up
When I listen to this it stresses me out
I don’t want to see that happen
Perhaps Nothing Is in Here affords each of us the advantage of a virus (as does a vaccination — after all, it’s just a book, this is just “reading,” a mere infectious trace of the affliction) that may render the relentless insanity of the marketplace of logic less stressful and more available to re-vision and re-form, toward something we can only recognize so far peripherally and in fugitive skips in the metronome of the order of things that we depend on so often to navigate this matrix of need and desire that we think we know what it is and how it makes sense.
Author’s note: Lethem and Levy have both been friends of mine for more than a quarter-century, but they have never met. I have no shared history with Musil and Coetzee, aside from reading some of their works. — Steve Benson
Gertrude Stein and modernist book history
In 1916, seven years after her first book publication, forty-two-year-old Gertrude Stein fantasized about ways to see more of her work into print. She exclaimed in a letter to Carl Van Vechten, “where oh where is the man to publish me in series. […] He can do me as cheaply and as simply as he likes but I would so like to be done.” Fantasies of “being done” aside, it is in fact Stein’s persistent self-assertion that secured what limited publishing opportunities she had before the popular success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933).
The first book Stein saw into print, Three Lives, appeared at her own expense through the vanity publisher Grafton Press in 1909. From then until Brewsie and Willie, the last titlereleased before Stein’s death in 1946, she created, alongside a remarkable body of literature, a record of how she saw her writing into public circulation. Her three-year career as copublisher of the Plain Edition (with her partner Alice B. Toklas) occasioned drafts and correspondence that show Stein engaging with the book as a material object. While her writing is now recognized as among the most innovative in the twentieth century, Stein’s paraliterary work in book design and publishing has gone largely unexamined.
Between 1930 and 1933 the Plain Edition released five books: Lucy Church Amiably (1930), Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded (1931), How to Write (1931), Operas and Plays (1932), and Matisse, Picasso & Gertrude Stein (1933). The couple funded their venture by selling one, and maybe more, of their beloved Picassos. The sale yielded cash and the promise that Stein might leverage one kind of sociocultural capital to acquire another. Having gained notoriety as an art collector and the charismatic hostess of the salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus, Stein nonetheless continued to feel profound frustration as her writing, which she considered her most important work, was repeatedly rejected by major publishers and ridiculed in the popular press. Trading a painting for “an Edition,” she hoped, might shift public attention away from her personality and toward her writing.
The Plain Edition books were the first over which she could exercise significant control. Stein self-published by necessity, but gaining power over the physical production of her books had a significant positive by-product. Her early publication experiences had been marked by frustration and misunderstanding. The publisher of Three Lives, for example, insisted that her writing was riddled with “pretty bad slips” in grammar and urged Stein to make corrections. (She insisted that he print the manuscript just as it was.) As the publisher of the Plain Edition, Stein could make creative decisions about what her books would look like, how many copies to print, and where to distribute them.
Evidence from Stein’s papers in Yale’s Beinecke Library elucidates how Stein used the occasion of self-publication as an opportunity to extend her poetics to the book’s cover, title page, front matter, and advertising materials. Because paratextual spaces are normally controlled by a publisher, self-published texts offer a unique opportunity to see a writer negotiating the conventions of book design and marketing: commercial traditions parallel to literary composition. As Plain Edition books are long out of circulation, and subsequent editions have obscured or eliminated Stein’s original paratexts, we have to go to the archive to see the Plain Edition books, as well as the drafts in which Stein worked out their design.
The vast majority of items in Stein’s 173 boxes of collected papers at Yale are accessible in person. Perhaps the difficulty of accessing the relevant materials is in part what led critic Jerome McGann to insist in his foundational book on modernist book history, Black Riders (1993), that while one could — and even must — write the history of modernism as a history of its book-objects, Stein’s books are not important to such a history.
While McGann borrows the title of Stein’s famous essay for his second chapter, “Composition as Explanation (of Modern and Postmodern Poetries),” he dismisses her in his introduction, arguing that while her writing was innovative, “Stein did not utilize the physical presence of the book in any notable ways” (21). If one were to write a modernist book history, he says, “Ezra Pound would once again appear the crucial point of departure” (76). Having jumped from Stein to Pound in the white space between his chapter heading and first sentence, McGann traces the printing history of the Cantos without a backward glance to the allusion of his title.
McGann’s larger argument, that modernists’ turn toward material features of book design and typography as meaning-making components of their literary works was made possible by the late nineteenth century “Renaissance of Printing,” is both convincing and important. Renewed interest in fine press printing “encouraged writers to explore the expressive possibilities of language’s necessary material conditions” (19). McGann identifies two major styles that modernists combined as they carried on the legacy of the late nineteenth-century “Renaissance” — the medieval revival aesthetic of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press and the modern look of Bodley Head books. These two styles converge in the finely printed books of Yeats and Pound, books that fuse poetic project and book-object such that “the semantic content of the message is carried by their graphic features” (83).
For McGann, by contrast, Stein’s contribution was limited to the level of semantic content. She found “linguistic equivalents for the bibliographical innovations that were being developed and explored by others” (22). While McGann celebrates Stein as “a far more innovative writer than Pound or perhaps anyone else writing in English during the first two decades of this century,” he explicitly excludes her from the lineage he constructs (19). His dismissal recapitulates much modernist history-making to date, summoning Stein to view just long enough to account for her exclusion.
While Stein’s Plain Edition books use modern typefaces and spare design rather than a synthesis of medieval and modern styles, they make decidedly innovative use of the physical presence of the book — arguably more so than those of Pound or Yeats. The subtitle of Lucy Church Amiably, for example, foregrounds the productive confusion of the verbal and visual aspects of the book that the novel and its physical form explore. While we do not think of the novel as a particularly visual kind of artwork, Stein’s subtitle, “a novel of Romantic beauty and nature and which looks like an Engraving,” insists with the words “looks like” that the novel must be visible. In order for it to “look like” something else, the novel itself must be something you can look at.
But what would it mean for a novel to “look like” an engraving? The idea that unlike media “look like” rather than are alike frustrates our conventional sense-making strategies, opening a range of possible literal and metaphorical relations among visual and verbal forms. Stein’s lifelong interest in visual art, and particularly in the links between cubist painting and her own writing, spurred her to draw connections between visual and verbal forms, and to understand writing through painting. In a 1946 interview with Robert Haas, Stein insisted, “I write entirely with my eyes. The words as seen by my eyes are the important words and the ears and mouth do not count.” Stein’s self-published books testify to her understanding of writing as a deeply visual form of art. She uses the book’s physical form and paratextual conventions to draw unlikely things into surprising relation, extending her poetics to include both the writing and its presentation.
Take, for example, Stein’s brief description of her press, which through its deployment of her trademark repetition turns the convention of including publisher information into an occasion for meditating on what, exactly, publishing is. On a large piece of paper folded in quarters to make separate “pages,” Stein made drafts of various parts of the book’s front matter, including the press description. The handwritten version reads, “THE PLAIN EDITION / An Edition of first / Editions of all the work / which has not been printed of GERTRUDE STEIN.”
Stein’s draft of the press description for the Plain Edition, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature, YCAL MSS 76, box 36, folder 739. Photograph used with the permission of the Beinecke Library and Stanford Gann Jr., literary executor of the Estate of Gertrude Stein.
Press description as printed in Plain Edition Lucy Church Amiably (1930). Photograph courtesy of the Beinecke Library.
In Stein’s tiny composition, several meanings accrue to the word “edition,” each corresponding to a different dimension in which she imagines her work as a publisher. First, as part of the press name, the word “edition” functions as an imprint, a brand name. At the same time, it is an addition, a series of titles, open-ended and accumulating. Stein’s use of “edition” yokes a fixed notion of identity to the motion of accumulation. Further, between the first and second uses of the word “edition,” Stein generates the counterintuitive possibility that there may be an edition of an edition. An edition of an edition might be at least two different things: a title that belongs to an imprint, or a single copy of a given print run of a book. Finally, in the third and final instance, the pluralized “first Editions” indicate either the first typesetting of a book or the particularly valuable individual copies of that printing — as in, “I have a first edition of Tender Buttons.” Stein’s reworking of the word “edition” through singular and plural versions paired with definite and indefinite articles teases out the multiple and changing nature of the functions and productions that cluster around “a press.”
Despite Stein’s wish for her books to be “read and not owned,” her description of the Plain Edition makes a point of the first-ness of her editions, highlighting the added exchange value associated with first edition copies of significant literary works. She thereby optimistically predicts, and perhaps helps to create the demand for, subsequent editions as she implicitly argues for the literary value of her work. Moreover, Stein’s unconventional capitalization scheme (in the print version), which demotes the first term of the press’s title and promotes the word “edition” in every instance, creates a visual association among the capitalized terms “Edition,” “Printed,” and “Gertrude Stein,” a typographical tip of the hat to the notion that “Gertrude Stein” becomes an author precisely by being “Printed” in “Editions.”
Stein’s deceptively simple eighteen-word description of the Plain Edition debuts in the press’s first book, Lucy Church Amiably, which furnishes the best record of Stein’s careful work as an author-publisher designing her book-object and its marketing materials. Over the course of two subsequent editions of Lucy Church Amiably — first in 1969 by Something Else Press, and then in 2000 by Dalkey Archive, the original cover, title page, and press description that Stein composed disappeared.
A single page entitled “Advertisement,” bound in with the front matter of the book, however, appears in all the editions. An “Advertisement” conventionally offers a succinct and appealing summary of the book; it is the equivalent of what is now the inside jacket flap copy. Here is what Stein composed:
Advertisement / Lucy Church Amiably. There is a church and it is in Lucey and it has a steeple and the steeple is a pagoda and there is no reason for it and it looks like something else. Beside this there is amiably and this comes from the paragraph // Select your song she said and it was done and then she said and it was done with a nod and then she bent her head in the direction of the falling water. Amiably. // This altogether makes a return to romantic nature that is it makes a landscape look like an engraving in which there are some people, after all if they are to be seen there they feel as pretty as they look and this makes it have a river a gorge an inundation and a remarkable meadowed mass which is whatever they use not to feed but to bed cows. Lucy Church Amiably is a novel of romantic beauty and nature and of Lucy Church and John Mary and Simon Therese.
The title character, Lucy, is generated from a feature of the landscape — a church in the town of Lucey, near where Stein spent the summers in the French countryside. Stein begins from the cognitive dissonance created by the fact that the church has a pagoda (a many-tiered Eastern-style tower) where there would normally be a steeple (a Western-style spire). There is no reason for it, Stein asserts, and it looks like something else. Indeed, Stein’s entire novel — and her design of the book — works and reworks the possibilities of two things that oughtn’t be comparable “looking like” one another. The book itself, she lamented, was like a body. The cheap binding of the 1,000 copies of the book quickly began to disintegrate, and Stein lamented that “Lucy’s spine” had broken. Nonetheless, “Lucy” is a flexible entity, able at turns to become a character, a town, a book and a body.
Like Lucy’s multitudes, the French and English languages exceed their territories and intermingle. Characters named John Mary and Simon Therese make similar-sounding names in French and English into an opportunity to suggest that maleness and femaleness are not opposites, but rather similar, and even combinable categories. Hybrid personal names work similarly to towns, characters, and architectural features, the nature and limits of which all begin to look (and sound) fungible when they come into relation with more or less similar others.
“Painfully blue” copybook-like cover of the Plain Edition Lucy Church Amiably (1930), recently listed on eBay for $300.
Stein’s idiosyncratic conceptual matchmaking practice governs both the inside and the outside of the book, including its telling cover. The cover’s electric indigo color — one American reviewer called it “painfully blue” — alludes to copybooks. As Stein’s Toklas reports in The Autobiography, “Gertrude Stein wanted the first book Lucy Church Amiably to look like a school book and to be bound in blue” (emphasis added). A “school book” here means a copybook, a blank book where students write their assignments.Stein’s likening of a finished book to a handwritten artifact of learning, the copybook, undoes the clear division between her manuscript drafts?, which were composed in notebooks, and the final printed books.
The blank notebook or copybook was not merely a place to put down words, but a set of limits, opportunities, and organizing features. Stein often used a notebook as a unit of composition, making a piece last exactly as long as one or several notebooks, sizing her writing to the blank, bound space. She frequently worked in groups of copybooks with a series of related illustrations on their covers, filling in the printed blanks for the student’s name with versions of the private names she and Toklas gave to each other.
Lucy Church Amiably’s composition notebooks have solid black oilcloth covers, which suggests that Stein’s decision to stage the print version of her novel like a school book was not intended faithfully to reproduce the site of composition, but rather to stage a productive confusion of the different features associated with print and with manuscript. Stein’s design “looks like” a place to be written in rather than read. Her book design closes the gap between the privacy and singularity of the handwritten manuscript and the public-ness of the mass-produced, typeset book and its indefinite number of identical copies. Stein’s book design, then, brings into view the assumption that publishing, after medieval monks stopped copying things out by hand in scriptoria, is a forward movement from manuscript to print.
At the level of composition and of book design, things did not simply move forward for Stein without circling back. In fact, she often had a hard time accurately remembering her own publication history and was a notoriously poor bibliographer of her own work. There are substantive reasons for Stein to confuse the order in which her texts were written or published, chief of which is her tendency to return to phrases from earlier work, repeating and revising them, drawing them into relation with new contexts. Frequently, the repeated and reworked phrases appear first in one of her pocket-sized notebooks or carnets, where Stein doodled, recorded addresses and reminders, tried out short rhymes and phrases, and exchanged love notes with Toklas. Stein wrote more elaborate and extended treatments of words and phrases from the carnets that intrigued her in larger notebooks, cahiers, where she composed full-length manuscripts.
The most familiar of these phrases, “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” recurs not only across years and texts, but in various media. The phrase, arranged into a circle, was cast as a metal stamp for sealing wax, printed at the top of personal letterhead, and embroidered on the couple’s table linens. Another recurrent phrase, “when this you see remember me,” and its variations appear throughout Lucy Church Amiably and across Stein’s body of work. Lucy Church Amiably features a textual emblem of its own, a sentence that, with minor variations, appears on the title page, the cover, in the Advertisement and in the novel. On the cover and title page, two elliptical sentences in small italic type, justified right below the title, condense the Advertisement to a central gesture and mode: “And with a nod she turned her head toward the falling water. Amiably.” A slightly longer version appears both in the Advertisement and on page 19 of the novel: “Select your song she said and it was done and then she said and it was done and with a nod and then she bent her head in the direction of the falling water. Amiably.”
Stein composed the text and layout for the title page, including its elliptical mini-advertisement, in several handwritten drafts. In the first and most chaotic of them, she worked out the name and location of the publisher (at the bottom of the page), and fine-tuned the language for the subtitle (at the top of the page), which was ultimately printed in smaller type above the main title. In this second version, the layout began to crystallize, and the subtitle, “A novel of Romantic beauty and nature and which looks like an Engraving,” took its final form. In the third and final draft, Stein changes from pencil to pen, and from her everyday cursive — the script she uses in her carnets and cahiers — to print-like letters, each individual letter carefully drawn. It is as close an approximation to a mechanically reproduced page as she can manage by hand, suggesting an attempt to close the gap between handwritten and typeset compositions.
Stein’s first draft of the title page for Lucy Church Amiably, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature, YCAL MSS 76, box 36, folder 739. Photograph used with the permission of the Beinecke Library and Stanford Gann Jr., literary executor of the Estate of Gertrude Stein.
Stein’s second draft of the title page for Lucy Church Amiably, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature, YCAL MSS 76, box 36, folder 739. Photograph used with the permission of the Beinecke Library and Stanford Gann Jr., literary executor of the Estate of Gertrude Stein.
Stein’s third draft of the title page for Lucy Church Amiably, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature, YCAL MSS 76, box 36, folder 739. Photograph used with the permission of the Beinecke Library and Stanford Gann Jr., literary executor of the Estate of Gertrude Stein.
Compare Stein’s painstaking individual letters to the looping cursive style of the word written on the right-hand side of Stein’s third title page draft, “Cochin.” This name, added to Stein’s draft by someone with different handwriting, appears to be a suggestion from the well-respected printer Maurice Darantiere, who was responsible for Stein’s Making of Americans, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the later Plain Edition books, among many other important modernist volumes. Darantiere’s handwriting appears on this draft of a title page, which he probably created during a consultation with Stein and Toklas about printing Lucy Church Amiably. Although they decided to use a cheaper printer, Stein took Darantiere’s suggestion to use Cochin, a serif font named for the eighteenth century artist and engraver Charles Nicolas Cochin and released in 1913 to popular success. It is also the font in which the cover and front matter of Lucy Church Amiably is set. Stein’s choice to use Cochin for the title page, which advertises the novel as a text that “looks like an engraving,” embeds a pun on the aspect of “engraving” in the very contours of the letters on the page. For Stein, whose surname denotes, in German, an engravable surface, it is a particularly fruitful pun. Just as Lucy may be a character, a town, a book and a body with a broken spine, so might Stein be the author, publisher and site of inscription for her writing.
Stein’s Plain Edition paratexts — her press description, cover design, title page, and font choice — contribute to, rather than passively carry, the meaning of her books. Their gradual disappearance in subsequent editions has obscured a significant part of Stein’s artistic work: her book designs, which extend her poetics from the level of the text to the level of the book-object. Given the opportunity to turn the commercial space of the book to her own uses, Stein extended her poetics of relation and multiplication to the material form of her books, making it as new as any of her contemporaries. “And then,” she said, “there is using everything.”
1. Ulla Dydo suggests that more than one painting was likely sold to underwrite the publication of the five Plain Edition books. Stein’s correspondence evidences a reluctance to correlate her decision to sell paintings with her need for money to print the Plain Edition books. It is therefore difficult to trace the relationship between the proceeds from selling the paintings with the production of the Plain Edition books. Stein employed a euphemism — “the exigencies of country proprietorship” — when she discussed her financial need in letters to friends. Two Picasso paintings, Woman with a Fan and Girl on a Horse were sold in late 1929 or early 1930. Dydo writes, “[a]lmost certainly further paintings were sold, but I haven’t been able to document reasons, activities, sales, or prices accurately and completely and correlate them with the cost of the Plain Edition,” Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises, 1923–1934 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2003), 418–419.
2. On Stein’s input regarding the design of Tender Buttons (Claire Marie, 1914) see Joshua Schuster, “The making of ‘Tender Buttons’: Gertrude Stein’s subjects, objects and the illegible.”
3. “Paratexts” are defined as “all the liminal devices — titles, signs of authorship, dedications, epigraphs, prefaces, notes, intertitles, epilogues, and the like — that mediate the relationship between text and reader,” Gerard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), xi.
4. “In truth the history of modernist writing could be written as a history of the modernist book” (76), Jerome McGann, Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 76.
5. See Marianne DeKoven, “Gertrude Stein and the Modernist Canon,” in Gertrude Stein and the Making of Literature, ed. Shirley Neuman and Ira B. Nadel (Houndsmill, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1988). DeKoven demonstrates that “[t]he most influential canonisers of modernism … have either left Stein out altogether, or might as well have, or they have included her as ‘personality’ and influence first, writer second, or, like Edmund Wilson, they have included her as an extreme point, a boundary which marks the limit of modernist discourse,” 15–16. McGann locates Stein “at the margin of the margins” (19).
9. Ulla Dydo initiated the practice of referring to the notebooks as carnets and cahiers during her decades of meticulous work in Stein’s papers at the Beinecke Library. See Dydo, Gertrude Stein, 16–17.
10. Stein, “Composition as Explanation.”
Critical reengagement with Melvin B. Tolson’s writing from the 1930s and ’40s makes clear that his later Afro-Modernist epics, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953) and Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator (1965), are neither anomalies out of sync with the developments of modernism, nor distanced from African American schools of writing. Rather, Tolson’s engagement with the contemporary poetic practices of his time results in a traceable trajectory from modern free verse, influenced by Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg of the Chicago School; to experimental modernist practice in the 1940s, drawing from T. S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s methods; and finally to the development of Afro-Modernist innovation in Libretto and Harlem Gallery, as he realizes his own vision for the Afro-Modernist epic. As he becomes more fluent in his own particular modernist practice, Tolson’s task of decolonizing what Aldon Nielsen describes as “the colonized master text of modernism,” results in a “rearticulation of modernism [that] led him eventually to assert African progenitors in the realm of technique” (247). Tolson’s Afro-Modernism is marked by a diasporic worldview in which multiple lineages, including those from Africa, Europe, and Asia, are incorporated into his work. This diasporic imagination, which is inherently transnational, is present in the Afro-Modernist epics of Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka as well. Each of these poets turned to the epic form to include large swaths of diasporic history in their retellings of African American genealogies.
In his poems of the thirties, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, Tolson first utilizes a modern free verse line. It is in the 1940s, however, in Rendezvous with America that we see Tolson moving toward experimental modernist forms. Clearly his work from the forties serves as a bridge to his later Afro-Modernist epics. Although both of his early collections are deserving of close attention, the foundational stages of Tolson’s development as a poet have been obscured for several reasons, including Tolson’s publishing history; periods of scholarly disinterest, neglect, even outright hostility; and little recent attention to Tolson’s work prior to the 1950s. Ironically, when Michael Bérubé published his major work on Tolson, Marginal Forces / Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon in 1992, Portraits was the only collection of Tolson’s still in print. In staging the reemergence of Tolson into modern literary criticism, Bérubé’s work focuses on unpacking the complexities of Tolson’s last work Harlem Gallery and its relationship to modernist studies. Bérubé, whose book mentions Portraits almost exclusively in footnotes, seems, in part, to have drawn his assessment of the earlier work, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, from Tolson himself who claims at one point to have stashed that manuscript in a trunk for twenty years. Bérubé also asserts that Tolson “brackets off” Portraits as “premodernist” in his representation of it in later works. In addition, Raymond Nelson’s important edited volume that helped to create a new generation of Tolson readers, “Harlem Gallery” and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson (1999), contains, as Nelson explains, only “the three books [Tolson] published in his lifetime” and does not make mention of Portraits at all.
Tolson spent most of his life in small towns in the Midwest and Southwest far from major urban center. Thus, a significant turning point in his poetics occurred during his stay in New York in 1931–32, where he studied for a master’s degree in comparative literature at Columbia University. During this time, Tolson began composing his Portraits, encouraged by a fellow student at Columbia to write a “Negro epic.” In this early part of his career, Tolson is working through his initial introduction to modern poetry, a process in which he is more an emulator than innovator. A Gallery of Harlem Portraits was modeled after The Spoon River Anthology of Edgar LeeMasters, who in turn had used J. W. Mackail’s Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology as a model. Masters’s populism appealed to Tolson. As critics have noted of Spoon River: “Here for the first time in America was the whole of a society which people recognized — not only that part of it reflected in writers of the genteel tradition.” Ernest Earnest writes: “Spoon River is a community, a microcosm, not a collection of individuals” (63). Tolson sought to do the same for the community of Harlem. What distinguishes Tolson’s modern free verse from that of Masters, however, is his inclusion of black vernacular forms, including the blues. For example, the first stanza of “Diamond Canady” quotes from a familiar African American boast:
I plays any game
Dat you kin name
For any amount
Dat you kin count.
Tolson was conscious of using his poems as written repositories for such oral forms as the boast and spoken African proverbs; his later works utilize vernacular forms as a compositional structure, displaying entire scenes following the protocol of the dozens.
According to Tolson, he discovered Masters along with Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and Edward Arlington Robinson in 1932. Tolson writes that his “German American friend” who encouraged him to begin the epic that became A Gallery of Harlem Portraits told him: “You’re like the professors. You think the only good poet is a dead one. Why don’t you read Sandburg, Masters, Frost, Robinson?” These writers were not part of his academic training at Lincoln University and Tolson frequently recounted his disappointment that “his English professor at Lincoln reacted with discouraging disdain when [he] excitedly discovered Sandburg’s ‘Chicago.’” As John Timberman Newcomb points out, Sandburg was one of Harriet Monroe’s “important early discoveries.” She “sought the maximum avant-garde impact by leading off [an] issue [of Poetry] with ‘Chicago Poems,’ placing Sandburg’s rough-edged, soon-to-be-famous portrait of the city, ‘Chicago,’ on the first page, where it became a self-defining editorial statement for this proudly Chicagoan magazine” (15).
Displaying a specific understanding of the place of the Harlem Renaissance within the broader context of modernist literature, Tolson asserts in his master’s thesis that what he calls the Harlem Group of Negro Writers is an active component of “the larger culture of the new literature” represented by Poetry Magazine:
The literature that came out of the Harlem Renaissance, which has been the focal point of this thesis, affected and was affected by the larger culture of the new literature that began with the publication of the first issue of Poetry by Harriet Monroe in 1912. Many thought that the Harlem Renaissance was just a fad. In this they were mistaken. It has been followed by a proletarian literature of Negro life, wider in scope, deeper in significance, and better in stylistic methods.
Tolson’s understanding of the contours of modernism is prescient on a number of levels, including his awareness of the importance of Monroe’s journal. Newcomb writes:
The magnitude of Poetry’s importance to modernism has never been fully appreciated. More than any literary endeavor of its times, Monroe’s magazine challenged the prevailing notion that poetry had no business in urban-industrial modernity, and theorized the continued value of verse at a time when to many, the genre seemed about to end its days as a refuge for spineless dilettantes. (7)
Poetry magazine was an especially important touchstone for Tolson with its “uninhibited inclination for conflict with self-appointed defenders of tradition” (11). Furthermore, Tolson notes that as precursors to proletarian literature, Harlem Renaissance writers laid the groundwork for a literature of Negro life with improved formal methods and a wider range of content, reflecting his appreciation of the formal and thematic possibilities opened up by modernist method. Tolson’s analysis remains an unusual view of American literary history. More often, modernism, the Harlem Renaissance, and proletarian writing are understood as three separate strands, rather than part of the same thread. Moreover, Tolson recognizes the cross-racial affiliations among American modernists in his observation that New Negro writers both affected and were affected by the new literature represented in Poetry Magazine.
Scholars are still defining the historical features of the Chicago Renaissance. For example, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago:
the term ‘Chicago Renaissance,’ as it is usually used, applies more precisely to the second wave of Chicago writing. It describes a gathering of writers, a flowering of institutions that supported and guided them … between about 1910 and the mid-1920s. Major figures include novelists [Theodore] Dreiser (whose career extended well into this period), Sherwood Anderson, and Floyd Dell; poets Carl Sandburg, Harriet Monroe, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay; reporters Ben Hecht and Ring Lardner; and editors and critics Monroe, Dell, Margaret Anderson, and Henry Justin Smith. 
Other sources such as the Encyclopedia of the Chicago Literary Renaissance date the movement more broadly: from 1900 to 1930.
In addition, a Chicago Renaissance occurred among African American writers and artists, which a Chicago Public Library project dates from 1932 to 1950.
In 1979, Chicago Renaissance artist Eldzier Cortor recalled that among those whose “burgeoning talents shaped a kind of Thirties/Forties Renaissance in Chicago were the dancers Katherine Dunham and Talley Beatty; writers Richard Wright and Frank Yerby, Margaret Walker, Willard Motley and John H. Johnson (now publisher of Ebony);sociologist writers St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton (who later coauthored Black Metropolis); entertainers Nat King Cole, Ray Nance and Oscar Brown, Jr.; photographer Gordon Parks; poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and the artists Elizabeth Catlett and Hughie Lee Smith.”
The African American Renaissance in Chicago contributed significantly to Tolson’s career as a poet. At the American Negro Exposition held in Chicago in 1940, he won the national poetry contest for his poem “Dark Symphony,” which was subsequently published in Atlantic Monthly in September 1941. Tolson biographer Robert Farnsworth finds that the critical and popular success of Tolson’s collection, Rendezvous With America, published in 1944, which includes the award-winning poem “Dark Symphony,” played a major role in Tolson being named Poet Laureate of Liberia. Following on the serial poems “Dark Symphony” and the title poem of the collection “Rendezvous With America,” Tolson writes his first major Afro-Modernist epic at the bequest of the Liberian Centennial Commission: Libretto for the Republic of Liberia.
Tolson’s chosen poetic affiliations throughout his career have been a puzzle to some critics; however, his interest in Masters, Sandburg, and Monroe of the Chicago Renaissance in his early career as a poet is not unusual among African American writers. Moreover, recognition of the Chicago writers illustrates the need to understand the “New Negro Renaissance” more broadly — instead of relying only on Harlem-centric accounts. Notably, among the many influences on Harlem Renaissance writers George Hutchinson lists in The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White is the “Chicago Renaissance authors’ experiments in vernacular poetry and regionalist fiction.” In fact, for Midwesterners Hughes and Tolson, the Chicago Renaissance was of special interest. More specifically, “[a]ccording to [Langston] Hughes’s biographer, Faith Berry, Hughes’s high school English teacher (at Central High in Cleveland), ‘introduced her class to the Chicago school of poets: Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and — the poet Hughes admired most, and eventually his greatest influence in the matter of form — Carl Sandburg.’”
In the 1930s Tolson had yet to extol the genius of T. S. Eliot. He is writing more out of a Chicago Renaissance influence: a Whitman-inspired, free verse poetics. By Tolson’s later account, his introduction to modern free verse served as a springboard toward his eventual discovery of formally experimental modernism. Tolson links the emphasis on vernacular, or “common speech,” in free verse to the Imagists: “The first finished manuscript of the Harlem Gallery [A Gallery of Harlem Portraits] was written in free verse. That was the fashion introduced by the imagists.” Though Tolson’s accounting of the connections between free verse and imagism is historically inexact, this quote is particularly interesting in that Tolson seems to be attempting retrospectively to mark his first manuscript as exhibiting modernist influences, which may be an attempt to recoup it for history. (At other points he seemingly disavows the manuscript of A Gallery of Harlem Portraits.) In the later work Harlem Gallery,which Tolson casts here as a rewriting of the earlier Portraits, we see Tolson’s move from modern free verse to the aesthetics of experimental modernism.
In the March 1913 number of Poetry, F. S. Flint’s article “Imagisme” lists the three “rules” of “Imagisme” as follows:
1. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.
In the “Preface” to Some Imagist Poets (1915) there are six rules, sometimes referred to as the Imagist “Manifesto.” One of the basic tenets is “To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.” The list also emphasizes “absolute freedom in the choice of subject” (vii) and the “individuality of a poet,” (vi) concepts that for Tolson may have also brought to mind the democratizing influence of the Whitmanian free verse line. Drawing evidence from the Tolson papers housed at the Library of Congress, Nielsen shows that: “What Tolson came to attempt was a decolonizing of American letters, a task which he saw as linking him to Whitman” (244). “I had deserted the great Romantics and Victorians,” Tolson states in an interview in 1965, “Walt Whitman’s exuberance was in the marrow of my bones.” Pound’s view, however, is much less democratic than that of Whitman. In “A Few Don’ts By An Imagiste” which followed Flint’s article in the same issue of Poetry, Pound writes: “To begin with, consider the three rules recorded by Mr. Flint, not as dogma — never consider anything as dogma — but as the result of long contemplation, which, even if it is some one else’s contemplation, may be worth consideration.” It is difficult to imagine, however, anything more dogmatic than an article assailing one with “Don’ts.”
Significantly, Chicago was an important ground on which the battle for the kind of free verse that would reign in American modernism was fought. The two sides that emerged were Midwesterners placed in the lineage of Whitman and the Imagist group made up of writers recognizable now as members of what used to be called the “high modernist” canon. The battles took place in the pages of Poetry and The Little Review. As Mark Morrisson explains, “These two trends in the contents of the Little Review reveal two competing visions of an American modern poetry canon developing during the pre–First World War period. The first was epitomized by Lindsay, Masters, and to some extent Sandburg, and it represents a continuation of the Whitman-inspired canon.” Both Poetry and the Little Review published works from this group. “Yet even as many contributors and readers of the Little Review sang the praises of Lindsay and Masters and Whitmanian poetics,” Morrisson describes, “another American poetry quickly rivaled this aesthetic Imagism” (22). The Little Review eventually becomes an advocate of Imagism, awarding its 1917 “Vers Libre Prize” to Imagist writers (23). Ultimately, “[t]he free verse revolution in American poetry had come, in the pages of The Little Review, to be an Imagist revolution (23).
Morrisson describes Imagism as “a canonization strategy, designed to give a coherent focus to the otherwise disparate work of poets ranging from Pound, H.D., and Aldington to D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce” (22). Current examination of the modernist canon reveals this strategy to have been a successful one, and though we know — as Tolson certainly must have known — that Whitman introduced the American revolution in free verse in the century before Pound, Tolson’s move late in his life to associate himself with Imagism may have been one of his own canonization strategies. Certainly the two types of free verse discussed here are very formally dissimilar. The influence of free verse by Illinois poets Sandburg and Masters is dominant in Tolson’s work from the thirties, exhibiting phrasally-based enjambment based on prose rhythms as opposed to the sculptural exactness called for by Imagism.
Tolson’s poems from this period suffer from the same pitfalls as other free verse works of the thirties, such as Sandburg’s Marxist-influenced The People, Yes (1936) that Brian M. Reed links to the aesthetics of the Popular Front. Of the 107 parts of The People, Yes, Reeds writes: “There is little or no rhyme, meter, or other organized patterning of sound. The poetry depends instead on syntactical parallelism — especially in the form of lists, catalogs, and repeated phrases — to give his verse coherence and force.” Tolson’s method is similar to Sandburg’s in several respects. For example, Reed describes rather arbitrarily lineated prose quotations throughout Sandburg’s work and “patches of the book that consist of nothing but reams of what Sandburg calls ‘proverbs’” (195). So, too, does Tolson’s early work display these traits. Tolson’s Portraits rely almost entirely on narrative techniques, lacking the crisp images and pared down lines associated with Imagism. Tolson’s narratives about violence and tragic deaths such as “Diamond Canady,” also mirror the content of Spoon River Anthology:
“Love ’em and leave ’em.”
Said Diamond Canady …
But when he got ready to cast Little Eva Winn aside
She left him in bed one morning
With a thin knife sticking in his heart. (7)
Without the introduction to Sandburg and Masters, however, Tolson’s later experimentally modernist epics would not have been put into motion. Moreover, the examples of their content and scope influenced the development of Tolson’s later populist Afro-Modernist aesthetic. By considering the entire scope of Tolson’s poetry and prose (as well as that of Langston Hughes) a more complex picture of the so-called schools of the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago Renaissance, modernism, and proletarian literature emerges. What may be most useful is a reconsideration of the works labeled as “Harlem Renaissance” and a reassessment of the common timeline of twentieth century African American literature that highlights the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, but little else. Recent work on the Chicago School and the Chicago Renaissance among African Americans may help to fill in this history.
10. Carlo Rotella, “Chicago Literary Renaissance” Encyclopedia of Chicago, ed. Janice L. Reiff, Ann Durkin Keating, and James R. Grossman (Chicago History Museum, The Newberry Library, and Northwestern University, 2005).